Staff Selects: The Best of 1999

The Academy Award-winner American Beauty didn’t make the list of our favorite films of 1999 (you’ll eventually find out who on our staff ranks it in their 5 worst films of all time), but here are our staff’s picks for the best of 1999, a monumental year in cinema:

Magnolia

In Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film following his 1997 hit Boogie Nights, he traded in the “Golden Age” of pornography for a cast of characters living in the San Fernando Valley who all seek happiness or meaning in their interconnected lives. The characters are as eclectic as any of Anderson’s and once again, he proves that character work is where he thrives as a filmmaker. The film is truly an epic, however, unlike most films of its kind, it isn’t about heroes of mythic proportions but fairly ordinary people. Though there is a certain level of absurdism throughout, especially in a perfect ending that no one could ever see coming, it is so adept at playing with emotions and never letting up during its lengthy runtime that it truly feels real. In my mind Magnolia is the best film of 1999 but, more than that, it just might be the best film of the entire 1990s. [Henry Baime]

Being John Malkovich

What makes Being John Malkovich so uniquely brilliant can be evidenced by a scene very early on where Craig (John Cusack) laments, “I think…I feel…I suffer.” This poignant display of profound sorrow is juxtaposed against a TV show Craig is watching which depicts a popular virtuoso puppeteer controlling a 60-foot puppet of Emily Dickinson over a bridge. The film’s premise alone is hilariously ridiculous, but the film piles on layers of wild, superfluous eccentricities like Craig’s job on the 7½th floor of an office building which requires everyone to hunch over as they walk the halls, or the boss’ receptionist that continuously misunderstands anyone speaking to her. Buried under the hyper-specific idiosyncrasies, though, is a deep melancholy that makes the entire endeavor relatable and even emotionally affecting, despite Kaufman and Jonze being openly contemptuous of the film’s ostensible protagonist. Being John Malkovich isn’t just the best film of 1999, it’s a stunning, strange achievement in innovative filmmaking that brought two of the 21st century’s best filmmakers to the world. [Kern Wheeling]

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai sees the eponymous contract killer, played with supreme serenity by Forest Whitaker, tasked with the dispatch of a mob boss. Ghost Dog lives by the Hagakure, a spiritual warrior code, the titular Way of the Samurai, if you will. This ancient philosophy is referenced throughout the film, forming the basis of Ghost Dog’s approach to his professional duties, and the film signals a discord between the ways of old and new. The world is changing, each character aware of the lack of longevity in their current way of life, with all but Ghost Dog desperate to cling on. Jim Jarmusch, in this idiosyncratic blend of genres, has delivered a meditation on the flux of life itself, the inevitability of change and how ancient wisdom can apply even in a world it could have never foreseen.

RZA contributes one of my favourite scores of all time to this film – the Wu-Tang Clan founder’s long-standing and studious devotion to age-old principles and techniques, and application of sampling, goes hand in hand with the thematic material and Jarmusch’s own approach to making the film. You can almost hear the knocking of his fingers against the dusty pads of the ASR-10, his trusted weapon in sonic warfare. The resulting blend of sound and vision leads to the creation of what is truly a hip-hop masterpiece, reworking the old into something new, a new mythology born out of classical ones. [Chris Barnes]

The Matrix

Two decades ago a little meta sci-fi/thriller by a relatively unknown pair of trans-sisters from the Windy City was unleashed upon the dormant world. This bizarrely unique messianic film that was so fortunately funded and greenlit would literally spawn a movement and inspire an entire generation to become computer engineers, hackers, martial artists, and of course, wear all-black leather outfits. A film that not only revolutionized the visual effects game, but also how action films and fight scenes would be made; a masterpiece that would eschew a myriad of actors into the halls of cinematic iconography; a work of brilliantly intelligent art that blended the likes of Jean Baudrillard hyperreality and simulacra, with William Gibson‘s vision of the cyberpunk. If you’re unaware of the all-time classic I’m referring to, perhaps this next exclamation of praise will. Before everyone raved about John Wick, Keanu Reeves brought to life another legend to screen, Thomas Anderson, or as those who’ve already gone down the rabbit hole know, Neo “The One”.

I am of course praising the banger in the hanger that is, The Matrix, one of the most essential films ever to burst into our sensory orifices and arguably change the way large portions of society think and live. Every sci-fi film should aspire to be as layered, developed, iconic, and unapologetic in its vision as The Matrix. The Wachowskis‘ far-ahead-of-its-time (much like Blade Runner nearly 20 years earlier) sophomore installment, and to this day their best and undeniably eternal lasting legacy, put slow motion on the map. Released in 1999, The Matrix is wholeheartedly one of the best and most influential cinematic pieces of art within the 20th century, and one that has not aged at all. Not only the best of ‘99, but worthy of joining the AFI 100. [Lee]

The Iron Giant

“E.T. doesn’t go kicking ass. He doesn’t make the Army pay. Certainly you risk having your hip credentials taken away if you want to evoke anything sad or genuinely heartfelt.” – Brad Bird

This was a comment from the director of The Iron Giant after comparisons to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial became frequent upon the release of the film. While Iron Giant is a film about growing up, it’s nowhere near E. T. in terms of thematics. Bird’s film is set in the Cold War, shortly after the launch of Sputnik 1. A giant robot crashes just off the coast of Maine and befriends a young boy named Hogarth, and both of them learn what it means to be a hero. Revisiting this, it’s surprising how much the theme of existentialism plays a role in the growth of the two characters. The Giant has to learn about death, confront his past as a living weapon as opposed to what he wants to be, and Hogarth has to confront them as well. The movie is visually striking with a classic 90s animation style that pops through sparse uses of color. The Giant makes a compelling protagonist thanks to the subdued, yet perfect performance from Vin Diesel. It’s quite the hidden gem of an era of animation where Pixar and Studio Ghibli were beginning to dominate the landscape, and it’s definitely worth revisiting today. The Signature Edition adds a good dose of context with a couple of extra minutes, so I would recommend seeking that version out. [Jen]

Fight Club

I know, I know. The last thing anyone wants to read is more half-baked sentences about how good Fight Club is, and after twenty years of misinterpretations, reprisals, and dorm room posters, the well is dry and nobody, least of all me, is going to gain anything by returning to discuss Fincher’s best film. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I love it. I love all the edgy 90s-isms that make the whole film feel fossilized and specific nowadays, I love Edward Norton’s pinnacle unassuming nice guy filled with rage and manipulation, and I love that the film is, to this day, misinterpreted.

There’s an argument that Fight Club’s satire on masculinity is somewhat invalidated because of how many people saw it as a rallying cry for their terrible behavior, a rallying cry that wasn’t helped by its cultural footprint including a terrible video game released five years after the film that seemed hell-bent to reduce the film’s message to ash. But I don’t think the satire is invalidated, I think it’s a movie that gets in the heads of people like the Narrator and slowly makes them realize where they’ve gone wrong. Great movies have the power to change people, and I think Fight Club is about as strong a call to change there is. [Davey Peppers]

Beau travail (1999)

Beau Travail

All of Claire Denis’ films can be easily defined as bold, sensual, and controversial. But at the same time, they are also very grounded at exploring the themes of self-alienation, foreignness, and the vulnerability of human relationships. In her best film to date, Beau Travail, Denis offered us a poetic and devastating portrait on how jealousy and sexual repression can distort one’s worldview, examining the agonizing impact that deep-seated insecurity can give to one’s life, while at the same time constructing a beautiful visual narrative. The film is told elliptically through curated moments of flashbacks hinting at the story of Master Sergeant Galoup (played perfectly by Denis Lavant) as he jealously tries to keep an attractive new recruit Gilles Sentain away from his superior Bruno Forestier. While it may seem like a setup of a love-triangle story, Beau Travail is actually more of a character study that observes the way Galloup’s repressed feelings toward Forestier as well as his resentment for Sentain erode his humanity and psyche. Though not much is happening in terms of plot, Denis makes sure that a lot is evolving throughout the film. She conjures a quiet atmosphere that crescendos into an exploding, cathartic final moment —an ending that will stick in your mind for a very long time. [Reyzando Nawara]

Staff Selects

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