Editor's Note, December 24, 2012: I didn't make a list in 1999. And Life is Beautiful? Sheesh. The prose here is also a particularly embarrassing shade of purple.
10. Henry Fool
Hal Hartley movies never make Top 10 lists; they're considered pompous and pretentious by people who are just those things. Simon's metamorphosis from garbage man to renowned author under the tutelage of worldly Henry Fool was one of this year's most thoughtful character studies; Hartley, ever the pop intellectual, mines issues of classism and censorship in a grunge landscape like some poet of the street.
9. The Truman Show
The fact that Jim Carrey is a fine dramatic actor does not surprise me: Anyone striving for so much attention in public has personal demons. The film is The Cable Guy turned upside-down, as Truman Burbank would rather escape his TV-show existence than manufacture one. Peter Weir thankfully treats his subject matter with little satire or irony, creating genuine sympathy for the curious Truman. Too bad the ending is actually only the beginning of the story.
8. The Horse Whisperer
Like Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer is a lyrical, sometimes plaintive nature romance based on a novel largely dismissed by critics as greeting-card fiction. Robert Redford and Kristin Scott-Thomas lack a certain fire-and-ice dynamic, yet it doesn't hurt the film, thanks to a handful of great moments and a consistency of tone. The screenplay is also refreshingly mature in its handling of an infidelity subplot.
7. Shakespeare In Love
Unlike his brother Ralph, Joseph Fiennes is not a brooding gent; as Shakespeare, he practically says "I love you" every time he looks at another character, like some Elizabethan Teddy Ruxpin. His fictitious dilemma, trouble completing "Romeo & Ethel: The Pirate's Daughter," is further complicated when he meets Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), a society dame with whom he begins a forbidden love affair. Their dalliance of course "inspires" the star cross'd lovers Romeo and Juliet; the movie, meanwhile, inspires tears of joy: It's witty, winking, and unabashedly romantic.
6. Zero Effect
Whether or not nepotism got Jake Kasdan's (son of Lawrence, director of The Big Chill) first movie produced is a moot point: This writing and directing debut is outstanding--he has the chops to combat to the criticism. Detective Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman, in an eye-opening performance) is a modern day Sherlock Holmes, a speed-addicted social outcast who can only interact with people when in disguise. This is an inaction comedy with real heart, featuring characters that truly resonate.
5. Life Is Beautiful
Life really is beautiful to the current clown prince of cinema Roberto Benigni, who has been spreading his cheer on the talk show circuit these past few weeks. His uplifting, Oscar-bound Holocaust comedy/drama embraces the bravery of camp victims and preaches optimism in the face of the worst possible situation, though contemplating the film too deeply will only make you like it less.
4. A Simple Plan
A cautionary tale that makes the old suitcase full of money routine seem like a thrilling new conceit. A movie that bests its source material, a rather popular pulp novel. A heartbreaking study of sadsacks, with Billy Bob Thornton as a virginal, tormented, lonely welfare case--the most tragic character of the year. A thriller that earns the overused label "Hitchcockian."
3. Saving Private Ryan
Audiences were so mesmerized by its brutally violent first act that it was all they talked about afterwards. The only way to hammer home the horror of armed conflict is to display it uncensored, I suppose. But in case you forgot, the rest of the movie is powerful, too: The film's central situation (a PR stunt sees a platoon searching for a missing soldier) is the apotheosis of the futility of war, observed gracefully by Steven Spielberg. Too bad the superfluous, jingoistic epilogue leaves such a sour aftertaste.
If someone were to ask me to summarize the Altman-esque Happiness in one awkward sentence, I would probably respond: a group of characters discover that acting upon their impulses, sexual and otherwise, will bring them temporary "happiness:" They seem to have ditched all notions of attaining it beyond superficially. (Hence Dylan Baker's searing portrait of a mild-mannered pedophile who frequently succumbs to his taboo urges.) Neither an 'entertaining' nor a mainstream experience, Todd Solondz's film paints an even more hopeless portrait of suburbia than last year's The Ice Storm. This is not escapism; it is a film for people who can handle the truth.
Everywhere I was convinced that Rushmore was going from its obvious opening dream sequence the filmmakers avoid like the plague. This thrillingly inventive 'teen comedy' about an overachieving student who schemes with a millionaire to win the heart of a teacher (at least, that's sort of what it's about) is anything but predictable, and nothing less than brilliant, a comic masterpiece that would win Best Picture in a perfect world. Just thinking about Rushmore confirms my faith in modern cinema, it's that good.
Close calls: There's Something About Mary, The General, The Celebration, Out of Sight.
Missed: The Thin Red Line.