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Year in Review (1999)
by J. Robert Parks

Being a film critic isn't always as glamorous as it sounds. No, I'm not complaining, but when friends routinely mention "I wish I had your job," I suspect they've forgotten that for each American Beauty or Sixth Sense, there are two or three Bone Collector's. To be honest, though, it is a great gig, and one of my favorite tasks is compiling the year-end Top 10.

Last year, to spice things up, I made my best-of list from all the movies I had seen that year, whether new or old. With many people seeing more movies on video than in the theater (not a practice I condone, by the way), it made sense to highlight older films as well as current releases. A number of readers remarked how much they enjoyed that change of pace, so I thought I'd go that route again. The only requirement for this list is that the movie played in a Chicago theater some time this year. And because I again found it impossible to narrow down the list, I offer the Top Dozen Movies of 1999.

1. The Films of Robert Bresson

The film world lost two of its greatest directors this year--Stanley Kubrick earlier this spring and French master Robert Bresson less than two weeks ago. Coincidentally, this was also the year I fell in love with Bresson's work, thanks to the Film Center's retrospective in March and April. Possessed of a purity and rigorousness found nowhere else in cinema, Bresson's films challenge the way we look not only at movies but at the world itself. His masterpiece A Man Escaped, which details the efforts of a French soldier to escape from a German prison, is an amazing display of power in minimalism. Every sound reveals a world, every facial expression exposes a soul. In Diary of a Country Priest, the long torturous decline of a young clergyman is contrasted with amazing discourses on the nature of faith. And Bresson's final film, 1983's L'argent, is an attack on materialism that is made even more scathing by its subtlety. Bresson's movies have the unfortunate reputation of being difficult, but don't let that stop you from experiencing one of the most important artists of this century.

2. Nashville

Robert Altman's masterpiece, this sprawling intersection of singers, dreamers and believers coming together in the country music capital is one of the finest films you could hope to see. With outstanding performances from almost all of its 24-member cast, beautifully haunting music and provocative direction, Nashville is a tour de force examination of relationships and loneliness. Lily Tomlin in particular gives an awe-inspiring performance, and Altman weaves all of the stories together like a beautifully-written song.

3. American Beauty

Hands down, the most critically acclaimed film of the year and for good reason. Kevin Spacey turns in a bravura performance as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man whose job and family are falling apart. But when he meets teen bombshell Angela (Mena Suvari), he takes control of his life, though not in the way self-help books suggest. While the results are scathingly funny at times, director Sam Mendes balances the humor with a profound examination of the nature of beauty and our ability or inability to find it. Mix in cinematographer Conrad Hall's stunning use of space and light, and you have a picture that lives up to its critical hype.

4. Man with a Movie Camera

One of my most memorable cinematic experiences occurred last January when Doc Films brought Filmharmonia, a world-famous ensemble committed to performing music accompanying silent movies, to the university campus for a screening of Man With a Movie Camera. This 1929 Soviet film by director Ziga Vertov is one of the great movies in cinema history. And with a live accompaniment perfectly amplifying the film's powerful rhythmic structure, the whirl of images mixed with the sound for a sensory experience I will not soon forget.

5. Shakespeare in Love

I believe this is the fourth time I have mentioned this delightful flick in these pages, but why stop now. Tom Stoppard's glorious love affair with words, a spectacular ensemble cast, solid direction, and the beautiful Ms. Paltrow all add up to more fun than humans should be allowed to have. My friend Garth complained last spring that this movie was too lightweight to win an Oscar. But if that's the case, then all we're left with are war movies and depressing dramas. I, for one, think that'd be a shame.

6. Killer of Sheep

Speaking of depressing dramas, Charles Burnett's first major film, set in urban L.A. was the most powerful movie I saw last year. The story of a black couple struggling to raise their family in Watts, Killer of Sheep is an amazing investigation of inner-city troubles and triumphs. Burnett perfectly captures how adults and children work and play, and his grainy, documentary-style cinematography, is exactly right for the story he's telling. And the final shot of the slaughterhouse is brutally honest.

7. Tarzan

And speaking of depressing dramas, Tarzan isn't from that planet. With its bright, glorious animation, sharp script, enjoyable score, and Minnie Driver's wonderful turn as the voice of Jane, Disney's big animated feature is truly a film for the whole family. I'm not sure why this didn't excite other critics' imagination, but I found myself grinning from beginning to end.

8. Dreamlife of Angels

On paper, it might not sound terribly inviting. Two strangers bump into each other, become friends and roommates, and then have to hold it together when lovers, work and class get in the way. But the story and direction tell a riveting tale of young women struggling not just to survive in a male-dominated 9-to-5 world but to rise above and define who they are. Elodie Bouchez and Natascha Reigner give world-class performances, dominating the screen and compelling the audience to care about people we'd normally just pass in the streets.

9. The Straight Story

David Lynch's magisterially moving picture based on the true story of Alvin Straight is a thing of beauty. Straight, a stubborn 73-year-old man who rode his lawnmower hundreds of miles across Iowa to visit his estranged brother, is played by Richard Farnsworth with a stoic intensity. And Lynch's understated direction combines with cinematographer Freddie Francis' gorgeous shots of late-fall farmland to set the backdrop for Straight's journey. Emotional without being treacly, slow without being ponderous, The Straight Story is a movie worthy of the highest praise.

10. Repulsion

Roman Polanski's 1965 feature starring Catherine Deneuve is a gripping and genuinely disturbing psychological thriller. Deneuve plays a young woman who's both too dependent on her sister and too paranoid about men. These neuroses come together when the sister goes on a holiday with her boyfriend. Left in the apartment alone, Deneuve's character slowly disintegrates like the food left out to rot. This by itself would be an amazing movie, but the spectacular cinematography by Gilbert Taylor (who also did the cinematography for Dr. Strangelove and Star Wars) perfectly captures the claustrophobia of the apartment and the mental breakdown of the main character.

11. Eyes Wide Shut

I've spent the better part of five months explaining to perplexed family members and friends why I think this is one of the best movies of the year. Admittedly not an easy film to watch, Stanley Kubrick's last feature still ranks as one of my faves for '99 just for its spectacular camerawork, art direction and score. Add in Nicole Kidman's daring performance, the movie's provocative exploration of fidelity, and Kubrick's audaciously assured direction, and Eyes Wide Shut easily ranks as one of 1999's finest films.

12. Set Me Free

The best thing I saw at this year's Chicago Film Festival. Set in early '60s Montreal, it stars Karine Vanasse as Hanna, a 13-year-old daughter of a struggling Jewish writer and a Gentile seamstress who suffers from depression. Trying to find a way in her newly adult world, Hanna is inspired one day when she sneaks into a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie. She is transfixed by the film's star, Anna Karina, and begins to take her life into her own hands. The movie is anchored by an astounding performance from Vanasse. Embodying the struggles and insecurities as well as misplaced confidence of a young adolescent, she captures the audience's attention with her vulnerability.

And in case you want to compare this list with other critic's Top 10's, my favorite 1999 films were, in order: 
1) American Beauty
2) Tarzan
3) Dreamlife of Angels
4) Straight Story
5) Magnolia (technically a 1999 movie for Oscar consideration, but not scheduled to open in Chicago until
6) Eyes Wide Shut
7) Cider House Rules
8) A Walk on the Moon
9) My Name is Joe 
10) Sixth Sense

I hope that you saw some movies this year that made you smile, that made you cry, that made you angry, that made you think. I always appreciate your thoughts. Feel free to send your comments and suggestions. And here's to another year of great cinema.

Our Film Writers 1999 Top Ten


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