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A Quality Year 

After years of creative drought, inspiration was again in long supply

Wednesday, Dec 29 1999
In Albert Brooks' summer comedy The Muse, a ravishing daughter of Zeus -- in the person of Sharon Stone -- gives a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter a fresh jolt of inspiration. For a price. Brooks' desperate scribbler must first lavish Tiffany trinkets on his newfound benefactor, put her up at the Four Seasons, provide car and driver, even take her into his humble home, where she becomes pals with his wife. In the end, the writer wins the epic battle with his word processor. And his well-paid spirit guide remains atop the Beverly Hills A-list.

Could it be that Muse Sharon was working overtime in 1999? If this wasn't the most dynamic year in recent American movie history, it was close -- the year in which director Spike Jonze pulled us down a slimy tunnel leading straight to the cerebral cortex of actor John Malkovich and action stylist Michael Mann took on 60 Minutes and Big Tobacco with The Insider. It was the year when five penniless movie buffs from Orlando, armed only with a videocam and an instinct for selling mythology on the Internet, scared the bejesus out of us (and a slew of studio fat cats) with The Blair Witch Project. Washington Irving's headless horseman rode again in Sleepy Hollow and American Beauty's Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening lost their heads and their bearings in suburbia. We hooked into the weird brain waves of comedian Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon and spent 20 years in the joint with Rubin Carter in The Hurricane. We discovered the joys of Cuban music at the Buena Vista Social Club, watched a boy commune with ghosts in The Sixth Sense and a girl posing as a boy commune with her true self in the heartbreaking Boys Don't Cry. For better or worse, we revisited George Lucas' intergalactic dream world in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace.

In 1999, every predictable movie event seemed to be offset by something equally unforeseen. Right on cue, for instance, secret agent James Bond popped up for the 19th time, tuxedo neatly pressed, in The World Is Not Enough to (ho hum) save our precious natural resources. But 007's kitschy alter ego, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, seemed just as compelling for his crude lechery. Like clockwork, Woody "Once-a-Year" Allen returned to navel-gazing with Sweet and Lowdown, a Depression-era fable about a fictional jazz guitarist's art and his blinkered self-absorption. But British director Mike Leigh did Woody one better with Topsy-Turvy, a brilliant entertainment about the furies that divided Gilbert and Sullivan, and how the feuding collaborators worked through trouble to create The Mikado. Last summer, Star Wars fans camped out on streets and in theater parking lots to score early tickets to the Lucas wizardry. By that time, though, the Wachowski brothers -- Andy and Larry -- had already blown George and company out of the water with a mind-bending mix of cyberpunk effects, futurist chop-socky, and high-octane metaphysics called The Matrix. Fittingly, Keanu Reeves' questing hero was named Neo: The Wachowskis have signed him up for a pair of sequels in the next millennium.

Talk about unexpected turns. In New York, Robert De Niro lampooned his tough-guy image by playing a Mafia don who's seeing a psychiatrist in Analyze This, while longtime surrealist David Lynch popped up in the Midwest to direct The Straight Story, an aptly named heartwarmer about a codger, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who rides his lawn mower across Iowa to visit an estranged brother. David O. Russell turned the combat movie on its head with the refreshingly absurd Three Kings, about four AWOL soldiers in search of stolen Kuwaiti gold after the Gulf War.

Meanwhile, it was raining frogs in Los Angeles. Magnolia, the haunting second film by Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson, introduced an Altman-esque array of lonely strivers, bereft of love and tortured by regrets. Among a dozen walking wounded, Tom Cruise was a TV guru selling bare-fang misogyny to Joe Six-Pack, William H. Macy a former whiz kid on the skids, Jason Robards a crusty bastard dying painfully of cancer, Melora Walters a paranoid cokehead with no one to talk to, little Jeremy Blackman a boy genius whose father won't accept him. Anderson's complex scheme at once separated and intertwined these troubled lives, but his boldest stroke came late: Part biblical scourge, part low-budget horror effect, Anderson's rain of frogs united his characters' obsessions and forged a kind of dramatic logic that no moviemaker would have attempted five or 10 years ago. Like American Beauty, Magnolia is a harrowing look at social disorder employing bold experiments in film narrative and a daring style of satire.

Anderson and American Beauty director Sam Mendes (who revolutionized Cabaret on Broadway) were certainly not the only innovators. German filmmaker Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run was a furious assault on the senses that told -- in at least three different and conflicting ways -- the story of a fugitive punk's quest to save her boyfriend from gangsters, and Steven Soderbergh's The Limey was a compelling hash of film noir and cinematic cubism -- in the service of English gangster Terence Stamp's single-minded quest to avenge his daughter's murder in Los Angeles. Admirable movies like Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, about a New York paramedic (Nicolas Cage) who's haunted by ghosts, Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock, celebrating idealist theater folk of the 1930s, and Liberty Heights, Barry Levinson's recollection of Jewish Baltimore in 1954, felt a bit old-fashioned by comparison.

The contrast between exhausted genres and new-wave hybrids showed up almost everywhere this year. Amid the tuneless holiday opulence of Anna and the King, moviegoers may have found themselves yearning for some vintage Rodgers & Hammerstein -- and Yul Brynner leaping over the palace banquet table. At least Warner Bros.' 89-minute animated version of The King and I, released earlier in the year, featured a touch of that. But the real alternative came courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the Comedy Channel subversives behind South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Their wise-ass take on movie musicals and Broadway flash featured a scabrous burlesque of Oklahoma! invoking incest, a Little Mermaid-style ditty belted out by Satan himself, and a gloriously tasteless sendup of Les Miserables that would make Victor Hugo blanch. If the full-frontal assaults by Stan, Cartman, and Kenny on Bill Gates (shot in the head), the Baldwin brothers (annihilated), and the movie ratings system (systematically dismembered) provided a shot of fresh air in the shuttered room of hallowed movie iconography, they may also have made a few baby-boomer studio execs nervous. Who's the next target? Brian Boitano or me? For the moment, though, the New York Film Critics Circle is probably immune. That august body presented its first-ever award for best animated film to the South Park gang.

About The Author

Bill Gallo


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