This year was filled with “good” movies. But I would say that only two of my thirteen picks were truly original films or “stand-the-test-of-time” classics. “Life is Beautiful” represents the kind of timeless film that we hope is still being watched thirty years from now, while “Buffalo 66” is the staunchly independent film that reminds us why it is so important to try to be different from everybody else. Remember these films next time your standing in front of the “Titanic” section at Blockbuster considering a re-screen- dare to see Kate Winslet’s first film “Heavenly Creatures,” or DeCaprio in “Gilbert Grape” and any the films listed below – Be DIFFERENT!
- Slums of Beverly Hills (Dir. Tamara Jenkins)
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Marisa Tomei, Alan Arkin
There has never really been a directing equivalent to Woody Allen. Nor has there ever been a self-deprecating female Jewish voice, half as sharp or funny as even Woody’s dullest blade. “Slums of Beverly Hills,” however, was is as funny and entertaining an attempt as there has been in quite a while. Living from hotel to hotel, Alan Arkin carts his lovable family around Beverly Hills so that they can still attend the good public schools. The story is narrated to us by the adorable Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) who has just hit puberty and can’t seem to hide the enormous breasts that have erupted almost overnight. When cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) shows up, having just fled a rehab center, the family circus becomes even more amusing. A film like this won’t win any Oscars, but it’s hard to find another intelligent comedy more entertaining than this.
- Men With Guns (Dir. John Sayles)
Starring: Federico Luppi, Mandy Patinkin
In many ways “Men With Guns” might be considered the best, least seen film of the year. Directed by the almost always brilliant John Sayles in six different languages including “Spanish, English, Nahuatl, Tzotzil, Maya, and Kuna,” the story really attempts to tell tap into some truly universal truths. The film follows a doctor into the wilds of some anonymous South American country as he attempts to track down a group of medical students that he had taught and then sent into the jungle to help administer to the medical needs of impoverished villages. One by one he finds that they have disappeared, and the only clue he is ever left is that their disappearance has something to do with “Men With Guns.” This allegory refers to more than just guns vs. power, but also attempts to get at how slowly but surely western society is eroding unique cultures everywhere. Sayles does not preach, he is way too smart for that, he merely tells a story from which you can, if you choose, derive some greater truths and for this we should be commended.
- The Spanish Prisoner (Dir. David Mamet)
Starring: Steve Martin, Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon
Not since “House of Games” has David Mamet pulled off such a razor sharp screenplay and con. As with most of his tales he begins by introducing something that is not specifically identified, in this case a process, and then begins to turn the central character (Cameron Scott) in circles until nothing is what it seems. In “The Spanish Prisoner” a clever and convincing cast that includes, Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin and Ben Gazzara, initiates one of the most elaborate cons since Hitchcock. Like Scorsese in “After Hours” Mamet toys with Campbell Scott like a puppeteer, yanking building trusts and them breaking them apart. Anyone that can figure this out before it is over is obviously smart enough to appreciate it!
- Return To Paradise (Dir. Joseph Ruben)
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix
This was easily one of the most enjoyable Hollywood films of the year. The fact that I feel this way probably explains a lot of why the movie was a commercial failure. More a modern “Midnight Express” than anything new, “Return To Paradise” focuses on three friends who go to Malaysia to chill on beautiful beaches, smoke hash, and hang out with exotic local women. Two years elapse and the friends, who haven’t spoken since parting ways on a remote paradise, are brought together when they learn that Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) – the tree hugging environmentalist, had been arrested for holding a “drug dealing” quantity of hash. Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) are approached by Lewis’ sister to go back to Malaysia, plead guilty for their share of the drugs and save Lewis from hanging to death. The performances in this film are solid all the way through, but it is the intensity and suspense that director Joe Ruben manages to build that make “Return To Paradise” among the year’s best.
- The Last Days of Disco (Dir. Whit Stillman)
Starring: Chloe Sevigny, Chris Eigeman
For each of his three directorial efforts which make up what he calls the “nightlife” trilogy (Metropolitan, Barcelona and now The Last Days of Disco), Whit Stillman has established himself as one of the finest writers of screen dialogue since David Mamet. In “The Last Days of Disco” we meet two recent female graduates of Hampshire College who work in low paying publishing jobs and eventually end up living together in a railroad apartment on the Upper East Side. They spend their nights looking for the right guy at a disco club (theoretically Studio 54), philosophizing on love, loss and literature, while running head on into contact with all the classic rites of adult passage. Like all Stillman films the Nightclub itself merely acts as a frame of reference through the audience can observe the characters as a vehicle for understanding the zeitgeist of the era. “Disco” is a film that stands on the strength, quality and rhythm of the language of time specific sensibility.
- Your Friends and Neighbors (Dir. Neil LaBute)
Starring: Jason Patric, Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener
Contrary to most critics, I found “Your Friends and Neighbors” to be a far more interesting and better constructed film than it’s predecessor “In The Company of Men.” Writer/director Neil LaBute has picked up where he left off with his trademark cynicism in this brutal story of six yuppies and their different moral and sexual idiosyncrasies. The film is stripped of virtually any action, and focuses on the detailed dialogue and philosophies of modern urban folk. LaBute succeeds in capturing wonderfully probing moments by honing in on: a misogynist, an impotent, a bisexual, a lesbian, an adulterer, and sexual self-doubter. But the thing that makes a movie like this so good is the detached, non-judgmental observation of the camera and the story. As improbable or immoral as you may see these characters, by the end of the film you begin to see how real they can be- and this is quite a feat.
- Happiness (Dir. Todd Solondz)
Starring: Lara Flynn Boyle, Philip Baker Hall
“Happiness” is the ultimate anti-comedy. To best appreciate the true genius of this film you will need a slightly warped sense of humor in order to understand the numerous subtleties that pock Todd Solantz’s bold examination of a tangentially related group of sexually dysfunctional people. The cast of characters, who are dropped neatly into a “Leave It To Beaver” landscape, feature a naive, and chronically depressed lost soul whose first name is Joy, a loving father white collar psychologist pedophile, and socially a awkward twenty-something recluse who gets off making obscene phone calls. Everything about this follow-up to “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is steeped with such an incredible sense of irony that much of movie will inevitably prove itself too much for the viewer that attempts to double feature it with … say … “Something About Mary.”
- Elizabeth (Dir. Shekhar Kapur)
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Cate Blanchette, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston
There is very little not to appreciate about “Elizabeth,” the authentically period-soaked drama about the ascendancy of Queen Elizabeth. The film features an incredibly strong cast of characters, specifically Cate Blanchette as the queen, the most wonderful costumes of any period piece in recent memory, and a natural epic story as compelling as any fiction based movie this year. Historically accuracy aside, “Elizabeth” tells the story of how the Catholic government led by Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s half sister, was replaced by Elizabeth’s and her Protestant leanings. The film focuses on the years just after her ascendancy and the precarious political climate that ensued.
- Velvet Goldmine (Dir. Todd Haynes)
Starring: Ewan McGreggor, Jonathon Rhys Myers, Toni Collette
“Velvet Goldmine” is easily one of the most visually interesting films of the year. Although the story might only seem interesting to someone interested in the music and fashion of the 70’s British glam-rock scene, director Todd Haynes has succeeded in creating a psychedelic sensory experience. “Velvet Goldmine” tells the story of a character who seems to be a fusion of David Bowie and Jim Morrison. Eventually this character sheds his hippiness and seems to mutate into the gender bending Ziggy Stardust (Jonathan Rhys Myers as superstar “Brian Slade”) after seeing an Iggy Pop character (Ewan McGreggor) perform at an outdoor music festival. The story is told through a series of flashbacks as a reporter relives his own adolescence as a Brian Slade fanatic. His assignment was to piece together the events surrounding the disappearance of Slade after his fake homicide publicity stunt during his final concert fifteen years earlier. “Velvet Goldmine” captures a time and place with an accuracy so precise it would probably be hard to tell it from the real thing if MTV’s “RealWorld” existed in 1970’s London.
- The Governess (Dir. Sandra Goldbacher)
Starring: Minnie Driver, Jonathan Rhys Myers
I’m pretty much a sucker for almost any movie starring Minnie Driver. “The Governess,” however, has just displaced “Big Night” as my favorite Minnie performance. The film is a lush period piece set in dreary London and the balmy Scottish coast. Driver plays a Sephardic Jew from London who chooses a job as a governess to the prospect of a loveless arranged marriage, after her merchant father dies unexpectedly. Not unlike “Angels & Insects” this film is a steamy fusion of love and science, where Driver both helps the man of the house discover a scientific breakthrough while she finds herself falling deeply in love for the first time. This is a classy, classic film, and one that will no doubt renew your faith in the concept of the interesting “literary film.”
- Affliction (Dir. Paul Schrader)
Starring: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe
This is easily one of the heaviest films of the year. Cold, bleak, and real. This is to be attributed as much to director Paul Schrader as it is to novelist Russell Banks (whose “The Sweet Hereafter” topped my list last year). Add to the difficult subject matter (drunken abusive father paves the way for dysfunctional son to fail as an adult) some of the most terrifying performances of the year- James Coburn as a brutal alcoholic and Nick Nolte as the afflicted son. Although the challenge of making a lyrical novel, depicting a man’s decent into madness, is a difficult one, “Affliction” maintains a wonderful control over the balance of action and emotion. The film makes you feel as cold as the icy landscape depicted on the screen, but with a raw gritty power that reminds us of Schrader’s early screenplays “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver.” This is a kind of minor masterpiece, where every actor seems on the very top of his or her game.
- A Simple Plan (Dir. Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda)
Starring: Sam Raimi
This is the third year in a row that one the year’s best films opens with a beautiful sweeping shot of a cold, white, snow covered rural landscape (Fargo – 96′, The Sweet Hereafter – 97′). The premise of “A Simple Plan” may seem a bit simple- three hicks find a crashed plane containing a gym bag filled with $4.4 million, but the consequences of the decision move the film along in surprising directions. Thanks to uniformly brilliant performances by all the characters, a wonderfully clever screenplay, and Sam Raimi’s brilliant direction this is easily one of most creative dramas of the year. Like any good filmmaker Raimi is interested in anticipating the audience’s reaction, and then doing the opposite. Ultimately what begins as a playful romp through the snow, slowly becomes a fast rolling iceball of a story filled with some incredibly powerful moments.
- The Thin Red Line (Dir. Terrence Malick)
Starring: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin
This film is in some ways the consummate fusion of “Apocalypse Now” and the lesser-known war masterpiece “A Midnight Clear.” It is a beautifully sweeping masterpiece that towers high above the shallow characters and trite storyline of “Saving Private Ryan.” Reclusive director Malick has managed to create a film that never misses a detail. It is a profound rumination on nature, life, death, war, friendship, love, hate, courage and fear. For most of the first two hours, the film focuses on the Charlie unit as it is seen attempting to take the point from the Japanese at Guadalcanal Company. As they climb at peak, not unlike that seen in the Australian film “Gallipoli,” Malick captures the beauty of the South Pacific honing in on insects and animals, to the physical movement of men up an unending mountain of lush high grass. This is about as rich and textural a film as you could see this year. Part of what makes it so good is that it stars a familiar but not star driven cast, which allows you to better see the world through the eyes of soldiers, rather than just actors playing yet another role into a disparate repertoire. “The Thin Red Line” is the Hollywood film of the decade.
- Buffalo 66 (Dir. Vincent Gallo)
Starring: Christina Ricci, Vincent Gallo, Ben Gazzara, Angelica Houston, Kevin Corrigan
Although writer, director, actor, model, artist, musician Vincent Gallo has often been criticized for being arrogant and incredibly difficult to work with, if those are the qualities necessary to make a film this good- than more power to him! During the course of one day, we follow Gallo as he leaves prison after five years and reenters the real world. There is a profound and barely contained bitterness, stemming from the fact that time was served for a crime he didn’t commit, that Gallo is able to maintain for almost the entire length of the film. After a hilarious search for a toilet, he kidnaps a sexy nymphet (played perfectly by Christina Ricci) and forces her to spend the day with him at his parent’s house. Gallo plays a fragile hard-guy, down on his luck, and afraid to fall in love or accept it’s possibility. The acting in this film is among the best of the year, and combined with some wonderful cinematography and some truly surreal interludes, “Buffalo 66” has my vote for the best independent film since “Sling Blade” and “Naked.”
- Life Is Beautiful (Dir. Roberto Benigni)
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
Unless you’ve seen something that I completely missed this year, it would be difficult to find another film that comes as close to perfection as the poignant Holocaust dramedy “Life Is Beautiful.” Benigni, Italy’s most famous comedian, best known for Chaplinesque slapstick movies like “The Monster,” “Johnny Stecchino,” and “Son of the Pink Panther,” has proven himself not only to be a fantastic actor and director, but also one of the most insightful storytellers of our time. In this unique look at Nazi Germany Benigni was able to address one of this century’s most difficult topics with a sense of humor and compassion that no one else has had the courage and vision to do before now.