Being John Malkovich - If I were lecturing a course on story, structure and artfully thoughtful reworkings of the traditional narrative methodology of screenplay writing, I would deep dive int the works of Charlie Kaufman. This film, as well as many of his others (especially Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), thwarts traditional narrative storytelling in order to get across rather basic, even primitive social concepts but does so in a way that presents the work as high art. Conceptually, the film is out there. It follows a middling puppeteer (played to perfection by John Cusack) who discovers a doorway into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich (played by himself). The puppeteer utilizes his skills as a puppet master and functions Malkovich to better his life and transforms Malkovich from accomplished actor into a noteworthy puppeteer. Kaufman's script has you in it's grasp from the get go, but it is Spike Jonze's direction that really hits it home. All this coupled with career best performances from Cameron Diaz and Katherine Keener make this film one of the highlights of the 90's.
Dogma - It is weird to think that this film took a lot of flack for being sacrilegious when it is really one of the strongest films that affirms the power and meaning of religion there is. What the film does do is criticize the Dogmatic Faith of the Catholic church, but the film goes a step further to offer up solutions to those criticisms. This is easily the strongest script that Kevin Smith wrote. It is profound in ways that are unexpected and funny like one would expect when it needs to be. The integration of comedy and drama works better here than even in the arguably superior Chasing Amy. The performance work is stellar here. Linda Fiorentino brings a stern vulnerability that really sells her character, Jason Mewes nails the Jay character and the use of him and Silent Bob is best in this film, Alan Rickman gives a strong level of credence in believability that the film relies on but it is Ben Affleck that steals the show. He kills in the film. Funny when called upon but a physical threat when needed. This film offers some of his best work and I am still astounded he did not get a nomination for the clip provided. But more than him, how did Smith not receive a Best Original Screenplay nod? I understand 1999 was a behemoth of cinema but it is damn fine work!
The film centers around a couple of angels who were condemned to a life of ineptitude in Wisconsin who are fed a loophole in the Catholic faith that would allow for their forgiven return to heaved. A Seraphim played by Rickman comes to Fiorentino's Bethany because she is the Last Scion and only she can save humanity. You see, God is missing and can't stop the angels but if they were to reenter Heaven they will prove God fallible and in doing so existence would be blinked away. Along the way Bethany receives help from a couple of Prophets, an Apostle and a Muse who will all guide her towards humanity's salvation. Each character is designed around resolving common criticisms of faith and religion and in listening to what each character professes, you glean some wise resolutions to the imperfect nature of belief.
GalaxyQuest - When people ask what the best Star Trek movie is, this is generally the answer I give. This film, which feels more relevant now than it did upon release, takes a deep look at the nature of fandom and places strong commentary on both fans and the stars of genre shows with a following but manages to do so with healthy doses of pathos and heart to intermingle with some of the laugh out loud funniest sequences of the entire decade. For me, this is inarguably the best Space adventure film of the 90's and it is really too bad that 1999 was the year it was released. It is a film that got lost in the shuffle of what could be argued as the best year for cinema. The cast of this sends up the cast of the Original Star Trek beautifully but not in a belittling way and uses smartly generated presumptions about the actors we love to drive home the comedy of the film. Tim Allen is at the height of his powers and nails his take at a Shatner-like TV star whose light is dimming. Alan Rickman kills it as a Leonard Nimoy style actor who sees himself above the material. Sigourney Weaver plays against type and leans into the eye-candy role. Everyone is cast perfectly and really brings their A game. The score is gorgeous, the comedy hits, the thrill and adventure plays well even by today's standards and the dramatic beats really soar. This is shoulder to shoulder with space epics like Wrath of Khan, Star Wars and Serenity.
SLC Punk - Matthew Lillard leads in this excellent film that explores the lives of the Punk Rock community of Salt Lake City in the mid-80's. The film is raw, vibrant and dives deep into the mindset of young, alternative cliques no matter what the setting or city of residence is. When the film came out it was really heavily advertised as being a movie for the MTV crowd and I think that is why it didn't succeed as well as it should have because it really isnt that. It is a film for the anti-MTV crowd. This is the perfect coming of age film for people who feel are just simply are different. Matthew Lillard gives an awards worthy performance and acts as guide and narrator through the picture. He really is exceptional. And the film does not play out as you would expect. It is smart and somewhat subversive and it's closing twenty minutes will really linger with you. This film may not have been the best film of 1999, but I would argue it had the best ending.
Stir of Echoes - 1999 was a good year for horror. We got a trinity of really compelling ghost stories that each could have taken this spot, but I opted for the one that gets the least amount of attention. While The Sixth Sense shocked people with it's twist and The Blair Witch Project revolutionized independent filmmaking, it was David Koepp's haunting reworking of Richard Matheson's novel that really brought about some chills and unlike Sixth Sense, I feel this film's quality doesn't hang on the twist (which this film also has) and unlike Blair Witch, this film utilizes its filmmaking framework to make some really inventive visuals. In short, this is a powerful horror film that is palpably eerie and plays host to what might be the strongest performance Kevin Bacon has given. His descent into madness is believable and he really sells it. Koepp is really hit or miss for me, but the ways he tinkered with Matheson's original concept really makes the film play well for a visual medium. This really is one of the best ghost story films there is.
Best Picture : American Beauty - Sam Mendes helmed this provocative exploration of lust, betrayal and murder. The film offers some exceptional visuals and strong performance work from the entire cast. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley and Mena Suvari are all divine and lean into their roles with exceptional believability. The film has been criticized as being unworthy of Best Picture and is often on lists for Worst Best Picture winner, but I think this is unfounded. The film plays well, is ever captivating, visually stunning and challenges the viewer in ways that you wouldn't expect. I won't argue that the film isn't hard to watch, but just because it is morally challenging doesn't make it a bad film. To the contrary, I would argues this is an exceptional film.
Biggest Blockbuster : Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace - George Lucas and Star Wars took their first stab at polarizing an audience with this game changer. Die Hard Star Wars fans were disappointed with Lucas' first entry in the prequels demanding a darker, edgier follow up. The film they got was a bright, colorful children's film that was designed to please all audiences. The film does skew a little too cerebral for young kids and that the banal humor lands far too childish to please many adults. The film is full of arguably offensive stereotypes that makes it hella cringeworthy by today's standards. It is probable that the use of these offensive stereotypes was unintentional but that doesn't make it any better. What is inarguable, though, is that this film is brimming with inventive visuals, jaw dropping sets and costume work, some inspired visual effects for 1999, has what might be John Williams' greatest score since Jurassic Park and has the pimpest lightsaber duel of the saga to its date of release. I think people's expectations got the better of them because this really isn't a bad movie. Watch it with a child, unencumbered by Saga hype and the film plays wonderfully. I really appreciated all the above aspects and that virtually everything in it was a new element brought to further expand our understanding of that universe. I really liked Natalie Portman's performance. As Padme she is soft and innocent, soaking up the knowledge of her new surroundings like a sponge and as Amadala, she is regal, refined and speaks with a firm dignity. She is one of the highlights of the picture for me that often goes unmentioned. Most people talk about Pod Races and the saber fight, but the real reason to watch this film is Amadala.