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by James Arnold

1999 Films: Great and Small Mysteries


WHAT MOVIES DID IN 1999: Witches, spooks, ghosts and devils prevailed as the turn of the millennium made creative types think (mostly childishly) about mysteries, great and small.

It was a bad year for movies based on old TV series (Mod Squad, Wild Wild West) but a good one for movies about lawyers (A Civil Action, Winslow Boy, The Insider).

It was also not a bad time for romantic comedies, with Julia Roberts on a pretty-woman crusade (Notting Hill, Runaway Bride) to cheer us up, plus such pleasant items as Shakespeare in Love and Forces of Nature. On the other hand, it definitely was a bad time for those offended by notorious one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words.

The animated Tarzan was a success, but other remakes (The Haunting, The Thomas Crown Affair) were busts. The Star Wars, Toy Story and James Bond franchises continued unabated. The usual spate of high school-related comedies was enlivened by two of the best ever made (for adults): Rushmore and Election. Also eligible in this category was the overrated American Beauty (comic but intensely dark).

The Best (alphabetically, of those reviewed here): Autumn Tale, Central Station, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, The Insider, The Last Days, Rushmore, Shakespeare in Love, The Sixth Sense, The Thin Red Line, The Winslow Boy.

Also Worth the Price: A Civil Action, Elizabeth, The Limey, The Messenger, Tea With Mussolini, True Crime.

The Sidney Greenstreet Very Heavy Trophy (for nastiest villain): Tim Robbins, for his genial lunatic anti-government bomber (Arlington Road). Honorable mention to the unseen female menace in Blair Witch Project. Others much appreciated: Saddam’s thugs in Three Kings and likable Sydney Pollack, who played arrogant and evil rich guys in Eyes Wide Shut and A Civil Action.

Villainous Clergy (unfortunately, a longtime trend) worth noting: John Gielgud’s conspiratorial pope (in Elizabeth) and Michael McKean’s pathetic death-row priest (True Crime).

The Alan Greenspan Inflation Award (for most expensive robbery loot ever in a caper film): $8 billion (in Entrapment).

The Stay-in-English-and-Journalism Award (to movies which show writing as an occupation leading to romance): Shakespeare in Love. Runners-up: Message in a Bottle, You’ve Got Mail.

The Sir Anthony Hopkins Prize for Most Muted, Underplayed Climactic Line: “It would appear that we have won.” (The Winslow Boy)

Films About Grace: The most original and moving idea came in the Brazilian film Central Station, where the female central character supports herself by writing petitions to the saints for the suffering, desperate and illiterate poor. In the story, she and a lost boy she befriends search the countryside for his father, whose name is Jesus.

Picturesque Places Prize (for fresh use of locales): tie between coastal Alaska (Limbo), and Florence and Tuscany (Tea With Mussolini). Also worth mentioning: the cantilevered Hollywood Hills mansion in The Limey; the depiction of New York as the unredeemed world of chaos in Bringing Out the Dead.

Favorite Male Actor (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): Jim Caviezel, as the gentle philosopher of hope (Thin Red Line); Jason Schwartzman, as the indefatigable, Harold Lloyd-ish high school go-getter (Rushmore); Chris Cooper, as the grouchy, realistic dad who can’t express his deep love for his dreamer son (October Sky) and as the stereotyped, demented ex-Marine dad (American Beauty); Matthew Broderick, as the comically flawed teacher who tries to fix a student election for noble reasons (Election).

Favorite Female Actor (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): Laura Dern, as the dedicated, inspirational and doomed science teacher (October Sky); Diane Venora, as two conflicted wives, of unfaithful Clint Eastwood (True Crime) and of suddenly non-affluent whistleblower Russell Crowe (The Insider); Reese Witherspoon, as Tracy Flick, the epitome of the high school achiever en route to being CEO of the world (Election); Jodie Foster, for declining to repeat her role as Clarice, who becomes a cannibal, in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs.

Doting Grandpa Award (for best A-2 movie): October Sky. Other contenders: Iron Giant, Tea With Mussolini.

Memorable Moments and Images: The young queen practicing and delivering her speech to the bishops about her plans for the Church of England (Elizabeth), the welcome-home party for the recovered son in which he asks to do a Greek instead of Italian dance and the crowd generously joins in (Deep End of the Ocean), Jewish survivors talking uneasily to Christian neighbors who once scorned them (The Last Days), movie star Julia Roberts at a family dinner party where nobody knows her (Notting Hill), Kevin Bacon digging (Stir of Echoes), unnerving attempted seduction of Nicole Kidman by ballroom-dancing stranger Todd Field (Eyes Wide Shut), girl with leg in brace complains that playing violin is too hard and teacher Meryl Streep tells her about Itzhak Perlman (Music of the Heart).

The Dead Man Walking Prize (for best film against capital punishment): True Crime, especially the scene in which the condemned man says good-bye to his wife and child.

Among Many Contributors to Film Culture Who Died in 1999: directors Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest), Stanley Kubrick, Edward Dmytryk (Murder My Sweet), Charles Crichton (Lavender Hill Mob), Abraham Polonsky (Body and Soul), John Berry (Thieves); writers Garson Kanin (Tracy-Hepburn films), Norman Wexler (Joe, Serpico), Jean Shepherd (The Christmas Story), Morris West (Shoes of the Fisherman); composer Ernest Gold (Exodus); critic Gene Siskel; actors George C. Scott, Ruth Roman, Sylvia Sidney, Iron Eyes Cody, Susan Strasberg, Richard Kiley, Buddy Rogers, Oliver Reed, Dirk Bogarde, Henry Jones, Victor Mature, DeForest Kelley, Ian Bannen, Madeline Kahn.

Lines to Remember: “The press is free—for anyone who owns one.” (The Insider)

“Kids don’t get lost. People lose them.” (Deep End of the Ocean)

“I am calm—it is God who is angry!” (St. Joan, in The Messenger)

“A [great Hollywood] humanitarian is someone who has never won an Oscar.” (The Muse)

“I don’t want to be scared anymore.” (The Sixth Sense)

“Help!” (The Blair Witch Project)

“You might have the wrong idea about one or two things that happened last night.” (Eyes Wide Shut)

“Love does not die...true love lasts forever and is the most important thing in life.” (Tea With Mussolini)

“Anyone looking for salvation by himself is like a coal withdrawn from the fire.” (The Thin Red Line)


DOGMA (O, R): Kevin Smith’s “comic fantasy” about angels and demons in contemporary New Jersey is mostly an excuse for him to vent about the Church and many of its rules. Smith, 29, is a budding talent with a couple of low-budget hits (Clerks, Chasing Amy). He can’t be accused of anti-Catholicism because he is a Catholic, with a clear respect and fondness for God and good things like justice. But he has a ton of complaints, few of them original (sexism, racism, ultra-legalism).

Dogma is dimly plotted and overly long. It suffers from stereotyped concepts, political correctness and too much talk. Only slacker Gen-Xers are likely to love Smith’s dialogue, which is wall-to-wall expletives, or the comedy style that leans heavily on irreverence for what was once sacred. But few movies are so intensely interested in God and religion, and there are nuggets of wit amid the juvenilia. Not generally recommended.


THE 12 APOSTLES (History Channel): This two-hour documentary, which aired in December, offered a different take on New Testament events from the perspective of the apostles, described as “Christianity’s founding fathers.” The millennial timing was perfect. But the main trouble, as this typically polished effort from the shop of veteran Paulist filmmaker Ellwood Kieser (Romero, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story) concedes, is that almost nothing is known about the subjects.

That severely handicaps the businesslike approach of cable’s History Channel. Thus, post-Pentecost details in Nancy Gimbrone’s script (narrated by Martin Sheen) are speculative, derived from apocryphal works rejected as historical by the early Church. Yet even this (what is sure, what is not) is helpful for general audiences.

The legendary stories are often the ones we remember because they tend to be dramatic or amusing. One example is the famous quo vadis tale in which St. Peter meets the Lord after escaping from Rome and then returns to face his own crucifixion.

The film makes it clear that, while the events may or may not have happened precisely as depicted, they reflect deeper truths about the courage and testimony of these heroes who were originally just average nobodies.

The approach owes something to the style of Ken Burns (comments from scholars, illustrating events with locales as they exist today—flowers in Gethsemane, Jerusalem’s Chapel of the Ascension—and great and not-so-great art representations, including old biblical movies). But it misses Burns’s trademark use of eyewitness letters, anecdotes and poignant music. You can only work with what you have, and the individualization of personalities and the emotional connections are not there.

The film reflects ecumenical attitudes toward the apostles and new thinking (Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the Resurrection, and her possible leadership role). St. Paul is a key figure, especially in expanding the concept of “the Way” to include gentiles. Overall, a solid cinematic overview of what is known of these progenitors of the world’s two billion Christians.


AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHY: A Century of Images (PBS): Photography was born in the 19th century but flowered in the 20th. It is the foundation for all the modern communication miracles. Studying photos taught us to see as never before. This lovely hour, produced by John Schott, reminds us that single images, frozen in silence and time, have a power that can never be usurped by movies. A documentary of beauty and insight.



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