MOVIES DID IN 1999
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
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
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,
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
The Alan Greenspan Inflation
Award (for most expensive robbery loot ever in a caper film):
$8 billion (in Entrapment).
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
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
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
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
“Anyone looking for salvation
by himself is like a coal withdrawn from the fire.” (The Thin Red
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
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
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.
PHOTOGRAPHY: A CENTURY OF IMAGES
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.