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Film -- the year in review

By Peter Keough

JANUARY 3, 2000: 

1. The Talented Mr. Ripley. This year in film has been noted for its breakthroughs in inventiveness and originality, but the best movie of the year is one in which the classic virtues of harmony, unity, and radiance prevail. Old-fashioned in the way the Hitchcock of the '50s or the Antonioni of the '60s might be considered, Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel is a perfect fusion of image, sound, drama, and performance in the service of a most subversive theme -- the illusion of identity. Matt Damon triumphs as the callow nobody of the title, who insinuates his way into the life of golden boy Jude Law in a shimmeringly realized Italy of the 1950s. Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman shine as innocent bystanders.

2. Being John Malkovich. Now this is the kind of movie that will give 1999 its reputation as a watershed year in film innovation. First-time director Spike Jonze and first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman combine to spin a fable of non-stop inventiveness and hilarity as puppeteer John Cusack finds a portal into the brain of actor John Malkovich (played brilliantly by himself), which opens the door to infinite sexual, cosmic, and comic possibilities. With wry, note-perfect performances by Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and Orson Bean (!) and a winning, Rube Goldberg look of gimcrack whimsy, this will stretch notions of mainstream movie narrative.

3. Autumn Tale. After four decades of some of the world's subtlest and most illuminating filmmaking, Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale offers a rich harvest. Like most of his films, this features a bunch of people who talk a lot about themselves and each other but don't have a clue who they are or what they want. Take the 45-year-old widow, played by a thorny Béatrice Romand, who's trying to fill her empty nest by toiling on the family's vineyard. She's a project calling out for volunteers, and in the world of Eric Rohmer there's seldom any shortage of these. Like the best wines and films, Autumn Tale goes down smooth and subtle and makes life seem beautiful again.

4. Snow Falling on Cedars. Director Scott Hicks (Shine) took a risk: his big-budget adaptation of the David Guterson bestseller is as cinematic as possible, a palimpsest of sounds and images exploring time, memory, and desire. In other words, no voice-over narrator. In a Washington State fishing village just after World War II, a Japanese-American fisherman is tried for murder, unleashing a storm of repressed memories and unacknowledged racism. Boldly orchestrated and beautifully acted by Ethan Hawke, newcomer Youki Kudoh, and -- especially -- Max von Sydow, it's a viewing challenge, but vastly rewarding.

5. Boys Don't Cry. The most amazing acting transformation of the year is not Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's Man on the Moon, but Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in first-time director Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry. She's a young woman who poses as a man in the film's grim small-town Nebraska of the early '90s, embodying a masculine ideal that wins the hearts of the local women but earns the fury of the clueless men. Brutal and moving, uncompromising but compassionate, Boys is an indictment of ignorance and conformity and a tribute to the power of the imagination.

6. The Straight Story. In a sense, David Lynch's G-rated odyssey is the sunny alternative to the dark heart of America explored in Boys Don't Cry, but it has its own disturbing edge. Also based on a true story, it follows the journey of septuagenarian farmer Alvin Straight (a crusty Richard Farnsworth) as he rides a John Deere mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged, stricken brother. Far from being a Hallmark special on familial reconciliation, this takes the hard road of remorse and wisdom, and ends up as a disturbing coda to Lynch's Blue Velvet.

7. The Insider. Those who passed on Michael Mann's ambitious and masterful portrait of alienation and privilege in America because they thought it was just an indictment of cigarettes did themselves a disservice. Another true story brought to the screen, The Insider examines the fate of Jeffrey Wigand (the chameleon-like Russell Crowe), a tobacco-company executive who offered to tell all on 60 Minutes and entered a Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy and betrayal. Mann transforms the story's complexities, abstractions, issues, and themes into brilliant visual shorthand, abetted by outstanding performances from Al Pacino as crusading 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman and Christopher Plummer as a wickedly on-target Mike Wallace.

8. All About My Mother. When her teenage son is killed in an accident, a nurse (the stunning Cecilia Roth) heads back to Barcelona to meet with his father, from whom she's long been estranged -- an in-progress transsexual with AIDS who has recently impregnated a nun. No, this is not another true story, but another irrepressible confection from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and perhaps his finest film to date. Eschewing the extravagant outrageousness of his past for a mature sense of genuine melodrama, Almodóvar fuses the best qualities of All About Eve, A Streetcar Named Desire, and the tradition of Spanish surrealism in this tribute to women, film, and women in film.

9. American Beauty. Sam Mendes's first feature came after a long cinema drought and was promptly hailed as a work of genius. A backlash of sorts has since set in, but this new variation on the old theme of American civilization and its discontents still surges with inspiration, exquisite performances, and, yes, beauty. Kevin Spacey puts in a consummate performance as a suburban drone who falls in love with a nymphet and rebels against the emptiness and hypocrisy of his life. Annette Bening brings pathos and brittle sensuality to her thankless role as his wife, and Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, and Wes Bentley make convincing teens. But extra credit must be given to cinematographer Conrad L. Hall for the definitive portrait of a plastic bag.

10. Three Kings. David O. Russell transforms a big-budget, star-studded crowd-pleaser into an avant-garde investigation of war, media, and individual responsibility. No wonder Three Kings didn't make any money, but maybe some end-of-the-year recognition (it was chosen Best Film by the Boston Film Critics Society) is due. George Clooney plays a cynical Desert Storm soldier who joins comrades Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze (off duty from Being John Malkovich) to claim a cache of stolen Kuwaiti gold. Instead, they end up with a convoy of Iraqi refugees -- and guilty consciences. Russell's multi-format, MTV-ish M*A*S*H escapes pretentiousness through its redeeming, subversive silliness.

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