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The 10 Best Films of 1999

The 10 Best Films of 1999

 

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“By the current timetable of cultural recycling, pop artifacts tend to look their most dated—no longer fresh and new, but also not yet easily filed as products of their time—roughly 15 to 20 years following their initial conception.” So wrote Slant's Eric Henderson in his intro to our list of the 100 Best Films of the 1990s. Five years after that list's publication and we're feeling, on the 16th anniversary of this site's inception, a little nostalgic. Which is why, every day for the next two weeks, we're looking back at one year from the 1990s, to celebrate the films—from the cerebral Iranian puzzle box, to the Hong Kong mixtape, to the American cine-savvy royale, with and without cheese—that inspired many of us to write about film in the first place.

Like we do today with our year-end lists, the year of U.S. theatrical distribution was for the most part used to determine what year a film belonged to. But in cases where a film took more than a year to reach America, the year of its first prominent theatrical engagement, either in its country of origin or beyond, was used. And given the abundance of riches we had to choose from, prior to each Top 10 is a list of 10 honorable mentions—the majority of which were shortlisted for our 100 Best Films of the 1990s back in 2012 but didn't garner enough support to make the final list. Ed Gonzalez
 

Honorable Mention: Bringing Out the Dead, The Dreamlife of Angels, Genghis Blues, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Late August, Early September, The Limey, Moloch, Office Space, Princess Mononoke, Run Lola Run
 

The 10 Best Films of 1999

10

The Iron Giant

As far back as the marvelously old-fashioned The Iron Giant, Brad Bird was envisioning nostalgia-rich universes rich in wit and moral inquiry. Hogarth, a B-movie-obsessed, coffee-drinking latchkey kid from 1950s Maine with a Pee-wee Herman bike, sees his sci-fi dreams come true after a big metal giant crash-lands in his hometown from destinations unknown. Bird doesn't intend the film as Cold War allegory (the kids at school tellingly ignore a cutely alarmist newsreel about atomic warfare), but as a toothy commentary on the sometimes perilous consequences of our fear of the other. The finale is heartbreaking. As for the heart it breaks, it's located in the message conveyed by very crucial two-become-one juxtapositions: Hogarth's eyes lighting up when he hears about the robot for the first time inside his mother's diner and the many shots of the giant's eyes absorbing and registering life. “You are what you choose to be,” says Hogarth during a crucial scene, to which the giant responds, “Hogarth.” The Iron Giant is many things, above all else a poetic fairy tale about our essential goodness and friendship as a ritual of communion. Ed Gonzalez

The 10 Best Films of 1999

9

Rosetta

To watch the films of the Dardenne brothers is to bear witness. Fittingly, then, Rosetta's incredible critical and festival reception was such that the film's stark portrayal of an exploitative society compelled the Belgian people to pass a new law ensuring the fair pay of employed minors. Émilie Dequenne is Rosetta, on the surface a young girl trying to meet her financial responsibilities, yearning for freedom from her promiscuous alcoholic mother, but she's really more of a force of nature struggling against barriers both seen and unseen. The breakneck opening sees her reacting to the unfairness of her newfound unemployment with infantile rage, a stark contrast to the ensuing heartbreak of watching her hold her head high despite the cruelties casually thrown at her. The Dardenne brothers are the torchbearers of raw and unfiltered humanism on screen, and in Rosetta they might have found their greatest beacon. The film may eschew explicit Christian symbolism, but there's something genuinely religious in Rosetta's stark portrayal of unyielding resurrection. Rob Humanick

The 10 Best Films of 1999

8

eXistenZ

eXistenZ answers the immersive anxieties of Generation Xbox in ways that are uncannily similar to how Videodrome affected those weaned on cable television: a dark fable about the pleasures and pains of media interface. As the title indicates, it's also not exactly reticent about establishing clear “game = life” parallels. Not to mention, Cronenberg accomplishes the whole “levels of reality” narrative shtick with far more aplomb than 1999's other sci-fi mindbender, The Matrix, and with far fewer bullets. Cronenberg has long been a master at constructing scenes that unspool slightly off-kilter (mannered dialogue, affectless reaction shots abound), and here that disconnect works perfectly to first delineate and then obfuscate the various levels of gameplay until neither the film's viewers nor its characters can be entirely certain where simulation ends and so-called reality begins. Cronenberg also gleefully amps up the ick factor, even if eXistenZ is comparatively light on gore: Highlights include Jennifer Jason Leigh lasciviously tonguing Jude Law's spinal-tapped bio-port, as well as the scene in the Chinese restaurant where Law pieces together an “organic gun” while devouring a platter loaded with slimy stir fry. Budd Wilkins

The 10 Best Films of 1999

7

Three Kings

Remember when David O. Russell still made David O. Russell movies? Those were good times, and they peaked with Three Kings, the once-singular auteur's Gulf War whatsit that brought three relatively untested big-screen actors (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube) to the fore in most convincing fashion. To say that this is the sort of genre-blending art film that convinces people they like art films is no faint praise; there's something about it that sticks with viewers of all stripes, often in a way that doesn't reveal itself for quite some time. Russell presents the occasionally ridiculous goings on of his third effort as something to be both mocked and mourned, which is to say he manages to be respectful and irreverent all at once. Somewhere between the bleached skies, fast-moving clouds, and oceans of sand are spare moments of bliss just waiting to be noticed. That the three eponymous soldiers are usually too busy daydreaming of days past or scheming for the future to do so just makes it more rewarding when they finally do. Michael Nordine

The 10 Best Films of 1999

6

All About My Mother

The playfulness of Almodóvar's '90s films, which often dabble in visual experimentation and non sequiturs at the expense of narrative cohesion, finally found acute precision with All About My Mother, a film in which each scene builds so fittingly upon the last, that its unfolding finally overwhelms for the depths of its reach. An early viewing of All About Eve by Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín), doubles as a primer for how to understand the subsequent events. They directly relate at several points to jealousy and dwindling stardom, but also sensuality, as an imperative on the placement of personal desire, whether sexual or emotional, within the larger spectrum of the cosmos. Yes, All About My Mother is about the stars and how miniscule those who gaze upon them are made to feel without a place of their own. When Ismaël Lo's “Tajabone” plays as Manuela drives in circles at night, searching amid numerous, anonymous sex acts, it's a distillation of Almodóvar's existential sojourn, of paradoxically reclaiming oneself and letting go: We call it cinema. Clayton Dillard

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