Comedies lead the way in a creative, diverse year

In all, 1999 was a lively year at the movies. Audiences lined up frequently at ticket windows, Hollywood made piles of money, and critics found enough high-quality pictures to provide a healthy proportion of good reviews.

Significantly, creative work wasn't limited to any particular point along the moviemaking spectrum. As venerable a company as Walt Disney released fare as challenging as "Summer of Sam" and "The Straight Story," while "The Blair Witch Project" gave a fresh burst of energy to independent producers. Television and home video will continue to fling new challenges at traditional cinema, but theatrical filmgoing obviously remains alive and well.

More specifically, it was a terrific year for screen comedy - not only the teen fantasies that scored again with "American Pie," but the thoughtful variety aimed above the collar rather than below the belt. Especially interesting was a trend toward using comedy as means of exploring the creative process itself. Animation and documentaries made strong showings, too.

It seems stingy to make a short list of favorites in such a generous year, but I'll honor tradition by choosing 10 of the best, and hedge by noting runners-up that could have made the final cut. Remember that movies are complicated beasts, often holding worthwhile ideas alongside material some find irksome, disturbing, or offensive. So check ratings and reviews before rushing off to see these pictures. But know that each contains enough meaningful content and invigorating style to stand above the crowd.

* Man on the Moon. This comedy became the year's most misunderstood movie even before it opened, with some advance reviews dismissing it as a failed "bio-pic" that reveals too little about the inner life of comedian Andy Kaufman, its real-life hero.

The picture never tries to be a biography. It's a deliciously offbeat study of a maverick who relentlessly pushed the envelope of comic performance before his untimely death in 1984, earning international fame - and nearly sabotaging his career - in the process. Jim Carrey gives his most dazzling performance ever, and director Milos Forman continues his fascinating string of films about the paradoxes of creativity.

* Being John Malkovich. The title led people to expect a documentary about the talented actor, but what they found was the year's most original story. A puppeteer finds a secret passage into Malkovich's mind and decides to capitalize on this weird discovery. It's hard to say who contributed most to the movie's effectiveness - screenwriter Charlie Kaufman or director Spike Jonze in his feature-film debut - but both deserve a passel of prizes. So does the cast, from John Cusack and Catherine Keener to Cameron Diaz and Malkovich himself, surely the Good Sport of the Decade for poking fun at himself so willingly.

* Election. Look beyond this movie's pitch-dark comedy about precocious sexuality, and you'll find a razor-sharp satire of the Age of Clinton that ruefully exposes its social, political, and educational cynicism. Matthew Broderick shows newfound depth as a schoolteacher too idealistic for his time, and Reese Witherspoon becomes a star as the senior-class politician who turns his life upside down. But chief credit goes to director Alexander Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor, who showed the same sociological savvy in "Citizen Ruth," their previous picture. They're two of the most prominent talents in the revival of writer-director teamwork that is one of the year's most interesting trends.

* Run Lola Run. Lola's boyfriend is in big trouble, and he'll die if she can't raise an enormous amount of cash in the next 20 minutes. This could have been an exercise in style without substance, but German filmmaker Tom Tykwer turns it into a high-speed philosophical essay, complete with spur-of-the-moment meditations on what might have happened if events had taken a slightly different spin. A feast for the eye and the mind - and all in a snappy 81 minutes!

* Topsy-Turvy. This sumptuously filmed comedy-drama about Gilbert and Sullivan marks a surprising turn for writer-director Mike Leigh, whose movies usually focus on contemporary malaise. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner bring the 19th-century operetta duo to vivid life, helped by a brilliant script that Leigh penned in collaboration with his superb cast. The result is less frolicsome and sanitized than G&S works like "The Mikado," but it packs an emotional wallop in a tuneful way that many will find irresistible.

* All About My Mother. A woman searches for her long-lost husband after her son's death. That may sound like the formula for a conventional soap opera, but Pedro Almodvar has crafted a densely textured romp exploring the joys of acting, the complexity of human relationships, and the slippery nature of sex and gender roles. Almodvar supplies his usual strong dose of sexual antics, putting the picture off-limits for many viewers. But those who choose to see it will find Spain's most famous filmmaker at the top of his talent.

* Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Errol Morris revolutionized the documentary with his patented blend of true-life subjects, camera-eye interviews, and surreal cinematography. The unlikely star of this grimly brilliant film is a Massachusetts engineer who went into business as a designer of capital-punishment equipment, then became a lecturer claiming the Holocaust never happened. Morris's real interest lies deeper, though, in the barely veiled fascination with death that courses beneath the surface of our supposedly civilized society.

* The Insider. A former researcher decides to blow the whistle on deceit and fraud in the tobacco industry, and a "60 Minutes" producer plays political hardball with his bosses as he prepares to air the story. At once a feisty piece of Hollywood muckraking and a powerful human-interest tale, Michael Mann's expressively filmed drama is socially alert cinema at its most absorbing.

* The Iron Giant. Set in the 1950s, before most of today's cartoon fans were born, this smart and funny animation tells the highly original story of a little boy with a big problem: Where can he hide a friendly but gigantic and scary-looking robot in a tiny community with outsized fears of the communist menace? Mixing visual humor with historical details and keen social satire, Brad Bird's splendidly drawn comedy stands out even in a fine year for animated movies.

* Eyes Wide Shut. This flawed but fascinating thriller edges into the Top 10 for at least two reasons: One is to honor Stanley Kubrick, who hadn't quite completed it before his death last spring. The other is to acknowledge the awkward fact that his movies often seem perplexing when first seen, but take on added luster once they've rumbled about in your memory for a while. This one raised a lot of eyebrows with its dreamlike tale of a married couple tested by sexual temptations. But its images and themes refuse to fade, and it's unlikely Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman will ever turn in more fully realized performances. It's worth a special nod, blemishes and all.

Runners-up include American Beauty for introducing Sam Mendes's florid filmmaking style; Leila and A Moment of Innocence for continuing a string of extraordinary Iranian releases; Autumn Tale for proving that French master Eric Rohmer remains as masterly as ever; Boys Don't Cry for Hilary Swank and Chlo Sevigny in astonishing performances; The End of the Affair for its sensitive treatment of religious faith; Julien Donkey-Boy for pure cinematic boldness; Rosetta for pure human compassion; and West Beirut for its portrait of ordinary life in extraordinary times. They helped ring out the 1900s on a strong cinematic note.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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