AMERICAN BEAUTY (Sam Mendes)
Every now and then a film comes along that is so original that it seems a kind of miracle that it could be that good. (PARASITE is a recent example.) So it was with AMERICAN BEAUTY, with Sam Mendes direction of the screenplay by Alan Ball. Sure, it’s got all kinds of familiar themes (mid-life crises, repressed sexuality, adolescent angst, the horrors of American suburbia). But they are shuffled and delivered in such an astonishingly original way that we feel that we are discovering them for the first time. Kevin Spacey has the role of his career, and it’s a pity that he will no doubt be remembered for something quite different. Annette Bening is perfection itself. Thomas Newman’s score is simply haunting.
EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick)
Only Stanley Kubrick could take a meditation on infidelity and turn it into something epic. Using then-real-life married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had many scratching their heads when it was announced, much like when Ryan O’Neal was slated for Barry Lyndon back in 1975. (And that turned out all right, didn’t it?) As usual, Kubrick was thinking beyond. He managed to get both Cruise and Kidman to commit to not pursuing any other projects until the film was finished shooting. It took 15 months, earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Not unusual for a Kubrick film, EYES WIDE SHUT is hard to absorb on first viewing. And like all the greatest films, you know it will be worth viewing many more times, each time revealing more, helping to clarify your own feelings about it. Kubrick has the astounding ability to stretch you in different directions, sometimes at the same time. There is inescapable humor in the film, that could seduce you into thinking it’s an elaborate joke. Then you are sucker-punched with a scene that manages to reach right into your psyche. As wise and knowing as Kubrick appears with the mastery of his technique and cinematic intuitions, all of his best films are ultimately explorations. Provocative, cutting, thoughtful, sometimes revelatory explorations. EYES WIDE SHUT is no exception.
FIGHT CLUB (David Fincher)
Chuck Palanhuik once said that the movie based on his novel was better than the book. That’s an astonishing thing for an author to say, but neither he nor the film nor its director, David Fincher could be considered conventional. I happen to think he’s right, while at the same time acknowledging that the film’s greatest success is in duplicating the sense of chaos that the book so skillfully creates. One cannot exist without the other; much like it is with the narrator (Ed Norton) and his counterpart, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Fincher doesn’t pick projects that can be easily understood, thereby easily executed. When he succeeds, the rewards are all the greater. And he succeeds most of the time. And with his technical expertise and intense visual sense he resembles Stanley Kubrick. Time will tell if he’ll be able to be held in as high regard.
THE MATRIX (The Wachowski Brothers)
The first is the best, as the old adage goes, and it holds true here. What a shot to the head this was when it hit the screen. Complex without being unnecessarily complicated, original and trippy, action-packed and mind-provoking, THE MATRIX accomplished what it set out to do. And then some.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze)
There’s a theory that wacky movies with bizarre concepts like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH were a product of the possible impending doom of the approaching Y2K. Everyone was a bit on edge, and crazy things could happen. For whatever reason, we all benefited from this unlikely film getting made. Its success was all the more gratifying, indicating that maybe all was not lost in Cinemaland, after a couple of shaky decades. If directors like Spike Jonze and writers like Charlie Kaufman (he even won an Oscar!), can make it, the new century just might be worth tiptoeing into.
ELECTION (Alexander Payne)
ELECTION brought attention to two artists who were poised and ready to accept it. With each film, director Alexander Payne was further mastering his slightly skewered (and very funny) vision of humanity. Reese Witherspoon was nailing her characters and preparing for stardom. And then there was Matthew Broderick further proving that he didn’t have anything else to prove. ELECTION remains delightful and a good example of how Payne’s screenplays (often with Jim Taylor) deftly avoid cliches in what we think is familiar territory.
THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Neil Jordan)
God bless British Cinema! To remake the novel by Graham Greene (last filmed in 1955 with Deborah Kerr) it takes a British sensibility and a belief that a tragic love story of faith and fidelity could still fly in 1999 and beyond. Beautifully realized by director Jordan and superbly acted by Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore and Stephen Rea, THE END OF THE AFFAIR leaves you aching in all the right places.
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (Anthony Minghella)
Anthony Minghella’s approach to his major films reminds one of David Lean. Based on novels (THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), RIPLEY, COLD MOUNTAIN (2003), they are meticulously researched, sumptuously photographed and acted with great flourish. They are also long, leisurely and drive some people nuts. (ENGLISH PATIENT was fodder for a memorable Seinfeld episode.) I find them quite welcome, and wish we had not been robbed of more, due to Minghella’s early death from cancer in 2008 at the age of 54. There are always superb performances in Minghella’s films, none more so than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in this one.