The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Thursday, December 24, 2009
'99 FILM BALLOONS: At the end of December, when other critics announce their top 10 movies of the year, the tradition at The Perpetual Three-Dot Column is to ignore the present and pick the best pictures of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and so on. This time we get to start with a great year for film, 1999.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back on 1999, it gave its Best Picture award to American Beauty, an ungainly mixture of smart, closely observed human comedy and dumb, ham-fisted social commentary. The first time I saw it I zeroed in on the good stuff, and if I hadn't watched the movie a second time it might have found a spot on this list. But with viewing #2 I had to admit the film's critics were righter than I'd initially acknowledged. So it didn't make the cut:

1. Election
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Payne and Jim Taylor, from a novel by Tom Perrotta

A year later, this one came true.

2. The Limey
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Lem Dobbs

A tough crime story with a raw sense of loss at its core. Soderbergh's best movie.

3. Belfast, Maine
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

A rich, engrossing portrait of a New England town, told at a slow but hypnotic rhythm. Wiseman's best movie.

4. Mr. Death
Directed by Errol Morris

Among all its other virtues, this documentary should inoculate any sensible viewer against taking David Irving seriously.

5. Toy Story 2
Directed by John Lasseter with Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon
Written by Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlain, and Chris Webb, from a story by Lasseter, Brannon, Stanton, and Pete Docter

"And this is the Buzz Lightyear aisle. Back in 1995, short-sighted retailers did not order enough dolls to meet demand."

6. Magnolia
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Short Cuts 2: Fortean Boogaloo.

7. Fight Club
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Jim Uhls, from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the real wizard? This movie makes a point of doing that to everything and everybody -- including, by the end, to the smug smartass who keeps pulling back those curtains.

8. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Directed by Trey Parker
Written by Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady

"I'm sorry, I can't help myself. That movie has warped my fragile little mind."

9. Being John Malkovich
Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Charlie Kaufman

Fifty years from now, viewers won't quite get just how brilliantly absurd this setup is. But they should still understand why it's a great film.

10. Limbo
Written and directed by John Sayles

This is the only one of Sayles' big-picture, portrait-of-a-place movies that I like. That's largely because it's the only one with three-dimensional, unpredictable characters, as opposed to gamepieces in a tedious didactic scheme. The characters are so unpredictable, in fact, that midway through the story they push the picture into a different genre altogether and it stops being a big-picture, portrait-of-a-place movie at all.

Honorable mentions:

11. Three Kings (David O. Russell)
12. Felicia's Journey (Atom Egoyan)
13. The Sopranos (David Chase)
14. Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch)
15. Time Regained (Raúl Ruiz)
16. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar)
17. Oz 3 (Tom Fontana)
18. The Matrix (Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski)
19. Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce)
20. Audition (Takashi Miike)

Just in case it isn't clear: The Sopranos refers to the first season of the TV series The Sopranos, and Oz 3 refers to the third season of Oz. Chase and Fontana are writer/producers, not directors, but auteurship in television and auteurship in film are different animals. So different, in fact, that maybe I shouldn't be including a couple of TV shows in a movie list. But a single season of an HBO drama is closer in spirit to a self-contained miniseries than an open-ended network program. And at this point in cinematic history it feels a little ridiculous to ignore the strides that were happening in television -- though if I really wanted to cover TV, some of my lists for the early/mid '90s might consist almost entirely of Simpsons episodes, so perhaps I need to think this through some more...

posted by Jesse 11:41 AM
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