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1999 on film

Fight Club
[Photo: 20th Century Fox]

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999

Filmmakers are redefining their craft. That means moviegoers found 1999 a challenging and sometimes a troubling experience.

Some years in film are defined for posterity with a single cinematic image. The Millennium Falcon zipping into hyperspace. Travis Bickle talking to himself in the mirror. Bonnie and Clyde dancing with bullets. Atlanta on fire.

popcorn1999 isn't as easy to pin down with one shot or even an entire scene. Tough to hit a moving target taking so many unexpected turns. This year in movies -- especially the second half -- brought new surprises nearly every week. Audiences scrambled to keep up with the evolution, and those who couldn't were made to feel positively prehistoric.

It isn't a comfortable feeling to be left behind. That was obvious from heated, frustrated reactions to such extreme mutations of film convention as The Blair Witch Project and Fight Club. Audiences were challenged more -- and more often -- than probably any year since 1967, when Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate revamped our notions of what movie heroes are supposed to be, and what audiences expect.

Not long ago, moviegoers could be discouraged by a single flashback sequence, or a downbeat, inconclusive ending. By the end of 1999, even a master puzzler like the late Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut) started to look a bit creaky.

Comfort also isn't an option for adventurous filmmakers such as Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), David Fincher (Fight Club) and Sam Mendes (American Beauty). It isn't cozy to run ahead of the pack, either. They, and others like them, worked with the edgy confidence of artists believing nobody would ever trust them with a camera again. Might as well take it to the precarious edge of audience patience, then pirouette. Somebody out there in the dark would understand.

American Beauty
[Photo: Dreamworks]
Moviegoers now must be more attentive and intuitive than ever before. The days of linear scripts dutifully moving from points A to Z -- with appropriate exposition along the way -- are waning fast. Filmmakers aren't hesitant to follow their own stream of instinct, such as Jonze issuing a graphic crash course on the toxic effects of a bullet wound in Three Kings, or folding an already complex fantasy within itself in The Matrix.

The key for today's moviegoers is not to live in the moment, but to allow a plot to gestate. Wondering what just occurred is likely to distract you from a clue buried in the next scene, or even farther down the line.

Over the past few years, critics complained that movies too closely resembled video games with their pyrotechniques. Now we realize that video games may also inspire diabolical storylines, able to veer into numerous dramatic directions. Clocks don't operate exclusively clockwise anymore, evidenced by the shuffled plots of Go and Run, Lola, Run. Life has a reset button. Death is an option to be corrected.

Even when filmmakers adopted more conventional material in 1999, their ambitions to transcend the routine were obvious. The Iron Giant was the antithesis of fluidly programmed Disney animation, without catchy songs or cute sidekicks. Even a sequel like Toy Story 2 added technical and emotional dimensions to its fabulous predecessor. Nobody saw the Blair Witch herself, or even much blood, and we still bought into the grisly legend.

The scariest place to be in a 1999 movie was sitting around the family dinner table. Lester Burnham's asparagus meltdown in American Beauty and the candid fortune cookies of Guinevere topped the subversive menu. Dining out wasn't pleasant, either, considering Tyler Durden's unfortunate seasoning of banquet soup in Fight Club.

The scariest place to be outside the theater in 1999 was anywhere. Shootings in schools, a church and a day care center made personal security vital. Movies occasionally confirmed its role as an accomplice, as if changing the title from Killing Mrs. Tingle to Teaching Mrs. Tingle negated the scholastic violence on screen.

Top Picks

On the pop beat
Better later than never, hip-hop jams its way into our nation's frontal lobe.

On Stage
Rediscovering the creative genius that is Arthur Miller proves most satisfying -- here and on Broadway.

In pop culture
Perhaps when we can watch Ricky Martin featured on VHI's Behind the Music, we'll know it was a year well spent. Until then, catch us on eBay.

On the art beat
A vocal group of art supporters, combined with vigorous growth in galleries, puts St. Petersburg in the spotlight.

On the restaurant beat
Like a microchip off the old block, SideBern's guarantees foodies a bright future in dining.

On film
Filmmakers are redefining their craft. That means moviegoers found 1999 a challenging and sometimes a troubling experience.

This year's list of the Best Things on TV in 1999 can be summed up in a single word.

Cultural watchdogs pointed to copycat factors, such as the black trenchcoats of The Matrix and Columbine High. They overlooked the negative teenage influences of Varsity Blues and Cruel Intentions that, without violence, make it seem so uncool to respect authority and retain any virtue.

Even that distressing trend ran its course. By the end of the year, teenagers were more interested -- and much more fairly depicted -- in the quietly disengaged students of American Beauty and the wicked satire of Election, now finding its audience on home video. Teen moviegoers propel box office numbers and they seem less willing to settle for junk. They have been the fastest to embrace the new cinema, probably because it's rocking the establishment.

What movie image from 1999 sums up the state of the art? For me, it isn't a single shot, but a brilliant, bizarre touch for imaginative minds to simply accept until the filmmaker is ready to let us in on the joke. Maybe.

When Craig the downcast puppeteer in Being John Malkovich applies for a corporate job, he rides an elevator to floor 71/2. Not 7, not 8. The elevator door shows crowbar wear and tear from previous visitors jamming the lift between floors. Craig enters a 4-foot-high hallway, where stooped workers scurry between offices. Business as usual.

No immediate explanation is offered for these cramped quarters. It simply is. Craig inquires, and is answered with indifference. After a few minutes he -- and we -- accept the surroundings without question. Jonze knows the precise time to present a strange historical alibi making as much sense as anything. Later, he drops a hint that the explanation is lunacy, too. Anything makes sense, if you permit it.

Floor 71/2 revealed a lot about filmmaking in 1999, from the bold, elliptical strokes used by directors to the perplexed looks on moviegoers' faces. Some of us love that feeling. Others grumble, swearing never to read those crazy film critics again.

There will always be enough sameness in multiplexes to satisfy them. Sameness will also evolve. Right now, we're stuck between floors just marveling at the strange sights and sounds. Thankfully, the arrow is pointing upward.

Top 10 films of 1999, in alphabetical order

American Beauty -- Middle-age craziness and teen angst, satire and sympathy. A cinematic poem of suburban tragedy, barely revealing its wistful smile. Lester Burnham rules.

Being John Malkovich -- The most audacious cinematic obstacle course of the year. Director Spike Jonze balanced dazzle and despair with confidence that shouldn't be possible in a first-time filmmaker.

The Blair Witch Project -- Chalk up one for the amateurs, who spun a tiny budget into an ingenious advantage. Perhaps the film with the most impact for the future on this list.

Dogma -- Underneath the caustic irreverence lies the faith of a saint. If Kevin Smith ever learns how to direct his riveting scripts, he'll be the Frank Capra of the Gap generation.

Eyes Wide Shut -- Try it again, with the knowledge that Stanley Kubrick wasn't making a peep show, but a dream study of intimacy and fidelity. Kubrick was a bit out of touch, but hadn't lost his touch.

Fight Club -- What is this movie rebelling against? In the words of Brando: "Whaddaya got?" David Fincher created a passionately psychotic manifesto for the consumer revolution to come.

The Hurricane -- Denzel Washington's electrifying role as boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is the year's best male performance. Director Norman Jewison scores another socially relevant knockout. (Opens locally in January.)

Magnolia -- A melancholy, multicharacter study from Boogie Nights creator P.T. Anderson. Robert Altman couldn't do it any better. The year's best ensemble cast. (Opens locally in January.)

The Talented Mr. Ripley -- Anthony Minghella's cunning thriller is gorgeous, sexy and always one jump ahead of the audience. Matt Damon's performance is a chilling model of impromptu menace. (Opens Christmas Day.)

Three Kings -- David O. Russell's Gulf War caper zoomed like a tracer bullet, with just enough political weight to keep things urgent. The most at-ease war movie since M*A*S*H.

Honorable mention:

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut; Toy Story 2; Fantasia 2000; The Matrix; Boys Don't Cry; The Straight Story; Election; The Iron Giant.

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