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Reel Inspiration

Creativity Wins Out in the Battle for Movie Dominance.


In Albert Brooks's summer comedy The Muse, a ravishing daughter of Zeus -- in the person of Sharon Stone -- gives a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter a fresh jolt of inspiration. For a price. Brooks's desperate scribbler must first lavish Tiffany trinkets on his newfound benefactor, put her up at the Four Seasons, provide car and driver, even take her into his humble home, where she becomes pals with his wife. In the end, the writer wins the epic battle with his word processor. And his well-paid spirit guide remains atop the Beverly Hills A-list.

Could it be that Muse Sharon was working overtime in 1999? If this wasn't the most dynamic year in recent American movie history, it was close -- the year in which director Spike Jonze pulled us down a slimy tunnel leading straight to the cerebral cortex of actor John Malkovich, and action stylist Michael Mann took on 60 Minutes and Big Tobacco with The Insider. It was the year when five penniless movie buffs from Orlando, armed only with a videocam and instinct for selling mythology on the Internet, scared the bejesus out of us (and a slew of studio fat cats) with The Blair Witch Project. Washington Irving's headless horseman rode again, and American Beauty's Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening lost their heads and their bearings in suburbia. We hooked into the weird brain waves of comedian Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon and spent 20 years in the joint with Rubin Carter in The Hurricane. We discovered the joys of Cuban music at The Buena Vista Social Club, watched a boy commune with ghosts in The Sixth Sense, and a girl posing as a boy commune with her true self in the heartbreaking Boys Don't Cry. For better or worse, we revisited George Lucas's intergalactic dream world in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace.

In 1999, every predictable movie event seemed to be offset by something equally unforeseen. Right on cue, for instance, secret agent James Bond popped up for the 19th time, tuxedo neatly pressed, in The World Is Not Enough to (ho-hum) save our precious natural resources. But 007's kitschy alter ego, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, seemed just as compelling for his crude lechery. Like clockwork, Woody "Once-a-year" Allen returned to navel-gazing with Sweet and Lowdown, a Depression-era fable about a fictional jazz guitarist's art and his blinkered self-absorption. But British director Mike Leigh did Woody one better with Topsy Turvy, a brilliant entertainment about the furies that divided Gilbert and Sullivan, and how the feuding collaborators worked through trouble to create The Mikado. Last summer, Star Wars fans camped out on streets and in theater parking lots to score early tickets to the Lucas wizardry. By that time, though, the Wachowski brothers -- Andy and Larry -- had already blown George and Company out of the water with a mind-bending mix of cyberpunk effects, futurist chop-socky, and high-octane metaphysics called The Matrix. Fittingly, Keanu Reeves's questing hero was named Neo: The Wachowskis have signed him up for a pair of sequels in the next millennium.

Talk about unexpected turns. In New York, Robert DeNiro lampooned his tough-guy image by playing a Mafia don who's seeing a psychiatrist in Analyze This, while long-time surrealist David Lynch popped up in the Midwest to direct The Straight Story, an aptly named heartwarmer about a codger, Richard Farnsworth, who rides his lawn mower across Iowa to visit an estranged brother. David O. Russell turned the combat movie on its head with the refreshingly absurd Three Kings, about four AWOL soldiers in search of stolen Kuwaiti gold after the Gulf War.

Meanwhile, it was raining frogs in Los Angeles. Magnolia, the haunting second film by Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson, introduced an Altmanesque array of lonely strivers, bereft of love and tortured by regrets. Among a dozen walking wounded, Tom Cruise was a TV guru selling bare-fang misogyny to Joe Six Pack, William H. Macy a former whiz kid on the skids, Jason Robards a crusty bastard dying painfully of cancer, Melora Walters a paranoid cokehead with no one to talk to, little Jeremy Blackman a boy genius whose father won't accept him. Anderson's complex scheme at once separated and intertwined these troubled lives, but his boldest stroke came late: Part biblical scourge, part low-budget horror effect, Anderson's rain of frogs united his characters' obsessions and forged a kind of dramatic logic that no moviemaker would have attempted 5 or 10 years ago. Like American Beauty, Magnolia is a harrowing look at social disorder employing bold experiments in film narrative and a daring style of satire.

Anderson and American Beauty director Sam Mendes (who revolutionized Cabaret on Broadway) were certainly not the only innovators. German filmmaker Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run was a furious assault on the senses which told -- in at least three different and conflicting ways -- the story of a fugitive punk's quest to save her boyfriend from gangsters, and Steven Soderbergh's The Limey was a compelling hash of film noir and cinematic cubism -- in the service of English gangster Terence Stamp's single-minded quest to avenge his daughter's murder in Los Angeles. Admirable movies like Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, about a New York paramedic (Nicolas Cage) who's haunted by ghosts, Tim Robbins's Cradle Will Rock, celebrating idealist theater folk of the 1930s, and Liberty Heights, Barry Levinson's recollection of Jewish Baltimore in 1954, felt a bit old-fashioned by comparison.

The contrast between exhausted genres and new-wave hybrids showed up almost everywhere this year. Amid the tuneless holiday opulence of Anna and the King, moviegoers may have found themselves yearning for some vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein -- and Yul Brynner leaping over the palace banquet table. At least Warner Brothers's 89-minute animated version of The King and I, released earlier in the year, featured a touch of that. But the real alternative came courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the Comedy Channel subversives behind South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Their wise-ass take on movie musicals and Broadway flash featured a scabrous burlesque of Oklahoma! invoking incest, a Little Mermaid-style ditty belted out by Satan himself, and a gloriously tasteless send-up of Les Miserables that would make Victor Hugo blanch. If the full-frontal assaults by Stan, Cartman, and Kenny on Bill Gates (shot in the head), the Baldwin brothers (annihilated), and the movie ratings system (systematically dismembered) provided a shot of fresh air in the shuttered room of hallowed movie iconography, they may also have made a few baby-boomer studio execs nervous: "Who's the next target? Brian Boitano or me?" For the moment, though, the New York Film Critics Circle is probably immune. That august body presented its first-ever award for best animated film to the South Park gang.

Pokémon: the First Movie won't be filling any trophy cases. But the single-minded 4- to 12-year-olds in thrall to the latest TV-fueled toy/game craze couldn't care less: On November 10 they started dragging their bewildered elders off to the multiplexes in such Chinese-army numbers that the movie racked up $50 million in grosses in its first five days -- destroying the box office record for an animated movie set a year earlier by A Bug's Life. Grownups may not know Pikachu from Snorlax, but they understand what their kids want, and it ain't Beanie Babies anymore.

Anime artists busied themselves with more ambitious projects. Hayao Miyazaki's visually adventurous Princess Mononoke leaped several generations beyond Disneyoid cuteness into the realm of Japanese epic, and the underappreciated The Iron Giant, loosely based on a 1968 children's book by the English poet Ted Hughes, featured the arresting vision of a huge android from outer space trying to eat a power station.

This may be the post-literate age, when reading is regarded as a task like taking out the garbage or recharging the Gameboy. Still, a good number of 1999 films sprang from impeccable literary sources. As always, the results were mixed. The umpteenth and, if all goes well, last gasp of the Jane Austen craze featured Australia's Frances O'Connor in a steamy adaptation of Mansfield Park, and a great Shirley Jackson story was reduced to absurdity in Jan (Speed) De Bont's version of The Haunting. Alan Parker's relentlessly grim Angela's Ashes, a visit to the muddy lanes of impoverished Catholic Limerick, lacked the sly wit of Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir, but The Cider House Rules, adapted by John Irving from his 1985 novel about an ether-addicted abortionist who makes an orphan his protégé, found virtue in dramatic concision and verbal reining-in. Irving survived four directors (Lasse Hallstrom finally got the job done), then chronicled his ordeal in a memoir called My Movie Business.

Shine director Scott Hicks turned David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars into a maze of poetic intentions and glassy-eyed dreaminess, while Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) employed a deeply talented cast (Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea) to capture the spirit (if not the glorious language) of Graham Greene's classic wartime tragedy The End of the Affair. Michelle Pfeiffer worked, thanklessly, as the self-dramatizing mother whose child is kidnapped in The Deep End of the Ocean, from the Jacquelyn Mitchard best-seller. And if The Talented Mr. Ripley, which came from Patricia Highsmith's literary cult favorite about a ruthlessly ambitious (and murderous) social climber rubbing elbows with rich Americans in Italy in the 1950s, seemed interminable (another three-hour Christmas movie!), it had the advantage of a wonderfully creepy performance by Matt Damon.

Oscar Wilde fared better in Oliver Parker's relentlessly witty version of An Ideal Husband than his forebear William Shakespeare did in a stillborn adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the great short story writer William Trevor came off just fine, thank you, in the delicate Felicia's Journey, in which a sweet lass leaves Ireland to search for her boyfriend and falls for a bounder instead. But for almost everyone who loves the art of movies, the final chapter in Stanley Kubrick's artistic life was an ineffably sad one: Working loosely with a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler, the cinematic giant who gave us Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Paths of Glory came up with a curiously remote meditation on erotic fantasy and emotional obsession, culminating at an absurd masked orgy at a Long Island mansion. In the aftermath of general disappointment, Eyes Wide Shut attracted some furious defenders, but Kubrick's reputation will likely rest on his peerless earlier films.

On the other hand, one teenage anxiety comedy looks pretty much like the next. Anyone who can still distinguish the hormonal turbulence in 10 Things I Hate About You from the hormonal turbulence in American Pie or Never Been Kissed has a keen memory at work. If you remember that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the picture about the crooked beauty pageant and Teaching Mrs. Tingle was the one where the kids took their mean old teacher hostage and Outside Providence was about the guy whose father sends him to the lame New England prep school, then you get to be class valedictorian. However, a couple of 1999's teensploitation movies really did have something special going for them: In Dick a pair of teenage girls hired to walk President Nixon's dog stumbled across the dark secrets of Watergate, and in Alexander Payne's surpassing Election, Reese Witherspoon's ambitious goody-two-shoes crossed swords with Matthew Broderick's dorky, corrupt history teacher, to brilliant satiric effect.

Meanwhile, the best movie of the year about adolescence -- or post-adolescence, anyway -- was made in France: Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, in which a street urchin with an instinct for survival (Elodie Boucher) and an embittered dreamer (Natacha Regnier) become unlikely friends and, eventually, find themselves at the fork where hope diverges from despair.

What manner of despair afflicted the perpetrators of Wild Wild West, a gizmo-infested, $65 million midsummer flop whose greatest appeal probably lay in a mechanical tarantula just a little taller than the Eiffel Tower? Who will sympathize with the makers of Deep Blue Sea, in which benighted scientists installed graduate-student IQs in a school of killer sharks, only to have the ungrateful beasts turn on them? What more is there to say about The Mummy, in which 1920s adventurer Brendan Fraser went searching for buried treasure in mysterious Egypt and found a trove of movie clichés instead? Who among us endured ill-conceived remakes like The Out-of-Towners and The Thomas Crown Affair, or barely reheated TV shows like The Mod Squad and Inspector Gadget?

Better, as the new millennium approached, to have sampled the varieties of religious experience. Inevitably, the big, bad, nearly sacramental mass movie in this realm is The Green Mile, from an inspirational Stephen King novel. Mile is yet another three-hour epic, in which good-guy prison guard Tom Hanks discovers that a Death Row inmate the size of three interior linemen is the embodiment of Jesus Christ -- complete with a spotless heart and a repertory of penitentiary miracles. It should prove more popular with the censors of the Catholic League than did Kevin Smith's Dogma, featuring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as a pair of fallen angels who want to blow away the universe.

In Stigmata, Patricia Arquette found Crucifixion scars on her body after a supernatural experience, and only Father Gabriel Byrne could help. Titanic's Kate Winslet searched for the Meaning of Life in Morocco (Hideous Kinky) and in India (Holy Smoke), but the latter, directed by Australia's Jane Campion, took an inspired turn when Winslet cast an erotic spell on the cocky American "cult exiter" (Harvey Keitel) hired to de-program her. My Son the Fanatic and East Is East both grappled with the power of fundamentalism to divide families, while The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc had more to do with swinging maces and spilling blood than the qualities of sainthood. Carl Dreyer and Falconetti must be spinning in their graves. And, just in case the definitions of Good and Evil still escaped us at the end of the millennium, Arnold Schwarzenegger made himself available again to clarify the issue: In End of Days, the devil visited the Big Apple, determined to ravish a virgin on New Year's Eve. But not if Ahh-nold had anything to say about it. Collecting theological oddities? The same Gabriel Byrne who portrayed an exorcist in Stigmata impersonated Satan here.

Speaking of religious fervor, Brad Pitt starred as a self-proclaimed Nietzschean superman in David Fincher's hyperkinetic ode to violence, Fight Club. Kevin Costner, who just won't hang up his spikes, returned to the diamond as an aging Detroit Tiger with one last shot at a no-hitter in For the Love of the Game. And in a bruising, field-level epic about pro football, Any Given Sunday, Vietnam vet Oliver Stone insisted that the game is not a representation of war, but war itself. Ollie's most brilliant stroke? His casting of retired Pro Bowler Lawrence Taylor as an old warhorse who clings to the gladiator code.

Maybe Sharon Stone gave Oliver Stone that bright idea. But there are some movie people no army of muses could bail out in 1999. Consider Spike Lee, whose Summer of Sam squandered the chance to examine hypertension as a serial killer stalks the big city. Or Robin Williams, who was a misty-eyed Polish Jew holding off the Nazis with a heart of sap in Jakob the Liar and an android who yearned to be human in Bicentennial Man. Or Mark Borchardt, an aspiring moviemaker from Milwaukee, who was the subject of a touching and hilarious documentary called American Movie. Still living in his parents' basement at the age of 30, this Midwestern Ed Wood dreamed of making art but trudged off to a cemetery each day to vacuum rugs and shovel snow. He imagined himself Ingmar Bergman, but had to use his bewildered mother as a camera operator. He had the soul of a poet, but the skills of a factory worker. Certainly, he never visited the inside of John Malkovich's head.


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