This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.
The Matrix - Nobody can be told what the Matrix is, but forgive me if I try. The Wachowskis' cyberpunk kung-fu movie still holds up beautifully to this day, thanks to its innovative special effects and stylish visual sensibility. Borrowing elements from cyberpunk stories, Japanese anime, and video games, this is genre filmmaking at its finest. There have been plenty of films that have tried to follow in its footsteps, but few managed to nail the right combination of ideas, aesthetics, and endlessly watchable screen violence.
American Beauty - Lester Burnham is Kevin Spacey's signature role, the suburban sad-sack who blows up his life and family by embracing what he truly wants. It's an iconic performance, one that anchors a fantastic ensemble of strong actors, young and old, navigating a lot of thorny material. Sam Mendes and Alan Ball keep their debut feature a darkly funny satire for the most part, but then there are those transcendent moments of emotional clarity, highlighting the genuine bonds between these deeply screwed up people.
Fight Club - This was the first time I really understood who David Fincher was, the fearless provocateur who introduced most of us to Chuck Palahniuk's work with this delightfully dirty, disturbing adaptation. Through an examination of the modern male id, cult dynamics, and the soulless consumer culture, the film captures a slice of the American zeitgeist like no other film of its era. Also, I don't think that it's a stretch to say that "Fight Club" is where Brad Pitt became the Brad Pitt we know today, via the irrepressible Tyler Durden.
The Sixth Sense - It's easy to forget that M. Night Shyamalan once made a truly great film at the start of his career. Built around fantastic performances from Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Wilis, and Toni Collette, "The Sixth Sense" is a genuinely spooky ghost story with lovely redemptive aims, and one of the best endings of the decade. The strong spiritual element elevates funhouse scares above the usual salaciousness of horror films, while the characters are so beautifully drawn, it's easy to become invested in their lives.
Three Kings - A student-teacher of mine once dismissed this film sight unseen as typical Hollywood Orientalist nonsense. While "Three Kings" certainly has its flaws, the filmmakers took every opportunity to criticize America's involvement in and attitudes toward the first Gulf War, often in some some pretty vicious terms. I really appreciated its alternative point of view, gonzo style, and bleak sense of humor. This is the kind of chaotic, but smart, thoughtful, and passionate film that I wish David O. Russell was still making.
Being John Malkovitch - Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry did their best work together, and while I don't think that "Being John Malkovitch" was their best collaboration, it is still a groundbreaking film. The sheer off-the-wall wildness of the concepts and the willingness of the filmmakers to dive headlong in to metanarratives on top of metanarratives, make for a challenging watching experience. I was a little put off at the unconventional nature of the film the first time I saw it, but now I love it a little more every time.
Eyes Wide Shut - The final film by Stanley Kubrick is a surreal journey into the dreams and fantasies that lurk beneath the surface lives of a lovely couple, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. I've written before that i consider this to be one of the primary films that made me a cinephile, as I came out of my first screening entranced with the menacing atmosphere, coded imagery, sterile sensuality, and brutal score. Decades later, I still can't decipher everything, but its mysteries remain as alluring and disturbing as ever.
The Iron Giant - Brad Bird's feature debut had everything stacked against it, from Warner Bros's lousy marketing to an animation studio in financial crisis However, there is perhaps no animated film more deserving of the enthusiastic audience that eventually embraced it. This thoughtful space-age fairy tale about a boy and his giant robot isn't afraid to talk about big, deep, important things, or to embrace big emotions. I think it may be the last traditionally animated masterpiece to have come out of Hollywood.
Magnolia - The existential melancholy of this collection of lonely people struck such a nerve with me. The performances, the music, and Paul Thomas Anderson's storytelling all contribute to the unique mood of the film. Here is a universe full of coincidences and strange miracles, perhaps best exemplified by the moment where every character sings the same sing in unison. It's a notion that wouldn't have worked in a different film, with a different filmmaker. But with Paul Thomas Anderson, you can't imagine "Magnolia" without it.
Titus - I was obsessed with this one for a while, having become fascinated with the idea of a Shakespeare play full of gory murders, dismemberments, and cannibalism. In the hands of Julie Taymor, "Titus Andonicus" becomes a theatrical phantasmagoria of Grand Guignol delights, borrowing elements from every time period and a huge range of cultures. Harry Lennix very nearly steals the show as the villain, while Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange do some of their best work as rival rulers, each of them out for revenge.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
The Straight Story
All About My Mother