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The best of '99

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It was the best of movie times, sometimes -- herewith our year in favorite films.-Manohla Dargis

Topsy-Turvy. Mike Leigh tops his own best work with this warm, rich and irritably loving portrait of Gilbert and Sullivan prepping for The Mikado. Upper-crusters who don’t talk like twits -- whatever next from the great champion of the working class? A fond biopic of the queen?

The Talented Mr. Ripley. The talented Mr. Anthony Minghella‘s deeply satisfying take on the Patricia Highsmith novel about a deeply dissatisfied man trying to fill up his hollow self by thieving the lives of others.

All About My Mother. Pedro Almodovar calms down without selling out in this delicious low bow before the female spirit, elastically conceived.

The Insider. More than an expertly directed thriller with Al Pacino in top (rather than over-the-top) form, Michael Mann’s film was one of the few big deals this year that was actually about something -- the abuse of corporate power. And took a position. And had the wit to give Russell Crowe the role of his career as the nerdy whistle blower who stood up to the tobacco barons.

The Third Miracle. Ordinarily, miracles leave me stone cold, but I wept buckets over Agnieszka Holland‘s wise, empathic study of a Catholic priest anguishing over his wobbly faith as he dukes it out with the bishops and the Vatican on behalf of a potential saint.

Photographer. Polish filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski inverted -- and so subverted -- the long-lost photo collection of the Lodz ghetto’s Nazi accountant, originally designed to catalog the efficiency of the Third Reich, by remounting it as a chronicle of the degradation of the ghetto‘s Jews.

Being John Malkovich. Any film with the brass and the imagination to cast the New Jersey Turnpike in a leading role has my vote. And didn’t you love the way the movie, directed by Spike Jonze and written with lunatic abandon by Charlie Kaufman, made itself up as it went along?

Buena Vista Social Club. For the music, and for those fabulous geezers getting their 15 minutes at long last -- you go, Wim Wenders.

The Dreamlife of Angels and Rosetta. Stylistically worlds apart, Erick Zonca‘s expressionist French fever dream and the brothers Dardennes’ superrealist Belgian portrait both pay the deepest respect to the inner torment of young girls on the skids.

Dr. Akagi. Through a fussy country doctor with a hepatitis fixation, Shohei Imamura doffs his sublimely irreverent cap to an unlikely Japanese idealist on the eve of Hiroshima.

The year‘s best movie moment: In one creepily murmured phrase, “Oh Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,” Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a murder victim’s dissolute friend in The Talented Mr. Ripley, speaks volumes about his own character, that of the panicked man he‘s addressing, and the coming fate of both. --Ella Taylor

All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar); Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer); Dogma (Kevin Smith); Election (Alexander Payne); Fight Club (David Fincher); The Insider (Michael Mann); License To Live and Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa); The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski); Romance (Catherine Breillat); Rosetta (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne).

Best film of the year that will top my list next year: Le Beau Travail, directed by Claire Denis (forthcoming from New Yorker Films).

What unites my favorite freak-outs of the past year is fearlessness, in content and in form. Topsy-Turvy, the latest feature from one of my favorite filmmakers, Mike Leigh, may be better directed than Dogma (Leigh certainly knows where to put the camera), but I’d rather watch Kevin Smith‘s ebullient heresy again -- or Leigh’s own Naked -- than sit through another handsomely mounted minute of Gilbert and Sullivan. (Period detail and sympathetic performances get you only so far if you‘re bored out of your mind.) Reckless attempts, flickering brilliance and even gutsy failures seem invariably more praiseworthy than careful or obvious successes, which is why I’d rather luxuriate over a minute of freakish greatness -- the first hour of Fight Club, most of Election, All About My Mother and Romance -- than 90 minutes of good taste and better lighting.

Which brings me to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose films often have neither. Last September, during the Toronto Film Festival, I spent several evenings immersed in the weird world of the Japanese writer and director, who was being honored with a retrospective after having been similarly lauded earlier in the year at both Hong Kong and Edinburgh. Of the films I saw, my favorites were License To Live, a devastating character study of a young man who emerges from a 10-year coma, and Cure, a supernatural policier starring the great Koji Yakusho. No relation to the late Akira Kurosawa, either in blood or in sensibility, the prolific Kiyoshi -- the three features he shot in 1999 went on to screen at Berlin, Cannes and Venice -- seemed one of the most exciting voices to emerge on the international scene in ages. Except that he‘s been making films for the last 15 years. Although his films are neither as lyrical or anyway near as rigorous, Kurosawa shares with his contemporary Takeshi Kitano an unabashed sentimentalism, a sense of the absurd and an unsettling gift for violence -- and, like Kitano, he obviously enjoys freaking us out.--M.D.

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