Blurred vision

What will 1999 be remembered for -- Malkovich's head or Cartman's ass?

Considering it is the eve of a new millennium, such a theory, even when applied to Eric Cartman, is not that absurd. This year in film has been truly fitting of its time. The entire idea of the millennium carries with it the contrasting ideas of hope and fear. On one hand, there is the almost unspoken belief that the renewal of the century will bring a renewal of society, a fresh start. On the other, there is the lingering paranoia that everything we know and think we treasure might come to a crashing end. Together, the two form the craziest of cocktails. How else to explain Fight Club, a film that seems to be winking at its over-the-top radicalism, then relishes the Y2K-like destruction it leaves in its wake?

This bipolar need to re-imagine without completely losing touch is rampant throughout the year's films -- including not just the successes but also the (critical) failures. Just look at how the once-lionized were treated. George Lucas is replaced by the Wachowski Brothers as creator of our favorite sci-fi universe. The Matrix, though not a very logically sound film, furthered our sense of awe and mythology, while Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace remained long ago and so far, far away -- a technological accomplishment that was cold to the touch. Disney's Tarzan, a soulless high-tech revisualization of a classic fable, pales next to the simpler, retro-styled warmth of The Iron Giant.

Stanley Kubrick, a director respected for his ability to confound expectations and subvert genres, had his final, incredibly intriguing film Eyes Wide Shut largely dismissed as "out of touch"; its detractors insist it's nothing but a porn film without the good part -- ya know, the sex. Instead, Paul Thomas Anderson's use of Tom Cruise in a small role in Magnolia (due here January 7) is hailed as genius because it's not only sex, but sexy in a modern, self-knowing way. In the scene in which Cruise struts around in his tightie-whities, the film pays homage to Risky Business, even as it undermines Cruise's star-making turn in that now seminal film. Spike Lee raised eyebrows with his refreshingly energized and engrossing Summer of Sam, but the film ultimately failed because its ending is anti-climactic to anyone who's seen his best, Do the Right Thing. Likewise, Martin Scorsese deserves praise for returning to the gritty streets of New York in Bringing Out the Dead, but even his brilliant, exhausting camera work couldn't overcome the feeling that he's done it before -- and with a better story.

David O. Russell's Three Kings ranks among the year's biggest thrills, even if did smell a little like Kelly's Heroes.
David O. Russell's Three Kings ranks among the year's biggest thrills, even if did smell a little like Kelly's Heroes.
The Iron Giant failed to click with audiences, the mark of a truly wonderful film.
The Iron Giant failed to click with audiences, the mark of a truly wonderful film.

As the kids used to say, been there, done that. And that's ultimately the point. Regardless of whether any of the films of this year hold up to the test of time the way films from the early '70s do, they feel fresh today. That's all that matters. It gives moviegoers and movie-makers a feeling that anything is possible. That's what movies, at their best, are supposed to do.

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