You know that 1999 has been a rich year when you can't squeeze "Autumn Tale," "Felicia's Journey," "Run Lola Run," "Bowfinger," "The Thomas Crown Affair,"
"Notting Hill" and "The Green Mile" onto your best list. And you know it was also
the worst of times when the Ten Worst list is so competitive it takes almost Solomonic judgment to pick the dubious winners.
THE BEST MOVIES OF 1999, in order of preference:
American Beauty. Why this one? Because, in so many ways, it gets America -- at least, an increasingly large part of it -- right where it lives. Yes, that would be suburbia. As Lester, the beleaguered husband who decides to pick himself up from the doom and gloom of cul-de-sac existence, Kevin Spacey gives a tender, vulnerable performance. In a way, this movie brings closure to the morally jaded era of Bill Clinton with irony and compassion.
The Straight Story. Richard Farnsworth is sublime as Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old who decides to heal a longstanding rift with his brother by driving hundreds of miles across Iowa on a lawn mower to see him. There's a deep, spiritual quality about David Lynch's movie. It's a companion piece to "American Beauty," a reflection of an America that is rapidly dwindling. And it's tearfully moving.
Being John Malkovich. If you allow yourself to believe that puppeteer John Cusack and his strange friend Catherine Keener have found a way to enter actor John Malkovich's brain and see the world through his eyes, you'll be entranced. Spike Jonze's darkly comic fantasy is the most inventive picture of the year. And Malkovich, who plays himself, gets the good sport award of the year. And you ain't seen nothing till you've seen Malkovich enter his own brain.
Buena Vista Social Club. German director Wim Wenders's warm embrace of a documentary is a treasure for the ages. After watching this, you'll probably crave a video copy of your own -- and the excellent CD soundtrack, too. It's an extended visit to a small society of aging Cuban musicians whose lives are built around the sensual, polyrhythmic music known as son. Wenders doesn't just record their music and life stories, he lets us into their vibrant souls.
Three Seasons. Set in modern-day Saigon, Tony Bui's exquisite first feature interweaves four lyrical stories, including a cyclo driver's touching devotion to an apparently heartless hooker and an old man's affection for a lotus-flower seller. This movie, the first American-made film shot in Vietnam since the war, is so lush
and sensual you almost moan with appreciation.
The Matrix. Forget Jar Jar Binks. This movie's the eye candy experience of the year, a special effects masterpiece that fuses myth with the cyber age and religious allegory with secular butt-kicking. With its stop-motion flying kicks and tracer-bullet trajectories, the movie finds fascinating interstices between space and time. And then again, you could just appreciate this as a great futuristic kung fu flick starring Keanu Reeves.
Three Kings. When Maj. Archie Gates (George Clooney) and three other plunder-minded American reservists infiltrate Iraq at the end of the Gulf War, they find something that glistens better than gold: the humanity of their enemy. David O. Russell's movie, funny, touching and never predictable, is like no war movie you've ever seen.
Rushmore. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a nerdlike, budding playwright at Rushmore Academy, wants to join every conceivable club at school. His desire to belong, and his quixotic bid to gain the heart of an older English teacher, attract the bemused attention of jaded industrialist Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). Their oddly compelling friendship is just one of many delights in Wes Anderson's eccentric, inspired comedy.
Toy Story 2. Director John Lasseter actually outdoes his first computer-animated film, 1995's "Toy Story." Again, the computer animation is fantastic. The comedy is hilarious. And the story -- in which Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen) and his fellow toys attempt to rescue toy buddy Woody (Tom Hanks) from an unscrupulous toy dealer -- is surprisingly affecting.
The Sixth Sense. A young boy (Haley Joel Osment) in emotional distress leads to the psychic voyage of a lifetime for child psychologist Bruce Willis. It feels that way for us, too. Osment is outstanding. And writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has created an extraordinary mystery that doesn't yield its many secrets until the touching end.
And now -- drumroll and rotten vegetables at the ready -- the year's worst movies, in descending order of horribleness.
The Omega Code. I wasn't sure whether to put this biblical-prophecy thriller on the worst or best ten. Financed in large part by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, it's supposed to be a good-versus-evil struggle for the key to the ancient city of Jerusalem. But it's also one of the campiest films since "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." But at least the "Rocky Horror" people were trying to be campy. As the evil, scheming businessman Stone Alexander, Michael York's one-dimensional performance makes him a sure candidate for the next James Bond movie.
Dogma. Kevin Smith's "Clerks" was crude and dirty, but also funny and charming. But humor and charm are the first things to go in this sophomoric comedy about bad angels, good angels and religious dogma. Possibly the first comedy to need an exorcist.
The Story of Us. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer obviously thought that playing a pair of bickering spouses in a Rob Reiner comedy would be hilarious. I believe they committed before they read the script. I need to believe that.
Runaway Bride. That "Pretty Woman" couple, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, reunited for Garry Marshall's romantic comedy about a jaded journalist and a jilting bride. They shouldn't have.
Simon Sez. Dennis Rodman as a savvy Interpol agent? Dennis, I would advise you to keep your day job if, indeed, you had a day job.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle. Why would the great Helen Mirren, of "Prime Suspect," agree to play a demented teacher in a Kevin Williamson teen comedy? Not even the Sphinx could say.
Mickey Blue Eyes. Many say Hugh Grant made his worst mistake one ill-fated night in Los Angeles. I say it was appearing in this movie, as a British art dealer who falls in love with a mobster's daughter.
The Other Sister. In another "uplifting" Touchstone drama, Juliette Lewis contorts her mouth and speaks through her nose as Carla, the slightly retarded daughter of an affluent family who strikes out on her own. Feel free to stand up and cheer at any time.
20 Dates. Myles Berkowitz's first -- and hopefully last -- film documents his attempts to date 20 women, film their special moments secretly and then tell his unsuspecting victims what he did. If you see this lurking in the video store, treat it as you would any toxic waste.
Random Hearts. A gruesome plane crash leads cop Harrison Ford and senatorial candidate Kristin Scott Thomas to suspect their respective spouses have been cheating with each other. I'm not sure which is deadlier: the screenplay, which is one of the most laughably macabre romances ever devised, or Ford's puffy hairdo which screams "Hey, I'm a human dandelion!"