A Quality Year

After years of creative drought, inspiration was again in long supply

Meanwhile, the best movie of the year about adolescence -- or post-adolescence, anyway -- was made in France: It's Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, in which a street urchin with an instinct for survival (Elodie Bouchez) 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 Squadand 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 none other than 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.

Tom Cruise, Jason Robards in Magnolia: A harrowing look at social disorder.
Peter Sorel
Tom Cruise, Jason Robards in Magnolia: A harrowing look at social disorder.

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 deprogram 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 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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