1. AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999).
Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning directorial debut film is a knockout. Nobody tells a story in visual terms quite like Mendes, and Alan Ball’s existential, cheerfully bleak screenplay brings the film and its characters to life. Kevin Spacey has never been better, and has solid support from Annette Bening and Chris Cooper. The film is also proof that knowing how a story is going to end from the start doesn’t necessarily diminish the impact of the journey.
Danny Boyle’s trippy exploration of heroin addiction in Edinburgh is vivid, captivating and emotional. The film’s early carefree nature progresses rapidly into a pit of despair as dependence on drugs destroys the lives of the lead characters to various extents. The performances of Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle ground the film, and the exhilarating compilation soundtrack pumps the story full of energy.
Mesmerising performances and an incredibly intelligent script keep Good Will Hunting engaging throughout. Robin Williams is on fine form in serious beardy mode, and Matt Damon gives an unexpectedly nuanced performance as a troubled genius, as well as co-writing the Oscar-winning screenplay with Ben Affleck.
Steven Spielberg made one of the great all-time war films here. It’s gruelling and gritty and often difficult to watch. War is a terrible thing, and Spielberg never lets you forget, but he also finds time for moments of lightness on the rare occasion when the soldiers led by a gaunt Tom Hanks remember they are still human beings.
The imagery of Wong Kar-wai’s colourful not-quite love story will stay with you for a long time. The film is divided into two narratives following the romantic lives of Hong Kong policemen, one (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who obsesses over both his ex-girlfriend and a striking femme fatale (Brigitte Lin) and the other (Tony Leung) who is stalked by a shy music-loving waitress (Faye Wong). It’s funny, it’s feel-good and it’s certainly unusual.
The Coen Brothers are at their most darkly comic in this tale of fraud, kidnapping and death in the snow. Frances McDormand is sensational as the heavily pregnant, ever-chipper cop Marge Gunderson, and deservedly won an Oscar for the role. William H. Macy also impresses as a morally dubious insurance salesman, as does Steve Buscemi as a “kind of funny-looking” kidnapper.
Master of reality-layering, Spike Jonze’s first film is a creative, off-the-wall and cerebral black comedy. We follow a depressed and unsuccessful street puppeteer (John Cusack) who reluctantly takes an office job that leads to the discovery of a portal into John Malkovich’s head. Needless to say, he exploits this unexpected turn of events, which leads him further and further down the rabbit hole that is the debate about free will and the human soul.
Everyone thinks of Disney dominating traditional animation in the 1990s with their “renaissance” films. What many forget is that this period also saw DreamWorks becoming a force to be reckoned with on the animation stage. Based on Ted Hughes’ book, the story of a colossal alien robot’s arrival on Earth and his friendship with a lonely, young boy is transplanted to 1950s America. The setting provides the film with a satirical edge — the period of Cold War paranoia adds both darkness and threat to the developing relationship between Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) and The Giant (Vin Diesel). The film looks superb, and has more intelligence and heart than any other animated feature of the late 90s.
Practically no-one has made such an impact with so little screen-time as Anthony Hopkins playing cannibal killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. His scenes, most of which involve playing intellectual cat-and-mouse with Jodie Foster’s FBI agent Clarice Starling, are all incredibly memorable, and the murder-mystery built around them is enthralling, tense and intricately plotted. There’s a reason that The Silence of the Lambs remains the only horror film to win Best Picture at the Oscars — it’s just brilliant.
This late entry to Hollywood genre revisionism is a beautifully crafted and pretty self-aware Western which has Eastwood, who also directed it, playing a crusty, old ex-gunfighter long past his prime, forced out of retirement by poverty, and onto a path that tests his mind, his body and his soul. Stopping short of outright satirising Western conventions, the film reveals the dark truth behind the lies of Classic Hollywood’s favourite genre, particularly the concept of good vs. evil — neither our hero William Munny (Eastwood) nor the antagonist Sheriff Bill Daggett are presented as morally black-and-white, more as shades of grey.
Written by Sam Sewell-Peterson