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The Best SFFH (and other) Films of 1999
An editorial selection by Mark R. Kelly

It was a good year for films, and a decent one for fantastic films. In some ways it can even be said the year was dominated by science fiction, fantasy, and horror films.

SFFH films certainly dominated the box office. Depending on what you consider to be a fantastic film, seven or eight of the top ten grossing films (in the US) were SFFH, including the top film, Star Wars Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, and including one of the surprise hits of the year, The Sixth Sense.

By gross count, the year was pretty good for fantastic films too. A couple weeks ago I assembled a list of the 1999 films that could be construed, sometimes admittedly by stretching, as SF, fantasy or horror. (Fight Club? Well, did you see it?) I got over 50 titles. The Motion Picture Academy announced last week that by their count, not quite 250 films from 1999 are eligible for this year's Oscars. So roughly 20% of all films last year contained fantastic elements.

On the other hand, movie audiences and critics parse genres differently than readers do, and I counted many films as SFFH that wouldn't be so classified in video rental shops. Among movies there are SF (or sci-fi) movies, and horror movies, yes, but no one talks about fantasy movies as a genre; rather, there are dramas and comedies and thrillers and musicals, and many of the films on my list would be called one of these before they'd be called SF or fantasy. There are also peculiar categories of movies like those derived from comic books or '60s TV series that seem to constitute distinct genres of their own.

So how many of 1999's films were unambiguously SF? Let's count only those clearly set in space or in the future, those that involve alien invasions, fantastic new technology or inventions, and so on. (Caveat: I've only seen about 1/2 of the 52 on that list, so in many cases I'm relying on second hand descriptions.) How many do we get?

Space: there's Star Wars, and Galaxy Quest. The Astronaut's Wife, maybe? (I recall the trailer, but didn't see the movie.) Muppets in Space? (That either.) Already we're stretching. Future: Bicentennial Man. That's about it, along with the presumably-near-future settings of the 3 or 4 virtual reality movies. Aliens: Virus; The Iron Giant; My Favorite Martian (though it more properly belongs in that genre of TV remakes). Inventions: there were souped-up sharks in Deep Blue Sea; souped-up fighting men in Universal Soldier: The Return.

That's only about a dozen. Not so many after all.

What about horror movies? The Haunting, Stigmata, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, The House on Haunted Hill, In Dreams, Lake Placid, The Mummy. And there were several millennial/apocalyptic movies, like End of Days, Stigmata, The Omega Code, which movie-goers would more likely describe as thrillers. Another dozen or so.

The other couple dozen on my list may have fantastic elements, but they're films that would not be relegated to the Sci-fi/horror shelves at your favorite video store. (Speaking of genre parsing, Blockbuster Video stores in the US don't have an SF section; they shelve SF films under 'action' along with the Die Hard movies and their like. They do have a horror section, though.) There was time travel in the Austin Powers movie, but you'll find that under 'comedies', not 'sci-fi'. The Green Mile has an overtly fantastic theme, but it's not a fantasy or horror film, it's a heavyweight Hollywood prestige drama starring Tom Hanks, shelved under 'drama' or perhaps in the special Stephen King section. End of Days, Dogma, and South Park involved religiously-inspired threats to existence, but these are comedies or thrillers, not fantasy films. And so on.

Maybe this is significant -- that fantastic themes are routinely accepted by movie audiences and critics in films that are taken as seriously as any others. The presence of speculative or fantastic elements doesn't automatically relegate a film to a special genre bin. In fact, it's not implausible that The Green Mile or even The Sixth Sense could get a Best Picture nomination this year, and when was the last time an SF, horror, or Stephen King novel was nominated for a National Book Award?

On the other hand, just because speculative elements are present in many movies doesn't mean they're especially original or sophisticated; rather, they're almost always recycled pop cliches. That's especially true in movies that are obviously SF or horror, and that's why the best fantastic films of the year are more often those that don't automatically belong to one of those movie genres.

Here are my picks for the Top Ten SFFH Films of 1999. I've even dared to rank them (as I wouldn't do for short fiction or books).

Best SFFH Films of 1999:

1. Being John Malkovich -- A hit with film critics, for its audacious style and wacky premise. I liked it because it's continually inventive and surprising. OK, so there's a portal into John Malkovich's head. What happens when a woman experiences the world from inside a male's head? What happens when John Malkovich enters his own portal? And why is the portal there at all? The film answers those questions, and there's a real SFnal (or at least fantastic) idea at the core about a way to transmit souls from one generation to the next.

2. The Iron Giant -- A delightful animated tale of a boy and his adopted alien robot, combining the sentimental power of its E.T.-like story with a sharp satire about military paranoia in 1950s US. One misgiving: it's too short, its story-telling too rushed, as if unwilling to break the Disney tradition that holds animated films to about 90 minutes. Is there a director's cut?

3. Run Lola Run -- A dazzling piece of cinema, this German-language film is about a young woman who has 20 minutes to run across town and deliver 100,000 DM to her boyfriend. We witness her journey three times, and each time the outcome is different. SF? Fantasy? Close enough for me; consider it an investigation of alternate timelines, or of chaos theory, in the way slight differences in events have big consequences. Of somewhat abstract interest is the way the film imagines these replays come about: by sheer force of will, apparently. The film simply does it, carrying you along with visual cues that obviate the need for any explicit explanation.

4. Princess Mononoke -- A beautiful animated fantasy with a remarkably contemporary theme. Some of its images look slightly awkward or silly (by Western standards perhaps); I'm thinking of the big thingy at the end. But most of it is enchanting and gorgeous. Who can forget those ghostlike wood sprites, with little heads that rattle back and forth, materializing on tree branches in moments of peace and harmony? [Minor cavil: the too recognizable voice of Billy Bob Thornton was a distraction.]

5. After Life -- A Japanese film about a way station where the recently deceased spend a week deciding on the one memory they will take with them to eternity. Slow and ponderous compared to a typical American film, it's nevertheless astonishingly insightful into the way different people feel about their lives, and it's not without narrative suspense and surprise (who are the staff of the way station and why have they been there so long?). It will leave you thinking about your own life in a way almost no other film, or book, ever will.

6. The Green Mile -- Yes, it's a big, fat, indulgent, and self-important, but it's an expertly-made Hollywood production, starring the saintly Tom Hanks, from a riveting Stephen King novel. I didn't expect to like it (I saw it on opening day but had read the mixed reviews) but I did. I liked the way it took the time to tell its story; in fact, this is one of the most slavishly faithful adaptations of a novel I can remember. Worth considering is the way this story, as a film, is subject to different, more politically-correct presumptions than it was as a book. The critic who noted that Hollywood would never make a picture about a 7-foot tall black man accused of killing two little white girls who really was guilty has a crucial point.

7. Galaxy Quest -- A gleeful send-up of space opera cliches, and not just of Star Trek. When I saw the scene in which Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver are dodging those ridiculous piston-like clappers that existed because they had been written into some episode of their TV series, and Weaver's character cries ''It was a stupid episode!'', I thought of The Phantom Menace, and the setting of its climactic light-saber duel.

8. The Blair Witch Project -- If you roll your eyes and groan, it's probably because you saw this film after hearing so much hype about it and were underwhelmed by the reality. But its achievement is remarkable: it demonstrates that true horror doesn't rely on overproduced special effects, but is as primal as being lost in the woods. Is there a scarier experience than hearing strange noises in the night? (The original film of The Haunting knew this; the remake didn't.)

9 & 9¼ & 9½. The Thirteenth Floor + The Matrix + eXistenZ -- Three films about virtual reality. The Matrix is the 90s MTV version; eXistenZ is the auteur-director's version (marked by David Cronenberg's fascination with bodily orifices); The Thirteenth Floor, based on an early 60s novel by Daniel Galouye, the most traditional. Call me square, I preferred the last of these. It got trashed by critics because it came out third (been there, seen that), but its lack of attitude and cynicism allows its narrative to make the most sense.

10. The Sixth Sense -- A decent if unspectacular thriller with an occasionally pretentious script (Haley Joel Osment's preternaturally eerie performance almost overcomes the script that has him saying things no 10 year old, however haunted, would ever say) -- redeemed by its great plot surprise near the end. It's that ending (hey Hollywood! It's story, not special effects, that made this a hit!) that drove word of mouth and perhaps repeated viewings to big box office. (Maybe you can anticipate the surprise, if you're expecting one; I wasn't, and was surprised.) Also notable: New Rose Hotel, a sort of anti-SF-film SF-film, spare and talky with almost no visible sciffy icons, yet remarkably faithful to the introspective mood of Gibson's original story; Fight Club, a megalomaniac fantasy that climaxes with a sort of end of the world, though it probably would have been a better film if it had stuck to the social satire of its first half hour; Sleepy Hollow, with its handsome production design; and two animated films, Toy Story 2, and South Park -- the last not for any fantastic element, and despite its raunchy tone, but because it's a hilarous satire of movie (in particular, Disney animated) musicals.

Worst SFFH Film of 1999:

End of Days — A film with nothing on its mind but blowing things up and shooting off guns; willfully dumb. (A minor character is named Thomas Aquinas, and no one bats an eye.)

Most Negligible SFFH Film of 1999:

Star Wars Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace — Beautiful but brainless.

And I'll mention Bicentennial Man here, though I'm tempted to name it second-worst; but it's not bad so much as derailed, its effective Asimov scenario (from one of his most poignant stories) undermined by the presence of Robin Williams into so much Hollywood schmaltz.


Overall, 1999 was a great year for films, with several, in addition to Being John Malkovich, that dazzled with cinematic bravura, as if expressing their filmmakers' sheer joy of making wild things happen up there on the silver screen.

Favorite Films of 1999:

1. Magnolia -- An anthology of interconnected lives whose connections include the experience of a flabbergasting, pseudo-Biblical event. Not quite enough to make it a fantasy though -- it's one of those Ripley's Believe It or Not events that has historical precedence. I've found fascinating the varying critical reception to this film. Some find that event, and the other connections between the characters, unsatisfactory, even nonsensical. What constitutes a satisfactory story then? That it doesn't resolve in some contrived manner (with all the characters meeting at the end, say), is one of its strengths. The film shows ways in which coincidence, and unexpecting events of fantastic nature, can affect any kind of life.

2. Being John Malkovich -- see above.

3. The Talented Mr. Ripley -- A cool, polished thriller about a man pretending to be something he's not -- living a fantasy, and the suspense lies in two questions, wondering how long he will get away with it, and to what extent he's being deliberate and not merely taking the path of least resistance in increasingly awkward circumstances. Others have commented that the film's Ripley is apparently quite different from that in Patricia Highsmith's book (which I haven't read); the original was more cold-blooded and deliberate. Is that grounds to criticize a film, for the changes it makes from its source material? (It depends, I'd say.) In any case I find this Ripley entirely compelling. What makes the film's ending so chilling is that, finally, both of those two questions are resolved.

4. Eyes Wide Shut -- Along with The Blair Witch Project, the worst victim of media hype and subsequent critical and popular backlash this past year; the film was trashed by critics for not being things its publicity implied but that its director never intended. (I think Lee Siegel's article in the October '99 Harper's was right on the mark.) It's a dream, OK?, a parable, not set in the real world, precisely, but about real human nature, about fantasies and self-doubts and jealousy. It's beautiful, and in an attention-deficit world, it langorously takes the time to tell its tale. Remember, 2001 was widely trashed upon its first release -- anything unconventional and different is -- but the critics, and the audience, came around. I suspect this film will survive its initial reception too.

Among my other dozen favorite films of the year, alphabetically: All About My Mother, American Beauty, Cookie's Fortune, Election, Go, The Iron Giant, Run Lola Run, Three Kings.

I was struck by how many films this past year, while in no way explicitely SF, fantasy, or horror, dealt with themes analogous to those the fantastic genres pursue; i.e., other realities, the ways a person seeks to create a world or live a life outside mundane existence: in addition to Being John Malkovich and Mr. Ripley, others that dealt with such themes were All About My Mother, Boys Don't Cry, and Man on the Moon.

Others I admired and/or enjoyed: Topsy-Turvy, The Straight Story, The Insider, Liberty Heights, Limbo (with its great non-ending), The Limey, The Red Violin, Sweet and Lowdown; and several handsome adaptations of books: Snow Falling on Cedars (with my favorite score of the year, with its evocations of Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass, by James Newton Howard), The End of the Affair, Mansfield Park, October Sky, Angela's Ashes, Mansfield Park, and The Cider House Rules.

(Mon 17 Jan 2000)

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