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Reeling in the Year

From South Park to Pokémon, 1999 was almost an American beauty.

The contrast between exhausted genres and new-wave hybrids showed up almost everywhere this past year. Amid the tuneless holiday opulence of Anna and the King, moviegoers may have found themselves yearning for some vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein -- and Yul Brynner leaping over the palace banquet table. At least Warner Bros.' 89-minute animated version of The King and I, released earlier in the year, featured a touch of that. But the real alternative came courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the Comedy Channel subversives behind South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Their wiseass take on movie musicals and Broadway flash featured a scabrous burlesque of Oklahoma! invoking incest, a Little Mermaid-style ditty belted out by Satan himself and a gloriously tasteless sendup of Les Miserables that would make Victor Hugo blanch. If the full-frontal assaults by Stan, Cartman and Kenny on Bill Gates (shot in the head), the Baldwin brothers (annihilated) and the movie ratings system (systematically dismembered) provided a shot of fresh air in the shuttered room of hallowed movie iconography, they may also have made a few baby-boomer studio execs nervous: Who's the next target? Brian Boitano or me? For the moment, though, the New York Film Critics Circle is probably immune. That august body presented its first-ever award for best animated film to the South Park gang.

Pokémon: The First Movie won't be filling any trophy cases. But the determined four- to twelve-year-olds in thrall to the latest TV-fueled toy/game craze couldn't care less: On November 10 they started dragging their bewildered elders off to the multiplexes in such Chinese-army numbers that the movie racked up $50 million in grosses in its first five days -- destroying the box-office record for an animated movie set a year earlier by A Bug's Life. Grownups may not know Pikachu from Snorlax, but they understand what their kids want, and it ain't Beanie Babies anymore.

Anime artists busied themselves with more ambitious projects. Hayao Miyazaki's visually adventurous Princess Mononoke leaped several generations beyond Disneyoid cuteness into the realm of Japanese epic, and the underappreciated Iron Giant, loosely based on a 1968 children's book by the English poet Ted Hughes, featured the arresting vision of a huge android from outer space trying to eat a power station.

Tom Cruise picked Magnolia.
Tom Cruise picked Magnolia.

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Gallo's Top Ten
Although some of 1999's best films have yet to open in Denver, they're worth waiting for. Fortunately, the year's best movie is still playing here. In order, the top ten:

1. American Beauty
2. Being John Malkovich
3. The Insider
4. Magnolia
5. Topsy-Turvy
6. The Matrix
7. The Dreamlife of Angels
8. Election
9. An Ideal Husband
10. Holy Smoke

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This may be the post-literate age, when reading is regarded as a task like taking out the garbage or recharging the Game Boy. Still, a goodly number of 1999 films sprang from impeccable literary sources. As always, the results were mixed. The umpteenth and, if all goes well, last gasp of the Jane Austen craze featured Australia's Frances O'Connor in a steamy adaptation of Mansfield Park, and a great Shirley Jackson story was reduced to absurdity in Jan (Speed) De Bont's version of The Haunting. Alan Parker's relentlessly grim Angela's Ashes, a visit to the muddy lanes of impoverished Catholic Limerick, lacked the sly wit of Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir, but The Cider House Rules, adapted by John Irving from his 1985 novel about an ether-addicted abortionist who makes an orphan his protegé, found virtue in dramatic concision and verbal reining-in. Irving survived four directors (Lasse Halström finally got the job done), then chronicled his ordeal in a memoir called My Movie Business.

Shine director Scott Hicks turned David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars into a maze of poetic intentions and glazey-eyed dreaminess, while Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) employed a deeply talented cast (Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea) to capture the spirit (if not the glorious language) of Graham Greene's classic wartime tragedy The End of the Affair. Michelle Pfeiffer worked, thanklessly, as the self-dramatizing mother whose child is kidnapped in The Deep End of the Ocean, from the Jacquelyn Mitchard bestseller. And if The Talented Mr. Ripley, which came from Patricia Highsmith's literary cult favorite about a ruthlessly ambitious (and murderous) social climber rubbing elbows with rich Americans in Italy in the 1950s, seemed interminable (another three-hour Christmas movie!), it had the advantage of a wonderfully creepy performance by young Matt Damon.

Oscar Wilde fared better in Oliver Parker's relentlessly witty version of An Ideal Husband than his forbear William Shakespeare did in a stillborn adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the great short-story writer William Trevor came off just fine, thank you, in the delicate Felicia's Journey, in which a sweet lass leaves Ireland to search for her boyfriend and falls for a bounder instead. But for almost everyone who loves the art of movies, the final chapter in Stanley Kubrick's artistic life was an ineffably sad one: Working loosely with a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler, the cinematic giant who gave us Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Paths of Glory came up with a curiously remote meditation on erotic fantasy and emotional obsession, culminating in an absurd masked orgy at a Long Island mansion. In the aftermath of general disappointment, Eyes Wide Shut attracted some furious defenders, but Kubrick's reputation will likely rest on his peerless earlier films.

Meanwhile, one teenage anxiety comedy looks pretty much like the next one. Anyone who can still distinguish the hormonal turbulence in 10 Things I Hate About You from the hormonal turbulence in American Pie or Never Been Kissed has a keen memory at work. If you remember that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the picture about the crooked beauty pageant and Teaching Mrs. Tingle was the one where the kids took their mean old teacher hostage and Outside Providencewas about the guy whose father sends him to the lame New England prep school, then you get to be class valedictorian. However, a couple of 1999's teensploitation movies really did have something special going for them: In Dick, a pair of teenage girls hired to walk President Nixon's dog stumbled across the dark secrets of Watergate, and in Alexander Payne's surpassing Election, Reese Witherspoon's ambitious goody two-shoes crossed swords with Matthew Broderick's dorky, corrupt history teacher, to brilliant satiric effect.

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