While 1999's films were visually dazzling, says David Hochman, they had more narrative holes than a moth-eaten sweater

By David Hochman
Updated December 13, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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This was the year that movie storytelling fell apart

Everyone’s talking about how 1999 was the year of maverick moviemaking. Entertainment Weekly recently called it ”the year that changed movies.” From the herky-jerky camera work of ”The Blair Witch Project” to the twisted F/X tricks of ”The Matrix,” it’s been a wild ride of envelope pushing, rule bending and, yes, brain-portal surfing. But as we approach the end of the red carpet on Y1K, there’s not a single film from 1999 that seems to stand out above the rest. Ask anyone for their pick of the Best Movie of the Year and you’re bound to get four or five or six different responses, or maybe even a hybrid answer: Put the kid from ”Sixth Sense” and the cheerleader from ”American Beauty” in ”Phantom Menace” and make it about half as long as ”The Green Mile,” and then maybe we can talk.

The reason 1999 doesn’t have a ”Forrest Gump” or a ”Titanic” — movies that audiences return to again and again — is because while the storytelling techniques used by filmmakers have never been flashier and more compelling, the stories themselves haven’t exactly been rocking the world. Here’s what I mean…

The National Board of Review just named American Beauty the best film of the year, but look closer, as the film’s tagline goes, and you’ll find major-league story holes. The dialogue is wonderful, not to mention all that rose petal business, but watch what happens to Annette Bening’s character about three-quarters of the way through: she stops developing. And how to explain those contrived side characters — like the gay neighbors whose only real purpose is to play up the homophobic finale? They just wind up seeming like clichés.

Being John Malkovich might just be the year’s bravest concept. But while the idea of spending 15 minutes inside the head of a top character actor is funny now, will anyone really care about Malkovich, say, 10 years from now? The film seems time tied, which puts it more in the realm of the novelty act than with the great storied films of movie history. Can you imagine paying $8.50 these days to see ”Being Jack Palance”?

Three Kings is so time tied, it seems almost like an afterthought. So much of what this film is about was mulled over and put to bed years ago. By the end of the ?80s, most people recognized that the Gulf War media was manipulated, that the government isn’t all it appears to be, and that Iraqis are people too. Especially after repeated viewings, the film feels like it’s preaching to the converted.

And The Green Mile? Here’s a case of old-fashioned storytelling that could have benefitted from some end-of-the-millennium innovation. In Castle Rock’s new death row drama, starring Tom Hanks, the heavy-handed direction by Frank Darabont gets so caught up in the movie’s Powerful Message about a transcendant African-American convict, that it seems to forget that audiences have come to the movie to be entertained. Instead, the film stretches on and on (for 3 hours and 8 minutes!) like an unfair jail sentence, as hokey plot elements — like Mr. Jingles, the mischievous death row mouse — and stereotypical characters — the mean guard, the loony inmate, the Ebonics-speaking black man — turn the movie into a self-serious circus.

As the movie poster for Man on the Moon says, Jim Carrey is Andy Kaufman. But even an inspired performance like that can’t fix a film with gaping holes. In many ways, ”Man on the Moon” raises more questions about Kaufman’s mysterious career than it answers. Near the end of the film, Andy’s parents and sister show up at the hospital with huge anger about what he’d ”done to the family.” But nowhere in the film do we see what Kaufman did. Also, details about Kaufman’s relationships were simplified. Courtney Love’s character, in fact, was a composite of many of Andy’s girlfriends. I still prefer the E! True Hollywood story take on Kaufman’s life to this imitator.

The one film, in my opinion, that succeeds brilliantly on the storytelling front is The Sixth Sense, a film so good it practically requires a second viewing. Horror movies tend to get passed over by critics and the Academy (the National Board of Review ignored it this week), but with its brilliantly interconnected story lines and the phenomenal performance of young Haley Joel Osment, the movie sets the high bar for this year’s films. I can’t wait for the sequel, ”I Still See Dead People.”

American Beauty

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  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Sam Mendes