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BEST OF: The Upside of 'The Insider'

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Aug 15, 2001 | 9:04am EDT

Most end-of-the-year "best of" lists from critics deplore the current state of movies before telling you about the few nuggets that came out that were actually (according to them) worth your time. The year 1999 was different. The critics didn't complain, and rightfully so.

The last of the 1900s marked a groundbreaking revolution in cinema. Films like "Three Kings," "American Beauty," "The Sixth Sense" and "The Blair Witch Project" expanded the boundaries of what traditional generic films could become. True oddballs like "Being John Malkovich" were made and even turned a profit. Sequels like "Toy Story 2" didn't suck.

Overall, going to the movies was about as dreadful as living through Y2K. Instead of suffering through a bunch of bummers, audiences were treated to a diverse, colorful celebration of life as we live it, and where it's headed.

Here is our list of the Top 10 films that quickened the pulses, stimulated our minds and sent us soaring. In an era of yuppie-fied java-pushing theater concessions, these babies required absolutely no additives to achieve maximum effect.

THE HOLLYWOOD.COM TOP 10

1. "The Insider": Who would have guessed that a story based on the cigarette industry could be so excellent, let alone interesting? Arguments could be made that director Michael Mann's absorbing and powerful tale about a "60 Minutes" producer and a tobacco-industry whistleblower is even more thrilling and consistently involving than his crime epic masterpiece, "Heat." No explosions or gun battles needed here. Believable human drama, real relationships and a time-tested theme about a thing called truth are all that's needed, plus some of the best performances of the year.

2. "Anna and the King": That's right. We'll chalk this one up as being the most unrecognized, unheralded classic in the making. Some would say the story's been done before -- but so what? This one, sans music, gets to the basics of the inherent poignancy of the relationship between the King of Siam and British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens. As portrayed by Chow Yun-Fat (our vote for best leading man of the '90s) and reliable Jodie Foster, the couple is a doozy. Add in some amazing cinematography, and this affecting period piece's built to last for future generations.

3. "Toy Story 2": As with its predecessor, "Toy Story 2" proves that the best cartoons are those made for kids and adults. Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang made it back for another amazing, hilarious adventure. The pop-culture in-jokes were a bonus. The most surprising thing here was how much the people at Pixar and the voice talent (led by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) could make you care about a toy's feelings. With a thing this good, another manufactured product doesn't sound half-bad.

4. "American Beauty": Praised for its blunt appraisal of suburban dystopia, this feature debut from theater director Sam Mendes burned with creative fervor, not to mention a cast working at the top of its collective talent. Kevin Spacey continued to show why he's America's favorite satirical Everyman, and newcomer Wes Bentley shone as the odd, mysterious peeping Tom next door. Every shot was a marvel to behold, and the movie itself was unlike any middle-American drama ever released. It's the Cleavers gone to hell -- and then some.

5. "The Winslow Boy": David Mamet fans had a hard time believing he could be responsible for this G-rated period piece set in proper Britain circa World War I. But the street poet is one smart cookie who realizes great drama and tension when he sees it. This tale of a court case to redeem a boy and his family's honor made perfect sense as a Mamet tale. It was also highly entertaining and enthralling, using the powers of subtlety and things left unsaid to sell its boiling dynamics. Combined with a command performance from Jeremy Northam, the film and its accompanying love story made for powerful, memorable stuff.

6. "Liberty Heights": Barry Levinson complimented his Baltimore trilogy ("Diner," "Tin Men," "Avalon") with another personal bit of filmmaking set in his hometown. Dealing directly with issues of racial separation in the 1950s, the director and his cast of fresh-faced talents provided painful, funny truth-telling. The look and feel was right, and Joe Mantegna gave the production the right air of fallible humanity as the patriarch of a Jewish family dealing with issues in an imperfect America.

7. "Bowfinger": Overlooked by the Golden Globes nominating committee was Steve Martin's dead-on, affectionate lambasting of the Hollywood industry and all its assorted characters. Martin's smart screenplay and Frank Oz's good direction were simply the trimmings. Eddie Murphy provided the final coup, playing both a lovable, earnest dummy and an egotistical action movie star. The scenes between Martin and Murphy were worth the price of admission alone. Same goes for the scenes with just Murphy.

8. "Last Night": Never seen or heard of it? Stay tuned to your local independent movie house, which could be showing this amazing gem from Canada, the winner of the country's equivalent of the Oscar for best picture and several other awards. Forget "Armageddon," "Deep Impact" or any other Hollywood-derived disaster flick. This movie's the real deal about what people would say or do to each other if the world were really going to end in six hours. Expect the unexpected from this defiantly independent and haunting film.

9. "The Hurricane": Denzel Washington's performance as real-life boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, imprisoned for 19 years for murders he didn't commit, was a true phenomenon. Norman Jewison told the story in expert fashion, and the supporting cast was excellent, especially Vicellous Shannon as a boy who sets out to help free Carter. But Washington rose above his (lofty) surroundings with a charismatic portrayal that is the embodiment of dignity and integrity. It's a landmark performance that ranks on par with his work in "Malcolm X" and his Academy Award-winning part in "Glory."

10. "Go": Largely overlooked by youth audiences and twentysomethings, this second effort from "Swingers" director Doug Liman was the perfect follow-up to "Pulp Fiction," and blew away all the hack, "Pulp" wannabes. Instead of copping Tarantino entirely, Liman cast a talented group of young actors including Sarah Polley and Taye Diggs, and threw them into a believable world of wild all-night raves and quick trips to Vegas. The end result was colorful, decadent, energetic and wonderfully cinematic. "Go," more than any other film of '99, captured the millennial spirit of the party in all its gross, absurd and youthful glory.

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