Top 10 Blessings of 1999 Films Offset by a Critical Loss

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Byline: Dann Gire Daily Herald Film Critic

The biggest movie news event in the last year of the millennium had more local impact than national, and the national impact was still immense.

Chicago film critic Gene Siskel died in February after an extended illness. For the first time in three decades, America no longer had half the team of Siskel & Ebert on the air each week, jousting with his alter ego, Roger Ebert, giving us a show while reviewing the shows. We'll miss him. I miss him.

Cinematically, 1999 celebrated the triumph of special effects over plot and acting, most notably in the most overhyped motion picture of the century, "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace." Other films, including "The Haunting," "Bicentennial Man" and "The Matrix," fell into the same category of flash over substance.

The desecration of 1960s pop culture continued with dismal big-screen productions of "The Wild Wild West," "My Favorite Martian" and "The Mod Squad."

Two films actually incorporated hard-core pornography in their storylines. "Romance" had its main cast indulging in carnal activity while reciting their lines. "I Stand Alone" used scenes from a cheesy porno film as a backdrop. Both films came from France.

But overall, 1999 marked the first time in 21 years of my top-10 lists that family-oriented movies had such a strong showing. The year also marked the first time that four animated films made the list - one of them definitely not intended for family viewing.

The year had its fleeting moments and movies of excellence. Here they are, the top 10 best motion pictures to carry "19" in their release dates for the next 20 years.

1. "Being John Malkovich" - A marvelously inventive black comedy/fantasy about a New York City puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers a portal into actor John Malkovich's brain. Wacky and weird, but director Spike Jonze plays it perfectly straight and smart and creates one of the most ingenious works of film guaranteed to cause discussion as people leave the theater. With an unrecognizable Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener and, of course, Chicago's own Malkovich, who took a real leap of faith by agreeing to lampoon himself in a thoroughly ridiculous premise.

2. "The Red Violin" - An impressive, brilliant piece of storytelling, particularly in the complex structure that uses two narrators (a fortuneteller and an auctioneer), flashbacks and a main character that's not even human. This drama tells the ad-ventures of the acoustically perfect Red Violin over three centuries, from its Italian creator to the American (Samuel L. Jackson) who discovers it in 1999. From French filmmaker Francis Gerard and writer/actor Don McKellar, who went on to direct, write and star in "Last Night."

3. "The Insider" - Riveting acting, terse dialogue and stylish visuals make this a humdinger of a modern-day morality tale, based on a true story. A former tobacco company chemist (Russell Crowe), suffering a crisis of conscience, tapes a "60 Minutes" interview and reveals nicotine manipulation by the industry. When he gets hung out to dry by CBS corporate hacks, a virtuous producer (Al Pacino) takes action. Christopher Plummer makes an inspired egocentric Mike Wallace. Former Chicago director Michael Mann furthers his reputation as a consummate visual storyteller.

4. "The Blair Witch Project" - Three college students went off to make a documentary about the Blair Witch and never returned. Now their cameras have been found and the raw footage has been recovered. They became part of a phenomenon that dragged Hollywood kicking and screaming into the age of cyber promotions by showing how the Internet should be used to market a movie. …