A couple weeks ago, Dave Zahl asked me to produce a list of my own favorite films of the last decade. And in trying to come up with it I kept having the following frustrating experience. I’d think “Well, I gotta include movie _________. I mean that was amazing! Wasn’t that done in 2000 or 2001?”

And I’d look it up, and I was wrong. It was ALMOST in this decade. But it was actually made in 1999.

Which made me realize how very differently this decade ended vs. the last. 1999 was just a WAY better year for movies than 2009.

Here are some of 1999′s glories:

* Magnolia (!!!). There aren’t many movies that four Mockingbird writers as different as Dave Zahl, Nick Lannon, Paul Zahl, and myself all consider one of the best movies of the last 15 years. This is one of them. Lovely magic-realist film about “several interrelated characters in search of happiness, forgiveness, and meaning in the San Fernando Valley.” (IMDB) I love it all, but I love most the work done by Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and John C. Reily. Also a movie that truly understands suffering and its mystery.

* Ride With The Devil. One of Ang Lee’s greatest films (alongside Crouching Tiger, Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, etc.). Also rare as a Civil War picture in which all of the action happens West of the Mississippi. Touching work by Tobey Maguire and all the actors (including Jewel!). A sure to be amazing director’s cut of this movie is being released on DVD in May 2010 by the Criterion Collection (the gold standard of film snobbery).

* American Beauty. Won about every award under the sun in 1999, including the oscars for Best Picture and Director and Actor and Actress and Screenplay. Good movie. Less talked about is the quiet but perfect performance by Chris Cooper.

* October Sky. Just a wonderful, wonderful movie. Jake Gyllenhaal and again Chris Cooper; and many other great performances. THE ROCKET BOYS would have been a better title (the book the movie was based on) but that’s about all I would change. Fatherhood, sonship, growing up, love, judgment and rockets! What more could you want?

* The Insider. Some of the best work ever done by Russell Crowe or Al Pacino — and they have both done a lot of good stuff. Haunting, subtle, dark, suspenseful. Crowe creates the illusion of a middleaged quiet intellectual whom you really believe could be successfully mugged by a five year old — about 20 light years from Crowe dripping with testosterone in GLADIATOR or LA CONFIDENTIAL. (In Crowe’s later film A BEAUTIFUL MIND he plays a similar character and the illusion is shattered by a stupid decision to show Crowe in a muscle-shirt.)

* Boys Don’t Cry. Like October Sky and The Insider, another amazing true story. It was a career making film for three of my favorite actors: Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, and Peter Sarsgaard, all of whom were in their 20s at the time. One of the great films of the 90s. Not only a true rendering of facts but (like Magnolia and others) a true account of private suffering, the terror of our inner lives being exposed, and the aching need for love.

* Election. Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick are SO much fun in this movie about high school. INCREDIBLY funny. And heartbreaking. Read Nick Lannon’s piece about it here! (Side note: Jessica Campbell gives a wonderful supporting performance in this that led to her being cast as a guest star in two episodes of the Mockingbird favorite FREAKS AND GEEKS.)

* Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick’s last film. I was absolutely riveted by the baroque phantasmal world he creates in the middle of the film — you’ll know it when you see it. Like most of K’s stuff, see it on a big screen, ideally HDTV. PZ and others have drawn our attention to the fact that the movie turns on a man who’s just and terrifying punishment can only be solved by a substitution.

* An Ideal Husband. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, and with Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, Kate Blanchet, and Rupert Everett. Great writing meets great actors = GOOD. Lots of stuff to interest the MB crowd: law, holy judgment, identity, and love. And very funny in places as well.

* Galaxy Quest. Speaking of funny… ok, this is basically the best comedy EVER MADE. I have seen this at least 20 times. And it’s suspenseful, and touching, and heartbreaking; and its got Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman in it. (PS. It’ll mean more to you if you have seen the old Star Trek series with Bill Shatner.)

And also a real pleasure from 1999:
* Being John Malcovitch
* Trekkies
* The Winslow Boy
* The Sixth Sense
* The Blair Witch Project
* Topsy-Turvy
* The Talented Mr. Ripley
* The Green Mile
* EdTV
* Happy, Texas

1999 Movies I still haven’t seen (but which I plan to see this year):
* Straight Story
* Run Lola Run
* Iron Giant

And finally here are four movies from 1999 that many people liked but I didn’t:
* Princess Mononoke
* Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
* Fight Club
* The Matrix

1999 really was the year that was.

PS. As always, MB readers should exercise discretion in watching these movies. Lots of them, including Magnolia and a number of others, have profanity or are otherwise very R-rated. I believe The Iron Giant and Galaxy Quest are fairly safe, however. :-)