To Ripley, With Love … Not Mooning Over Kaufman

The 10 Best Films of 1999

1. American Beauty.

2. The Talented Mr. Ripley.

3. The Hurricane.

4. The Insider.

5. Sweet and Lowdown.

6. The Straight Story.

7. The Cider House Rules.

8. Election.

9. Anywhere but Here.

10. Honorable mentions to Boys Don’t Cry , Topsy-Turvy , Angela’s Ashes , The Winslow Boy , Go and My Life So Far .

The 10 Worst Films of 1999

1. Fight Club.

2. Being John Malkovich.

3. The Sixth Sense.

4. The Dream Life of Angels.

5. Magnolia.

6. Existenz.

7. Eyes Wide Shut.

8. Dogma.

9. South Park.

10. Extra hisses and boos to Man on the Moon , Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me , The Astronaut’s Wife , The Two of Us , Random Hearts , The Buena Vista Social Club , In Dreams , Illuminata , Ride with the Devil , Ravenous and The Matrix .

To Ripley, With Love

With that annual chore completed, let’s get back to New York in the holiday season. Santas with pierced tongues who never saw a reindeer in their lives are cooking stuff in front of the Time-Life Building that smells like it might be Cupid and Comet and Donner and Blitzen, the Rockettes are kicking at Radio City, thousands of tourists jam the streets, the gridlock stretches from Harlem to Wall Street, you can’t book a table at Swifty’s or find an empty cab to get you there, and so many new movies are opening that even if you had Anne Slater’s prescription sunglasses and three legs you couldn’t rush to see them all. There is, however, one year-end movie you can’t afford to miss. It’s The Talented Mr. Ripley , writer-director Anthony Minghella’s first film since The English Patient , and the one picture to turn up at the end of the century with something for everyone–a glamorous thriller that is suspenseful, creepy, absorbing, stylish, sexy and heartbreaking.

Based on the first of Patricia Highsmith’s five popular novels about Tom Ripley, an alluring-but-deadly American sociopath who roams Europe exchanging identities with the ease of a chameleon, the film drips with luxury, terror and talent, and the dazzling performance by Matt Damon in the title role is courageous, mesmerizing and unforgettable.

Tom is a nerdy, impoverished preppy who accepts $1,000 from a rich shipping magnate to travel to Italy to persuade the man’s wandering playboy son, Dickie, to return home and run the family business. It seems innocent enough, but when Tom meets debonair Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and his glacial, sun-kissed girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) enjoying the good life on the beaches of the Italian Riviera, Tom falls in love–first with the posh life style of the rich and narcissistic Dickie, then with Dickie himself.

Sexually confused, treated like an outsider, then on the verge of being dumped, like a rejected lover, Tom kills his idol in a crime of passion and hatches an elaborate plot to assume his identity. Spinning a cobweb of dark deceit that spirals out of control when one of Dickie’s snobby friends (another colorful performance by the amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets suspicious, Tom is driven by desperation to commit another murder, building a groundswell of tension in the lavish daylight of Rome and Venice.

Yes, this is the portrait of a cad and a murderer, but Mr. Minghella is too sophisticated for clichés, and the way Mr. Damon plays Tom, he’s so smart, ambitious and oozing with charm that you actually find yourself rooting for him. The film is set in the 1950’s, but now, in a time when most people have screwed up values and few people seem content in their own skins, it has an even eerier contemporary relevance. Mr. Damon plays this sensitive misfit with so much sweetness, desperation, need and vulnerability that he becomes more sympathetic and complex than your average run-of-the-martini villain. He is so overwhelmed by the need for love that his crimes don’t seem coldblooded. They have logic and purpose, and when he finally finds security and warmth with Mr. Right (a subtle, persuasive performance by Jack Davenport) you are willing to forgive the amorality that brought him to this peace of mind at last. He’s a sick puppy, but who doesn’t want to adopt a sick puppy and make him well? Then, this film of constant surprise lands another shock. Having already killed the person he loves most, he now must dispose of the only person who unconditionally loves him. In the end, there is no evidence that he will pay. But he’s more alone and lost than ever.

Sumptuous décor, careful direction, cinematography that makes you swoon and uniformly excellent performances by the distinguished cast add extra luster to an intriguing story. Without her usual costumed finery, Ms. Paltrow is wonderfully natural as the wedge between the men, playing warmth and friendliness at first, then showing anxiety, confusion and terror with equal flourish. Mr. Law is elegantly class-consciously superior, and so is Cate Blanchett as the social butterfly who almost wrecks Mr. Ripley’s master plan. They all make valuable contributions to a stunning film of quality and deeply rooted psychological complexity. I have seen The Talented Mr. Ripley twice, and I can’t wait to see it again. From me, that is very high praise indeed.

Not Mooning Over Kaufman

I can’t say the same for Man on the Moon . Until you see Jim Carrey as the late, unlamented Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s affectionate tribute to mediocrity, you have no idea how unfunny a boring movie about a comic can be. Making idiot faces and talking in little boxed voices like Señor Wences, Kaufman was so unconventional, nobody knew what he was doing half the time. The audience of Saturday Night Live voted him off the show, the cast of Taxi was in constant chaos, he invented an alter ego who took his place, and when he trashed his career to wrestle females on Merv Griffin, 2,000 protest letters poured in. He once gave a concert where he read the entire Great Gatsby to an empty house. Many people thought he was insane, and there is much evidence to support that opinion, especially when he burned his own house down for laughs.

Watching Jim Carrey go berserk for two hours in a relentlessly punishing impersonation of Kaufman has a certain morbid fascination. You wonder if he’ll finally just explode like a tire hitting a buzz saw. But the truth is, Kaufman wasn’t funny, he didn’t have an interesting life (Courtney Love as his long-suffering girlfriend just looks dumbfounded), and there is no reason to make a movie about him. He was such a jerk and a liar that his own family didn’t believe him when he said he had lung cancer. Creepy guy, lousy movie.

She Inhaled! Got Locked Up!

Girl, Interrupted is a dreary film based on the lurid book by Susanna Kaysen about the year she spent in a chic asylum for upscale depression after washing down a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka. The way Winona Ryder plays her, the only thing wrong with this pouty, self-indulgent brat is she smoked too much pot. It was the 60’s. Everyone was depressed and stoned. We didn’t all end up in the cracker jar.

The one depicted here is more like a sorority house than the snake pit. Picking locks for midnight rap sessions, pop records, designer sheets, sex with hunky orderlies, breaking into the doctors’ offices and reading each other’s files aloud, no sign of supervision, and a nurse played by Whoopi Goldberg with love and wisecracks and the homespun wisdom of Hattie McDaniel’s Beulah.

What’s the big deal? Next to such patients as a self-inflicted burn victim and a daddy’s girl addicted to rotisserie chicken and laxatives, feisty Angelina Jolie seems positively refreshing as the dorm’s only genuine foxy, dangerous, cutting-edge sociopath. She’s a real loony whose antics steal every scene, while pretty, bland Ms. Ryder displays all the personality of an artichoke. I’ve never signed myself into a madhouse for depression, aspirin or vodka, but with many more movies like Girl, Interrupted , it could happen any day.