Cinema had played a major role in shaping the 20th century. But, as the world started fretting about the potential impact of the 'millennium bug', film found itself facing increasing competition from Reality television and the Internet, Fortunately, the windfall from the boom in DVD sales after the format was launched in December 1996 gave Hollywood the wherewithal to back a clutch of neophyte directors, whose readiness to experiment with both content and form gave American cinema some much-needed creative impetus, just as it received a commercial boost from the release of George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999).
In the decade that followed, the conglomerates running the studios curtailed this sense of adventure, after their finance departments insisted that risk was reduced by prioritising investment in projects with a guaranteed audience. But, before Hollywood became a comic-book theme park, film-makers were encouraged to trust their instincts and their vision and they responded with some of the most diverse and dynamic features since the dawn of New Hollywood in the mid-1960s.
The Academy Award for Best Picture of 1999 went to Sam Mendes's American Beauty. Yet, while it hit upon the zeitgeisty topic of white male malaise, time and fate have not been kind to this satirical study of unravelling family life and it has had nowhere near the influence of more innovative variations on the same theme as Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich and David Fincher's Fight Club. While the latter pair focused on the psychological travails of a street puppeteer and a chronic insomniac, the former used a series of interweaving episodes occurring across the San Fernando Valley to take a snapshot of a nation struggling to come to terms with being the sole superpower in a post-Cold War world.
The creeping sense of Y2K angst informed numerous American features during this banner year, whether they examined the sinister rise of surveillance (Ron Howard's EDtv), the crisis of faith in an increasingly secular society (Kevin Smith's Dogma), the unstoppable rise of consumerism (Albert Brooks's The Muse) or the decline of can-do thinking (Mike Judge's Office Space). Indeed, the American Dream came in for quite a kicking, as liberal America took a collective look in the mirror and didn't like what it saw, as corporate giants and low-ranking salesmen looked after No.1 in Michael Mann's The Insider and Joe Swanbeck's The Big Kahuna. War heroes also put gain before glory, as George Clooney and his pals proved in seeking to bring home some stolen Kuwaiti bullion as a Gulf War souvenir in David O. Russell's Three Kings. Even the movies couldn't be taken at face value, as Frank Oz's Bowfinger and Phil Joanou's Entropy demonstrated.
Only Trey Parker and Matt Stone appeared to know who was really to blame for America's crises of conscience and confidence, as they garnered a Best Song nomination for 'Blame Canada' in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. But Mike Myers also showed he had a fix on the world's ills in playing both a megalomaniac villain and a sex-mad secret agent in Jay Roach's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which shared a time-lapse premise with Hugh Wilson's Blast From the Past, which drew comparisons between the Kennedy and Clinton eras. Such sharp-edged whimsy also inflected another collaboration between director Hugh Wilson and actor Brendan Fraser, Dudley Do-Right, which followed Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West and Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest in tapping into America's pop cultural past to provide Y2Kphobes with some reassuring nostalgia.
Good Old-Fashioned Entertainment
The times might have been a-changing, but it wasn't novelty all the way in 1999. The studio bean counters were well aware that they made as much money from the rental and sale of videos and digital versatile discs as they did from box-office takings. Thus, they pandered to the demand among older and more culturally conservative audiences for stories with a beginning a middle and an end. After all, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures didn't get to celebrate their 75th anniversaries in 1999 by making kneejerk responses to each faddish change in public taste.
Consequently, the grandees of American cinema continued to make movies as they had always done. Sadly, however, Eyes Wide Shut would be Stanley Kubrick's final offering. But Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead), Robert Altman (Cookie's Fortune), Richard Attenborough (Grey Owl), Miloš Forman (Man on the Moon), Clint Eastwood (True Crime), Woody Allen (Sweet and Lowdown), Joel Schumacher (Flawless) and Barry Levinson (Liberty Heights) all produced crowdpleasers of varying degrees during the year. As did such indie icons as David Lynch (The Straight Story), Steven Soderbergh (The Limey), John Sayles (Limbo), Atom Egoyan (Felicia's Journey) and James Toback (Black and White).
Interestingly, the erstwhile indie iconoclasts had now become part of the film-making establishment and it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell their work apart from such meticulously made items as Peter Kassovitz's remake of an old East German classic, Jakob the Liar; To Walk With Lions, Carl Schultz's overdue sequel to the Oscar-winning Born Free (1966); and rites of passage like Joe Johnson's October Sky and Arthur Allan Seidelman's Walking Across Egypt. Polish was also the watchword of the many sporting sagas reflecting on the crisis in American masculinity, including Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, Brian Robbins's Varsity Blues, Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game, Norman Jewison's The Hurricane, Ron Shelton's Play It to the Bone, Nickolas Perry's Speedway Junky, Jay Roach's Mystery, Alaska and Matthew Warchus's Simpatico, a racetrack buddy movie that teamed Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte with Sharon Stone.
Although the likes of Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts could still open a movie, the day of the star was dwindling and the mega-bucks pay packet was becoming a thing of the past, as the studio chiefs realised that punters were as interested in watching unknowns with low wage demands in pre-sold scenarios as they were in seeing fading idols in unproven narratives. Moreover, it was also becoming clear that digitisation had the power to transform the kind of stories that movies could tell and the way in which they were told.
For the moment, however, heritage cinema retained its grip on the educated imagination, as Ang Lee revisited the American Civil War in Ride With the Devil. Two films reflected on the relationship between governess Anna Leonowens and Siam's King Mongkut in Andy Tennant's live-action Anna and the King and Richard Rich's animated version of The King and I, while the story of a Belgian priest's mission to a Hawaiian leper colony is related by an Australian in Paul Cox's Molokai: The Story of Father Damien.
Mike Leigh and Tim Robbins respectively pondered the working relationships between WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and composer Marc Blitzstein and wünderkind Orson Welles in Topsy-Turvy and Cradle Will Rock. The stage also spawned a pair of Shakespearean adaptations, Julie Taymor's Titus and Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as Oliver Parker's take on Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, Mike Figgis's interpretation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie, and David Mamet's version of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy. As always, the page provided plentiful cinematic inspiration, as Patricia Rozema visited Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and Martha Fiennes cast brother Ralph in her adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's epic poem, Onegin. Coming more up to date, Ralph Fiennes accompanied Neil Jordan on his excursion to Graham Greene land for The End of the Affair, while Anthony Minghella ventured into Patricia Highsmith's inhospitable corner of noir country in The Talented Mr Ripley. Michael Caine earned his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Lasse Hallström's reading of John Irving's The Cider House Rules, while composer John Williams earned one of his 51 nominations for his score for Alan Parker's adaptation of Frank McCourt's Irish memoir, Angela's Ashes.
Just as satire thrived in 1999, so the romcom outclassed the sitcom. Perhaps the pick of the crop was Mike Newell's Pushing Tin, although the macho feud between air traffic controllers John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton was matched by the byplay between mobster Robert De Niro and psychiatrist Billy Crystal in Harold Ramis's slickly scripted Analyze This. Martin Lawrence was also well teamed with Eddie Murphy as the bank teller and the con man who wind up in a 1930s Mississippi slammer in Ted Demme's Life and with Luke Wilson, as Lawrence poses as a cop to retrieve a stolen diamond hidden in a police station in Les Mayfield's Blue Streak.
James Belushi also got to operate on either side of the law, as he reteamed with his crime-cracking canine robot in Charles T. Kanganis's K-911 and had his hitman credentials tested by Sheryl Lee in David L. Corley's Angel's Dance. Reckless decisions respectively backfire on 70s druggie Billy Crudup, overgrown kid Adam Sandler and cash-strapped fish tank cleaner Rob Schneider in Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, Dennis Dugan's Big Daddy and Mike Mitchell's Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, while a couple of twins confound scientist Kathleen Turner's tilt at world domination in Bob Clark's Baby Geniuses.
Although siblings Leo, Gerry and Myles Fitzgerald played toddlers Whit and Sylvester with plenty of impish vim, they were upstaged by both Alicia Morton in Rob Marshall's Disney remake of the hit musical, Annie, and by Jonathan Lipnicki and a white mouse voiced by Michael J. Fox in Rob Minkoff's Stuart Little, an adaptation of a popular children's book by EB White that was joined in the loveable critter stakes by Gary Halvorson's Elmo in Grouchland and Tim Hill's Muppets From Space. There was more extraterrestrial fun in Donald Petrie's My Favorite Martian, which, like David Kellogg's Inspector Gadget, was spun off from a TV series.
There was something small-screenish about Raymond Jafelice's Babar: King of the Elephants, an adaptation of Jean de Brunhoff's classic children's tale whose conventional graphic style looked quaintly old-fashioned beside Disney's use of the Deep Canvas software to bring added depth to the imagery in Chris Buck and Kevin Lima's Tarzan and the combination of hand-drawn and digital techniques employed on the multi-directed Fantasia 2000. John Lasseter's Pixar also continued to push the animated envelope with its CGI sequel, Toy Story 2, while the debuting Brad Bird demonstrated with The Iron Giant that there was still life in the famous Warner Bros animation department with his take on poet Ted Hughes's 1968 tome, The Iron Man.
While the animation revolution meant that younger audiences were well catered for in 1999, the teenpic seemed to be treading water, as Eric Meza's The Breaks, David Raynr's Trippin', Adam Rifkin's Detroit Rock City and Michael Corrente's Outside Providence trotted out the coming-of-age clichés. However, a little help from William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw gave the high school romance a timely boost, as Gil Junger's 10 Things I Hate About You and Robert Iscove's She's All That respectively drew on Pygmalion and The Taming of the Shrew and paved the way for Paul Weitz's American Pie to build a Brat Pack lite around stars Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Alyson Hannigan, Tara Reid, Seann William Scott and Natasha Lyonne.
The latter also headlined Jamie Babbit's instant lesbian classic, But I'm a Cheerleader, which co-starred Clea Duval and Michelle Williams. Love is also in the air for book shop assistant Karyn Dwyer in Anne Wheeler's Better Than Chocolate and gay composer Christian Campbell in Jim Fall's Trick. But, as Neve Campbell and Dylan McDermott discover, Matthew Perry is much more straight than he seems in Damon Santostefano's Three to Tango. First love also finds ambitious journalist Drew Barrymore in Raja Gosnell's Never Been Kissed, while the protagonists of Peter Ho-sun Chan's The Love Letter, Richard Wenk's Just the Ticket, Mark Tarlov's Simply Irresistible, Lawrence Kasdan's Mumford and Bryan Michael Stoller's Undercover Angel all wonder whether they have done the right thing in putting work before affairs of the heart.
Weddings provided the backdrop for several romcoms, including Bronwen Hughes's Forces of Nature, Rick Famuyiwa's The Wood, Gary Sinyor's The Bachelor, Malcolm D. Lee's The Best Man and Garry Marshall's Runaway Bride, which reunited Richard Gere and Julia Roberts after their iconic teaming in the same director's Pretty Woman (1990). However, Roberts also struck up a charming rapport with Hugh Grant in Roger Michell's Notting Hill, which ended with a vision of domestic contentment that seemed to have long bypassed Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer in Rob Reiner's The Story of Us and Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn in Sam Weisman's The Out-of-Towners, which never quite recaptured the comic highs of Arthur Hiller's 1970 original, which had co-starred Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as an Ohio couple adrift in New York.
Two of the year's funniest films had a political edge, as pushy Reese Witherspoon drives teacher Matthew Broderick to distraction in running for class president in Alexander Payne's Election and Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst make a surprising discovery during a school tour of Richard Nixon's White House in Andrew Fleming's 1972 satire, Dick. Dunst also impresses alongside Denise Richards as mothers Ellen Barkin and Kirstie Alley resort to underhand tactics to win a beauty pageant in Michael Patrick Jann's Drop Dead Gorgeous, and as Kathleen Turner and James Woods's oldest daughter in the 1970s suburbs in Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. The latter's themes of identity and alienation recurred in Kimberley Peirce's Boys Don't Cry and James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted, which respectively earned the Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Hilary Swank and Angelina Jolie.
Finding a niche also preoccupies Juliette Lewis in Garry Marshall's The Other Sister, Rachel Leigh Cook in Ron Judkins's The Hi-Line and Molly Shannon in Bruce McCullough's Superstar, which paints a positively rosy picture of school life compared to Darren Stein's Jawbreaker, Kevin Williamson's Teaching Mrs Tingle and Roger Kumble's Cruel Intentions, a reworking of Choderlos de Laclos's Dangerous Liaisons that sees spoilt Manhattan stepsiblings Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar trifling with the affections of the innocent Reese Witherspoon. Meryl Streep finds a better way to shape impressionable young minds in Wes Craven's Music of the Heart, but Melanie Griffith, Susan Sarandon and the Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer don't always make the best role models for Lucas Black, Natalie Portman and Kimberly J. Brown in Antonio Banderas's Crazy in Alabama, Wayne Wang's Anywhere But Here and Gavin O'Connor's Tumbleweeds.
Kate Winslet's family believe she has been led astray by an Indian guru in Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, while celestial voices also inspire the respective heroics of Leelee Sobieski and Milla Jovovich in Christian Duguay's Joan of Arc and Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Dynastic expediency leads to the Maid of Orleans being abandoned by the Dauphin and changes in the political temperature impacts upon daily life in 1930s Florence for expats Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin and Cher in Franco Zeffirelli's Tea With Mussolini.
A moment in time alters the relationship between Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron in Rand Ravich's The Astronaut's Wife, while widowed boat builder Kevin Costner and divorced journalist Robin Wright are brought together by the tides in Luis Mandoki's Message in a Bottle. A spa introduces blind masseur Val Kilmer to stressed New Yorker Mia Sorvino in Irwin Winkler's At First Sight, which was based on a case study by neurologist Oliver Sacks. The unlikely ways in which people are attracted to one another are further explored in Jeremy Podeswa's The Five Senses, while actor-director Michael Polish boldly considers how love might affect conjoined twins, as he co-stars with brother Mark in Twin Falls Idaho.
Things go drastically wrong for small-town photographer Michelle Pfeiffer when she goes to the big city for a class reunion and has to hook up with cop Whoopi Goldberg to find her kidnapped son in Ulu Grosbard's The Deep End of the Ocean. The fate of Julianne Moore's child impacts on a Wisconsin nurse's life in Scott Elliott's A Map of the World, which earned Sigourney Weaver a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. Sharon Stone also finds the fates aligned against her when she's double-crossed by her crook boyfriend after being jailed for a crime he committed in Sidney Lumet's Gloria, while Kate Beckinsale is forced to share the consequences when impulsive pal Claire Danes lands them in a Thai jail in Jonathan Kaplan's Brokedown Palace.
Sarah Polley also risks landing Katie Holmes in trouble when she begins drug dealing to make her rent in Doug Liman's Go. Elsewhere, Ashley Judd emerges from prison to discover her husband faked his own death in Bruce Beresford's Double Jeopardy, while Reese Witherspoon is uncertain whether boyfriend Alessandro Nivola's college buddy, Josh Brolin, is all he seems to be when he shows up out of the blue in the middle of a debt crisis in Mike Barker's Best Laid Plans. Knowing who to trust also proves a problem for master thief Sean Connery and insurance adjuster Catherine Zeta-Jones in Jon Amiel's Entrapment, which has much in common with John McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair, which sees Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo inherit the roles taken in Norman Jewison's 1968 original by Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.
Abetted by Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards, Pierce Brosnan also embarked upon his penultimate assignment as James Bond in Michael Apted's The World Is Not Enough, which pitted him against the villainous Robert Carlyle. Arnold Schwarzenegger was similarly confronted by a Celtic foe, as Gabriel Byrne essayed the incarnation of evil in Peter Hyams's End of Days, which played on the millennial fears that also fed into thrillers like Mark Pellington's Arlington Road, which sees Jeff Bridges begin to have doubts about new neighbours, Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack; Sydney Pollack's Random Hearts, in which cop Harrison Ford and politician Kristin Scott Thomas make some sinister discoveries about their late spouses; Simon West's The General's Daughter, which centres on John Travolta's efforts to expose a military cover-up; Stephan Elliott's Eye of the Beholder, in which intelligence officer Ewan McGregor meets his match in psychotic chameleon Ashley Judd; Joel Schumacher's 8MM, which pitches surveillance expert Nicolas Cage into danger when he takes possession of a mysterious film reel; and Hugh Johnson's Chill Factor, in which ordinary Joes Skeet Ulrich and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are entrusted with a potentially deadly chemical codenamed, 'Elvis'.
Gooding also plays an ambitious psychiatrist seeking to discover what makes murderous anthropologist Anthony Hopkins tick in Jon Turteltaub's Instinct. Multiple murder was a common theme in 1999, with Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, Troy Duffy's The Boondock Saints, Hampton Fancher's The Minus Man and Timothy Wayne Folsome's Uninvited Guest all turning around killing sprees. As does Philip Noyce's The Bone Collector, which teams Denzel Washingon and Angelina Jolie as New York cops investigating a series of brutal slayings. Chow Yun-fat and Mark Wahlberg play equally mismatched partners in James Foley's Chinatown thriller, The Corruptor, while Omar Epps plays one of Cincinnati's finest risking all to infiltrate LL Cool J's drug gang in Michael Rymer's In Too Deep.
Epps goes undercover again, alongside Claire Danes and Giovanni Ribisi, in Scott Silver's hip updating of the old TV favourite, The Mod Squad, while reporter Ethan Hawke stumbles across some dark secrets when he investigates a murder in a sleepy community in Scott Hicks's adaptation of David Guterson's bestseller, Snow Falling on Cedars. Heath Ledger and Ron Eldard respectively discover that there's no such thing as an easy job in Gregor Jordan's Two Hands and Ron Moler's The Runner, while Michael Rappaport gets friends in lowlife places when he learns that mobster Christopher Walken is his father in Lyndon Chubbock's Kiss Toledo Goodbye.
There's more comic gangstery, as art auctioneer Hugh Grant discovers that future father-in-law James Caan is a New York wiseguy in Kelly Makin's Mickey Blue Eyes. Those who prefer their hoodlums to sport fedoras should check out John McNaughton's Lansky, in which Richard Dreyfus excels as Polish Jewish immigrant Meyer Lansky, who rose from the slums of the Lower East Side to command a feared criminal empire. Forest Whitaker adheres to a different code of honour as a Mafia hitman who has outlived his usefulness to bigwig Henry Silva in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was nominated for the César for Best Foreign Film. However, Mel Gibson is quickly disabused of any notions of honour among thieves when his partners in a $70,000 heist leave him for dead in Brian Helgeland's Payback, which was adapted from the same Donald E. Westlake novel, The Hunter, that also inspired John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) and Taylor Hackford's Parker (2013).
It might have inflicted Jar Jar Binks upon an unsuspecting world and convinced the studios that event movies were the way ahead, but Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace emulated George Lucas's first expedition into a galaxy far, far away by introducing a new generation of moviegoers to the magic of cinema. By showing in The Matrix how special effects could reshape audience perceptions of sci-fi noir, the Wachowskis probably did more to pave the way for the current preoccupation with superheroes. But the change didn't happen overnight and there was a reassuring familiarity about such outings as Chris Roberts's Wing Commander, Mic Rodgers's Universal Soldier: The Return, Kinka Usher's Mystery Men and Josef Rusnak's The Thirteenth Floor, which was based on Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel, Simalcron-3.
Tapping into various aspects of science fiction, John Bruno's Virus, Mario Azzopardi's Thrill Seekers, Chris Columbus's Bicentennial Man, John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior and Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea each offered something a little different from the norm. Yet they failed to score heavily at the box office and none had the ingenuity or imagination of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, which blurred the line between fantasy and reality by warning of the dangers of immersive gaming by positing a future in which scenarios could be downloaded into a bioport implanted in a player's spine.
If such a concept sent shivers, they were nothing compared to the jolts generated by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, as they breathed new life into the 'found footage' format with The Blair Witch Project. In the process, they also demonstrated how big bucks could be made from cannily marketed micro-budget movies and the horror genre has never been the same since. There was still room, however, for old school chillers like Stephen Sommers's The Mummy, Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, Jan De Bont's The Haunting, William Malone's House on Haunted Hill, Rupert Wainwright's Stigmata and Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate.
But while creature features like Steve Miner's Lake Placid and Louis Morneau's Bats had their moments and the squeamish winced at the flesh-eating in Antonia Bird's Ravenous and Rodman Fender's Idle Hands, the year's sleeper horror hit was M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, in which Haley Joel Osment kept bumping into ghosts. As if to prove there can never be any accounting for audience taste, the plot overlapped in places with David Koepp's Stir of Echoes, a less prestidigitatious adaptation of a Richard Matheson novel that plagued Kevin Bacon with troubling visions. This grossed only $23 million compared to Shyamalan's blockbuster, which raked in $673 million worldwide and remained the most commercially successful horror film until the release of Andy Muschietti's It (2017).
A Whistlestop Worldwide Tour
While American cinema was going through something of a transition, British film-makers stuck to the tried-and-trusted social realist formula to produce such engaging and intriguingly diverse offerings as Damien O'Donnell's East Is East, Shane Meadows's A Room for Romeo Brass, Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland, Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, Justin Kerrigan's Human Traffic and Tim Roth's The War Zone. Actors Bob Hoskins, Jude Law and Ewan McGregor went behind the camera for three of the vignettes in Tube Tales, while the latter got to play derivatives banker Nick Leeson in James Dearden's Rogue Trader. There were also a couple of obligatory underworld outings, in the form of Julian Simpson's The Criminal and Anthony Nelson's The Debt Collector. But BritCrime had yet to go the full post-Lock, Stock Mockney Monty.
While the previous paragraph contains the name of only one woman director, the French duo of Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat confirmed their reputations for speaking their minds with Beau Travail and Romance, which caused something of a stir with its graphic sex scenes. It was also a bumper year for Catherine Deneuve, as she graced such gloriously different pictures as Régis Wargnier's East West, Leos Carax's Pola X and Raúl Ruiz's Marcel Proust adaptation, Time Regained. Sandrine Bonnaire and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi teamed effectively in Claude Chabrol's The Colour of Lies, while Christian Clavier and Gérard Depardieu reunited in Ancient Gaul for Claude Zidi's Asterix and Obelix Take on Caesar.
Rising star Émilie Dequenne seized her opportunity, as Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne won their first Palme d'Or at Cannes with Rosetta. Amira Casar, Julie Gayet and Alexandra London also made a decent impression in Stéphane Giusti's Pourquoi pas moi?, which was set in a Barcelona publishing house. The Catalan capital also provides the setting for Cecilia Roth to tell an old flame about the son he never knew he had in Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, whose vibrant, colourful modernism contrasts starkly with the monochrome silent cinematic pastiche in Finn Aki Kaurismäki's Juha.
There was more of a 'tradition of quality' feel to Max Färberböck's Golden Globe nominee, Aimée & Jaguar, a tale of forbidden love that earned Juliane Kohler and Maria Schrader the Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It's set in the same era as Russian Aleksandr Sokurov's remarkable Moloch, which centres on a weekend party hosted in 1942 by Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. The war also impinges up Sunshine, István Szabó's epic account of Hungarian history in the middle of the last century that earned Ralph Fiennes the European Film Award for Best Actor. However, Jerzy Hoffman harks back to the late 1600s for Fire and Sword, a tale of Cossack rebellion against Polish rule that would make for a splendid double bill with Nagisa Oshima's tale of 1860s samurai ethics, Gohatto.
Elsewhere in Japan, the prolific Takashi Miike pitched yakuzas against triads in Dead or Alive, while also taking J-Horror to shockingly dark places with Audition. By contrast, mellowed one-time bad boy Takeshi Kitano chronicled the odd couple friendship between a small-time crook and a nine year-old boy seeking his mother in Kikujiro. Another unlikely liaison forms between a young lad and the leader of a trio skulking furtively around a remote village in Iranian Kurdistan in Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, while compatriot Majid Majidi proves equally adept at coaxing authentic performances out of his juvenile lead in The Colour of Paradise, as a blind eight year-old struggles to come to terms with life on the family farm after leaving his special school in the town.
Chinese teacher Wei Minzhi has to go searching for a missing pupil in Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, which has a ready-made companion piece in the same director's The Road Home, which sees Zhang Ziyi and Zhao Yulian teaming to play a country girl who falls for a handsome teacher and reunites years later with their son when he returns from the big city for his father's funeral. Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang uses a Beijing bathhouse to satirise shifting Chinese attitudes to the entrepreneurial spirit in Shower, while Lee Young-jae harks back to simpler times in setting The Harmonium in My Memory in the South Korea of 1963 to tell a tale about a student's crush on his teacher.
The old North/South tensions are very much to the fore, as a secret agent suspects a female assassin of killing an arms smuggler in Kang Je-kyu's Shiri, while another femme fatale makes life difficult for a cop investigating a drug-related murder in Lee Myung-se's Nowhere to Hide. A deaf hitman has to choose between his vocation and an unexpected chance of happiness in Danny and Oxide Pang's combustible Bangkok Dangerous and there are more romantic complications (albeit of a more refined kind), as spoilt daddy's girl Aishwarya Rai falls for her musician father's half-Italian star student, Salman Khan, in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bollywood masala, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
Before we turn to our Top 10, we should point you in the direction three engrossing documentaries. Leslie Woodhead's Endurance profiles Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebrselassie, who discovered his prodigious talent while running 20km in bare feet each day to go to school. Martin Scorsese looks back on a key part of his cinematic education in My Voyage to Italy, while Wim Wenders aims to get your toes tapping to some Cuban rhythms in his glorious Oscar-nominated gem, Buena Vista Social Club.