Films that have left a lasting impression on their creators (M. Night Shyamalan, Sam Mendes, David Fincher) make up the majority of Part Three of our Films of 1999 overview.
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Better Than Chocolate
Director: Anne Wheeler
To the average Canadian movie-goer, let's call him Joe Hockey Player, I imagine that the phrase “Canadian film” suggests only National Film Board documentaries about maple syrup production, or the strange art house films discovered by an insomniac channel surfer at 3 a.m. While I value many NFB productions, and I even have a penchant for the strange and arty, I am surprised when a Canadian film—by Canadians, about Canadians—becomes popular, especially when it's popular at home. Why are Canadians still surprised by our own success when film after film suggests we can produce both entertaining and critically praised films? Don McKellar's Last Night (1998), Emile Gaudreault's Mambo Italiano (2003) and Sarah Polley's Away From Her (2006) come readily to mind.
Anne Wheeler's romantic comedy Better Than Chocolate was the first Canadian film I saw as a teenager that struck me as relevant and contemporary without sacrificing its northern quirkiness. In 1999, it placed 31st in the Hollywood Reporter's list of the top 100 independent films of that year. The film's story line tackles issues of sexuality, censorship, and inclusion (before Canada's same-sex marriage laws made a perceived openness to sexuality one of our cultural exports.) While the movie has become a classic of lesbian cinema, it appeals to viewers across orientations because of its emphasis on disengaging fear from sexuality.
Written by Peggy Thompson, the movie centres on Maggie (Karyn Dwyer), a young lesbian in Vancouver, and her relationship with a drifter/artist named Kim (Christina Cox). Their affair is all bliss until Maggie's mother and brother show up (both of whom don't know that Maggie's gay.) Much of the comedy stems from Maggie's mother (played by the veteran Wendy Crewson) and the ways in which her suburban, soccer mom sensibility contrasts with Maggie and friends' expressive sexuality. Other characters include Frances (played by actor, playwright and novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald), owner of the lesbian bookstore where Maggie works, and Judy (Peter Outerbridge), the transexual woman in love with Frances.
Some might argue that the film's coming out theme had already been well-tread even before the turn of the century. But as the success of Milk attests, we are still interested in producing and watching films that discuss the role of sexuality in public and social life. Wheeler's execution of Thompson's script makes Better Than Chocolate a refreshing coming-out tale since it's not just the queers coming out of the closet. As Maggie's straight brother learns, “boys like toys, too.” And speaking of toys, the scene when Crewson's uptight character discovers a veritable warehouse of vibrators under her bed and finally learns to let loose is worth the rental fee alone.
Better Than Chocolate reminds us in the time of the personal-is-political, that sex, like the proverbial box of mixed chocolates, provides one of life's sweet and diverse delights. Kevin Shaw
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The Iron Giant
Director: Brad Bird
Before being catapulted into the top tier of American cartooning through the massive successes of his ace pair of family fare for Disney/Pixar, 2004’s The Incredibles and 2007’s brilliant Ratatouille, director Brad Bird was famous only amongst an elite cult of animated film geeks who reveled in the nuggets of his impressive albeit countercultural resume. A resume that included the development of The Simpsons from minute-long shorts on the original Tracey Ullman Show on Fox to what would become the longest half-hour sitcom in TV history, writing, directed and producing the beloved “Family Dog” episode on Steven Spielberg's short-lived 1980s NBC series Amazing Stories, working on the woefully out-of-print 1981 animated Olympiad parody Animalympics, and an early stint at Disney, where he worked on The Fox and the Hound.
However, it wasn’t until 1999 did Bird first get his beak wet as a major film director with the release of his brilliant Atomic Age era feature The Iron Giant. Anyone who caught the nuanced (albeit updated) references of late 50s/early 60s culture in either The Incredibles or Ratatouille can clearly see Bird’s unequivocal fascination with that section of American history, and The Iron Giant serves as his eloquently mushy love letter to those early days of his youth when rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, every town square had an appliance store and a malt shop, and the impending threat of World War III with the Soviet Union was a frantic decision away from reality.
Perfectly set against the backdrop of Cold War America, where the art of science fiction enjoyed its first big boom by playing up on the public fear of a possible invasion, the story itself is loosely based on poet Ted Hughes’s 1968 masterwork The Iron Man. However, the film more closely resembles a retro spin on the inherent concept of E.T., replacing a cuddly, organic extraterrestrial with a gigantic metallic robot (whose origins are never fully explained in the film) who crash-lands on Earth and is discovered by young Hogarth Hughes, who befriends the robot and hides him away in a local beatnik’s metal scrapyard.
That is, however, until a meddling federal agent comes into town with all of his McCarthyist paranoia about intergalactic warfare propelled by the Russians’ launching of Sputnik, thus provoking a witch hunt on the gentle giant that ends in a nuclear standoff threatening the small Maine town where the film is based. When The Iron Giant hit theaters at the tail end of the summer of 1999, it was lavished with the kind of critical praise seldom seen or heard of with regards to a children’s animated feature, having enjoyed a rare 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was nominated for several awards, including the coveted Hugo.
Unfortunately, thanks to the poor choice of a release date and a terribly mismanaged promotional campaign on the part of Warner Bros., The Iron Giant tanked at the box office, though it remains a cult classic to this day for animation geeks. Hopefully, in the advent of Bird’s back-to-back successes with The Incredibles and Ratatouille, more people wallowing in the mainstream will revisit The Iron Giant and appreciate it for the classic piece of animated film it is. Ron Hart