As far as I’m concerned, 1998-2000 is the golden age of modern cinema. Yes, there are lots of other great periods in recent film history, but it’s not since the ‘70s that you had so much innovation and so many directors (and studios, amazingly enough) embracing a spirit of independence and the idea of the auteur. There were at least a dozen great films each of these three years, as we got to see the emergence of the likes of Spike Jonez, P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Sam Mendes (once upon a time, I could have put Shymalan and the Wachowskis on this list without irony!), plus brilliant films from the Coen Brothers, Terrence Mallick, and other greats. The biggest component of this renaissance was the financial success of Miramax and the studios’ subsequent willingness to let directors go wild (until they produced enough oddball bombs that the studios reined most of then in). A lesser, but still important, component was the increasing use of new effects techniques for subtler character points or atmosphere rather than just to make things go ‘splodey. I'd say the latter plays a big role here.
I have a very vivid memory of seeing Dark City in the theaters in 1998; it’s not often that a film takes you completely by surprise, but Dark City had been poorly publicized, and I had no idea what it was about. I convinced some friends to see it based off of a glowing Ebert review, and I was completely blown away by the films’ visuals, and its willingness to take the sci-fi elements up to 11. Alex Proyas has done nothing before or since this film to really distinguish himself, but this film does belong on my “Great Films of the Late 90s” list.
In the city, it’s always nighttime, and at midnight, the clocks stop and everyone goes to sleep. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up during one of these episodes with no memory in a hotel room containing a dead girl. He soon finds out that he’s suspected as a serial killer by a detective (William Hurt), and that he’s separated from his wife Emma after she cheated on him (the always-gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, looking even better than usual), but he’s pretty sure he’s never met Emma and that he’s never killed anyone. He’d also like to see Shell Beach, the oceanside community where he grew up, but no one can tell him how to get out of the city. Soon, strange-looking men are chasing him, and he discovers his own telekinetic powers. It gets weirder from there. I didn’t even mention Kiefer Sutherland’s rather bizarre performance.
This film pays a lot of tribute German expressionism, and rather started a fad for the style’s revival (see The Matrix, which also shares many plot elements). It’s a beautiful film, and yet it’s not shy about its pulpy roots. Dark City is not perfect – the characters are flat, more or less by necessity, but the dialogue is even flatter But, it is unique, and a really great experience if you haven’t seen it. I’m not sure it’s aged all that well, and I think The Matrix stole a lot of its thunder, but it’s still worth a look.
It says on all the sites I checked that Dark City tied with Michael Bay's Armageddon for this award. I’m just going to go ahead and assume that’s some sort of mistake, or perhaps an elaborate April Fool's joke, because Armageddon is an all-around terrible film.