Critics' Awards 1999 - Film: Where have all the adults gone?

It's only sensible to worry for the health of an art form which hasn't produced a single masterpiece all year. But one thing makes me confident that better days are round the corner. The majority of this year's best cinema has been the work of debutantes or near-debutantes. The Blair Witch Project, the glorious Festen, Rushmore, High Art, and the little-seen Australian film Praise were all first features, or thereabouts.

The Blair Witch Project, unquestionably my film of the year, was a minor work possessed of that perfection which only minor works can achieve. It was a quintessentially cult film that inevitably disappointed some impossibly high multiplex expectations. But it will last. Blair Witch is a beautifully-timed essay on the relationship between the camera and anxiety. As a work of art it may have been the product of flukish accident, but then again, so was Anne Frank's Diary. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick had a genius editor who excavated this little gem from their planned, plodding mockumentary. I fear that Sanchez and Myrick will prove one- hit wonders. As a debut, Lisa Cholodenko's High Art was comparable in its impact to Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape (1989), only it was sexier, less mendacious, and better filmed. Its exquisite architecture generated a world of multiplying ironies of which Henry James would have been proud. Peter Curren's Praise had many of the same virtues. It may have been less intelligent, but it had redder blood. Both films were youthfully solemn, but a sense of humour - as opposed to a joke-reflex - is one of the slowest-maturing virtues in an artist. Cholodenko and Curren are already slyly witty (unlike, unfortunately, 1999's victim of overpraise, Lynne Ramsay and her Ratcatcher) and can write as well as they direct: they've both got It.

Like Max Fischer. Or not. Along with Dianne Wiest's Helen Sinclair (Bullets Over Broadway) and William H Macy's Jerry Lundegaard (Fargo), Max, the genius nincompoop hero of Rushmore, was the decade's great toe-curlingly comic creation. Wes Andersen's debut, like Max, may signal great things or may merely be so much unreliable charm. But his was the year's most thrillingly fresh voice.

All four of these films, unsurprisingly, are concerned with people in their early twenties or younger. Given the ages of their creators, this is only natural. But something else entirely seems to be happening to the mainstream, to commercial cinema's lifeblood. This was, definingly, the year of the high-school movie - 10 Things I Hate About You, The Faculty, Cruel Intentions, Election, She's All That and (less laudably) American Pie and Never Been Kissed. These films are emphatically not millennial Breakfast Clubs and Pretty in Pinks. As adult audiences are coming to realise, they're thoughtful and sharp as tacks. But they are popular because there's a growing vacuum where cinema's heartland used to be - the wide world of grown-up everyday existence. On one side of this hole were films so sour and defeated that their loss of faith was their subject: Your Friends and Neighbours, Fight Club, The Opposite of Sex. On the other side, mushy dinosaurs like You've Got Mail and Notting Hill were films in complete denial about human behaviour, films that shamed the distinguished Hollywood tradition of romantic comedy. The most honourable exceptions aside from the debutantes list include Bertolucci's Besieged, Mike Hodges' Croupier, Gillies MacKinnon's Hideous Kinky, M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense and Steven Soderbergh's The Limey. And Todd Solondz's Happiness gave just that to many. And British Film? In continuing to overpraise and cosset substandard domestic work, we injure no one but ourselves. Well, awards are our current mania, so why fight it? The best and worst of 1999: the most implausibly stoned person in the history of narcotics: Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Least likely intergalactic make-over: turning the Jedi into a plc in The Phantom Menace. Base metals into gold award: Keanu Reeves, a revelation in The Matrix. Best camerawork: Wim Wenders unafraid to stay put and gaze in Buena Vista Social Club. Best comeback: the five- dimensional Ally Sheedy in High Art. Best moment: when the good son Christian accuses his father in Festen (and everyone carries on eating their tiramisu). Best performer: the French actor Daniel Auteuil in Chris Menges' The Lost Son. His was a masterclass in quiet and in intent, in how a character emerges through minutiae - an optimistic glance around the bar, a blink suggesting the wringing out of tears. Oh, and a tip to casting directors: Daniel Craig (The Trench, Love is the Devil) would make a perfect Jack Kerouac. Scattered diamonds aside, it's been an underwhelming year. But as Philip Larkin said in The Trees: "Last year is dead, they seem to say / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."

Previous winners

Best films

1991 Edward Scissorhands

1992 The Double Life of Veronique

1993 Groundhog Day

1994 Schindler's List

1995 Crumb

1996 Smoke

1997 The Sweet Hereafter

1998 The Truman Show

Best actor

1991 Annette Bening in

The Grifters

1992 Jon Lovitz in A League

of Their Own

1993 Holly Hunter in The Piano

1994 Daniel Day-Lewis in In The Name of the Father and The Age of Innocence

1995 Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

1996 Kevin Spacey in Seven

1997 Kathy Burke in Nil by Mouth

1998 Nick Nolte in Affliction