My mind got drifting back in time today to an amazing period for American movies, which was the entirety of the year 1999.
I was 29 years old and recently divorced in that tumultuous year, and even more significantly, I was living alone in Texas, far from my family, and working as the city editor of the Sherman Herald-Democrat, in charge of the editorial output of 11 reporters.
I went to the movies that year – a lot.
Some incredibly creative and challenging films came out that year. Everything seemed edgy and new; movies seemed willing to step out where they had never gone before, questioning the status quo, suggesting new ways of living, rewarding protagonists (and even antagonists) who tried shaking things up. Sometimes this meant plunging characters into worlds never before seen or imagined; sometimes it meant putting them in contact (quite literally) with the dead. Sex was also a big topic, especially for one of the greatest living filmmakers, who died shortly before the release of what would be his last movie.
Heck, there was even, for the first time in almost 20 years, a new “Star Wars” episode on the big screen, but that turned out to be one of the least of the year’s offerings.
“American Beauty” won the top Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Actor, and while I loved it Back in the Day, today I am less of a fan. Kevin Spacey gave a funny, brilliant portrayal of an ordinary guy who figures out that life isn’t what he had it cracked up to be, but there were so many other performances that had just as much energy and depth. I’m thinking of Al Pacino in “The Insider” (my choice for best picture), Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense,” John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich,” and Brad Pitt in “Fight Club.” None of these actors, in these particular roles, was even nominated that year, which should indicate the strength of the year overall. (I haven’t even mentioned Tom Hanks in “The Green Mile” or Tom Cruise, emotionally constipated in Stanley Kubrick’s similarly unacknowledged “Eyes Wide Shut”.)
I could go on. You had Keanu Reeves’ Superman impersonation in “The Matrix,” Ed Norton’s frightened Narrator in “Fight Club” and Terence Stamp, ferocious in “The Limey.” What a stellar year for great acting.
On the female side of the equation, there were many great performances. Helena Bonham-Carter was fantastic as the suicidal Goth in “Fight Club;” Nicole Kidman, intelligent and sexy in “Eyes Wide Shut;” Catherine Keener, snarky in “Being John Malkovich,” and Toni Collette, so vulnerable and scared for her son, in “The Sixth Sense.” Best of all was Annette Bening in “American Beauty,” whose irritation with her husband turns potentially lethal as she succumbs to all the materialism in late-20th century America. Her journey from overbearing cheerleader mom to gun-toting monster was something to see.
It was a crazy year in which anything could happen in any film. Keanu Reeves discovered he could be a superhero by swallowing a blue pill in “The Matrix,” which changed cinema as we know it. Spacey realized – fatally – that he could tap into his unexplored potential by banging a blonde teenager in “American Beauty” (more on that later). Ed Norton found out he could beat insomnia by transforming into a brawler in “Fight Club.” John Cusack discovered a new revenue stream and creative outlet by crawling into John Malkovich’s brain. And a little boy discovered he could communicate with the dead, and save the soul of a lonely ghost, in “The Sixth Sense.”
These stories – met with varying degrees of success at the box office – were all weird but thoroughly committed to their weirdness. We often didn’t know the true nature of what was going on until the very end – just like many of the characters. This was the year in which the directors truly took control of their material. They weren’t just churning out product – there’s not an “Independence Day” or an “Armageddon” in the bunch – but making artistic statements that were also deeply personal. Even George Lucas took this route with the much-derided “Phantom Menace.” Love it or hate it, it was his story and he told it the way he wanted, with an irritating alien named Jar-Jar and spectacular CGI scenery.
Many films were rooted in reality with one foot in the supernatural. “The Matrix” got there first, with its office-bound desk worker, John Anderson, unearthing his Neo personality and engaging in a war against the Machines. In “The Green Mile,” uniformed authority figure Tom Hanks realizes the newest inmate on Death Row has Christ-like powers. In “Phantom Menace,” run-of-the-mill Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn realizes his young charge, Anakin Skywalker, has the makings of a truly extraordinary Jedi. In “Being John Malkovich,” Cusack’s manipulative puppet master reinvents his life when he discovers a supernatural portal into the brain of a great actor. All of these characters, and others, suggest that the way we are living is wrong – that there’s another great universe next door. It’s hard to remember a time when more films seemed to stem from the same basic idea.
I haven’t even mentioned yet two of the biggest, weirdest, loopiest films: “Magnolia,” by Paul Thomas Anderson, and “The Blair Witch Project,” by Myrick and Sanchez. There’s simply nothing else out there like them. They defy all expectations and create new ones. “Magnolia” is a sprawling epic about easily a dozen equally important characters who meander their way through a meteorologically bizarre day in southern California. It’s grounded by a sympathetic performance from John C. Reilly as a compassionate cop, and a hilariously snarky one by Tom Cruise as a sexist self-help guru. Cruise should have won an Oscar for this, hands down, but the fact is, he makes too much money, and in Hollywood, money is its own reward. If the film had won Best Picture and Best Director, there would be justice in the world, but again, it’s weird, and weird doesn’t always translate into popular. Nonetheless, if any movie defines 1999, it’s this one.
“The Blair Witch Project” was the most horrifying, suspenseful and flat-out WTF movie in a year FULL of WTF movies. Establishing the “found footage” horror genre, “Blair Witch” scared the shit out of audiences everywhere, and I went to see the film three times, recognizing it as the most fun rollercoaster ride out there. It never explains its mysteries, and indeed never really tells us anything, but proves that a few well-placed sound effects and a genuinely panicky and terrified cast can force our imaginations to work overtime. It made a hell of a lot of money, and a backlash developed, but this thing still holds up today as a frightening trip into the true heart of darkness.
My favorites of the year were: “American Beauty,” “The Insider,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Three Kings,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Magnolia,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Fight Club,” “Toy Story 2,” “The Iron Giant,” “The Green Mile,” “The Limey” and “The Matrix.” Even the trash was great: “The Mummy,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “The Haunting,” and the infamous (yet still entertaining) “Wild Wild West.” I’m putting “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” in its own category, for its own reasons. There are so many great directors on this list: Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Brad Bird, Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Mann, David O. Russell – and let’s not forget that even George Lucas and Martin Scorsese (“Bringing Out the Dead,” unloved by me), had films out. It was the best year ever, and it helped keep me entertained … and sane.