Tom Jolliffe travels back in time 20 years to 1999 to look over the cinematic landscape…
The millennium suddenly draws in. The century is in its final year. Cinema has a pre-occupation with apocalypse and disorder, chaos, among other things. It’s 1999. 20 years ago. That’s pretty frightening, but regardless, hold my hand, lets go have a look back over the years cinematic output.
Ending a century should be done in style. There are two films in particular that had a long standing impact on pop-culture and cult fandom from the year, which still maintain a strong following. First, 1999 is the year of The Matrix. It kind of grew slowly, really capturing the sub-cultures of society, and garnering a legion of geeky fans who fell in love with anything from the sci-fi references, the clothing, the Hong Kong inspired martial arts action, the ground-breaking effects and the philosophical and literary references within the film. True enough, that whilst The Matrix was certainly a magpies nest of stolen influences, it revolutionised visual effects and coined a term, that we still hear today, ‘Matrix style action.’ For a time after in the burgeoning years of the 21st century, you couldn’t move for the amount of films poorly riffing on Matrix-bullet-time-Fu.
Even today the film still looks spectacular and is engrossing, even if it’s almost aggressively po-faced, particularly in the face of a lot of silly dialogue and costumes. That said, the importance of what The Matrix did for sci-fi cinema can’t be underestimated. It was a much needed shot in the arm for a genre that was weighted down with disasters through the 90’s. Reeves himself had not long recovered from bombing spectacularly with Johnny Mnemonic. The success gave studios a boost in green-lighting more in the following decade, though the output was erratic as far as quality.
The other significant film of the year was Fight Club. Again, like The Matrix, this seemed to snowball a growing legion of fans. It wryly deconstructed modern consumerist society, with David Fincher’s trademark visual style, and housed the ‘other’ big plot twist of the year (the other being, The Sixth Sense which launched M. Night Shyamalan, and his fascination with final act rug pullers). It reconfirmed, if it actually did need it, that Brad Pitt was a sex God. The film feels uniquely ‘Fight Club’ with nothing really before or since drawing reasonable comparison. It’s not aiming for high art, but it’s a great piece of film-making and probably remains Fincher’s finest hour.
1999 saw significant launching pads for young directors, particularly the aforementioned M. Night Shyamalan with The Sixth Sense. His sophomore feature but one which made huge waves on the big screen and began a significant attempt to stifle a spread of spoilers for that end reveal. The year also saw Sam Mendes, coming from a theatre background, hit the big time fast with American Beauty, which whilst a tad overrated, and possibly difficult to watch in retrospect given Kevin Spacey’s current status, was a great signifier of his talents (I preferred his follow up, The Road To Perdition). The film also won the Best Picture award at the Oscars. Sofia Coppola also came to the attention of cinema with her film The Virgin Suicides as did David O. Russell with Three Kings.
The year would also mark the final film of Stanley Kubrick. Having gone years without making a film, in an every growing irregularity (not for the want of trying with some failed or aborted projects too, not least A.I, shortly before his death), Kubrick ended on something of a sour note. Years of development and a film that became as much about its power couple leads than the material itself, Eyes Wide Shut was divisive to say the least. It has all the hallmarks you expect from Kubrick, from beautiful visuals and minute attention to detail, but some found it pretentious, even preposterous. I find the film grows on me with every viewing, after an initially disappointing first watch. People also point to an odd lack of chemistry between the two leads (the then-married Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise) but that was also part of the point. Not for the first time in Kubrick’s career, time has been kind to the film, as people begin to unearth the hidden layers and pay closer attention to the insights. It’s not his best by any stretch of the imagination but still has hallmarks of a master firing on his A game (Kubrick has always had the ability to almost pig headedly approach his work, often splitting audiences/critics).
Some other critically acclaimed highlights included The Green Mile (the other Frank Darabont prison film based on the Stephen King book) and Magnolia which cemented Paul Thomas Anderson as a director to watch. The Insider was another excellent star powered vehicle for Michael Mann. David Lynch went low key and almost conventional in one of his subtlest works, The Straight Story.
The year would mark significant films in both horror and comedy. Far from the best of either from that year, but the two which spawned the most imitators in the following decade, were American Pie and The Blair Witch Project. American Pie rejuvenated the Porky’s teen comedy formula leading to a barrage of half-cocked (no pun intended) and lazy crude comedies. It has not particularly stopped either. The same can be said of The Blair Witch Project. This was a pop cultural phenomenon. Probably, (or along with, The Sixth Sense) THE ‘have you seen?…’ horror film of the year. As far as American Pie, a cult film like Office Space has dated a lot better, and has a wry observational quality that remains popular in modern TV and film comedy.
The year had a particularly strong output for animated films too. Toy Story 2 is still one of Pixar,’s best films. It perfected what they’d begun with the first and followed with A Bugs Life, but Toy Story 2 is a beautifully crafted film loaded with all the charm you expected then, and still expect. The Iron Giant was also a fantastic film, perhaps owing a little to Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, but wonderful and thoroughly engaging. Disney’s Tarzan was a decent entry too.
1999 also had a big pre-occupation with B movies, particularly hammer inspired films and monster movies. From The Mummy, to Deep Blue Sea, to Haunting, to Sleepy Hollow as well as an end of days fascination with films like Dogma (excellent), Stigmata or End of Days (not so excellent, but like Stigmata, featuring Gabriel Byrne). There was also a certain space set political thriller that wasn’t too great as well. One or two people may have been looking forward to it that year – Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
It’s interesting to note that the blockbuster line up isn’t filled with comic book films. The following year would see the well opened and a new dawn in cinematic tastes when X-Men was released, but 1999 brought to a close a decade of largely comic book graveyard, with the exception of Batman (and that had been deemed to have had its run after the derided Batman and Robin). In fact if you look at the year as a blockbuster collection, though it has The Matrix, it’s slim pickings otherwise. A few films thus grabbed cinema audiences, with almost unexpected impact such as The Sixth Sense, or Fight Club. There’s almost a sense of tailing off toward the end of the century, so the impact of The Matrix was certainly key on that front, going into a new century as CGI began to really take a front seat. There certainly seemed to be a sense of closure as the century ended, and new dawns by the following years, and it’s been interesting to see how tastes have developed over the past two decades.
What is your favourite film of 1999? Let us know in the comments below…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… http://tomjolliffe.wordpress.com/films/