1999 at the movies: The year of living dangerously
In a time when multiplexes are bloated with franchise product, it is easy to call 1999 the last great year at the movies
In "Lisa the Vegetarian," a long-ago (1995!) episode of The Simpsons, the cartoon family's middle child bravely announces to father Homer that she's going to abstain from eating meat. This act of youthful rebellion leads to this classic exchange between father and daughter:
"Does that mean you're not going to eat any pork?"
"Dad, all those meats come from the same animal!"
"Right, Lisa, some wonderful, magical animal."
Although it's a reach to connect a Simpsons joke to a particular era of cinema – and at the risk of abusing The Globe's unofficial policy on the number of times writers can use Simpsons quotes as column material – the year 1999 feels like Homer's wonderful, magical animal, albeit for movies.
That long-ago 12-month stretch offered everything a carnivore of cinema could hunger for: The Matrix. Fight Club. Eyes Wide Shut. Magnolia. Election. The Talented Mister Ripley. American Beauty. Bringing Out the Dead. Boys Don't Cry. Toy Story 2. The Iron Giant. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Any Given Sunday. Existenz. Galaxy Quest. Go. Run Lola Run. The Sixth Sense. Three Kings. Titus. The Blair Witch Project. And on and on and on.
Across genres and up and down the budgetary scale, 1999 proved to be a revolutionary year. Some filmmakers were working at the top of their game (Michael Mann's perfect journalism drama The Insider, Steven Soderbergh's puzzle-box crime thriller The Limey), while others were making incendiary debuts that foreshadowed the many masterpieces to come (Sofia Coppola's poignant The Virgin Suicides, and her then-husband Spike Jonze's head trip Being John Malkovich). There were only a half-a-dozen sequels, and fewer remakes or reboots. Even the lowbrow offerings were memorable at worst, radical at best (Deep Blue Sea, Dick, Office Space).
Nineteen years later – when it seems that the multiplexes are bloated with franchise product, and what breakthroughs there are arrive jammed in a two-month frenzy around the winter holidays – it is easy to call 1999 the last great year at the movies.
Or at least that's the (convincing) argument made by Canadian television writer Phillip Iscove and his American colleague Kenny Neibart in the pair's new project, Podcast Like It's 1999. The series, available now on iTunes, aims to dissect all 250 major releases of that wonderful, overwhelming year – before, as the pair put it in their debut episode, reality television, HBO and the internet divided everyone's attention.
"It just feels, and has for a while, like a seminal year for movies. It's undeniable," says Iscove, a Toronto native who co-created Fox's Sleepy Hollow and is now working on the Grey's Anatomy spinoff Station 19 for ABC.
"We never sat down and said we had to create a podcast, so let's search for a subject," adds Neibart, who's worked on HBO's Entourage and VH1's Hindsight. "It sprung more out of talking about 1999 all the time. Whenever the two of us would get together, the conversations kept coming back to that year. The Matrix, Magnolia, Fight Club. We had to talk about it."
Part of 1999's stellar run can be chalked up to development-cycle serendipity – Eyes Wide Shut had been brewing in Stanley Kubrick's mind since the 1960s, Brad Bird's The Iron Giant had been in development for six years – but there was something intangible in the air, too. A sense that a new generation of non-traditional directors were looking around at the landscape and tossing out the old rules of studio filmmaking – and somehow convincing those same studios to pay for this dismantling.
"David Fincher was coming off of Seven, and he delivered Fight Club. Paul Thomas Anderson was coming off of Boogie Nights with unprecedented creative control, and he delivered Magnolia," says Iscove. "It was a deluge of stuff that came to being all at once."
For Iscove and Neibart, other years in Hollywood history come close to '99 – 1994, for instance, with Pulp Fiction and The Lion King; 1986, with Blue Velvet, Aliens, and Manhunter; and 1939, which delivered the touchstones of modern cinema, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind – but, the pair either weren't as involved moviegoers during those eras or, well, alive.
Which brings up the question of whether 1999 is a true watershed moment, or perhaps more of a generational touchstone for those currently active and wielding power in the creative industries. Neibart remembers the year fondly because he was beginning to discover film while in his junior year of high school. Iscove was in his first year of film school at Toronto's Ryerson University. I was in a similar and highly impressionable mindset myself: in the midst of high school, working at a movie theatre part-time, and sneaking into screenings of Being John Malkovich and Fight Club mid-shift.
Yet a cursory look at the past few years – and all the myriad masterpieces since delivered – seems small compared to the achievements of 1999. Even an analysis of the box office, admittedly hardly an arbiter of quality, inches this theory forward. In 1999, the top-10 highest-grossing films of the year included five original films – that is, with no intellectual property attached – including a quiet horror story that twisted genre conventions (The Sixth Sense), a groundbreaking sci-fi-philosophical-whatchamacallit (The Matrix) and an ultra-low-budget experiment that rocked the indie world (The Blair Witch Project). In 2017, eight of the year's highest earners were sequels or spinoffs of no special distinction, the remaining two reboots of equal measure.
Even seasoned critics and observers at the time sensed something special was going on.
"You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It's already here," wrote Jeff Gordinier in a November, 1999, column for Entertainment Weekly. "Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. … The year when the whole concept of 'making a movie' got turned on its head."
To go back to my original Simpsons writing crutch, 1999 was a year you could have your pork, bacon, and ham – and eat it, too.