Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: A Look Back at the Cinema of 1999

By  · Published on January 5th, 2010

Ten years ago Entertainment Weekly published a headlining article called, “1999: The Year that Changed Movies.” This article was published over a month before that year was even over, on November 26, 1999. In that article Jeff Gordinier outlines not an onslaught of repeated themes or shared characteristics between the films released in 1999 that could stand as evidence for the sea-change in filmmaking practice that the article’s title suggests, but instead rather excitedly rattles off a list of the many good-or-simply-unique movies released that year.

Upon first glance it seems that the only thing this article proves is that there were quite a few interesting movies released that year, without necessarily containing a convincing case that these films occurred as a result of changing cultural sensibilities or a new collective breed of creative filmmaker like New Hollywood films of the early-to-mid 1970s were so clearly subject to. But an onslaught of good films are not always the result of a unified artistic movement, and instead often seem to be the result of simple coincidental timing, only later seen as something more with the benefit of time. The oft-cited year of comparison, 1939 – which saw the release of major gamechangers like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, and more – is often considered the greatest year in American cinema, but rarely has anybody made the case of there being a larger determination of why so many good films were released in the same year, leaving serendipity to be the only explanation.

Now that more than a decade has past since its publication, we can safely say whether or not the arguments made within Gordinier’s article contain any weight, as “changing cinema” can only be proven or disproven by seeing how it affected what came afterward. Granted, it wasn’t only Gardinier’s article that made such a bold claim. Critics, fans, and filmmakers alike have pointed back to 1999 as a year which released a curious number of groundbreaking movies. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that several years since 1999 have been seen as bad-to-mediocre years for movies, or maybe 1999 really was everything it’s hyped up to be.

But at issue here is what “changing cinema” really means, and it’s a question I don’t think gets asked enough. It seems that movies which are truly original often get confused with major gamechangers. Take Memento for instance. To say that film was a landmark of innovative storytelling is a safe, accurate, and maybe even a bit of an understated claim. To say that Memento altered the way in which cinema as a storytelling medium is narrativized and experienced would also be an easy case to make. But to say that Memento changed cinema implies a direct influence to later filmmaking, which is something far harder to evidence as that film still seems – to this day – a singularly unique case in effective experimental storytelling.

When it comes to technology, however, it’s far easier to make the case that a film or group of films have changed the face of cinema. Such discussions have taken place ad nauseam with regard to Avatar – and while that film’s story may be composed (for better or worse) largely through archetype, it’s hard to deny that the technology employed within is a harbinger of cinematic achievement yet to come. So it is from a technological standpoint that The Matrix easily stands out as one of 1999’s most important films. While bullet-time special effects work quickly became a tired and oft-parodied example of pseudo-evidence of The Matrix’s technological influence, its marriage with original, engaging storytelling and the justification for its use of special effects through the story’s real world/fake world delineation and themes of transcendence altogether made for a potent combination that morphed the film into a huge cultural event, a piece of original sci-fi that almost overshadowed the not-so-triumphant return of George Lucas several months later.

However, the real extent of The Matrix’s technological influence on later filmmaking can be seen outside the film itself, on the Internet where a collective community of people from all around the world were allowed to speculate and build theories on ideas behind and outside of The Matrix. This practice, of course, is par for the course these days, but in the era of Web 1.0 it was a pretty revolutionary means of consuming movies. (However, with the case of The Matrix, the many discursive theories exchanged within its fanbase proved to be far more complex and interesting than the end of the franchise as the filmmakers realized it).

The same practice can be said to have allowed for the success and similar cultural event that was The Blair Witch Project, alleged to be the first film whose buzz was successfully made through Internet word-of-mouth. Despite that the film itself has hardly sustained staying power within the cultural zeitgeist, Blair Witch heralded a new means for DIY independent filmmakers to create buzz for their films and later distribute them in the digital age (oddly enough, enabled through a film manifested exclusively through analog filmmaking technology). Blair Witch also predicated the many more found footage films released these last few years.

However, any connections made between the other notable films of 1999 are less apparent. In one sense, and as Gordinier argues, 1999 could be seen as the old regime making way for a new group of filmmakers. 1999 was, after all, the year that George Lucas disappointed and Stanley Kubrick, well, died (and neither of their films released that year were received with universal praise). 1999 did see many (comparatively) young talents releasing unique films, including – but not limited to – David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, David Fincher’s Fight Club, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, and the US distribution of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run.

With the exceptions of the astonishing feature debuts of Mendes and Jonze, these were not the first films by any of these filmmakers, and several of them had already made their name before this honored year. I could go on forever in responding to how each of these films stack up with ten years of hindsight, but I don’t think it’s the individual films of 1999 themselves that matter as much as the promise they brought with the filmmakers’ helming of them. While the Wachowski brothers and Blair Witch filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick fell by the wayside this past decade, all the filmmakers listed in the above paragraph have continued to make interesting and notable work since 1999. Their ambitious work since has disappointed, confused, polarized, and sometimes exceeded expectations, but a conversation still occurs each time one of their names show up attached to a project.

1999 was not a year where a heap of individual films changed filmmaking in some irreparable or drastic fashion. In fact, in many ways the opposite occurred. A surprising amount of films listed here were financed by studio dollars, and were released in a brief sliver of time before studios devoted themselves almost exclusively to franchise materials. The lack of box office success of some of these films ensured that fewer financial risks would happen over edgy material in the future, as a major regime change happened at 20th Century Fox over the huge financial loss incurred in the theatrical distribution of Fight Club. 1999 was a special year not as much for the films made, but more convincingly because of the filmmakers behind them. They weren’t a collective movement like the filmmakers of early 90s independent cinema, New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s, or unified cinematic fronts like France’s New Wave, but they were a group of individuals who cemented their name in the minds of cinephiles that year and gave us work to look forward to throughout this past decade.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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