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Was 1999 The Best Year Ever For Movies?

Crowds of over 500 people stood in line for "Star Wars" tickets that went on sale Wednesday, May 12, 1999 at The Senator theatre in Baltimore for the premier of "The Phantom Menace." (Gail Burton/AP)
Crowds of over 500 people stood in line for "Star Wars" tickets that went on sale Wednesday, May 12, 1999 at The Senator theatre in Baltimore for the premier of "The Phantom Menace." (Gail Burton/AP)

With David Folkenflik

“Fight Club.” “American Beauty.” “The Matrix.” 1999 was a blockbuster year for movies. But was it the best ever year in film?

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Brian Raftery, freelance journalist who’s written for publications such as Wired, GQ, New York, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. Author of “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen.” (@BrianRaftery)

Shawn Edwards, film critic for Fox 4 News in Kansas City. Co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association. (@sedwardskc)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Best. Movie. Ever.” by Brian Raftery

It began with January’s Sundance Film Festival debut of The Blair Witch Project—a jumpy, star-free vomit comet—and ended with the December deluge of Magnolia, the movie-ist movie of the year, featuring a 188-minute running time, a plague of frogs, and the sight of megaceleb  Tom Cruise crotch thrusting his way to catharsis. In between came a collision of visions, all of them thrillingly singular: The Matrix. The Sixth Sense. Election. Rushmore. Office Space. The Virgin Suicides. Boys Don’t Cry. Run Lola Run. The Insider. Three Kings. Being John Malkovich. Many of those films—along with Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace, the most unpopular popular movie of the year, if not of all time—would break the laws of narrative, form, and even bullet-time– bending physics. In 1999, “The whole concept of ‘making a movie’ got turned on its head,” proclaimed writer Jeff Gordinier in a November cover story in Entertainment Weekly. “The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble.”

Yet for all their audacity, the movies of 1999 were also sneakily personal, luring viewers with promises of high-end thrills or movie star grandeur—only to turn the focus back on the audience, forcing them to consider all sorts of questions about identity and destiny: Who am I? Who else could I be? The body-bending thrills of The Matrix; the white- collar uprisings of Fight Club and Office Space; the self-seeking voyages of Being John Malkovich andBoys Don’t Cry; the Xbox-on-ecstasy story line swaps of Go and Run Lola Run. Each was a glimpse of not just an alternate world but an alternate you—maybe even the real you. As exhilarating as it was to walk into a theater that year, it felt ever better to float on out, alive with a sense of potential, the end credits hinting at a new start. Maybe something amazing was awaiting us on the other side of 1999.

“It was a new century—the beginning of a new story,” says director M. Night Shyamalan, whose spiritual shocker The Sixth Sense would become 1999’s second-highest-grossing movie. “And it was a time for original voices. The people paying to make the movies—and the people going to the movies—all said, ‘We don’t need to know where we are going. We trust the filmmaker.’ ”

Studio executives have long lusted for the so-called four-quadrant movie—a film that appeals equally to men and women, young and old. But 1999 was a four-quadrant year: it had something for everyone. The domestic box office pulled in nearly $7.5 billion, and although some of that was fueled by franchise entries such as Toy Story 2 and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, many of the most successful films of 1999 were complete originals: The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, American Pie, Notting Hill, and The Blair Witch Project all made more than $100 million, even though none was based on a comic book series, a TV show, or a real-life witch (despite what some Blair viewers may have believed). “One thing I learned from my farmer friends is that, every twenty or thirty years, you get a good harvest,” says actor Luis Guzmán, who appeared in Magnolia and The Limey (and who spends a good amount of time in rural Vermont). “And that’s how I look at the movies from 1999.”

Film dictated the conversation that year—which is impressive when you consider just how satisfyingly overstuffed 1999 was. Topforty pop had just been reignited by MTV’s Total Request Live and such crazy-sexy-cruel mainstays as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Eminem, and Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. And the January arrival of the mob drama The Sopranos—the most must-see TV show in a year that was full of them, from The West Wing to Freaks and Geeks—heralded a small-screen overthrow that would only become more pronounced in the years to come.

But in 1999, the movies were still the higher power of popular culture. You had to see Fight Club—or American Beauty or Rushmore or Magnolia—if for no other reason than to see what everyone else was talking about.

From BEST MOVIE YEAR EVER: HOW 1999 BLEW UP THE BIG SCREEN by Brian Raftery. Copyright © 2019 by Brian Raftery.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

Houston Chronicle: “The best year for movies? A new book makes the case for an unexpected choice.” — “‘One thing I learned from my farmer friends is that, every twenty years, you get a good harvest.’

“That’s how veteran character actor Luis Guzman describes the batch of movies that came out in 1999. That quote appears in the prologue of “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen,” Brian Raftery’s entertainingly freewheeling rundown of the original, subversive and eventually influential films from that year.

“Raftery practically had the inside dope on all these flicks, since he was an intern at the time for Entertainment Weekly, a magazine which already had proclaimed that 1999 was a revolutionary year for film in a cover story that same year.”

The Ringer: “The 50 Best Movies of 1999” — “Welcome to 1999 Movies Week, a celebration of one of the best years in film history. Throughout the week, The Ringer will highlight some of the year’s best, most interesting films, but there’s no better way to prove what a high quality, diverse year ‘99 was at the box office than by ranking the movies. Yesterday, we ranked nos. 50 through 26 on the list—now, we can reveal the Top 25. Here is Part 2 of The Ringer’s ranking of the best movies in 1999.”

Hilary McQuilkin produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.