1999 was all about transformations and transitions. Y2K was imminent and Bill Clinton was acquitted. Movie tickets were $5 and filmmaking started to experiment in innovative and interesting ways. With the new millennium right around the corner, anxiety rises of what the world looks like for the next decade, but the zeitgeist was captured by the films that we got that year.
Foreshadowing what will come through Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace or The Matrix to give some of the best (and my favorite) directorial debuts like Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. It was raining frogs, a certain fight club we couldn’t talk about was taken too seriously and even David Lynch made a film filled joy instead of dread. To those keen on pop culture, 1999 just gets better with time.
What could be taken from a year-end box office containing The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project? More than not, what generated intrigue was word of mouth for original ideas with interesting narrative flourishes that have broken the mainstream. Like the intelligent and groundbreaking twist of The Sixth Sense that for better or for worse Shyamalan was never able to be divorced from, unheard of visuals and sci-fi concepts that the Wachowski Sisters brought to The Matrix, or how easy it became to use the internet to market a movie like The Blair Witch Project, even without a marketable face and never eliciting financial success.
Of the ten highest-grossing films from 1999, only three were a sequel, reboot, or continuation of a franchise. Unheard of today, it helped make what was to come from newly established voices like Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher. How cinema was to evolve into the next millennium seemed to be on everyone’s mind (a conversation that seems to have started back up as we go into the 2020s)—a need for inventive filmmaking was at an all-time high. Yet, it’s not like there was any sort of drought for inspired cinema, the 90s were a prosperous time in America for some.—what was to come was a trend to stand out from the rest.
Going from Office Space, largely a satire about Mike Judge’s real frustrations turned existential comedy about the cubicle environment, to Fight Club, where Fincher and Palahniuk argue and satirize how draining it is for men who just want to act out on their aggression instead of repressing it. Arguably most famously, Best Picture winning American Beauty (which has its own cluster of issues on its own) use the dull and lifeless work environment to show how trapped and depressed Lester Burnham becomes which then acts as a catalyst to his midlife crisis.
In fact, all of these classics use an office setting to leap into the character’s true want and desire. Taking on more of a specific intent than before, not only are these settings common in some of the most popular movies from 1999, but they also have a similar function that says a great deal about America at that time. How dehumanizing it was to just look at the same four walls with being boxed in by even smaller walls depletes your sense of self-worth—is what I think that David Fincher, Sam Mendes, the Wachowski sisters, and Mike Judge are trying to ultimately get at here. While simultaneously sewed into the larger tapestry of, say, something larger than just the workplace, and pointing out just how absurd the whole cubicle office is in the process.
In hindsight, 1999 acts like the time where we all couldn’t take it anymore. Breaking free of thoughts like “is this it?”—refusing to conform and finally become to the person you have always wanted to be. That was certainly the case for Peter (Ron Livingston) in Office Space, now without filter or regret. It’s this specific dead job that spoke to the general consensus of that working-class— having nowhere to go and such little hope for life left.
1999 gave us two sides of Tom Cruise that we hadn’t seen yet. No less, one during the height of the summer season and the other in the middle of Oscar season, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to score him an Oscar. Coming off of Jerry Maguire and Mission Impossible three years prior (some of Cruise’s most financially prosperous projects at that time), Cruise had more than enough fame to take a well-deserved break when faced with what was then to be the most challenging material of his career. Yet, after making an anticipated return in 1999, Tom Cruise polarizing audiences could be an understatement when which he gave himself over to Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick.
Eyes Wide Shut, the final masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick, had broken the world record for the longest production ever seen. Then couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are exhausted after countless amounts of takes, re-shoots and tested patience just for the opportunity to work with one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. “Cruise Kidman Kubrick” was even the working title when marketing began. For a movie that took so long to make and so little was known about what it was, the big names itself created the amount of intrigue needed. Cruise plays Bill Hartford, a wealthy doctor living in New York City with his wife, Alice (Kidman), when one night, Bill reconnects with an old friend, Nick Nightingale, (Todd Field) who then leads him down a rabbit hole of discovering an Illuminati-esque organization.
1999 was shortly before Cruise’s involvement in the Church of Scientology became public—his star power was still intact, but the perception of one of the greatest names of this generation was altered. In hindsight, it’s not hard to connect the dots that Kubrick knew of Cruise’s involvement before many others and used the wealthy, sexual group of people in Eyes Wide Shut as a metaphor for Scientology (or at least his interpretation of Cruise finding it). Cruise plays Hartford with swagger, curiosity, and vulnerability (in that order), which is a clear indication that Kubrick knows and relishes the kind of man Cruise has become. It’s here when Kubrick starts to break down a figure with so much composure and dignity—Hartford doesn’t recognize himself anymore, thus we don’t recognize Cruise.
In Magnolia, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who was fresh off of his sophomore feature Boogie Nights, unleashes an unhinged Cruise that will earn him his second Oscar nomination and second loss to date. Taking the back seat for other characters in the legendary ensemble to shine would prove to be a smart one, because there is only so much of Frank “TJ” Macky the movie can take.
I don’t think there are any “poor” years in cinema like some may proclaim. Others may just have their favorites as well because of a certain special connection (I know mine is 1999 because that’s the year I was born). Yet there is always going to be critical failures or forgotten gems, Oscar hopefuls, questioning “is cinema dead once and for all?” for one reason or another. Every year means change and change is good in some capacity, 1999 was on the brink of the 00s just like twenty years later, 2019 is quickly approaching the 2020s.
Other great 1999 films not mentioned/pictured above: