Was 1999 truly the best year for movies in recent memory? Perhaps. But 1999 is almost certainly the most quotable movie year of the last few decades. “Whoa.” “I see dead people.” “I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.” “PC Load Letter? The fuck does that mean?” “Respect the cock.” “I don’t want your life!” “I’ve been wondering: what are midichlorians?”
Okay, that last one might not be quotable per se, but still: you probably recognize that line. You know where it came from. If you were of prime movie-watching age in 1999—between 15 and 25, say—you probably watched some of these movies in their original theatrical run. Even if you didn’t, you caught them as part of the DVD revolution, as big box stories slashed prices on discs and box office misfires like Office Space and Fight Club earned cult followings.
Brian Raftery’s new book, Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, will be catnip for those of us who recall this golden age. Featuring interviews with directors like Mike Judge (Office Space), Michael Mann (The Insider) and Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), and actors like Brendan Fraser (The Mummy), John Cho (American Pie), and Sarah Michelle Gellar (Cruel Intentions), Raftery’s guided tour through the cinema of 1999 is an entertaining, quick read.
Moving chronologically, Raftery walks us through the festival sensation that was The Blair Witch Project, reminds us of the revolution that was The Matrix‘s bullet time, and signals the beginning of the end of the industry with The Phantom Menace. There’s a brief detour through the teen romps of that year, an extended examination of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and a look at some of 1999’s indie sensations (Being John Malkovich, The Limey). By year’s end, we arrive at two major works from masters (Mann’s The Insider and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia), as well as the socially aware critical darling, Boys Don’t Cry. And we haven’t even touched on flicks like The Iron Giant, Three Kings, Election, and Rushmore. (Though the less said about the creaky American Beauty—which for some reason gets a full chapter here even as The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bringing out the Dead, and Toy Story 2 barely earn a mention—the better.)
For those of us who came of age around this time (I myself was 16/17 that year), it’s no wonder 1999 feels like a golden age of cinema, one last gasp of originality before sequels and franchises expanded virus-like at the multiplex. “Many big-studio sequels have become interchangeable, with screen-swallowing digital effects and dialogue so rote and expository, it feels as though it was written by committee,” Raftery argues in the epilogue.
Those he interviews are similarly despondent. “‘What happened to the movies?’ asks Kirsten Dunst,” Raftery writes. “Looking at a list of the films of 1999, she says, ‘I was like, “How is this even possible?” It showed me how poor the movies are these days.’” The Virgin Suicides star was not alone in this lament. “‘You don’t really go to movies for ideas anymore or to get challenged in the way that you used to,’ says American Pie‘s John Cho. ‘They’re more like bedtime stories: you know what you’re going to get, and you use it to get a particular feeling.’”
Leaving aside the irony of an American Pie star suggesting the movies of 1999 represented an intellectual highwater, there’s a wistfulness here that doesn’t quite track. Audiences weren’t going to these movies in 1999. Fight Club grossed roughly half its budget, domestically. Office Space didn’t crack the top 100 highest grossing films of 1999, earning a paltry $10.8 million. Election earned under $15 million, Rushmore made $17 million, and Magnolia made $22 million. The Insider cost $90 million and grossed less than a third of that. Boys Don’t Cry was a solid hit, given that it grossed $11.5 million a $2 million budget.
You get the sense from Raftery that 1999 was a hinge year, one in which the door slammed shut on creativity rather than swinging open to a New New Hollywood. And anyone who has worked as a professional critic for the last ten years will be more than happy to complain about the endless grind of comic book movies and franchise reboots/remakes/reimaginings; the sea of sequels in which we swim stretches to the horizon.
But, still: there are bright spots. 1999 was unique not because something was in the water or because a new swell of talent was emerging but because it featured an unusually high number of auteurs doing auterist things.
2007 had a similarly impressive collection of talent: PTA’s There Will Be Blood, the Coen Brothers’s No Country for Old Men, and David Fincher’s Zodiac are all in contention for best film of the new millennium; Superbad, Knocked Up, and Juno defined the comedic stylings of that decade; an aging great, Sidney Lumet, released his final film, the brilliant Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; overlooked classics like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Eastern Promises found audiences on home video after being ignored in theaters; the cinema of parody reached new heights with Hot Fuzz and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; and stylish efforts like 300 and 30 Days of Night offered comic book adaptations that transcended the genre’s superhero limitations. 2012 saw great movies from both Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas), Kathryn Bigelow, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, both Stevens (Spielberg and Soderbergh), and the Wachowskis.
Still, 1999 may represent a highwater mark for the monoculture, and Raftery’s book is an excellent guide to the end of the movie industry’s unipolar moment. Set aside the boom in prestige TV, the proliferation of podcasts, and the distractions of social media. Consumers have greater ability than ever to watch movies and filmmakers have more options than ever before to distribute their work. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are winning Oscars; smaller studios like Cinestate are pioneering day-and-date releases that bring films to a few theaters and millions of TVs; iPhones are being used to shoot pictures and tell stories that never could have been made otherwise.
This proliferation of options and the increasingly tiny slivers of market share that they capture means that there’s little the culture at large will share. The time of “TPS reports” serving as a general punchline has passed. That loss is real, and lamentable. But what we’ve gotten in return may be even better.
You can purchase Brian Raftery’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or at a bookseller near you.
Sonny Bunch is the executive editor of, and film critic for, the Washington Free Beacon. He’s also a cohost of The Sub-Beacon podcast and a contributor to the Washington Post.