LET'S PARLEY LIKE IT'S 1999: A YEAR AT THE MOVIES
In the moment, the main thing 1999 had going for it was that it wasn't 1998. While there were some bright spots—Out of Sight, the Yankees being good—overall '98 was a rough year, personally. In brief: I almost flunked out of college after crashing and burning out of the film department, endured numerous ludicrous melodramas involving a circle of friends to which I was frequently unsure I even belonged, and came to a belated realization about the cause of both of these conundra, namely that I was doing entirely too many drugs. Due to loneliness, existential anxiety, and being a young dumbass, I dropped acid every weekend all fall, on top of the galaxy brain decision that speed was healthier for me than coffee and considering weed and beer to be two of the four food groups. I was a mess. And my alienation from the cinema in general, while seemingly minor compared to the rest of this rampant stupidity, was actually the worst part. I had a really hard time watching movies after flaming out as a film student, and for a few months just wasn't really going to the movie theater, except for Out of Sight but that was church (Clooney, Jenny, Soderbergh, Elmore Leonard, come on, ennui or no ennui, that's essential). But, after that time away, over winter break, somewhere around New Year's 1999, a lot of fog of various types lifted and I decided to start really going to the movies again.
What follows is a partial reconstruction of the next year; these were not the only movies I saw that year (there was plenty of rep, plenty of rewatches, etc), but these were the new releases I saw in theaters, in between acting in East German communist-inspired Shakespeare productions, stonewalling Kim Gordon in her attempts to buy the third Harry Potter book early, and foolishly believing the Knicks had a shot against San Antonio:
January: End of 1998 catch-up, the highlight of which was the foreboding realization, had while freezing my balls off somewhere in Queens, that I liked Shakespeare in Love more than Saving Private Ryan. No new releases, mainly because they all looked like shit, but also because time was limited what with the end-of-'98 catch-up and the diligent socializing with what friends I had in New York that month.
February: Back at school, limited free time, BUT: Payback came out. Now, I know Mel's canceled now (though the fact that he's in a new movie kind of makes one question the efficacy of cancellation), and even then it was known that he was at best a little weird, but his contributions to the field of ownage are undeniable, and here he was playing Richard Stark's Parker. Enough other friends were sufficiently motivated that we all went and had a jolly old time watching Mel get every bone in his body crunched to fuck while quipping wryly, and eventually through stubbornly not dying he owned all the bad guys and rode off into the moonlight with Maria Bello. Payback still rules. I still rewatch it, even if watching Mel brutalize his onscreen avatar feels weird sometimes. It felt a little weird then, too,.
Later in February, on an unfortunate night, I was roped into going to see Office Space under various false pretenses and was too annoyed by sobering up over the course of its run time to properly appreciate it, which, through the gift of VHS, I was later able to do. It happens. The experience matters.
March:: Headassing my way through the above-mentioned East German Midsummer Night's Dream where the fairies were in fetish garb and the director was openly trying to fuck half the girls in the cast even though (because?) his wife was pregnant with twins. It was all very dramatic, to coin a phrase, and one day I was telling my mom about all this on the phone and she said, “Wait, wait, I'm coming up this weekend to take you to the movies. This really great British movie just came out, you need it to take your mind off all this.” So she drove the couple hours upstate and took me to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which she'd seen a couple weeks before. And holy shit was it ever what I needed. It's the reason I subsequently saw a lot of bad Guy Ritchie movies, but there was no way of knowing that at the time. Granted, at the time I thought the guy who played Eddy was going to be the big star of the four main friends, and the other three have been working steadily ever since (one of whom, it should be said in condemnation of my ability to predict fucking anything, is Jason Statham, about whom, at the time, I thought, “yeah, the guy who played Bacon is all right but he doesn't have Eddy's charisma” because trepanation is too good for the likes of me). It was one of the times in my life when one movie has completely erased my anxiety and given me the strength to pull through.
Somewhere in here, Chow Yun-Fat obligations involved a couple hours watching The Collector.
Now, the other big March movie that year, whose 20th anniversary you may have seen commemorated a bit lately, was The Matrix. I'd seen a trailer for it a couple months prior, which was basically just the rooftop bullet-time shot, a whole lot of pleather cyberpunk goodness, and Keanu as Jesus, but you have to remember before anyone had seen The Matrix that was the dopest shit anyone had seen maybe ever. I certainly thought so, although I distinctly remember thinking “nothing that weird and beautiful is going to stay in theaters more than a week so I better hop to,” and carefully made plans so as to not miss it. It did not disappoint, to put it mildly, and thus was begun a beautiful journey with the Wachowskis and their work that involved, among other things, them literally saving my life in 2012, but that's a whole other story.
April:: For some reason, despite Cookie's Fortune, Go, and Election all coming out this month the only things I saw in theaters were Pushing Tin and Entrapment. Win some, lose some, although I did spent a few weeks saying “That'sh entrapment” at every possibly opportunity. I think all the East German communism and sleazy old guy drama was over by this point, but I was probably still complaining about it.
I did meet a very good friend of mine for the first time this month, and we watched Blue Velvet and Dead Man, which consecrated a bond, as it cannot but.
May: To bring the whole Midsummer Night's Dream saga to a close, I went to see Michael Hoffman's film of it once school was out, and mentally compared every performance in it to the ones in our version, leading to my conclusion that I'd fucking smoked Roger Rees.
I also went and saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which was a weird experience because to that point I'd only ever seen part of Star Wars (1977) on VHS my freshman year of college and Return of the Jedi, with my dad when I was four because he wanted to see it. I retained exactly as much as one might imagine. But, as you all know, Star Wars is not a thing one can entirely avoid in our culture. I wrote a bit about this, years later, and have gradually come around to an understanding that Star Wars is a thing other people love very much and that there is no point to belaboring my not loving it as much. In 1999 I had not yet grasped this, and my initial “what the fuck is this shit” reaction displeased a number of people, partly because I wouldn't shut up about it. Actually, entirely because I wouldn't shut up about it.
June: Wherein I saw and absolutely loved South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. I was never a South Park completist, and eventually got a bit impatient with the boys as satirists, but completely own up to loving the movie. I also got to tell some kids to shut the fuck up as the movie was starting, and I think they were so impressed that I said “fuck” that they stayed quiet throughout the whole movie. Like I said, the experience matters.
The rest of the month I mostly spent working and reading the cheap and occasionally free books I picked up there, so unfortunately no dazzling takes on The General's Daughter or Wild, Wild West will make their way into this reminiscence.
July: A busier month at the movies, kicked off by going to see Arlington Road with my mom because Jeff Bridges, only to mutually find it to be one of the worst pieces of shit we'd ever seen. A well-known film critic acquaintance once scathingly lectured me over this take, and while I'm sorry he was upset I must speak my truth.
I fared better with the two pictures I saw on my own this month (see previous month with regards to working and reading). First up, The Blair Witch Project, which I knew nothing whatsoever about before it came out, and which utterly fucking ruled. The first time watching that movie, pretty much alone in the theater, with maybe eight other people, without knowing what the hell's going on, and watching the characters gradually lose their shit in the woods while not knowing whether anything supernatural's going on and they abruptly lose the rest of their shit and all that weird shit starts happening more frequently and THEN THEY FIND THE FUCKING HOUSE AND WHAT THE FUCK FUCK FUCK HOLY SHIT WAIT THAT'S HOW IT ENDS??? HOLY FUCK. That whole thing. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The second time I saw this, in a packed theater shortly after, not by choice, it wasn't the same. Part of the problem was a lot of the other people in the packed theater were people who, like me, had seen it before, and were with their friends who hadn't seen it yet. So the people who'd already seen it were sort of muted, and our friends all caught our vibe and they were kind of underwhelmed, so it was this whole theater of people all self-conscious about not feeling the “right” thing, which sucks.
The third time I saw it, at home, on video, high, that was fun. Being baked threw me just enough that all the creepy stuff was creepy again.
In summation, I quite like The Blair Witch Project.
Next up: Eyes Wide Shut. I've had a rich journey with this one, to the point of having several wholly contradictory takes on it floating around with my byline on them in the digital demimonde, which I won't link to because this piece is all the proof you need that I'm a flighty shithead, there's no need to hammer the point home with more receipts.
Stanley Kubrick is the ruin of many young men, me included, not because he isn't great—he is—but because young men see certain aspects of his movies and think, “aha, I've cracked the case!” while missing enormous, and crucial, ones. You eventually realize, in letting your understanding of his films evolve, that he's not a cold formalist, or some titanic intellectual who transcends mortal definition or any of that fucking bullshit. There’s no case to crack. He was a bright young man who was into photography and chess who managed to parlay skill and ambition into a unique and not reproducible career, during which he became an older man who worked slowly and deliberately and didn't always get along with people, but got along very well with those he did. Eyes Wide Shut was not intended (I don't think) to be his farewell, nor was it intended (I don't think) to be part of a continuum of any sort with Basic Instinct or the erotic thriller at all, but in summer 1999 it was released with a whole lot of extremely dumb fanfare about how a great titan of cinema had released the sexiest movie of all time, which I knew in the moment was total horseshit, but that whole cacophony still bled into the experience. I did not walk out of Eyes Wide Shut knowing what I'd just seen, although I knew nitpicking details like the mock-up New York Post in the movie having a headline in British English was foolish. But still, I misunderstood a lot of what I'd seen, and at that point in my life, I regarded most things I didn't understand as dumb and bad. Still, I had enough presence of mind to not dismiss the movie entirely. So I thought about it, and re-watched it a few times, and thought about it some more, and in the process of all that thinking and watching, I learned a lot more about how to watch movies and think about them than I did when I started.
In summation, I did not particularly like Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, but I do now, very much.
August: Something I realized watching The Sixth Sense: I am the ideal audience for any thriller with plot twists in it, because literally every time they spring the reveal I'm sitting there with my jaw on the floor in pure, gullible astonishment. So, no, I did not know he was dead the whole time. (A recent rewatch revealed that, as the guy in Ocean's Twelve tells Bruce Willis, “It still totally worked for me.”)
Right before going back for year four of college, I saw Bowfinger and laughed enough of my ass off I barely had any left when I got back to school. “Where's your ass?” I was asked. “Blame the Fake Purse Ninjas scene,” was my only reply.
One of those things you remember remembering but don't actually remember: seeing Mickey Blue Eyes. I found a ticket stub once, so I guess I saw it.
I also saw The 13th Warrior this month, which I'd been looking forward to ever since an early-teens Michael Crichton binge where I'd enjoyed Eaters of the Dead, a title I sort of wish they'd kept. But I understand it was a troubled production.
September: While history teaches us that the best major studio film to come out this month was Double Jeopardy, an unimpeachable masterpiece and, due to starring Ashley Judd, a sacrament, I did not see it at the time as school was keeping me busy enough that the only new movie I saw all month was American Beauty when I was in the city on some highly questionable personal business.
I saw American Beauty four times in the theater, over the next couple months. I loudly and publicly proclaimed American Beauty to be a masterpiece, and a defining film of its age. I had my head so far up my ass I found lost civilizations. But, to be fair, a lot of people believed in 1999 that we were at the end of history and that everything was going to stay the way it was forever until flying cars were invented or something. And so it was that this movie that, two decades hence, has insurmountable extratextual baggage (it was Kevin Spacey's second Oscar role) and even then is lumbered with a general style that screams “off-season HBO drama your wackest friend loves,” was called by reasonably intelligent, if excitable, cinephiles (who were more clear-headed than usual because they'd decided acid granted them supernatural powers that were irresponsible to wield and that Ecstasy and cocaine were “fuckin pyramid scheme drugs”) a masterpiece and the defining film of its age. Hey, no one bats a thousand, what can I say.
At this point, I'll leave this subject with the observation that history sometimes changes art, because history always changes us. Peter Gallagher still owns in American Beauty, though, that's immutable and eternal.
October:The month's biggest pleasant surprise, besides not being kidnapped by two itinerant pot dealers on my 21st birthday, was Three Kings. I went in expecting a dumbass war movie, came out saying “that was not a dumbass war movie.”
Because I didn't see The Limey, The Straight Story or Bringing Out The Dead until much later, this month's main event was Fight Club, of which I was initially a little excessively enamored for the same reasons as American Beauty, which I was still not shutting the fuck up about, to wit the critiques of cultural conformity and soporific capitalism. I was aware in the moment that Fight Club had more substantive things to say about these things, was the work of a wildly superior director, and starred Brad Pitt, a crush as old as my bisexuality itself. But I still relentlessly compared it to American Beauty and for reasons that I couldn't quite articulate that ultimately amounted to a lack of faith in my own education, taste, and sense, was convinced that Fight Club was somehow inferior.
The surprise end-of-act-two plot twist, though, is that Fight Club is an often entertaining provocation without great depth, and as such it's actually the kind of major-studio pop entertainment that (at the script level at least) it purports to critique. I have a feeling David Fincher realizes this on some level, and it's an irony that actually makes this more the defining film of its age than its (in my addled mind) rival. (I don't think either of them really are anymore. I no longer give a shit.)
November: Somehow Gina Gershon was in a Michael Mann movie and it wasn't my favorite movie of all time. I do like The Insider and always have, and I do think it's good, and always have, but it's always been missing that little extra zhuzh all-time favorites have. In this case I'm freely willing to accept it might be my fault.
At some point this month, Dogma happened in my presence. Less said the better. If this was a 1997 retro there'd be about 2000 words just about Chasing Amy, but this is not that.
I think I spent half of The World Is Not Enough giggling about the name “Christmas Jones” but remember literally nothing else.
Oh, and because I saw it late but still managed to catch it in a theater, this is when I saw Being John Malkovich, which I adored, but which was almost ruined for me by one of those stupid college dude movie arguments where each side adopts an intractable stance about their respective movie and proceeds to completely drain all the energy, bonhomie, and will to live out of everyone in the fucking room. If memory serves, a guy who was not as smart as me insisted Being John Malkovich was the only relevant movie all year and I fell into his trap by having seen other movies (and, remember, this was during my “American Beauty is the Sistine Chapel” phase), so it was a goddamn bloodbath.
December: Not feeling burdened by awards season completism, and because I was confident that I'd already seen the year's best film (sigh) I saw three things in theaters this month: one was Anna and the King of Siam because of Chow Yun-Fat obligations.
The second was Magnolia, which despite the heroic deeds recounted here, may very well be responsible for the most insufferable act of my life. There's a guy I met in early 2000 with whom I had a conversation that lasted at least two years (not exaggerating) where I mounted the fucking Battle of the fucking Somme arguing that Paul Thomas Anderson made Robert Altman obsolete. I know. Yes. I said it was the most insufferable act of my life for a reason. Here's the kicker: the whole thing was mounted on the idea that because PTA wrote his own scripts he was the superior artist.
I should retract the claim that Magnolia was responsible for any of this. It may be, by PTA's own admission, a bit too long, but it's got lovely bits in it, and it certainly shouldn't be forced to account for the ignorance of its young fans. Suffice to say, I was wrong, and long, long ago apologized to the poor bastard who had to spend two fucking years listening to me bang on.
No such baggage or self-recrimination attend my final movie theater visit of 1999, The Talented Mr. Ripley, that splendidly gay, nasty, luxuriant sprawl. I knew while I was watching it that I'd appreciate it more upon rewatch, and for once in this sordid narrative I was right. I love The Talented Mr. Ripley so much I started caping for The English Patient even though I hadn't seen it since the theater and hadn't even really thought about it all that much. Didn't matter. I snuck in a rewatch and was relieved that it was also good, because to be otherwise would've besmirched The Talented Mr. Ripley, and that wouldn't do.
We come at last to our conclusion. 1999 was a long time ago. A lot of good movies came out that year. I saw a lot of them, and a lot of the rest later. The idea that it's the greatest movie year of all time was a lot more appealing to me in the moment than it is now, when I've seen several movies (most notably The Limey and Beau Travail) that rank roughly above many of these worthies. The problem with “best movie year of all time” declarations is that 1939's right there. So is 1925. So is 1927. So are the Pre-Code years. So is 1941. 1975. 2007. I find, as the years fly by, both in the passage of time and in arguments about the “best movie year of all time,” that I'm a lot more apt to weigh numerous choices, assess their strengths, historical context, all that, and that the certainty of youth has left me. And thank God.