Well dear readers, this here be the final ‘Reviewing Movies Like it’s 1999‘ column. First off, thanks to everyone that has kept up with these articles (or even just read one or two of them and have been generally supportive of my writing endeavors). And second, apologies that this swan song has been long delayed-
Well dear readers, this here be the final ‘Reviewing Movies Like it’s 1999‘ column. First off, thanks to everyone that has kept up with these articles (or even just read one or two of them and have been generally supportive of my writing endeavors). And second, apologies that this swan song has been long delayed- my excuse being that I got caught up with life and Holiday stuff. And true to the spirit of ’99, the December release schedule was packed to the gills with worthy films- making it hard to whittle down- so instead of a traditional column where I pick a couple of movies to hyper focus on, I decided to watch a bunch of flicks released at the tail end of ’99 and write a pithy review for each. So let’s get to it…
Green Mile (released December 6, 1999) was an attempt to bring the Shawshank Redemption “band” back together with the added sprinkling of the Oscar golden boy du jour, Tom Hanks. Shawshank wasn’t super successful on its initial release, but by the late 90s it was already becoming a TNT programming staple and was being discovered by more and more people as a legitimately excellent piece of dramatic storytelling. Director Frank Darabont has all but been crowned the best adaptor of Stephen King‘s work based largely on the reputations of Shawshank, Green Mile, and The Mist. Back in the day, I recall perceiving Green Mile as being obvious “Oscar bait” and was therefore dismissive of it in favor of what I felt were the more groundbreaking offerings from the year such as Fight Club, Matrix, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich… even American Beauty. But, I actually really enjoyed Green Mile on this rewatch and hope that more so-called “Oscar bait” movies are as tonally all over the place as this film. What starts off as a Shawshank-esque period-set prison flick with socio-political commentary begins to weave in elements of fantasy, psychological thriller, a “cute animal” film, and even becomes a fun heist/ prison break movie at one point. We even watch some poor sap get electrocuted, tortured, and burned alive in an excruciatingly long sequence. I suppose you could say this movie has a little bit for everyone. Now I’ve read a few King novels (and from what I gather from other people’s opinions) it’s a lot like his other work where there’s this flurry of brilliant (and some bonkers) ideas spewing out of his head before it all falls apart at the end. Which is to say that Green Mile starts to lose me when it gets into themes of immortality and “God’s greater purpose” with the wrap around story involving “old man Hanks” that seems unnecessary. Far be it from me to suggest, but I wonder if the film would have been more effective if it had dropped the wrap around and ended with that shot of Hanks picking up the trick mouse Mr. Jingles and taking one more walk down the green mile?
Any Given Sunday (released December 16 ’99) belongs in the class of other ’99 alums that I’ve previously written about like Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. These are films from legendary directors that may not make many “best of” lists, but over time people have come to defend and cite these films as some of the most underrated of their respective director’s filmographies. So for me, what really puts ’99 over the top as one of the “best year of movies” is that not only did it usher in a new era of talent with flicks like Matrix, Fight Club, Sixth Sense, et al., but it also had some of cinema’s best directors playing in that year’s sandbox… showing that they still had the goods. This is the case with Oliver Stone‘s football melodrama, a stylistic and messy affair, that feels like it’s trying to be the “best” movie of the year by being the “most” movie of the year. It ruminates on legacy and “growing old”, plus it’s a harsh critique on professional football with all its abuses, drugs, and corruption on full display (at times reaching Caligula levels of debauchery). But the film also seems to stand in awe of these players as “modern day gladiators” and in the end professes that it is the love of playing the sport that makes it all worthwhile. It even pushes the point that football is a metaphor for life because it’s all about “fighting for those inches”.
This movie was also the first to show us that Jamie Foxx was a fantastic actor and not just the moderately funny guy from stuff like Booty Call and In Living Color. The rest of the cast is pretty solid (give or take a Diaz) with some of the best “athlete turned actor” performances that I can think of from the likes of former pro NFL players like Jim Brown and Lawrence Taylor (who I think doesn’t get enough credit as the heart of the film). It also sports Al Pacino‘s second “maybe not his best but in the running for a Top 10 career performance” of the year after giving a more subdued turn in The Insider. With Sunday, we get a bit more of the “Scream Pacino” theatrics and the film delivers some of the most memorable and spirited monologues of his entire career… which is saying something. Any Given Sunday is what I like to refer to as a “brilliantly flawed epic” in that it might miss the mark in some ways but it is so jam packed with great moments and performances that it becomes immensely rewatchable. Speaking of which….
Magnolia (released December 8th) fits into the Any Given Sunday mold by being a “whole lot of movie” that isn’t without its flaws, but perhaps because of these flaws it becomes more endearing for me with every spin. Now to be sure- watching Magnolia is an emotionally exhausting experience. Everyone is either dying or wanting to die or desperately/ tragically trying to be loved before they die. And Paul Thomas Anderson conducts the film with a swirling camera that never stops moving and a mounting score that keeps building to the point where all the on-screen misery is simply unbearable. Then he starts to really screw with the audience and drops in some cast sing-alongs and Biblical allegories. To me Magnolia feels like the peak of the ’90s studio-arthouse-film-custom-built-for-critical-acclaim-and-Oscar-nominations (…though I think it’s Crash where this was really distilled into a formula). These films have sprawling non linear narratives where “everything is connected”, ensemble casts of both rising and proven movie stars trying to top one another, and a celebrated filmmaker striving to make some grand statement on the human condition. And that’s pretty much what you get with Magnolia. The film is ambitious and self indulgent and probably not altogether successful in reaching the cinematic heights that it aspires but it still has a lot to admire. For some, it’s a bit too much, but I personally love every minute of it. And really what’s not to like when Anderson provides the stage for some of the best actors in their respective generations to indulge in their craft (and vicariously work through their “daddy issues” one presumes)? But it’s Tom Cruise who remains the beacon of the film (and along with the same year’s Eyes Wide Shut) showed that the “world’s biggest movie star” was at one point really pushing his career in interesting directions. Unfortunately, the next year he did the Mission Impossible sequel and (with the Tropic Thunder diversion aside) has kept on the same action/ blockbuster track. He has now curiously morphed into something of an “American Jackie Chan”… which is entertaining and all but one hopes for the day that Cruise will move on and let his freak flag fly a bit more by taking these more character-actor type roles.
Girl, Interrupted (also a December 8th release date) was something of a showcase for the best/ most exciting young female performers of the late ’90s with headliner Winona Ryder digging into more meaty material versus being a pixy surrogate of “Gen X” angst. It also has a couple of my favorite weirdos like Clea Duvall and Angela Bettis doing their thing and it displays some of the untapped potential of the late Brittany Murphy. It was even an early window into future acting powerhouse Elisabeth Moss. And they’re all pretty good in their roles, but stealing the show with a breakthrough/ star turning/ Oscar winning performance is Angelina Jolie. Honestly, over the years I’ve come to perceive Jolie as being more “famous for being famous” and I don’t think of her much as an actor. But it’s nice to be reminded from this rewatch that she is indeed a fierce and strikingly beautiful presence on camera. The film’s director James Mangold today is probably best known for more masculine (and great) films like Logan and Ford v Ferrari. And Mangold seems like he would be a weird fit for the material and that is… pretty much the case. The movie dabbles with themes of what it was like in the “good ol days” for women. It touches on how behavior like “promiscuity” and “anti social”individuality, trauma from physical and sexual abuse, and homosexuality were treated as mental diseases. It notes how society used any old excuse to subjugate women, throwing them into institutions designed not so much to “cure” but to isolate them from “upstanding” society until they either rotted away or “got in line”. But the film doesn’t seem to dive deeply enough into any issue to make a firm stance on the matter and even seems to argue that these institutions served as a family surrogate. I wonder if a more modern take/ viewpoint would elevate the material a bit more.
Man on the Moon (released December 22) was an obvious attempt by the late 90s comedy megastar Jim Carrey to get some of that coveted Oscar glory, a career goal made pretty clear with the previous years’ Truman Show. Therefore this biopic of controversial comedian/ provocateur Andy Kaufman appeared to be the perfect project that would play into the actor’s strengths of comedy (by melding Carrey’s stand up persona/ schtick and Kaufman’s) and giving him the chance to deliver some dramatic gravitas by showing more vulnerabilities than he presumably could with something like Ace Ventura. And a lot of the movie works, even if you can find faults within the Hollywood “biopic formula”. Perhaps the only sin Man on the Moon makes is being merely a “pretty good” film facing down some fierce competition in “the best year in movies”. I haven’t watched Man on the Moon since it’s theatrical run and, like Green Mile, I enjoyed it a lot more than I remembered. This is because I initially didn’t think the various antics and long game cons/ practical jokes of Kaufman were very funny. But now I realize what Kaufman achieved was brilliant because most norms should be mocked and subverted because they ultimately don’t mean anything (even though we pattern our lives so much around them and in doing so mostly add to our insecurities). The other stand out for me is the film’s writing duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who hold the rare instance of the “auteur theory” being applied to screenwriters. Coming from not-so-auspicious beginnings birthing Problem Child (and it’s sequel) they went on to scribe Ed Wood, a well received biopic about the world’s “worst filmmaker”. Then they detailed the life of a pornographer and accidental Freedom of Speech advocate in The People vs Larry Flynt, followed by this Andy Kaufman life story, and they kept adding to this oeuvre with Big Eyes and, most recently, Dolemite is My Name. In short, Alexander and Karaszewski have crafted a collection of “alterna biopics“ that have cemented the legacies of people and topics not normally considered worthy of historical archiving. In finding these “shaggy dog stories”, Alexander and Karaszewski have provided us not only with a lot of humor and entertainment, but also hope/ aspiration that we too can make our own little mark in the world. I’m particularly fond of Ed Wood and Dolomite- which belong in a sub genre I like to call “movies about people making movies who have no means or discernible talent to do so”- which includes Bowfinger (a previous ‘99 flick I reviewed) and the final film we’re discussing for this column…
American Movie (November 5th ’99) is a Sundance award winning documentary about mid-western indie filmmaker, Mark Borchardt, and his years-long struggle to make the regional horror film Coven. This was one of the deciding ’99 films that inspired me to go forward with this column because American Movie has always stuck with me. Probably because the first time I watched it was during a very formative time in my life and even though this doc gave a rather unglamourous window into the inherent struggle of indie filmmaking, I wanted nothing more than to be part of it. And honestly, I also thought it was hilarious in a Jerry Springer “laugh at some white trash” sort of way. Which now makes me think I must have been a cynical and miserable individual because upon this revisit it made me feel guilty for ever making light of these people trying to achieve their “stupid little dreams”. Now with some world experience, I understand that making a movie is damn hard with seemingly every step of the process a test of your will, patience, and sanity. And that’s just getting the thing made, because after all the blood, sweat, and tears are shed you then send your baby out into the world to seemingly be torn apart by the masses. But we all have to take our shot I suppose, whether it be for fame, appreciation, or just to leave something behind to show that we were here. But on a very practical level, there is no logical reason why anyone would want to make an indie movie. So at the end of the day all you have is your personal drive to finish it because the easiest option would probably be just to give up.
Now even though making a movie feels like a “lonely island” at times, hopefully we are lucky enough to have a few people in our lives that love us enough to selflessly help us realize our dreams. In the case of Borchardt, by his side are his long-suffering mother and his burn-out best bud, Mike Schank, (who I theorize provided the inspiration for actor Paul Walter Hauser‘s mannerisms). The scenes where these three “nobodies” pull all-nighters for months on end at local university pouring over a flatbed film editing machine hurt my soul because the amount of effort they put into this project can never be measured. And then only for some jerks like me to giggle at the amateurish results is just… depressing. At least now I know better. Coven (which I dutifully watched after American Movie) may be imperfect, but it is a singular and personal statement that no one else could have made. And the fact it exists at all is a minor miracle and should be appreciated on its own terms.
And that’s all she wrote for ‘Reviewing Movies Like it’s 1999‘- it was a fun journey and I appreciate you going on it with me. Which of course now begs the question… was ’99 really the best year in movies? As with anything the answer is relative and probably generational. But considering I mainly ended up only having time to do in-depth reviews on 2-3 “biggies” every month (with a handful of deeper cuts) and there are still plenty of titles I could have gotten to (enough to do reviews for a whole other year probably). So I would say that ’99 was at least the best year of movies in my lifetime. And given how the industry has changed so much since that time with the studio reliance on IPs, transition to streaming, and now the pandemic… ’99 might have been the peak of the American theatrical film. It was a year featuring a diverse slate of releases that were hailed in their time or went on to become classics, cult curiosities, and/or interesting failures. Almost all the movies in ’99 felt like they had a reason to exist. We really didn’t know how good we had it. But as much as things change- new opportunities will arise- and there will always be artists out there with a story to tell.