1999: A Look Back
Every once in a while, we hit upon a milestone year in cinema with 1939 remaining the gold standard, as that year saw the release of such timeless classics as GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, GUNGA DIN, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, and GOODBYE MR. CHIPS. Another notable year would be 1967, with BONNIE & CLYDE, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, THE GRADUATE & GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.
More recently, I’d say that 1999 was a phenomenal year in cinema. It saw the release of FIGHT CLUB, THREE KINGS, AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE MATRIX, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and several other great and unconventional films. As it was only ten years ago, it’s way too early to tell if 99 will be remembered as a seminal year for film. I thought it would be fun to spend a week looking back at some of the big films that came out that year,, and I hope that everyone reading this will share some of their favorite films/memories from that year in the talkbacks below.
To start things off, I figured the best way was to look at two of the biggest blockbusters of that year. One was a sci-fi flick that came out of nowhere, and totally (for better or worse) has changed the way action films are made. The other: arguably the most anticipated film of the nineties, and one that, perhaps unavoidably, disappointed a generation of moviegoers.
Initial reaction: Nobody really expected much from THE MATRIX when it opened in March of 1999. By that point, star Keanu Reeves was practically washed up, after years of underwhelming follow-ups to SPEED (although he wisely avoided the train wreck of a sequel that was SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL). When I first heard about THE MATRIX, it sounded like JOHNNY MNEMONIC by way of DARK CITY. However, a few weeks before the film opened, I saw the theatrical trailer for the film that was scored with Enigma’s ‘The Eyes of Truth’. My jaw dropped, ad I started to reconsider my stance on the film.
The afternoon the film came out in Montreal was a Good Friday, and like a good Catholic, I decided to spend the afternoon at the movies with my friend Murray. We both decided that THE MATRIX was the only way to go. I remember the theater being packed to the gills, and once the film started off with that great Trinity bullet-time kick, there was a collective gasp in the auditorium. For the next 130 minutes I was transfixed. At the time, I was big into Hong Kong action films, after having caught THE KILLER & HARD-BOILED on TV one night- and this was the first American action film (other than Woo’s own FACE/OFF) that managed to hold a candle to those films. I loved every second of it, and I was not alone.
THE MATRIX ended up being a smash- grossing $171 million in North America, and another $200 Million overseas. People dug THE MATRIX in a big way, and it became THE blockbuster sensation of the year (although an unfortunate shadow was cast over the film after the Columbine shooting a few months later- with the shooters supposedly being fans of the film).It also helped kill the VHS format, as the film could only be purchased on DVD- which, at the time, was a struggling new format.
Effect: By the next year, we were already getting MATRIX clones. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, directed by John Woo, seemed more than a little inspired by it, and every major action film that opened over the next few years had gravity defying action scenes choreographed by Hong Kong action specialists- whether appropriate (Jet Li’s American flicks), or not (THE MUSKETEER).
Then the sequels opened…
Suddenly, THE MATRIX films weren’t cool anymore, and over the top fight choreography became passé. In time, it would be replaced by the current action movie trend- which is BOURNE SUPREMACY style shaky cam, and close cutting.
Legacy: No matter how much the sequels suck, THE MATRIX should be remembered as a great film. It’s a shame that its legacy has been tainted by THE MATRIX RELOADED & REVOLUTIONS. However, the collective suckage of those two films doesn’t make the original a lesser film, and I hope in the years to come, it regains a bit of the esteem that it’s lost.
Initial Reaction: Who wasn’t dying to see THE PHANTOM MENACE in ’99? On the day the tickets went on sale, I , and most of my friends, cut school to stand in line at our local theater so that we could see it opening night. In the weeks leading up to opening day, we were going insane with anticipation, listening to the ‘Duel of the Fates’ track from the recently released soundtrack on a loop.
When we finally got to see the film, we were unable to be objective. We all claimed to love it, but I think each of us knew that there was something wrong, and that we were under whelmed. I actually haven’t seen the film since ’99- and I don’t plan on watching it any time soon. Looking back, I think I actually enjoyed Stephen Sommers' THE MUMMY more, and have revisited that film more often (but NOT the sequels).
Now, I know it’s the hip thing to pick on the prequels- but you know what? They’re actually not bad films. Granted, Jar Jar, and the kid are both pretty annoying, and the less said about Hayden Christensen in the sequels, the better. Still, Liam Neeson kicks ass, and Ewan McGregor did solid work in all three films as Obi-Wan. The CGI was cutting edge, and the John Williams musical scores are all great (if not quite as memorable as the work he did on the original trilogy).
I think they’re exactly the films Lucas wanted to make, and that it’s us, the audience- that has changed. Basically, the prequels are for kids, and by the time TPM came out in ’99, none of the original fans were kids anymore. Heck, I was already seventeen, and I wasn’t even alive when the first two films came out! By ’99, we had grown up, and it was practically impossible for the film to have the effect on us that we thought it would. No matter- the film still proved to be a massive blockbuster, grossing a mighty $431 million domestically, although it didn’t come close to beating TITANIC, which many were predicting.
Legacy: The other prequels, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, and REVENGE OF THE SITH came out in 2002, and 2005- and while I went to see them; they didn’t do much for me (although SITH had it’s moments). STAR WARS simply didn’t mean as much to me as it had meant before seeing THE PHANTOM MENACE, and I think many people feel the same. That said, the films do have their supporters, and they both grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and it would be wrong to completely dismiss them, as they still have many passionate supporters (as shown by the massive amount of hate mail I received after giving JoBlo.com’s first 0/10 to THE CLONE WARS).