1999: A Look Back, Pt. 3
After spending the last two days looking at the blockbusters, and sleeper hits of 1999, for todayís installment, I wanted to take a look at two of the biggest prestige films of the year. One marked the arrival of a major new talent behind the camera, and launched a familiar character actor into stardom, while the other was the hugely anticipated and controversial follow-up to one of the best films of the decade.
Initial reaction: Of all the films that came out in 99, no film was as universally praised as AMERICAN BEAUTY. At the time, it was considered a revelatory, disturbing look at suburbia. The film caused a sensation when it came out that fall, grossing an amazing $130 Million dollars. It also took home a barrel full of Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and a richly deserved best actor nod for Kevin Spacey.
At the time, Space was a hugely respected character actor, whoíd won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar four years previously for his iconic turn in THE USUAL SUSPECTS. AMERICAN BEAUTY was really that film that pushed him to the next level of stardom, with him being touted as this generationís Jack Lemmon.
Effect: AMERICAN BEAUTYís success spawned legions of imitators, with each year seeing the release of films that were touted as "this yearís AMERICAN BEAUTY." There was LIFE AS A HOUSE, THE CHUMSCRUBBER, PAY IT FORWARD, etc. Of the imitators, the only ones that really stood apart were Todd Fieldís deeply unsettling LITTLE CHILDREN, and Alan Ballís (who also won an Oscar for penning AMERICAN BEAUTYís screenplay) incredible HBO show, SIX FEET UNDER- which said so much on the subject of suburban angst, that itís made any film returning to this subject seem pointless in comparison.
Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey continued his ascent as a leading man, but curiously, still hasnít managed to find a film that that really lives up to his work in BEAUTY, or USUAL SUSPECTS. Of the cast, the ones that probably benefited the most from its success were Annette Bening, and Chris Cooper. Before BEAUTY, Bening was more or less known as Mrs. Warren Beatty, but this showed her full potential as an actress, and sheís made several excellent films since, including a great one I saw at TIFF called MOTHER & CHILD, that, sadly, still hasnít picked up a distributor. Meanwhile, Cooper went on to win an Oscar of his own for ADAPTATION, and has since become a well-known character actor, and star in his own right.
Sadly, the younger stars of the film did not fare as well. Thora Birch starred in the ill-fated DUNGEONS & DRAGONS the following year, and, other than the phenomenal GHOST WORLD, hasnít done too many memorable films since. That said, sheís fared a lot better than Wes Bentley- who everyone thought would be the next big thing after his memorable turn as Ricky, the angst ridden, poetic, neighborhood drug dealer. The next year, he appeared in a horrible horror flick called SOUL SURVIVORS, and other than a supporting role in THE FOUR FEATHERS, more or less dropped off the radar. His last notable role was as the villain in GHOST RIDER. Suffice to say, his performance was not well received. Birch and Bentley are still very young, so they may still bounce back in a big way, and considering their terrific work in this film, my fingers are crossed for them.
As for the director, Sam Mendes, he soon rocketed to the top of the A-list, and also managed to land Kate Winslet as a wife. His work following BEAUTY has ranged from brilliant (ROAD TO PERDITION), to pleasant (AWAY WE GO), to disappointing (JARHEAD & REVOLUTIONARY ROAD).
Taking a look back at the film ten years later, it stands up fairly well, although it also comes off as surprisingly dated. A lot of the taboo subjects it covered in í99 (such as repressed homosexuality), have been dealt with in a much franker faction in the years following (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN comes to mind). Thatís not to say itís not still a good film (itís currently ranked #36 on the IMDB Top 250), but it has, arguably, lost some of its kick ten years later. Still, itís definitely an interesting film to revisit every few years, and I look forward to seeing how it holds up a little further down the road.
Initial Reaction: : I was psyched to see MAGNOLIA back in í99. BOOGIE NIGHTS is one of my all time favorite films, and I couldnít wait to see what Paul Thomas Anderson would do with his follow-up film. MAGNOLIA is an ambitious, multi-character study, very reminiscent of Robert Altmanís NASHVILLE, although done on a much more intimate scale. It takes place over a single day in the lives of a disparate group of people living in the San Fernando Valley. Like BOOGIE NIGHTS, it features uniformly excellent cast, including strong work by John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards (in his final role), and Tom Cruise, playing against type as a narcissistic, misogynistic, motivation speaker (1-800-TAME-HER)- the classic, Frank T.J Mackey.
While eagerly awaited by many, MAGNOLIA was not universally acclaimed that year, although it did score Oscar nominations for the screenplay, best supporting actor for Cruise, and song (Aimee Mann was robbed!). Commercially, the film was a bit of a flop, grossing $22 Million. Many thought it was pretentious (the frog shower puzzled a lot of folks, and blew my eighteen year old mind), and even Kevin Smith dug into it in JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (remember MagnoliaFan?)
Legacy: Thankfully, many are now recognizing MAGNOLIA as criminally underrated (it ranks #210 on the IMDB). While I still think BOOGIE NIGHTS is the better film, itís nonetheless a masterfully made piece of work. Andersonís really established himself as one of the great filmmakers of our time, with this, BOOGIE NIGHTS, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD and thanks to the many layers apparent in his work they can be watched over and over, and youíll get something new out of it each time.
As for the cast, most have gone on to great things. Reillyís mostly known as a comedic actor these days (wish heíd get back to roles like this, although Iím one of the few that loved WALK HARD) but all have appeared in interesting films over the last ten years. As for Cruise, he continued his tenure as the worldís number 1 movie star until 2005, around which time, years of Scientology preaching caught up with him, and his career took a bit of a hit. Still, he remains a star and besides WAR OF THE WORLDS and LIONS FOR LAMBS, has continued to put out good films (both M:I:III, and VALKYRIE are underrated).