There is no spoon.
Maybe there was prior to 1999. But that was before everything changed.
During the summer of 1999, humanity suddenly had a choice between the red pill and the blue pill. We learned the first (and second) rule of fight club. We saw dead people. We filed that TPS report. Yes, we had freed our minds. Whoa, Keanu said.
See, in 1999, the cinematic landscape changed, and by extension the universe. Say what you will about the reach of the music industry and television or the impact of literature and theater, but nowadays it’s film that changes the game. Nothing produces fads, stirs controversy or reels in more dough than the Hollywood movie machine. So it’s fitting to look back 10 years later on the year that changed the game more than any in recent memory.
It’s a subjective study, to be sure, but there is some semblance of consensus in the pop culture media. When Entertainment Weekly announced its “new classics” in a recent issue, no less than eight films from 1999 made the top 100 list. The next closest year, 1994 (which was also great), had only six. You can also scan the highest-rated films on Internet Movie Database and see 1999 pop up throughout.
Or you can simply walk into the multiplex this summer to see the impact 1999 has had on this season’s latest blockbusters. Try, if you can, to watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine and not think of The Matrix when a bullet flying through the air is shown in ultra-slow motion and cut in half by a sword. The effect is utterly reminiscent.
So which films from 1999 have had the most impact? It’s open for debate, but here are a handful that stood out and why.
American Beauty. This Best Picture winner spawned a whole host of adult-themed dramas that shed light on the unhappiness lurking beneath the rosy faade of suburban bliss. The effect most notably rippled down to television with Desperate Housewives and its ilk.
Being John Malkovich. Weird is cool. It always had been for the eccentric set, but never had weird become cooler or more mainstream than after entering the bizarro world of Malkovich. Its best effect? A prominent career for scribe Charlie Kaufman, who also penned Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.
Election and Rushmore. Smart, sassy outsider characters in high school replaced the usual jock-prom queen archetypal protagonists.
The Insider. One of the top five films they should study in journalism school, and likely the reason films like Good Night, and Good Luck and Frost Nixon were greenlit.
Magnolia. It was going to be tough to follow up on the critical and artistic success of Boogie Nights, but with Magnolia, P.T. Anderson showed he wasn’t just a clever, would-be porn director. He had legit chops and from this one we could see films like There Will Be Blood in his future.
Three Kings. The first notable and solid Gulf War movie, it opened the door for films like Jarhead, The Kingdom and HBO’s fantastic miniseries Generation Kill.
Eyes Wide Shut. At first glance, it appeared as though Stanley Kubrick made a film about Nicole Kidman’s ass. But in retrospect it was an important and worthy milestone since it also introduced audiences to Tom Cruise’s “trying really hard to act” face — one that we’d see later in The Last Samurai and Valkyrie.
The Matrix. The granddaddy of all game-changers, this film’s cultural impact and visual style can be seen in every action film that followed it. Let’s conveniently ignore the sequels, though. It’s better for everyone.
Run Lola Run and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The Bourne franchise can directly attribute its kinetic editing and pace to these earlier European hits.
Fight Club and The Sixth Sense. There is plenty to enjoy about these films from a visceral and narrative point of view, but their biggest contribution to modern cinema might be the advent of the mindfuck. There have been great plot twists throughout film history (Chinatown comes immediately to mind), but in David Fincher’s Fight Club and in M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense, the twists are so amped up it changes everything about the film you thought you were watching.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Was The Simpsons movie inevitable or did South Park’s earlier leap to the big screen grease the skids? If nothing else, it surely had some impact on the decision to show Bart Simpson’s dong.
The Blair Witch Project. This high-profile yet dirt-cheap indie changed film marketing, if nothing else. Indeed, a mediocre thriller can be a smash hit if you market it right. All the “grassroots” film campaigns you see on Facebook and the like are direct descendents of the Blair Witch marketing project.
Office Space. The slacker comedy godfather that birthed TPS reports and “flair” in hipster lexicon is also responsible for Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, among many others. (We’re too stoned to count them all.)
Girl Interrupted, Bone Collector and Pushing Tin. 1999 was a breakout year for Angelina Jolie. Oh sure, she’d disrobed (and impressed) for Gia, and she lit up the otherwise ho-hum Playing by Heart, but it was her hat-trick of films in 1999 that unleashed her on the world stage. And just try to think of the world today without Angelina. For one, there would be a lot more orphans.
American Pie. Pundits have credited the first Pie with the resurrection of the R-rated comedy, and by default Judd Apatow.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. It should be noted that it wasn’t all guns and roses in 1999. It was also notable for the crap it introduced. Three words: Jar Jar Binks. Phantom Menace was thrust upon the world leading a whole generation of young men to experience their first bout of disappointment.