BOOK REVIEW – BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. Written by Brian Raftery. Published by Simon & Schuster. 387 pages.
I got my first job as a professional film critic in April of 1999, working as a second-stringer for the Philadelphia Weekly. This was a long time ago in what feels like a galaxy far, far away, back in the days of dial-up modems when alt-weeklies paid handsomely for arts coverage and movies were the central, driving force of American popular culture. Network television was where washed-up film stars went when nobody paid to see them in theaters anymore and cable was for looking at boobs. It was the movies that mattered, and by gawd there were a bunch of great ones in 1999. So many, in fact, that someone wrote a book about them all.
Brian Raftery’s BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. casts a wide net across a wild year of cinema offerings, making a compelling case for 1999 to be celebrated alongside film buff favorites such as 1939, 1955 and pretty much the whole first half of the 1970s. The list of titles covered herein is an embarrassment of riches: “Election,” “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” “Three Kings,” “The Limey,” “Office Space,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Galaxy Quest,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Run Lola Run,” “The Insider,” “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Magnolia.” (As if all those weren’t enough, he also cheats a little by including “Rushmore” and “The Virgin Suicides,” released in 1998 and 2000, respectively.)
It’s wildly diverse slate of films that on the surface would seem to have little in common, but running through them all is a certain recklessness – a willingness to challenge audience expectations in ways that are unthinkable today at the studio level. Working from interviews both contemporaneous and recent, Raftery rattles off the stories of how these distinctive visions found their way into multiplexes in a bunch of punchy, largely self-contained chapters that read like the surprisingly meaty behind-the-scenes coverage you used to find in Premiere Magazine or Entertainment Weekly back in the ‘90s.
It’s a lot of fun, even if it feels more a collection of articles than an actual “book” book. The most interesting passages for me found Raftery trying to tease out the overlapping themes in disparate pictures, a la the underlying semi-apocalyptic cubicle drone revenge fantasies of “Office Space,” “American Beauty,” “The Matrix” and “Fight Club.” There was something in the air back in 1999, a heady mix of millennium paranoia and Gen X disaffection agitating we folks that Brad Pitt’s “Fight Club” bad boy Tyler Durden called “the middle children of history.” (It’s scarily worth noting that twenty years later those last two pictures have become key texts for the online alt-right, which means we’re now entering our third decade of people who really love “Fight Club” not understanding that “Fight Club” is making fun of them.)
“Best. Movie. Year. Ever.” stretches itself too thin when trying to cover a brief and largely unfortunate teen movie boom, as well the rise of internet fan sites like Ain’t It Cool News and subsequent ripple effects on the industry that could probably fill a volume of their own. The macro-focus is wobbly, probably because Raftery’s dealing with too many damn movies from too many different distribution models. He’s much better with the granular reporting than big-picture analysis. Still, you read the book wistfully, marveling that there was so recently a time when Disney would give Michael Mann a massive budget to make an almost three-hour, R-rated movie comprised mainly of men over fifty delivering depositions and arguing over journalistic ethics.
An unfortunate side-effect of a gold-rush year like 1999 was a fixation on the shiny and new, and I do recall bristling back then at my colleagues rushing to prematurely coronate the likes of Sam Mendes, Alexander Payne and David O. Russell at the expense of veteran filmmakers. In a year when everyone trashed the final Stanley Kubrick picture, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s flawed yet deeply felt “Bringing Out the Dead” was crudely dismissed, David Cronenberg’s outstanding “eXistenZ” passed without notice and Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” was largely laughed off. Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” barely gets a mention from Raftery, its glamour and Old Hollywood craftmanship somehow suspect despite the film being far more subversive in matters of class and sexuality than a lot of allegedly edgier titles lauded here. (The book also ignores the punchline that twenty years later Mendes, Russell and Payne are now making almost exactly the kind of banal dreck they were celebrated for rebelling against.)
Naturally, in a year of such radical, exciting motion picture achievements the Academy Awards went out of their way to fawn over exhausted, already-forgotten treacle like “The Green Mile” and “The Cider House Rules.” The big prize went to “American Beauty,” a picture Raftery likes a good deal more than I — citing its dirty-old-man fixations and the suburban Nazi next door as somehow revelatory when really they’re just the same fatuous provocations with which filmmakers like Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute had spent the previous few years annoying arthouse audiences, only gussied up with some slick cinematography, Hollywood stars and a chickenshit third act full of finger-wagging moralism. Of course it won Best Picture.
“You go down that list of movies and go, ‘Okay, which of these made money?’” quips David Fincher, who never tires of reminding us that his “Fight Club” was a massive box office flop that got most of the folks involved fired from 20th Century Fox. (Now a revered cult classic, the movie was so poorly reviewed upon initial release that they had to use a quote from a nobody like me on the DVD box.) Indeed, the vast majority of pictures chronicled in “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.” were stiffs at the ticket counter, and as much as we might enjoy Raftery’s look back at the classics the sad truth is there were two 1999 films that proved far more influential.
“Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace” and “Toy Story 2” were the #1 and #3 films at the box office that year, setting the blockbuster template for a form of contemporary franchise filmmaking that relies on familiar branded content and beloved intellectual property over the capricious whims of movie stars and creative types. Of 1999’s twenty top-grossing films only three were sequels, as opposed to fourteen last year.
In fact, you can look forward to new “Star Wars” and “Toy Story” installments rolling out over the next few months, and they’ll probably still be making more of them twenty years from now, when I doubt anyone will be inspired to write a book like this about the films of 2019.•••
Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.