1999: The greatest year in phalluloid

Was 1999 the greatest year in film? If you have averted the question on social media, over drinks with friends, or quietly minding your business while waiting in the supermarket check-out queue when someone happened to hear Rob Zombie’s ‘Dragula’ from The Matrix soundtrack as your mobile phone’s age-inappropriate text notification sound – congratulations, you have done better than I have.

The question was recently ignited by the publication of film critic Brian Raftery’s painstakingly researched and undeniably compelling book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. Here, Raftery shrewdly honed in on a theory that’s been doing the rounds of cinephiles circles since, well, 1999 itself when Jeff Gordinier wrote in Entertainment Weekly that ‘you can stop waiting for the future of movies. It’s already here’. With admirable astuteness (or a spookily effective ouija board), Gordinier continued that ‘someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors … snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of ‘making a movie’ got turned on its head’.

When you start reading through the list of the most oft-cited films offered in the defence of the claim that 1999 was the greatest year in film – Hollywood film, at least – there’s no lack of big, familiar names destined to send pangs of heartfelt nostalgia deep into the hearts of those who don’t even necessarily identify as cinephiles. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense only begin to scratch the surface.

According to Raftery and the many (many) others who have argued for the significance of the year in film history, a number of key factors make a consistent appearance by means of explanation. The cash spike that resulted from the explosion of DVD sales allowed Hollywood to play freer and looser than it had in recent years, launching the careers of what are now recognised as major filmmakers and actors who in any other environment may not have had the opportunities the period afforded them.

There were also cultural anxieties at the end of the century, perhaps typified nowhere more effectively in the pop cultural ether than in dark-tech cinematic epics like The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project. The latter in particular saw the rise of the internet as a new virtual space, not merely where newly forming fandoms could cluster, but wholly unique online methods of promoting movies would take their first tentative steps towards becoming the norm.

It would be difficult to argue that 1999 did not mark a significant moment in Hollywood film history, notable as much today for its difference to the current state of the film industry than its legacy. As Raftery and others have convincingly noted, the biggest films of that year would struggle to find funding in the far more franchise-, sequel- and remake-heavy industry we have today.

And yet … the greatest? Are we seriously going to do this? As French cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu once famously noted, ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’. Objectively, 1999 was both a year of momentous transformation in Hollywood and produced what few could debate were some films that, if not ‘great’ exactly, certainly demonstrated an impressively long tail, in terms of their generic legacy (as in The Blair Witch Project and the subsequent found-footage horror phenomena) or launching the careers of a seemingly never-ending parade of figures we now consider nothing short of superstars, be they in front or behind the camera.

But even in the face of the industrial and cultural significance of this particular year in Hollywood specifically, to christen it ‘the greatest’ in Bourdieu’s terms speaks more of those holding the discursive conch shell than it does any overriding statement of scientific fact. Hannah Woodhead nailed it at the BBC website in August when she wrote that ‘to call it the last great year [in cinema] is to deny the great progress and radical changes that the industry has undergone since’:

There are few women, few people of colour, and few LGBTQ filmmakers and stories amid the fabled class of 99, and the films that did represent these voices, such as Jamie Babitt’s But I’m A Cheerleader, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, or Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, did not make bonafide superstars of their directors in the same way the likes of Fight Club or Being John Malkovich did.

In defence of many who have staked a claim for 1999 as the be-all-and-end-all of contemporary screen culture that we’ll never-ever-ever-see-the-likes-of-again, it’s worth noting that almost all the lists I have seen at least include The Wachowskis’ The Matrix, and a number of major overviews do feature Peirce’s extraordinary Boys Don’t Cry, including Garin Pirina’s ‘1999: The Last Great Year in Movies’ at Esquire which dates back to 2014. In Raftery’s defence, he notably champions Boys Don’t Cry, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Antonia Bird’s almost criminally underrated Ravenous with Guy Pearce and Robert Carlisle, which he describes as ‘really wicked and smart’.

Which it is, but if we stick to women’s filmmaking in particular, it’s not the only ‘wicked and smart’ film made by a woman in 1999 that has fallen off the radar of Operation Beatification. Let’s take a step-back and do a quick rundown. Of the 22 films in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, there was not one woman filmmaker. Compare this to, say, 1993, where not only did Jane Campion win for The Piano, but she was in competition alongside Elaine Proctor’s Friends and Australian filmmaker Laurie McInnes’s Broken Highway. Significantly for those of us in Australia, Tracey Moffatt’s Bedevil also competed in the Un Certain Regard category.

In 1999, just three of the 23 films directed competing in Un Certain Regard at Cannes were directed by women, none of which have come close to making mainstream lists of the years’ greatest: Dominique Cabrera’s Nadia and Hippos, Jasmin Dizdar’s Beautiful People, and Lynne Ramsay’s aforementioned Ratcatcher. Women fared much better in the non-competitive Directors’ Fortnight stream, with eight films by women, the most famous of which is no doubt Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (a great film on its own merits, but am I cynical to suggest her famous dad might play a small part in its enduring visibility?).

Needless to say, the notoriously gender-biased Oscars hardly fared better. In 1999, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects … not just all male winners, but zero women nominees. Long-underrated pioneer Elaine May bucked the trend with her nomination for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published for her work on Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors, but the only places women tended to make any kind of impression in terms of nominations were in the traditionally gendered categories Best Editing, Best Makeup, and Best Costume Design.

The Oscar for the latter went to the legendary Sandy Powell (14-time nominee, three-time winner), but even that was for a film that from a contemporary perspective has a somewhat tainted legacy. This, of course, was John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, which swept the 1999 Oscars, including winning Best Picture. But that film is now virtually synonymous with Harvey Weinstein and the horrendous allegations against the one-time all-powerful producer that came to light in late 2017, including but not limited to accusations of sexual harassment by Gwenyth Paltrow, who won a Best Actress award for the film.

Not enough to convince you that there might be a gender bias in the 1999 Hollywood-centric circle-jerk? Try these other 1999 releases on for size:

– Claire Denis’ Beau Travail

– Catherine Brellait’s Romance

– Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes

– Amalia Margolin’s Aaron Cohen’s Debt

– Lina Wertmüller’s Ferdinando and Carolina

– Julie Taymor’s Titus

– Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park

Not to mention in Australia, where we had now-heartbreakingly forgotten (and woefully under-distributed) films like Manuela Alberti’s The Missing, Christina Andreef’s Soft Fruit, and Davida Allen’s Feeling Sexy, as well as the much better-known Australian-based New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion with her outback-set, Kate Winslet-fronted Holy Smoke!

Absolutely, 1999 was a significant year in Hollywood film history (so often interchangeable with ‘film history’ more generally), but let’s get a grip before we start hurling around the label ‘the greatest’. In the light of the carnival of rose-tinted glasses that covers much of positive discourse supporting this claim, it’s perhaps no small coincidence that The Blair Witch Project (one of my personal all-time favourite horror films, as an aside) is effectively the story of a woman filmmaker being punished by supernatural forces for daring to make a movie. A number of feminist critiques of the film have since gone as far as to argue that Heather herself is the film’s central ‘witch’ figure in the absence of the off-camera supernatural force.

It’s hard for me to talk so glibly and reductively about The Blair Witch Project simply because I love it so much, but perhaps keeping tabs on over-forgiving nostalgia might not be bad advice in this case. As Woodhead noted, ‘Nostalgia is often the enemy of progress when it comes to pop culture. We have a tendency to look back fondly on what came before, ironing out the flaws in our memory until the past is something that seems truly great, and even aspirational.’

Biases of nostalgia aside, the claims surrounding 1999 in film history raise an even more interesting question: ‘why now?’. Why have we hit saturation point on arguments that 1999 is the unquestionable zenith of contemporary cinema, a peak we’ll never reach again? In her recently joyful yet intelligent celebration of 1999 in film history, Amy Nicholson at The Guardian gets right to the heart of it when she notes that the anxieties that swirled around us culturally, socially and politically in 1999 resonate specifically with the widespread air of bleakness of our contemporary moment, twenty years later. ‘In 1999, our heroes didn’t win’, says Nicholson. ‘They failed, they disappeared, they died, they blew up their world. And they left a residue of cynicism we’re still scraping off.’


Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

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