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In 1999, a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman became famous when Being John Malkovich hit the screens. This year, he became a director and created Synecdoche, New York, one of the year's most challenging and fascinating films.

The difference of a decade 

Life was different in 1999, and so were the movies

In 1999, life was good: The economy was strong and jobs beckoned for college students like me. George W. Bush was just a Texas governor, and the only threat to our booming economy was the looming Y2K bug. Remember those times?

It was a markedly good year at the movies, too. Perhaps no film from that year helped set the tone for the ensuing decade more than Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. A mega-budgeted sequel full of hype, anticlimax and sound and fury, Menace nonetheless became a huge hit because of a built-in base of fans who would hate it—but lined up for it and its sequels nonetheless. This was the ultimate triumph of marketing over content.

But while Phantom Menace might have been a harbinger of the remakes, sequels and general pointlessness of the next 10 years, the films of 1999 are noteworthy in other ways, too.

At the time, 1999 seemed to me an unrelenting stream of groundbreaking, well-crafted films that made a lasting impression in my psyche, an impression that only grew as subsequent years delivered disappointment after disappointment. It seemed as though things hadn't changed much; we saw Brendan Fraser in The Mummy, Mike Myers in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and the feverishly anticipated Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. In 2008, we saw (or noted the existence of) The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Love Guru and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I'm not sure if the law of diminishing returns counts here.

A trilogy of American films proved surprise hits in 1999: American Movie, American Pie and American Beauty. The first, with its sweetly hilarious depiction of filmmaker Mark Borchardt, seems like the best now, and this documentary holds up particularly well when compared to 2008's ultra-manipulative (and manipulated) American Teen. Americans Pie and Beauty, on the other hand, mostly laid the groundwork for endless gross-out comedies and navel-gazing suburban-deconstruction films (Beauty director Sam Mendes is now back with an adaptation of the ultimate dissatisfied suburbanites novel, Revolutionary Road).

Major stars emerged in this year, too: Reese Witherspoon hit a home run with Election (also a great showcase for the writer/ director team of Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne), while Angelina Jolie gave her Oscar-winning performance in Girl, Interrupted. And of course there was Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. Meanwhile, it took until 2008 for Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry, to make her follow-up. That (underrated) film would be another topical, high-minded effort, the Iraq War drama Stop-Loss. This time, critics stifled yawns and audiences stayed away.

click to enlarge Synecdoche, New York
  • Synecdoche, New York

In 1999, a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman became famous—and saw his name become an adjective—when Being John Malkovich hit the screens. Kaufman's idiosyncratic writing continued with such subsequent works as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. This year, he became a director and created Synecdoche, New York, one of the year's most challenging and fascinating films.

Some filmmakers haven't returned to the heights they reached in 1999. Kevin Smith irked the religious right with the flawed-but-witty Dogma, which exhibited a fearlessness missing from his later work, particularly 2008's Zack and Miri Make a Porno. And 1999 was the year that M. Night Shyamalan became a writing/ directing superstar with The Sixth Sense. Unfortunately, it's been downhill ever since, as he would spend the next decade driving his storytelling formula into the ground, most recently with The Happening, which defied excoriating reviews to pull in a modestly successful $64 million last summer.

One of the earliest hits in 1999 was The Matrix, the genre-bending action/ SF/ shoot-'em-up from the Wachowski brothers. While The Matrix's influence on action films continues to this day (Wanted, anyone?), its ultra-visual, comic-book aesthetic helped set the stage for the reign of superhero adaptations over the next decade. Sadly, the Wachowski's subsequent films have become increasingly soulless, with their visual innovations overshadowed by incomprehensible storylines and banal dialogue. This year, the Wachowski mystique hit the skids with Speed Racer, one of the biggest flops of 2008. At best, Speed Racer might have created a whole new set of visual tools for the next decade's films, but it's doubtful anyone will remember it as an entertaining story.

In another way, The Matrix helped change the way films were released on video; it was one of the first blockbusters to make a hit on DVD just months after it left theaters, becoming the first film to sell three million copies in that format. Now, it's typical for a film to hit theaters in June and have an extras-packed DVD on shelves before Christmas, with The Dark Knight the most recent example.

Another seminal film of 1999 was The Blair Witch Project. (Yes, it's been a decade.) As with The Matrix, the greatest legacy of Blair Witch isn't so much its content as its voyeuristic, no-frills style. By using the Internet to flesh out the film's backstory, it helped create a major part of today's film industry: viral marketing. A well-designed Web site and months of buzz helped make it one of the most profitable films of all time, and provided a new way for films to find their audience. It also inspired hundreds and hundreds of lame parodies and other low-budget horror films, but the original still holds up as an entertaining piece of filmmaking. And, in 2008, its look and style were borrowed heavily for one of this year's biggest hits, Cloverfield, which also employed a similar low-tech marketing strategy for what was actually a wide-release studio film.

No year is as good as you remember it, but 1999 offered a number of films that helped define the films of the next decade. Looking back at the past year, one wonders what we'll remember about it. Will The Dark Knight hold up in our memories? Will we be a little embarrassed by the excitement over Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Or, will we remember this as the year that portended future stardom for the likes of Michael Cera and Jason Segel, solidified long-term comebacks for Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr., or when Charlie Kaufman went from being a great screenwriter to a great director? We'll just have to wait and see.

Other films from a memorable year: The Insider; The Straight Story; Bowfinger; Galaxy Quest; Mr. Death; Cookie's Fortune; Eyes Wide Shut; Toy Story 2; The Iron Giant; South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; Office Space; Three Kings; The Limey; Magnolia; Fight Club; Go

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