Our two-week time tunnel through the 1990s, picking out the 10 best movies of every year, reaches an end today. But before we change out of dungarees, combat pants and Korn hoodies, we finish it off with 1999. There’s a strong argument to be made that the 90s got better as they went along, but 1999 was something else: it’s one of the finest movie years that most of us have been alive for.
At the box office, the biggest news was the return of “Star Wars” for the first time in over 15 years, and the biggest talking point was how much that “Star Wars” movie, “The Phantom Menace,” absolutely sucked. Elsewhere, M. Night Shyamalan blew everyone’s minds with the ending of “The Sixth Sense,” Hugh Grant was just a boy standing in front of Julia Roberts in “Notting Hill,” and a 60s super spy became an unlikely blockbuster draw with “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” while a first-time British director became an Oscar sensation from nowhere with “American Beauty.”
You will not, perhaps controversially in some cases, find those movies below. But you’ll find a host of others that suggested (to some extent, accurately so) that the future of movies in the 21st century was going to be very, very bright one. Find our 10 favorites below, and let us know what your own ’99 list would look like in the comments.
Upset? Outraged? Can’t wait for more? You can catch up on 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 from last week, and can always visit our 2000s series while you wait for more: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
10. “Three Kings”
These days, he’s firmly part of the establishment, an Academy-approved, commercially successful filmmaker who picked up an extraordinary eleven Oscar nominations across three movies with “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” But at the end of the 90s, David O. Russell was a rebel, a man whose breakthrough film involved a guy sleeping with his mother, and whose first studio movie was greeted with publicity suggesting that the director had been headbutted by his A-list star on set. For us, though, “Three Kings” is the movie of Russell’s career, straddling the rebel and the critical and awards darling in a truly subversive picture that felt remarkably ahead of its time. Falling somewhere between “MASH” and “Kelly’s Heroes,” the film sees four soldiers (Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, director Spike Jonze) go AWOL at the end of the first (and then only) Gulf War in search of some of Saddam’s lost gold, only to become embroiled in a refugee crisis. Unexpectedly darkly funny, visually inventive (Newton Thomas Sigel has never done such great work) and genuinely effective as an action movie, its message of the foolhardiness of American interventionism and the mess they abandoned in the Middle East proved remarkably prescient too: just a few years later, we were back at war in Iraq, and have been more or less ever since… That Russell could be so wise in a film so enormously entertaining might still be his greatest achievement.
9. “The Virgin Suicides”
It would have been so easy to sling accusations of nepotism when Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, made her directorial debut with “The Virgin Suicides.” After all, at the start of the decade, she had fairly nepotistically landed a major acting role in her dad’s “Godfather Part III” and not done a great job, and her film was produced by Poppa Coppola too. Obviously she had an easier path to a green light than most, but few who saw “The Virgin Suicides” could deny that the younger Coppola had the chops and then some, as her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel is one of the most distinctive and beautiful coming-of-agers in recent years. Set in Grosse Pointe in the 1970s, it tells the story of the five Lisbon sisters (led by Kirsten Dunst’s Lux), whose attempts to kick against their parent’s restrictiveness have ultimately tragic consequences. Sewn together by the dreamy score by Air, Coppola turns out a film of woozy beauty, deep feeling, immaculate period deal, ethereal heartbreak and faithfulness to its source material. It’s a piece of mood and atmosphere more than it is character and plot, perhaps, but that mood and atmosphere is so alluring, in a melancholy way, that you happily let it smother you. Her latest, “The Beguiled,” looks like something of a tonal return to her debut, and that’s extremely welcome to us.
8. “The Matrix”
If you were of a certain age when “The Matrix” opened in the spring of ’99, it’s probably the closest experience you could have to that feeling that older generations would bore you endlessly about having felt when they saw “Star Wars” as a kid. That feeling of seeing something that you’d never seen before, that you could only really have dreamed of, that seemed to open up the possibilities of what movies could achieve. Nearly two decades on (and with a reboot, prequel or similar seemingly in the works), the Wachowskis’ film has its flaws — some awkward dialogue, a degree of pretentiousness, a dated soundtrack, borrowing a little too liberally from its comic book, anime and video game sources, two shitty sequels. But for all its idiosyncracies and annoyances, it remains an utterly absorbing, endlessly influential world, repackaging its influences into something truly fresh, with peerless action sequences, smarts greater than your average sci-fi actioner, real filmmaking craft and vision, and a cast who rise to the challenges they’re given, be it Laurence Fishburne’s playful mentor figure or Hugo Weaving’s truly alien villain. We can blame it for a lot — including, largely, the rise of the superhero movie — but the mind-expanding joy of the original film hasn’t changed a jot.
7. “Fight Club”
One of the reasons that 1999 strikes us such a great filmmaking year is the way in which the movies seem to predict and look ahead to what would come from the then-imminent 21st century. We’ve already seen how “Three Kings” anticipated the turmoil in the Middle East, while “The Matrix” was way ahead of the curve on all the reality-is-a-simulation stuff we’ve had recently. “Fight Club” is a particularly interesting example. David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about a white-collar Gen X-er who’s pulled into an underground fight club (and later an anarchist group) by a charismatic stranger has its bro-ier, more sophomoric fans, sure. But the jet-black comic tone that Fincher brings along with his visual dazzle (which is never more dazzling than it is here) now, 18 years on, helps make the film ahead of its time in terms of the portrayal of white male dissatisfaction and impotence that would simmer along for early parts of the 21st century only to explode in the last few years in the shape of MRAs, alt-righters and similar, who think they’re Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden but are really Edward Norton’s narrator at best. Some of them might even call it that favorite movie, but it’s not Fincher’s fault that they so fundamentally misunderstood this thrilling bit of satire.
With due respect to the male filmmakers that emerged, the history of 21st century British film is one that should most be about the women: Andrea Arnold, Clio Barnard, Joanna Hogg, Carol Morley, Amma Asante and, paving the way just at the turn of the millennium, Lynne Ramsay (who’ll return this year with the Joaquin Phoenix-starring “You Were Never Really Here”), with her stunning debut “Ratcatcher.” It’s a powerful 1970s set kitchen-sink coming-of-ager about James (William Eadie), a 12-year-old boy living in social housing in Glasgow who is left guilt-stricken after his friend dies. The world in which it plays and its influences might be clear — neo-realism and Ken Loach’s “Kes” — but it’s brought to life by a director with an immediately distinctive visual sensibility. Ramsay finds enormous poetry and meaning in every shot, with an almost magic realist streak that helps an otherwise bleak story go down a little more easily. And then she weaves them together with a rare musicality, and coaxes inutterably fine performances out of her young performers, most of whom were essentially non-professionals. Two great further films followed with “Morvern Callar” and “We Need To Talk About Kevin” before the “Jane Got A Gun” affair briefly derailed things, but her first film remains one of the best debuts not just of 1999, but of the whole 1990s.