BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery. Simon & Schuster, 387 pp., $28.99.
Saying anything is the best ever is a dicey proposition. Everything is subjective, right? With his new book, “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen,” Brian Raftery looks to convince readers that the final 365 days of the 20th century were, well, the best movie year ever. But somebody might be more a fan of older films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind,” so obviously they'd say 1939 is the greatest year ever; 1955 was pretty great; as was 1982, with “E.T.,” “Tootsie” and “Diner.”
But 1999 simply had more. The films from that year — “The Blair Witch Project," “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” “American Beauty," “Rushmore, “Magnolia," "Election," "Being John Malkovich" and about a dozen others — may not have changed how movies were made or packaged or talked about on their own. But together, as Raftery shows in this painstakingly researched, highly enjoyable book, 1999 is pretty stiff competition.
The year was certainly an odd one. President Bill Clinton was acquitted in his impeachment proceedings, you had the horror of the Columbine high school massacre and the looming threat of the Y2K bug. “Reality was right in front of you, if you looked hard enough,” Raftery writes. “The question was whether you would want to live in a world that, at times, could be well beyond anyone’s understanding.”
Raftery, who has written about entertainment and internet culture for Wired, GQ, Rolling Stone and elsewhere, could very well be writing about the year he has picked to focus on, but this quote is about one of the movies that shows just how lasting 1999’s influence remains: “The Matrix.” The Wachowskis’ sci-fi fable is about a messianic figure named Neo and his gang of techno rebels trying to save humanity from the simulated hell everybody is living through thanks to robots who feed off the energy that legions of unconscious human bodies give off.
It sounds like your garden variety weird dystopian thriller, but so much besides the film’s slick cinematography has gone on to be influential. “The Matrix,” in many ways, was giving us a glimpse into our paranoid future. Just Google “Are we living in a simulation” and you’ll find everybody from Elon Musk to NBC to The Guardian weighing in.
What’s interesting about the films of 1999, and what Raftery teases out perfectly, isn’t so much the quality of the films or the new technology that was used. Rather, it’s how of the time many of the movies were — as well as how forward-thinking and prophetic. “American Beauty” was about how, Raftery writes, “the modern American family was on the fritz.” “The Best Man” and “The Wood,” as actor Taye Diggs tells the writer, showed Hollywood finally making films “where you just see African-American people being people, as opposed to stereotypes.” Movies, as Diggs puts it, where “Nobody is a drug dealer, nobody is a thief.” And Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” was, in Raftery's words, an end-of-the-century existential showdown.”
Raftery quotes a line from "Magnolia" that sums up why the films of 1999 matter so much 20 years later, as society struggles to fix past mistakes and heads toward an uncertain future: “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”