best film:  Magnolia from Paul Thomas Anderson

Magnolia leads the pack for 1999- which is a superb and incredibly deep year in cinema history.  Magnolia proved Boogie Nights was no fluke. It also showed that PT is as beholden to Altman as he is to Scorsese, and that he is perhaps the greatest director of his generation.  It is sheer filmmaking confidence and ambition with an ensemble to rival Nashville (which Altman made at the age of 50).  It is a very big film. Ebert called it “operatic ecstasy” https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-magnolia-1999 and PT Anderson said (at the time)  that it is the best movie he would ever make.

  • A masterwork—pure filmmaking ambition
  • Certainly, since it is an ensemble piece set it in LA, you have to think of Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts as well as the comparisons to Nashville
  • It is a three hour film that follows people with ties during one day in one city
  • I love the line from critic Kenneth Turan at the LA Times saying Anderson is “drunk and disorderly on the pure joy of making movies” https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-dec-17-ca-44701-story.html
  • There is seemingly endless hidden meanings in the film— it is sort of like The Beatles White Album  (which I think the grandeur and perhaps a little of the volume-induced unevenness makes sense as a comparison). But there’s nothing done unintentionally in the film- from the Exodus references on down the line.
  • Anderson admits the purposeful placement of Charles Fort who wrote on odd phenomena and the entire prologue of the theme of unexplained events— Fort’s book is visible in the library and he’s thanked in the film end credits
  • There’s a clear interest in the Masonic as well (book in library, Ricky Jay’s line “part on the square” and he has a masonic ring… many more)
  • “The Onion” head writer Todd Hanson talks about how the flowers in the Magnolia are petals of the characters
  • The Frogs are clearly from the Book of Exodus 8:2 “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.”– “Exodus 8:2” and “8:2” can be seen many times in the mise-en-scene throughout the film
  • The prologue pronounces the ambition—it is clear up front. This is a meditation on chance, coincidence and fate and in the prologue we have tracking shots and freeze frames
  • Aimee Mann sings three times- at the beginning we have “One” introducing the robust ensemble, we have her “Wise Up” theme singalong and then the “Save Me” finale. Three songs, three weather forecasts.
  • Anderson is moving in and out with the camera on nearly every shot not unlike say Scorsese’s three hour epic Casino- it must take so much energy (and filmmaking talent) to keep up that level of directing a film for a long film like this
  • There’s so much here that Anderson owes to Altman and Nashville– it’s a an ensemble, statement on a city, statement on a time era—we have the casting of Henry Gibson here (old man in bar with Macy) and Murphy as Moore’s lawyer
  • Gorgeous slow motion bar shot of Macy with his braces set to rock/pop. Cannot do a slow motion shot like that in a bar with that music and not think of Scorsese
  • All the performances are superb. As good as the actors are in like Nashville these here in Magnolia are some of the best actors of their generation: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Cruise— Jason Robards is equally brilliant- there is some great Ingmar Bergman-like staging of faces with him and Cruise in their scenes. The sequence where Cruise really tells him off and breaks down is devastatingly brilliant and should’ve given Cruise the Oscar for 1999 supporting.

The “Wise Up” Sing-a-long is a transcendently brilliant form-breaking moment. It is ballsy- but it lands. It’s one of the best filmmaking sequences in the decade. Equally ballsy is the choice to do the frogs—lands as well.

  • The interconnectivity is set up in the opening. PTA’s camera flying at you (with timely freeze frames)—“this was not just a matter of chance”—PTA is all about stating the thesis up front formally like the montage on the beach in The Master– then rolls into Aimee Mann’s “One”.
  • At 13 minutes we get the first of three weather forecasts. PTA- always the formal master. The pink/blue color splashes in Punch-Drunk Love, the wake in The Master
  • At 43 minutes the weather comes in again—then a great three minute tracking shot following the characters on the game show and picking up and trading off to someone new as they interact.
  • A film really about bastard patriarchs, mentor/mentee as always with PTA—the quote from the Bard—Merchant of Venice “sins of the father” — “Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children; therefore, I promise you, I fear you. I was always plain with you, and so now I speak my agitation of the matter: therefore be of good cheer; for, truly, I think you are damned.” These characters (the Macy character, Meiora Walters, Cruise, Jeremy Blackman young genius Stanley)
  • It takes like five viewings of the film but there are pictures or paintings of magnolias throughout the movie, video game in the bar is frogger
  • At 140 minutes the “Wise Up” sing-along—nine characters. Transcendently bold – theme and variation in great art- this is a moment of breakthrough
  • The John C. Reilly and Melora Walters section of the film is like a preview of Punch-Drunk Love– Reilly is so good at the dinner scene

And the final shot- a long shot- one take to Aimee Mann’s “Save Me”—Walters stares at the camera as PTA moves the camera in. Devastating—uplifting. PTA has given us 3-4 (absolutely There Will Be Blood and The Master) of cinema’s great ending shots—this is one.

 

 

most underrated:   Unfortunately, Anthony Minghella has sort of fallen out of favor with cinephiles. The Talented Mr. Ripley is nowhere to be found on the TSPDT consensus top 1000 and that is a shame.  It is a sharply written screenplay from the Patricia Highsmith novel (Purple Poon is a prior film adaptation too of course) and Matt Damon, Jude Law, Paltrow and Philip Seymour Hoffman are all excellent.  Minghella’s sumptuous photography of Italy and capacity for epic filmmaking is on full display. He is the 1990s and early 2000s David Lean with The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003) being comparable (though not quite as good) to Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).  The Insider from Michael Mann is also extremely underrated. Chang-dong Lee’s Peppermint Candy should be on the TSPDT top 1000 by now and is not– as should Sofia Coppola’s debut, The Virgin Suicides. In fact, Spike Jonze’s debut Being John Malkovich rounds out a fifth film from 1999 that should be on the top 1000 of TSPDT but currently is not. All five are very underrated. These five happen to make up the back half of the top 10 films of the year below. Since The Insider is rated the highest, that’s the choice. It is also time to rediscover Tim Burton’s stunning Sleepy Hollow.

Anthony Minghella parlayed the artistic and financial success of 1996’s The English Patient into this large canvas, picturesque revenge thriller. The opening credit sequence is very inspired- piano keys and fracturing of the images of Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley. On location shooting in Italy here- masterful. Music, clothes (a sartorialist’s dream)- a feast for the senses when you include the score by Gabriel Yared and John Seale (both would work on The English Patient as well—Seale would go on to do Mad Max Fury Road in 2015). It is like David Lean directing Hitchcock—closest I can think of is Powell directing Peeping Tom in 1960 a little.

He probably cannot quite touch the work of Scorsese, Kieslowski, or The Coen Brothers- but Michael Mann stakes a strong claim to being the greatest auteur of the 1990s rounded out by 1999’s The Insider.

At the 85-mniute mark Crowe’s Wigand has his glasses on in the very tight foreground right of the frame with the lawyer talking to him in the background- another jaw-dropper.

 

Decades later this does seem like this is a strong candidate for being Burton’s greatest work

perhaps Burton was enthused by working with the young director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki

his career’s trajectory did not continue- but the first three production design credits for Rick Heinrichs are Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Sleepy Hollow

the film is nearly wall to wall splendid cinematic art- this shot here echoes a similar silhouette shot in The Night of the Hunter (1955) rooted in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

 

 

most overrated:   Admittedly, it took me a long time to find Clare Denis’ Beau travail, but I did finally locate it in 2012 and saw it twice in one week. I owe it a revisit obviously, but it for now it sits outside of the top 10 of 1999 (no shame in that). The TSPDT consensus has it at #115 which makes it the best film of 1999– so it is the obvious choice for this category for 1999.

a very strong composition of Grégoire Colin and Denis Lavant here in Beau travail

 

 

gems I want to spotlight    There are a trio of debuts to catch- Spike Jonze’s Being John MalkovichSofia’s The Virgin Suicides, but do not foget about Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher.  All of these films were made by auteurs 30 (both  Ramsey and Jonze) or younger (Sofia was only 28).

Being John Malkovich is my 1999 gem because it marks the arrival of two brilliant cinematic minds. It’s the debut film for Spike Jonze of course after a wonderful career as a music video director (hello Fincher and others). It also marks the first major accomplishment and archiveable work for mad man screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and introduction to his world. Both are doing auteur work here-  as it is impossible to say one or the other is the reason for this work of such brilliance.

The Virgin Suicides with the lush photography, French New Wave Truffaut-like freeze frames and iris work–  again, it is one hell of a debut from the young Sofia Coppola. This shot here is nothing short of a marvel of décor, coloring and production design.

Ratcatcher is a strong debut from Ramsay-  grim, stark, certainly fits the sub genre of poetic realism. She has started her narrative traits here in her debut– and has a clear talent for arresting imagery. Like all of Ramsay’s films, the central character is in a traumatic experience (death of a child here that he is the cause of) and the rest of the film with float along with him. Ramsay has a great shot at that house in the country of the window frame with the wheat field in the background. Ramsay uses the window as her own frame within the frame- just like Renoir often would- she goes back to this at least three times- quite gorgeous.

 

trends and notables:

  • There are a whopping fifty (50) films in the archives for 1999 and at least three masterpieces (Fight Club, Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut) – but the real triumph of 1999 is the sheer depth of quality films that should be somewhere in the top 10 of any normal year. There are anywhere from 17-18 of these such films- that is astonishing.  I highly recommend this great book that captures this special moment in time Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen  Brian Raftery https://www.amazon.com/Best-Movie-Year-Ever-Screen/dp/1501175386
  • Clearly, Paul Thomas Anderson and Kubrick are sort of the joint lead stories of 1999. This passing of the torch seems fitting– as some of PTA’s later works (certainly There Will Be Blood) seem to be more Kubrick than Scorsese (Boogie Nights) or Altman (Magnolia). PTA has delivered the best film of the year in two of the last three years, and he has yet to turn thirty years old. The great Stanley Kubrick passed away in March of 1999. 1999 marked a twelve year wait (Full Metal Jacket in 1987). At age 70 in 1999 it seems unlikely Kubrick would have ever made another film (the stretches between were getting longer and longer) but still- sad to see him passing away of course. To end his extraordinary career, from 1964 to 1999 Kubrick went Masterpiece (MP), MP, MP, MP, MP, MS (Must-See), MP.

a simple, yet elegant cinematic painting from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

Kubrick’s ruthlessly dogmatic approach to a motif in Eyes Wide Shut– a staggering triumph of visual design.

 

  • Michael Mann’s perfect decade is worth noting for sure- The Last of the Mohicans in 1992, Heat in 1995, and The Insider in 1999. And David Fincher keeps rolling, he would be quite masterful often in the 21st century but with now Fight Club and Se7en under his best in the 1990s, he is as exciting a filmmaker as anyone.

Like Eyes Wide Shut and even Magnolia, it took years for many to acknowledge Fight Club‘s place in the pantheon

like most of Fincher’s films, Fight Club is a visual triumph from beginning to end, but still, one had to acknowledge this special shot

  • The Phantom Menace would mark the first Star Wars and George Lucas film since 1983- it would be the 1999 box office champion. M. Night Shyamalan would become a household name in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. But as far as pop phenomenon that is also great cinematic art- it is The Matrix that carries the day from 1999.

A cinematic achievement in believable color design in nearly every frame. The Matrix is flooded with greens and blacks. Like a Fincher film, even the whites are light green. The phone is green, Fishburne’s tie, endless objects. Don’t hold the other brilliant films from 1999 against The Matrix– just because it isn’t the best film of the year doesn’t mean it is is not a magnificent cinematic achievement. An inarguable triumph of special effect and stunt work— but that’s not all– also narrative (the story is extremely engaging) and visual style (it is meticulously designed with color)

The green visual motif that pervades the entire work. It is hard to believe this is Wachowski’s second film (Bound in 1996)—so much confidence and polish—this is a big film, big set pieces, big budget, highly ambitious (in themes and aesthetics). Sort of a blending of Lewis Carroll (Alice is a big part of this film), Phillip K. Dick dystopia, the hacker culture in the 1990s

The costume work– black hair, shades, leather, pale skin—assurance in this world, oozing cool and consistency

  • The arrival and true debuts of Sam Mendes (American Beauty) Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) would be the lead story in another other year.  To make a first film that is so fully realized is rare– and all four would have a top 10 or borderline top 10 of the year film with just about every subsequent effort.

from Sam Mendes’ American Beauty– formal breaks of surrealism throughout

and even in a domestic drama filled with strong performances, again and again Mendes will go wide to capture a moment with a great composition

 

  • It gets mentioned it in the underrated section above but for a 3-4 year stretch here with The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella was absolutely one of the best directors working. It is very sad he would pass away too young at age 54 in 2008.
  • For actors both Charlize Theron (The Cider House Rules) and Colin Farrell (The War Zone) land in the archives for the first time.
  • They do not get mentions below but Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman deserve a quick note. They are both from the PTA trope of actors (Moore was in Short Cuts with Altman years ago helping solidify that influence on PTA)- and both are on fire in 1999. Both are in Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, and now Magnolia. Moore is also in Cookie Fortune in 1999 (also Altman), The End of the Affair and PSH is part of the marvelous young ensemble gathered together for The Talented Mr. Ripley.

 

best performance male:  With a year that has roughly a dozen films that could be argued should be on the top five of any normal year, there is plenty to get to for 1999 in this category. The easy #1 is Tom Cruise. If anyone still thinks Tom Cruise cannot act or they have just forgotten, they should check out his 1999 resume—especially his work in Magnolia. If you add  Eyes Wide Shut to Magnolia that gives him the single most important and best performance in the best and second best film of the year. Well, enough said about the top here for 1999. It is is a big year for 1990s mega stars (current and former heartthrobs) because Brad Pitt is probably second behind Cruise for his work in Fight Club. Edward Norton is right there as well– and Fight Club will start the trend of several films here that have dueling performances that demand to be mentioned among the years best. The Talented Mr. Ripley has both Jude Law and Matt DamonThe Insider has both Russell Crowe and Al Pacino.  Many of us were floored by Russell’s transformation in 1999  as Wigand. He has white hair, glasses, a few extra pounds… but Wigand also requires Crowe’s physical presence (“I don’t like to be pushed around”) and strength. Still, it is hard to believe that only a few months later Crowe will be starring in Gladiator (2000). There is no reason to insult either film or performance, and I am happy Crowe won the Oscar for at least one of them, but his best work between the two films is here in 1999. Sorry Keanu, it is Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving that land here for The Matrix.  The performances are top notch across the board in the film. Reeves is very good for the role, but Fishburne is an imposing figure- a great actor- perfectly built for these monologues. Weaving steals every scene he is in. His diction- every line reading. It is clear how good he is because the other two agents look ridiculous next to him. He would probably rank third when ranking villains between the Heath Ledger’s Joker and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds role but  he belongs in the conversation for great semi-recent cinematic villains.   Kevin Spacey is back in this category again for American Beauty just a few years after his marvelous 1995. The last two choices go to smaller parts for career best work from Christopher Plummer (The Insider) and John C. Reilly (Magnolia). The scene where Plummer eviscerates the Stephen Tobolowsky character and Gina Gershon character will give you chills. And, there seems to be no better time to acknowledge the sublime career of character actor John C. Reilly. He has been in 25 archiveable films and counting, including the trio of films with PTA in the 1990s (including Magnolia obviously).

 

yet another frame to luxuriate in Kubrick’s dedication to the Christmas light visual motif and praise Cruise for his 1999. Cruise is front and center for the best two films from one of cinema’s greatest years.

Cruise as Frank TJ Mackey in Magnolia– at the 25 minute mark is Cruise’s introduction to the 2001 music. His introduction and cathartic reunion with Robards may be the show-stoppers but his acting in his interview when he is getting exposed is also a wow—anyone who thinks Cruise cannot act- please watch those scenes.

 

 

best performance female:   Annette Bening does her best work in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty and the same can be said  for Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club. Bening had to be pretty easy to cast in the Mendes film, but Bonham Carter is a brilliance piece of casting for Fincher (wait till we get to The Social Network and Gone Girl to talk about his casting prowess).  At this point in her career (pre Tim Burton) Bonham Carter is closely associated with period dramas and Merchant Ivory films, it is jarring to see her as the pivotal Marla character in Fight Club– and she pulls it off.  It is Melora Walters who gives perhaps the second best performance in Magnolia (there are so many candiates here including Robards and PSH). She gets the tiebreaker though with PTA giving her the final devastating shot.  Yet another Almodovar muse gets a mention in the best performance female category– this time for Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother.  There can be no second guessing that a slot here in this category is due to Gwyneth Paltrow for her work in The Talented Mr. Ripley. This is peak Gwyneth here in 1999- and one could argue she was sort of robbed of a slot in both 1995 and 1998 for Se7en and Shakespeare in LoveReese Witherspoon arrived in 1999 with Election. Reese’s Tracy Flick is one of the great characters of 1999. When you rewatch Eyes Wide Shut you’ll undoubtedly be surprised by how little of the actual running time includes Nicole Kidman, but when she is on the screen, she owns it. Ditto for young Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides. Even when flanked by the other young blonde actresses playing her sisters there is little doubt of who has the greatest screen presence. 

 

Decades later now it is also hard to talk about the history of the freeze frame without mentioning Election. From Hitchcock’s Champagne to It’s a Wonderful Life to Truffaut’s use in the early 1960s to Butch Cassidy to Goodfellas. Alexander Payne chooses to freeze awkwardly on Witherspoon’s Flick (above)—he uses this single frame three times as he tells her story.

painterly dissolve editing seems to be hereditary- Sofia here in her debut film

Sofia’s breathtaking use of blue day for night

 

top 10

  1. Magnolia
  2. Eyes Wide Shut
  3. Fight Club
  4. American Beauty
  5. The Matrix
  6. The Insider
  7. The Virgin Suicides
  8. The Talented Mr. Ripley
  9. Being John Malkovich
  10. Peppermint Candy

 

Peppermint Candy is an achievement of film form. Chang-dong Lee sets the narrative like Citizen Kane meets Memento (this is only description here as this is one year prior to Memento)—the “peppermint candy” is the “rosebud” if you will – lost innocence told in flashback, but structured in a reverse chronological order like Memento. The interludes are even stronger than Memento– Chang-dong Lee simply cuts to the same reoccurring shot of train tracks—gorgeous work.

an astute use of the full, wide frame from David O. Russell in Three Kings

this is a semi-revelatory film for Russell visually after the cinematically quiet first two films of his career

subtlety is not a requirement for great art as is often the case with the great Spike Lee. This fantastic cinematic painting is from Summer of Sam

a superior sequence and shot from Soderbergh’s The Limey

Hilary Swank,  Chloë Sevigny (both pictured here) and Peter Sarsgaard all impress in the powerful drama Boys Don’t Cry

from Almodovar’s All About My Mother– the name is rooted in All About Eve-– but this immaculate composition is rooted in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

All About My Mother- Almodovar
American Beauty- Mendes MS
Arlington Road – Pellington R
Beau travail – Denis HR
Being John Malkovich- Jonze MS
Boys Don’t Cry – Peirce R/HR
Bringing Out the Dead – Scorsese R
Cookie’s Fortune- Altman R
Cruel Intentions – Kumble R
Election – Payne HR/MS
Existenz- Cronenberg R
Eyes Wide Shut- Kubrick MP
Felecia’s Journey – Egoyan R
Fight Club- Fincher MP
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Jarmusch HR
Magnolia – P.T. Anderson MP
Not One Less- Yimou Zhang
October Sky- Johnston R
Office Space – Judge R
Peppermint Candy – Chang-dong Lee MS
Pola X- Carax R
Ratcatcher – Ramsay HR
Rosetta- Dardenne HR
Sleepy Hollow- Burton HR/MS
Summer of Sam- S. Lee R/HR
Sweet and Lowdown- Allen R
Taboo- Oshima R
Tarzan – Buck, Lima R
The Cider House Rules – Hallström R
The End of the Affair- Jordan R
The Green Mile -Darabont R
The Hurricane- Jewison R
The Insider –  M. Mann MS
The Iron Giant- Bird R
The Limey- Soderbergh R
The Matrix – Wachowski MS
The Ninth Gate – Polanski R
The Sixth Sense – Shyamalan R
The Straight Story- Lynch R/HR
The Talented Mr. Ripley – Minghella MS
The Virgin Suicides- S. Coppola MS
The War Zone – Roth R
The Wind Will Carry Us- Kiarostami
The Winslow Boy- Mamet R
Three Kings- D. Russell HR
Time Regained- Ruiz R
Titus – Taymor R
Topsy-Turvy – Leigh HR
Toy Story 2 – Lasseter, Brannon, Unkrich R
Tumbleweeds – O’Connor R

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives