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 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
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.
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.
gems I want to spotlight There are a trio of debuts to catch- Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Sofia’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).
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Damon. The 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).
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 Love. Reese 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.
- Eyes Wide Shut
- Fight Club
- American Beauty
- The Matrix
- The Insider
- The Virgin Suicides
- The Talented Mr. Ripley
- Being John Malkovich
- Peppermint Candy
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|
|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|
|Sleepy Hollow- Burton||HR/MS|
|Summer of Sam- S. Lee||R/HR|
|Sweet and Lowdown- Allen||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