A watershed year. That's the buzz around the film critics' water cooler -- or should that be popcorn stand? -- as 1999, and the first century of film, comes to a close. You can hear the whispers as they turn to shrieks of ecstasy: Just like 1974! Such are the proclamations of those trying to ignite -- or at least intrigue -- the herd.
For those who slept through film-history class -- or didn't even know there was such a course -- the early '70s, and 1973-'74 in particular, is considered the renaissance of American film. It's the period when the first film-school brats and new-wave auteur theory mixed like fire and gasoline, seemingly napalming the producer-driven studio system once and for all with a batch of fresh voices and fresh visions, young and old. Wunderkind Francis Coppola one-upped his masterpiece The Godfather with the studio-demanded Part II and a personal project, The Conversation. Martin Scorsese not only introduced us to the Mean Streets of New York but also aptly steered a for-hire about a woman on the verge, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, into an Oscar-worthy performance. And he would soon make America take a good look at its ugly self in the rear-view mirror with Travis Bickle as the Taxi Driver.
Upstarts such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg showed promise with the self-starters American Graffiti and The Sugarland Express, respectively. TV veteran Robert Altman had escaped the small screen and was on a roll with M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye, and was about to define the term "Altmanesque" with the sprawling ensemble piece Nashville. William Friedkin, who had just made the ultimate thriller The French Connection, revitalized and heightened the prestige of the horror film with The Exorcist. Visionary John Cassavetes was slipping into the public conscience with Woman Under the Influence. And Robert Towne, who had done uncredited work on Bonnie and Clyde, had written The Last Detail and Chinatown, the latter even now remaining the greatest American genre screenplay ever. It was like the promise -- and threat -- heard in the bus ride of The Graduate and the gunfire of Bonnie and Clyde back in 1967 had finally come home to roost.
Can the most notable films and filmmakers of this year really compete with that lineup? Is American Beauty an updating of The Graduate? The kids are ultimately all right, even if they are drug dealers who think art is a plastic bag littering the street; it's the adults who are adrift. Is Three Kings this generation's M*A*S*H? A darkly humorous portrait of a troupe of cowboys trying to right and rationalize the Gulf War substitutes for a batch of darkly humorous doctors trying to heal and rationalize Vietnam (in the guise of Korea). Is Fight Club a modern go at Bonnie and Clyde? Charismatic but disenchanted youth go on a mischievously violent crime spree against the Establishment -- only, this time, they're The Man.
Is Being John Malkovich some bizarro Taxi Driver? Is such a thing possible? Consider: The loner who longs to be a somebody takes a celebrity as his hostage to impress the girl. Is The Talented Mr. Ripley a sort of fusion between The Long Goodbye and Chinatown -- a witty, modern-feeling tale of intrigue, yet still classic, literary, and ultimately chilling in execution? Do The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense jointly embody The Exorcist? Hysterical hype and careful thought combine with clever gimmicks to resurrect horror. And is Magnolia just an extension of Nashville?
The answer to all of these questions -- except for that last one -- can only be "maybe" for now; let's see what next year offers before we hail 1999 as the first shot of the new revolution. Yet it's undeniable that this year's crop of movies has created more excitement among the movie literate than any in recent memory. Publications such as Entertainment Weekly and Premiere gush that today's filmmakers are changing the rules. The headlines scream that everything old is out and everything new is in: new filmmakers, new technology, even new ways of telling stories.
Of course, it's easy to play Scrooge and simply point out that every year the media try to sum up and find some greater meaning in the previous 12 months' highly calculated release schedule. In 1996, it was the Year of the Independents, a much-rejoiced middle finger to the increasingly staid and formulaic film conglomerates. But one year later, all the accomplishment washed away, unable to survive the onslaught of the franchise that was Titanic -- a film produced by two major studios.
In 1998, it was the Year of the Rematch. Solid efforts from both camps were symbolically reduced to the increasingly corporate indie Miramax (Shakespeare in Love) squaring off against organically corporate but artistically promising DreamWorks (Saving Private Ryan). Somehow, the indie won. Now, 1999 is the Year of the Upset, the moment when a new batch of filmmakers further upsets the status quo -- though, in truth, they only subverted it.
Writer-director David O. Russell's Three Kings is just a classic adventure yarn with a flashy post-modern paint job -- Kelly's Heroes remixed by Dr. Dre. Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich follows textbook Hollywood script protocol, right down to the big gun-chase finale; writer Charlie Kaufman, previously a TV scribe responsible for Ned and Stacy scripts, just ingeniously put it inside John Malkovich's panty-sniffing subconscious. Steven Soderbergh's The Limey is a basic, garden-variety revenge film. But it's layered and tempered by action and actors who cut across the audience's sense of time, and it makes all the difference. Even a film like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut sings, literally, because it embraces our society's love affair with musical theater, Disney cartoons, and good old-fashioned fart jokes.
Considering it is the eve of a new millennium, such a theory, even when applied to Eric Cartman, is not that absurd. This year in film has been truly fitting of its time. The entire idea of the millennium carries with it the contrasting ideas of hope and fear. On one hand, there is the almost unspoken belief that the renewal of the century will bring a renewal of society, a fresh start. On the other, there is the lingering paranoia that everything we know and think we treasure might come to a crashing end. Together, the two form the craziest of cocktails. How else to explain Fight Club, a film that seems to be winking at its over-the-top radicalism, then relishes the Y2K-like destruction it leaves in its wake?
This bipolar need to re-imagine without completely losing touch is rampant throughout the year's films -- including not just the successes but also the (critical) failures. Just look at how the once-lionized were treated. George Lucas is replaced by the Wachowski Brothers as creator of our favorite sci-fi universe. The Matrix, though not a very logically sound film, furthered our sense of awe and mythology, while Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace remained long ago and so far, far away -- a technological accomplishment that was cold to the touch. Disney's Tarzan, a soulless high-tech revisualization of a classic fable, pales next to the simpler, retro-styled warmth of The Iron Giant.
Stanley Kubrick, a director respected for his ability to confound expectations and subvert genres, had his final, incredibly intriguing film Eyes Wide Shut largely dismissed as "out of touch"; its detractors insist it's nothing but a porn film without the good part -- ya know, the sex. Instead, Paul Thomas Anderson's use of Tom Cruise in a small role in Magnolia (due here January 7) is hailed as genius because it's not only sex, but sexy in a modern, self-knowing way. In the scene in which Cruise struts around in his tightie-whities, the film pays homage to Risky Business, even as it undermines Cruise's star-making turn in that now seminal film. Spike Lee raised eyebrows with his refreshingly energized and engrossing Summer of Sam, but the film ultimately failed because its ending is anti-climactic to anyone who's seen his best, Do the Right Thing. Likewise, Martin Scorsese deserves praise for returning to the gritty streets of New York in Bringing Out the Dead, but even his brilliant, exhausting camera work couldn't overcome the feeling that he's done it before -- and with a better story.
As the kids used to say, been there, done that. And that's ultimately the point. Regardless of whether any of the films of this year hold up to the test of time the way films from the early '70s do, they feel fresh today. That's all that matters. It gives moviegoers and movie-makers a feeling that anything is possible. That's what movies, at their best, are supposed to do.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.