1999 was a year of new beginnings for a great many directors of the cinema, filmmakers who used their 1999 offerings to launch their careers to greater artistic, as well as commercial, heights. Although we often forget, it was also the year of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a film that ought to have launched her to new heights but somehow left her scrambling for an audience. In a year of openly defiant, exploratory films from many talented artists, Ravenous remains one of the most defiant and exploratory. Yet it never found an audience for itself or its director, likely because its defiance, experimentation, and exploration are all hidden. Even more-so, they are secret, and the film goes to great lengths to pretend it is nothing more than an everyday comedy-horror exploitation-film of the distinctly late ’90s post-Scream variety. It is a film where the experimentation is wholly submersed into subfuscous genre mechanics, a great devious trick of a film, and I can think of no more perfect nature for such a deliciously sinister exercise in cutthroat filmmaking. Continue reading
There is probably no more critically acclaimed American filmmaker to emerge since the heyday of the ’90s independent scene than Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few relatively mainstream artists in recent years to genuinely acquire the clout of an auteur. Contrasted with, say, David O. Russell, who also survived the cinematic battleground of 1999, Anderson never once seems to have ceded ground to popular concern, and he remains one of the few “big-name” filmmakers whose wandering mind hasn’t been boxed-off by Hollywood money. All these years later, even when they don’t fully succeed, his films seem like the collective external manifestation of the nether regions of his own mind. His films are infused with the lifeblood of classic cinema but prone to the sort of exuberant misconduct all great directors need to engage with to break new bounds. He’s an out-there sort of dude, but he’s cordoned off his own niche as a pop-art experimentalist, a perfect combination of old school composure and new school anger. Continue reading
Amidst the sinew and cartilage of cinema during 1999, so many new cinematic talents emerged from the fray that it can be easy to overlook some of the talents who, charitably speaking, took a while to truly do any emerging. One such force, David O. Russell, spent the better part of the next decade generally hiding from the cameras and doing his damnedest to sour his indie-goodwill, keeling over his once-bright reputation until he was known more as a blistering brute, an angry young discontent of a director behind-the-camera, than as a genuine talent whose skills were readily viewable on-screen. He became an untouchable, in other words, scaring off actors as far as the eye can see and sending them scouring for the new next young upstart director. Continue reading
If 1999 is an important year in cinema history – which most believe it to be – The Iron Giant is arguably the most important single film in the entire year’s canon, beginning as it does a great trend of films both wonderful and abysmal we have not yet escaped from: films based off of Pete Townshend concept albums.
I kid. But The Iron Giant is important for what it reveals about the year 1999: the trend of important directorial debuts, either formal “first film” debuts or debuts into the mainstream by independent directors who had directed a film or two before-hand. One does not need to have seen any films from 1999 to understand the importance of the directors that emerged from the thick of the eye of the millennial storm to shape the contours of cinema for the ensuing fifteen years. If some of these films seem wobbly today, they at least signaled the arrival of important cinematic voices for the ensuing decades. Continue reading
Eyes Wide Shut was Stanley Kubrick’s final completed feature film, and fittingly for a director who did more to redefine and test narrative cinema than arguably any other director of the 20th century, it feels like the summation of his decades-long quest to test how Machiavellian cinema could be. It feels like the completion of his life quest, but it also feels pointedly incomplete, like a work that remains alive and growing to this day. A work that refuses to be batted down or defined. A work that always has something to say to us, that invites discontent and disagreement, and a work that shows a talent still learning new tricks right up until his final moments. Kubrick was a director who always seemed both wise beyond his years and too young, too reckless, and too much of a social provocateur to fit in with the supposedly mature, normative adult world of cinema. Eyes Wide Shut, inviting both the age of wither of a great old-school fable and the heedless, impulsive, devil-may-care gravitas of an unformed New Hollywood bad-boy, is the culmination of all the contrasts that made Kubrick himself. Continue reading
Released in the arguable peak year of a particularly turn-of-the-century form of social consumerism undercut by social discontent, Fight Club is uncommonly similar to fellow Class of 99-er The Matrix. Like the era-defining Wachowski sci-fi smorgasbord of high-flying kicks and high-falling ideas, David Fincher’s conniving would-be exercise in cinematic post-modernism is a startling technical showpiece well-versed in genre mechanics that curdles under the weight of its oppressive, over-baked interpretation of social anomie. Except, while The Matrix eventually gave in and realized it was merely an action film putting on airs, Fight Club, adapted by Jim Uhls from the book by Chuck Palahniuk, takes refuge in its pretentious vision of society until the very end. It would seem that the great, unfortunate secret of the cinematic year of 1999 is that a great many of its biggest hits are stunning visual showpieces hiding deeply incompatible or incomprehensible screenplays (it is no surprise then that the year’s best film, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, succeeds primarily because it is entirely about its visuals, rather than an attempt to marry those visuals to a needlessly over-baked narrative). Continue reading
Photographed by canonical cinematographer Conrad Hall near the end of his long and varied career, American Beauty is a luminously, exasperatingly gorgeous motion picture. It also makes you feel a little sick for caring about cinematography at all, especially when it is put to use excusing and gussying up Alan Ball’s amateurish, ruthlessly self-apologetic, largely confused screenplay. Ball is a fully capable writer – his television shows have their place in a society currently convincing itself it is in the midst of a sort of Golden Age of Television. But he has never been particularly suited to the cinematic medium, and his exercises in concision truncate and confuse what is given episodes upon episodes to expand itself on the small screen. In particular, he has a severe difficulty managing tone, shooting from sickeningly sentimental monologues about modern society to cruel and unusual acerbic put-downs of a great majority of its cast, not to mention the paltry, piece-meal questions raised by his simplistic treatment of the modern middle-class. American Beauty is a troublesome, troubled film, and all the beauty in the world can’t make up for a screenplay as hurtful as this. Continue reading
Update late 2018:
With each rewatch, the sheer abyssal emptiness of The Matrix’s “social critique” is all the more apparent, and the lazier the film’s self-positioning as a messianic, imaginative emissary to “truth” feels. Rather than a real debate between multiple planes of or perspectives on reality, The Matrix sanctifies itself as revelation, its needlessly self-important tone matched only by the hopelessly blinkered texture of its philosophizing. It strikes me increasingly that the film’s problem is that its metaphysical, pseudo-post-modern ruminations on the problem of perspective imbricate upon rather than actually problematizing its resolutely, almost faultlessly classical narrative structure. Which is to say: the film remains, above all, committed to its hero’s quest storyline about the achievement of final consciousness – and “pure” truth – rather than a more fundamental doubt that this new reality is any more viable or legitimate than the old one the film fetishistically pats itself on the back for “teaching” us out of. Whenever new vision and old storylines come into conflict, the film imagines them as inimical, always and faultlessly choosing and defaulting to the later rather than trying to work through how to image a truly modernist blockbuster. For a film about the terrifying beauty of new perception, The Matrix boasts an astonishingly narrow corridor of perceptual possibilities, and it remains truly choked in its field of vision, never exposing its aporias, never curious about the peripheries that haunt it. It remains only interested in shoring up its knowledge rather than questioning it.
The Matrix is an aggressively, almost violently, superficial film, which isn’t a bad thing. That it doesn’t realize it is aggressively superficial? That is a bad thing, and arguably the overriding “bad thing” about genre films in the years to come since The Matrix. In particular, the sci-fi genre has descended into a mess we seem only to just be coming out of. There was a great long period post-Matrix where science fiction seemed wholly unable to exist as either thoughtless puff piece or hard-working, idiosyncratic social commentary. Films consistently and inescapably combined the two to sums that were less than the sum of their parts, questing for a maturity without earning said maturity in genuine craft, all while eventually falling back on techno-fried action as an avenue for popular appeal when the ideas of the film failed to pan out. Take Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 for one. Not a bad film, but definitely a post-Matrix work of trying to have its edgy, thoughtful sci-fi cake and trying to eat its robot-alien action cake too. Continue reading
To dispense with formalities: The Sixth Sense is not that good, but nor is it that bad. Its writer-director has never been a man subject to well-manicured, non-explosive statements – probably because he has never himself been prone to non-explosive statements (he did, after all, cast himself as a writer who saved the Earth in Lady in the Water). In his early days, he was, to his followers, a filmic genius, a genuine auteur in an age with precious few singularly great filmic voices. In recent years, he has become a filmic landfill, a genuine auteur for evil in an age with precious few singularly awful filmic voices. Everyone, regardless of what they think of him, seems to not understand the meaning of putting on the breaks. Either wonderful or despicable, he is a director who inspires opinions of great magnitude regardless of direction.
To some extent, both magnitudes are over-stated. His recent slate of films have managed the insurmountable task of consistent awfulness, but he is not the worst director in the history of cinema. Still, claims of his badness are more fitting than claims of his goodness. Even his best works are, if we are being honest, merely solid showpieces for a frequently confused writer with a better-than-average visual sense that at its best moments manages to convince audiences they are watching a better film than they really are. Case in point: The Sixth Sense, which is a sometimes sharp, occasionally sterling, often misguided work most notable for the frankly bizarre fact that it managed to rake in almost 700 million dollars at the global box office. Being a supernatural thriller, mind you. Ahh, movie-goers were different in the far-flung past of 1999. It dances vision of when The Exorcist (a similarly overrated film, although not as confused at the level of basic writing as The Sixth Sense) exploded into theaters in 1973 and ushered in a new age of respectable auteur-driven horror films for public audiences. But then, 1973 really was a different, pre-Jaws and pre-Star Wars, time culturally and filmically. 1999 is practically still in the womb. It was just yesterday, or so it seems at first glance. Continue reading