How do you measure a year? For Brian Raftery, a former senior writer at Wired, the best way to take stock of 1999 is by reviewing its movie releases. His new book, Best.Movie.Year.Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up The Big Screen (Simon & Schuster) is a film lover’s dream: a journalistic breakdown of the artistic impulses and sociopolitical climate that generated cinema’s most-beloved movies that’s also brimming with juicy behind-the-scenes anecdotes culled from over a hundred original interviews with the tastemakers of that year (think Fincher, Shyamalan, Coppola). In 1999 film audiences were introduced to the first digitally created lead character (Jar Jar Binks), asked to consider the inexplicable beauty of a plastic bag floating through the wind, and watch Hollywood’s then-biggest star, Tom Cruise, attend an orgy in Stanley Kubrick’s final film. “1999 was a four-quadrant year,” Raftery explains in the book, “it had something for everyone.” The movies released in 1999 are among the most-revered in movie history as evidenced by a host of catchphrases — “you don’t talk about fight club,” “I see dead people” — and iconic movie props — the coke rosary, the red stapler — that are inescapable cultural touchstones twenty years later. Best.Movie.Year.Ever benefits from Raftery’s twenty years of reporting experience for sites like Entertainment Weekly, GQ, and Rolling Stone. With the thoroughness of a film-geek-cum-journalist and an ear for prose, Raftery condenses a magical year in film into one massively entertaining book.
Last month, I spoke with Raftery over the phone about the book and all things 1999.
NAOMI ELIAS: What’s the origin story for this book?
BRIAN RAFTERY: A couple of years ago I started thinking about Y2K and I thought about trying to do a book about people who had believed in Y2K and disappeared and then I decided that was not a good idea for a book so I wrote a book proposal for a very different 1999 book that would’ve been about twelve different events; Columbine, the Clinton-Lewinsky acquittal, the women’s soccer team winning, the Sopranos, and then some of these movies. Then, out of the blue, Sean Manning, an editor at Simon & Schuster whom I’d never met before, wrote me and asked, “Would you ever want to write a book about the movies of 1999?” He convinced me that everything I wanted to write about the late nineties I could fit by using the movies as sort of a big picture.
Can you talk about how the specter of Y2K and the coming internet age informed the films released in that final year of the 20th century?
The process of making a movie takes years and years and some of the movies from 1999 like Being John Malkovich and Boys Don’t Cry had been in development at least since the mid-nineties, so it wasn’t as though all these filmmakers were consciously saying hey this deadline is coming up let’s make movies where we address the anxiety we have right now about the world, but I really think there was something subconscious going on in the culture at that time. Being John Malkovich to me feels like a film that predicts the way we create new lives online or the way identities can be hijacked, and then Fight Club, with the space monkey army Tyler Durden builds up, I think of when Anonymous was really taking off in the mid-aughts and starting these decentralized acts of mischief — that reminded me a lot of Fight Club. The Matrix too. The Matrix never has the word “internet” in it, but it’s about hacking culture. To me that was an explosion of ideas about where the technology could take us and was already taking us in ways we didn’t realize. Some saw it as a celebration of the digital future and others, such as myself, saw it as a dire warning. All of those movies were fed in some way by Y2K. Technology loomed large over all these movies.
Did any of your interviewees express surprise at your book’s premise or was there a consensus that this year was special?
It was actually easy to get people for this book. I think part of it is because they do realize it was a special year. When I would email publicists — literally thousands of emails over a year and a half period — I would always make sure I included a list of the movies so they would understand this was a bigger project and a bigger year than they realized. That year is so locked in people’s minds, especially people who are Gen X or older. You remember where you were in 1999 for two reasons: one is because you were aware the millennium was coming, but also anything before 9/11 people have frozen in their memory. I think that’s why there’s a lot of nineties nostalgia now. Even though that decade was very flawed and had a lot of social problems that we were not dealing with, by comparison it seems a little bit sunnier, so I think people were happy to go back into that year. I know when I talked to Kirsten Dunst and she was looking at the list of movies she said, “Wow, this is crazy,” as the list keeps going. That’s the fun for people when I was talking to them for the book; we would start off talking about their movie but then inevitably we’d start talking about Election or The Matrix or where they were when they saw Fight Club. There’s a lot of fondness, not just for these movies but for the period in which they were released.
In addition to chapters, your book also divides 1999 by its four seasons. Each seasonal preface begins with stream-of-consciousness-style excerpts from news items of that time — Monica Lewinsky giving a deposition about the Clinton scandal, the introduction of the euro, the debut of Britney Spears’ first single, Putin becoming president — why was adding that social context important to you?
In the first draft of the book I was really trying to weave all those things in and it was making the book very long. I don’t think people really need a history lesson every two paragraphs, but I wanted people who were alive in that time to remember what was going on and what was swirling in the air in 1999 as these movies were arriving. I wanted to recreate the experience of looking at the newspaper or watching CNN right before you headed into a theater that night, what the background noise was of 1999. I also wanted people who weren’t alive then or weren’t conscious of it to understand the context in which these movies were released because it’s very hard to talk about The Matrix without talking about Columbine — and vice versa in a lot of ways — and I do think those events were feeding one another.
You spend a considerable amount of time detailing how film changed post-Columbine. What is the biggest way that tragedy impacted the filmmaking of that era?
It’s one of those things where, like a lot of cultural changes, it’s kind of slow and you don’t notice it until later. The teen movie boom really peaked in 1999, and maybe a little bit in 2000, and it started to wind down a bit after that. I don’t know if that’s entirely because of Columbine — I think the economic factors always come first, but I do think Columbine did change the way we viewed high schoolers and maybe the way American high schools were viewed around the world. What’s interesting about those teen movies that year is that they were all made in 1998 or a little bit in ’99, so they all happened before Columbine. I think it freezes what teenage life was like before Columbine and before American high schools started adapting backpack checks and metal detectors and this whole — maybe “freedom” is the word? — that American high schools felt they lost for a while in the early aughts.
Also that year there was a lot of panic in the industry about what you could do with young people in a movie. A lot of films were pulling things out or reconsidering what they were going to show right after Columbine. Fight Club was definitely moved down the release calendar because they didn’t want it to be too close to Columbine.
You mention in the book there was tension between Washington D.C. and Hollywood because of that.
Yes, especially with Fight Club, Bill Mechanic of Fox had some people go to Washington to try to contextualize the movie. For the next several years Hollywood spent a lot of time being scrutinized by the government. There was tension between D.C. and Hollywood that was scary for people in Hollywood at the time. They were used to getting an easy pass from politicians in the nineties. Clinton was one of the most pro-Hollywood presidents of the late 20th century; he loved movies, he loved movie stars, he spent probably way too much time watching movies, but even he gave this speech where he really wanted movie theater owners to card teenagers, as impossible as that is to enforce. I think people in Hollywood thought people in D.C. were being hysterical and hypocritical, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at how violence affects the culture and questioning what age is appropriate to have that violence play out in front of people.
One of the narrative through lines your book points out is that movies in 1999 (Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space) were deeply invested in stories about “a particularly navel-gazing sense of white-male malaise.” How much of that do you think was a response to the zeitgeist and how much was a product of the gender imbalance in the directing pool?
It’s absolutely both. Had you asked me twenty years ago I would’ve said the former, I think. Now I think the latter. One thing about that year is that even though you did have someone like Kimberly Peirce making movies and other female filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, when the studios are run by white guys, when the directors and writers are mostly all white guys, and when they’re trying to bring white guys to the audience, you’re going to get a lot of movies about the troubles of being a white guy. That is the story of Hollywood. The gender imbalance we have now wasn’t any better twenty years ago. Hollywood is weird. So, it is almost certainly a factor of the gender imbalance that was going on there. I also think the Clinton generation and Gen X were both very enamored with the mythos of the powerful troubled white guy in middle age — or the young white guy, whether its Troy in Reality Bites or Lester in American Beauty. Those are the kinds of stories people liked to tell in the nineties, or at least they liked to make. White guys steered the culture back then, and probably to the detriment of the culture in some ways. I also don’t know whether it’s just a Boomer thing — a lot of the filmmakers that year were Boomers or older Gen Xers. The Clinton era was a big period for them to reevaluate their lives and their importance.
There’s a great quote from John Cho in the book where he says, “If The Matrix and Being John Malkovich were being pitched today, they’d be pitched as TV shows.” What is the filmmaking of today lacking that was in abundance in 1999?
First of all, thank God for John Cho. I talked to him for an hour and twenty minutes and only used five or six quotes because we talked about so much. He’s right. I do think they’d be pitched as [TV shows]. I interviewed John Cho, what, a year and a half ago? It’s a little different now. I thought last year and 2017 were extraordinarily good years for original movies: Get Out and Ladybird were two of my favorite movies of the last ten years, both from relatively young filmmakers who are clearly going to be making ten to twenty more movies in their careers. When I see those kinds of original stories I think I shouldn’t be so worried about where Hollywood’s going. Last year there was Shoplifters and Burning and Leave No Trace and First Reformed. There were a lot of good movies that stuck with me for a long time.
The problem is the kind of movies that were being made in 1999 really can’t be made in the modern studio system. You can only make a movie now if it’s $5 million or $305 million — it’s really hard to find those movies that are at a lower budget. Even Us had a relatively low budget compared to what they spent on something like The Matrix. It’s very hard for big studios to feel comfortable greenlighting a pricey original story. They need to know that people will show up, and in order to know that people will show up you used to just need a big star. You could put Brad Pitt in something and be relatively comfortable that people would show up even for one or two weekends. I don’t think the stars have quite that much power anymore, so you have these franchises. But the talent’s there, the filmmaking talent is there.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of these films. What is the legacy of that year in film?
The legacy is still being felt. New York Magazine just did a cover story about the legacy of The Matrix. I don’t think these movies ever went away. I think all the major ideas in The Matrix, whether its red pilling or the idea of machines controlling our lives, still feel like they’re part of the conversation. The Matrix has been a meme for twenty years now. Someone always thinks they’re the first person to post a Morpheus GIF. The legacy of that year might be the fact that when you get creators from different generations and different backgrounds — from indie film, from the 1960s, from MTV, from making commercials, from making documentaries — when you have that kind of creative pile-on and you can get funding from the studios it can be really satisfying. That might be what TV has been in the last couple years.
Certainly there’s way too much TV now, but you’re seeing a lot of exciting people now working in TV, some of whom are from 1999: David Fincher does Mindhunter, Kimberly Peirce does TV, Soderbergh did The Knick. The legacy of that year might be in television. A lot of people who make TV now who aren’t filmmakers, the 1999 movies were big movies for them. When Mr. Robot premiered I thought, “this feels a little bit like The Matrix, it feels a little bit like The Insider.” I felt like I was seeing a late 1990s influence. I’ve never interviewed Sam Esmail, so I have no idea if that’s the case or not, but I certainly think you can make some connection between what’s going on in the movies in 1999 and what’s going on in TV now.