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Why 1999 was such a big year for movies

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We had a lot on our minds back in 1999. Napster launched, kicking off the digital music boom. President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial was underway. Everyone was making Prince references and worrying about Y2K. But what was on our movie screens? Twenty-five years ago, Entertainment Weekly called 1999 the year that changed movies. Does that sound like too much? Well, think about what came out - "The Blair Witch Project"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT")

HEATHER DONAHUE: (As Heather Donahue) I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them.

DETROW: ..."The Matrix"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MATRIX")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

DETROW: ..."Fight Club."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIGHT CLUB")

BRAD PITT: (As Tyler Durden) The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

DETROW: In 1999, old masters like Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick were still putting out provocative work, while new masters like David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson were pushing the boundaries of narrative and cinematic form. And of course, 1999 was also the year that "Star Wars" returned to the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE")

SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Mace Windu) You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the force. You believe it's this boy?

DETROW: You will notice from that list that 1999 was still a time when the who's who of filmmakers was largely white and male. But 1999 was also the year that Sofia Coppola made her debut as a director with "The Virgin Suicides" and the year the director Kimberly Peirce made "Boys Don't Cry," considered to be the first mainstream film to focus on a transgender man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYS DON'T CRY")

PAIGE CARL GRIGGS: (As Dave - Deputy) Miss Brandon, we put your Charles Brayman ID number through the computer yesterday, and this is what the Lincoln authorities faxed us over. You tell me.

HILARY SWANK: (As Brandon Teena) Wow. This Teena chick seems pretty messed up.

DETROW: A quarter century later, we are going to occasionally look back at several of those milestone films throughout the rest of the year. To start, we called up Brian Raftery who wrote the book literally on 1999 and film. It's called "Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up The Big Screen." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BRIAN RAFTERY: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: I don't want to immediately start by disputing the premise of your book, but, you know...

RAFTERY: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...There have been other big years, too. I feel like 1939 comes to mind - that you get "Gone With The Wind," "The Wizard Of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." There are other contenders in the mix, too. What is it about 1999 that, for you, pushes it over the edge?

RAFTERY: You know, I think that year it's so - personally, as a moviegoer, it was fantastic 'cause you had so many films that you and your friends kind of felt like you had to see because that's what was the top of the cultural conversation.

DETROW: Yeah.

RAFTERY: I mean, "The Sopranos" started that year, but TV was nowhere near what it was like five years later. And, you know, video games were a huge deal, but still, movies were kind of at the very top of this kind of pop culture pyramid.

DETROW: I was just going to say that ticking off some of the movies that came out this year, I immediately have visceral memories of not only those movies, but the memory of seeing that movie for the first time. Like, I can still specifically remember the walk home from the movie theater past some woods after "The Blair Witch Project," which was a horrible idea.

RAFTERY: Oh, my gosh.

DETROW: I don't know why...

RAFTERY: Yeah (laughter).

DETROW: ...I did that, but, like, I still remember it. I mean, like a lot of these - but even beyond people who are around our age who kind of have the nostalgia and the experience of seeing the first time, you make the case that a lot of these movies were really groundbreaking, and that there were some groundbreaking themes that were happening for the first time in this year.

RAFTERY: Yeah, there's a lot of ideas - when you go through these movies, there's a lot of kind of overlapping ideas. I mean, you wouldn't think of "Office Space" and "Fight Club" as kind of being in the same world, but they're both about, you know, leaving this - the kind of structure of your world and kind of trying to go outside and create your own identity or kind of lose your identity and kind of reclaim yourself, which is a lot of these movies. I mean, "Boys Don't Cry" kind of has a similar idea. "Being John Malkovich" has this whole idea of what it's like to jump into someone else's life, someone else's body. So there was this idea of, like, you didn't have to be this sort of established version of who you were throughout the '90s. The 1999 movies have this idea that you can change who you are, you can change your circumstances, you can kind of be an individual amid this kind of very strange, confusing time.

DETROW: Yeah.

RAFTERY: You know, I mean, I think what's so interesting is that these movies were also, in a way, a response to what had been going on in Hollywood in the years before, which a lot of people, you know, have a lot of fondness for '90s movies in general. And there were some really great movies in the mid- to late '90s. You know, you have like "LA Confidential" and "Titanic," and you have a lot of really fantastic indie stuff that was bubbling up. But there was a lot of real crap in the mid- to late '90s. I mean, they made a sequel to "The Odd Couple." They made all these kind of weird kind of big studio franchise IP attempts that were really kind of - you know, either they were franchises that were kind of slowing down, like "Lethal Weapon," or movies that no one needed a sequel to.

But I think there really was kind of what there is now where there was a little bit of confusion of what movies can be and what they should be and what they - what kind of role they can play in our lives. And I think - you know, I don't think movie studio executives were walking around thinking, hey, we really need to sort of make movies that are better. I think what they saw was, you know, an audience that wanted new ideas, that wanted new filmmakers or that wanted something to get excited about. And a lot of these movies do that.

DETROW: You know, I mentioned up top some of the directors that were just coming onto the scene this year - Fincher, Anderson, you know, Spike Jonze is in the mix. I think Christopher Nolan was even making his first movie right around then.

RAFTERY: Yeah.

DETROW: What were some of the themes of these upstarts at the time who have since really set the tone for filmmaking for the last quarter century?

RAFTERY: I think a lot of them were kind of in this really interesting place where a lot of them had come up through the indie world in the '90s. I mean, Christopher Nolan kind of was part of that world. And, you know, you have people like Sofia Coppola who, you know, were going to - no matter what her pedigree is, she was going to make an indie. She was not going to make a $60 million blockbuster out of the gate. So you had a lot of really young filmmakers who had kind of come up at this time when the movies were kind of imparting a lot of really exciting ideas, but also movies just seemed to be something that you could make if you wanted to, and you could kind of explore these kind of, you know, crazy or dark ideas. And at the same time, you also had this kind of mid-level filmmakers like Spike Lee or David Fincher or Michael Mann, who had been around for a while and who were finally getting these really big studio swings.

You know, I don't think "Fight Club" could have happened in any other year but 1999. It just - it was a year in which, you know, Fincher was at a place where he could get a good cast and good money. Brad Pitt was a big enough star that he could say, hey, I want to make this crazy, nihilistic, violent, you know, look at the dark underbelly of America's soul, and get it made, like, at a big budget. That's kind of remarkable. And I do think, you know, a lot of these movies are about being either unhappy or anxious with the way things are and really kind of demanding a change. I mean, that's what "The Matrix" is about.

DETROW: Yeah.

RAFTERY: That's what "Fight Club" is about. Again, going back to "Office Space," I mean, "Office Space" - everyone loves the quotes and remembers it, but it's mostly about a guy who's incredibly depressed with his life and will do anything to kind of blow it up, which is what a lot of these movies are about.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OFFICE SPACE")

RON LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) I don't like my job, and I don't think I'm going to go anymore. I'm thinking now it might be more fun to just get fired.

DETROW: And feels isolated in modern society.

RAFTERY: Yes.

DETROW: And that that gets to something else I want to ask you. We had, leading up to the Oscars, spent a lot of time talking about different Oscars years and taking a look at when the Academy was right and when it was way off. I'm going to tick through the 1999 best picture nominees - "Sixth Sense," "The Green Mile," "The Insider," "Cider House Rules" and "American Beauty," which won. What would your five nominees have been? We don't have to do modern-day 10. That would take too long. But sticking to the 1999 rules, what would your five be?

RAFTERY: Off the top of my head, it would probably be "Fight Club," "Election," "Three Kings" - I think I would probably keep "The Sixth Sense" in there. And, you know, I mean, I think it would probably be "Boys Don't Cry," which I know is a controversial move for some people now, but I think it's a really beautiful movie. It's a beautiful-looking movie. I remember being really kind of gripped when I saw it. You know, it's one of those movies that not a huge amount of people saw when it came out, but it's had - it had a real kind of discernible impact in the culture. And also, I think, you know, back in the late '90s, early aughts, you always wanted to have one really strong indie movie in your Oscar top five.

DETROW: I'll concede that, as much as I think about "Office Space" 25 years later, probably wouldn't have made the cut of top five.

(LAUGHTER)

RAFTERY: And, I mean, two weeks from now that answer would change. I realized I missed "Being John Malkovich," and I'm like, man, I don't know.

DETROW: Yeah.

RAFTERY: That might be the most important movie. That's the thing about this year. It's like every week you could be like, I don't know, was it "Blair Witch"? Was it "Fight Club"? Was it "Being John Malkovich"? You know, there's just - there were so many movies from that time that wound up having such an impact.

DETROW: Well, we're going to look at a lot of them over the next few months here, and maybe we can bring you back at the end and see how much your answers change.

RAFTERY: I'd love to. Yeah, (laughter) I love fighting with myself.

DETROW: That's Brian Raftery, a culture writer and the author of the book "Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up The Big Screen." Thanks so much.

RAFTERY: You got it. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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