Film: The Wonder Year

Article by Paul James

In his new book, Brian Raftery explains why 1999 was the Best. Movie. Year. Ever.

In summer 1999, journalist Brian Raftery was 23 years old and had just made the big move from the cineplex desert of rural Pennsylvania to New York City. He had landed a job interning at Entertainment Weekly, back when the likes of Owen Gleiberman, Mark Harris, and future Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn could be regularly overheard in the hallways arguing passionately about the latest releases.

“It was also the first year I ever went to a screening,” Raftery recalls. “It was like, I get to see these movies for free? In a nice theater? Weeks before anyone else? It was so exciting.”

You could forgive a movie-drunk kid like Raftery for thinking every other movie he saw in 1999 was some kind of cinematic miracle. Except everyone else did, too. 

It wasn’t just that a bunch of compelling, distinctive smaller movies like Being John Malkovich, Election, Rushmore, and Boys Don’t Cry came out that year; even a lot of the blockbusters were interesting—1999 was the year of The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, and Toy Story 2. Some movies straddled both worlds, like The Blair Witch Project, which was shot for next to nothing on a camcorder in the Maryland wilderness and became one of the ten highest-grossing films of the year. 

Now Raftery has written a book, Best. Movie. Year. Ever., in which he explores the production history of about 30 of 1999’s most notable releases, from large-scale productions like The Phantom Menace, to cult hits like Go and Galaxy Quest, to the kind of mid-budget, auteur-driven studio projects that have increasingly become Hollywood rarities: David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Michael Mann’s The Insider, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. And even then, he had to leave out plenty more: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, American Movie, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Ravenous, the bizarre Guy Pearce cannibal movie that remains one of his personal faves.

“I see 1999 as a collision between three generations of filmmakers,” Raftery says. “This is the year you get Spike Jonze’s first movie, Sofia Coppola’s first movie, Brad Bird’s first movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s big breakthrough—all these exciting new voices emerging, all coming from different places. Then you have these major directors coming back after at least a decade away: [Stanley] Kubrick, George Lucas, Terrence Malick. And then there’s Michael Mann and David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh, all being handed the keys to the equivalent of these big muscle cars. It’s like, ‘So you say this movie Fight Club is going to be a nihilistic takedown of consumer culture, and you’re going to blow up our corporate offices at the end of it? Okay, well, we can only give you $65 million to make that.’”

How’d this happen? Raftery gives part of the credit to a generation of movie executives who started their careers during the New Hollywood era of the 1970s and whose decisions were informed as much by a genuine love of movies as by business savvy. Take Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who greenlit Three Kings and The Matrix when he was running Warner Bros., simply because he thought they were…you know, great ideas.

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