1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View
1999 was a big year for me. I was 17 years old and heading into my senior year of high school, I was getting a stronger sense of who I was and my interests, one of them being the world of film, and this translated itself into the rudimentary start of written film criticism. I’ve always had a lifelong love for cinema instilled in me from my father. I grew up eagerly watching the latest Siskel & Ebert reviews in my parent’s bed on Saturday mornings. It’s been twenty years since I first began knocking on keyboards to put together some sort of half-shaped analysis on movies. It’s a bit strange to consider that I’ve lived longer writing film reviews than I have before I began writing film reviews on a regular basis.
These humble beginnings were fortunate to be tied to what I consider the greatest year in film. Sure many will rightfully cite the powerhouse of 1939 with your well-regarded classics like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, amongst others, or 1982 for rarefied genre films like the E.T., The Thing, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Tootsie, Star Trek II, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or plenty of other years with various bursts of creative high points (say 1974, 1994, 2007).
However, I will argue that 1999 not only had an astonishing number of quality movies, it also changed the movies. No other year had such a varied degree of remarkable movies that dared to be different. We had releases by the likes of *deep breath* Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, David O. Russell, Michael Mann, Kevin Smith, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, Doug Liman, Frank Darabont, David Cronenberg, Anthony Minghela, James Mangold, Ang Lee, Oliver Stone, Milos Foreman, John Lasseter, Spike Lee, Luc Besson, Trey Parker, Mike Leigh, Ron Howard, Robert Altman, Laurence Kasdan, Harold Ramis, David Mamet, Norman Jewison, Neil Jordan, Barry Levinson, Atom Egoyan, Sydney Pollack, Roland Joffe, Sidney Lumet, John Sayles, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, and even George Lucas had people excited for maybe the last time; we had Stanley Kubrick’s last film; debuts by Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Brad Bird, Lynn Ramsay, Sam Mendes, Guy Ritchie, Mike Judge, the Polish brothers, Rob Marshall, Kimberly Pierce, Julie Taymor; a breakout from some nobody named M. Night Shyamalan; foreign releases by Hiyao Miyazaki, Tom Tyker, Pedro Almodovar, Takashi Miike; and highly influential zeitgeist-shaking movies like The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, American Pie; and TWO movies apiece directed by Gary Marshall, John McTiernan, and Joel Schumacher. And sure, not every name on that list released an artistically audacious or even good film that year, or had for some time, but has there been any other year with that kind of name recognition at the helm? The year was overflowing with directing talent old and new. You had the old guard cresting, a vital and experimental new guard emerging, and we never looked at apple pies, slow motion, or frogs again the same way. This is even more impressive considering that there were far, far fewer releases in theaters and on home video than we have today. It’s utterly astounding.
In the interest of looking back at this magical year, I will be doing something I might soon regret. I’ll be looking back on my reviews of select 1999 films, both good and bad, during their month of initial release, and I’ll be reflecting on how the movie holds up, what if any cultural impact it has had or its filmmakers, and honestly, I’ll just be reviewing my own critical analysis skills and general taste. I’m sure I’ll be more than embarrassed by portions I wrote way back when I was but a smart-allecky teen who thought his opinions meant something (some things never change I suppose). I’ll be doing this for the reminder of 2019 as I look back month-to-month at where my film criticism career began and how I’ve honed my voice since. This should be worthwhile and not at all embarrassing, right? Enjoy the trip back through time, dear reader.
Go (1999) Released: April 9, 1999
The sophomore outing of director Doug Liman, the man who put the swinger in Swingers baby, is far from any slump – no it’s more like an achievement. Liman is a man that knows what he wants and an excellent visual artist. Go is a spinning tour-de-force joyride of energetic fun. The movie is down right infectious. It stays in your system for many days, no weeks, after viewing. Consult your physician for proper treatment.
Born in the shadow of Pulp Fiction with the disjointed narrative structure, interlocking plots, retelling of events through different perspectives, and out-of-place editing, Go is the first movie to deserve having the comparisons to Tarantino’s masterpiece of blood and violence. It’s like a child of Fiction, with teens as the main stars and doing some awfully idiotic things mainly because… they’re teenagers. The story of Go is bursting to the seams with clever and embraceable characters, witty and hilarious dialogue, and enough plot twists to keep any viewer frothing at the mouth for more. Again, consult your physician.
The movie reminds me in a way as a American Graffitti or Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the fresh stable load of young talent displayed. Everyone fits nicely and performs excellently, like Timothy Olyphant’s devilishly charming and dangerous turn as a drug dealer, and Taye Diggs who helped get Stella’s groove back and is now the too cool for words friend of a grocery clerk on their trip to Vegas which turns into a comedy of errors. But the standout amongst all the talent is that little delectable Canadian bundle of joy known as Sarah Polley. Playing one of the chief protagonists, she is fascinating and compelling. She takes the role and shines the brightest in a movie filled with equally bright stars. I look forward to seeing what she does in the future.
Set against the L.A. rave scene Go tells the story circling around a 24-hour period of tantric sex, drug deals, a police sting, a lap dance, gay soap stars, and good ole’ chew-able aspirin. The movie is driven by an awesome soundtrack of techno and rock that seems to act like the narrator of our little tale. Go is brisk, breathless, rigorously hip and smart. Finally an INTELLIGENT teen movie. Too bad not too many teens went to see it at the theaters judging from box office scores. I guess they all wanted to see Ryan Phillipe’s ass one more time in Cruel Intentions. But Go is a fascinating trip you’ll want to take over and over and wish the sun would never come back up. Do not pass Go.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’m relieved to report that Go has held up fairly well in the ensuing twenty years. It was labeled as a Tarantino knockoff during its release and it clearly aims to utilize his same sense of narrative switcheroo, irony, and dark comedy. It may actually be the best Pulp Fiction imitator because it takes the tools of Tarantino and claims them for its own purposes, ever forgetting that what made that man’s movies so enjoyable wasn’t its sense of attitude or trickery but the characters and clever storytelling. Go, the first film from screenwriting legend John August, is so well structured, not just in how the narrative bends and folds upon itself, revisiting and reshaping our understanding of scenes, but simply within those segments as well. August is masterful at creating a dilemma and then spinning it in new complications, pressing more danger and escalation. Take for instance the film’s best segment, its first, where Ronna (Polley) needs rent money, so she agrees to supply ecstasy for a party, but she doesn’t have enough money, so her friend is left behind at the dealer’s as collateral, then she flushes the ecstasy to avoid a police bust, then she replaces it with over-the-counter duplicates, then she returns them to the dealer to retrieve her friend, all the while we wait for the dreaded moment he realizes he’s been had and goes looking for vengeance. It’s a brilliant chain of cause and effect organically developed. The second sequence in Vegas follows a similar comedy of errors that gets serious by the end but it’s more the consequences of one very stupid, impulsive imbecile. It’s an entertaining sequence because August knows how to keep the surprises coming at a clip but is clearly the weakest and falls prey to some boys-will-be-boys hijinks. By design, the third sequence is more married to Ronna’s, which makes it an improvement. The extended awkward home visit with the police officer is cringe-worthy but doesn’t overstay its welcome before transitioning into even darker comedy. The low-stakes conclusion is a funny and satisfying way to end the fun without any ill will.
This was only Liman’s second film and I wish he would go back to something small again. He has such a natural ability to infuse an exciting energy into his pictures, which may be one of the reasons he translated so well to big-budget Hollywood action movies (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Edge of Tomorrow). Liman keeps things moving and makes great use of August’s characters and scenarios to impart a buoyant sense of fun and frivolity. Even when things get dark and characters lives are on the line, the movie doesn’t alter its tone and energy, letting the viewer know to have faith and things will still keep to its entertainment mission. August made a hell of a debut for himself and it’s a shame that his tightly structured and clever script isn’t given the credit it rightfully deserves. There are lines of dialogue that are hilarious and cutting, there are monologue asides that come from nowhere but are rich and impactful (Victor Sr.’s introduction where he bemoans how incompetence changes expectations and leaves behind ignorance is a stunning addition for a guy who is essentially The Scary Boss), and the characters are immediately engaging with different personalities and perspectives. Take this witty exchange between Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr:
Zack: “all things considered, it didn’t really go as bad as it could have.”
Adam: “A girl is dead, Zack.”
Zack: “I didn’t say it went perfectly.”
The dialogue pops throughout the movie and the actors sing it in lovely cadences. It all culminates in a very entertaining story that keeps your attention with a bevy or surprises. The ensemble is so large that it doesn’t hurt when a clear majority of supporting roles are underwritten or more plot devices than people.
The ensemble is a treat. Polley is a wondrous lead and has the cold stares, attitude, and overchecked confidence on lockdown, enough so that I was thrilled with the way she held a bottle of bleach, the way she looked contemptuously drinking a beer, the way she could invite the viewer into the interior of this clever girl that gets in over her head. Polley seemed destined to be an indie darling and took a separate turn in the mid 2000s as a film director, notable the Oscar-nominated debut, Away From Her. Another immediate standout I even cite in my review is Olyphant, who right away makes such an impression. There’s an unnerving sexual tension to him that helps out later when he reunites with Katie Holmes’ underwritten character. Olyphant would go on to become a major TV star in Deadwood, Justified, and thrilled me with his comedic chops on Netflix’s delightful Santa Clarita Diet. Taye Diggs is effortlessly charming. William Fichtner (Armageddon) finds plenty of laughs walking a narrow line so perfectly. The biggest alum from Go is actually someone who was only onscreen for maybe one minute and that’s Melissa McCarthy, playing an ebullient friend-of-a-friend. Even in that minute though she makes a favorable impression, enough that I remembered her when she was given another one minute of screen time in August’s screenplay for 2000’s Charlie’s Angels.
Another thing I noticed while re-watching Go was how many of the lines rolled off my tongue, how many moments became crystal clear memories, and even tidbits from the commentary track on the DVD all came flooding back shot-by-shot. I don’t remember watching this movie for at least ten years if not more, but I must have watched it plenty in 1999 to leave that much of a foundation to come back to. Part of this review retrospective will become a personal diary, as it’s hard not to reminiscence while thinking back on your initial impressions of films from twenty years ago. I remember being 17, traveling to the theater with my good pal Tim Riley in his family’s Thunderbird, and just feeling good about my life, and that came back to me. It has a special place for me because of my age when I first saw it and how it excited me about storytelling.
Looking back on the review from 1999, I can see what I’m sure will be a trend, namely my forced use of blurb-ready phrases. I don’t think I’ve ever written “tour-de-force” in any review in the last 15 years, but don’t hold me to this. Some of the jokey statements are corny or cringe-inducing, like “consult your physician,” and “delectable Canadian bundle of joy” in reference to Polley. Apparently I was offended that people were seeing Cruel Intentions in abundance rather than Go and felt it needed to be taken down a peg in this review. I’ve noticed in past reviews a regrettable fault I had where I would personalize things that had no reason to be personalized. My early reviews were comparatively brief, usually fewer than 500 words, and this one sticks mostly in general statements, and I like to think I’ve gotten better at explaining my reasoning. I have to say, I’m a little impressed at my teenage self’s occasional turn of phrase, vocabulary use, and critical analysis, in particular: “Born in the shadow of Pulp Fiction with the disjointed narrative structure, interlocking plots, retelling of events through different perspectives, and out-of-place editing, Go is the first movie to deserve having the comparisons to Tarantino’s masterpiece.” That’s a pretty damn good sentence that I’d be happy to have written at age 37 let alone age 17.
Overall, Go is a sprightly comedy with a sharp creative voice and strong characters that has held up mostly well and deserves more consideration. I might not rank it as high on my year-end re-do of a Top Ten but I think it’s still deserving of its initial grade or an A-.
MAY: Star Wars – Ep.1: The Phantom Menace, The Thirteenth Floor
JUNE: South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, Wild Wild West
JULY: The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut
AUGUST: The Iron Giant, The Sixth Sense
SEPTEMBER: American Beauty, Double Jeopardy
OCTOBER: Fight Club, Bats
NOVEMBER: Dogma, The World is Not Enough
DECEMBER: Man on the Moon, The Green Mile