Thursday, April 9, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Films That Just Don't Hold Up

I’m back with my retrospective on film from 1999. For previous thoughts on why I consider this particular so important you can read this. For thoughts on the more forgettable films of 1999 click here.

When looking back at 1999 I had to ask myself whether or not I could write about most of these without watching them again -- I mean after all it’s been nearly ten years since I’ve seen some of these. But I figured I would roll out the film by film analysis for the Forgotten Gems (because I actually want to take a look at those again) and maybe some of the more famous Bad Movies Made by Good Directors. This list is a collection of titles that I used to think were good to great movies (some even masterpieces), but have soured on since I’ve grown older, and of course, wiser. Don’t forget to leave some comments as to your initial thoughts on these films when they came out, and how think of them today.

My hope is that with these snapshot-like “reviews” (They’re more like rememberings) I can save some time (I seriously can’t watch all of these over again) that can be focused more on the really good or really bad films of 1999 that I do want to re-watch. I undoubtedly have more thoughts about these films, and I hope that the comments section will turn into a place for more detailed discussion about these films and why I don’t think they hold up.
Let’s get on with it…

American Beauty:

Do you want to see the most beautiful thing ever filmed? Nope. Neither do I. Well we start with the biggest title on the list, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. This was definitely the crown prince of 1999, the sorta-indie, sorta-mainstream wry take on suburban lifestyle. However, years removed from my initial love of the film (I was 17 when I thought it was so great, and I saw it four times in the theater) I began to sour on it. Just why did I think this movie was so great? Well, for one it plays to the immature musings and pseudo-philosophical message that a 17 year old would connect to (especially fresh off a reading of Catcher in the Rye). It’s about mild-mannered people rising up and raging against the machine of conformity – plus it has AMAZING visual poetry…right…right? Nah, the movie just kind of works for me now, as I have seen films that tackle the same ideas with a less glossy sheen. Mendes focused so much on the visual aspect of the film (shot by the legendary Conrad Hall) that it’s only now, years later that I realize how paper thin the ideas of this film are. The performances are good (not great, in fact Kevin Spacey’s Lester really annoys me now, I wish he’d just grow up) and the cinematography top notch. I think what makes this a film that doesn’t hold up is all of the praise and accolades the film received; it was the most revered and lauded film of 1999 among mainstream critics, no doubt about that, but it really doesn’t hold up over time. And maybe that’s unfair to penalize a film just because a lot of people liked it, but really, I was one of those people, and I just don’t like it anymore. The metaphors, the false symbolism, the failed attempts at satire and irony (holy crap the slutty girl has never had sex! The homophobic military dad is gay! Get out!), and I don’t care how beautiful you think that damn paper bag is…you’re 17 just shut up already! The film just seems very sitcomy to me now.

American Pie:

I think this seminal (no pun intended) gross out teen sex comedy is more remembered for its influence on the comedy film, than actually working as a comedy. This film is only ten years old, but is so incredibly dated. I used to love this movie, and really it was more a product of me being in high school and relating to some of the characters (or caricatures) portrayed in the film. It created a star out of Sean William Scott and really, everyone else just kind of went away (where is Chris Klein? I need more Rollerball!) never to really be heard of today. I guess there’s nothing really harmful about this movie, it’s a step above the usual comedy drek playing at the theaters, and it’s just that it feels sooo 1999 with its soundtrack full of Harvey Danger and Blink-182 anthems. I’ll still watch parts of it whenever it’s on TV, but really comedies today have either outdone the jokes found in American Pie, or tweaked them to make them funnier; so, really it’s just a nostalgic trip if I catch it on the tube. Good enough, but not the laugh-out-loud comedy I thought it was 10 years ago.

Blair Witch Project:

This horror phenomenon didn’t even hold up on second viewing. And so it goes with a film like this, hyped beyond belief thanks to a tremendously ingenious marketing campaign (you could say this is the film that gave all indies hope for box office success), once you’ve seen what the film is and the surprises that are in store, then really there’s very little to look forward to upon second viewing. I still maintain that the very idea of the film is genius, and that it really is one of those films that define what made 1999 such a memorable year. Much like its surprise filled counterpart, The Sixth Sense, this is one of those films where second viewings are not its friend.


I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other night about Kevin Smith. I felt like a lot of his films fail to endure the test of time, while he found that most of Smith’s movies are tolerable, if not great. This all stemmed from the fact that I haven’t seen his latest effort Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and I think that lack of urgency to see it is based on a recent re-viewing of Dogma. I remember loving this movie, but when I sat down to watch it again the jokes felt so dated. Smith’s humor is love it, or leave it, and I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt because a lot of the time I think he’s a decent storyteller. But Dogma is a dog of a movie. I don’t much care for the religious controversy surrounding the movie; you can’t take the movie seriously because it contains a giant poop monster, but that’s just it: it has a giant poop monster…I just don’t think that’s funny anymore. I’ve always swept aside Smith’s penchant for bawdy, middle-school humor because his stories are usually about a lot more once you peel away filthy layer after filthy layer; but the recent flurry of Judd Apatow hits (and his protégés) show how to really make a film that is part gross-out comedy and part drama. I guess I’ve evolved as a nerd, moving from the more pre-teen Smith humor to a more refined, post-college type of humor. Alan Rickman is really good in this, and so is anything involving Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, but the other stuff with Chris Rock and Selma Hayek and Jason Lee and Jay and Silent Bob…meh. It doesn’t age well.

Eyes Wide Shut:

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh sorry. I’ll always remember this as a film that was more memorable for the experience than the film actually being any good. The first, and sadly, only Kubrick film I saw in the theater, I thought it was really cool how I got to see a film of his on opening weekend – not a reprint or re-release, but a premiere of one of his films. The film itself is excruciating to get through, and really, the eeriness subsides after the 120 minute mark. The late Sydney Pollack is wonderful, atoning for his sins for directing an even bigger yawner Random Hearts the same year. Eyes Wide Shut is a must see if you’ve never seen it, but really it should be appreciated for its aesthetics and nothing more – the narrative is about as banal and throwaway as it gets. I know I may be in the minority on this one, especially since it was the last film Kubrick left us, but seen now, ten years later, it’s not that good of a film. Admittedly I am not much a Kubrick fan, I think his Barry Lyndon and Paths of Glory are two of the finest films I’ll ever see, and of course there’s no denying the importance and visual brilliance of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s about it for me in regards to Kubrick’s oeuvre. And maybe that’s why I don’t feel that weird thinking that this is a film that just doesn’t hold up. This is probably his most uninteresting film aside from Full Metal Jacket.

The Green Mile:

I love love love Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, but man was this attempt at another Stephen King penned prison film a chore to get through. Darabont loves to wander through his films (The Majestic is the same way, but I liked those characters a lot, and the feel of the film was warm and genuine, so I didn’t mind the stay) and he never seems to be in too big of a hurry to wrap things up. In The Shawshank Redemption it’s fitting, because the viewer is supposed to feel that sense of never ending entrapment; but with The Green Mile it felt unnecessary and redundant. Too often it felt like Darabont was trying to re-coax the magic found within his previous film, but really The Green Mile gets bogged down in murky religious metaphors and long, laborious scene after long, laborious scene of sweaty men with bad southern accents. I think I remembered liking this movie more based on the fact that Darabont was a favorite director of mine, so I let him off the hook for this one. This is one of those rare dramatic Stephen King stories that doesn’t hold up too well. I prefer the aforementioned The Shawshank Redemption and Scott Hicks’ adaptation of Hearts in Atlantis. Nope, this one doesn’t hold up well at all.

Man on the Moon:

Jim Carrey’s performance almost saves this Milos Foreman directed film from the list. It’s an amazing performance filled with nuances and over the top emoting and all the crazy and unidentifiable madness that everyone associated with Andy Kaufman. The problem is, as much as I am huge fan of bio pics, all this film made me want to do was watch documentaries about Kaufman. There are some fine performances and some stabs at insight into how Kaufman really was when he wasn’t doing a bit (although you could argue that his whole life was a bit), but again, there’s nothing new here and all of the specials that aired on TV while this movie was being promoted are a lot more interesting. The film bombed, and that’s really too bad because it’s a great performance (Paul Giamati is great, too), but it’s no surprise that audiences weren’t willing to shell out money to see something they could have gotten for free on TV.

The Muse:

I love Albert Brooks. He’s one of the funniest, wittiest comedians in the biz. I really liked the satire found in The Muse, but really this film is like most of his recent endeavors: they just kind of exist. Brooks is a writer/director who always brings something to the table; even his bad films are a notch above other comedies, but with The Muse the whimsy wears thin half way through the film. When I watched it again recently I didn’t really mind that I was watching it, but it’s not as good as I remember, and that’s more due to the fact since I was 17 I hadn’t really seen many of Brooks’ films apart from Lost in America. Now I’ve seen them all, and I can say that The Muse ranks somewhere near the bottom and doesn’t really hold up when you compare it to your other options from Brooks.

The Sixth Sense:

This was the beginning of the end for M. Night Shyamalan and his wacky swerve endings. It worked here because it was so new to American audiences (although I have to be one of those guys and say: I kind of guessed the ending when I first saw this) and it was such an understated ghost story. There’s a lot to like here: good atmosphere, strong performances (annoying kid aside), and some creepy ghost moments, but really the film is like Blair Witch in that once you’ve seen it, you don’t need to see it again. I liked what Shyamalan did in Unbreakable and Signs, but boy did his string of goodness end there: The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening; all giant pieces of crap, and really they sour second viewings of his earlier films because you realize what a one trick pony he is, and that trick just isn’t very exciting if you’ve already seen the movie. One of the worst of this bunch when you consider it under the terms we’re playing by here.

Stir of Echoes:

Here’s a case of how I would see anything as long as it was a horror flick. I remember thinking this was really original when it came out, but now, not so much. When put in context, however, the film is quite original – this was released prior to the flurry of “other side” or “medium” films. The acting is good, and some of the more suspenseful scenes string you along pretty nicely, but again, does it hold up? Not really. This is a classic case of thinking something is really cool when you’re in high school, but watching it again, years later, you realize just how lame the movie is. Writer/Director David Koepp gets some things right, but really this felt stale upon its release due to the surprising success of the other ghost story movie The Sixth Sense, which came out a month prior to this one. One made hundreds of millions of dollars, the other one was forgotten after its opening weekend, but both fail to hold up 10 years later.

Summer of Sam:

Here’s a case of being 17 and thinking anything playful with editing and music is cool. Spike Lee is hit or miss with me, and I remember thinking that this was a great film filled with manic performances, manic editing, and manic music all perfectly encapsulating a manic time in New York City. I watched this on HD movies the other night, and wow was it boring. This is gratuity run amok, and Lee is obviously covering for his lack of a story with his kitchen sink approach to filmmaking. This is defiantly one of his less subdued films, and really, I think the only Spike Lee films that endure are the ones that are more nuanced. Adrien Brody, in one of his first roles, is really good here, but other than that. And WHAT was that orgy scene all about…

Other films I thought of, but are in kind of a gray area: Boys Don’t Cry, Notting Hill, The Straight Story, Tango, Ten Things I Hate About You, Twin Falls Idaho, The Winslow Boy.

I’ll be back later in the month with a look at some bad movies made by good directors, and just to whet the appetite these films will include the following: Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone), Fight Club (David Fincher), The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski), and Random Hearts (Sydney Pollack). Until then…


  1. Good list, and great job explaining the problems that you see with these films.

    I gotta respectfully disagree on two of these: Blair Witch Project and Eyes Wide Shut. BWP isn't exceptional cinema, but I'm always struck by how well it does hold up for me as an evocative horror story. It's so rough around the edges compared to its descendants, and there is so little about it that feels calibrated (no matter how finely calibrated it might actually be). Its sheer indie shoddiness works fantastically in its favor to create that immersive authenticity that sells the whole thing for me. I watch it about once a year during the Halloween season, always late at night with all the lights turned out and the sound way up. And it always scares the bejeezus out of me.

    EWS has actually improved for me with time. I was modestly pleased with when I saw it in theatrical release, but I've gradually come to see it as a minor masterpiece in a oeuvre littered with masterpieces. I guess YMMV.

  2. Andrew:

    Thanks for the comments. It was only about five years ago that I still heralded The Blair Witch Project as a great horror film, but I've soured on it after a viewing within the last few years. It's not because of the rough edges or the fact that it's not scary, I just think with my personal criteria for these films it just doesn't hold up when I know all the beats to the song. I can appreciate the craft and skill that went into making such an old fashioned horror film that relies solely on sound to scare the viewer, but it all just feels so familiar to me. But I can definitely see where you're coming from.

    Now, as for Eyes Wide Shut -- It just never grew on me. I've seen the film three times and I'd like to think I've given it a fair shake. There are some immensely eerie elements to the film (the sub plot with piano player, the creepy music, Pollack's character), but I've never been one to be entertained by Kubrick's plodding stories; which is odd considering I think Barry Lyndon is one of the best films I've ever seen! I know I probably doesn't make much sense, but I've just never been a huge fan of Kubrick's style -- I totally get the effect he's going for in his films, but it just doesn't do it for me.

    Eyes Wide Shut does have one of the best final lines I've seen in a movie, though.

  3. Yeah, Kubrick is one of those directors whose sheer languidness either works for you or it doesn't. It is interesting that you like Lyndon but are bored with EWS. Most cinephiles seem to take Kubrick as a package: They either enjoy his filmography as a whole or they don't. "Splitters" who have strongly divergent opinions depending on the individual film seem to be rare, at least among American film-goers in my experience. Wonder why that is?

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  5. I think I take Kubrick as a package in the sense that I can appreciate what it is he does...with all of his films. But I don't really want to revisit or spend extended amounts of time with a lot of his films. I think I like Barry Lyndon so much because of the innovative way he lit the film, and the beautiful music and cinematography.

    I remember watching a brilliant seminar on American Film with Martin Scorsese (I think the BBC did it) and he made a great point about Barry Lyndon: it's like a ballet. The way the actors move with the music, the way the film is so deliberate in its pacing; all reminded Scorsese of a ballet.

    I have to agree with him, and I think I can best explain my appreciation of Barry Lyndon (and 2001 for that matter) in those terms. The film is hypnotic and I always get sucked into it while I watch it. The same goes for 2001. With Eyes Wide Shut, I always snap out of my reverie about half way through the movie (or after his initial visit to the strange orgy), it doesn't quite hold me in as fierce a daze as Barry Lyndon and 2001 do.

    I foolishly left off Dr. Strangelove as a Kubrick film I greatly admire, but other than that I have the same problems with The Shining and Full Metal Jacket that I did with Eyes Wide Shut: they just lose me after awhile.

    The Shining works great as sort of a whacked out comedy, but it's way too long. Full Metal Jacket is the epitome of a film that grips you from the opening scene, but then that grip loosens and subsides as the story moves from boot camp to Vietnam, I just stopped caring after that -- there had been a lot better made Vietnam movies then what was being shown in Full Metal Jacket's final half; it was the boot camp stuff that made that movie so fascinating, and I think a lot of the time people praise the entire film based on how brilliant the opening 30+ minutes are.

    A Clockwork Orange never did it for me. I find the film horribly boring and excruciating to get through. I always find myself trying to give the film another chance, but I can never get through it without my mind wandering towards something else.

    I like his earlier stuff: The Killing, Paths of Glory, etc. and I shamefully admit that I've never seen Spartacus or Lolita.

  6. Interesting discussion here and superb essays on why this group doesn't (or indeed ever) resonated with you.

    THE SIXTH SENSE is one Shyamalen film that I would give a pass to. Spew your venom as the rest of his oeuvre, (although oddly enough I rather liked THE VILLAGE, going against the grain) and leave his debut film be. It still has some potent shocks, and holds it's own within the constrictions of this genre. But again, it has some issues too, as you most eloquently elaborated on.

    I also do not believe your 17 year-old crush on AMERICAN BEAUTY was an adolescent weakness, nor a failure to process it "sitcom" qualities. For me it holds up compellingly, as many of it's observations of small-town America are dead-on, particularly the behavior of Spacey's character. It has become 'fashionable' the last 5 or 6 years to trash this film, but the generally-superlative reviews it received upon release in my view were well-deserved.

    A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is an out and out masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of the 1970's, as well as one of Kubrick's absolute tour de forces, along with 2001, and oddly enough, THE SHINING. The other films mentioned here by him as all most fine, but mere warm ups for the BIG THREE.

    I am between Kevin and Andrew on EYES WIDE SHUT, but I suspect it's reputation over time will ascend. I agree that the gimmicky BLAIR WITCH, the pretentious DOGMA, the grating AMERICAN PIE, and the others which were no good in the first place.

    Your writing and topic are first-rate. Wonderful discussion.

  7. Sam:

    Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Your kind words and contributions are much appreciated on this blog.

    I'm sorry we disagree on something as big as A Clockwork Orange, but I've tried giving the film a number of just never worked for me.

    I agree with you that The Sixth Sense has some great moments in it, but I think compared to how revered the film was in 1999 to how one thinks about it now...there's no comparison: it doesn't hold up to that kind of praise. Still, it's a good movie.

    I think that's one thing I failed to make clearer is that some of these movies I still enjoy or think are good, I'm just saying that they don't quite live up to how I thought of them back then or how much praise certain films were receiving ten years ago.

    A perfect example is American Beauty. I don't hate it as much as it may seem after reading my remembrance of it, and I definitely don't think it's as bad as those who so often rail against the film. I just think that some of the scenes are so convenient for the plot and take the easy way out (the misunderstood blow job scene where Chris Cooper thinks his son his giving oral sex to Spacey's character felt like something off of Fox television) and that's what I meant by the film seeming sitcomy. The aesthetics of the film are as good as any from 1999, but that's always been my beef with Mendes, whether it be American Beauty, Road to Perdition, or Revolutionary Road; I've felt like all of his films feel too paint by numbers in the narrative department, but each film is a home run visually; however, for me, a truly great film must be both visually masterful and contain a narrative that makes me care. Mendes' characters always come off as cold and flippant to me, and I never really care about them.

    I do think the best character in the film is played by the actress who gives the best performance in the film: Annette Benning is fantastic in American Beauty.

    Thanks again Sam for your thoughts. I hope you drop by again and contribute masterfully to the conversation like you did here.