Hollywood followed the lead of trailblazing independents, producing a slate of dark, edgy films
by Beth Rowen
Despite the typical deluge of summer high-octane blockbusters, Hollywood finally got it in 1999: bigger does not always mean better. It only took a century of filmmaking for the suits in Tinseltown to realize they can make it big by thinking small.
Miramax, the semi-independent studio owned by Disney, has defined itself with a steady slate of highbrow, often controversial films and has thus been perennially rewarded at Oscar time. This year many studios have started to reinvent themselves to look more like indies and have released more quirky films and less formula-driven drivel.
Dark, Edgy Cinema
Indeed, 1999 WAS NOT a stellar year for feel-good cinema; dark, edgy comedies ruled the roost. DreamWorks’ scathing look at materialism and suburbia, American Beauty, boasted impeccable acting and writing and fully realized characters. David Fincher’s homoerotic, ultra-violent Fight Club (Fox 2000) also unapologetically examined materialism 1990s-style, with risky, decidedly unglamorous turns by pretty boys Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Paramount’s Election, starring Reese Witherspoonand Matthew Broderick,broke the teen-film mold, perfectly capturing the cynicism and ruthlessness of high school.
Films don’t get much darker than Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon. Damon plays a desperate social climber who stops at nothing to be perceived as one of the beautiful people. David O. Russell’s Three Kings casts a cynical eye on the Gulf War and manages to attack Arab stereotypes, the media, and President Bush’s handling of the war, while maintaining stylized visual flair.
Despite the dark films produced by the major studios, the independents haven't lost their edge. Fox Searchlight earned wide praise for Boys Don’t Cry, the raw, powerful fictionalization of the real-life story of Teena Brandon, a young Nebraskan who transformed herself into a man with seamless transvestism. In his directorial debut, Being John Malkovich, revered video director Spike Jonze took viewers on a madcap surreal comedy straight into John Malkovich's consciousness.
And who can forget the summer event? No, not Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. That other sure-to-be-cult-classic, The Blair Witch Project. Like it or hate it, the film redefined the horror genre.
Blockbusters Move Beyond Formula
The handful of blockbusters that reaped big profits in 1999 looked beyond formula. Ultra-sleek cyberthriller The Matrix, one of the year’s top-grossing films with a $171 million box office, was keenly forward-thinking and demanding of its vast audience. M. Night Shyamalan perfected writing, setting, and pace in the eerily symbolic The Sixth Sense. How often can one say that Bruce Willis gave an emotionally rich performance?
Toy Story 2 managed to surpass the original, both in storytelling and technology and took in a whopping $80.5 million in its five-day opening weekend. Who would’ve thought that such blatant product placement could be so much fun? Disney also realized that music doesn’t have to overpower their animated extravaganzas. In Tarzan, Phil Collins' score subtly complemented the action and the lush visuals.
The Stars are Dimly Shining
Nevertheless, studios found once again that big-name bankable stars, such as Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock, and Julia Roberts, don’t automatically fill multiplexes. Indeed, Gibson’s Payback didn’t pay off at the box office, and interminable buzz couldn’t open eyes to Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, which starred husband and wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Does anyone even remember Bullock’s Forces of Nature?
In 1999, audiences, studios, and theater owners triumphed; film fans actually had several options at theaters; and the 1999 box office is expected to shatter all previous records. So far, there has been no runaway hit the likes of Titanic. American Beauty, The Insider, and Three Kings have all deservedly won best movie honors. While the last year of the century will not crown a new King of the World, it has made the aristocrats more aware of the peasants.
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