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Graham: Back to 1999, Hollywood's last glory year

"The Matrix," and a whole slew of other defining films, celebrate their 20th anniversary this year

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix."

"I just wanna go back," Charli XCX sings on her current single, "back to 1999." 

Film fans can relate. As the final year of the 20th century turns 20, it remains a landmark year for films that hasn't been matched since. 

"The Matrix." "Fight Club." "The Sixth Sense." "The Blair Witch Project." "Three Kings." "Office Space." Even "Dick."

And that's not counting "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Notting Hill," "Toy Story 2" or the eventual Best Picture winner, "American Beauty." 

It was a time before the release schedule was choked with sequels, before summer was celebrated all year long at the box office, before "The Fast and the Furious." Comic book movies, which now seemingly make up a quarter of the product in theaters, were represented by "Galaxy Quest," a smart critique of geek culture, and the closest thing to a superhero on screen was "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo."

Top directors such as David Lynch ("The Straight Story"), Martin Scorsese ("Bringing Out the Dead"), Michael Mann ("The Insider"), Spike Lee ("Summer of Sam") and Stanley Kubrick ("Eyes Wide Shut") — who died in March of that year — all had movies hitting theaters. 

But it was the young and emerging talent who really stole the year and made it a high-water mark for the film world.

Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") and Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant") hit screens with their debut films, as did Kimberly Pierce ("Boys Don't Cry") and Sofia Coppola ("The Virgin Suicides"). 

Paul Thomas Anderson swung big with "Magnolia," a sprawling film about family and Los Angeles and frogs raining from the sky. So did Alexander Payne, whose biting high school satire "Election" set Reese Witherspoon up for her "Legally Blonde" triumph two summers hence. 

"Fight Club," released in October, tapped into a swelling sense of disillusionment that spoke specifically to Generation X males, who grew up in a prosperous time — pre-9/11, pre-Columbine — but struggled to connect to themselves and the world around them. "Fight Club" is now a time capsule of pre-millennium tension and anxieties, before smartphones turned us all into a different breed of consumerized zombies.

But if there was one film that really shook up the year it was "The Matrix," the tripped-out sci-fi mind-blower which reinvented the way we look at action movies and immortalized Keanu Reeves as a techno Zen Kung-Fu master. It arrived in late March, from the team of Larry and Andy Wachowski, two brothers from Chicago whose previous film was the slick lesbian crime thriller "Bound." That film was appreciated for its stylized look and heightened noir feel when it was released in 1996, but it gave no indication of what was to come with "The Matrix."

"The Matrix" achieved something rare in Hollywood: it felt new. It introduced groundbreaking new technology — the effect known as "bullet time" is now so commonplace it's used on awards show red carpets — and its slick, comic-inspired visuals helped pave the way for the the movies' eventual comic takeover. Its plot questioned the very reality in which we live in a way that remains relevant today — "are we in the Matrix?" continues to be used whenever something seriously weird happens, which is pretty much every day — and it had an undeniable cool factor which still resonates. 

In 1999, studios could take more chances on films like "The Matrix," which weren't tied to any previously existing properties. Internet piracy had yet to cut into the industry's bottom line — the internet was still treated as novel in the summer hit "American Pie" — and blockbuster mentality hadn't totally taken hold of Hollywood.

Only four franchise titles — "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," "Toy Story 2," "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and the James Bond entry "The World is Not Enough" — made the year's top 20 grossers; last year, only four of the top 20 movies weren't franchise entries. 

Hollywood has had other banner years, for sure: 1939 (any year when "The Wizard of Oz" loses Best Picture to "Gone With the Wind" is a pretty good year), 1977 ("Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Annie Hall" and even "Slap Shot") and 1994 ("Pulp Fiction," "Forrest Gump," "Quiz Show," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and that's just the Best Picture nominees) were all classic years. But 1999 stands tall as a year bursting with creativity, a last-one-out free-for-all before everything changed. 

We can't go back to 1999 — sorry, Charli — but we can party like it's 1999 by revisiting the films that made up Hollywood's last great year. "Deuce Bigalow" is waiting.