Redbrick Film collectively reminisce and re-evaluate the important 1999 releases that are turning 20 this year
The 1990s were stuffed with excellent, game-changing films that impacted the action genre. Films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Fugitive, Goldeneye and Mission: Impossible all changed the genre’s blueprint, and within that decade emerged a new fresh-faced action star. Today, Keanu Reeves is known as the badass assassin John Wick. In the 1990s, he was the star of Point Break and Speed. In 1999, his career reached new heights.
Whilst some aspects do not work well today, namely the occasionally wonky CGI effects and the poorly done romance between Neo and Trinity, The Matrix still stands the test of time twenty years later because its characters still hold up. Reeves is good as Neo, a man whose entire life is changed amongst a prophecy. The film’s standout performance is from Laurence Fishburne, who plays the one and only Morpheus with utter swagger and charm, and infuses his role with a desperate belief that Neo is the one. Also amongst the great performances is Hugo Weaving who chews the scenery as the devious AI Agent Smith, with chilling and brilliant coldness. Even Joe Pantoliano is excellent as supporting character Cypher.
Character keeps the film relevant, with the themes around The Matrix itself explored. But, in all honesty, there is one thing people come back for: the action. Every action scene is a masterclass in filmmaking. The Wachowskis create breathtaking action, mixing CGI and practicality expertly, especially in the last thirty minutes – a genius finale that is thrilling in every sense of the word. Add to that so many classic lines and bullet-dodging scenes, and you realise that even twenty years later, (despite some odd CGI flames and a soundtrack very much of its time) The Matrix still holds up as a gold standard in action filmmaking: an excellently paced, surprisingly detailed film that makes long black coats and shades cool. It remains the Wachowskis’ best film, a true classic all these years later.
The Iron Giant
Before Brad Bird began his run of Pixar classics – directing The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and working as a creative director any many others – he helmed The Iron Giant, his first feature film. Bird had worked on animated sitcoms The Simpsons, King of the Hill and The Critic before getting his first directing gig, and the film is packed with sharp, witty dialogue typical of cartoons of the 1990s. At the same time, The Iron Giant looks back to an era of American culture that was slipping out of view, with themes of McCarthyism and nuclear warthat would seem more at home in a 1950s sci-fi flick.
It is perhaps not a film that was entirely relevant to 1999, but its success story is one of an era we are unlikely to see again. The film was a major dud upon release, but over time became a cult hit on home video. It is also a reminder of what used to be the future, with its combination of hand-drawn and CGI animation, which has slowly been eradicated from modern mainstream animation. You can maybe compare its themes to E.T., or the Ted Hughes novel which it was very loosely adapted from. However, The Iron Giant is something that exists entirely on its own, not talking down to its young audience but taking them seriously. It tackles complicated and, at times, dark themes that would continue through films like WALL-E and Zootropolis, all while retaining its U classification. It may not have been a success in 1999, but it has come on leaps and bounds right into the new millennium.
The Blair Witch Project
If there was ever a film to truly terrify you, a film to leave you awake on restless nights and even make you question your love for woodland camping, it would be The Blair Witch Project. Paving the path for countless found-footage horrors we have seen on our screens since (Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and REC, for instance), this budget movie found its feet with the help of a trusty video camera and a mere $60,000 budget. It is impressive that, despite this, they managed to haul in a staggering $248.6 million and transform Hollywood’s beloved horror genre in the process.
Blair Witch tells the story of three film students (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams) in their quest to find the eponymous local murderer within Maryland’s unforgiving forests. Unfortunately for them, the fabled witch turns out to be not-so-fictional as first assumed. This is all presented as actual ‘found footage’, meaning that, as viewers, we are supposedly watching recovered video footage from these students who disappeared several years prior to initial viewing. As a result, we are forced to endure the 81 minutes with anxious dread, awaiting the eventual downfall of these young characters as they are drawn deeper into these woods, and finally uncover the dark and deadly truth that lies ahead of them.
This film is undeniably creepy, filled with tales of dead children, mutilated campers and twig-men, littered around the forest foliage. And yet, as the trio are encased further and further into this hostile environment, so too are we. As they break down, so too do we. And, as they finally comprehend a horrifying truth, so too do the audience. It is this proximity with horror that has ultimately forged it into one of the most iconic films of the last twenty years – and encouraged many a budding naturalist to lock their doors, barricade their windows and stay well away from any nearby forest hiking paths.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Wow, did I misremember this one. The Phantom Menace is an iconic film from my childhood – the first new Star Wars movie of my lifetime. I remember it being the first I owned on DVD, as opposed to VHS. As such, it seems that nostalgia has clouded my judgment. For all it tries to do, The Phantom Menace is a steaming pile of garbage.
Most of this can be put down to the film’s frankly abysmal script. There is an infamous story from the set of A New Hope that details Harrison Ford going through his script and telling George Lucas that real people don’t actually talk like this. Sadly, it seems that no one was on-hand to tell Lucas this for the filming of Episode I: his dialogue is so stilted, so unnatural, that not even the best actors in the film can breathe any life into it. There is a great cast, too, including Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Samuel L. Jackson, to name but four. But not a single person gives a good performance, a fact that is as baffling as it is tragic.
The meandering plot does nothing to help the film on its way; the 136-minute runtime could undoubtedly have had half an hour shaved from it, were the story a tad more streamlined and the dialogue less inhuman. There’s also the editing; as soon as we get comfortable in a scene, Lucas cuts away from it for some inexplicable reason – it is so, so frustrating to watch. Even the film’s two best scenes (or rather, the only good ones), the pod-race and the duel against Darth Maul, are undermined by cutaways to other, much less interesting scenes. That’s not even mentioning Jar Jar Binks, who serves the plot in no way, and is more of an annoyance than anything else. Ahmed Best is decidedly not at fault here – there’s absolutely nothing he could have done with material as poor as this, and the same goes for Jake Lloyd as Anakin.
So, is The Phantom Menace iconic? Sure. Is it good? Not even close.
Timeless and charming, Notting Hill has remained just as popular as it was on release in 1999. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the romance: who doesn’t love (and need, at times) a good romcom to cuddle up to?
When shy yet endearing William (Hugh Grant), a bookshop owner, falls for a world famous American actress (Julia Roberts), an inevitable love blossoms. The visuals of the film are perfect – the setting an ode to trendy Notting Hill, London – and the characters and script sublime. The quirky, comic scenes and one-liners are typical of writer Richard Curtis, a guru of the nineties romcom. William’s Welsh roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans) has a particularly memorable scene, in which he opens the front door in his underwear, to acrowd of journalists on the doorstep.
Grant is utterly charming and his authenticity throughout the film makes him very loveable. Roberts, who always appears to me to be in the same film roles, that of the beautiful yet troubled heroine, portrays a woman in search of genuine love and acceptance. I am sure everyone remembers her telling Grant that she’s ‘just a girl standing in front of a guy asking him to love her’. The two create a tenderness onscreen which is not as common as you would think for romantic comedies. We are very used to over-exaggerated, soppy scenes filled with tears and huge musical numbers. Notting Hill, perhaps in the most British way possible, deals with this in a very subtle and beautifully poetic way. It will always be one of the greats for me.
Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 is one of the best animated sequels I have seen, rivalled only by the specimen that is Shrek 2. The movie, directed by John Lasseter, is 95 minutes of absolute glory, and Andrew Stanton’s screenplay is well written, thoroughly engaging, comedic and heartfelt, too.
The drama kicks off within the first fifteen minutes as Woody is kidnapped by Al the ‘Chicken Man’. Although the film’s plot is fairly simplistic – a rescue mission – it is undeniablyfun and retains its freshness. Andy’s mother says that ‘toys don’t last forever’, a sentiment particularly poignant in our ever-advancing technological climate. We inhabit a society in which children seem to be growing up quicker and toys are easily discarded for more favourable electronic devices.
Toys don’t last forever, but neither do the imaginations of the humans that once played with them. Watching Toy Story 2 years later, I became nostalgic for my younger self: someone who would spend hours inventing worlds with inanimate objects, who did not know or care about Apple devices. It did not make me sad to feel this way, but appreciative that I was able to have a childhood not centred around phones and social media – which are not inherently bad things. However, this perhaps cannot be said for those born after 2005.
Silent scenes, like Woody’s cleaning and repair scene, are aesthetically pleasing and give the film a nice break from the action-packed adventure. Likewise, the montage depicting Jessie’s past with her old owner, albeit short, is ever so captivating. It is unsurprising that Randy Newman’s ‘When She Loved Me’, which underscores this scene, was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars.
20 years later, Toy Story 2 manages to preserve its charm, wit and emotion, and I am confident that the competitive, yet endearing, friendship between Tom Hanks’ Woody and Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear will still be appreciated in years to come.
The Virgin Suicides
Sofia Coppola, daughter of cinematic legend Francis Ford Coppola, came into her own with The Virgin Suicides, a meandering story ostensibly about death. It ends up being more interested in the birth of teenage desire and the inherent complications of femininity. It is fitting that this story of the new was released at the end of the millennium and also saw the arrival of a directorial talent as unique as Coppola.
‘You are not old enough to know how bad life gets,’ Danny DeVito’s psychologist tells the youngest of the Lisbon girls after an attempt to take her own life. ‘Clearly, doctor, you have never been a 13-year-old girl.’ Coppola peppers her script with such barbed lines, demonstrating the rebellion brewing amongst the five sisters who have lived for too long underneath their strict mother’s conservative eye.
The titular suicides are not exactly a spoiler; Coppola provides any number of reasons as to what may have triggered them and flavours the entire film with fatalistic narration which removes any doubt. She uses these tragedies as a framework to explore the idealism of growing up, and how this is broken when one actually experiences it instead of merely fantasising about it.
Such heady ideas mean that The Virgin Suicides is more concerned with mood than plot. You melt into this drowsy world just as the boys across the street become entranced by the five ingénues who have slipped into their lives. Coppola paints a dreamy landscape which eventually turns into a melancholic nightmare, paving the way for a career full of bittersweet stories about women struggling to find a place in the world.
10 Things I Hate About You
Without a doubt, 10 Things I Hate About You has got better with age. What was a hilarious romance 20 years ago remains today one of the few films set in tweenhood that does not patronise its audience. The charm of this movie lies with Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles). Her character gave audiences a female teen protagonist, not vapid or conceited, but angry and independent – someone to relate to much more than, say, Cher Horowitz in 1995’s Clueless. Other cast members also give surprising acting performances, not least whose turn as Cameron James stands out next to the performances of similar-aged actors. Allison Janney, now an Oscar winner, is amusing in her minor role as Ms. Perky the counsellor/chick-lit writer.
The story, much like the cast, is spotted with surprising moments. What to ten-year-old me was a hilarious romcom is now a highly intelligent and sometimes satirical movie, taking on gender roles, vanity, and teen cliques. The script must be mentioned for its rare achievement of successfully integrating Shakespeare into a modern context, something that so often falls flat. Yet this romcom’s incorporation of The Taming of the Shrew enhances the script, making the film funnier, wittier and more rounded.
10 Things I Hate About You cannot be discussed without a mention of Heath Ledger. His performance is effortless and his character, much like Stiles’, adds depth and genuine pathos to the movie. Their characters are wonderful and no two other actors could have portrayed them so well.
Despite its age, 10 Things I Hate About You will stay in the hearts of everyone who watches it, not least because of Ledger’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ scene. If you remember this movie from your teen-hood, watch it again. The older you get, the more it has to offer.