I am as amazed as everybody else at how good the year 1999 was for films. Particularly surprising was the high quality of output from the Hollywood studios – not, as of late, known for churning out anything of lasting worth. But who wants to talk about the good stuff? Let's pay homage to the lamest ideas, events, and personalities of 1999.
- Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Jar Jar Binks. A "wacky" two-headed sportscaster. Poop and fart jokes. Aliens that speak broken English instead of their own language. Jar Jar Binks. A mop-headed tyke shrieking "Yippee!" Liam Neeson as the most ineffectual Jedi ever. JAR JAR BINKS. The atrocities go on and on. It seems like the sort of movie that somebody would make if George Lucas had died and the rights to the Star Wars universe fell into the hands of studio hacks. But lo, this film was written and directed by Lucas himself. Yes, one man can break the hearts of millions – and still make a fortune in the process.
- Paramount Classics. My employer Paramount Pictures is a conservative studio, and is thus a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to new trends in cinema. Consider their new "art film" division, Paramount Classics, which launched last year, long after the other major studios had formed or purchased their own such divisions. Their cheap-looking logo was a clue. In 1999 they released one good foreign film (Cabaret Balkan) and a string of ho-hum, formulaic imports and indies that nobody saw. Even if they were good, nobody would have seen them, because Paramount Classics spent about 5 cents promoting those films and getting them into theatres.
- Miramax. Once the great white hope for indie filmmakers, the Weinstein brothers' empire started crumbling, artistically speaking, after being purchased by Disney, when they began focusing their energies on a couple of big-name "buzz" films per year (The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Sling Blade) while letting many genuine great works slip through the cracks without promotion. 1999 was their worst year ever, financially: the artless teen flick She's All That was their only hit; they wimped out on distributing Dogma because of threats from Catholics; dozens of their films made it in and out of a handful of theatres in a blink of an eye. Their aggressive Oscar campaign for Shakespeare in Love preceded all of this, which made it clear that Harvey Weinstein's only real goal was to fill a billion TV screens with his fat face while accepting an Academy Award, for he and his company have put little energy into anything since.
- Life Is Beautiful – dubbed in English. Miramax was responsible for this embarrassment as well, but it was such a colossally stupid idea that it deserves its own spot on this list. Several months after Life Is Beautiful won three Oscars and became the highest-grossing foreign film ever, the Weinsteins thought it would be a good idea to market a dubbed version of the film to the "stupid" Americans who didn't want to read subtitles: "I used to say 'Buongiorno, principessa!' Now I say 'Hello, princess!'" That was their actual ad campaign. Thankfully, nobody bought into it.
- The death of Gene Siskel. Even though he and his sparring partner Roger Ebert are often accused of reducing film criticism down to a thumbs up/thumbs down dichotomy, there's no denying the influence this man had in bringing a large number of unknown films into the public arena. He dearly loved cinema and tirelessly championed the cause. Also, with his passing – and I mean this seriously – America lost a beloved comedy team. Though a solo Ebert forges bravely ahead, there is something in the loss of his partner that can never be replaced.
- The death of Stanley Kubrick. Bad timing: mere weeks before the release of his long-awaited Eyes Wide Shut, the enigmatic auteur croaked, leaving us to wonder if he really meant for his film to be so pretentious, if it was monkeyed around with by others after his demise, or if he could've eventually given the world a satisfying answer as to what the film's nonsense was really all about. We will never know.
- The Blair Witch brouhaha. It was a stunning display of the power of hype: a mediocre low-budget horror movie making over $140 million at the US box office just because everybody just had to see it. It also set an unfair benchmark for all 1999 indies, as well as for any filmmaker who uses the Internet.
- Bungled promotion for The Iron Giant and The Insider. Two great Hollywood movies. Arguably the best features released in 1999 by Warner Bros. and Disney, respectively. Yet both studios marketed them halfheartedly, causing audiences to stay away. A great pity. Both deserved to be blockbusters.
- Gwyneth Paltrow. Was anybody legitimately moved by her tearful Oscar acceptance speech? Or are we all in agreement that she's a pampered preppie princess?