Sorry, we missed these ones
1999 was the year everybody wanted to be John Malkovich, a little kid saw dead people and we didn’t talk about Fight Club.The twilight of the 20th century also birthed The Green Mile and Galaxy Quest, and American Beauty walked away with five Oscars the following year at the Academy Awards. In theaters, Notting Hill, The Matrix and the start of a new Star Warstrilogy ruled the box office. Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, emerged, and audiences got their first taste of duplicitous found-footage horror with The Blair Witch Project.
But some films inevitably get swept away by the waves of time, especially if they aren’t buoyed by Academy Awards or ticket sales. In 1999, the work of reputable auteurs such as Shohei Imamura, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Spike Lee and Jeremy Thomas was buried.
Lee’s Summer of Sam was his first project without a predominantly black cast, and it gets bonus points because it stars Adrien Brody with foot-tall spiky hair. Then there’s Thomas, who produced some of the greatest films of the last 40 years, including most of David Cronenberg’s, Bernardo Bertolucci’s and Terry Gilliam’s oeuvres. His first and only directoral foray was the bildungsroman All the Little Animals, wherein a young Christian Bale runs away from his stepfather, who killed his pet mouse.
Niche independent and international voices were lost in the late nineties, too, as James Merendino’s zeitgeist esque SLC Punk!, Julio Medem’s time-bending Spanish romance Lovers of the Arctic Circle and Erick Zonka’s Cannes favorite The Dreamlife of Angels went completely under the radar in the U.S.
But the real artifacts from the year are the works of female artists. There’s plenty of bracing, forceful filmmaking from the late nineties directed by and about women, such as Kerri Green’s Bellyfruit, starring Michael Peña in a dramatic role. Toni Kalem made A Slipping-Down Life, which stars Guy Pearce as a famous musician whom a girl pursues after carving his name into her forehead backward with broken glass. And from China, actress Joan Chen gave us Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, about a young woman who, following the Chinese Cultural Revolution, is sent to work in the rural countryside, where she befriends a eunuch plowman.
At a cross-section, the period showcased work by filmmaking deities Ingmar Bergman and Robert Altman, but it also offered glimpses at would-be auteurs Harmony Korine and Horekazu Kore-eda. 1999 was the height of an era of tectonic cinematic change, and the films that follow should serve as antidotes to the bullet-time entertainment and overwrought, male-centered dramas that ended up defining the year in retrospect.
Roko Belic didn’t have the career he deserved. In the 2000s, he had a brief and lousy life as a documentarian, and in the 2010s, he directed special features for the DVDs of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises for his childhood friend Christopher Nolan. Belic’s Genghis Blues, which was nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, is a work of genius, a soulful, resonant work of nonfiction.
Genghis Blues deals with a blind man’s fading legacy — its star, Paul Pena, had a brush with popularity as a blues singer in the ’70s. The documentary picks up in 1995, when Pena is determined to go to Tuva. Tuva is a republic under Russian control, a mountainous space to the north of Mongolia whose residents are known for their throat singing. Throat singing is an ancient art from Mongolia and Tuva; it’s beautiful, it’s ominous, and it sounds like the human throat transformed into a didgeridoo. It makes up most of Genghis Blues’ soundtrack.
Belic’s cast is colorful and outrageous — most notably, sound recordist Lemon DeGeorge, who looks like a dollar-store James Dean and who introduces himself by saying, “I’m a treetrimmer by trade, but I’m also a recording engineer, and sometimes I mess around with filmmaking a little bit, and I play some rock and roll.” Truly a jack-of-all-trades.
But Pena carries the soul of the doc. He’s a large black singer who wraps friends in bear hugs and shakes the room with his laugh. He’s been trying to get to Tuva for 12 years, and when he finally gets there, he’s aptly nicknamed “Earthquake” by the locals.
In Tuva, he enrolls in a throat singing competition. And just when your interest might start to wane, when you’re beginning to wonder why critics sang praises for a movie that’s basically an anthropology doc mixed with a biography, he performs.
Pena walks onstage with no idea what he’s going to sing, and with only a fleeting command of the language, he plays a few songs — some traditional, some original Tuvan compositions and some that meld throat singing with the blues. His kargyraa show is one of the most brilliant documentary moments I’ve ever seen, and it owes completely to how the film engaged me with Pena’s journey. Genghis Blues treats Tuvan culture with such reverence and glee that it’s infectious, and watching the crowd cheer again and again for Pena to sit down and play one more song is one of the documentary’s purest pleasures.
Genghis Blues feels of a time different from its own, as if its indefatigable spiritualism and love of Tuvan culture turn it into a time capsule, an ode to an art form and a culture that few Americans have the privilege to experience.
GOD SAID “HA!”
In 1999, romantic comedies were at a sea change. Those clean yet provocative high school comedies in the John Hughes mold were on their last legs with She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You,and every high school-set movie was in for a brutal awakening via Sofia Coppola’s romantic drama The Virgin Suicides. And the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks vehicles like 1998’s You’ve Got Mail and 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle would make way for Notting Hilland Richard Curtis’ follow-ups, 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and 2003’s Love Actually.
The rom-com industry was shifting under the feet of Julia Sweeney, a comedian who had a four-year stint on Saturday Night Live and failed to break into motion pictures. (She also looks a bit like Meg Ryan herself.) She wrote, directed and stars in God Said “Ha!,” which feels as though it’s an attempt at redemption, at convincing America that she’s still full of comedic talent.
It’s a filmed version of her 1995 one-woman play of the same name, and though many people, including Roger Ebert, thought it was hilarious when it came out, I hesitate to call it a comedy. Sweeney’s mostly interested in grief and coping with terminal illness. For the majority of the play, she’s talking about her brother Mike’s lymphoma diagnosis, and there’s only the thinnest silver lining of comedy to keep the act from spiraling into depression — “He was in stage 4,” she says. “And there are only four stages; stage 5 is dead.” I’ll forgive you for not giggling.
There’s also strands of Full House, Frasier and Seinfeldpermeating her act. Part of dealing with Mike’s cancer meant that Mike and her parents had to move in with Sweeney and her three cats. Her mother worries about everything under the sun, and her father’s an NPR-obsessed shut-in who seems to be trying to tune his wife out whenever possible. One of her cats, Gus, understandably can’t live with the company and leaves to stay at her neighbor’s house. I don’t blame him. In one of the show’s best gags, Sweeney relates the tale of Gus’ betrayal while smooth jazz croons in the background, as though she’s sunken into one of those film noirs the family would stay up watching to let off some steam and forget about Mike’s disease.
It’s socially aware and revolutionary in the way you’d expect from the era of You’ve Got Mail and Hurlyburly — though it’s about a woman trying to succeed on her own and overcome her grief. She comes from immense privilege, but you’re expected to look past that to appreciate the progressive spirit at its core.
At least it reached more Americans than it would have if Sweeney had tried to market it on her own. Quentin Tarantino (and Miramax, but the less said about Harvey Weinstein’s company, the better) helped produce it, and regardless of your opinion of the films he’s directed, Tarantino’s produced some exceptional movies. His seal of approval helped to sell Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express and Zhang Yimou’s Hero to American audiences as well as God Said “Ha!”
In 1985, Claude Lanzmann’s epic nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah set the bar for what Holocaust cinema could be. Every Holocaust documentary afterward exists in that film’s shadow, including Eyal Sivan’s The Specialist.
But where Shoah and its successors — including James Moll’s The Last Days, also from 1999 — focus on the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, The Specialist trains its eye on the perpetrators. Really, just one perpetrator — Adolf Eichmann, who’d been placed in charge of developing and detailing the “final solution.” In The Specialist, he’s on trial in 1961, nearly 20 years after the end of World War II.
In The Specialist, Eichmann isn’t enraged or swearing or foaming at the mouth. He’s the inversion of every cartoonish invention we’ve come to expect from the word “villain.”
He’s first seen in his glass box, as Hannibal Lecter was in Silence of the Lambs, the tense, feverish strings escalating to his introduction — but when we see him, full-on, in a proper medium shot, he’s a balding old man, sitting up straight and polishing his glasses with a rag, unconcerned. What’s most off-putting is how he puckers his lips, speaks plainly and adjusts his glasses — he had 20 years to evaluate what he’d done during the Holocaust, to prepare for his trial. His calm cadence and almost grandfatherly demeanor conjure a completely different kind of monster.
The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive disputes The Specialist, saying that the film, despite being composed nearly entirely of footage from the real trial, misrepresents Eichmann. The film was criticized as showing Eichmann to be a pleasant man, both in terms of how it presents him during the trial and the way accounts of meetings with him are edited.
He’s a frail, small man, reminiscent of Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies — more like a typist than a mass-murderer. But I think this portrayal of Eichmann’s evil offers plenty of nuance. We can track the ways Eichmann tries to play the victim card, saying he merely “obeyed and executed the orders [he] received,” repeating “it was wartime” as an excuse and as often as possible giving answers that knowingly fall short of satisfying the court.
The Specialist affords us two hours to study Eichmann’s face, to understand his evil. The film ends with the question of whether or not Eichmann believes he’s guilty of complicity in the murder of millions of Jews. He replies, “In human terms, yes. Because I am guilty of organizing the deportations. Remorse changes nothing. It won’t bring anyone back to life. Remorse is pointless. Remorse is for little children. What is more important is to find a way to prevent these things happening in the future.”
Lanzmann, the filmmaker behind Shoah, firmly believed it was blasphemous to recreate Holocaust atrocities in art and entertainment. Instead of easy answers and cheap recreations, The Specialist offers a more resonant exploration of the Holocaust and a more profound depiction of evil with Eichmann’s final words at the trial and the question of whether or not this man truly is remorseful.
Catherine Breillat’s Romance features what Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called “a pink orchard of erect penises.” The film is an 84-minute French arthouse porno where the sex comes fast and dirty. Copulation is Breillat’s forte, if her follow-ups Sex Is Comedy and Anatomy of Hell are anything to go by.
Notably, Breillat’s depiction of intercourse is entirely informed by the female perspective. Breillat’s interested in her jaded nymphomaniac protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey) as she navigates her unsatisfying relationship with Paul (Sagamore Stévenin). Paul’s dispassionate and wooden, yet not wooden in the way Marie’s other men are — once she fellates Paul and he falls asleep, she goes to a local café and picks up Paolo (Rocco Siffredi), who seems to spend the rest of the morning fondling her breasts in her car.
Marie is tired of Paul’s rejecting her sexual urges. “If a guy could fuck you and simply doesn’t, that’s like the agonies of Tantalus,” she says to yet another partner. Ducey’s monotone mumbling gives the impression of someone who’s fornicated so frequently that she could very well teach a course on it.
Instead, Marie teaches grammar to children — when she writes “dictation” (in French, “dictée”) on the chalkboard, it feels as though sex is invading every aspect of her life. Marie’s also seeing the school’s headmaster, Robert (François Berléand), a BDSM enthusiast — because of course she is, and of course he is. This is Breillat, after all.
With the exception of Robert, Breillat’s characters only wear white and off-white, as though she raided the costume department from George Lucas’ THX 1138. Everyone’s apartment looks too clean, too sterile, as though Marie’s intense desire is completely alien to Breillat’s world.
Independent cinema has a long, treasured history of glamming up sex and imbuing it with artistry, stretching as far back as Kenneth Anger’s work from the 1950s and the homoerotic American biker films from the ’60s and ’70s. 1962’s Satan in High Heels and 1966’s The Maidens of Fetish Street bring femininity to the trappings of the sexploitation genre and smash it together with art cinema, and as was the case with Romance, both were derided at the times of their release, with many critics saying they were classless, artless porno films. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with nudity and sexuality removed from the male gaze. In Romance, Marie’s vagina gets less screen-time than the litany of phalluses she tours.
The climax (storytelling-wise) comes when Marie, now pregnant, gets a gynecological exam. Every act of sex Marie’s been involved in thus far has hinged on power dynamics– Marie even thinks of fellatio as an act of ownership, so she only gives it to Paul. In the examination room, Marie’s stripped both of clothing and agency, made to lie still while one doctor after another probes her vagina with rubber-gloved fingers. She imagines a whorehouse where women lie on tables, their upper halves visible only to their husbands, who lovingly hold their hands and look into their eyes while paying customers use the women’s bottom halves. The scene is a dark, dirty, Freudian carousel, and as if this wouldn’t make audiences and critics uncomfortable enough (people could barely stand American Beauty —how could they stomach this?), the scene culminates with a man ejaculating onto Marie’s pelvis, whereupon we hard-cut to a doctor spreading ultrasound jelly on her belly.
Some of the most fascinating overlooked films of the late nineties focus, as Romance and God Said “Ha!” do, on women’s perspectives. Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s Canadian animated short When the Day Breaks, for example, attempts a grainy, close-up aesthetic for a genre that in 1999 was dominated by Toy Story 2, Tarzan and The Iron Giant.
The law of the land in Hollywood has long been misogynistic. Filmmakers such as Audrey Wells and Barbara Sonneborn, who directed critical darlings and festival-favorite films, didn’t go on to have the same reputations that their male peers did.
1999 is known as the year The Matrix changed sci-fi forever and the year The Blair Witch Project changed horror forever. Yet Genghis Blues and The Specialist should have been formative documentaries, and Julia Sweeney and Catherine Breillat deserve the same success their male peers enjoy. Instead their films came and went, barely making ripples in the pond, and while the turn of the century fell into the rearview mirror, our cinema as a whole continued to look very much the same.
Tyler Obropta is a fourth year cinema and photo major who’s watchin’ movies like it’s 1999. You can reach them at [email protected].