A lot has happened since I published a long article in last year’s September/October issue of Film Comment about my recent Northwestern University course that explored the movies of 1999. For one, my students now feel that they are famous. That’s the most important thing. For another, Kevin Spacey, the collapsed star of American Beauty, the movie I felt most nervously obligated to include in that syllabus, emerged from deep sequester to deliver, just under the wire, the very strangest short film of 2018. I described in my longer piece the boons but also the challenges of teaching fraught cultural texts whose significations remain volatile. Spacey’s unnerving metafilmic fragment, seeming to revive his House of Cards character while standing at a kitchen sink—and just long enough to sorta-confess, sorta-deny the still-proliferating allegations against the actor—also played like a gruesome B-side to Beauty itself. Here was Spacey, recast as that movie’s sour, threat-dispensing Nazi neighbor, Col. Fitts, lit with the same pitiless, high-contrast, dingy-chiaroscuro effect of young Ricky Fitts’s creepy home movies. Maybe Lester Burnham found a portal into his neighbor’s brain and crawled inside? Hope he had fun. We didn’t.

On the positive side, many film writers have been singing paeans or erecting tributes to the same miraculous year of Hollywood product that my students and I vigorously unpacked. Alissa Wilkinson at Vox praised 1999 as “uncommonly good” for movies, and also got her own lesson-plan going, urging U.S. studios to learn by contrast how they might try a little harder in 2019. The Washington Post briefly glanced away from the national mushroom cloud and installed 1999 in its Hall of Fame for the best movie years of all time. Literally as I filed this story, Amy Nicholson published a parallel tribute, emphasizing the bygone economic and infrastructural contexts for this bumper crop of commercial films and the careers they made possible. Preeminently, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, epicenter of the annual Toronto International Film Festival but a year-round repertory treasure, unveiled its “Movies of the Millennium” series, exhibiting two dozen of that year’s crown jewels throughout the early winter.

Given our shared enthusiasm for this cinematic vintage, I phoned up Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s Artistic Director, to discuss the general inspirations behind the series, which he personally curated. He divulged the selective criteria that yielded the programmed titles, and we addressed the conspicuous absence of that year’s TIFF darling, a movie that can’t get arrested these days, even if its lead actor struggles to say the same. My conversation with Bailey extended a tradition that originated within my Northwestern seminar, which I launched by interviewing 20 film-world professionals, all of whom offered video-recorded testimonies for an exclusive audience of my students. These eyewitnesses to the millennium ranged from Vanity Fair critic K. Austin Collins to Criterion Channel programmer Penelope Bartlett; from my colleague Miriam Petty, author of Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, to my former pupil Aisha Harris, now stealing her own show as a movie columnist at The New York Times; from actress Melanie Lynskey, who appeared in four of 1999’s movies, to La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who saw many more of them in local cinemas while he was attending …Northwestern University. I wanted my students to hear how a range of Movie People remembered that year in culture as well as on screen, while taking the very diversity of their preferences, platforms, and careers as proof of the many different things that a curriculum in film studies—or at least a passion for cinema—can help you become.

The Matrix

Within the world of movies, what work were you already doing in 1999?

In 1999, I was a film critic. I’d already done eight years with TIFF, at all the festivals from 1990 through 1997. I had been a programmer of Canadian films for them and then an international programmer, starting a section called Planet Africa, which began in 1995. I ran that in ’95, ’96, and ’97, and then I left and went back to being a film critic at a weekly called NOW in Toronto. I was also, I think, doing reviews for CBC Radio, and between 1998 and 2002, I was the co-host of a show called The Showcase Review on one of our cable stations here in Canada.

And didn’t you have a film of your own that played a lot of festivals around that time?

Yes, I co-wrote the screenplay for The Planet of Junior Brown, which launched in ’97 and played for the next year or two at different festivals. It also got broadcast on CBC and won a prize at the Urban World Festival in New York.

Never a dull moment for you, then or now! Amidst all of that activity, what do you associate historically with that time—whether it takes the shape of a specific event or just a broader ambience you remember?

I remember writing in NOW Magazine at the end of 1999 about just what a strange, phenomenal year that was. I guess we were all breathing the oxygen of Y2K paranoia, and I think it allowed us to reflect not just on that immediate year but what it meant to change into a new century, a new millennium. So the year’s films, especially their interrogations of what was “real,” were really frightening and also quite striking.

I mean, for me, The Matrix was one of the most remarkable popular films of the year, especially because I had actually stumbled onto the set of that movie in 1998 in Australia. I was attending the Sydney Film Festival that year—presenting a program of African films—and a publicist who worked for that festival was also doing publicity for this movie that was shooting in the studios outside of Sydney. She invited me, saying it was some Keanu Reeves movie; I had no idea what it was. I went on set, and the Wachowskis were shooting the dojo scene with Keanu and Laurence Fishburne. I got to watch them shoot at least one shot of that scene. But what I recall most is that as they were shooting that scene, given all the setups and the time you’re always waiting between shots, they had monitors just below their cameras where they were watching the NBA finals being broadcast from the States, because you know they’re big Bulls fans.

Chicagoans to the last, yes. I know the type!

Exactly, yeah. I actually just saw Laurence Fishburne in Marrakech recently. I told him that story, and he absolutely remembered that: they would just be sitting around watching the NBA while making that movie. I mean: The Matrix! So that was a really signature film for me that year, but there were so many others. The Sixth Sense, of course—I wasn’t necessarily as big a fan of that one as a film, but it did catch that same zeitgeist of The Matrix and Being John Malkovich and so many others of the time, which really seemed to be questioning how we see the world.

That was also a really interesting idea for the time because digital technology was spreading so much—which reminds me that Fight Club was also crucial to all this. It was less and less clear, all of a sudden, what you could rely on in terms of provable reality. None of this collective interest could have been intentional, but somehow these movies all seemed to anticipate that. It’s like they were giving us a guide for how to get through that transition into the year 2000.

It’s intriguing to me that you say that, because when I taught these same films to my freshmen, they were surprised that there was a historical moment when that question was so foregrounded in the culture, and seen as so shocking or threatening—that “illusion vs. reality” problem, or uncertainty about what you can trust. They have never occupied a world where that was not a total given, albeit also constantly at issue. Whereas I was stunned just as much by what they all viewed as absolutely pivotal to that moment, which they named instantly and unanimously as the events at Columbine High School.

Oh, wow. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

The Sixth Sense

So, given all the things that were going on, and given your own sense that the movies that year felt even more prescient, in a sense, than necessarily “of their own time,” I wonder if you’d say your memory of what those films said aligns perfectly with your memories of how the world felt at that moment. Or did those two sensations diverge? So many people have said to me, “Now that I look at these movies, they seem so much darker, whereas I tend to pine for this pre-Bush, pre-9/11 moment as having been a little easier!”

But you know, it wasn’t, really! I was just last night browsing through cable, and I came upon a CNN series about the ’80s. I only watched about 10 minutes of it, but one of the things they were talking about was how in 1980s television, the medium began to deconstruct itself. You had sitcoms about sitcoms—you know. Garry Shandling and Moonlighting and other shows that were really self-aware about the act of watching television. And I think around ’99, movies began—I mean, obviously they’ve been doing this forever, but they really began to talk in a different way about the act of watching movies. Almost as if there was a kind of catalyst moment in the late ’90s where that interest really surfaced again. I don’t really know enough about the entire history of ’90s movies, which I haven’t really studied, but maybe it was coming off the brash confidence of a lot of late ’80s and early ’90s movies. After those, you began to see the tone get darker and darker and more suspicious, and by the end you get Fight Club saying, “Don’t believe anything, actually.”

You know, these things are always cyclical. It’s not like movies walk a constant path. Post-9/11, there was a kind of new sincerity in a lot of movies that many folks observed just as strongly. I think it’s a natural kind of ebb and flow that happens. But certainly in ’99, I think there was that feeling of greater existential threat—compounded much more, I’d say, by Y2K than by Columbine, because I don’t think people really grasped then the full meaning of Columbine and what would follow from the moment. I mean, even the way people were afraid of these newly sentient machines that were somehow going to harm us! Obviously that goes back to the Terminator franchise and even further to whole decades of science fiction beforehand, but suddenly, all of those things were right back in the middle of that mix.

Given all that cultural salience linking so many movies, and given what you’ve said in the program notes for your series about 1999 being arguably the last great year for movies, I can imagine that the selection process for your films must have been a bloodbath—even with the generous allowance of two dozen titles to include. So what did you prioritize as you made your choices?

I started talking about this many months ago to Brad Dean, who runs our cinemathèque, and I had just a handful of films in my head at the time. The Matrix was number one. Fight Club was right after. Eyes Wide Shut was in there. The Sixth Sense, because it was such a pop-cultural phenomenon. Then as we began to speak, others came in, and Brad had kind of a different take. For him, films like Beau travail were really important, and Time Regained, the Raul Ruiz film we have. And L’Humanité, and Pola X. So he was looking more at European films from that era. I don’t see the same kind of common zeitgeist that those films are exploring together, but still, they were very strong films that came around about the same time. So we began to find ways to knit these two different ways of looking at that year together, which produced the series that we have.

I should say, the films in the series do not all fit any one premise in terms of what “1999” was all about. But they are all, I think, quite striking. The one thing Brad and I did agree about right away is that it really was an exceptional year for cinema—and that’s actually a thing, you know? There are exceptional years for cinema. Not every year is the same, but for whatever reasons there are confluences of opportunity, of quality, of success that deliver years like this.

Since you mention these confluences, I suspect that in the work you do of assembling and directing the annual festival—much like the work all of us do in covering festivals like yours—we’re all rightly or wrongly trying to map these “zeitgeists” onto all these movies that only happened to take form in the same year, and were made in totally different places under totally different conditions. So, that sense of “confluence” you mention, or of motifs that keep surfacing while you’re watching what’s being made all over the world: do you always feel at least a version of that, as you’re trotting the globe and checking things out, or do some years really yield that feeling in a way others simply don’t?

It doesn’t happen every year, I would say. What does happen every year is that we are always asked by media when we announce the lineups, “What are the common themes? What is this year in movies about?” It can’t help but be an artificial question, because a year in movies can’t ever be about one thing. But there are some years that feel that way, I have to admit. I’ve been doing this job of co-directing the festival since 2008, and I felt back then that we were all still working in the shadow of 9/11 and the so-called “War on Terror.” And Iraq, Afghanistan—all of those things. So we saw a lot of films dealing with the quite literal and specific questions of geopolitical conflict, expressed as terrorism but also expressed as abuse of power. That was often something we would notice as we moved from film to film to film.

I’d say that’s less the case now. It’s harder for me to answer that question with any coherence when people ask me, “What was this year in movies about?” Honestly, you sometimes feel like you’re making things up, but I’m sure you know that, because those of you in the media have to draw your own conclusions as well.

Is there a movie in your series that stands out as resonating really differently for you now than it did in 1999? Or that you predict audiences might be surprised to reexamine from a contemporary viewpoint?

Well, one thing that was clear as we were putting this all together was how many of the great films were directed by women. As we now know, that includes The Matrix. But you also have films like Claire Denis’s Beau travail, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides… and Ratcatcher, as well, I remember being really struck by Lynne Ramsay’s film. But as you look back now in retrospect, especially given how important that conversation has become about gender parity and perspective and the male gaze in cinema, those films become even more crucially important. Beau travail, I think, is an absolute masterpiece and stands alongside any of the other films made that year. And the other films I just mentioned are also really significant. To be clear, I’m not surprised there were so many incredible films made by women in the same year. However, I don’t think I noticed it as much at the time.

Beau travail

Maybe a flip side of that question is, as you looked at the year, was there anything that stood out to you as missing? Maybe a tradition that felt dormant or a type of film you were hoping to program and just couldn’t find a great example?

The series that we’ve done is still pretty much based in North America and Europe, let’s say, so at least if you go just by this, it doesn’t look like an especially strong year for Asian cinema, Latina American cinema, African cinema, or films from the Middle East or from other parts of the world. Great films in those places were of course being made. But that idea at the time of “Wow, we’re having such a great year in cinema” had mostly to do with a sense in the so-called West about things that were happening in Western film.

I’ll ask about one title in particular. When I was approaching my class, I had to confront the question of what you do today with American Beauty—your TIFF winner of 1999!

[Laughs] That’s right! And your Best Picture Oscar winner, too.

That movie has always contained so many cans of worms, and suddenly there were even more of them. So, given its absence in your series, did you make a conscious decision not to include it, or does that movie just not resonate for you the way these others do?

In a way, both. It’s not a film that resonates with me as others do. It’s definitely emblematic of a certain kind of Hollywood film that’s kind of artistically ambitious, even somewhat formally daring in its filmmaking, but not in the same realm as the films that we’ve been talking about. You know the so-called “quality film” or “prestige picture” of the 1930s or 1940s? I think American Beauty has that sort of feel about it. And those films often don’t age quite as well as a lot of films that may appear to be less ambitious but are in fact more remarkable, in their form and in their content.

You can look back at almost any decade of American cinema, and the films that were put forth as the most prestigious or that won a lot of awards don’t stand up as well 20 or 30 or 50 years later, while other ones really emerge into greater consciousness. Sadly, I think American Beauty sort of falls into that former category. I mean, it’s really well written, it’s an interesting story, but you know—it’s not Eyes Wide Shut.

I agree with you, though I loved a moment in my class when those exact two movies inspired one of my students to observe that moneyed or at least white-collar white guys have been in free-fall for far longer than she’d understood: “They were really holding on by their fingernails, weren’t they?” And of course we were seeing that in Being John Malkovich, in Fight Club, in Election, although that wasn’t on my syllabus…

And as we know, that goes back so long. We’re all surprised when we discover it. Remember that Burt Lancaster movie, The Swimmer? I watched that when I was a teenager or something; I just found it on TV. And I had that same reaction: “Wow, these guys who seem to have all the power in the world, they’re really crumbling!”

In closing, then, I’ll just ask if there were any movies that were painful to leave out of your series.

Great question, but—look, I’m pretty happy with this list. We actually expanded the series to accommodate all of these titles. So, granting the caveats I mentioned before, I’d say it’s a pretty good list. I think if we did it again 20 years from now, that to me is the most interesting question. I’m sure it would be much more international and would probably include films we aren’t even thinking of right now to include. That’s the best part about any kind of “look back” like this. In many ways, it speaks to the current moment most of all.

Nick Davis is a professor of film, literature, and gender studies at Northwestern University and a contributing editor to Film Comment. He also writes film reviews at www.Nick-Davis.com.