You have a kind of sick desperation in your laugh.
Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Maybe “1999” was just a number, but its power was very real. Something special was brewing in the stew then. The past was logging up and jacking on to the future. Even the most skeptical among us must have, at some point, wondered whether those apocalyptic omens were legit. Even the most pessimistic among us had to admit the new millennium looming on the horizon was emanating an adventurous aroma.
It bubbled up a bit in the music, but it was exploding all over the movies, a nuclear virus spreading a million symbiotic seeds.
Or maybe it’s just me. 1999 was when I turned 18, when I was a high school senior and then a film school freshman. It was a wonderful, liberating year, and I spent a lot of it going to the movies. Often alone, but not always. I saw more new movies that year than any other year, so I doubt I’ll ever know a Year In Movies better than I know 1999 In Movies. I’ll probably always think of 1999 as the Greatest Year In Movies, even if I see all the Great Movies Of 1927, 1939, 1941, 1958, 1967, 1974, 1982…
Because it’s not just the greatness with 1999. It’s the zeitgeist. Other great years certainly had zeitgeists but 1999 may have had the zeitgeistiest zeitgeist.
For your consideration, in no particular order: Fight Club, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Office Space, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, South Park, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, The Blair Witch Project, Election, American Beauty, Man On The Moon, The Sixth Sense, The Insider, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Boys Don’t Cry, and Bringing Out The Dead, to name just a few. Some real groundbreakers, several gamechangers, plus a bunch of others that are simply great movies. But pretty much all of them are so very 1999.
I know, I’ve been awfully vague about what being 1999 means. The plan is to articulate that more clearly as this series goes along. Perhaps even a few movies from 1998 (like Rushmore or Run Lola Run) or 2000 (American Psycho, Requiem For A Dream) might prove 1999 enough to be considered 1999.
When I started thinking about this Sick Desperation project, I assumed my first entry would either be about Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, or Fight Club, which I consider the Holy Trinity of 1999 Movies. Then a bunch of other things came up, and so Sick Desperation slipped my mind for a couple months. But then I was flipping through the channels this week and landed on Milos Forman’s Man On The Moon, which reminded me how awesome 1999 was, so Man On The Moon is where we’ll start.
Most so-called “biopics” are rightly criticized for trying to shoehorn complicated lives into methodical 3-act structures, and yes, Man On The Moon kind of does that to Andy Kaufman, too. Yet the movie also raises some engaging points and questions about life, the universe, and everything. It’s not just “Johnny Cash learns to kick drugs and treat June Carter right” kinda stuff.
During much of the first half of Man On The Moon you’re like, why don’t I just watch some actual Andy Kaufman clips on YouTube? Jim Carrey’s performance is a good, reverent impression as well as a solid original performance with extra emphasis on the childlike wonder. The other perfomances, especially Paul Giamatti’s enthusiastic Bob Zmuda, are fun to watch as well. But for a while, the movie still leaves you wondering how it’ll justify its existence.
When Andy Kaufman turns heel as a misogynist wrestler, however, the film starts exploring ideas that previously-seen footage can’t. We get to see Andy genuinely crushed and confused as to why fans and family have turned on him, and it’s tragic. Both sides are to blame, really: Andy doesn’t get how his shenanigans have started radiating some dark vibes, while his haters seem less angry at Andy than they are at their own inability to tell fact from fiction. Man On The Moon reminds us how non-wrestling fans don’t usually like it when you rip the fabric of reality in rascally ways. Tony Clifton was forgivable, but apparently a prolonged feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler was not.
Only after Andy’s diagnosed with cancer does he head down the road toward Hollywood-style redemption. He returns to innocence, like Santa Claus and milk & cookies, and the audience loves him again. (Not quite how or when it happened in real life, naturally, but for mythological purposes, I’ll allow it.) Of course, Andy must ultimately realize that the cosmic joke’s on him, too. The last moment we see him alive, when he understands he’s been had and all he can do is laugh with his own style of sick desperation- that’s some powerful cinema right there. And so very 1999.