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Tom Brook Thursday, 30 December, 1999, 08:44 GMT
Big bucks, hype and horror
From Star Wars to Blair Witch: Hollywood 1999 has been a mixed bag
By the BBC's Tom Brook

For Hollywood's bean counters, 1999 will prove to be a glorious year with record-breaking box office figures registering annual revenues in excess of $7 billion (4 billion).

Of the more than 450 films released in the US over the year, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace led the field, taking in more than $430m (267m) in the US alone.

Jar Jar Binks left many film-goers unimpressed
It was a source of entertainment that pleased Star Wars fans, but left some of us feeling we'd been victimised by excessive hype.

The special effects were impressive, but the story was weak. Some favourite characters were missing and new additions like Jar Jar Binks were intensely irritating.

Had it not been for Star Wars, then The Sixth Sense would have been America's top-grossing movie in 1999, a cleverly constructed supernatural thriller whose box office strength took everyone by surprise.

The success of The Sixth Sense suggests that audiences will respond to conventional narratives if given an unexpected twist, so the film represents a strong vote of confidence in original storytelling.

The Sixth Sense held won over audiences with twisted finale
Meanwhile, another horror picture, The Blair Witch Project, demonstrated that audiences can be equally open to films with non-standard narratives.

It became one of the most profitable films of all time, yet it broke nearly every Hollywood rule.

It was made on a minuscule budget and had no special effects or big name stars, but it made more money than a picture starring a conventional big name screen idols, such as Kubrick's much-anticipated Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman .

Digital rise

Whether it was Blair Witch, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich or The Fight Club, a new generation of film-makers - those reared with the laptop computer in the digital age - made their presence felt in 1999.

Blair Witch highlighted the rise of the digital generation
These screen auteurs possessed different storytelling techniques compared to old masters like Scorsese and Altman, who had difficulty finding an audience for their latest films - Bringing out the Dead from Scorsese and Cookie's Fortune from Altman.

In this new digital age, the conventional rules of screenwriting have been abandoned in favour of time lines that constantly shift, and worlds where alternate realities co-exist.

Some of the best filmmaking of the year came from these "wired" directors. Witness the visual beauty of the excessively violent The Matrix, and the cleverness of Being John Malkovich.

The best film of the year, at least to my mind, was American Beauty. It delivered astute social commentary, had brilliant acting and it marked a powerful screen debut for director Sam Mendes.

American Beauty with Kevin Spacey is the one to beat at the Oscars
At the end of the year, American Beauty had become the film to beat in the looming Oscar sweepstakes.

Other strong contenders for best picture Oscar nominations include Michael Mann's tobacco-industry whistle blower drama The Insider, Neil Jordan's adaptation of Graham Greene's The End of The Affair and Norman Jewison's The Hurricane, which tells the story of the wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

Bright future

At the time of writing, Britain's best hopes of Oscar glory rest with directors: Sam Mendes for American Beauty, Anthony Minghella for The Talented Mr Ripley and possibly Mike Leigh for his Gilbert and Sullivan musical extravaganza Topsy-Turvy. Neil Jordan could also nab a best director nomination for The End of The Affair.

Janet McTeer's role in Tumbleweeds could earn her Oscar honours
In the acting categories, Janet McTeer has a strong chance of being nominated for her portrayal of a free-spirited Southern woman in Tumbleweeds.

There could be some surprises. I, for one, hope that Jim Broadbent gets a nod for his portrayal of W S Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy.

Before the excitement of the Oscar race takes over, the sobering reality remains that this has not been a vintage year for the American movie industry. Despite exciting new departures in storytelling, there have been few truly great or daring films.

A case in point was Three Kings. It had a brazen visual style and radical content that offered a critique of US policy in the Gulf War, yet it somehow missed the mark.

But the portents are good. If the new generation of screen artists can combine their already honed visual skills with disciplined and original narratives, then another golden age of cinema could possibly emerge.

See also:

17 Dec 99 | Entertainment
09 Dec 99 | Entertainment
05 Nov 99 | Tom Brook
09 Aug 99 | Entertainment
18 May 99 | Star Wars
08 Dec 99 | Entertainment
24 Jul 99 | Tom Brook
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