Cover Story

1999: The Year That Changed Movies

From "The Matrix" and "The Blair Witch Project" to "American Beauty" and "The Sixth Sense", the last year of the millennium was transformative for Hollywood

You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It's already here. Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors—weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy—snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of ''making a movie'' got turned on its head.

Skeptical? Consider the evidence: The whirling cyberdelic Xanadu of The Matrix. The relentless, rapid-fire overload of Fight Club. The muddy hyperrealism of The Blair Witch Project. The freak show of Being John Malkovich. The way time itself gets fractured and tossed around in The Limey and Go and Run Lola Run. The spooky necro-poetry of American Beauty and The Sixth Sense. The bratty iconoclasm of Dogma. The San Fernando Valley sprawl of this winter's Magnolia. Were you prone to theatrical pronouncements, you might say that not since the annus mirabilis of The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Stagecoach has Hollywood brought so many narrative innovations screaming into the mainstream. ''It's like 1939,'' marvels director Alexander Payne, whose dark satire Election represents yet another escape from the fuddy-duddy format. ''There's a bumper crop of movies that, even if they're not perfect, are interesting and intelligent.''

And fearless. If Hollywood's old guard tends to kneel before the Ten Commandments of screenwriting (''Thou shalt insert a plot point on page 27''), the new guard behaves with blissful sacrilege—even when it comes to the laws of physics. In these new films there's no such thing as death. (Lola takes a bullet to the heart 30 minutes into Run Lola Run, but that barely slows down her kinetic dash through the streets of Berlin.) Time doesn't move in a straight line. (The Limey casually skips and flutters between days and decades.) And why get hung up on logic? If you want John Malkovich to slide down a slimy tunnel into the cerebral cortex of John Malkovich, what's stopping you?

Nothing. Like Keanu Reeves' hero in The Matrix (aptly named Neo), members of this new breed—backed by stars like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, and Cameron Diaz—are wondering whether the rules that have governed the silver screen for nearly a century amount to little more than an illusion. ''Hollywood narrative film is in its death throes right now and people are looking for something else,'' declares R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who produced Being John Malkovich. Which doesn't mean the studios are going to cease and desist from giving us Random Hearts and Runaway Bride—flicks like those often make money—but only that Random Hearts and Runaway Bride are starting to look as clueless and wheezy as a Bing Crosby movie in the year of Bonnie and Clyde.

''Everybody knows that we're hitting the limits of traditional filmmaking because it's becoming so perfectionistic,'' says Tom Tykwer, the German director of Run Lola Run. ''You are seeing films that are so perfect you don't even connect to them anymore. A film like Malkovich is an invitation to do something completely different. Even The Matrix, because it still serves all of our traditional desires in cinema, but it plays with your mind in a very strange way. Ten years ago, I don't think people would have even been ready for it.''

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