Summer Movies Flashback 1999: ‘South Park’ surprise and scathing ‘Star Wars’ reactions

Our continuing look back at some of the biggest summers we've lived through takes us back 15 years to one of the best recent movie seasons overall.

In honor of the 2014 summer movie season, Team HitFix will be delivering a mini-series of articles flashing back to key summers from years past. There will be one each month, diving into the marquee events of the era, their impact on the writer and their implications on today's multiplex culture. We continue today with a look back at the summer of 1999.

It was the summer I became Moriarty.

To be fair, I had been contributing to Ain't It Cool for a little while already by that point, and I had been slowly but surely embracing the potential of the website and the audience that I was reaching. I had already taken a few trips to Austin, including a memorable stay at the third Quentin Tarantino Film Festival, and in the spring, I was asked at the last moment if I would attend ShoWest in Las Vegas. ShoWest is known today as CinemaCon, and it's a trade show where the studios share highlights from their upcoming slate with the theater owners. I went because I was positively crazy about “Star Wars” and I was hoping to to see new footage from it, or perhaps something from the first new Stanley Kubrick film in over a decade.

That trip was where I made my mind up to finally embrace Ain't It Cool fully, and I ended up leaving my day job at the time, which was closed-captioning TV shows and movies. That summer, it felt like the start of something amazing, and I was starting to figure out how to work my way into press screenings and interviews, and I was also starting to see the impact that Ain't It Cool was having on film culture and the conversation itself.

To some extent, it feels like summer started early in 1999 with the release of “The Matrix,” and it was such a huge cultural moment, such a big buzz hit, that it set a pretty high bar for anything that was set to come out, including the 800-pound gorilla of the summer, “Star Wars: Episode I.” In addition, I'd seen “The Blair Witch Project” right at the start of the year, before it showed at Sundance, and I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to do when it landed on people, and I had also already seen and reviewed a rough cut of “The Iron Giant,” a film I was determined to get people to pay attention to.

When the summer finally kicked off in May, it was with “The Mummy,” and one of the smartest things Universal did was releasing that film, an obvious nod to the charms of Indiana Jones, just as people were positively frantic for a new taste of George Lucas's other big creation. It was a big giddy pile of cliche, and it benefitted enormously from the chemistry between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. That came out on May 7, and then every other studio in town left the next 12 days completely and utterly open.

When “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” opened on May 19, it was the culmination of almost two years of non-stop focused energy, and it was by far the biggest movie event that had happened in the Internet age by that point. I can't think of the film without thinking of the people I was living with, my friends at the time, the lines outside the Chinese and the Village in Los Angeles, the mania that seemed to grip everyone in the final countdown to the film. And any discussion of that summer has got to start with the way the film landed on pop culture, fracturing fandom almost immediately. I know that when I published my review, the response was intense. No one wanted to hear anything bad about the film, and it seemed like people started digging in and taking sides, and it got ugly quick.

I still remember all the serious articles asking if “The Love Letter,” an utterly forgotten piffle with Kate Capshaw and Tom Everett Scott starring, was going to be effective counter-programming to “Star Wars.” It was hilarious then, and it's hilarious now. No one was willing to go up against “Star Wars” in any serious way, and the next big film to get released was nine days later, when “Notting Hill” and “The 13th Floor” opened. I forgot about “The 13th Floor” before I even walked out of the theater, but I was surprised completely by how much I loved “Notting Hill.” Looking back at it now, I am still struck at how right Richard Curtis got that script. It's a beautifully made movie, and Julia Roberts has never been more appealing or human in any other film. It is a smart look at the difference between someone's on-screen persona and the reality of who someone is, and what could have been an insufferable “isn't it hard to be famous?” film played instead as a very honest portrayal of how hard it is to connect with someone, regardless of who you are or what you do for a living.

June got off to a slow start with the ridiculous Cuba Gooding Jr/Anthony Hopkins film “Instinct” as the one big release, but there was a great small John Sayles film called “Limbo” that was worth arguing about, and the music-oriented documentary “Buena Vista Social Club” became a surprising arthouse hit. On June 11th, the second major mega-hit of the summer came out, and it's still sort of hard to believe just how big “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” was.

I'd seen the film already at an early test screening, and I was a big fan of the first film in the series, a sleeper hit in a way that I'm not sure anything can be anymore. The film built a huge following on home video, and New Line did a fantastic job of building the second one up as an event, something people had to go see or they'd be left out of the conversation. It exploded, though, in a way I'm betting no one could have predicted, and by the end of the summer, it felt like Mike Myers had been completely digested by pop culture.

Disney released their big gun for the summer on June 16th with “Tarzan,” a film I just couldn't make peace with despite some good work in it. That same week saw the release of the ridiculous “The General's Daughter” as well as one of the most exciting movies of the summer, “Run Lola Run.” It felt like small films were able to go toe to toe with big films in terms of what people were talking about and going to see, and it felt like the studios were desperate to compete.

The month closed out with a mostly harmless Adam Sandler vehicle, “Big Daddy,” as well as probably the worst big movie of the year, “Wild Wild West,” which was almost stunningly tone-deaf. What didn't help was that the biggest surprise of the summer came out on the same day, and I will always hold the first press screening of “South Park – Bigger, Longer & Uncut” as one of the most amazing theater experiences I've ever had. Before the film began, you have to remember, there was no buzz at all for the film. If anything, people were rolling their eyes at the mere idea of it. There was a fair amount of scorn in the conversations we heard before the lights went down, and I remember that feeling that ran through the room as the film started killing with joke after joke, line after line, song after song. And by the time “Uncle Fucka” finished, the theater erupted in applause. That is so rare at press screenings that it's like saying I saw Bigfoot ride a unicorn through the theater. People went nuts for the movie, and it was thrilling to see an audience turn so completely over the course of a screening, going from bored irritation to explosive praise.

July's holiday weekend also saw the release of what I found to be a frustrating Spike Lee film, “Summer Of Sam,” and the long-delayed American release of the brilliant “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf,” a strange weekend for any summer movie season. The second weekend of July featured the paranoid thriller “Arlington Road” featuring a pre-beloved Jeff Bridges and an exceedingly wormy Tim Robbins. The big story that weekend, though, was a little teen comedy with a cheerfully dirty attitude, and I doubt anyone who saw “American Pie” in a theater at that point could have guessed it would eventually be this franchise title with three real sequels and a whole host of DTV sequels as well.

Sony took a shot at the family audience, deeply underserved by the studios that summer, with “Muppets From Space,” which wasn't terrible, but which seemed to be further proof that the Muppet brand just wasn't working anymore. It was strange seeing Muppet releases hit theaters that I didn't remotely care about, but at the time, it all seemed so haphazardly managed, and with Jim Henson gone, it just didn't feel like it meant the same thing anymore.

July 16th was a big day in theaters. Not only did “The Blair Witch Project” finally come out and totally destroy at the box-office, but Kubrick's highly-secretive “Eyes Wide Shut” also arrived in theaters. I have gone back to Kubrick's film at least a half-dozen times since then, and it is one of those films that seems to change each time I screen it. I stand behind my initial assessment of it as something special, but if anything, I love it more now. I think it is one of the great movies ever made about the erotic connection of a married couple, wise and deep and beautiful. But, oh, man, the arguments I had about it that summer. Amazing.

I just recently rewatched “Lake Placid,” which also came out that same day, and I think it's a fun, knowing little monster movie with some great comic performances in it. It was one of the few standouts in the rest of July, which was peppered with films like “The Wood,” “Inspector Gadget,” “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” “The Haunting,” “Runaway Bride,” and the hilarious-but-not-good “Deep Blue Sea.” It really started to feel like the theaters were just coughing up one matted hairball after another…

… and then came August 3rd. “The Iron Giant” is, simply put, one of the best animated films ever made. I adore the movie, and I still mourn the fact that Warner Bros. dumped it. There's no other way to describe the half-hearted way they released it. I will always take pride, though, in knowing that the work I did at Ain't It Cool that year made it impossible for the studio to pretend that the film didn't exist. When I first saw it, they were discussing a straight-to-video release, presumably panned-and-scanned, which would have destroyed the amazing visual composition of the widescreen scope film. The film didn't do well in theaters, but little wonder. Warner Bros. refused to get behind it fully, and even today, it still feels like a movie they don't treat with enough respect. Where's the amazing Blu-ray release that this film fully deserves?

That same day, Andrew Fleming put out a small comedy called “Dick” that I think deserves some re-examination at some point. Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams are both very funny in it, and it was packed with great comic talent like Will Ferrell, Dan Hedaya, Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Harry Shearer, and many more. The film paints an alternate history in which two slightly-dim teenage girls ended up being the central figures in the Watergate scandal without realizing it, and it was impossible to market, but hard to shake

Two days later, M. Night Shyamalan exploded into pop consciousness with “The Sixth Sense,” and two lesser-but-worthy films were completely destroyed in the resultant flood of attention. “The Thomas Crown Affair” is a decent remake with a strong sense of style, and “Mystery Men” doesn't totally work, but it is a charmingly weird take on superheroes with some very funny performances. Didn't matter, though, because “The Sixth Sense” was suddenly all anyone was talking about, and this quiet little drama became a sensation. It basically swallowed August, and as a result, the very good “Bowfinger” underperformed as well. Damn shame, as it's one of the best Eddie Murphy late-career performances, and a wickedly smart and silly take on Hollywood as observed by Steve Martin, whose work as a screenwriter almost surpasses his work as a performer for me.

Nothing else in August really stood out, and the summer wound down with films like “Brokedown Palace,” “Detroit Rock City,” “The Muse,” the horrible “The Astronaut's Wife,” “Mickey Blue Eyes,” and “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” which was supposed to be the next major youth hit from “Scream” creator Kevin Williamson. It seems fitting that the last weekend that could remotely be described as part of the summer season saw the release of another Brendan Fraser movie, with “Dudley Do-Right” serving as the very strange bookend to “The Mummy,” Fraser ushering in the summer with a bang and seeing it out with a whimper.

I love summer movies. I love the summer movie season. But I doubt if, aside from 1982, there is any other movie summer that carries so many personal and poignant memories for me. More and more, I find myself approaching each season as part of my job, breaking things down by what I need to do instead of how they make me feel. In the summer of '99, I was still able to indulge both sides of that equation fully. Yes, I was coming into my own as a film critic and as a writer about the business, but I was also just plain punch-drunk on all the good stuff I was seeing. It was a very special time, and I'll always treasure the memories I have from those months, both on-screen and off.


Let's go back to the summer of 1984!

Let's go back to the summer of 1989!