Why 1999 was the best year in movie history

All week long our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century? Check here for a complete list of our essays.

The end of the 1990s was the end of an era on the big screen. The independent filmmaking movement that started the decade had taken full bloom and infiltrated the business. Major studios had begun to jump headlong into the “dependent” game, amping up prestige product and utilizing the awards season as a marketing tool. The blockbuster landscape at the summer multiplex had been interesting, full of original concepts (good and bad), but something else was on the way – a new overlord in the business of film, and one that would more or less make the age of the movie star (at least as we had come to know it) a thing of the past.

For those reasons and a slew of others, I consider 1999 to be the greatest film year the cinema has seen. And that's not necessarily “greatest” as in value judgment. For as many exciting things that were happening creatively, equally alarming things were happening to shift the landscape of this industry. Whether you consider them for good or bad is up to you, but their impact is unmistakable, and any year that can lay some claim to that kind of a shift cannot be denied.

So let's start there…

We're in the midst of “Star Wars” madness right now as director J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy prepare to unleash “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” onto the world in December. Back in May of 1999, “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” proved the insatiable appetite for this franchise, which had been starved throughout most of the 1980s, was still very much alive. It was more or less tested and confirmed through the expanded universe materials of the 1990s, books, comics and video games stoking the flames. In 1993, filmmaker George Lucas announced his intention to revisit the world he created with a new trilogy, and a packaged re-release of the original trilogy in 1997 further established that the audience was ready and willing. It was an exciting time, and it may well have signaled the beginning of a new bedrock philosophy in Hollywood: brand appeal.

Before 1999, when you looked at box office results, they were dominated by movie stars. Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, these were the draws. Slowly thereafter, particularly as the industry turned to the world of comic books for fodder (“Blade” was a bit of a testing ground in 1998 with 2000's “X-Men” and 2002's “Spider-Man” soon to follow), intellectual properties and preexisting material began to drown out those big names. In 2011, finally, every film on the list of top 10 domestic grossers was either a sequel or, in the case of “Thor,” part of an interlinking cinematic universe spread across multiple properties.

You can probably trace a lot of that back to “The Phantom Menace.” It was a huge part of changing the boardroom thinking of this business and morphing it into what we have today.