Was 1999 The Best Year For Movies?

'American Beauty,' 'South Park,' 'The Matrix' and other instant classics.

This weekend, Oscar viewers will gather together to recognize some of the greatest movies of 2008. But throughout 2009, MTV News will honor another remarkable class that became some of the greatest films of all time.

All year long, MTV News will mark the 10th anniversary of 1999, presenting memories of the films from the stars who made them — and the artists who still look to them for inspiration. Reading just a handful of the titles released that year seems like a film festival made in heaven: “Fight Club.” “The Matrix.” “American Beauty.” “Being John Malkovich.” “The Sixth Sense.” “Office Space.” “Magnolia.” “South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut.” “The Blair Witch Project.” “Three Kings.” “Election.” “The Iron Giant.” “Boys Don’t Cry.” “Run Lola Run.” “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

Keep your eyes on this space as we’ll run tributes to “American Beauty,” “Three Kings” and others, as we try to answer a very important question: Was 1999 the best year in movies, ever?

“Yeah, it was; it was absolutely the best year,” Minnie Driver told MTV News recently. “I remember seeing ‘The Matrix’ and being floored by that film, and I was briefly in the ‘South Park’ movie.”

“That was a pretty good year,” remembered Mark Wahlberg, who starred in “Three Kings” for director David O. Russell. “There was something in the water. I know people were panicked about the new millennium and Y2K, but I don’t know [why these movies all came at once].”

“Transformers” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a WB executive in the late ’90s, looks back fondly at the era. “I was involved with ‘Three Kings’ and ‘The Matrix’ on that list, and it was definitely a time at Warner Bros. where we wanted to do something different, where we felt like things had been the same for a while and it was time to shake it up,” he remembered. “Looking back on [green-lighting those films], it was suicide. I ended up risking a lot of my career on it.”

But somehow such decisions were implemented, and so filmgoers were treated to movies about a schizophrenic American terrorist, a “found” snuff tape of three students running around in the woods, a Keanu Reeves film that envisioned mankind being harvested by sentient machines and a quirky comedy set inside the brain of John Malkovich. They also saw the emergence of such auteurs as Sam Mendes, the Wachowski brothers, Alexander Payne, Mike Judge, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson.

“That was the year that I think independent cinema had reached mainstream in a great way, and that balance between independent [and studio films] had found a core with all of us and with the audiences and the studios,” marveled “Sixth Sense” writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. “Back then, a sequel was a lesser thing. It was just 10 years ago, and now [sequels] are all there is. And to think of making any one of [the 1999] films really from scratch now … it would be such a huge risk for a studio. They would feel like it’s too much of a risk.”

“[Those filmmakers] were just gathering their powers, and people were getting encouraged to green-light that type of thing,” recalled “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke, who worked on “Three Kings” as a production designer. “People had the guts to get these types of movies made. I hope we can get that kind of magic back.”

“Nobody knew what would happen at midnight December 31,” “Magnolia” star Luis Guzman speculated. “There was the big Y2K stuff, and all these filmmakers tried to get their films in by the end of 1999. … There was, like, a big glut of all these good films, because we were supposed to fall into an abyss at midnight or something like that. No one wanted to go down without getting their film out.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with the theory that 1999 was the best year ever for movies. Among the dissidents is Kevin Spacey, star of that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner “American Beauty.”

“No, definitely not,” Spacey insisted. “Go back to the year the old ‘Wizard of Oz’ was made [1939]. There’s some people that say that that was the best year in movies ever. These are all arbitrary, and there’s a lot of movies that you miss out in between that were great movies.”

“1999 was a great year, but what about 1939?” “Blood Diamond” producer Marshall Herskovitz asked. ” ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ on and on and on. 1939 was the most astonishing year; it beats anything. But, 1999 was pretty damn good.”

“There are certain years that really stand above and beyond, like 1968 and 1939; 1941 was an amazing year for films,” “Ratatouille” star Patton Oswalt suggested. “1972, ’73 and ’74 I would also put up against 1999.”

“Wouldn’t you say 1985?” “Family Guy” mastermind Seth McFarlane grinned. “I mean, ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘SpaceCamp,’ ‘Def-Con 4,’ wasn’t that all 1985? ‘Teen Wolf’? Come on!” (Sorry to disappoint Seth, but “SpaceCamp” came out in 1986.)

“I was 5,” Dakota Fanning shrugged when asked about her thoughts on 1999. “I was just getting into acting!”

” ‘Being John Malkovich,’ ‘Three Kings,’ ‘ ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ ‘Office Space,’ ‘Magnolia’ — it was a great year for movies,” marveled “American Beauty” Best Director Oscar winner Mendes. “And it was all mid-range [films]; they were all made with ambition, but they weren’t made for a lot of money. I wish there were more movies made like that every year.”

“It was certainly a great year in movies; I think it was a real golden era in American filmmaking,” Paul Bettany said. “There was a sense then that everything seemed possible.”

“The truth about movies is that good movies don’t get released; they escape,” Bettany added with a grin. “And a lot escaped that year.”

Will it be a curious night for “Benjamin Button”? Can “Slumdog Millionaire” grab Oscar gold? Will Brad Pitt surprise leading contenders Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn? MTV News has the Academy Awards covered every which way with news, interviews, photos and more. Check out a complete list of the Oscar nominees here and keep it locked on MTVNews.com until the statues are handed out on Sunday, February 22.

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