Few movies speak to my sensibilities better than Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia does.
I love auteurs, especially those who write their movies. I also love filmmakers who utilize music to great effect — not just score, but soundtrack, too. I love ambition and the bucking of convention. I love an unpredictable turn of events that furthers the story. I love delicious dialogue. I love big, believable performances. I love stories about fate.
That is to say, Magnolia was pretty much made for me, and people like me — people who love cinema. Not just movies, but cinema — in all its forms and possibilities.
It’s fitting that our discussion of 1999 in cinema begins with such a big, bold declaration of a film as Magnolia, because the whole year seemed like a thesis statement for what modern movies could, should, and would be. I didn’t care for The Matrix in 1999 and I care even less for it now, but it’s impossible to deny its influence on the sci-fi/action genre. (That influence is one reason I’ve avoided many mainstream studio fare ever since.) Ditto for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which is almost universally derided but may have been the main catalyst for the 70s/80s (and now 90s) prequel/spin-off/reboot culture that has increasingly plagued blockbuster culture since the millennium. The Blair Witch Project‘s ahead-of-its-time found footage gimmick and The Sixth Sense‘s twist ending were similarly ripped off by lesser movies over the past couple of decades, with very diminishing returns.
So not every influence on cinema was a good influence. But on the whole, the crop of movies from this year felt like a template for the best of what was to come from movies over the past two decades. American Beauty, Fight Club, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Election, The Insider, Being John Malkovich, Eyes Wide Shut, The Iron Giant, All About My Mother, Three Kings, Office Space, Toy Story 2, and Magnolia don’t feel like “90s movies.” They feel like the great movies that are still being made today.
They’re not being made often enough, and of course, they’re not the dominant films at the box office. There’s a disheartening lack of originality in what’s being made for and seen by the masses. But 2019’s best films feel like direct descendants of 1999’s best films in a way that isn’t as true for other movie years. Magnolia isn’t the most widely seen or referenced 1999 movie by any means, but it may be the best individual case for what made that year so great. Boogie Nights may have announced Paul Thomas Anderson as the millennium’s premiere new auteur, but Magnolia cemented him in as a true artist. Magnolia‘s scope, daring, and vision paved the way for Anderson’s more recent and most lauded films, especially There Will Be Blood. It gave a new generation of filmmakers permission to be ambitious, messy, and unapologetically themselves in their movies. More than almost any other film, Magnolia makes the case for letting intimate, personal stories dress up in epic clothing — and speak for as long as they want.
Though Magnolia was influenced by great films like Network and Short Cuts, and its interweaving Los Angeles-set structure would later appear in (shorter) films like Full Frontal and Crash, it remains entirely singular. The way the editing and score, in particular, weave together a tale that is much greater than the sum of its parts, is still astonishing. Having the central characters spontaneously sing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” late in the movie still feels like one of the most nakedly daring things a filmmaker has ever done. And the frogs! It kind of shouldn’t work, but oh boy, it does.
Magnolia is endlessly fascinating and warrants many viewings. I somehow went for ten years without watching it, but I’d happily watch it again right now.