I remember being incredibly skeptical of the sudden consensus a couple years back that 1999 was the pinnacle of modern cinema, as solidified by critic Brian Raftery’s book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. As I already rambled on about in my review of The Talented Mr. Ripley when that book was still a hot topic, I believe every Movie Year is practically the same. Most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift through the deluge to single out the gems. All we’re experiencing now is the inevitability of critics who were young enough to first start discovering a passion for film in the late-90s now aging into a role as legitimized tastemakers, so that they’re able to collectively repeat inane phrases like “1999: Best Movie Year Ever!!!” loud & often enough that they sound halfway legit.
I am also guilty of that exact nostalgia bias myself, no matter how skeptical I am of its validity. While the critical reappraisal of 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever wasn’t entirely convincing to me in a broad sense, it did highlight a particular facet of that era that does stand out as exceptional to me: its immaculate collection of high school-set comedies. I will never fully be able to tell if the exquisite run of high school movies from 1998-2001 really was exceptionally great or if I’m just nostalgic for the era because I was entering high school around the time. Either way, this list of titles just from 1999 seems like a staggering canon of all-time classics to my biased eye: Drop Dead Gorgeous, But I’m a Cheerleader!, 10 Things I Hate About You, Jawbreaker, Election, Cruel Intentions, Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That, etc. And then there’s the one eerie, troublesome outlier from that 1999 High School Classics canon that feels like it drifted in from another place & time altogether – the debut feature from director Sofia Coppola.
The Virgin Suicides is less the social hierarchy satire that most post-Heathers high school comedies strive for than it is a modernized, American update to the eerie Peter Weir whatsit Picnic at Hanging Rock. Unlike most 1999 High School Classics, it’s not a comedy at all, but rather a melancholy drama about Big Teenage Feelings and the uncanny nature of nostalgia. Still, the film indulges in a bemused humor at the expense of the awkwardness of teenage dating rituals in the 1970s Michigan suburbs, often conveying the domestic imprisonment of its titular teenage virgins through a tight-lipped smirk. Under the severely over-protective eye of their parents, the five young sisters become isolated and lonely to the point of suicidal depression, and the movie sincerely engages with the impact of that tragedy (as opposed to, say, the way teen deaths are handled in Drop Dead Gorgeous, the other Kirsten Dunst classic from that year). Its amusement with that tragedy is mostly centered on how the girls are perceived by their clueless, infatuated peers.
While The Virgin Suicides is technically about the suicidal sisters, the girls’ story is told through the eyes of their romantically starved neighbors – a group of inexperienced young boys who saw them mostly as a window into the supposed enigma of femininity. All the Picnic at Hanging Rock supernatural mystery surrounding the girls is an extension of their distanced male admirers’ POV, who try to solve their lives and deaths as if they were a curious puzzle and not simply victims of a neurotically repressive parenting style. By tapping into that nostalgia-tinged teenage longing, Coppola evokes something intensely powerful untouched by any other high school movie of its era. She stated in an interview, “I really didn’t know I wanted to be a director until I read The Virgin Suicides and saw so clearly how it had to be done. I immediately saw the central story about what distance and time and memory do to you, and about the extraordinary power of the unfathomable.” You’re not going to find that kind of shit in 10 Things I Hate About You, as fun as it is as a more typical literary “adaptation” from that era.
I love The Virgin Suicides. It feels more complexly funny, dreamlike, and femme every time I watch it, especially since I was a clueless, romance-starved teenage boy myself when I first rented it from a Blockbuster in the early-2000s New Orleans suburbs. There was a spoil of Teen Movie riches flooding video store shelves in that era, but none of them hit the exact dazed, Hanging Rock tone Coppola’s film did. I won’t cosign the broader 1999: Best Movie Year ever discourse (which really doesn’t matter, since I appear to be the only person still hung up on it), but if can we narrow that claim down to 1999: Best High School Movie Year Ever the argument is much, much more compelling – and this inclusion in that canon is one of the most impeccable standouts.