Broker Check


July 31, 2023

For most people, the year you turn 19 is not especially noteworthy. There is virtually nothing you can do at 19 that you couldn’t at 18 and you still have 21 to look forward to on the horizon. But in my case, the year I turned 19 was the best filmmaking year of my lifetime. In a totally transparent effort to increase comment debate, my top film of 1999 is incredibly polarizing. Some love it; some hate it. So, let’s discuss Magnolia (1999, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson).

Magnolia is the story of several seemingly unrelated vignettes that merge together in crazy ways. The primary plotlines involve Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who ends up responding to a noise complaint at the apartment of Claudia Gator (Melora Walters). Claudia is the daughter of quiz show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Currently appearing on this quiz show is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), who is leading a team that is approaching the previous record, held by Donnie Smith (William H. Macy). The show is produced by Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is slowly dying and in the care of hospice nurse Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) largely because Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) cannot cope with watching him die. We also meet Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise in what is absolutely his career best performance), a motivational speaker who effectively trains men how to reclaim their power in relationships. He seems unrelated to the previous scenes, but it turns out he is Earl’s son. Follow all of that?

The brilliance of Magnolia certainly lies in its ensemble performances and fast-paced direction. In addition to Cruise being at his Oscar-worthy best, Hoffman will impress you to no end with his subtle brilliance. Every character is deeply flawed, and Anderson is not afraid to show us every single blemish. It makes these characters incredibly relatable on a human level even when the action of the film takes a truly bizarre turn at the end (which is what most people who dislike the film will point to as the reason). I will not spoil the ending for you, but it is hinted at throughout the film and even a cursory knowledge of the bible will make the action familiar when it happens.

In addition to the brilliant performances, it is hard to discuss Magnolia and not mention the soundtrack – filled almost exclusively with Aimee Mann songs. The gifted singer-songwriter was much of the inspiration for Anderson as he has said he intended to “write an adaptation of Aimee Mann songs” for a film which would eventually become Magnolia.

Those with a bone to pick about Magnolia typically hate the ending – considering it unrealistic and cartoonish. I happen to think that is the entire point. As the rich Ricky Jay voiceover tells us at the beginning and the end of the film, “this is not just something that happens” or “one of those things.” When these coincidences happen, it can be comforting to think there is meaning behind it all. “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.” Believe in that – and you will love this film.

FUN FACT – During breaks in-between shots, Jason Robards would tell Paul Thomas Anderson stories about his time in the Navy during World War 2, including tales about drinking alcohol distilled from torpedo fuel. This would become the basis for the opening sequence in Anderson's film The Master, which was released 13 years after Magnolia.

Here are the top ten films of 1999. Keep in mind this is one year (and I am missing a few of the greats from having not seen them) and not an entire decade. Each film’s overall ranking is in parentheses.

  1. Magnolia (18)
  2. American Beauty (82) There was a time when this was in my top 15 or so. It has faded a bit for me as you can see, but it is still technically exquisite.
  3. Three Kings (86)
  4. Being John Malkovich (107) Without a doubt one of the most original films ever conceived.
  5. The Insider (132)
  6. Fight Club (133) I REALLY like Fight Club, so how can it possibly only be the 6th best movie of this year?!?
  7. The Matrix (186)
  8. Galaxy Quest (247)
  9. Bringing Out the Dead (336) This is a hidden gem. Scorsese film that you may not even have heard of, let alone seen.
  10. Election (375)

Just Watch says that Magnolia is not currently streaming on any service. It is available to rent or buy on most platforms, including AppleTV, Redbox, and Amazon Prime.

As a reminder, here is the original post that details the scores and weighting system.