Last year this time, of course, the story was much different. With innovative films like The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense setting box office records as well as wowing critics, the summer of 1999 was exceptionally strong by any measure, and that momentum carried over into the fall, when movies as diverse as Being John Malkovich, The Straight Story, Fight Club, Boys Don't Cry and American Beauty capped the decade (and cinema's century) with a final burst of energy and originality.
By comparison, summer of 2000 was dullsville. Mission: Impossible 2 and Gladiator turned out to be made-by-computer blockbusters that only looked good when set against real stinkers like The Perfect Storm and X-Men. Though the season's occasional grace notes--Hamlet, Croupier and Chuck and Buck--were real enough, they made precious little commercial headway against the tide of big-budget, heavily promoted Hollywood mediocrities.
Looking ahead, I'm inclined to lay a cautious bet on the likelihood that fall will continue summer's uneventful mood. Reading about the movies headed into release, I'm struck by the lack of big directorial names--the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, Stone and many others are between projects this year--and the general tameness of what's promised. Now that Mission: Impossible has turned into a platinum-plated franchise, they're gonna give us Charlie's Angels. I know you're as excited as I am.
Maybe the best way to look at such tepid prospects, though, is in terms of negative psychology: If you don't expect much, your chances of being pleasantly surprised go way, way up. Keep that in mind as you peruse the following preview, which as always is very selective. I've digested the advance publicity on scores of upcoming movies in order to pick out a couple of dozen that look like the most promising.
The through-the-roof commercial and critical success of American Beauty last year marked the immediate post-Labor Day slot as a prime time for releasing seriously offbeat movies. This September, the emphasis is again on idiosyncratic comedy. Nurse Betty, the third film by Neal LaBute (Friends and Neighbors), stars Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman in a story about a soap opera-smitten waitress who's pursued by hit men; the script's not by LaBute, though, so its tone is hard to predict. More easily predicted is the air of autobiographical reverie in Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe's comic memoir of being a teen rock 'n' roll writer for Rolling Stone; it stars Billy Crudup and Kate Hudson. Also aiming for yoks, Best in Show focuses the satiric wit of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) on the institution of dog shows.
In October, satire's also the agenda of Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women, which X-rays Dallas high society via the tale of a popular gynecologist played by Richard Gere; and Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a send-up of TV's racism. On a chillier note, there's the inevitable Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I'm normally not big on sequels, but this one's of interest because it's the first fictional film directed by documentarian Joe Berlinger (Brother's Keeper).
The October release generating the most anticipation, though, has to be Mimi Leder's Pay It Forward, a positive-outlook comedy about a teacher and a troubled student who devise a scheme to make the world a better place. It stars Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment, the haunted kid from The Sixth Sense. That spooky blockbuster's creator, M. Night Shyamalan, meanwhile is back with what's easily November's most keenly anticipated movie. Unbreakable teams Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in the supernatural-tinged tale about the aftermath of a deadly train wreck.
Elsewhere, November offers the supernatural mixed with golf, romance and nostalgia in The Legend of Bagger Vance. Filmed in Savannah and Charleston, Robert Redford's adaptation of Steven Pressfield's novel stars Matt Damon and Will Smith. As Thanksgiving introduces the season of family films, you can look forward to Ron Howard's version of Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey, and Disney's blend of live-action and animation 102 Dalmations, featuring Glenn Close and Gerard Depardieu.
Happily, cinema's December isn't just for kids. Steven Soderbergh, who already scored once this year with Erin Brockovich, will be back with the highly touted Traffic, a drug-underworld drama starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. For fans of novelist Carmac McCarthy, there's Billy Bob Thornton's big-screen rendition of All the Pretty Horses, a south-of-the border western with a cast led by Matt Damon (yep, him again) and Henry Thomas.
An intriguing-sounding long shot, Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester features Sean Connery as a teacher trying to help a promising black student combine his loves for basketball and literature. On the high-concept side of things, Tom Hanks does a Robinson Crusoe in Robert Zemeckis' Castaway, which the producers swear they set in motion long before anyone heard of a TV project called Survivor.
And how about this for a year-end gamble: Baz Luhrmann, the outré Aussie director of Strictly Ballroom, attempts to revive the musical with Moulin Rouge, a surreal account of Toulouse-Lautrec's bohemian Paris of the 1890s. It stars Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and John Leguizamo, and as unlikely as it sounds, it should at least keep the holiday season from being entirely predictable.
Once upon a time, there was such a lag between the time foreign and independent films opened nationally and when they hit the Triangle that it was relatively easy to predict which ones would arrive in the fall: they were the ones that had opened successfully in New York during the spring and summer.
Currently, however, that lag time is so small that most of the summer's indie crop has already visited area art houses. Of the few that haven't, I would recommend two particularly to local theaters. The Wind Will Carry Us is the latest poetic comedy-drama from Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. From France, Bruno Dumont's philosophical crime saga Humanite strikes me as the most challenging and accomplished European film of the year to date.
French crime drama is also the key to one of two prominent re-releases. Jules Dassin's groundbreaking '50s heist thriller Rififi has done record-breaking business since it opened nationally during the summer. On a different note entirely, the revival of Rob Reiner's masterful rock 'n' roll spoof This Is Spinal Tap offers chunks of footage that didn't make it into the original.
Among the season's new foreign titles, Danish director Lars Von Trier's postmodern musical Dancer in the Dark arrives with the cachet of having won the Cannes Film Festival. It stars Icelandic pop singer Björk, who's already being touted for an Oscar. Among the new American indies, the 2000 Sundance festival's top prize-winner, Karyn Kusama's Girlfight, builds a romantic drama around the struggles of an aspiring female boxer.
Another Sundance success, the documentary Paragraph 175 provides a moving account of the homosexuals arrested by the Nazis. Real life is also at the heart of Me and Isaac Newton, Michael Apted's portrait of several outstanding scientists. An Iranian drama with a strong edge of documentary realism, Bahman Ghobadi's Time for Drunken Horses concerns the plight of young Kurds on the Iran-Iraq border.
Closer to home, a lyrical account of young black Southerners, George Washington marks the debut of N.C. School of the Arts alum David Gordon Green. Shot in the Winston-Salem area, the indie drama has been awarded a slot in the New York Film Festival.
A film already stirring advance controversy, Requiem for a Dream provides a harrowing account of drug use and the degradation it sometimes entails. It was adapted from a Hubert Selby, Jr. fiction by pi director Darren Aronofsky. Degradation of many varieties underpins Quills, an account of the Marquis de Sade's imprisonment by director Phil Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being); it stars Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet.
For fans of Chinese-language cinema, the brilliant Taiwanese director Edward Yang will be represented by Yi-Yi (A One and a Two), a comedy-drama about a family thrown into crisis when its senior member has a near-fatal accident.
Closer to Christmas, the art-house roster will include the latest from the Coen brothers, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which--believe it or not--transfers The Odyssey to the Depression-era South; and the latest from David Mamet, State and Main, a satire of Hollywood filmmaking that stars Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Finally, the holiday season will be the launching pad for two indie productions that received lots of attention at Cannes this year. Starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, Shadow of the Vampire recounts the haunted making of the greatest vampire movie ever, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. And Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon returns director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman, Ride with the Devil) to Chinese-language territory for a high impact, Matrix-like martial arts drama starring Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. Though it's subtitled and kung fu-centered, the film's so highly regarded that it's considered a serious contender for next spring's Best Picture Oscar.