"Well, I've got plenty of films for the bottom half of the list." That was my standard response when friends started asking me about this year's edition of the annual 10-best ritual. A decent year for really good films, but a lame one for flat-out masterpieces, 2000, coming after the much stronger 1999, proved the general rule that years that end in nine tend to lord it over the zero-encumbered.
Of course, a millennial year could make anyone hope for a sudden burst of creative fireworks in the realm of cinema. But it wasn't that kind of year in any realm, was it? From where I was sitting, it looked like more of the same, only less so. The European cinema continued its long, slow, by now little-remarked decline, with more filmmakers than ever abandoning their native languages to work in English. Internationally, the only hotspot was, again, Iran, which produced several debut films that suggested yet another surge of innovation.
After a decade that unspooled like a Wild West land rush, the American independent cinema continued its post-boom period of settling in and consolidation. Though I can't say that the Sundance Film Festival in 2000 impressed me overall, two of the films that premiered there, Hamlet and Chuck and Buck, ended up on my 10-best. Likewise, two non-Sundance entries, The Virgin Suicides and Requiem for a Dream, added to the impression that young American directors are still venturing much of the most adventurous and intelligent filmmaking being undertaken anywhere.
As for Hollywood, its advanced state of artistic flaccidity is so accepted by now that it rarely draws worried commentary. Do we applaud Gladiator for reviving the wonderful sword and sandal genre, or bemoan that it buries the genre's flesh and combat ferocity in flurries of special effects and computer generated fantasy? Likewise, a few tight, superbly executed genre pieces like Mission to Mars and U-571 were little noticed next to the bombastic, dumbed-down onslaughts of spectacles like The Perfect Storm, X-Men, What Lies Beneath and company.
The year's--perhaps the era's--most important Hollywood director was Steven Soderbergh, who manages to bring indie-film smarts and an electrifying stylistic sense to every assignment he tackles. Still, as much as I admired the limited achievements of his Erin Brockovich, a star vehicle for Julia Roberts, I was surprised to be relatively underwhelmed by Traffic, a brilliant mounting of a TV-shallow script about America's drug war. Similarly mixed in its impact, Ang Lee's arty martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sandwiches a rather second-rate story between action sequences that are, to be sure, jaw-droppingly astonishing.
Another film that had other critics cheering unreservedly was the first feature to emerge from the N.C. School of the Arts School of Film. Even though David Gordon Green's George Washington, which centers on a group of black kids in a contemporary Southern town, struck me as a bit too slapdash and unformed, it's an intriguing debut that performs a welcome service in putting Winston-Salem on the cinematic map of U.S. critics and cinephiles.
In the Triangle, the year's big story was the closing of scads of theaters, most of them '80s-built multiplexes that many filmgoers probably assumed would stand for decades. They were eclipsed, however, by the late-'90s fad for megaplexes featuring stadium seating and other adornments. Ironically, the shift to new theaters will barely have been accomplished when the exhibition arena sees its next sea change: the introduction of digital projection and satellite distribution. In November, a demonstration of this new technology at a 42nd Street theater in New York concluded with executives from Disney and Miramax dumping cans of film--that old-fashioned, soon-to-vanish technology--into a symbolic trash can.
That's the future, like it or not. Meanwhile, here's a 10-best list for a cinematic year very near the end of the age of film. My choices are given in order of preference:
Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, USA). The Bard comes broodingly to life in turn-of-the-millennium New York City via a strikingly subtle Ethan Hawke as the slacker prince, wonderfully imaginative direction/adaptation by Almereyda, and an implicit subtext that depends on a provocative equation: As Hamlet is to his accusing father, so is TV-cyber culture to the parent medium of cinema. To be or not to be, indeed. For me, this is one of the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying of all Shakespeare adaptations.
Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (Edward Yang, Taiwan). A resounding U.S. breakthrough for Taiwanese master Yang, this three-hour seriocomic meditation on the ages of life and strained family ties was the year's most gorgeously crafted film. At once philosophical, deeply humane and effortlessly entertaining, it is playing now in the Triangle: Do not consider missing it. With luck, its critical accolades and art-house success will inspire the belated release of Yang's teens-in-turmoil epic A Brighter Summer Day.
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, USA). As a cinematic debutante Coppola recalls her dad less than Terrence Malick in this complex and dreamlike evocation of a bygone America caught between innocence and self-destruction. A female's view of males fetishizing (and mourning) females, the film's elegiac tone and psychological intricacy were handsomely put across by cinematographer Ed Lachman and a cast led by James Woods and Kirsten Dunst.
Humanite (Bruno Dumont, France). Dark and astringent, Dumont's forgivably pretentious murder mystery was a welcome surprise: the most ambitious and compelling French film of recent years. I'm not sure if any current movie can or should be faulted for excessive subtlety, but my favorable review of this film drew an angry letter from a reader who didn't catch the last scene's crucial revelation that Dumont's morally vacant protagonist, a cop, is also the murderer he's supposedly been tracking.
Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, USA). Granted, the premise is creaky, the acting forgettable and some of the dialogue wince-inducing. Nevertheless, this voyage toward Mars and cosmic mystery springboards from sturdy sci-fi conventions into the most beautifully choreographed and emotionally charged display of visual style that any Hollywood movie this year could boast. No less notably, it may be De Palma's least cynical film ever.
Croupier (Mike Hodges, Great Britain). The most adroitly stylish and sharply scripted British film of recent vintage got dumped by its producers and passed over by U.S. distributors, until the Shooting Gallery, a new distributor, allowed audiences to rescue it. The film's literary m.o. takes us inside the peroxided head of a self-doubting young writer (terrifically played by Clive Owen), while its visual attack turns that freighted mind into an eerily hermetic casino, awash in temptation and betrayal; it's a killer combination.
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, USA). I initially avoided this one, doubting that yet another film about junkies could show me anything new. The triumph of Aronofsky's kinetic, pyrotechnic style is not that it's so flashy, but that it so dexterously and ingeniously skirts the material's cliché potential. The gifted young director also gets searing performances from Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly. A terrific follow-up to the promising pi.
A Time for Drunken Horses (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran). Kids engaged in smuggling operations on the Iran-Iraq border are the subject of a debut film that recalls the Iranian cinema's debts to Neorealism. Arduously and inexpensively shot in the rugged, perilous mountain terrain where its story is set, Ghobadi's compassionate drama limns extremely harsh social circumstances, yet never loses a poetic vision that encompasses a number of remarkable performances by a cast of young nonactors.
Chuck and Buck (Miguel Arteta, USA). Actor-writer Mike White was the comic dynamo behind this risky, faultlessly scripted tale of sexual fantasy and social embarrassment. A tricky, delicate enterprise, the film depended on note-perfect execution, which it delivered with remarkable aplomb. Although its look has a regrettable muddiness, Arteta's low-budget digital production showed the commercial viability of that format.
The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, Canada). Every decade or so, I include a short film on my list to mark a year that's been weak in the feature department. But this gem, a giddy, gorgeously crafted and dazzlingly witty tribute to Soviet Formalism, needs no excuses. It's simply one of the best films of any sort I saw last year, and I hope some Triangle art house will give it a berth on an appropriate program in the coming months.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo, Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away, Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me, Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich and Traffic, Terence Davies' House of Mirth, Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's Benjamin Smoke, George Butler's The Endurance, Peyton Reed's Bring It On, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yesem Ustaoglu's Journey to the Sun, David Mamet's State and Main, Tom Gilroy's Spring Forward, Jim McKay's Our Song, Kevin McTiernan's Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, Lou Ye's Suzhou River, Christopher Guest's Best in Show, Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury, Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Robert Altman's Dr. T & the Women, M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Jeremy Podeswa's The Five Senses, Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks, Istvan Szabo's Sunshine, Elizabeth Barrett's Stranger with a Camera, Tamineh Milani's Two Women, Gianni Amelio's The Way We Laughed, Regis Wargnier's East-West, Jonathan Mostow's U-571, David Gordon Green's George Washington, Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys.