BY NEIL FAUERSO
The year 2000 has achieved the dubious honor of being calledthe worst year for movies ever. That’s a pretty strong accusation, butthe evidence seems to back it up. There were the usual bloated and vapid actionepics (Gone in 60 Seconds, Charlie’s Angels), inane and dithering horrorflicks (Scream 3, Blair Witch 2) and, most offensive, the shameless “giveme an Oscar” antics of such manipulative windbags as PayIt Forward andThe Patriot.
Yes, it is pretty easy to get cynical, to believe that after one lasthurrah, the death of cinema is really here. But, to quote the taglineof one of last year’s masterpieces, “look closer” andyou’ll find several diamonds amidst the rough.
Despite Hollywood’s unmatched carelessness, some brilliant filmsslipped through the cracks. Steven Soderbergh with Traffic and ErinBrockovich delivered the biggest studio double whammy since Spielberg dropped Schindler’sList and Jurassic Park on audiences in 1993. Roger Zemeckis followed suitwith the only slightly less successful double effort of WhatLies Beneath and Cast Away, while Cameron Crowe and Ridley Scott made triumphant comebackswith Almost Famous and Gladiator, respectively, and M. Night Shyamalan’scriminally under-appreciated Unbreakable proved the 30-year-old wiz isthe real thing.
On the indie scene, cinema was alive and furiously kicking. Ang Lee brokelanguage barriers with the impossible-to-hate CrouchingTiger, Hidden Dragon, Ken Lonergan reinvented the familial drama with the breathtakingYou Can Count on Me, Claire Denis broke through taboos and into a placeof unrivaled profundity with Beau Travail, and Jim Jarmusch fused a brandnew, uber-cool style of east meets west stoicism with GhostDog: The Way of the Samurai. So it really wasn’t that bad of a year, but Hollywood,don’t pat yourself on the back—it could have been a lot better.
Traffic has been called a docu-drama. But to me, that’s an insultto the film’s greatness, because any film as emotionally affectingas Traffic can’t be pigeonholed into a simple genre. At the sametime, Traffic is a docu-drama in the fullest sense of the word. Like thebest documentaries, every moment of Traffic feels like a terrifying revelation,like you’re seeing things you never knew existed and never wantedto see, but can’t take your eyes off the screen.
Weaving three revealing and blistering expository tales of the drug problemin America, Traffic shows the horror of drugs in unflinching detail. Butwhat makes Traffic a great movie, in the vein of ShortCuts or BoogieNights, is its ever-present humanity. Anchored by the magnificent performanceof Benicio Del Toro (perhaps the most supple and heartbreaking since MartinLandau in Ed Wood), Traffic shows the futility of the drug war as wellas its earnest soldiers, blindly fighting even after the sun goes down.The best movies are the ones that don’t end when the credits role,the ones that stay with you for days. For me the soldiers, villains, andvictims of Traffic live on with me, and I love them all.
2. You Can Count on Me
You Can Count on Me was the year’s best thriller. I say “thriller” notin the conventional sense, but in the way the movie was so completelyengrossing in showing real people, flaws and all, doing real things. Mostfamilial dramas have the groan-worthy hysterics of a bad Lifetime movie.You Can Count on Me’s director and writer, Ken Lonergan, opted fora far more effective, subdued approach.
The film also featured the two best performances of the year. Laura Linneyand Mark Ruffalo are siblings orphaned at a young age who have raisedeach other. Now one is controlling and neurotic, the other irresponsibleand depressed. Linney, an actress I have usually found screechy and cloying,has the restraint and feeling of a young Meryl Streep. Mark Ruffalo, inwhat I call the greatest performance of the last five years, is so mesmerizing,so realistic, and so fascinatingly complex it’s scary. YouCan Count on Me does not seem epic, but it is in the way it tackles a canvas ofemotions that most movies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Notsince the heyday of Bergman and Ashby has there been a director with thismuch feeling for his characters, and Lonergan, at the young age of 38,seems to be the first real humanist of the new millennium.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Saying that a movie “takes you somewhere else” seems likea failed hook for the latest behemoth Hollywood franchise vehicle. CrouchingTiger, Hidden Dragon, a small $13 million film from Taiwan, actually didthat, much more than any bloated U.S. epic, including Gladiator. Ang Lee’sbeautiful, decidedly sensitive meditation on love, respect, fate versusfreedom, and personal excellence is as exciting and breathtaking as anythingout there.
What distinguishes it as a great film is its quiet moments. The windon mountain evergreens, Li Mu Bai practicing his martial arts, a quietscene of action and transcendence, Jen and Lo beneath a desert sky,and Bai and Shu Lien’s tentative touch, perhaps the most romantic momentof the year. Lee does for kung fu movies what the Wachowski brothers didfor sci-fi: reinvent, reinvigorate, and take it beyond its glitzy, geekroots to a place of real cinematic brilliance.
Receiving middling box-office sales, mediocre reviews, and indifferentaudience reactions, Unbreakable was hardly the triumphant follow-up toThe Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan boasted it would be. Now deemeda victim of hubris, Unbreakable might end up being the blemish of Shyamalan’scareer. But for me, Unbreakable was the most hypnotic movie of the year.In the vein of Blue Velvet, Manhunter, and TheSilence of the Lambs, Unbreakable tackles archetypal themes with an air of ambiguity, as if the directoris saying we should be scared of the things we call normal. Much morekid-friendly than the aforementioned films, its comic book elements werelaughed off as silly. But name another comic book film that incorporatesa mid-life crisis and a real romantic relationship.
Bruce Willis as the hero is admirably understated, and Samuel L. Jacksonas a haunted muse gives one of the most unforgettable performances ofthe year. The real star, however, is Shyamalan, who with deftness andskill can shift from familial drama to an intense pursuit of serial killer.Originally, this was supposed to be the first of a trilogy. Tragically,we’ll probably never see the other two. So instead let’s justsit back and watch it influence every comic book film of the next 20 years.
5. Beau Travail
In Beau Travail young, built men sweat, grapple, and share almost everythingwith each other. In the hands of a lesser director, the temptation toaccentuate the homoeroticism of the film would have been too much. ClaireDenis seems thoroughly uninterested in doing that, and instead craftsone of the most thoughtful and sensitive meditations on masculinity, nobility,and yes, flaming out versus fading away.
The weary Lieutenant Galoup (Denis Lavant in one of the year’sgreat performances) was once a force to be reckoned with. Now, cast outin the middle- of-nowhere-colony of Djibouti, Galoup sees himself turninginto his dissipated and aimless Commander (Michel Subor). When the charismaticSentain (Gregoire Colin) arrives, Galoup sees a haunting reflection ofhis past excellence—and can’t stand it. The dialogue is sparseas Denis focuses on movement, sound, and visuals. Fusing opera, dancetracks, and the cultural music of Djibouti with the starkly beautifullandscapes and throbbing night clubs, Denis crafts a heady and sensualexperience. By the end of the film we feel we know the men like good friends,even though most of them haven’t said a word. Barely released inthe states, this one will be a trick to find at video stores, but seekit out: few films cut as close to the heart of cinema as this one.
6. Before Night Falls
Painter Julian Schnabel’s first film, Basquiat, was a pretentiousmess posturing as a profound art film. His second film is everything Basquiat was not: quiet, unpretentious, and deeply affecting. The story followsgay novelist Reinaldo Arenas as he tries to survive post-revolution Cuba,where among other things he is persecuted for his sexuality.
Schnabel could have made a grandstanding film about free speech and fascism,but instead he does something much more interesting. Oh, he shows theterror of the Cuban regime and the importance of art, but more than that,he gets inside the mind of a true artist, revels in the innocent pleasureof enjoying beauty, and reveals the process of creation with a strikingauthenticity.
Javier Bardem, who looks like a Spanish Robert Downey Jr., is Arenas.His performance is one of such simplicity and force that I cannot imaginethe real person looking or acting any differently. Schnabel uses his artisticinstincts to craft the most beautiful film of the year. From a brokendown cathedral with an air balloon in it, to a gorgeous ride through snowyNew York, Schnabel clashes beauty with pain and gives us a dreamlike movieas lucid as real life.
7. Almost Famous
Almost Famous, like You Can Count on Me, made me gasp at the authenticityof its characters and situations. Perhaps that’s because most ofthe stuff in the movie actually happened. Cameron Crowe, who has becomethe warmest director not to succumb to sentiment, traveled with bandslike Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers as a teenager, writing whathe saw. This is his most personal story and boy, does he know how to tellit.
The beauty behind Almost Famous is that it understands both the decadenceand greedy narcissism and the innocent, joyous fun of rock ’n’ roll.Aside from Iain Softley’s Backbeat, I don’t know of any otherfictional rock movie that does that.
Patrick Fugit is William Miller, Crowe’s inquisitive and instantlylikeable alter ego. Jason Lee and Billy Crudup are the warring leadersof the dead-on accurate band Stillwater, and Kate Hudson is the girl theyall love. The movie is episodic in the sense that it is not directly linear,but by the end of the film the characters seem all the more vivid. Likethe best character pieces, I left Almost Famous feeling that I learnedsomething about myself.
8. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Jim Jarmusch still embodies the true American independent spirit. Throughouthis career he has constantly subverted and reinvented genres. In 1984he turned the screwball comedy into a laconic Zen experiment of me-generationaimlessness with Strangers in Paradise. In 1986 he made the chain gangflick Down by Law into a sublimely silly hipster epic. And in 1995 Jarmuschperverted the western into the head-trip of a philosophy grad studentwith Dead Man.
It was inevitable that Jarmusch would eventually forge his own genre.Ghost Dog is precisely that, the very first Zen Samurai, hip-hop gangster,screwball postmodern comedy. Needless to say, the potential for disasterwas off the charts. That is why Ghost Dog is such an achievement—notonly a deft comedy, Ghost Dog actually said something, refrained frompretension, and damn, if it wasn’t cool. Not cool in the way thatone of those horrible Guy Ritchie movies are, but cool in the sense ofseeing something new and fresh. Anchored by Forest Whitaker’s magneticperformance and with the year’s most original score (by rap impresarioRZA), Ghost Dog is one of the few movies I would love to see as a sequel.Knowing Jarmusch’s maverick style, that will probably never happen,but Jarmusch’s maverick style is exactly what makes him a nationaltreasure.
9. Cast Away
Many critics complained of Cast Away’s third act problems. Whatdid they expect? A happy ending? Tom Hanks dies on the island? CastAway is a complex movie, and anything less than a complex ending would be unfairto the rest of the story.
A lot of people have complained that 2000 was the year that Hollywoodhit an all-time low. How can that be true when it was also the year oftwo of the most original and daring Hollywood movies of the decade—Traffic and CastAway?
In Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland spends four years on a desertedisland and learns how to live. Instead of trying to analyze Chuck’stransformation, the movie simply shows him surviving: learning to makefire to keep warm, to spear fish for food, and to bear the hardest trialof all, loneliness, by painting a face on a volleyball and calling itWilson. In Tom Hanks’ extraordinary performance, Chuck’s plightis rendered with heartbreaking immediacy. Was there a sadder scene thisyear than Chuck’s tearful parting with Wilson? CastAway shows theloneliness of isolation, but also, amazingly, the loneliness of communityas well. The film’s biggest revelation is that maybe that’snot a bad thing.
10. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Some people love the Coen brothers, others detest them, but no one candeny that there is no one else like them in film. Their latest opus, OhBrother, Where Art Thou? has divided critics more than any other Coenfilm since Barton Fink. The naysayers have called it a dehumanized experimentin unbearable cheekiness, the supporters of the film have deemed it amiracle of old genres and new sensibilities.
For me, Oh Brother is a sly testament to the power of music and culturalroots. Bearing one of the best soundtracks ever, OhBrother feels likejust that, an episodic tapestry woven together by a common thread of inspiration.
The story, very loosely based on The Odyssey, follows Everett UlyssesMcGill (a never better George Clooney) as he tries to escape from prisonand make it home to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter). Although classicallyCoen (the so-clever colloquial dialogue, the barrage of over-the-top caricatures,etc.), the film is invigorated by the fervor everyone involved bringsto it. Clooney is undeniably fiery and charismatic, and his prison cronies,played by Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro, provide colorful support.Without the music and the film’s gorgeous cinematography, OhBrother would have been an amusing but mediocre screwball comedy. With those elements,the film is a pleasurable oddity, a soulful farce, with as much spiritas spittle.
1. Pay It Forward
The fact that Pay It Forward is the most emotionally indulgent and manipulativefilm since Simon Birch would be enough to make it on this list, butPay It Forward’s offenses stretch to far darker places. PayIt Forward succumbs to, even promotes, the most gratuitous grandstandingof maladies and tragedies I have ever seen. Every character has to bedamaged in the most extreme ways (Kevin Spacey can’t just be aburn victim, his dad had to set him on fire). Why such talent (KevinSpacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment) got on board this project I willnever know. I do know this: avoid Pay It Forward like the plague. Evenif you have a penchant for three-hankie pictures, this one goes toofar.
2. Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows
The first one was clever, scary, and original. This one felt like a rejectedpilot for a Fox horror show. Less a film than a desperate attempt to starta franchise, Blair Witch 2 combined the worst aspects of indie films (painstakinglyhip dialogue, a self-consciously dark soundtrack) with the worst aspectsof Hollywood ones (a lumbering plot, wooden acting) to the point whereyou couldn’t even laugh at it. It just sucked.
The Cell feels like someone saw a Nine Inch Nails video and decided tomake a feature length film of it. While in video form, this style of baroquedarkness, disturbing images, and violent colors is interesting, in a filmit is ridiculous. Add to the fact that The Cell ripped off almost everyserial killer movie ever and that the actors’ performances wereone expression only (Jennifer Lopez concerned! Vince Vaughn haggard! VincentD’Onofrio scary!) and you get a movie memorable only for a foulscene of graphic disembowelment. Yuck.
Sure, this eagerly noble epic had some good things about it (cinematography,fight scenes, etc.), but at its core it was the gross rah-rah propagandaof filmmakers whose greatest goal seems to be getting invited to the WhiteHouse. I don’t know what bothered me most: the ridiculous and flat-outinaccurate portrayal of African Americans at that time (they were actuallyfree people working the land!), the insane villainy of the British (JasonIsaacs’ antics were firmly entrenched in Snidley Whiplashville),or the corny script, reeking of sentimental pap. Whatever it was, it’sno surprise The Perfect Storm beat The Patriot at the box-office. At leastthat one had good effects.
The most impressive thing about this movie was the hype. With kick-asstrailers, a slew of product placements (sunglasses, cell phones), andthe film’s stars constantly giggling about how much fun they hadmaking it, Charlie’s Angels looked to be the joyride the summerhad deprived us of. Instead, it was inane, derivative, and flat out stupid.Not the sleek look, not the “hot soundtrack,” not even thefilm’s greatest special effect—three beautiful actresses—couldsave it from a horrible script and frenzied direction. In the end it wasjust an over-inflated episode of VIP.