Friday, August 13, 2010

Year in Review: 2000

2000 kicked off the decade with a little bit of whimper after the great films of 1999 led us to believe that perhaps we were entering a new era of great American moviemaking. While it was American films that dominated this year, and some great ones at that, they were not as daring as their 1999 counterparts were. Still, when the film at number 10 on my list really does take some HUGE risks, it’s hard to complain that much.

10. Bamboozled (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is the most criminally neglected film of his career. This is one of the smartest, angriest satires of the decade – a film that is both hilarious and incendiary that deserves to be mentioned alongside films such as Network and The Producers. Damon Wayans stars as a writer at a struggling TV network, who is sick and tired of his boss, Michael Rapapport, telling him that his shows aren’t “black” enough. So Wayans decides to pitch the most racist show possible to the network so that he will be fired, and walk away with money and start fresh somewhere else. He finds two street performers – the insanely talented tap dancer Savion Glover and his comedic sidekick, Tommy Douglas, and gets them to agree to be in a show entitled “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show”, that is to feature all black cast, wearing black face, doing tap dances and comedy routines that would make Al Jolson blush all to take place in a watermelon patch, with its own band called The Porch Monkeys. He is shocked when the network not only puts the show on the air, but when it becomes a critical and financial hit. Lee strikes out in all directions – at rap music, at Tommy Hilfiger, at malt liquor, at entertainers who degrade themselves to make money, at pseudo militant groups, at white people who want to be black, and at black people who want to be white (Wayans effects a ridiculous accent that sounds like nothing I have ever heard before). I don’t think he hits all of his targets, and I don’t agree with everything Lee is rallying against in the film, but I admire his courage in making the film, and find it fascinating from beginning to end. It’s funny, well made, well written, well acted and completely one of a kind. Why do I seem to be the only purpose who gets this, and thinks that the film easily ranks among Lee’s best?

9. The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola)
The Virgin Suicides is about the Lisbon sisters in a Michigan suburb in the 1970s. These five sisters were all gorgeous, all blonde and were all over protected by their strict parents – James Woods and Kathleen Turner. You know from the title, and the opening narration, that the Lisbon sisters will kill themselves, but the movie remains fascinating and mysterious. In fact, it’s not really about the Lisbon sisters at all – all of them, except for Kristen Dunset, the most beautiful of the sisters, remains an enigma throughout the film. Instead, the film is about how the Lisbon sisters are perceived by the boys in their neighborhood – boys who were not quite teenagers yet, and didn’t quite understand their lust, but felt it just the same as they watched the sisters. What amazes me about Sofia Coppola’s debut film is how confident it is. Many first time directors try to cram in too much into their films – feel the need to explain everything away. But Coppola does not do that – she keeps the films mysteries to herself. Why do the Lisbon sisters kill themselves? We never really know, because we never really get to know them – just how they were perceived by outsiders. And that, in the end, is the entire point of the movie.

8. High Fidelity (Stephen Frears)
Some films feel like they were made just for you – and Stephen Frears High Fidelity is a movie like that for me. It stars John Cusack in his greatest role, except maybe Say Anything, as a Chicago record store owner. His store doesn’t make much money, but he doesn’t really care – he likes to sit around with his two employees (Jack Black and Todd Louiso) and make lists of the Top 5 anythings to do with pop music. His latest girlfriend, Iben Hjejle, has just left him for an aging hippie (Tim Robbins, utterly hilarious) and so Cusack decides to make a list of his top 5 most painful breakups, and track down his ex’s one by one to figure out where he went wrong. Cusack is so utterly likable and charming that you hardly realize just how tremendously self involved he really is, and neither does he, until late in the movie. The reason why I think this movie was made just for me should be obvious (how many top 10 lists have I made up anyway), but that’s only part of the reason I love it. The film is smart about modern relationships, with people like Cusack who are “professional admirers”, and is also hilarious and rather heartfelt. There is no deep meaning to High Fidelity – but there doesn’t need to me. It’s perfect just the way it is.

7. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier is a director who is constantly pushing himself, and his films, to further extremes. Sometimes, he fails miserably. But when everything comes together, he is capable of making brilliant films like Dancer in the Dark. Bjork gives a mesmerizing performance as Selma, a poor Czech immigrant in 1964 who is going blind, and works constantly in the hopes of saving enough money to get her son an operation to prevent him from also going blind. Von Trier shoots is deliberately melodramatic scenes in almost ugly looking digital video, drained of color. But at several points in the film, Von Trier smashes through all that drabness and allows Bjork to belt out songs like in an old fashioned Hollywood musical. These scenes are full of color and the joyous songs – which are at odds with the drab surroundings they take place in. Von Trier’s film is certainly not for everyone – it has a plot that is impossible to take seriously on realistic terms – it almost seems like a silent movie plot, and scenes play out that way repeatedly. But what the film is a bold artistic statement – Von Trier is rejecting modern movie making in all its realism, and instead giving us something altogether different. You may love Dancer in the Dark, you may hate it, and I would not argue with either opinion. But one thing that cannot be denied is that you will never forget the film.

6. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a gloriously demented screwball comedy. They used to make films like this all the time in the 1930s and 40s, but Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to do them properly – except for the Coens. George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro play three convicts who escape from the chain gang in the South, and go on an Odyssey inspired by Homer. They meet a young black guitarist who has sold his soul to the devil to learn to play the guitar, sirens who lure them in with their song and a giant man with a patch over one eye (John Goodman). Along the way, they become recording stars and crash a Klan meeting as well. The film, like all of the Coen’s work, is brilliantly well made – the cinematography drained of color giving the entire film a sun burnt look. The Coens seem to know just who to cast in their films to bring out their quirky dialogue to life. Some will undoubtedly complain that the characters are more caricatures than anything else, and while to a certain extent that’s true, it’s also true of many screwball comedies. And O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which by the way takes its title from the movie Joel McCrea wanted to make in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, is one of the best of its kind.

5. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson)
Curtis Hanson could not have picked a more different film for his follow up to his masterful film noir, L.A. Confidential. That film was about a deepening mystery in the streets of 1940s Los Angelese, full of cops, criminals and prostitutes. Wonder Boys is a film about a writer and university writing professor (Michael Douglas) who is completely lost, and over one strange weekend, someone finds himself. His wife has just left him because she has discovered that he is having an affair with his boss’ wife (Frances McDormand), who is turn has told him that she is pregnant. His editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town for literary festival, and wants his new novel – he has been working on it for seven years, so it should be done soon. His rival (Rip Torn) is the guest speaking at the festival, and is filled with obnoxious ideas about writing. One of his students (Katie Holmes) lives in his house and tries to get him to let her read her book, and another (Tobey Maguire) has written a brilliant novel of his own, and is hanging around, compsulsively lying about everything. Wonder Boys could have been a wacky comedy – so many misunderstandings happen in the plot, so many accidents – but Hanson and his writer, Steve Kloves, wisely slows the pace down. In a strange way, they find the reality of these characters under all that wackiness. This could easily be the best performance of Douglas’ career. We are so used to him playing high powered men in three piece suits, and slicked down hair, that it is easy to forget what a funny, interesting actor he can be given the right role. In Wonder Boys, he is given the role of a lifetime, and delivers great performance.

4. George Washington (David Gordan Green)
Like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep or Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, David Gordon Green’s George Washington is not really about plot, but about long, hot summer days, about memories and regret. The film follows a group of kids – some black, some white – during a long, hot, lazy summer in their slowly dying, North Carolina industrial town. Adults move in and out of focus – they don’t seem to work very much if at all, and instead spend their time much like the kids do – sitting around, waiting for something to happen. Something does happen – and its tragic – but this is not a movie like River’s Edge or Bully about kids without morals, but rather a film about kids who really do not what to do. They aren’t teenagers yet, their bodies taken over by hormones, but they are not exactly children either. They exist somewhere in between. George Washington is a haunting film – a film that seeps into your memory and stays there, most likely forever. The cinematography by Tim Orr is amazing – giving the film a mood all of its own. Many audiences will watch the film and probably complain that nothing happens in it. But that’s just lazy film watching. Everything happens in George Washington.

3. Yi Yi (Edward Yang)
Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is one of the most perceptive films about family life I have ever seen. It focuses on an upper middle class family in Taipei, and how their lives are rushing past them. The father (Wu Nienjen) is a partner at a thriving company in financial trouble, but is haunted by his first love who he meets at a wedding, and demands to know why he “didn’t show up that day”. At the same wedding, another woman cries to the mother of the groom that it should have been her marrying her son, not the wife, who the family agrees they do not like. The mother falls into a coma, and comes to stay with the family. NJ’s wife, daughter to the woman in a coma, is overcome with grief that she cannot seem to talk to her mother, and ends up fleeing to the mountains with a self stylized guru. Their teenage daughter considers a relationship with her best friend’s boyfriend – they even go to a hotel together, but he flees saying “this is not right”, which considering his actions later in the film is kind of tragic. Finally, their 8 year old son is more open and honest with the world – he takes pictures of the backs of peoples heads because otherwise they could not see them. I realize that I have not done a great job in describing the movie, but that’s because the film, and its impact, can hardly be described. It is about the choices we make in our lives that shape them – even when things move so quickly we hardly realize the impact they have. The characters in this movie live in Taipei, but they could live anywhere.

2. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic tells three interlocking stories that show the futility of the drug war. In Washington, the new Drug Czar (Michael Douglas) is trying to get a handle on his new job, oblvious to the fact that his daughter (Erika Christenson) is falling into drug abuse herself. In California, a wealthy, pregnant housewife (Cahterine Zeta-Jones) is dealt a shock when her husband is arrested for drug smuggling – but instead of giving up, she takes over the family business and is pursued by a cop hellbent on revenge (Don Cheadle). In Mexico, another cop (Benicio Del Toro) is trying to stop the drugs at the other end – before they even get to America – but is really little more than a pawn in the game. Soderbergh, who also functioned as cinematographer, uses three different color palettes to tell the story – a blue tint in Washington, an orange one in California and a brown one in Mexico. The stories intersect at different points and together they supply a complete view of the whole system and how corrupt and pointless it is. The screenplay by Stephen Gaghan is intelligent, the performances by everyone – particularly Del Toro – are brilliant, and Soderbergh’s keen pacing keeps the movie humming right along. Crime movies are rarely this intelligent – this well put together – so that they are both thrilling and meaningful. Perhaps Soderbergh’s finest achievement to date.

1. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is the best movie I have ever seen about drug abuse. It doesn’t merely portray the characters slow, steady descent into hell, but also portrays the headspace that addicts go into when they are on drugs. Aronofsky’s film is almost hyper realistic – close-ups of dilating pupils, frenzied editing, and a breakneck pace from beginning to end. The film revolves around three heroin addicts – Jared Leto, his girlfriend Jennifer Connelly and best friend Marlon Wayans – as they look for ways to score, and gradually degrade themselves more and more to get what they want. Then there is Leto’s mother – the brilliant Ellen Burstyn – who spends all day watching cheesy TV game shows, and envisions herself as a contestant on one. In order to get ready, she needs to lose weight and starts taking more and more diet pills – that are essentially speed – until she herself is also an addict. The film is a like a punch to the gut, portraying these lives in all their misery – until the finale of the film when all four of these characters meet an untimely end – even if they aren’t dead yet, they will be. And probably soon.

Just Missed the Top 10: Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe), American Psycho (Mary Haron), Before Night Falls (Julien Schnabel), Best in Show (Christopher Guest), Castaway (Robert Zemeckis), Chuck & Buck (Miguel Arteta), The Claim (Michael Winterbottom), Code Unknown (Michael Haneke), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee), Pollock (Ed Harris), Quills (Philip Kaufman), Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan), You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan).

Notable Films Missed: The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Gladiator
For a while, it seemed like I was the only one who thought that Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was a bloated, over rated, would be epic. I disliked it from the first time I saw it, and although I have revisited the film to try and see what everyone else seemed to, I still cannot figure it out. Gladiator is a miserable film, about a man (Russell Crowe) who is so miserable from pretty much the beginning of the movie to the end; I had no real idea why he didn’t kill himself. Joaquin Phoenix is at least somewhat entertaining as the petty, sneering Emperor with incestuous feelings, but his performance is so far over the top that it is impossible to take seriously. Worse than that though is how junky the film looks – the special effects are among the worst I can recall seeing in a major movie this decade (they look like they are out of a very poor videogame) and the film has no flow, no rhythm. More and more people seem to be coming around to my way of seeing things about the movie – but I wish they would have realized this a decade ago, so we could have been spared this becoming a Best Picture winner. Easily my least favorite winner of the last decade.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Steven Soderbergh, Traffic
The Academy did good to recognize that Steven Soderbergh’s achievement in directing Traffic was far greater than Ridley Scott’s with Gladiator. Soderbergh keeps three different, distinct story threads in the air for more than 2 and half hours, and yet the three feel part of a complete movie, not just vignettes. Also, they are all equally interesting, so that we are not waiting to get back to one storyline instead of all three. Soderbergh’s direction is assured from the outset – the distinct visual look and feel of each storyline well handled, as are the actors. So maybe the Academy didn’t realize that Gladiator was crap – but somewhere in the back of their minds I think they knew – and that’s why they gave this award to Soderbergh.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Russell Crowe, Gladiator
Russell Crowe was in the middle of three straight years of Oscar nominated performances, which is why they gave him this award. They should have given it to him the previous year for his remarkable turn in Michael Mann’s The Insider – where he disappeared into the role, and gave us a tragic portrait of a man struggling to the do the right thing. Hell, as much as I think A Beautiful Mind the follow year was mediocre, Crowe was far better in that film than he was here as well. Crowe, it must be said, plays his role in Gladiator exactly the way it was meant to be played – it’s just such a downer of a role in the middle of what should be an entertaining swords and sandals epic that I think it should have been completely rewritten. Part of the problem I think is that one of the other nominees – Tom Hanks in Castaway – had already won the award twice and the other three – Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls, Ed Harris in Pollock and Geoffrey Rush in Quills were from small movies that not many people saw. The sad thing is that all four of them were brilliant. It’s a shame that an actor of Crowe’s caliber had to win for one of his worst performances.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
Steven Soderbergh made history by being the first director in more than 60 years to be nominated twice in the same year for best director – winning for Traffic, and being nominated for this film. Erin Brockovich is a skillfully made example of its genre – an inspiring “true” story about a down and out single mother who gets a job at with a lawyer and fights endlessly for the little guy, against a big, mean, heartless corporation who poisoned them. I have never been a huge fan of Julia Roberts, but I have to say that in these types of “movie star” roles she is well suited. Her performance is Erin Brockovich is funny, charming, sassy and heartfelt. Do I think it was good enough to merit an Oscar? Not even close. Ellen Burstyn deserved to win, and they should have at least nominated Bjork and Rene Zellweger for Nurse Betty. But I understand why Roberts won – she is a major movie star, on her third nomination, in an audience friendly hit movie that felt important. She would not have been my choice, but I’m not overly angry with it either.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Benicio Del Toro, Traffic
Had Benicio Del Toro not won for his performance in Traffic, it would have been a travesty of justice. Far and away the best male performance of the year – and it remains Del Toro’s best performance – the actor conveys the weight and tremendous effort of his choices remarkably well in the movie. He is a cop who is trying to do the right thing, in a world where doing so can be dangerous. Unlike the stars of the other segments, all of whom have some heavy duty backup in terms of performances, Del Toro pretty much carries his part of the movie by himself. It is a remarkable turn, and I am extremely happy that the Academy gave him the Oscar – even though he speaks only Spanish in the film. There was some great work by some of his fellow nominees – Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire for example – but Del Toro was easily the best.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock
Marcia Gay Harden’s Oscar win for Pollock was a shock at that time. I remember almost everyone, myself included, thinking that the award would go to Kate Hudson for her charming performance in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Perhaps it was internal competition for Frances McDormand that did her in, but whatever the reason a very pregnant Harden won that night. It is a great performance – she plays Pollock’s long suffering wife who tries her best to support him and stand by him, but in the end just cannot do so. She is not quite like the other “supportive wives” who have won this award over the year – she is more strong willed than most. Personally, of the nominees, I probably would have gone to either Hudson or McDormand – and still think that Jennifer Connelly owes her win the following year for A Beautiful Mind to her gut wrenching, not nominated turn in Requiem for a Dream – but Harden is a fine choice. She is one of the best character actresses around, and too often they slip by unnoticed.

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