Welcome to the cinema, the great communal meditation chamber, circa 2000. Okay, now throw open all the exit doors, because some of our communal celluloid putrefied over the course of this year, and we're going to clear the air by dispensing with the top offenders first. Whether it was the truly ghastly misogyny of Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man (which, despite some astonishing digital effects, sucked so much it should've been called Swallow, Man!) or painfully trite, sterile romances like the Brazilian imports Bossa Nova and Woman on Top, there was a lot not to be thankful for this year in film.
While we're wafting away those assorted stenches, we may as well get a shovel and a wheelbarrow to cart off the mounds of mediocrity the industry left scattered throughout our collective consciousness. For example, who would have dreamed that a remake of Shaft could be just so-so, that an energetic director like John Singleton could reduce the popular urban icon to a chaste, witless meanie? While audiences responded favorably to nautical entertainments like U-571 and The Perfect Storm, the success of these paeans to workin'-men-who-drown must be chalked up to a simple lust for massive special effects. (Certainly we didn't show up at the box office to ogle George Clooney in a John Deere cap with Marky Mark at his side, bellowing about how much he just loves fishin'!)
And now that we're at the year's end, we get Steven Soderbergh's dope manifesto, Traffic (due in Houston on January 5), which is already the toast of many critics, but -- let's face it, boys -- the movie's a bloated bore, mostly badly tinted slop, barely rescued by edgy performances from Don Cheadle and Amy Irving, plus some exceptionally heavy mugging from Benicio Del Toro. Otherwise, it's simply the year's second round of Michael Douglas playing at sorting out family problems. Having already suffered through Curtis Hanson's flabby and interminable Wonder Boys, this punishing double shot of mopey Douglas seems particularly unfair.
Speaking of punishment, the cinematic menu for the year 2000 featured several bombastic works from young directors hooked on radical themes such as "Drugs are bad" and "Unhappy people tend to hurt each other." While James Gray's The Yards featured some gritty work from Joaquin Phoenix (who also spent the year impressing us in Ridley Scott's choppy, overrated Gladiator and Philip Kaufman's elegantly obvious Quills), Gray's formalist concerns were eclipsed by a forced, almost silly sense of grimness.
Similarly, Darren Aronofsky and Leos Carax seemed determined to ignore their own respective senses of humor and spontaneity, as the uniformly thudding Requiem for a Dream and POLA X vividly illustrated. Slightly more inventive was Jeremy Podeswa's The Five Senses, which transformed Toronto into a giant therapy session for the terminally repressed, and Lars von Trier's The Idiots, in which clever Danish youths learned to enjoy life to the fullest, naturally, by pretending to be retarded.
In an attempt to rescue us from these handicapped imaginations, Sofia Coppola helmed her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Virgin Suicides, which effectively transcribed seemingly conventional male angst into universal allegory. Delivering deliciously doomed young ladies and the lads who adore them, the movie valiantly attempted to sump-pump the teeming teen T&A -- represented, here and in the more lucrative Bring It On, by Kirsten Dunst -- out of our psyches. Brava for that! (It also showed that Danny DeVito, late of crackling comedies such as Drowning Mona and Screwed, is close to usurping Gene Hackman's throne for appearing onscreen in something at all times.)
As if to balance Ms. Coppola's gender exploration, Von Trier's other entry this year -- the sensational and ridiculous Dancer in the Dark -- indicated just how silly men can be when they attempt to illustrate the glory of the feminine in the form of a nearly blind, impossibly innocent chanteuse who moonlights as a martyr for no apparent reason. In Dancer, the musical segments were absolutely wonderful, but the rest made me wish I'd thought to bring some stale produce.
Of course, no great hoards of moviemakers ventured down emotionally experimental roads, and many opted instead to remind us (yawn) about the virtues of "grrrl power" (or, in the case of Jun Falkenstein's smart, whimsical The Tigger Movie, "T-I-Double-Guh-Er" power.") As the new millennium launched two movies about female boxers (the congenial Knockout and the fiercely reactionary Girlfight), it became clear that kicking ass has become a delightful new component of feminine protocol. Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love and Basketball, featuring the taut, intense presence of Sanaa Lathan, also pushed this theme, but when Lathan and Omar Epps play highly competitive bedroom one-on-one for each other's clothes, the director shows us that any victory without love is hollow and pointless.
Disregarding this advice with a voracious smile, relative newcomer Amanda Peet gladly flounced her way through the clever (if slight) The Whole Nine Yards and Whipped, but it may take a while for her look-at-me style -- possibly on loan from the equally toothy Denise Richards -- to develop enough complexity or wryness for anyone to take the kick-ass girl seriously.
This year the two grandest instances of this chemistry -- complexity on one hand, wryness on the other, kick-ass on both -- were the big hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Charlie's Angels, both of which feature pretty girls whizzing through the air in order to kick, punch and slash at villains. Crouching Tiger, considered by many critics to be the year's best film, is considered by this critic to be, in a word, "nifty." Coming from someone who loves Ang Lee's work -- Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, Ride with the Devil, all of it -- this may seem odd, but his martial arts masterstroke, lush and sensuous as it is -- feels a bit like a forced amalgamation of technique and marketing.
Bereft of any solemnity whatsoever, Charlie's Angels was without question the year's best thrill-ride (topping even the rockin' Vertical Limit and the ho-hum M:I-2), but you'd think with an effects budget big enough to make Cameron Diaz's glutes seem real, they'd be able to create a more convincing illusion of Drew Barrymore moonwalking. Ultimately the music brought the magic; the Crouching Tiger cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma, and Angels producer Barrymore's CD collection, proved as satisfying as the movies themselves.
Truly this was a year of unlikely heroines, as Helen Hunt's performance as a frazzled Las Vegas mom lit up the otherwise pompous Pay It Forward (in which Kevin Spacey also put in his year's best work). The year belonged to the Pretty Woman, however, as Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich pleased crowds and wowed critics all over the place. Well, except for this one. While the film was rousing and impressive in its bouncy way, it was really hard to get around the notion that this was little more than Julia Roberts doing Norma Rae-meets-Silkwood with cleavage and extra histrionics.
Now here's something to think about: Are overpopulation and rapid technological advancement leading us into bizarre new realms of self-perception? Really, it doesn't take someone as infinitely intelligent as a film critic to realize that something strange is afoot in our world, and reflected in our entertainment. Perhaps we've produced so many humans now that it's becoming difficult for an individual to feel significant, unique or complete, as this year's spate of split-identity movies seems to attest. Yet to be seen is Nicolas Cage taking a break from explosions to portray The Family Man (like Matt Damon in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, he's yet another confused and pallid whitey in need of a soul man's mentoring), but the plot sounds exactly like a lovely little film that arrived from Australia this year called Me Myself I. This winsome gem finds a single, professional Rachel Griffiths suddenly facing off with her married self -- complete with obnoxious brood -- and then replacing her. This, in turn, sounds remarkably like Demi Moore's soppy, inferior Passion of Mind, in which the lady repeatedly falls asleep in the French countryside to find herself on top of the Big Apple, and vice versa.
Mike Hodges's sharp and clever Croupier, with Clive Owen playing both "Jack" the novelist and "Jake" the high roller, also figures into this paradigm, and Schwarzenegger got cloned. Hell, arguably, even Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence took their prosthetics to the big schizophrenic dance this year, adding their special emphasis on well the amazing comedic potential of the ass.
One of the year's more moving and disturbing portraits of a severed self was Gough Lewis's Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, about a real-life university student called Grace Quek who renamed herself and became, fleetingly, a legend of pornography. The year 2000 was a splendid one for documentaries in general, headed up by fine work such as Marc Singer's Dark Days, wherein homeless people inhabiting a disused Manhattan subway tunnel extol the virtues of "growing" in their sheltered existence, actually being able to suggest what to have for dinner. We also got to retrace the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols in Julien Temple's punchy The Filth and the Fury, while David Schisgall's The Lifestyle gave us more information about AARP-eligible swingers than anyone may ever desire.
In fact, despite all the detritus, 2000 was a year of many, many honorable films. Shakespeare showed up on the streets of New York in Hamlet and in Kenneth Branagh's effervescent musical Love's Labour's Lost. Humor hit a fever pitch in Keenan Ivory Wayans's balls-out (er, literally) and gloriously offensive Scary Movie, while Meet the Parents -- with Ben Stiller repeating Keeping the Faith's triumph of the nebbish -- allowed Robert De Niro to deliver the best single line of the year: "I've got nipples, Greg; could you milk me?"
In a year of gentle, not entirely unpleasant romances like Joan Chen's Autumn in New York or Bonnie Hunt's Return to Me, it was truly the weird stuff that stood out, even when it wasn't good. You may well choke on the surrounding schmaltz, but just try to avoid laughing at Jim Carrey as The Grinch. Or witness Frank Langella and Jeremy Irons making enormous pratts of themselves in messy junk like Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate and Courtney Solomon's Dungeons and Dragons. (Oops, it's probably a mortal sin to utter the names of those two directors in the same breath. Alas.) The year's best scene well, it's either Robert Downey Jr. flirting with Mike Tyson in James Toback's Black and White or that magical moment of the guy spontaneously belting out an aria in the bathhouse of Zhang Yang's Shower.
Which leads us to the cream of this year's crop, films carefully selected not only for their countless wonderful qualities, but because, as the list indicates, they form terrific thematic double features for contemplation and discussion.
1. DERANGED DEFENDERS: Nurse Betty and The Specials
Neil LaBute's best film so far could be chalked up to the ingeniously wry script by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, but massive credit also goes to Renée Zellweger's pitch-perfect performance as the delirious wanna-be RN. Meanwhile, Thomas Hayden Church and Rob Lowe will drop your jaw as the most preposterous dialogue of the year comes out of their silly superhero mouths in Craig Mazin's debut feature.
2. ETHICAL ENTREATIES: The Contender and Family Tree
It's easy to send a crack division of studly, violent idiots off to an exotic land to kill random, faceless enemies, but heroism on the home front is tricky business, and both Rod Lurie's muckraking and Duane Clark's leaf raking succeed with a direct approach.
3. FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Chicken Run and Chocolat
Perhaps it's strange to equate butchery and religious oppression -- or perhaps it's not -- but these two films beautifully sum up the grandness of liberating the human spirit, which is amusing, since one of them features Nick Park and Peter Lord's goofy little chunks of clay.
4. FULGENT FELLAHS: High Fidelity and Orfeu
Stephen Frears invades Chicago while Carlos Diegues reaches back into Greek myth to redefine a Brazilian classic, but beneath the intensity of their respective soundtracks, both movies masterfully display the agony and ecstasy of a young man's romance.
5. GROOVY GALS: Me Myself I and Trixie
The stars of the lush, heavy Hilary and Jackie return this year in separate projects, both whimsical and engaging for the discerning romanticist. In the former, Rachel Griffiths makes director Pip Karmel's fantastic and humdrum universe seem all of a piece, while Emily Watson's unparalleled malapropisms transformed Alan Rudolph's caper flick into a light adventure for weirdos.
6. HIP HORRORS: It's the Rage and Shadow of the Vampire
Some may shop at Wal-Mart, but America's gun lust may dwindle significantly if enough people catch James D. Stern's superb ensemble cast illustrating -- with great verve -- exactly why we have a big problem here. Interpreting horror more literally, E. Elias Merhige takes us back to the making of Nosferatu, wherein director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) employs a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to rid his production of "artifice."
7. LONGING LOVERS: Waking the Dead and Wonderland (romantic runners-up: The Closer You Get, Beautiful People, East Is East)
It was a great year for love stories, especially unlikely ones like Keith Gordon's solemn, intense portrait of loss, and Michael Winterbottom's blithe romp with lovelorn Londoners. Since this category was unusually rich, do yourself the favor of checking out the lovely honorable mentions.
8. MORTAL MISSIONS: Himalaya and Pitch Black
Director Eric Valli's powerful mythic journey through the mountains of Nepal bowed last year as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. This year it's received scanty viewings in this country, but it is well worth seeking out. Vin Diesel battling a bunch of yucky aliens may seem more like guilty pleasure, but a surprising morality play twists this quest into a level high above B.
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9. LASCIVIOUS LIAISONS: 8 1/2 Women and Don't Let Me Die on a Sunday
Goodness, Mr. Greenaway, does your blood ever cool? Apparently not, as the director of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover transposes kinky Euro-Japanese trysts over a father-son struggle for balance. Also titillating on the legitimate screen was Didier Le Pêcheur's sharp-witted entry, which somehow manages to stir some tact into a sea of tack as it grapples with sex and death.
10. YEARNING YOUTHS: Almost Famous and Billy Elliot
"Rock stars have kidnapped my son!" declares Frances McDormand in Cameron Crowe's semiautobiographical story of his curiously spent youth as a teenage music critic, and the journey offers more human insight from tour buses and hotel suites than seems possible. Pretty much the year's brightest star, however, was Jamie Bell transforming his little cosmic dancer into a global beacon.