Let's acknowledge the frustrating facts: 2000 was a disappointing year at the movies. Whereas 1999 brought an amazing winning streak of challenging, often thrilling works -- "American Beauty," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Three Kings" and "South Park," among many others -- the highlights of Y2K were mostly a flawed lot. Indeed, looking over my list of the year's 10 best films, I suspect only three or four would have made my cut last year.
Even more frustrating: After a year when so many of the edgiest films turned into surprise box office hits ("American Beauty," "The Sixth Sense"), 2000 audiences celebrated the bland and the broad: the noisy and cluttered "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the sappy racial melodrama "Remember the Titans," the tepid action pictures "Mission: Impossible II" and "Gladiator."
So do we chalk 1999 up as a fluke? I prefer to be optimistic -- and hope that 2000 was merely a temporary setback.
"Unbreakable": M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up to "The Sixth Sense" is ostensibly about a damaged man trying to find his station in life. But with careful deliberation and startling control, Shyamalan gradually reveals the framework for his intimate character study -- and it turns out we've been watching nothing less than a comic-book epic. Brilliantly acted by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, "Unbreakable" is perhaps too esoteric and brainy for mainstream tastes. But more than any other film this year, it reminds us of the essential magic of cinema: to take us on a bold and dizzying journey into the great pop unknown.
"Bamboozled": Talk about frustrating: Spike Lee makes his most vital and imaginative film in more than a decade, and no one shows up. A terrifying fantasy about a blackface minstrel television show that scores huge ratings, "Bamboozled" is a film of ideas that contradicts itself at every step of the way. But such is Lee's grand scheme -- to spin provocations on race, sex, history, popular culture and mass media like a master disc jockey.
"Erin Brockovich": Steven Soderbergh loves huge casts and multiple story lines, but he too often lacks the focus and self-discipline great filmmaking demands. What a masterstroke, then, to place this legal melodrama squarely on the shoulders of Julia Roberts -- who commands our attention from the first frame and carries us through every one of the movie's twists.
"Cast Away": This is certainly an utterly transporting Robinson Crusoe-style adventure story, offering us an Everyman hero battling the forces of air, sea and land. But where Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away" surprises -- and succeeds, smashingly -- is as a vision of existential angst: the tragicomedy of a broken man pitted against the vastness of the universe. And in the year's finest performance, Tom Hanks takes us from assuredness to despair to the brink of madness.
"Dancer in the Dark": Can a director hold his audience in both contempt and high esteem? Can a film be both an intellectual construct and a blood-and-tears tour de force? "Dancer," a postmodern musical about a nearly blind woman (Bjork) struggling to save her child from also losing his sight, may be impossible to fully grasp; director Lars von Trier plays with genre, filmmaking style and emotions in a manner that intentionally confounds. And yet, this remains a work of poetry and rigor -- a cri de coeur from a brilliantly cold-hearted artist.
"Billy Elliot": A little boy wants to dance. His working-class father forbids it. A kindly teacher remains steadfast in her dedication to the boy's talent. The critic in me knows better than to think such threadbare elements could possibly constitute a great film. And yet, "Billy Elliot" brought me to tears with its portrait of the mistakes parents commit unto their children -- and the wrenching sacrifices they make to correct said errors. That the film also introduces two extraordinary talents -- director Stephen Daldry and star Jamie Bell -- is icing atop a sweet-but-never-sticky confection.
"Human Resources": Like "Erin Brockovich," this is a film about work -- and the way people do and do not define themselves by their jobs. An urgent, precisely directed (by Laurent Cantet) French drama about a young man caught between management and striking labor at the factory where his father is employed, "Human Resources" (like "Billy Elliot") also tenderly explores the vast gulf that often opens up between uneducated parents and their talented children.
"Loser": The year's most willfully misunderstood movie. Why were critics so determined to see Amy Heckerling's heartbreaking comedy-drama -- about an NYU freshman (the extraordinary Jason Biggs) facing down a hellish first few months of college -- as just another junky teen-pic? In fact, "Loser" is about our most primal fears: of being lost and unwanted, of the future not working out according to our plans. It is also, triumphantly, the story of discovering one's place, and realizing the potentials and privileges that education affords us.
"You Can Count on Me": The title hovers over Kenneth Lonergan's debut feature with heartbreaking restraint -- they are the words that can't be spoken between a headstrong sister living in upstate New York (Laura Linney) and her ne'er-do-well brother (Mark Ruffalo) who returns home after a long estrangement. A film that understands the tortured-but-tender nature of so much family interaction, "You Can Count on Me" boasts the most beautifully written dialogue of any film this year -- not to mention Linney's and Ruffalo's just-about-note-perfect performances.
"The Yards": Miramax all but buried this densely plotted, superbly detailed crime drama about a network of friends and family in Queens and the web of bribery, deceit and corruption that threatens to destroy them all. As such, most audiences missed an important step forward for the gifted young director James Gray -- as well as an entrancing and electric performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a working-class hustler with tragic delusions of grandeur.
Of course, no year-end roundup of movies is complete without a look at the year's worst:
"What Lies Beneath": Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford play frozen-stiff zombies who wander around an overfurnished house looking for their paychecks -- or something like that. One could almost forgive Robert Zemeckis for this spectacularly stupid Hitchcock knockoff (Someone please explain to me how Pfeiffer turns off a bathtub faucet with her paralyzed foot) on the grounds that he also made "Cast Away" this year. Almost.
"Requiem for a Dream": Watch needles get stuck in arms. Watch refrigerators talk. Watch film critics tell you director Darren Aronofsky is a genius. Watch me walk out of the theater.
"The Next Best Thing": At one perplexing point in "The Next Best Thing," Madonna tells us -- in that British yogi accent of hers -- "When I die, I don't want to be buried ... or burned." They should do both to this fiasco.
"Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2": I'm still waiting on an explanation of the title. Anyone?
"Hamlet": A modern-day "Hamlet" set in New York City. In theory, it sounds interesting; in practice, it looks like someone handed a group of pothead art students a camera and said, "Be pretentious. Be boring. Miscast early and often."
"Mission to Mars": Brian De Palma tries for a modern-day gloss on "2001." He succeeds in driving yet another nail into the coffin of a once-brilliant career.
"Chuck & Buck": Following in the tradition of "Happy, Texas," here's this year's wildly overpraised, vaguely homophobic Sundance darling.
"The Legend of Bagger Vance": Golf. Zen platitudes. Will Smith as a Jesus stand-in. More golf. Still more golf. When are they going to stop golfing?
"Remember the Titans": Three months after seeing it, I mostly remember wanting it to end.
"Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas": Our annual reminder that in Hollywood, the junk very often rises to the top.
(c) 2000, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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