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Our year at the movies

Each year we issue our Top 10 lists, confident in the belief that readers enjoy them as much as we do. The truth is, if you regularly attend to this section, you already know much of what we’ve loved and loathed, and why — and, in fair exchange, some of you have even conveyed to us exactly where it is we can stick our well-considered opinions. There is another reason to numerate our likes and dislikes, though, and not only because one of us got the chance to review a certain movie and now another of us wants to weigh in on it too. Looking over the year allows us to revisit not only individual titles in the full depth of their meaning — Did I really see a movie in which a man had a chicken flapping in his butt? Did Robert Downey Jr. really lick Mike Tyson? With his tongue? — it gives us the distance to survey the overall landscape and not just its stopovers.

Among the many stories that make up a larger film story are the micro-distributors that have come to the rescue in the wake of October Films and Miramax Films. This is noteworthy on several counts, including the fact that USA Films, which absorbed October, has yet to define a convincing identity, and that Miramax, while continuing to exist in name and profit margin, is no longer the same company that released Paris Is Burning or even sex, lies and videotape. The upshot is that while hundreds of independent films are still being produced in this country, there no longer remain any large companies that, if only by virtue of their releases, are helping to define, and create, independent film. Companies like October and the old Miramax didn’t just put films in theaters; they supported an anti-aesthetic that garnered some of its force and excitement from what it was not: not mainstream, not Hollywood, not necessarily or exclusively or simply bottom line.

All companies want to make money, and Miramax was never a nonprofit (by the outraged disappointment the company inspired, it seems that people sometimes thought otherwise), but when the stakes were smaller, the films often seemed better. Certainly they didn’t look like cheaper variations on slick studio product; nor did as many aspire to what critics once sneeringly called “middlebrow.” Now that nearly all the studios have absorbed the independents or formed their own “classics” divisions, the juice has been sucked out of the indie-film movement. The thrill is gone, even if on occasion a shiver of resistance inspires hope — it’s not for nothing that Steven Soderbergh, who brings his independence to each scene he shoots, has emerged as one of the great hopes of American film. But one man isn’t enough, which is why the micro-distributors have become increasingly valuable.

Photo by Bob Marshak

This year, some of our favorite films were released by companies that are so small we don’t even know in which city they’re located, or how they stay in business. Although its pockets are too deep for it to qualify as a micro-distributor, special mention must be made of the Shooting Gallery, which, in conjunction with the Loews Theater chain, provided an exciting new paradigm for art-house distribution. These are the guys who turned Croupier into an authentic sleeper and afforded at least some lucky audiences the pleasure of a few favorite festival titles, such as Human Resources. Other companies that saved the year from turning into a cinematic sinkhole were Winstar, which brought us Leos Carax’s Pola X and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two), the first of that director’s films to secure U.S. distribution, perennial champion New Yorker Films (Beau Travail), local favorite Strand Releasing (Suzhou River) and relative newcomer Cowboy Booking International (George Washington). They keep the faith. —Manohla Dargis

Ella Taylor’s Best of the Year. The only truly independent American movie I can place on a best-of-the-year list without flinching is David Gordon Green’s George Washington, made by a young first-time director who has translated his worship of Terrence Malick into an achingly beautiful, casually interracial mood piece about a bunch of kids noodling poetically through ordinary days and extraordinary tragedy in a North Carolina hick town.

If that makes 2000 sound like a dispiritingly slack year for American-made independents, it has been — and it hasn’t. This year we’ve seen a modest flouting of the conventional wisdom that studio penetration into independent production and distribution has nudged indie filmmaking toward the soft center. Three of the most interesting independent movies of 2000 were made within the studio system, two of them by the same director. If Steven Soderbergh ends the year cleaning up trophies for both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, he’ll richly deserve this almost unprecedented honor for two social-issue dramas that are also triumphs of cheeky formal invention — and a fun night out at the multiplex. Not to mention that Soderbergh made an actress out of Julia Roberts in one, and a heartthrob out of Benicio Del Toro in the other. Erin Brockovich also cleaned up at the box office, and with luck Traffic may, too.

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