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Wonder Boys and Girls

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.

Traffic
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.

 

No such luck for Curtis Hanson’s elegantly literary Wonder Boys, which proved so resolutely uncommercial it had to be re-released by Paramount, doubtless more to jog the memories of critics and the Academy than out of any hope for a larger audience. Consolation may be at hand should Michael Douglas win the Oscar he deserves for once, for his wonderfully saggy performance as a professor in full midlife meltdown, or Robert Downey Jr. (given current events, I wouldn’t bet on it), for his witty turn as Douglas’ editor, or Frances McDormand, for her deadpan serenity as a high-achieving woman past 40 who is actually loved by her lover.

Even on the map of U.S.-distributed foreign films, which arguably has been whittled down to chipper tales of English-speaking proletarians dancing their way from poverty to the stars, there are glimmers of taste. First Look Pictures had the guts, if not the business acumen, to pick up Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, an exquisitely made slice of Scottish miserabilism if ever there was one, about a sensitive Glasgow tenement lad who scrabbles his way through guilt and garbage to a provisional happiness. Sony Pictures Classics released Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth, an operatic beauty of an Edith Wharton adaptation, which you should see — not least for Gillian Anderson’s outstanding performance and magisterial hair — before it tanks, as I very much fear it will, for lack of an audience that can handle the movie’s tortoise pacing and absence of uplift. Or maybe not: Taiwan ese director Edward Yang’s meditative three-hour drama Yi Yi, about a family unraveling in small but significant ways, has hung in there, as well this masterpiece of humanistic filmmaking should. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is making a fortune in limited release. And Julian Schnabel’s vibrant Before Night Falls, about the fate of art under Cuban Stalinism, is snapping up attention for Javier Bardem’s splendidly jittery rendering of the novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas.

For my money, though, the jewel in this year’s movie crown is a lone work of genius that came and went as difficult films with subtitles do — in a heartbeat. Aside from the abiding beauty of its images, Raul Ruiz’s free adaptation of Marcel Proust’s last novel, Time Regained, has the brilliant audacity to offer an almost purely visual account of the workings of a literary imagination. Passing from one snooty belle époque Parisian salon to another, Proust is also passing through the echo chambers of his own memory, sorting, embroidering and reinventing as he goes, until the world’s most facilitating cookie, the madeleine, releases a monumental artistic voice from the prison of a body racked by illness. Ruiz’s best film, and it’s the top of the world.

Honorable mentions: Kippur (Amos Gitai, Israel); You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, USA); Croupier (Mike Hodges, U.K.); Chicken Run (Nick Park and Peter Lord, U.K.); Two-Family House (Raymond De Felitta, USA); Dark Days (Mark Singer, USA); Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark); Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, USA); The Decalogue (out for the first time in the USA on video, courtesy of Facets Video); Girl on the Bridge (Patrice Leconte, France); Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (Mark Jonathan Harris, USA); Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, Germany); My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog, Germany); Place Vendôme (Nicole Garcia, France); Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France); Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, USA); Suzhou River (Lou Ye, People’s Republic of China); and Getting To Know You, a little unreleased gem by Lisanne Skyler.

The House of Mirth
Photo by Jaap Buitendijk

Hazel-Dawn Dumpert’s Best Movies of the Year (in no order after the first). The Color of Paradise (Majid Majidi, Iran): a film about faith that, for all its visual splendor, argues that life’s greatest beauty lies in what can’t be seen. The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack (Aiyana Elliott, USA): Beneath the surface of a straight documentary about her folk-singer father, Elliott explores the specifically American opportunity for altering one’s identity, and the price that’s paid in unending, single-minded maintenance. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, Taiwan): a mesmerizing old-fashioned epic from a director with 21st-century global perspective. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, USA): Jarmusch continues his explorations of the American unconscious, and draws a tremendously moving performance from Forest Whitaker as the film’s outpost sentinel. Judy Berlin (Eric Mendelsohn, USA): a heartbreaking work about love and optimism among ordinary folk, anchored by two extraordinary performances from Edie Falco and the great Madeline Kahn. Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, USA): an unapologetic love story that’s both culturally specific and thoroughly free of stereotype.

 

The Next Best. American Psycho (Mary Harron, USA); Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, USA); Chicken Run (Nick Park and Peter Lord, U.K.); Committed (Lisa Krueger, USA); The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, U.K.); Suzhou River (Lou Ye, People’s Republic of China); Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (Edward Yang, Taiwan); You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, USA).

Great Moments in Good Films. Playing records over the phone and a girl’s ghost in a doomed elm tree in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Johnny Rotten being pelted with cake by children — and loving it — as the Sex Pistols play a firemen’s Christmas party in Julian Temple’s The Filth and the Fury. Patti Smith reading a poem she’s written for the late Georgia musician/raconteur Robert Curtis Dickerson in Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s Benjamin Smoke. The singing of a Lakota anthem before a championship softball game in Jeremy Spear’s homestyle documentary Fast Pitch.

F.X. Feeney’s Best of 2000. Overall, this has been a terrific year. My Top 10 was easy to fill, as evidenced below, but hard to round out (I’ve selected a Top 22), and harder still to evaluate justly. Private Confessions, written by Ingmar Bergman, directed by Liv Ullmann and photographed by Sven Nykvist, stands unembarrassed in the company of this trio’s best work together — which is the same as saying it’s one of the best films ever made. Yet the works I’ve ranked ahead of it have earned their places. I’ve seen Girl on the Bridge six times, with a delight that’s only deepened, and the same holds true of Wonder Boys, which I’ve seen at least four. The House of Mirth contains what to my mind is the best female performance of the year, by Gillian Anderson. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon leaps into the pantheon beside Babe, The Secret of Roan Inish and all other category-defying wonders of the mid-’90s. The rest are either exalted by the poetry of the actors (Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock, William Hurt in Sunshine) or by vigorous directing. Although audiences tended to react against The Ninth Gate, chilled by the courageous perversity of its final twist, people were also, remarkably, as silent as a congregation in any church while Polanski unfolded his tale. The ability to impose such a sublime hush on a rebellious crowd is the mark of a master, the thing to be hoped for from filmmakers in any year.

Girl on the Bridge (Patrice Leconte, France); Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, USA); The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, U.K.); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, Taiwan); Pollock (Ed Harris, USA); Sunshine (Istvan Szabo, Hungary); The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, USA); The Contender (original 2:20 cut) (Rod Lurie, USA); Erin Brockovich and Traffic (tie) (Steven Soderbergh, USA); High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, USA); Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark); Time Code (Mike Figgis, USA); Private Confessions (Liv Ullmann, Sweden); Gladiator (Ridley Scott, USA); You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, USA); Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France); Chicken Run (Nick Park and Peter Lord, U.K.); Ratcatcher (Lynn Ramsay, U.K.); Don’t Let Me Die on a Sunday (Didier Le Pecheur, France); Pola X (Leos Carax, France); Vatel (Roland Joffé, France); Gohatto (Nagisa Oshima, Japan).

Ernest Hardy’s Favorite Films of 2000. Aprende (Enrique Cruz, Brooklyn); Bamboozled (Spike Lee, USA); Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France); Chicken Run (Nick Park and Peter Lord, U.K.); Chuck & Buck (Miguel Arteta, USA); Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark); The Devil Is a Bottom (Bud Light, USA); Five Feet High and Rising (Pete Sollett, USA); George Washington (David Gordon Green, USA); Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, USA); Girlfight (Karyn Denmark, USA); Human Resources (Laurent Cantlet, France); I’m the One That I Want (Lionel Coleman, USA); Jesus’ Son (Alison Maclean, USA); Judy Berlin (Eric Mendelsohn, USA); Legacy (Tod Lending, USA); Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, USA); Nurse Betty (Neil LaBute, USA); Nuyorican Dream (Laurie Collyer, USA); Scary Movie (Keenan Ivory Wayans, USA); Scream 3 (Wes Craven, USA); Time Regained (Raul Ruiz, France); Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, USA); Urbania (Jon Shear, USA).

Ghost Dog
Photo by Abbot Genser

The Bottom of the Barrel. The Next Best Thing (John Schlesinger, USA); Next Friday (Steve Carr, USA); Cecil B. Demented (John Waters, USA); Broken Hearts Club (Greg Berlanti, USA); American Pimp (Hughes Bros., USA); Gone in 60 Seconds (Dominic Sena, USA); The Beach (Danny Boyle, USA); Shaft (John Singleton, USA); Autumn in New York (Joan Chen, USA); Loving Jezebel (Kwyn Bader, USA); The Legend of Bagger Vance (Robert Redford, USA); Turn It Up (Robert Adetuyi, USA); What Planet Are You From (Mike Nichols, USA); Battlefield Earth (Roger Christian, USA).

 

Favorite actress: Catherine Deneuve (Place Vendôme, Time Regained, Dancer in the Dark); close seconds: Cate Blanchett (The Gift) and Saana Lathan (Love & Basketball). Favorite actor: Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) and Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai). Favorite supporting actress: Lupe Ontiveros (Chuck & Buck). Favorite supporting actor: Alan Cumming (Urbania). Favorite onscreen couple: Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman (Traffic). Favorite soundtrack: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, by the RZA. Favorite Line: “. . . the Chuck and Buck suck and fuck . . .”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Photo by Chan Kam Chuen

Dargis’ Hot 10. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France): A formal and poetic revelation, the film reconfirms that one of the greatest filmmakers in the world also happens to be a woman. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark): A movie I hate and love equally, and just can’t get out of my head. Eureka (Aoyama Shinji, Japan): This emotionally shattering story about the aftermath of a violent crime also features one of the greatest performances of the year, from Koji Yakusho, who played the salaryman in Shall We Dance. The film’s best shot at domestic distribution was hurt by a boneheaded New York Times review; here’s hoping one of the micro-distributors picks up this (and here’s my money quote) “brilliant, ravishing, stunning” film. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, U.K.): Sony Pictures Classics is banking on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but its reputation will be made by films such as this; see it before it disappears. Kippur (Amos Gitai, Israel): The film has the worst opening and closing scenes of any great movie I can remember, but its middle hour, amid the mud and the blood, is extraordinary. Platform (Jia Zhang Ke, People’s Republic of China): This three-hours-plus epic played in an essential series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the best Los Angeles venue for new Asian cinema. Pola X (Leos Carax, France): Rapturous nonsense, in part — but the music and the fucking and Carax’s love for the medium are unparalleled. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, Hollywood): I’ve said plenty about Soderbergh recently, but the film is so good-looking you should see it before it gets shredded in your local theater. Wreckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary): The whirlpools of grain and bottomless blacks of this hallucinatory film — about what? the end of history in Eastern Europe, among other revelations — are why digital filmmaking remains an oxymoron. Will it ever come to L.A.? I don’t think so! Finally, Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (Edward Yang, Taiwan): Love and other reasons to keep going . . . I can’t wait to see it again.


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