Artists Of The Year

From escapist entertainment to aesthetic ecstasy: Twenty-nine writers script valentines to twelve months of culture

If the last clause of that sentence raises your doubt just a little, it probably means that you haven't yet encountered Toback's epic essay-movie about the relations between black and white people in New York City at the end of the 20th Century. On the surface, Black and White looks like an Altman-style jamboree with elaborate stunt casting and an origami warehouse of folded-together narratives. But in delivering his State of the Union address on race, class, and sexuality, Toback embroiders like crazy: The more civic and sociological the movie gets, the more subjective and personal and outrageous it becomes. In the end, the film has two subjects: what Tom Wolfe majestically describes as "this wild, unpredictable, Hog-Stomping Baroque country of ours"; and the inside of Toback's head. Toback has the honesty and the guts to make no border between the two.

Like two other critically dismissed movie artifacts of the moment, Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday and Keenen Ivory Wayans's Scary Movie, Black and White forms a mesmerizing anthropological mural. An America that's part black passing for white, part white acting black, haunted by airbrushed pictures of lush-lipped jailbait, prosperous yet terminally neurotic, as free as it is confused--this is the country I know and live in and grapple with daily. Toback, using his unconscious as his compass, nails it, to the very last gesture. His movie is altogether too beautiful for words.

Matthew Wilder is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker, and a frequent contributor toCity Pages.

 

SPIKE LEE
by Jill Nelson

 

In the past two decades I've never missed seeing one of Spike Lee's films, usually during the opening week. From She's Gotta Have It to Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls, Summer of Sam, and others, I have never exited one of his films the same as I entered. I may be exhilarated, pissed, disgusted, angry, saddened, motivated, vindicated, accused, or feeling a wealth of other emotions, but I am always provoked.

In an American cultural moment when many artists seem to feel that getting paid is far more important than the quality of their work, Spike Lee stands out as a filmmaker who has figured out a way to make both important films and a good living. Lee struggles to make films that grapple with ideas concerning politics, culture, race, history, and identity, and to do so without becoming an ideologue.

The Original Kings of Comedy is a concert film featuring black standup comics Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mack, and D.L. Hughley. In Lee's hands, the routines of these deft entertainers are revealed for what they are besides hilarious: wide-ranging cultural and political commentaries that simultaneously make you laugh until you cry and deliver multilayered, scathing critiques. In Kings of Comedy, Lee takes the viewer back to the source, far from the current coon-show sitcoms where black comedians' jokes often have no basis in black community, but are founded on the racist stereotypes of others.

Bamboozled is a satire of the television industry in which a black executive creates a modern-day minstrel show with the hope of revealing the industry's own racism, but instead produces a demeaning mega-hit. Lee has taken images, ideas, and attitudes prevalent in popular culture and attacked them in a narrative film. Bamboozled is funny, incisive, and deeply disturbing--Lee at his best. Watching it in a packed theater in Harlem, I was stunned by the repeating pattern of audience response: outright guffaws that faded into uncomfortable laughter that faded into thoughtful silence.

For a career during which he has made films that--like them or not--provoke both thought and action, and for a year in which he directed two films that were both hilarious and deeply provocative, Spike Lee is my artist of the year.

Jill Nelson is a professor at City College of New York, a columnist forMSNBC.com, and editor of the anthologyPolice Brutality.

 

STEVEN SODERBERGH
by Manohla Dargis

 

Steven Soderbergh has made eight features since sex, lies, and videotape won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1989. Some were misfires, none made much money, and all of them were gutsy, in part because each new film seemed like a thorough departure from the last. It was with Out of Sight, though, that his industry profile once again began to rise. In the past few years, it has continued to climb nearly as fast as the 37-year-old can make movies, which is pretty damn fast. Critics have greeted the recent work with enthusiasm, and this year's Erin Brockovich, a divertissement with a social conscience that has grossed more than $100 million, is even more impressive for having opened only seven months after the release of Soderbergh's last feature, an exercise in fractured storytelling called The Limey.

This week yet another Soderbergh movie, Traffic, opens in theaters across the country. An assured gloss on the drug war as lived and endured by a half-dozen central players in Mexico and the United States, the new film is radical on a number of counts, including the fact that it's almost unheard-of for an American director to release two features in a single calendar year. You'd have to sift through the B-movie ranks or return to the glory years of the studio system, when the likes of Hawks and Hathaway would make two, sometimes three pictures a year, to find directors who worked this fast. Or you could just turn back to 1997, when Soderbergh released his low-budget conceptual parlor trick Schizopolis and the documentary Gray's Anatomy, featuring monologist Spalding Gray, within a month of each other.

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