Artists Of The Year

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

Soderbergh is fast, very fast, but that's not what makes him the most exciting young director in the country. A cinematic polymath who has also written, acted in, edited, photographed, and even recorded sound on some of his own best films, he has in the past decade emerged as the American director who has absorbed the lessons of Hollywood and of independent film alike. His films are smart, great to look at and listen to, and filled with career-defining performances from the most obscure actor to the most famous. At their finest, they are entertainment in the most honest sense of the word--they please us with their immaculate craft and with the depth of their feeling, moving us as adults, bewitching us as children. Even at their most dubious (the experimental Schizopolis is as irritating as it is liberating), his films are not guilty of the great unpardonable sin of both contemporary Hollywood and the independents: They never sell short their characters, their audiences, or, just as important, their maker.

Manohla Dargis is film editor atL.A. Weekly.

 

JULIA ROBERTS
by Rob Nelson

 

Given that stars make the movies go round, and movies put as much spin on the world as anything, no one in the world made more curvaceous use of her clout this year than the star of Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts. And I do mean clout rather than cleavage, despite the many inquiring minds that wanted to know whether plastic surgery played a role in the actor's titular turn--not to mention Roger Ebert's moronic dismissal of the film on the sole basis of Brockovich's "absurdly distracting wardrobe." What seemed to make Roger and other male critics lose grip on their pens was how assuredly Roberts riffed on the connection between her character's gift for turning men to mush and her own talent for doing the same. As the savviest superstar actor since Joan Crawford, Roberts knows full well what Lillian Gish must have suspected on the set of Broken Blossoms in 1919: that a performer of her stature can never really appear as anything but "herself" onscreen. Which is to say that her latest vehicle--"based on a true story," indeed--is at heart the triumphant tale of a pretty woman who once again silences her critics by making herself over as an artist.

And yet Erin Brockovich was also a stretch for the star who spent 1999 musing on her own celebrity in Notting Hill and Runaway Bride. Even the earliest reviews noted the significance of the icon's appearance as a "real-life heroine": "real" meaning real, yes, but also working-class, unmarried with children, and uneducated in the rules of law. So it is that this scantly appreciated woman initiates a brilliant investigation of a corporate water-contamination cover-up, securing a share of the largest direct-action settlement ever paid. Meanwhile, Roberts initiates her own brilliant investigation of a life she hasn't known since before Mystic Pizza, securing the highest salary ever paid to a female actor. If, like the bumper sticker says, feminism is the radical notion that women are people, Erin Brockovich is a subversive blockbuster in which a female protagonist--character and actor alike--appears both independent and fully capable.

In the spirit of the whole affair, director Steven Soderbergh is no more the movie's reigning auteur than Albert Finney's flabbergasted Ed Masry is the lawsuit's mastermind. Still, Soderbergh does cast a few crucial aspersions on the relentlessness of the character's desire to vindicate herself for having been so cruelly underestimated. That this stubborn determination in the face of rampant sexism is also the story of Julia Roberts makes Erin Brockovich yet another of the star's meta-movies. That it's so completely hers, however, makes it her first autobiography.

Rob Nelson is film editor atCity Pages.

 

BEYONCÉ G. KNOWLES
by Keith Harris

 

Say her name: Beyoncé. The pivotal diva (pictured, front left) of Destiny's Child would have been one ingenious starlet to choose that stage name for herself, given its playful echoes of fiancée and beyond and bounce. In fact, she was christened Beyoncé at birth by her father (who, not coincidentally, doubles as her manager). Like so many of Beyoncé's business dealings and artistic decisions, her name is outside her control. Then again, Elvis didn't get to name himself either. But could an Ernest Presley ever have been the king of rock 'n' roll? Sometimes events outside of an artist's control are crucial to her artistry. I mean, Elvis didn't write his own songs, right?

Neither does Knowles--she's fourth on the list of the seven folks who share songwriting cred for "Say My Name," the most intense pop ballad in many a year, though who's to say how much input this truly amounted to. It matters much more that the lead name in that list is producer Rodney Jerkins. The limp Timbaland remix shows how much "Say My Name" owes to the expert rhythmic pacing Jerkins devised on the original release. And whether you see Jerkins as an old-school studio Svengali or you don't, it was hard not to appreciate the delicious irony of Destiny's Child contributing "Independent Women, Part 1" to the Charlie's Angels soundtrack, since Beyoncé and her cohorts are exactly as independent as the Angels--three forceful photo-genies who require a shadowy father figure to free them from their bottle.

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