Artists Of The Year

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

A FRIEND IS moving to Brazil. It's a nervy thing to do, relocating with a new spouse to an apartment overlooking the beaches of Rio while we pour sand on the Olympic-length ice rink that used to be known as the driveway. We've spent a reasonable amount of time wishing our colleague the worst. She's a friend, after all, and we owe it to her to feel envious and spiteful. That's what friends are for.

At the going-away party--that most excruciating of social rituals--we found ourselves talking about the upcoming calendar at Oak Street Cinema: a few brooding works by Bresson, a Tarkovsky or two, the giddily unreal reels of Richard Lester. Our friend is a moviegoer, and soon we were talking about all the great films that screened in the Cities over the last year.

Actually, we were doing most of the talking and our friend was doing a lot of listening. It seems that some people in town have the misfortune to hold down day jobs that preclude slipping out for the matinee screening of the new Steven Soderbergh. They teach children, and correct lines of code, and build bridges while we're sleeping off the previous night's six-hour marathon-read of the new Joy Williams. They oil the bowling lanes while we're sitting in a dark room, watching people under hot lights play make-believe. They're filing motions and collecting commissions while we're looking for signs of intelligent life on pigment-covered canvases. They're off running the world while we're looking for another hour of blissful escape.

In the spirit of this realization, we present the annual Artists of the Year issue, City Pages' ninth, and a list of the people whose creations transported us from our musty lives to someplace else entirely. Thanks go to the two-dozen-plus like-minded souls who boiled their own year-2000 artistic passions down to 350-word valentines.

Some of the cultural artifacts named below are bound to make it to Brazil. (We've heard there's a thing called the Internet that's filled with cultural jetsam; and American culture is said to be popular in a lot of places these days.) But the local artists named at the beginning of this compendium--a dancer, a writer, a filmmaker, an artist, an author, an actor--live right in our own Republic of Tundrastan. The place to see them is here.

Some time from now we will receive a postcard. Sun-burnished women and men--cocoa-skinned and glistening--will be tapping a ball over a net, with the Pacific Ocean lapping in the background like a puppy's tongue against the shore. We will look at that postcard and we will not despair. To repeat: We will not despair. Instead, we'll pick up a new CD from Mali, or a collection of photos from Cuba, or a novel set in Kenya, and we will leave this place far behind. And then we'll go to sleep in our own beds. We won't miss a thing.

 

EMILY CARTER
by Melissa Maerz

 

When I first saw Emily Carter reading from her work beneath the melting-clown décor of the Turf Club in St. Paul, she was prophesying about a pending apocalypse at the City Coin Wash & Dri. Carter appeared every bit as fantastical as the end-of-the-world scenario she was describing: There was so much smoke gathering around her that you would have thought it was being emitted directly from her pores rather than through the cigarette wedged between her fingers. This woman, I thought, is either a modern-day Athena sprung fully formed from the head of Tim Burton, or else she is an amusing embarrassment.

As it turns out, these are precisely the two roles--oracle and spectacle--that Carter examines through Glory B, the protagonist in her collection of linked short stories Glory Goes and Gets Some. Appropriate to a book title that could double as the name of a Skinemax feature, Glory Goes and Gets Some is a work of indecent exposure. Yet instead of relying upon erotica, Carter strips her prose down to its skivvies by converting some of her own life experiences into the fiction of Glory's drug abuse, HIV, and struggle to connect with others. "Maybe I do talk first and think later...I admit it freely," Glory says. Likewise, her lengthy monologues recount every detail--especially the mortifying ones you wish she would omit--of Glory's move from a privileged New York life to what she describes as the "haunted" city of Minneapolis.

Throughout her work, Carter continually calls attention to Glory's lack of inhibitions in order to disrupt traditional notions of what constitutes shame. The writer manages to level the weight of subjects like addiction and HIV by having Glory refer to them with a flippancy that, to the reader, remains poignant. In the process, Carter turns the radio static or sidewalk catcall of Glory's surround-sound urban sprawl into a small symphony of self-revelation.

Melissa Maerz is a Minneapolis-based writer and a contributor toCity Pages.

 

SHAWN MCCONNELOUG
by Linda Shapiro

 

Shawn McConneloug jump-starts her movement-theater projects by looking for something that scares her. Blessed with an incurably operatic sensibility, she creates emotional sizzlers about doomed relationships, faded memories, repressed libidos. But while her heart palpitates shamelessly on her sleeve, McConneloug keeps her frequently wicked tongue firmly in cheek. Take her recent Palace of Dreams, a homage to popular songs from WWI and II and a celebration of the eternal vaudeville in all of us. McConneloug's "Orchestra"--the eccentric collection of dancers, actors, opera divas, and circus-trained performers that she founded in 1995--careens through a series of acts. The scenes include a bittersweet rendering of "Sweet Leilani" with ukuleles and glamorous chorus boys, a juggler menaced by the mermaid from hell, and bellicose tapping to the Army Air Corps Song. But for all its slapshtick and skewed conventions, "Palace" tenderly evokes the fragility of memory and the hectic innocence of those Big War decades.

Created for vintage vaudeville and movie houses, the full version of Palace is scheduled to open at the Heights Theater in May. Meanwhile, parts of it are revealing themselves to a lucky few in a series of floating showings called "Raw on Site." Locations so far have included senior centers and VFW posts, where enthusiastic audiences have been moved to share their own wartime reminiscences.

A refreshingly independent spirit in an increasingly funder- and presenter-driven arts environment, McConneloug insists on doing things her way. She can take more than a year to develop a piece, and she's equally meticulous about choosing the right venue for its presentation. In this spirit, her last project--a deconstruction of operatic passions--premiered as part of Walker Art Center's prestigious "Out There" series. Her next, by contrast, will be aimed at the country-western bar circuit, and has an appropriately devious title to match: "Stand on Your Man."

Linda Shapiro is a Minneapolis-based writer.

 

DOUG PADILLA
by Michael Fallon

 

Most artists crave attention; God knows they're not in it for the hours or the wages. That is why to most artists the worst thing imaginable is not a mere bad review from an art critic or the denial of a grant that may bankroll one's grocery bill for a year. Rather, the worst thing that can happen to an artist is to create art in a vacuum of indifference, to put art out in front of an uncaring public. It is for this reason that painter, gallery owner, and art-world mover and shaker Doug Padilla deserves recognition.

Certainly, many local artists achieved great heights in 2000. Shannon Kennedy won two national grants for her exquisite video pieces that explore inner spaces, and she mounted several successful shows, locally and in New York. Wing Young Huie, meanwhile, continues to draw national acclaim for his large-scale portrait projects. The recent "Lake Street USA" endeavor was an amazing anthropological survey of the people of a single road--and of the city and the country beyond. What separates Padilla from other artists is his absolute devotion to creating an atmosphere of passion about the local visual arts, and to ridding the world of artistic indifference.

Consider the evidence: The 52-year-old Padilla is widely known to local artists and scene followers for his gallery, Art Jones, which he runs as an ad hoc space--it appears wherever is affordable and available at the moment. Here, Padilla is often willing to try things that most other spaces in town shy away from. His regular off-color exhibit of local erotic art is just one example. Also, Padilla hosts his "Salon Artisimo," an irregularly scheduled panel discussion on various topics that brings together a wide range of artists and art lovers to discuss culture-related topics. And finally, Padilla has painted and shown his work in town--as a solo artist or in groups he helped found--for the past 20-or-so years. In 2000 he was awarded a State Arts Board grant for his expressionist, slash-and-burn, day-of-the-dead-toned creations.

"[Art] is what you do," says Padilla on the artist's experience. "It is how you digest, process, and explore life. If you don't do it, you get nasty and depressed and sick--ask my wife and friends." In the end, Padilla's enthusiasm has at some point affected nearly everyone in the local art scene, and has made it that much easier for local artists to stay healthy and get a good night's sleep.

Michael Fallon is a St. Paul-based writer and a frequent contributor toCity Pages.

 

JODI KELLOGG
by Max Sparber

 

Theater doesn't invite subtle acting, which is why performers sometimes seem to be clattering about onstage. After all, even in the most intimate settings, the audience is usually far enough away from an actor that subtle tics and gestures are all but lost. If we glance at a performer's hand, we miss the look on her face. If we look at her face, we miss the slight shuffling of her feet.

But the stage favors performers like Jodi Kellogg, whose physical gestures move in concert with one another and whose wide-set eyes and arching eyebrows are capable of communicating some wonderful nuances, even to the back row. In Outward Spiral's production of Ladies and Gentlemen, for example, Kellogg encountered a scene that required a complex emotional shift. Kellogg played Annie Hindle, a 19th-century vaudeville performer whose act consisted of impersonating a dandified gentleman. Kellogg tackled the role like Jimmy Cagney in his song-and-dance days, combining a jocular, bouncy, soft-shoe stroll with leering eyes and a smirking mouth. She seemed unable to control her punchy sense of humor even while demanding that her lover, played by Erin File, explain why the physical intimacy in their relationship had ended. At that, File opened her blouse to show Kellogg...something. Something dreadful.

We knew from earlier in the play that the woman's mother had died of an awful, wasting cancer. Though File's back was to the audience at this moment, and we could not see what afflicted her, Kellogg's performance revealed everything. The humor bled out of Kellogg, as did her relentless energy. For a moment, she fell silent, and ceased to move, and then she pressed her hands to her face and grieved.

It was Kellogg's shift from liveliness to stillness that made the moment. Kellogg has an inimitable collection of instinct, professionalism, and creative reasoning that any director would crave, and past directors have lauded, which may be why she works so often, and in such diverse and interesting projects. This past year found Kellogg as the selfish, self-absorbed Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank at the Park Square Theatre; the eponymous lead in Ten Thousand Things' The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol; and the salt-encrusted wife of the Bible's Lot in Thrown by Angels. Each of these roles demonstrated Kellogg's restless, keen intelligence as a performer--amazing, as intelligence is so often a nuance that is lost onstage.

Max Sparber is a Minneapolis-based playwright and writer, and theater critic atCity Pages.

 

TIM MCCUSKER
by Amy Borden

 

Splitting his time between creative writing and work as a film-crew jack-of-all-trades, local director Tim McCusker specializes in the creation of projects that exist somewhere along the nebulous divide between movies and short stories. His third and most recent short film, "Napoleons" (which screened this year at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival and on the Independent Film Channel), harks back to the old Hollywood days of quick-fire dialogue--or, in McCusker's case, quick-fire monologue. It's driven by the filmmaker's near-20-minute recitation detailing an afternoon conversion that begins with his character quitting a dreary factory-management job and then trying desperately to spend the afternoon at his favorite coffee shop enjoying the world's finest caramel roll.

From start to finish, "Napoleons" is simply delightful, light but not frivolous in detailing the lament of our modern world. Here humanity takes a back seat to productivity--and humanity ultimately loses. Only the luckiest of men finds an oasis of simplicity and joy in this turbo-powered rat race. A good cup of coffee, a perfectly prepared confection, and a lively atmosphere for the evening paper provide the tranquil moments that make life grand.

Popular consensus has it that the Twin Cities is an exceptional place to discover independent filmmakers making worthy and intelligent films. Popular consensus isn't always correct. Although there are many talented filmmakers in the Cities, the best new work is often found in installations that feature cinema as one component among several. (Witness folk-film artist Craig Baldwin's Walker-sponsored The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: de facto(ry) films, or the many multimedia productions at this year's "Multiplex" event at the Soap Factory.) Still, while I adore installations, what I love even more is going to the movies. I want my heart to stop at the sight of an image, only to begin again from the rush of wicked dialogue. I want to be entertained not with fluff but with literate substance. Unfortunately, the films supported in our community often seem to foreground a hipness that trumps both careful thinking and forceful presentation. McCusker's "Napoleons" is a welcome exception to the rule. How refreshing it is to spend 20 minutes with a film that doesn't view self-obsession as a precondition.

Amy Borden is the programmer at Oak Street Cinema.

 

LIFTER PULLER
by Michaelangelo Matos

 

You weren't supposed to break up! You'd just made the album I've played more than anything else released in the last year, the album I've pushed on every willing and not-so-willing ear I can bend even halfway in my direction since I got the thing, the album that more than anything except my family and Little Tijuana makes me regret having moved away from Minneapolis, and you up and quit? What the hell is wrong with you people?!

It was the drugs, wasn't it? Well, okay, there probably weren't any, at least outside of the record. Still, there was so much substance abuse chronicled on Fiestas + Fiascos (Frenchkiss/Self-Starter Foundation) that Larry Clark should have optioned the film rights. "Queens of the Stone Age" got a single out of reciting the Physicians Desk Reference to guitar-bass-drums. But even at your most reportorial and sarcastic, you guys went further, diving headfirst into the nightlife's transient thrills and wrestling with the gnawing sense of rootlessness at its heart.

Maybe I'm just taking this all a little too personally. Fiestas' milieu is acutely familiar to me, thanks to dozens of local warehouse parties and two years' employment at First Avenue; maybe I'm guilty of over-romanticizing my own past. And I'm hardly unsympathetic to your reasons for ending the band. I know this was probably one of the most difficult decisions of your lives. I know you've been playing together for a good while and have relatively little to show for it. I know singer Craig Finn wanted to move to New York. But now that I'm out in Seattle, you made the album and played the local (for me) show--at the Crocodile Café on May 24. That night proved I wasn't just being hometown-sentimental, that you in fact were as good as any rock band in the country. Now, I can't help but feel a little disillusioned. Or at least a little more alone in the continuing battle against the end of the evening.

Michaelangelo Matos is a staff writer for Seattle Weekly and a frequent contributor toCity Pages.

 

MANDY MOORE
by Michael J. Nelson

 

Mandy Moore has done astounding work in the last year. To begin with, she has made me hear of her. True, I have no concrete idea of who she is or what she wants from me (I assume nothing nefarious), but making me hear of her is no small feat in a crowded field of people wanting me to hear of them. For instance, Billy Crudup wanted me to hear of him, and despite being handicapped by having the name Billy Crudup, he has accomplished it. That guy who's from here--that Josh kid, the one who's in movies? He wanted me to hear of him, and so I did. Granted, he has more work ahead of him if I'm to remember his last name, but he has made strides.

It should be noted that I am old. And while it's true that I don't pen cranky letters to Lou Gelfand, or display my puffy baseball caps in the back window of my '89 Oldsmobile Delta 88, I am unlikely to be seen in the latest, ultra-hip Ace of Base video (the reader is asked to substitute something up-to-date and meaningful here, as even an Ace of Base reference strains the absolute limit of my ability to be current). From the sketchy details I have, I can conclude that I am not in the target audience of a Mandy Moore, and yet she has made me hear of her. Nicely done.

Next year, I'm sure, will prove to be an even bigger year for Ms. Moore. There are rumors that she will be in some sort of movie or sing some sort of song or another, and perhaps wear something revealing on a television program.

As for me...well, my hats are nice. Why shouldn't I show them off?

Michael J. Nelson is the former head writer and star ofMystery Science Theater 3000, and author ofMike Nelson's Movie Megacheese.

 

GAVIN
by Geoff Dyer

 

My favorite artist of 2000 is Gavin, definitely.

Having made that statement, I need to qualify it. First, I hope that I've remembered his name correctly. Second, this doesn't actually matter since I use the name synecdochically; that is, he is the representative of a larger group undertaking that I want to applaud and celebrate.

One of the best things at Burning Man 1999 was the HMS Love, a full-scale submarine breaking the surface of the Black Rock Desert. I spent many a happy hour on its sloping, burning deck. I had no idea who made it. This year I spent a similarly happy hour in a mushroom-shaped tower overlooking a big sound system located, if I remember rightly, at the intersection of Ten O'clock and Gut. I got talking to one of the guys who'd built it. A carpenter by trade, he was particularly proud of the tightness of the spiral staircase and the fact that the tower was able to support so many people without collapsing. This guy's name, I'm pretty sure, was Gavin and it was he and his crew who had built the HMS Love the year before. So I'm actually choosing Gavin as my artist of the year as a way of sending a thank-you note to all the people whose names I never learned who contributed to this year's Burning Man, including those whose stuff I didn't even see.

Perhaps I can best express this negatively. A few days after getting back to London from Nevada, I went to an opening at the Serpentine Gallery for a major show by one of the most highly rated Young British Artists, Gillian Wearing. These YBAs and their even younger progeny (like the execrable Gavin Turk) have pretty well conquered the art world and we are all bored stupid by them. The BritArt bubble has burst, but--and this is perhaps its historical novelty--the scene keeps on expanding even after it has burst! As one would expect, this show of Wearing's challenging, radical whatever was ditch-water dull. In terms of eye nourishment, it was the equivalent of about one minute at Black Rock City.

So I'm grateful to Gavin and his like for reducing my part in all conversations about the London art scene to a single response. Asked what I think of Tracey Emin or the Chapman Brothers or any of the others, I respond with a look of sorry-I-don't-speak-the-language bafflement and say, "I've been to Burning Man."

Geoff Dyer is the author ofOut of Sheer Rage andParis Trance. He lives in London.

 

CINTRA WILSON
by Kate Sullivan

 

The first time I read a single paragraph by columnist Cintra Wilson, I thought, Holy hamsters, why can't everyone write like this? Unfortunately Wilson, the white-hot pop-culture critic-at-large for Salon.com, is also frustrating: She seems to contribute her first-person essays when she damn well feels like it, or perhaps when the rent is due. And when my personal Queen of Outrage does see fit to bless us with her heat-seeking animus, her work is erratic, manic. She roves among the fields of professional surfing, the evils of Olympic girls' gymnastics, the "fiery wall of cocksmanship" that was the young Mick Jagger, and the genius of Lester Bangs. Sometimes she aims and misses. Yet Wilson is still my angel of literary inspiration these days, and she has given me ineffable joy in the year since I discovered her ranting in the archives of the otherwise snippy Salon.

Last year Wilson published her first collection of essays, called A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, which is loosely focused on America's obsession with fame. In it she mercilessly dissects such phenomena as the Oscars, Hollywood social climbing, cock-rock kings, and, of course, Celine Dion and "the insane plucking and starving and discipline-greedy self-abnegation she represents." The book, while snazzier than the musings of any other pop-culture critic today, nevertheless tends to underplay what I value most in her writing.

Her best work heaves with breathless, manic love for the very act of writing. One imagines her composing her Salon column between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., chain-smoking and restless, not quite believing anyone else will ever read it. Thus she is freed to fly over this land, smart-bombing the sellouts and phonies, a nocturnal crime fighter defending Truth, Justice, and the Rock.

In her homage to the Sex Pistols, she could be describing herself, and everything that makes her precious at this lousy moment in American journalism: "We live in a time when the real stuff hardly ever gets to the starting line anymore. Everyone is too afraid of punishment, of alienating people, of lawyers and lawsuits and controversy and losing money, to ever do anything truly original and daring. Well, fuck 'em, I say. Fuck 'em all right in the ear. You have to get a little bit of somebody else's blood on your teeth if you're ever going to say anything but 'Yes, sir,' and if all you ever say is 'Yes, sir,' you've wasted your whole goddamned life."

Kate Sullivan is an L.A.-based freelancer who has written forSpin, theLos Angeles Times, and theNew York Times Magazine, and is a frequent contributor toCity Pages.

 

LESTER BANGS
by Peter S. Scholtes

 

The way some of us go on, you'd think Lester Bangs was a rock 'n' roll Orwell--that phony superstars were his Stalin, punk his Lincoln Brigade. Yet to love the Great Dead White Male of rock criticism is to know he was also very much full of shit. You don't read an essay like "James Taylor Marked for Death" for nuance any more than you listen to a band like the Troggs--ostensible subjects of that screed--for jazzy overtones. When I first showered in Bangs's torrent of spiel as a teenager--six years after his death in 1982--I got the feeling that he liked the idea of liking the Troggs even more than he actually liked the Troggs. He was contrary, like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music---four sides of noise that even noise fans can't stand, dubbed by Bangs "the greatest album ever made in the history of the human eardrum."

No doubt Bangs was a force for good. But he was a force first of all--to be reckoned with and absorbed rather than framed and hung. Certainly Let It Blurt, this year's reverse beatification by Jim DeRogatis, seemed a good enough excuse to hang out with Bangs a little longer (and just when his old buddies Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer were dumping a pile of new criticism on the shelves). The book paints him as a grenade tucked inside a teddy bear. Lester to his girlfriend's parents: "Gosh, your daughter sure is beautiful... Got any cognac?" But you miss the prose--the writing Anthony DeCurtis insists is responsible for the public's "perception of rock critics as obsessed, overgrown geeks with more opinions than ideas, always searching for a free drink and a captive audience."

Bangs had a lot of ideas--the way he attached them to his subjects was part of his charm--and one was the never-quaint notion that you can smash the barrier between artist and audience. "Ultimately, you are mourning for yourselves," he wrote after John Lennon's death, insisting Yoko's lover was just "a guy." In this regard, accusing Bangs of "self-indulgence" is like calling Woodward and Bernstein nosy: His rank self was his main subject. Which is why Bangs would have heaved all over Almost Famous, a movie that immortalized him as the counsel of reportorial distance (!) but had nothing to say about evaluating music on it own messy terms. (The cherubic young writer he advises isn't even an Orwell in his curiosity; he's Access Hollywood.) For Bangs, to be loudly subjective had something, maybe everything, to do with freedom--which is why a lot of people other than rock critics mourn themselves remembering him.

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer atCity Pages.

 

LE TIGRE
by Jon Dolan

 

"Who took the BOMP!?" Bikini Killer Kathleen Hannah asks at the beginning of her new band Le Tigre's late-1999 debut. Goddamn good question, if you still believe in the rock 'n' roll dream. Takers? Well, look to your right: A bottom-line-humping oligarchy of record conglomerates rules the mainstream, squashing alt-era transgression like it was a butterfly under Britney's boot. Now look to the left: Rock's boutique minority, sickened by the debauchery in the pop-tart pleasuredome, clings to its obscurantism as to driftwood in a flood. Just as Ralph Nader wouldn't incorporate pleasure into his anti-corporatism (or funk into his rallies), Thom Yorke got to play postrock's little prince by acting like "bomp" never happened. Godspeed you wack emperor!

Le Tigre explode that dichotomy. Their shimmy-shimmy-cocoa-punk manages to fold thigh-licking riot-disco into the tradition of Rough Trade art-pogo--name-dropping Billie Jean King, Mia X, Vaginal Cream Davis, Joan Jett, Gertrude Stein, and the Slits in the process. And just when Sleater-Kinney was sinking into self-parody. Phew! I dig Le Tigre's Diallo rap, which they did on tour this year, and the NYPD rap sheet Hannah and bandmate Johanna Fateman ran down in their remix of Atari Teenage Riot grrrl Hanin Elias's "GSK." But the more dogmatic stuff on Le Tigre doesn't hit me as hard as tracks like "My My Metrocard," which revels in the chant "Oh, fuck Giuliani/He's such a fucking jerk/Shut down all the strip bars/Workfare/Does not work," only as much as it revels in the joys of forward motion, ass-shake, and the democratic discovery of rock 'n' roll fun.

"We are for the large shape/Because it has the impact of the unequivocal," goes a sample from one of Le Tigre's kicky little groove thangs. When the fringes of the culture stop hurling large shapes at the center, when stewing in your own juices means more than changing your world, when punk loses the pop values that turn our collective crank--then the music threatens to disappear completely, imploding in a nova of puritanism and pomp. And that just won't do--not against EMI-Warner, not against Tom Delay. Not for any future I wanna be a part of.

Jon Dolan is reviews editor ofSpin.

 

EMINEM
by Robert Christgau

 

Let's cut to the chase here. On the very first track of The Marshall Mathers LP, the rapper Eminem, who sometimes assumes the sobriquet "Slim Shady," reveals all we need know about his "music" by concluding: "Slim Shady is fed up with your shit, and he's going to kill you." All that remains to be explained is why he wasn't immediately arrested for this clear and present threat to the well-being--nay, the very lives--of the seven million innocents seduced into purchasing his CD by a terminally cynical entertainment-industrial complex.

Red light. Just kidding, folks. What, you couldn't tell? Of course you could (I hope). I'm a critic and I've been to college, and thus belong to a cultural class that's expected to deploy "irony" on occasion. Rappers aren't, and without further reference to the incalculably subtle varieties of rhetorical indirection ingrained in a people who've been down so long it looks like up to them, let me point out that not even Lynne Cheney believes Marshall Mathers/Eminem/Slim Shady means to kill all seven million of his fans. In fact, she doesn't believe he wants to kill her. And one of the many reasons I love Eminem is that in the latter instance she may be wrong. Eminem can't be contained, controlled, or fully comprehended. And that, I thought, is the way good art is supposed to be.

Too often in hip hop, rage, especially against women, is merely a convention. It's unexamined, and thus brutal. When Eminem rhymes about raping his mother or murdering his wife, it's not. Eminem unpacks rage, and the conventionalizing of rage; he's deeply frightening, yet at the same time devastatingly funny, and not only because he could make Lynne Cheney shit chads. Does every one of his seven million understand that he's representing rather than advocating? Of course not--but the number that does is lower by a factor of 100 than the population of pundits who never listen to hip hop yet assume Eminem is destroying America's moral fiber.

None of this would mean much if Eminem didn't rhyme complexly and rap lucidly, meld rhythmic instinct with melodic savvy. It's interesting too that he's white--and that black hip hoppers respect him anyway. But the most compelling thing about him is the clueless moralists he pisses off left and right. The chorus of blame reveals all we need know about America's moral fiber, and what it reveals is a real bummer.

Village Voice senior editor Robert Christgau recently publishedChristgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s, as well as paperback reissues of his collectionsAny Old Way You Choose It andGrown Up All Wrong.

 

JAMES TOBACK
by Matthew Wilder

 

Grab an actress off the street in New York City and you'll be guaranteed at least one thing: a James Toback Audition Story. But, libel laws being what they are, I can recount no more here than to say that Toback--who once wrote and directed an autobiographical movie called The Pick-Up Artist--seems never to have met a superego that he actually liked. Basing his career on his near-namesake Rojack, the self-destructive princeling at the center of Norman Mailer's An American Dream, Toback thrives on putting himself (and his characters) in no-win situations. And this is precisely what prepped him to deliver the best Hollywood movie of the year 2000: Black and White.

In his amazingly literate voiceover commentary on the Black and White DVD, Toback sums up his masterwork thus: "The movie does what hip-hop does: It takes iconographically charged images and words and characters, spells them differently, exclaims them, splashes them out with bold colors, psychologically and emotionally and linguistically, to the point of having Claudia Schiffer walk into the bathroom to look at the dick of Power of Wu-Tang Clan as he takes a piss--and making that feel like the most casual move anyone could make."

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.

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.

But who ever said artistry was about independence? Too often, we approach art with a demanding juridical scrutiny, as if the work in question was a premeditated homicide and we had to pin the responsibility on someone. When it comes to girl-group pop, whether ancient or modern, our desperation to find an auteur leads us to anoint the producer. But all beats aside, "Say My Name" could have been an insecure whine if placed in the wrong larynx. Instead Knowles's prepossessed but pained wail echoes the claustrophobic paranoia that underlays every desperate Motown ballad. Like "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," "Say My Name" is a tale of identity being dissolved in a crucible of infidelity, the song's emotion seemingly too big for the cozy confines of the pop-radio format. And that takes some kind of singer. Say her name.

Keith Harris is music editor atCity Pages.

 

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD
by Christine Kunewa Walker

 

If she weren't such a hot filmmaker, Gina Prince-Bythewood could run for president. There'd be no need for manual recounts--Prince-Bythewood would dominate. Let's look at her qualifications. First, she has solid backing: Spike Lee executive-produced her first feature film, Love and Basketball. She has the proven ability to raise money: New Line Cinema gave her almost $15 million to make the movie. (That she obtained studio financing for a first feature is almost unheard-of.) She has staying power: Her second film--Disappearing Acts, with Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan--premieres this month on HBO. She can handle the rigors of an exhausting schedule. (Prince-Bythewood is a former college athlete.) And she's a black woman: No doubt we could use a new voice in government.

But most of all, Prince-Bythewood is an inspiring role model. By her own example, she believes that women can have it all (a man, a baby, and a career, as in Love and Basketball), but she also knows that having it all doesn't come without trial and error (see Disappearing Acts). She might even be capable of single-handedly affecting race relations in America. In her movies, Prince-Bythewood brings a depth and understanding to the black experience that both informs and transcends. At the same time, she knows how to entertain. (How about those tastefully titillating strip-basketball scenes between Lathan and Omar Epps?) Finally, Prince-Bythewood would likely appoint an ambassadorship to Lathan, extending a collaboration that already seems headed for De Niro/Scorsese territory.

With Lathan on her team, Prince-Bythewood would undoubtedly win the presidency. On second thought, she'll reach more people as a filmmaker. More people watch the Oscars than the inauguration.

Christine Kunewa Walker is a Minneapolis-based independent film producer.

 

RADIOHEAD
by Laura Sinagra

 

Let Thom debate! This year, respect for the public's aspirations hit rock bottom in both the electoral and music industries. Political parties (both Dems and Dose) and Max Martin music monopolists delivered a diet of award-show pageantry. In response, more than just a few of us rubes proved we could muster enough ire to hang through a Nader speech (whew!) and/or accompany Yorke and his unmerry men down the proggiest and most pre-lingual synaptic detours.

Sure, Kid A can be indulgent: My first listen, on a plane gliding over an obscenely gleaming Manhattan, sparked a near rapture of dislocation. It's a solipsistic record, and for all the shiny Can comparisons, detractors who trace a lineage back through Reznor to Robert Smith aren't necessarily wrong. But somehow the mix of evocative MIDI macramé, clairvoyant rhythms, and Yorke's lost-kite falsetto suggested a rare empathy for a growing collective queasiness. Anticipation of the album's arrival catalyzed an explosion of fan sites and speculation. For months, the day traders of Napster passed live bootlegs around like ultrasound photos, mapping the possible features of precious Kid A.

Why? Because people believed this was music that actually came from somebody's gut. And it is. Yes, titles like "National Anthem" and "Motion Picture Soundtrack" flaunt iconoclast cred, but it was Yorke's horrified wail, "This is really happening," that proved worth a thousand bizkits. It meant something to agree with his assessment, to affiliate, to open up hearts and hard drives. The band and its community created a constituency to register the pain resulting from everyday injustice, the silent poisons of mutant food, the stealthy violence of Photoshop perfection. Call us naive; call us consumers of commodified dissent. But it's a Barnum & Bailey world historic, and the fact that lots of people chose to ponder the effects of enforced alienation instead of post-convention bounce, was a protest vote for righteous angst over insulting artifice.

Laura Sinagra is a New York-based writer and a contributor toCity Pages.

 

LARRY DAVID
by Sarah Vowell

 

You know those moments when you feel yourself turn on the charm? When you use your smile or your humor to josh and cajole someone else? When kindness becomes manipulation? The thing I love most about Larry David's HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm is that Larry David is devoid of charm. Because David is incapable of cuteness, he is peculiarly honest. Even when he's lying. The man can make the words I love you, too into a laugh line.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is the pettiest, most mundane half-hour of nothingness on television, which might be why it's the funniest. Playing himself, a rich guy who hangs out with his manager and runs a lot of super-dumb errands, David is a bald, gum-chewing narcissist who is ethically jinxed. Even when he tries to do good--especially when he tries to do good--only badness follows. He buys his manager's mother sunglasses for her birthday, and feels her up accidentally as he hands her the present. He offers to write his wife's aunt's eulogy, but ends up hated by his in-laws when the paper misprints the a in aunt as a c. (No one knows why the aunt committed suicide. Cracks David: "Would it have killed her to leave a note?")

David is harsh and grouchy Brooklyn plopped into friendly, low-key L.A. After his wife (the winning Cheryl Hines) organizes a dinner party that David deems "the Young Republicans Club" because one guest says grace before the meal, he informs her, "Next time you do one of these things, I want some Jews." For David, hell is other people, and the feeling's mutual. Because he always says the wrong thing or does the wrong thing, he's in a constant state of crisis cleanup that gives the show a thrilling air of anarchy, not to mention a sense of mission. Kind of like The Fugitive, but without the heart.

Sarah Vowell is the Chicago-based author ofTake the Cannoli: Stories from the New World.

 

JONATHAN LETHEM
by Bart Schneider

 

Much as I'd like to accommodate the wise-guy City Pages editor who wondered if I'd actually come up with another old or "expired" man to go with my Artist of the Year choices from years past, I feel obliged this year to hail the young Brooklyn writer Jonathan Lethem. Author of the early novels Gun, With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape, Lethem hit the jackpot with his most recent novel, Motherless Brooklyn, which won this year's National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.

Billed as a story about a detective with Tourette's syndrome, Motherless Brooklyn might more accurately be considered as a portrait of an extraordinary Tourettic character who happens to do a little detective work. Lethem's character, the orphan Lionel Essrog, a product of the St. Vincent Home for Boys, becomes a connoisseur of the ticced language he hears in his head and tries not to utter aloud. Lionel's skill at coughing to cover his most frequent spoken tic--"Eat me, Bailey"--is prodigious.

In the course of investigating a murder, the novel becomes, among other things, a gorgeous verbal escapade, an ode to language and the imagination. Check out this verbal sequence that starts with nothing more provocative than the character's own name: "Lionel Essrog. Line-all. Liable Guesscog. Final Escrow. Ironic Pissclam. And so on. My own name was the original verbal taffy, by now stretched to the filament-thin threads that lay all over the floor of my echo-chamber skull. Slack, the flavor all chewed out of it."

Lethem goes on to describe the entire city of New York as a Tourettic landscape, with its repetitive streams of yellow cabs and its millions of creatures of habit. The author's most amazing achievement is to make his freakish character--his tough associates call him freakshow--so much like us in our desire to fit in and to be loved, that we feel as if we've discovered a fresh version of ourselves with slightly different symptoms.

Between novels, Lethem has just edited a fine, quirky volume, The Vintage Book of Amnesia--An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss. Keep your eye out for Jonathan Lethem: He's sure to soon find a malady near you.

Bart Schneider is the St. Paul-based author of the novelBlue Bossa. His new novel,Secret Love, will be published in March.

 

MICHAEL CHABON
by Jesse Berrett

 

The more culture I consume, the more I find myself attracted not to self-advertised big pleasures but to grace notes--artistic sensibilities that blend wryness and generosity, self-knowledge and a determination to wring something worthwhile out of this hard old world. Mindless negativism I can mainline from Fred Durst, the informed variety from Philip Roth. The trick for me is to find someone whose vision I both trust and learn from: How do you keep your heart open these days, when surrounding you stretch acres of coercive trash?

Michael Chabon taught me a lot this year. His big book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay revisited childish pleasures without stooping: I relived that flush of young love for Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, recalling my own hapless, scribbled attempts to render titanic arms and shoulders with the offhand fluidity the Famous Comic Artists promised could be attained--In Only Minutes!!! And you can't help but appreciate the sly way Chabon simultaneously grants the truth of attacks by scandalmonger Dr. Frederic Wertham, who charged that Fifties comic books incubated homosexuality, perversion, and fascism, and finds the unarticulated desire beneath those printed sheets. But Kavalier & Clay tossed me a tad too much undigested research, and a bit too schematic a design to represent the transporting experience I'd hoped for.

Meanwhile, the pleasant but insubstantial film of Chabon's Wonder Boys substituted Michael Douglas's winking roguery for the narrator's acceptance of failure, to the story's detriment. Here's the grace note, from the novel Wonder Boys: "She chose her steps with care, and the escort Crabtree was giving her seemed to be not entirely an act of gentlemanliness. Her ankles were wobbling in her tall black pumps, and I saw it could not be an easy thing to be a drunken transvestite."

It's all there--a touch of humor, a taste of sadness, a sharp-eyed refusal to let hipster cruelty conceal itself, and a nonjudgmental willingness to live and let live. Beauty without cruelty: That counts for a lot these days.

Jesse Berrett is a San Francisco-based writer, and TV critic forCity Pages.

 

SERGEY DVORTSEVOY
by Jim McKay

 

The most exciting and inspiring work I saw this past year was from Sergey Dvortsevoy, a Kazakhstani filmmaker whose last three films--Bread Day, Highway, and the short "Paradise"--all played in New York City (the first two screened at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival as well). Dvortsevoy, a purist observational documentarian like the U.S.'s most valuable filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, uses his camera to take us to places where it truly feels like cameras have never gone before. Without narration, interviews, or any "story" in the traditional filmic sense, we (North Americans) get a glimpse of life in some startlingly remote cultures.

Here in the U.S., our relationship to the camera has come a long way since the birth of cinema verité, through the evolution of home video, and into the land of COPS and Blind Date. Everyone's an actor now, and capturing "real life" is a nearly impossible feat. But in Kazakhstan and the remote regions of the former Soviet Republic, Dvortsevoy and his camera have connected with people who seem to be unaware of the idolatry, the damage, and the temporary celebrity that a camera can bring, and they allow him access to the most telling and intimate of moments.

What can a National Geographic narrator explain to us about life for Kazakh nomads in light of a five-minute long take of a mother "washing the dishes" by rhythmically, meditatively licking each wooden spoon and wooden bowl of its yogurtlike remains before stacking them neatly in preparation for the next meal ("Paradise")? Or amid the juxtaposition of two elderly citizens arguing about bread rations in a village's makeshift bakery and a trio of dogs outside the window fighting over small scraps of food--again, filmed in long, edit-free takes (Bread Day)? A comparatively new filmmaker ("Paradise," made in 1993, was his student film), Dvortsevoy is an artist to seek out.

Jim McKay is the New York-based director ofOur Song andGirls Town, and the co-producer ofSpring Forward.

 

JAMES FOTOPOULOS
by Cis Bierinckx

 

This is the time of year when everyone makes lists: best films of the year, best books, best albums, actors, directors, and so on. Among filmmakers, it is perhaps Peter Greenaway, the dandy of British cinema (and an artist who long ago lost my favor), who best articulates the obsession of men to categorize, archive, and order things.

I'm sure that in such columns Lars von Trier and Björk will be placed on a pedestal for their much overrated Dancer in the Dark. Cannes jury president Luc Besson's Euro-film politics certainly contributed to the success of that Palme d'Or winner, in the process denying top prizes to such Asian wonders as Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two...), Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep, and Shinji Aoyama's Eureka. But the show must go on. And in the end, who still cares about aesthetic and ethical values anyway? Certainly not the broadcasters of the U.S. presidential election (whom I initially favored as my artists of the year, until I realized that a single name is preferred). These network showmen were positively sublime in their act of misleading the public while painting the contiguous states in digital reds and blues. Theirs was a masterpiece of suspense to rival even Hitchcock's.

But I digress from the duty of naming my artist of the year. Just recently I came upon the work of a young Chicago filmmaker named James Fotopoulos, whose low-budget (or, rather, no-budget) film Migrating Forms won the best feature prize at this year's New York Underground Film Festival. Reminiscent of early Lynch and Scorsese escapades, Fotopoulos's exquisitely minimalist black-and-white experiment is a surprising treat that leaves us holding a messy array of enigmas in our laps. It's a weird, disturbing work of elemental cinema made by a particularly obsessive "independent filmmaker"--a breed that has become increasingly rare and less pure in America.

Cis Bierinckx is film/video curator at Walker Art Center.

 

TSUI HARK
by Henry Sheehan

 

During the feast of praise that marked the presence of so many Asian masterpieces at Cannes this year, one absent guest was politely overlooked. Although Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai caused a positive stir with his period romance, In the Mood for Love, the action films that had made the former colony a hotbed of cinematic fury were missing.

Then, at September's Toronto International Film Festival, two spectacular action films from Hong Kong roiled audiences. Tsui Hark, a charter member of the Hong Kong New Wave, sent over Time and Tide, a blistering shoot-'em-up-down-and-sideways film about a Hong Kong exile who returns home with an international gang of murderous stickup artists on his tail. And Johnnie To, another Hong Kong veteran (Heroic Trio), presented The Mission, a formally brilliant saga of bodyguards trying to protect a Hong Kong underworld godfather marked for death. Tsui's movies--even the period Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman series, which he produced and/or directed--are always about a modern Chinese predicament, in this case, his own. While everyone was waiting for the mainland government to impose suffocating political controls on Hong Kong films after the 1997 handover, the industry went belly-up due to economic forces. Tsui joined the ensuing general exile and landed in Hollywood, where he directed the horrible Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1998's Knock Off. (Directing Van Damme is a trial by fire for Hong Kong directors seeking to break into Hollywood: John Woo did it in 1993 and poor Ringo (City on Fire) Lam has done it twice).

Although Time and Tide features an exile, it's also about a man who has never left Hong Kong. Played by Taiwanese rock star Nicholas Tse, Tyler is a young, handsome ne'er-do-well who ends up working for a bodyguard service after one of his one-night stands ends in a pregnancy. So inept that no one will let him carry a gun, he buys a toy one as a substitute and plans on escaping to South America. That's when he runs into Jack (Wu Bai), a cold-blooded mercenary whose former cohorts think he has absconded with some stolen gold.

Those familiar with Tsui's films will rec

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