It was only a terrible year for movies in the sense that most critics (professional and otherwise) determined their sample group based on what Variety calls the "number of engagements." Opening on nearly as many screens as Election 2000 (another bummer of a blockbuster), John Woo's Mission: Impossible 2 commanded more attention than any of the year's countless other features--but not because it was any good. Amid the Net-speed frenzy to offer the first word on whatever, or at least follow the leader (cf. Election 2000), critical evaluation counted for little or nothing toward decisions about the style or extent of coverage. Hell, even the stink bomb Battlefield Earth earned more airtime, column inches, and color photos than the year's five best films combined. John Travolta, you see, wasn't headlining Flowers of Shanghai (my number-one movie of the year) or The Wind Will Carry Us (number four) or Beau travail (number five). In fact, none of those films feature actors that the majority of American consumers are "interested" in--because they've never heard of them. Because no one writes about them. Because no one has heard of them. Ad infinitum.
Thus left with the likes of Gladiator to recommend, critics of varying degrees of credibility have spent the last month wringing their hands over what's being called the worst year for movies since Al Jolson applied grease paint for The Jazz Singer. That's demonstrably not true (read on), but it does suggest a level of mainstream discontent that might not be such a bad thing. At present, the film industry dedicates a well-greased PR machine to pushing the movies it wants you to see and disappearing the ones it doesn't--an ideology so ingrained as to surface in the movies themselves. Is it any surprise that critical discourse comes in for rough treatment in High Fidelity and Almost Famous, both of which hinge on their heroes putting away such childish things as impassioned commentary? (The latter film's seductive tracking shot of 15-year-old critic-turned-journalist William Miller stepping across an airport runway toward the high-flying junket of his dreams supplied one of the year's unavoidably resonant images.)
We're not supposed to pick the movies we see by what they mean so much as by their mere existence in our zip code. So it's no wonder that when M:I-2 opens on 2,500 screens in cities and suburbs across the nation, audiences looking for a movie on a random Friday night end up watching Tom Cruise heroically defuse the explosive style of an action-movie master. But what if those 2,500 screens were suddenly left bare? That's precisely the threat posed by an impending actors' strike that promises to suspend new Hollywood production and leave gigaplexes around the country starving for product. Given that viewers are already refusing to display the proper enthusiasm for much of what's been screening lately, the moviegoer may soon discover some unexpectedly compelling options. Will the nearby General Cinema play host to another supernatural Seventies revival? Might the slew of dubbed Jackie Chan imports bring more experimental Hong Kong fare to the fourplex around the corner? Could the winds of change carry The Wind Will Carry Us to those who carry weight at the Elk River 17?
Maybe so--but let this not sound like a pipe dream (any more than it already does, that is). Because all I'm saying is that--as usual, but more so than ever in 2000--one needed to avert his gaze from the big picture in order to focus on what really mattered in the evolution of film as an art rather than a mere diversion. By "big picture" I mean not just Hollywood (Erin Brockovich aside), but, by and large, the multiplex mentality of America itself. Indeed, the two most notable things about the year's best films are that half are foreign works that graced the single screens of local indie outfits such as Oak Street Cinema, U Film Society, Walker Art Center, and the Parkway Theater. Some of you may not have been "interested" in these movies as yet. Below are some reasons I think you should be.
1.Flowers of Shanghai.A two-year-old Taiwanese period piece is the best movie of 2000? Yes, it is--if, like mine, your list requires an American run of a week or more to qualify for such distinction. Back in April, Flowers of Shanghai screened seven days at Oak Street following its local premiere at the Walker, and those lucky enough to have seen it discovered a tantalizingly oblique and thoroughly hypnotic film--a work so sensual that one could nearly smell the perfume wafting from the screen. Examining late-19th-century brothel life in Shanghai through the portrait of four strung-out "flower girls," director Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Puppetmaster) subtly suggests their melodramatic downfall is that of Imperial China in microcosm, while his tactile inventory of ornate antiquities (including every luxurious shade of embroidered silk and stained glass) perfectly reflects the materialist nature of the milieu. An artist whose considerations of cultural detail make him more like an anthropologist, Hou catalogs all that has been lost--and, in so doing, he restores it.
2.Yi Yi (A One and a Two...). Another made in Taiwan: Director Edward Yang's sentimental yet incisive study of archetypal family woes follows a Taipei clan in the wake of a grandmother's illness, a father's midlife crisis (accentuated by his facing the Asian economic one), and two children's attempts to reconcile their feelings about death and loss. Who couldn't relate? Deftly unspooling intertwined strands of a single yarn, Yang delivers the year's most engrossing work of cinematic storytelling (not to mention a gentler take on his characteristic theme of alienation as explored in Mahjong and A Brighter Summer Day). Rumor has it that Yi Yi will screen at the Walker in April as part of an Asian cinema sidebar to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, followed by an extended run at Oak Street.