The Year in Film

Four critics pick 40 or so favorites--and fail to agree on a single one

Love and death and the whole damn thing
BY ROB NELSON

Thank goodness there's no longer any one Year in Film, regardless of what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. the major studios) will try to tell us on Oscar night. There's not even a consensus among contrapuntists: Four City Pages film critics have assembled year-end Top 10s, and there isn't a single movie we can all agree on.

In my Year in Film, family members are stuck with one another--literally or figuratively, for better and worse. Strangers meet in Transylvania and suck each other dry. And an off-putting man by the name of Friend wonders why a living legend by the name of Fate can't account for the beauty of "The Star Spangled Banner" as performed at Woodstock by Jimi Hendrix--who, unfortunately, is not a living legend.

My Year in Film is a matter of love and death, in other words. But yours may be slightly different. Go ahead and substitute The Matrix Reloaded for demonlover if the fashion plate in your own fantasy looks more like Carrie-Anne Moss than Connie Nielsen. Take To Be and to Have as your very own if The School of Rock's curriculum is either too hardcore or not hardcore enough for your taste. City of God works well in place of Bus 174 if you like your Brazilian gangsters to be glamorously underage. And Elephant can be easily swapped in for Gerry if you prefer to imagine your horrible death occurring in fluorescent rather than natural light.

But don't try to replace Love & Diane, my movie of the year. There's simply no substitute for it--at least not one that can be put on a platter or a reel.

 

1. Love & Diane.A vital work of both journalism and activism, director Jennifer Dworkin's landmark documentary follows an African American family in Brooklyn through its endless battles with poverty, unemployment, disease, drug addiction, and the alternately inattentive and controlling influence of the welfare establishment. Watching the collision of forces that cause a young boy to be taken from his HIV-positive mother makes the viewer desperate to redirect the flow of events. Which, of course, is entirely the point. PBS will broadcast a truncated version of Dworkin's masterpiece in April (better than nothing, I suppose), but anyone interested in the film and its mission should consider purchasing a videotape copy of the 155-minute edition at www.womenmakemovies.com.

 

2. The School of Rock.Not a moment too soon: a philosophy of education that includes the serious (and playful) study of popular culture; a Hollywood movie that's genuinely funny and forward-thinking.

 

3. Unknown Pleasures. Did you know that they make low-budget indies in China now, too? Or that this one, Jia Zhangke's digital-video drama of young love in Datong, is actually the third part of a trilogy more sprawling than Peter Jackson's? If not, it wouldn't be your fault. Unknown Pleasures is well named not only for borrowing from Jia's kindred new-romanticists in Joy Division, but for the fact that it hasn't yet opened in these parts. (Its predecessor, the monumental Platform, had only one screening at the Walker--and that was almost three years ago.) Albeit dusty in appearance, the movie is abloom with the fresh influence of imported pop (the downside of which is Jia's subject). One only wishes New Yorker Films could have an easier time bringing its own import to market.

 

4. Gerry.Matt Damon and his best friend's baby brother are the ostensible stars of this L'Avventura for the Era of Whatever. But the infinitely stronger impression in Gus Van Sant's film is made by the supporting cast: blinding sunlight, waves of intense heat, endless rock and sand, the sky, the wind.

 

5. demonlover. The cruel world refreshed in the image of its spiffy new internet, now crueler than ever as a merciless international businesswoman endeavors to acquire an anime porn site. Downloaded at high speed by critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas, with aptly back-slashing audio by Sonic Youth. Three screenings and, to my delight, it still doesn't sit right with me.

 

6. Bus 174."This ain't no action movie," warns the hijacker of the titular coach in José Padilha's riveting documentary. Or maybe, in a way, it is. Extracting the maximum drama from extraordinary video footage of a Rio de Janeiro bus hijacking in the summer of 2000, the film is nevertheless most remarkable for doing what action movies and TV news reports do not: delivering the details as part of a larger investigation of how terror is bred by neglect. (Opens January 23 at Bell Auditorium.)

 

7. Stuck on You. It's all here: familial attachment, separation anxiety, narcissistic injury, stage fright, body-image issues, masculinity in crisis, the American obsession with celebrity, even Lacan's theory of the Other(!). And love, sweet love. Won't someone please hurry and publish that belated scholarly treatise of the brothers Farrelly? In the meantime, we have the most flamboyantly surreal, metaphorically rich, and infectiously joyful studio film since Face/Off.

 

8. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary.Source material by Bram Stoker, music by Gustav Mahler, choreography by Mark Godden, acting by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, financing by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, celluloid by Kodak (which still manufactures black-and-white Super 8, by God!), and cinema--outrageously sexy, poignant, visionary cinema--by Guy Maddin. The Walker screened this sucker once around Halloween, and will exhume it again next month as part of a Maddin retro--the perfect pas de deux before the film/video program crawls into a coffin for a year to await reconstruction of the castle.

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