The Year in Film

Number 1 of the Top Ten: Flowers of Shanghai

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.

TOP 10

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.

3. The House of Mirth. Adapting Edith Wharton's intricate study of a New York society bachelorette (Gillian Anderson) and her increasingly tenuous hold on privilege at the turn of the century, the painterly auteur Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) abandons the near-plotless languor of his earlier work in favor of a film so tightly constructed that the loss of any one scene would cause the whole to lose its inexorable momentum. It's a Portrait of a Lady for the year 2000--both because it's utterly contemporary despite the setting, and because it's apt to be as misunderstood and commercially neglected as the Jane Campion masterpiece that shares its basic theme, its formal beauty, and its quiet rage. Tentatively scheduled to open at the Uptown Theatre on February 23.

4. The Wind Will Carry Us. The films of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) have generally been gentle odes to human contact. But this abstract yet indelible summation preaches the importance of community by portraying its absence: The story of a cell-phone-toting "engineer" (Behzad Dourani) waiting impatiently for the death of a 100-year-old woman in the Kurdish village of Siah Dareh is entirely suggestive of the new century's well-meaning exploitation of the old. As usual, there's self-reflexivity if you want it (the engineer is a filmmaker of sorts), but also a droll blend of black comedy and big-carnival critique that had me thinking of Ace in the Hole even before the fate of a ditch digger (also unseen) puts the protagonist's sketchy ethics to the test. After a single screening at U Film last October, The Wind Will Carry Us is currently awaiting a run at the Parkway.

5. Beau travail. Explaining her urge to explore the serial-killing "monster" of I Can't Sleep, director Claire Denis said: "My question was, Could I have been the mother of this monster, or his sister?" Here, in a ravishing adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd, set among French legionnaires stationed in the East African town of Djibouti, the filmmaker imagines herself a lover of military tough guys in training. Whether there's something Riefenstahlian about Denis's fetishization of hard corps life is incidental to the triumph of her will to return the typically male gaze.

6. Erin Brockovich. Filmmaking chameleon Steven Soderbergh seamlessly turns an iconic megastar into another of his trademark lone wolves, casting just a few aspersions on the title character's relentless desire to vindicate herself for having been cruelly underestimated. In so doing, he also allows Julia Roberts to tell her own story.

7. Revelations: Paradise Lost 2. In this gut-wrenching sequel to their documentary classic of four years ago, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky continue their investigation of the brutal sex killings of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, concluding that a solution may be even more elusive as a result of the first film's popularity. Like the original, Paradise Lost 2 isn't a work of "pure" reportage so much as a study of prejudice and stupidity among lawyers, TV news reporters, and members of the victims' families--many of whom seem titillated by the media attention and nearly rabid in their lust for both vengeance and screen time. That HBO (which aired the film last March) monetarily subsidized the hair-raising "performance" of wicked stepfather and wild-eyed suspect John Mark Byers scarcely makes the movie less fascinating--or disturbing.

8. The Virgin Suicides. Sofia Coppola's deeply mysterious, disconcertingly erotic debut feature is a portrait of teen love and loss sketched with the most distinctive of details--not just the requisite collection of hip-huggers and chart-toppers, but those awkward basement parties and gym-floor make-out sessions, along with the overall sense one has at this age that even earth science is sexually symbolic. Like her father's Rumble Fish, it's an art film for kids--and I mean that as the highest compliment.  

9. The Idiots. Where his Dancer in the Dark latches onto the old gotta-sing-gotta-dance conceit in a failed attempt to mitigate a strong sense of the been-there-done-that, Lars von Trier's other dogmatic exercise in self-conscious provocation resists any and all efforts at classification. Never mind the pornographic orgy scene that helped to keep it out of release in America for more than two years: The Idiots is a hotbed of what cinema studies majors would call "intertextuality," with playing "dumb" as the director's audacious allegory of impish nonconformity--his own included. Won't Oak Street revive it on a double bill with the equally metaphoric idiocy of Me, Myself & Irene?

10. You Can Count on Me. No "great cinema" here--just a subdued, unpredictable, intricately constructed, and thoroughly accessible comedy-drama about small-town, middle-class white people. By the end, the movie's characters seem like family, while its three-block hamlet feels like the whole wide world.


The Rest of the Top 40
(in order of preference)

Any of these gems would have made my Top 10 in a less remarkable year: Kippur; Love and Basketball; Spring Forward; Ratcatcher; Traffic; The Original Kings of Comedy; The American Nightmare; Time Regained; Black and White; Humanité; Long Night's Journey Into Day; Kikujiro; Cast Away; Suzhou River; Claire Dolan; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; George Washington; Pola X; Girlfight; Not One Less; Boiler Room; Hamlet; Me, Myself & Irene; Chuck & Buck; Dark Days; Hollow Man; Bamboozled; Urbania; The Yards; and Space Cowboys.


Better Than You Heard (alphabetically)

These ten got a bum rap, critically and/or commercially: American Psycho; The Broken Hearts Club--a romantic comedy; Crime and Punishment in Suburbia; Kikujiro; Loser; Me, Myself & Irene; Mission to Mars; The Ninth Gate; Scary Movie; and What's Cooking?


Musts to Avoid

Granted, I didn't see The Grinch or Battlefield Earth; these ten were egregious enough. Your SASE gets my list of a dozen more--for your protection:

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Documentarian-turned-schlockmeister Joe Berlinger earned rare distinction in 2000 for perpetrating half of the great Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 (with collaborator Bruce Sinofsky) and half of this ineptly reflexive sequel (with Artisan Entertainment). "Somebody fucked with that tape!" indeed.

Duets. In this appalling slice of Robert Altman Lite set on the karaoke circuit, the sole character of color--a heat-packin', sweet-singin' ex-con (Andre Braugher)--meets a tragic fate that miraculously fails to prevent a happy ending. How sweet it is that his white buddy (Paul Giamatti) is finally able to use frequent-flyer miles in trade for hotel lodging!

Groove. Every generation deserves its Rock Around the Clock, I suppose. But will even Groove's rave reviewers remember this bad trip in a year?

Here on Earth. After a blessedly long respite, Hollywood returned to our fair state with this interminable Ice Castles update, in which Welch, Faribault, and Red Wing are "the Berkshires," and love means never having to say "cut."

Into the White. Directed by Hinckley native Steve Kroschel, this tortuously fictionalized documentary of the auteur's experiences shooting nature footage in avalanche-prone mountains fully earns its billing as "the true story of a snow job."

Nurse Betty. Many seemed convinced (by the cheery production values?) that this snide dissection of a lame-brained Kansas waitress signaled the arrival of a kinder and gentler Neil LaBute. But if there has been a more viciously satiric portrayal of a working woman in the five years since To Die For, I haven't seen it.

Pay It Forward. Only an ogre would object to a movie about a social movement premised on altruism--but only a sucker would accept this shameless sap-fest as that movie.

Shaft. "The man who would risk his neck for his brother man" lead-poisons 16 brown-skinned members of a Dominican drug lord's crew. "It's Giuliani time!"

The Tao of Steve. Small wonder this frat-row indie recommends "Taoist" seduction as a courting tool: It worked on the audience.

Time Code. One thing this "revolutionary new look at motion-picture storytelling" proves definitively: Digital video looks much better at one-fourth the size.


You Must Remember These

In another strong year for local repertory and festival programming, the (many) standouts included: "Sound Unseen," "Cuba Si!", "Iranian Film Week," and the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Jewish, and LGBT fests at U Film Society; "Women With Vision," "American Experimental Film," The Decalogue, and the Hou Hsiao-hsien, Leos Carax, Dorris Dorrie, Craig Baldwin, and Kurt Kren retros at Walker Art Center; "DV or Not DV," "Midwest Hustlers" (including Chris Smith shorts), and Jeanne Dielman at Red Eye Cinema; "Women in the Rejected Chair," Tanner '88, and "Films First Fridays" at Intermedia Arts; Faces, "Two-Minute Film Trials," Stan Brakhage shorts, and "Hell Bent for Election!" at City Club Cinema; silent classics (with live accompaniment), The Thing (From Another World), and Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo in 70mm at the Heights; The Birds (with Tippi Hedren in attendance) at the Riverview; Dracula (with Philip Glass) at the Northrop; Perfect Blue, Planet of the Apes, and "Coven" at the Uptown; 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle at Bryant-Lake Bowl; The Annihilation of Fish at the Parkway; Asian Media Access's "Cinema With Passion" at the Riverview and Oak Street Cinema; the Red Eye's movies-and-music series (including Purple Rain) in Stevens Square Park, and the Walker's (including Pillow Talk) in Loring Park; the "Multiplex" conclave at the Soap Factory on July 4; and damn near everything at Oak Street, but especially "Out of the Seventies," "Saph-O-Rama," Pandora's Box, Safety Last, The Edge of the World, A Moment of Innocence, In the Presence of a Clown, "Hindi First Fridays," and the Ophuls, Kubrick, and Antonioni retrospectives.  


Local Heroes

The following dozen Minnesotans (current or former) screened worthy indie work in 2000: Matt Ehling ("Access"); Laureen Griffen ("Nature Walk"); Roger and Rodney Johnson (Welcome to Alaska); Tom Lieberman (We Knew Who We Were: Memories of the Old Northside); Josh Margolis (Joanie Loves Furbies); Tim McCusker ("Napoleons"); Wyatt McDill ("Have You Seen Me?"); Kelly Nathe ("Hotel Hidajet"); Benno Nelson ("Moment One"); Darren Roark ("A Young Man's Guide to Dating"); and Kevin Zinniel (Uprising: Revolution From the Roots).


Ten to Watch For (or Hope For) Next Year

Having graced the film-fest circuit in 2000, these variously marginalized gems would require only distribution to crack my Top 10 in 2001: Takeshi Kitano's Brother; Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I; Béla Tarr's The Werkmeister Harmonies; Barbara Kopple's My Generation; Shaya Mercer's Trade Off; Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep; Jim McKay's Our Song; Jafar Panahi's The Circle; Baltasar Kormákur's 101 Reykjavik; and (best of all) Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love.



Paul Bartel, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Richard Farnsworth, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Wojciech Has, Hedy Lamarr, Ring Lardner Jr., Joseph H. Lewis, Walter Matthau, Richard Mulligan, Jack Nitzsche, Jason Robards, Curt Siodmak, Claire Trevor, Roger Vadim, and Loretta Young.

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