by Erik Childress
Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk and Bijou Phillips in Almost Famous
How many articles have you read which have already stated the obvious? That 2000 will go down in history as one of the worst movie years ever? So many critics and columnists jumped all over that bandwagon that its starting to become hip to say just the opposite. Richard Roeper’s top ten article in the Chicago Sun-Times was ever so “hip”, using the first paragraph to insult just about every online critic and every good, but perhaps unknown writer looking for readers in the free publications you see lined up around Chicago and other cities.
It read: “Every year around this time, we see mountains of “Best Films of the Year” lists from critics who write for everything from national magazines to daily newspapers to online geek sheets to freebie weeklies that collect boot imprints in the damp lobbies of convenience stores.”
Sorry, but freebie writers and us geeks weren’t lucky enough to be chosen for a nationally syndicated television show. They must have been seeking out someone who doesn’t actually write film reviews and would give positive reviews to Coyote Ugly, The Watcher and Blair Witch 2. Well, I suppose I may be guilty to some extent as well, giving the positive slant to Mission to Mars, Charlie’s Angels and The Grinch. Yet when you look at the crop of films to choose from this year, these seem like honorable picks. Maybe someone else should cast the first stone.
But it’s easy to throw quarries at that crop of crap. When it’s easier to find movies deserving of your 10 worst list than your 10 best, you know it’s a bad year. Then again, every movie season has a few champions – my God it has to – and 2000 was no exception. I’m not found of lists that start with #1 and then work their way down to #10. Once you’ve seen what’s at the top, where’s the curiosity factor go? We look and think “here’s his best film of the year, now let’s keep reading and see the films that weren’t good enough to be mentioned first.” I’m not like that. I start at #10 and work my way up to #1 (down the page). Then I’ll reverse the process and reveal the year’s next best 15 films. So, without further ado, if you’re looking for a night out at the theater or a trip to the video store – here are the first ten places you should look.
10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – It’s rare to find a film in any year that will keep your mouth suspended in awe for great periods at a time. This one did that with 4 or 5 of the best action sequences of any year or decade. It lacks the big climax and a long, long flashback that should have been broken up, but it still tells a glorious epic story about love, revenge and gravity-defying martial arts that gives it just the edge to sneak into the top ten.
9. Dancer In the Dark – Lars Von Trier’s beautiful dissection of the musical genre had no business working as well as it did on me. I don’t like Von Trier’s amateurish shaky camera, musicals or Bjork’s music. Yet it all came together here for this majestic, frustrating and heartbreaking story of a poor woman losing her sight who uses daydreams to put herself into musical numbers. Not exactly happy fun time stuff, but an amazing drama nonetheless.
8. Wonder Boys – Just one of several great films to come out this year about writers and may just be the best on that single topic alone. Wonder Boys was the kind of quirky multi-character drama that isn’t seen mastered quite as well as it was. Michael Douglas gives one of his best performances and Tobey Maguire gives HIS best performance bringing some freshness to the standard student/teacher relationships we see at least five times a year. Overlooked during two theatrical releases this year. It doesn’t deserve to be overlooked again.
7. Chicken Run – After the onslaught of great animated films in 1999 (Toy Story 2, Tarzan, The Iron Giant and, yes, even South Park), Chicken Run was the one true standout for 2000. No other animated feature came close to laughs, characters, story and originality. Its achievement is all the more masterful when you consider the claymation style it’s filmed in one frame at a time. Julia Sawalha voiced one of the year’s most inspiring and touching characters as Ginger, the one chicken taking charge for a run at the fences. Mel Gibson also was more successful playing up his image as Rocky “the flying rooster” (than in What Women Want) thanks to a witty script by Karey Kirkpatrick. Chicken Run was hilarious and very exciting at times. The final escape plan and an Indiana Jones-like trip through a pie machine are unforgettable. Congratulations to Nick Park and Peter Lord.
6. The Perfect Storm – This was the best example of Hollywood-induced excitement all year wrapped up in a better-than-average script by Bill Wittliff. It was the true story of how six swordboat fishermen fought a war against nature to prove their worth as working class men. Its thrills are measured equally with Titanic and just because it’s not as epic in nature, doesn’t mean it’s not its equal. Wolfgang Petersen kept the action moving at a breakneck pace once it started, but not before treating us to the relationships between the men and the people on shore which make the final scenes all the more powerful. Great special effects. Great action. Well-written characters. It’s more than just a bloated summer spectacle.
5. Quills – One of the best films ever made about censorship and the nature of its hypocrisy. Geoffrey Rush was over-the-top and then some as the tortured and sadistic Marquis De Sade who upset the Right Wing with his explicit tales of sex and debauchery. Joaquin Phoenix was also great as the religious figure stuck between reason and insanity. A film that does beat you over the head with its message, but a message that needs to be beaten into some people. Every politician involved in the War On Hollywood should be required to view this film, if they can understand it through their own hypocrisy. Director Philip Kaufman’s best film since 1983’s The Right Stuff.
4. State and Main – David Mamet’s wonderful comedy that was a cross between screwball and straight romantic comedy. Between Hollywood satire and American values. Between cynicism and a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s no coincidence that the title refers to an intersection in the very town that a Hollywood production has come to take over. One of the best ensembles of the year features Oscar-worthy performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon along with David Paymer, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Stiles, Clark Gregg, Charles Durning, Patti Lupone and Ricky Jay. Mamet’s greatest achievement as a director and one of his most entertaining screenplays
3. Traffic – Leave it to Steven Soderbergh to top himself double time in a year when his Erin Brockovich is reaping all the praise and rewards. Plain and simple, in a career that boasts the work of Sex Lies and Videotape, King of the Hill, Out of Sight and Brockovich, Traffic is his best film. It’s a tremendous assemblage of interlocking stories within the drug war. From the newly appointed drug czar to the undercover agents trying to bust a giant kingpin down to the corrupted Mexican government and an honest but conflicted cop back to the effects of drugs in the inner cities and middle America. It has the guts to bring up issues for discussion and declare its own war on the “war on drugs” as a fight with no clear winners. Traffic is The Godfather of drug pictures.
2. Almost Famous – Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical tale was a valentine to coming-of-age stories as well as to rock n’ roll. Following the story of a 15-year old prodigy who tags along with the up-and-coming band, Stillwater, for a Rolling Stone article, Crowe weaves a sweet and oft-times hilarious view of the 70s and what its like to be a fan. If State and Main had some of the most biting dialogue of the year, Almost Famous had some of the sweetest and most poignant. Oscar-worthy performances from Frances McDormand as the boy’s mom and Kate Hudson as the muse-like “band-aid” as well as solid work from Patrick Fugit as the boy and especially Billy Crudup as the bands lead guitarist and the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman as legendary rock critic, Lester Bangs. Crowe has become one of the best screenwriters working today. He takes his sweet time in-between projects, but when a resume reads titles like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire; it’s worth the wait. Almost Famous certainly was.
1. Cast Away – No other film released this year came close to the emotional impact that Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away had. Tom Hanks gave, arguably, his best performance in a film that used near silence to perfection during most of its running time. Cast Away never hit a false note, on or off the island, using utter simplicity to tell its Homeric fable rather than transparent cliches. As spiritual a film as you’ll ever see, observing feelings on time, love, loss, work vs. home, loneliness and the quintessential need for companionship. Beautiful, exciting, intense and poignant filmmaking. People, who call Steven Soderbergh director of the year, seem to forget that Robert Zemeckis also directed 2 films released this year (the other being What Lies Beneath). And as good as Traffic and Erin Brockovich were, Zemeckis directed the best film of the year, Cast Away.
So, there’s the Top Ten. In a year where a lot of films could easily be shuffled around at the top, the next five had the means of finding themselves sneaking into the Top Ten. And yes, they are ranked from 11-15. If the Top Ten are worthy of their own slots, then so are the first five runner-ups. Don’t you hate it when they’re just in alphabetical order?
11. Gladiator – Anyone who heard me discuss this film when I first saw it know that I wasn’t too impressed with it. But when it came out on DVD a month ago, I gave it another shot, and then proceeded to watch the film 3 times in 2 days and now love it. Maybe I saw a bad print. Maybe it was too early to see a 155-minute film. All I know is that the same thing happened last year with The Insider. Maybe its something with Russell Crowe films and in a few months Proof of Life will rank up there with L.A. Confidential. But for now, a total 180 was experienced in several aspects of Ridley Scott’s Roman epic from the action sequences to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance to the slower moments of the film. Gladiator is better than I ever remembered it and it was THIS close to making the Top Ten.
12. High Fidelity – Having not the frame of references that might make me further dissect this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s cult novel, I can only go with what I saw on the screen. And what I saw (and heard) made me want to keep watching it after the final credits had rolled. Smart and funny, High Fidelity had more insights into Gen X relationships than any film this side of the Kevin Smith efforts. Even if most of the witty dialogue was taken straight from Hornby’s novel, great source material doesn’t always make a great movie. But here – the material made the movie and made it very well.
13. American Psycho – Next to Tom Hanks in Cast Away, the best male performance of the year belongs to Christian Bale in this adaptation of the controversial bestseller. This film could have taken the wrong direction into a lame and cheap “arty” slasher flick, but in the hands of Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron, it was transformed into an indictment of the 80s materialism, male chauvinism and narcissism. It brought new meaning to the genre of pitch black comedy and at its center is Bale and his amazing portrayal of Patrick Bateman, the representation of it all, using murder to make himself real.
14. Requiem for a Dream – Without a doubt, the best film ever made about addiction. Not just hard drugs, but television, fame and even chocolate. Darren Aronofsky in only his second film was able to accomplish were so many other directors had been repetitive and that’s in relaying the effects of drugs onto the audience. The highs. The lows. All were present on and off film. Ellen Burstyn gave one of the year’s best performances and certainly the saddest as the mother of a drug addict who gets hooked herself on diet pills when she believes she’s going to appear on a television game show. Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans and Jared Leto were also effective as the other addicts and friends. Everything culminates into a final half hour that makes the word ‘harrowing’ sound like peacefulness. Not a fun film, but one that successfully gets its message across in a barrage of desperation and gloom, aided by the year’s most haunting score by Clint Mansell.
15. Shanghai Noon – For pure entertainment this year, and I mean pure action and pure comedy, you need not look any further than Shanghai Noon. Where The Legend of Drunken Master was a Jackie Chan reissue, Shanghai was his newest effort and its one of his best. It’s a glowing tribute to virtually every Western ever made with references to over, at least, 20. And where Chan’s other recent success, Rush Hour, had him teamed up with the ever-annoying Chris Tucker, he found a perfect pairing with the great Owen Wilson, who as hard as it may seem, actually stole the film out from under Chan and his amazing dances of kicks and punches. Not to take anything away from Chan but this was a great unity of his action and Wilson’s comedy and it equaled the year’s best pure entertainment.
OK. Ten tops. Five runners-up. How about ten more films that deserve yet one more mention this year and deserve to be remembered in the years to come. Once again, they are ranked in order. What can I say, I like lists.
16. Meet the Parents – If Shanghai Noon was the purest form of entertainment this year, then Meet the Parents was the best, purest comedy of the year. When DeNiro headlines a comedy, it’s a must-see. And I’m not talking about The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I’m talking about Midnight Run, Wag the Dog, Analyze This and now, Meet the Parents, a remake (yet wholly original) of a 1992 low-budget cult classic from Chicago. Ben Stiller was DeNiro’s perfect foil, trying to maintain his cool under the absence of cigarettes and sex. The dinner scene will be remembered as a classic in American comedy.
17. Erin Brockovich – Great performances and some well-written moments are what made this old-fashioned Hollywood audience pleaser so successful. Julia Roberts (and her cleavage) were terrific in, easily, her best performance. Albert Finney was so great as her boss and Aaron Eckhart doesn’t get nearly enough credit as the biker boyfriend. Above all this was a story about the struggle of the title character to maintain her family. The poisoned water case was a great catalyst for it, but it felt too simplistic and paled in comparison to the similar courtroom battle in A Civil Action. But still a better film than most, thanks to those performances.
18. My Dog Skip – Skip deserves to go down in history with the all-time great movie dogs. You won’t even think about Benji or Lassie or Rin Tin Tin during this sweet, funny and moving coming-of-age story set during WWII. Frankie Muniz (of Malcolm in the Middle) plays the young boy, who in absence of friends his own age and his neighbor buddy going off to war, is given ol’ Skip for his birthday, despite the objections of his father (Kevin Bacon) who worries that young Willie won’t be prepared if anything should ever happen to the Skipper. He forgot to mention the audience too, as this was the first of the two films this year to bring me to tears. OK, I’ve got a soft spot for dog movies. The heartless can disregard my thoughts on this great coming-of-age film. The ones with the hearts three sizes too big will love it.
19. You Can Count On Me – You don’t see many films like this. Great simple storytelling about real people with a wonderful script by director Kenneth Lonergan. Laura Linney finally learned how to act and carries the picture beautifully as a single mother trying to balance her irritating new boss at work (a dead-on portrait of corporate by-the-book efficiency by Matthew Broderick) and her dead-end pothead brother (perfectly played by Mark Ruffalo). Believable from the first frames to the end with one great scene after another, You Can Count On Me was one of the year’s true gems.
20. Remember the Titans – The best sports movie since Hoosiers and that’s saying a lot since at least two or three come out every year and that Gene Hackman coaching vehicle came out in 1986. Titans featured another great actor, Denzel Washington, in the story based on events that occurred in the early 70s down south. The school was integrated against the objections of the town, so blacks and whites were forced to unite on the football field and unite they did. Here’s a sports movie that used its sport as a metaphor for the race struggle rather than just some numbers on a scoreboard. Will Patton was also great as the team’s former head, now turned assistant coach and Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst provided the film’s emotional center as the offensive and defensive players who learn to work together and become the best of friends. A lot of the routine cliches were absent here (although some still remain) to tell a story that doesn’t neatly wrap up every subplot into a chorus of Shiny Happy People, but rather an uplifting tale that just happens to take place on a football field.
21. Shadow of the Vampire – Finding an original take on the art of filmmaking or the vampire genre is harder than getting votes counted in Florida. But director E. Elias Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz found a way by making a fictional account of the filming of the legendary Nosferatu. Very few actors would be able to top Willem Dafoe’s chameleon-like transformation into actor Max Schreck, who by the film’s account was REALLY a vampire, although even that is left up to interpretation. Special praise should also be given to Eddie Izzard in a small but vital role as Gustav von Wangenheim, one of the film’s actors, who is not just splendidly funny but also looks uncannily like the real-life actor. A second viewing may clarify the speculative ending, but its first viewing was a real pleasure.
22. What Lies Beneath – A great homage to Hitchcock nearly ruined by one of the worst ad campaigns in movie history. So bad was the campaign that I reversed my initial opinion by looking at the film a second time, just as a film, disregarding the knowledge I previously discovered. And you know what? It’s one helluva thriller, or satire, depending on who you believe. This was Robert Zemeckis’ other film this year and he proves once again that he can elevate average material into above average cinema. Not that the screenplay wasn’t clever, with a multitude of great plot twists, but you’d never know it if you saw the film’s ads.
23. Fantasia 2000 – Disney’s best film of the year opened on New Years Day in IMAX theaters and that was certainly the place to see it. As sequels usually go, you can’t top the original, especially when you’re dealing with one of the greatest animated films of all time. But Fantasia 2000 had its share of great segments (not even counting The Sorcerer’s Apprentice reissue) including Donald Duck’s great Noah’s Ark tribute, the nature rebirth of “The Firebird Suite” and the wondrous flying whales in “The Pines of Rome” that is as masterful as any animated creation I’ve ever seen. Great music and more great segments that merely average make this an incredible spectacle on any screen.
24. Thirteen Days – A great history lesson, strengthened by two of the best portrayals of John & Robert Kennedy ever by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp. A thoroughly engaging insider’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis told through the eyes of the Kennedy brothers and their chief advisor, Kenny O’Donnell, played by Kevin Costner. The film doesn’t tell us a whole lot that we don’t already know, but what’s so fascinating is the leadership by the Kennedys that kept us from the brink of destruction. A couple of suspenseful moments standout in a film that really is a first-rate history lesson rather than a manufactured thriller based on real-life events.
25. Dinosaur – The first 20 minutes of this film alone are enough to justify Dinosaur on the list of the year’s 25 greatest films. This is as much of an honor as it is a token as once the story kicks in, you realize you’re watching nothing more than a souped-version of The Land Before Time. But what a souped-up version it is as the reason for Dinosaur’s existence are its visuals and those first 20 minutes had the awe-factor working (much like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to carry me through the weaker aspects of the film. But a stunning visual delight it was and that’s enough for it to, literally, sneak into the Top 25.
Of the remaining films released this year, the following are a list of the other films I recommended, this time only in alphabetical order
The 6th Day, Best In Show, Billy Elliot, Boiler Room, Bounce, Bring It On, Charlie's Angels, The Contender, Deterrence, Duets, The Emperor's New Groove, Final Destination, The Gift, Gone in 60 Seconds, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Keeping the Faith, The Kid, The Legend of Drunken Master, Me Myself & Irene, Mission to Mars, The Ninth Gate, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Proof of Life, Return to Me, The Road to El Dorado, Rules of Engagement, Scary Movie, Scream 3, Shaft, Small Time Crooks, Space Cowboys, U-571, The Way of the Gun, X-Men
The following are the UNSEEN. The ones that I never got around to but were told, either by other critics or friends, were worth seeing. Perhaps one day I will see them too.
All the Pretty Horses, The Big Kahuna, Black and White, Cecil B. Demented, Center Stage , Chocolat, The Claim, Croupier, An Everlasting Piece, The Filth and the Fury, The Five Senses, Girlfight, Jesus' Son, Joe Gould's Secret, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Love and Basketball, Me Myself I, Rugrats In Paris, Saving Grace, Sunshine, A Time for Drunken Horses
(Erik the Movieman)
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=303
originally posted: 12/28/00 03:47:43
last updated: 02/13/04 19:50:14