by Andrew Howe
William H. Macy in Magnolia
My high-school physics teacher assured me that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A case in point: the year 2000, which gave us six months of Jekyllís erudite company, and another six in the presence of his demented alter-ego.
The first half of 2000 was a fine time to wander down the local cinema, for a string of top-notch efforts were released in quick succession. Unfortunately, the gods of celluloid decreed that such an abundance of riches must be paid for in blood, and so the run to the end of the year was the cinematic equivalent of a picnic in the Simpson Desert. Of my 10 favourite films of 2000, only three were released between July and December, and if you use the US release dates no less than 5 films drop off the list (which gives you some idea of the difficulties Iíve experienced in voting for the year-end awards for US sites).
However, when considered as a whole it is apparent that 2000 was a good year for movies, for even the best of years (1995, for example) reach for the sky on the strength of a select few releases. It was a year when adult films made a welcome resurgence: for every Space Cowboys there was a Magnolia, and every Hollow Man was matched by a Dancer in the Dark. It was also a champagne year for comedy, with the likes of Galaxy Quest, Mystery Men and Dogma reminding us what feel-good cinema felt like. The only fly in the ointment was the poor showing in the action-adventure field, with only Gladiator rising above the carcasses of End of Days and its ilk, but then, as Meatloaf once said, two out of three ainít bad.
So, without further rambling, I present an overview of the cinematic endeavours that rocked my world in the year just passed, and a number of sundry awards to recognise achievements both laudable and dubious.
*** Note - as a resident of the Lucky Country, I have used the Australian release dates in compiling this review. Using the US dates would necessitate cooling my heels until June 2001, which is the length of time it takes for every major US release from 2000 to make its way Down Under, so I request that my parochialism be excused. ***
The top 10
10. The Straight Story
For those desiring proof that the raw materials do not necessarily resemble the finished product, The Straight Story makes a fine case study. The plot, which concerns an old timerís quest to cross the many miles to his estranged brotherís house on a ride-on lawnmower, sounds like the kind of mawkish feel-good tripe which Disney occasionally foists on an unsuspecting audience. Director David Lynch is renowned for creating difficult, incomprehensible films, and lead actor Richard Farnsworth has not exactly set the screen alight over the last couple of decades. However, the end result was a moving film about the trials and tribulations of everyday life, packed with memorable scenes and a healthy dose of downhome philosophy which, despite its rather earnest delivery, hit the mark when viewed in the context of the situation. The release of Innocence in the same twelve-month period made 2000 a fine year for the concerns of the aged, and if the films donít exactly make you look forward to your twilight years, itís still good to be reminded that life doesnít have to end the day you blow out seventy candles.
In every list such as this there is a place for a film which, on purely objective grounds, doesnít belong amongst its esteemed companions. If we were to consider the quality of the performances, the importance of the issues explored, and the degree to which it promotes the concept of cinema as art, I would be hard-pressed to argue that Dogma is a ďbetterĒ film than, say, The Hurricane or The Insider (to name just two widely-admired films which didnít make my list). However, movies were never meant to be viewed objectively, and so I tip my hat to Kevin Smith and his crew, who provided me with one of the yearís most memorable guilty pleasures (apart from a number of similarly fantastic fabrications which donít bear repeating here). Running the gamut from wit to depravity, Smithís quest for greatness is assured by script which knows when to go for the laughs, and when to go for the jugular. The filmís serious moments prevent it from becoming a lightweight farce, leaving us with a tightly-wound effort which proves that Smith and a respectable budget are not necessarily mortal enemies.
8. High Fidelity
Nick Hornby is Godís gift to writers. John Cusack is Godís gift to actors. High Fidelity is Godís gift to the broken-hearted, and anyone seeking those elusive words of wisdom will find them here, along with a few laughs, a great soundtrack and a fine line in fireside chats from Mr. Cusack himself.
7. Looking for Alibrandi
This low-budget Australian film takes its place amongst the quintessential coming-of-age flicks, not the least because it doesnít ignore the concerns of its adult characters. Pia Mirandaís charming performance lays the foundations for this meditation on family ties and teenage relationships, overlaid by an exploration of the endless cycle of loss and renewal. Insightful and poignant, its upbeat interludes and near-perfect final scene leave you secure in the knowledge that everybodyís playing the same game, and there will always be something to laugh at amidst the tears. It was never released outside of Australia, so we can only hope the video and DVD take its message to the world.
6. The Perfect Storm
Much more than an exercise in special-effects, this film earns itís place through a combination of likeable characters and memorable, low-key performances. Nobility in the face of life-threatening danger makes it stirring, while the jaw-dropping, superbly-realised tempest does the shaking. Beware the small screen, however, lest you be left to wonder what all the fuss was about.
5. American Beauty
For those who have grown weary of American Beauty scooping the awards in every category in which it is nominated, I present a little balance in the form of a mid-range placing. I spent 11 months of the year labouring under the notion that it was worthy of line honours, but the passage of time and a repeat viewing have diminished its impact. However, it is still a marvellous film, packed to the gills with memorable scenes, razor-sharp dialogue and a bullet-proof performance from Kevin Spacey. With the exception of Magnolia, it has provoked more arguments and insightful comment than any film on this list, and in an age when a film like Meet the Parents can be number one at the box office for three weeks thatís a reason to be cheerful.
4. Dancer in the Dark
Discussions about Lars von Trierís views on filmmaking have occasionally overshadowed the fact that, when taken as a film rather than a statement, Dancer in the Dark is a bleak, compelling testament to the indomitable human spirit, and the role played by imagination in keeping the wolves at bay. The final twenty minutes is as powerful as anything Iíve ever seen, and reminds us that there are times when shocked silence represents significantly higher praise than raucous applause.
Paul Coxís latest film finally broke free of the festival circuit in late December, and the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. Which is as it should be, because this is one of the most deeply-affecting films Iíve ever encountered. It will break the heart of anyone who has ever meditated upon the transience of human existence, and reminds us that Australian film-makers are capable of considerably more than light entertainment. Make no mistake Ė this is a film for the ages, and its power will only increase as the years go by. Keep it close to your heart, for it is a source of comfort, a catalyst for change, and a life-affirming paean to the undying nature of love, and the song it sings will resonate within you for as long as you draw breath.
2. The Green Mile
Frank Darabont returns to familiar territory, and it welcomes him with open arms. Michael Clarke Duncan was robbed for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards (or would have been, except that Tom Cruise was even better in Magnolia), and heís joined by a cast that shows the current crop of show-ponies how itís done. Itís a damn depressing film (for which you can thank Stephen King, whose protagonists have aged with him over the last decade), and could have used some judicious pruning, but itís still an absorbing, involving effort which takes us on a journey to a place where the best and worst humanity has to offer stand side-by-side, and leaves us hoping that Darabontís year-end resolution will be to make more than one film every five years.
The top five positions on this list are virtually interchangeable, but the cruelty of list-making is that you eventually have to settle on a winner. Magnolia was by no means universally admired, but the sheer scope of P.T. Andersonís latest opus sees it edge out the competition. Boogie Nights was my favourite film of 1997, and for much the same reason Ė Anderson has a talent for bringing even the least of his characters to life, and his eye for casting is second to none. Itís not an easy film to watch (none of the characters are particularly likeable), but a number of inspired scenes provide welcome relief (urban myths, Seduce & Destroy, and those damn frogs), while the acting is a thing to be amazed by. We live in troubled times, it tells us, and the enemy is not terrorism, crime or the government, but something much closer to home. Mirrors may make us uncomfortable, but there is much truth to be found if you know where to look, and the seeds of redemption are planted by an honest appraisal of the distance, in the words of Fatboy Slim, ďbetween the gutter and the starsĒ.
Itís not as affecting as Innocence or The Green Mile, itís not as adventurous as Dancer in the Dark, but its exemplary showing in all areas of its production mark it as a film which cannot be ignored, and if a mere film can make you ponder such uncomfortable subjects itís worthy of more than passing recognition.
I always have difficulty selecting a winner for this category, since, unlike many critics who make it their mission to review every film which hits the cinemas, I have no desire to subject myself to something which I know in advance will be mind-numbing trash. Moreover, if someone canít divine from the mere title that The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas is not worthy of their time and effort then nothing I say is going to influence their decision to lay their cash on the cinema counter Ė better to save the roasting for a turkey whose crimes against humanity are not obvious from a plot synopsis and an informed reading of the credits.
So it is that I find myself unable to proclaim Battlefield Earth the worst film of the year, since I have no intention of rotting my brain cells merely to add my voice to the tsunami of derision (especially when you consider the number of quality films I have yet to find the time to enjoy). In the absence of Travoltaís one-man advertisement for Scientologyís failure to promote clarity of thought, I bestow the wooden spoon upon Mission to Mars, which saw fit to waste a number of talented actors and a promising concept on a script which would be of more use on a roll in a public lavatory (Hollow Man wasnít much better, but there wasnít much talent to waste).
As a side note, 2000 saw one of those interesting one-two shots that studios like to engineer now and again (Braveheart/Rob Roy, Armageddon/Deep Impact), and the surprise was not that we received another film about Mars in the form of Red Planet, but that it was almost as execrable as its predecessor.
2000 was a red-letter year for the fourth-planet from the sun, and if the Martians decide to lay waste to the human race I can only hope that the creators of these films are the first in line for public disintegration.
I hate to say it, but top billing goes to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty. The fact that his mantelpiece groans under the weight of everything from an Oscar to a Zairean Brass Gorilla should not distract us from the fact that he is one of the finest actors working today, and this is the pinnacle of his career to date. Equally at home with villainy, his versatility was proven with a sensitive, assured performance which ensured he deserved every superlative aimed in his direction.
The usual suspects were on hand in 2000 to fill out the upper-tier, most notably Denzel Washington in The Hurricane and Russell Crowe in The Insider, and Bjork provided the yearís biggest surprise package in the form of a wonderful performance in Dancer in the Dark. However, of more interest are the performances which wonít be winning any awards but were commendable nonetheless, for which we need look no further than Willam H. Macy in Mystery Men, Paul Giamatti in Duets, Paddy Considine in A Room for Romeo Brass, and Billy Crudup in Jesusí Son.
The award for most overrated actor goes to Tobey Maguire, whose efforts in The Cider House Rules did nothing to dispel my belief that he has no screen presence whatsoever (he actually reminds me of Elijah Wood, whose starring role in the upcoming Lord of the Rings is a cause for some concern). The awards are rounded out by the gong for the most memorably-awful showing, which is a tie between Elisabeth Shue for Hollow Man and Lisa Brenner for The Patriot (how somebody so annoying made it through quality control and into a high-budget motion picture is beyond me, though to be fair her insufferable character must take some of the blame).
Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) in The Green Mile. Notable for the fact that he commits few acts of wanton carnage, preferring instead to hold himself up as a paragon of petty evil. Few who heard him tell Del that thereís no such thing as Mouseville will ever forget it, and it proves that there are far worse things than physical brutality.
Runner-up is Colonel Tavington (Jason Issacs) in The Patriot, one of the old-school villains who raises wanton carnage to an art form, and proves that, if itís all the same to you, physical brutality will serve just fine.
Bring it On, a film about cheerleaders which should have been a candidate for the trash can but rose above its subject matter through a combination of likeable performances and characters, a savvy script and stirring routines (the fact that it featured a wide selection of good-looking females had nothing to do with my decision).
Runner-up goes to Gwyneth Paltrowís performance in Duets, which managed the seemingly-impossible feat of causing me to use the terms ďendearingĒ and ďGwyneth PaltrowĒ in the same sentence.
Most Unpleasant Surprise
The fact that Snatch, Guy Ritchieís follow up to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, was a poor imitation of its groundbreaking predecessor.
Runner-up was the discovery that Red Planet was blessed with a PG rating, which meant that Carrie-Anne Mossí shower scene was tasteful in the extreme.
Best Action Sequence
The contest is obviously between The Patriot and Gladiator, but Melís initial act of woodland vengeance wins hands down (Iíll never look at a tomahawk in the same way again). With regards to the latter, I would actually plump for Maximusí first foray into the gladitorial arena over the later big-budget set-pieces in the Coliseum, since it had a gritty, visceral, in-your-face impact the other sequences lacked (plus the headgear was exceptional Ė the sight of a sword-wielding dude wearing an animal head had me cowering behind my seat).
Worst Ending of the Year
Pitch Black. What the hell were they thinking?
Most Heartfelt Loss
Oliver Reed. Not because of his acting ability, mind you (which was nothing to write home about), but because he was a living testament to the fact that a man can put away a bottle of scotch a day and still draw breath. Once Peter OíToole goes, Iím giving up the drink for good.
The post-awards party
Itís a good party, at least for the first half of the night, but it ends in violence when Lisa Brenner attempts to berate the menfolk into adjourning to a nightclub and is beaten senseless for her trouble. To the sound of heartfelt cheers and stomping Doc Martenís, the curtain closes on the first year of the new millennium, leaving everyone to wonder whether the recent slump will continue to cause heartbreak in 2001.
See you next year, folks, and may we continue to wear John Coffeyís look of wonder at every flicker-show we attend.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=304
originally posted: 01/02/01 15:31:26
last updated: 02/13/04 19:46:40