Everyones saying that 2000 was the worst year for film in decades. I dont believe that. If you choose to listen to serious critics whose reach doesnt stop at the borders of the Hollywood publicity machine, theres plenty of action overseas, and Ive sampled enough contemporary foreign fare to believe the hype. But, in Memphis, where filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai, Abbas Kiarostami, and Claire Denis are essentially barred from local screens, it was a bleak year indeed. In 1999, the success of films like American Beauty, Three Kings, and Being John Malkovich supposedly signaled a return to interesting cinema from American studios. In 2000, Hollywood was back to all-crap-all-the-time. Last week the Village Voice published its second annual national film critics poll. Of the polls top 10 films, exactly zero were made in the U.S.A. Only one, Lars Von Triers Dancer in the Dark, has played Memphis. Surely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The House of Mirth will make it here eventually, but will we ever see the likes of Edward Yangs Yi Yi, Kar-Wais In the Mood for Love, or Kiarostamis The Wind Will Carry Us? The prognosis doesnt look good. Malco? AJAY? National distributors? Are you listening? For the sake of local film lovers, please open the gates and let the world in. Until that happens, the local pickings will be slim. But heres one critics take on the best films that opened in Memphis during the calendar year 2000 (Directors names are in parentheses):
- Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh): Confession: Ive never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. And part of the triumph of Mike Leighs film -- an in-depth look at a particular moment in the pairs working partnership -- is that my lack of experience isnt a hindrance. Meticulously researched and ferociously acted, Leighs meditation on the collective creative process of theater (or film) as seen through the prism of that famous relationship managed to be as personal a film as was released last year despite focusing on the lives and work of other artists. And the film was elevated to the realm of the miraculous by its bold, unexpected finale, which hands Topsy-Turvy over to three previously minor characters and reveals reservoirs of feeling and experience beyond even the films sprawling and deep surface. Its an ending that inspires the radical notion that there are entire other films that exist beneath the great one weve just seen. Discounting the re-release of Rear Window, Topsy-Turvy was the only masterpiece to grace a local screen all year.
- Boys Dont Cry(Kimberly Pierce): This new American classic, featuring Hilary Swanks Oscar-winning turn as Teena Brandon, a Midwestern girl killed for impersonating a boy, is harrowingly affective as a agitprop about hate and violence, sure. But what makes it great is the delicate relationship between Swank and Chloe Sevigny as Lana, Brandons girlfriend. Its this relationship that exposes the absurdity of clinging too tightly to society-imposed gender roles. And Sevignys beautiful performance makes Lana the true heart of the film.
- American Movie(Chris Smith): This documentary portrait of struggling, Wisconsin-based horror filmmaker Mark Borchardt partially acts as a corrective to the more widely seen Fargo in its loving but honest rendering of the subjects (and filmmakers) working class, Midwestern milieu. But the real triumph of this howlingly funny and legitimately touching film is the way Borchardt manipulates the process to essentially turn American Movie into the autobiographical feature that he cant raise the money to make himself.
- Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano): This unjustly attacked road movie from the Japanese master Kitano may have been the only truly important foreign language film (though Pedro Almodovars All About My Mother and Majid Majidis The Color of Paradise might count too) to be granted a Memphis screening this year. Here Kitanos usually hard-boiled subject matter (see the wonderful Fireworks and Sonatine) gives way to an achingly sentimental tale of a young boy taken to visit the mother hes never known. The wrenching stylistic shift allows us to appreciate even more Kitanos wittily minimal style and accomplished physical performance.
- Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh): Mainstream American films most compelling movie star teams with its most compelling filmmaker for a deliriously entertaining meta-movie that finally cements Julia Roberts as both her eras Barbara Stanwyck and its Joan Crawford. Old fashioned studio values meets Soderberghs own foxy personal style for a film that shamed the competition of all other media- and corporate-appointed blockbusters.
- You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan): This drab, basic looking movie is so indifferently shot that it's almost too un-cinematic to recommend. But the concern here is on acting and dialogue, not on the visuals, and this look at the reunion of two adult siblings is so well-written and so lived-in that its a triumph anyway. In an American film culture that seems increasingly incapable of making films featuring recognizable human beings, here are people and a world that seem ineffably real, and a story that picks up the rhythm of life and eschews easy resolution. If Mark Ruffalo doesnt win an Oscar for his stunningly natural portrayal of the troubled brother Terry (and he wont), then the Academy needs to finally be dismissed for the sham it is.
- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai(Jim Jarmusch): This comic and poetic archetypal doodle from the great American independent Jarmusch was simultaneously a meditation on the history of gangster films and, in its own way, the greatest hip-hop flick since Krush Groove.
- Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier): After two viewings, I still havent sorted out my conflicted feelings about the Danish auteur Von Triers latest cinematic assault. But one things for certain, there may not have been a more audacious film screened locally than this musical tragedy.
- Magnolia (P.T. Anderson): A bold, beautiful mess. Andersons three-hour-long Altmanesque ramble reaches for the kind operatic emotions way out of vogue in this era of the relentlessly impersonal.
- The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola): Sofia Coppolas directorial debut was a stylish, atmospheric meditation on puberty that was stunningly mysterious and erotic. Phil Spector made little symphonies for teenagers. Here, Coppola makes a little art film for teenagers.
Honorable Mentions: All About My Mother(Pedro Almodovar); Cradle Will Rock(Tim Robbins); Quills(Philip Kaufman); The Poor and Hungry(Craig Brewer); Billy Elliot(Stephen Daldry); Alice et Martin(Andre Techin); Shower(Zhang Yang); The Original Kings of Comedy(Spike Lee); Me, Myself, and Irene(Peter and Bobby Farrelly); High Fidelity(Stephen Frears).