Y2K: I'M SO BORED WITH THE USA

It’s become received wisdom that 2000 was a horrible year for film, a judgment that leaves me baffled. If one views mainstream American cinema as the center of the universe (and far too many critics do), only then does it make sense. This year, the center was decidedly marginal. 1998 and 1999 brought exciting, relatively adventurous Hollywood fare like RUSHMORE, A SIMPLE PLAN,  MAGNOLIA and FIGHT CLUB, but the bill for such  freedom apparently came due. In  its wake,  Hollywood produced lots of forgettable dreck, a few extremely entertaining but relatively disposable desert entrees (CHARLIE’S ANGELS, GLADIATOR and MEET THE PARENTS) and one UFO: M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE, whose masterful direction and seductively funereal mood made up for its self-importance and plot holes. I thought it was a major improvement over THE SIXTH SENSE, but I was well in the minority.

Nor was there much  oodley oodley fun fun fun to be found in the indie sector. Instead of another film as strong as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, BOYS DON’T CRY or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the best we got  were promising-but-not-all-there-yet debuts from  Sofia Coppola and David Gordon  Green (both a bit too  airy and shapeless),  Jon Shear (drop the urban legend fixation, dude) and Kenneth Lonergan (a terrific but uncinematic actor/screenwriter’s showcase ). The North American avant-garde held up its end of the bargain better than its narrative counterparts, but it remains as marginalized as ever. My favorite American  narrative film of the year, CHUCK & BUCK, is every bit as anomalous as UNBREAKABLE, having more in common with star/screenwriter Mike White’s contributions to the TV show FREAKS AND GEEKS  than anything else in theaters. Even if Miguel Arteta helmed it, I don’t doubt that White is its real auteur; perhaps that helps account for the ugly videography and merely functional direction. In the wake of so many blown-up videos (BAMBOOZLED, 90% of the year’s documentaries) that looked about as visually appealing as  a garbage can, I’m tempted to include Douglas Aitken and Shirin Neshat’s installations from the Whitney Biennial on this list. They may not be films, but at least they show that the video medium is capable of beauty, rather than just substituting poorly for celluloid.

It's easy to say that American cinema is in ill health, harder to diagnose exactly what's wrong with it. One glaring problem comes to mind: a disjunction between the quality of direction and writing. Every major American feature released this year suffered from  being either under- or over-written (CLAIRE DOLAN, UNBREAKABLE, GEORGE WASHINGTON) or filmed with little concern for visual style (CHUCK & BUCK, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, MEET THE PARENTS). Additionally, we seem to be in a rough transitional period between the 90s' pomo irony   and a newfound earnestness. In a roundtable discussion  in SLATE, Sarah Kerr pointed out the painfully somber tone of many of the year's releases. However, after suffering through the smug snarkiness of   O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (in which the Coen brothers' wealth of literary and musical references comes with the downside of their typical contempt for their characters and the world outside the movie theater - am I the only one who thinks the KKK dance sequence could have come from the TV show in BAMBOOZLED?) and STATE AND MAIN (essentially a better-crafted version of the short-lived TV show ACTION, without the "look how politically incorrect I  can be" sensibility, but sharing the same glib cynicism and assumption that everyone wants to feel like a Hollywood insider), the sincere pretentiousness of  GEORGE WASHINGTON and  UNBREAKABLE's worst moments seems positively refreshing.

For the kind of intelligent yet relatively mainstream cinema Americans should be making, you had to look overseas. While New York's last remaining Chinatown theater, the Music Palace, shut down in June,  Subway Cinema’s September retrospective of the Hong Kong production company Milkyway Films was a real revelation. (In addition to the Milkyway roster, Kang Je-kyu’s SHIRI and Dante Lam’s JIANG HU - THE TRIAD ZONE were exciting Asian genre discoveries.) One hopes that the success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON will make American distributors pay attention to films that now fall between the cracks between the arthouse and multiplex, but the news that  Lions Gate followed Miramax and New Line’s lead by cutting 10 minutes from the Korean action film NOWHERE TO HIDE for its American release doesn’t make me hopeful.  On the other hand, the patient efforts of  critics on behalf of Iranian and Taiwanese cinema have  finally paid off, with most of the Iranian films on the fall festival circuit quickly getting snapped up and THE NEW YORK TIMES gushing over THE WIND WILL CARRY US and YI YI. At this rate, David Denby might even follow up his surprise rave review of HUMANITE with praise for Kiarostami’s next film!

While I share the “all hail Asian cinema” sentiments in vogue, this year’s Iranian crop  made me feel like the kind of music “fan” who stops liking his favorite artists should they become popular.  For an opposing voice - and  the most infuriating piece of film writing I read this year - look at Roger Ebert's "A films" post on SLATE's Movie Club. It's fine with me if he hates Kiarostami, although he should check out THE TRAVELLER or WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOME? if he thinks all his films are unbearably difficult, but his opinion that one can only like his work or dislike THE COLOR OF PARADISE, TWO WOMEN and A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES out of snobbery is ludicrous. I don't have a clue what elitist festivals he's referring to: THE COLOR OF PARADISE played at the 1999 New York Film Festival, TWO WOMEN at NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS last spring and A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES won the Camera D'Or at Cannes two months later. And all three were distributed in the U.S., so Kiarostami fans didn't keep them away from American audiences. In fact, THE COLOR OF PARADISE is the most popular Iranian film ever released here.  Ebert even goes so far as to suggest that difficult Iranian films are driving American audiences away from more accessible ones. This is ridiculous: if anything, Western interest in Iranian cinema began with auteurs like Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf and then expanded to encompass a wider range of films. In the 60s, did Godard drive many people away from A MAN AND A WOMAN?  Someone could just as easily make the case that some of the French films Ebert likes, such as HUMANITE and TIME REGAINED, are scaring Americans off from Luc Besson.

I made a somewhat different Top 10 list a few weeks ago  for the VILLAGE VOICE film critics' survey. Since that list is available on their site, I should explain the differences between the two. Because of their mid-December deadline and my lack of access to press screenings of studio films, I had to turn in my list  without having seen any  Hollywood Christmas releases except STATE AND MAIN.  This version of my  list may be the most obscure one I’ve ever made, and while I’d love to be able to make one filled with films everyone has heard of, restricting myself to commercial releases would have resulted in one I’d be half-embarrassed by.

Before getting on with the list proper, I’d like to run down  a dozen of the year’s most sublime moments: the play of light over water in THE HOUSE OF MIRTH; “Rhythm Of The Night,” BEAU TRAVAIL; the Thin Man getting his  ass smacked up, CHARLIE’S ANGELS; the  corpse (the year’s single most devastating image), HUMANITE; the business card cockfight (which felt like an excerpt from a far better film), AMERICAN PSYCHO; Patrick Warburton dancing topless, THE WOMAN CHASER; the first, gravity-defying fight, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; the entire second reel(s) of CRYSTAL PALACE;  “I’ve Seen It All”, DANCER IN THE DARK;  bombs dropping, POLA X; Johnny Rotten cries, THE FILTH & THE FURY;  dancing alone, PLATFORM  Is it another sign of convergence between film and video that half of these would probably work as well shown out of context on MTV?



10. CRAZY (Heddy Honigmann, the Netherlands)

In the wake of THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, EUREKA, URBANIA, UNBREAKABLE, HUMANITE and  GEORGE WASHINGTON, shell-shock   replaced incest as the current hip theme du jour. CRAZY, a  documentary about UN peace-keepers structured around home movies and present-day interviews,  testified to the power of this subject. Honigmann asked all of her subjects to pick a song that either reminds them of their experiences or that meant something to them while stationed in places like Lebanon, Cambodia and Bosnia, and  filmed their face as they listen to it.
(Their selections range from Puccini to Korean folk music to Guns 'N Roses.) The film is fascinating on many levels: as a study of
the ravages of war, an indictment of the ineffectiveness of UN humanitarianism (especially in the former Yugoslavia) and a reflection
 on the malleability of music and its power to invoke memory. Although it only includes about 30 seconds of gory atrocity footage (taken from a
 BBC-made "music video" set to Seal's "Crazy"), it's quite wrenching. In a fine year for music-related docs (THE FILTH & THE FURY, BENJAMIN SMOKE, THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK), this was by far the best. It currently has no American distributor, but Film Forum showed Honigmann's last two films, so maybe CRAZY will turn up there sometime in 2001.



9. THE IDIOTS (Lars von Trier, Denmark)

While DANCER IN THE DARK (aka BREAKING MORE WAVES, just with musical numbers and Bjork playing Emily Watson playing Bess) won von Trier his coveted Palme D'Or and drew love-it-or-hate-it reactions across the board, THE IDIOTS took two years even to get a single New York screening and was dumped by its distributor, USA Films. The controversy over the DANCER IN THE DARK (not to mention the soundtrack album) beat the film itself, but THE IDIOTS is really something: the best episode of THE TOM GREEN SHOW ever made, as well as an elaborate auto-critique of  von Trier and the Dogma crew’s bad faith and an exploration of his beloved theme of female sacrifice in a relatively low-stakes environment. (It even comes across an avant la lettre dis of MIFUNE.) Speaking of which, when I read reviews of DANCER IN THE DARK that hold von Trier’s silly interview statements or Bjork’s reports of his on-set cruelty against the film, I can’t help being reminded of the way Hitchcock and Welles’ larger-than-life personae and publicity stunts helped mystify their work.  Maybe it will take 20 years for any consensus to emerge on the dividing line between   cheap provocation (which  has the virtue of being completely upfront in THE IDIOTS) and sincerity in DANCER IN THE DARK.



8a. ORIGIN OF THE 21ST CENTURY (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
8b. MOLOCH (Alexander Sokurov, Russia/Germany)

Seeing four Sokurov films and videos over a two-week period in October finally convinced me that he's a major director. The "best screenplay" award MOLOCH received at Cannes last year drew snickers from many American critics, but  Sokurov's trademark wispiness benefits from a relatively strong grounding in character here. Taking Hitler's private life for his subject, Sokurov avoids discussing his anti-Semitism, focusing instead on  the situation where everyone who could give a powerful man a reality check is under his thumb. It may not have much specific insight into Hitler, but it has plenty to say about the madness of political or corporate power in general, as well as a  a poetic charge only Sokurov's 1996 video ORIENTAL ELEGY has matched. In counterpoint to Sokurov’s meditation on Hitler (his new film about Lenin is now in post-production), Godard chimed in with his own history lesson, as explicit about violence and hatred as MOLOCH is as evasive. Using the dual metaphors of travel (eventually linked to the trains that took Nazi victims to the concentration camps) and childhood, Godard structures ORIGIN as a journey back into the 20th century. It’s a bad trip, with each frail image of joy  overwhelmed by the century’s pain. As HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA implied, Godard sees the histories of film and the 20th century as one and the same (and both as over); in relation to both, ORIGIN is a loud outcry against amnesia, as well as a remarkable condensation of much of the substance of the four-hour HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA into a 13-minute short.



7a. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (Terence Davies, UK/USA)
7b. CLAIRE DOLAN (Lodge Kerrigan)

Two dramas about women trying to navigate their way through a brutal social climate, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH and CLAIRE DOLAN otherwise have  little in common , but both avoided the usual clichés that come with their territory. CLAIRE DOLAN's title heroine is a prostitute missing the obligatory heart of gold. Nor is she a pathetic, drug-addled victim. She's simply a woman with an enervating job doing her best to find her way out of it, and Kerrigan frames her struggle with an icy precision that recalls Chantal Akerman and David Cronenberg.  In THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, Davies entirely abandoned the Proustian flow of his early films.  He’s now speaking in prose, not poetry or song. Nevertheless, it feels both classical (in its self-effacing  sobriety) and modern (in its view of beauty and the promise of class mobility as traps, even if these themes originally derive from Edith Wharton’s source novel.) Davies hasn’t so much subverted or transcended the Tradition of Quality as shown what a filmmaker with real imagination can do with this dubious genre. J. Hoberman’s comparison to Mizoguchi’s stately melodramas of  martyrdom hits the mark, and French critic Nicole Brenez's justification for putting CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON on her Top 10 list - "because, maybe for the first time in cinema history, academicism is brilliant" - applies equally here.



6a. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED (Patrick Yau, Hong Kong)
6b. TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 (Wai Ka-Fai, Hong Kong)

I’m not in the camp that views CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON as a case of Ang Lee and James Schamus pasteurizing the soul out of Hong Kong cinema for whitey’s consumption. However,  the Milkyway Films retrospective was a better reminder that “popular cinema,” as David Bordwell calls it, can accomplish something besides killing two hours pleasantly. Over the past fifteen years, Hong Kong films have borrowed left and right from a variety of sources, but in the hands of Wai and Yau, this pastiche becomes self-consciously mannerist, with a surface nihilism hiding an unmistakable humanist undercurrent and  critique of genre tropes. TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO. 1 couples the kinetic thrills of RUN LOLA RUN and GO to actual content and an even more inventively excessive style. A rare excitement about cinema’s plastic possibilities resonates throughout its absurdist plot twists and baroque visuals. Twists that suddenly cast the preceding narrative into a new light are a Milkyway specialty, a tendency only exaggerated by the three possible endings of TOO MANY WAYS. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED is  less immediately rewarding, but it  reworks the post-Kieslowski arthouse cliches of fate and coincidence in a manner that’s all the more devastating because it  initially seems so slight. Without giving any spoilers away, I can only say that it lives up to its title. Milkyway honcho Johnnie To’s John Woo deconstruction A HERO NEVER DIES came close to tying for third place with these two.



5. CHUCK & BUCK (Miguel Arteta)

For its first half hour,  CHUCK & BUCK seems like a rather homophobic story about  a terminally childike gay stalker, but after that point, it rapidly develops unexpected reservoirs of smarts and sympathy. (For an excellent defense of its sexual politics, I'll turn you over to Michael Sicinski.) X-MEN, which opened on the same day, offers  a  wish-fulfillment fantasy  of geeky misfits, who can easily be seen as crypto-gay, becoming glamorous, powerful  heroes and finally finding a real family. While this fantasy  appeals to me no less than the fanboys that  made it a huge hit, the loneliness and hopeful but inconclusive ending presented by Arteta and White  hit much closer to home. It's fair to complain, as some critics have, that they play it safe by emphasizing Buck's essential  innocence and milking his worst behavior more for pathos than menace. But they also take  Buck's passion seriously, even while treating it comically.  Although their optimism feels slightly forced, it's refreshing to see  Indiewood filmmakers err on the side of kindness and respect towards their characters - most of whom aren't  particularly smart or perceptive - rather than cynicism. Without being in the same league as  Jean Eustache's THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, it nevertheless lives up to  Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1974 description  of that masterpiece: "the film's compulsive picking at wounds reveals a genuine impasse, a tragic lack in ourselves that cinema seldom admits, much less describes."



4a. THE FOURTH WATCH (Janie Geiser)
4b. CRYSTAL PALACE (Ken Jacobs)

Of the two best avant-garde films I saw this year, one is a deeply melancholy elegy for film history, while the other demonstrates the limitless potential of celluloid and mechanical projection. THE FOURTH WATCH superimposes flickering black & white film images (transferred from video) over a household set, constructed from painted tin. As if in response to the aphorism that cinema is death at work, Geiser creates an eerie reverie for its ghosts. Rather than cry over the supposed end of cinema at the hands of new technologies, she acknowledges our distance from silent film, while suggesting that its images can still haunt us, even if far removed from their original context. CRYSTAL PALACE is another kind of ghost play, made up of slowly rotating kaleidoscopic color images created by Jacobs’ dual-projector “Nervous System” technique. It may be both the most sensually overpowering film I saw this year and the hardest to describe. Of the 3 Nervous System film/performances Jacobs presented in New York this year, this had the most impact and staying power.



3. HUMANITE (Bruno Dumont, France)

When I saw an advance screening of HUMANITE in April, I expected my enthusiasm for it to be far more contrarian than it actually turned out to be, although Owen Gleiberman stayed true to form by putting it on his Bottom 5 list. If the film could be boiled down to its essence, that would be the face of Emmanuel Schotté, a screen presence as fresh as Emily Watson in BREAKING THE WAVES. The question of whether or not he's really acting or just displaying his usual mannerisms doesn't really matter. HUMANITE is as compassionate and vulnerable as Schotté’s face - Dumont is anything but an "arthouse bully," a criticism better directed towards Michael Haneke - but if one isn’t patient with both, they sometimes look absurd. (I'm embarrased to admit that the levitation scene got a rise out of me.) It’s not  perfect, but perfection can smother, and HUMANITE was one of the most vital films to turn up in 2000.



2. BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France)

Even in the context of Denis’ oeuvre, BEAU TRAVAIL is pretty singular: few female filmmakers have turned the male gaze back on itself as successfully she does. (Nagisa Oshima’s examination of military life’s homosocial underpinnings in TABOO, his first feature in 13 years, suffered drastically in comparison.)  Yet its radical critique of masculinity is implicit rather than overt, expressed through an eroticism extending beyond the images of shirtless men  tussling with each other into practically every shot. The final scene - Denis Lavant’s spastic dance,  an image of freedom as beautiful as the Bastille Day sequence in LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF -  is one for the ages.



1. YI YI (Edward Yang, Taiwan)

The city symphony directors all over the world spent the 90s trying to make  (Michael Winterbottom’s WONDERLAND was its closest competition among this year’s releases), YI YI united Altman’s structure with Ozu’s sensibility, all the while speaking about contemporary urban life under global capitalism in a way that applies to New York almost as much as Taipei. (Perhaps that's why it's the first Yang film to be released in the U.S. Refreshingly,  WinStar was rewarded for taking this chance with a modicum of commercial success.) He once again shows his considerable knack for camera placement and framing. While some of his characters express emotion directly, his distant camera set-ups place their outbursts into a larger, calmer whole. Such a muted film could probably only have been made by a middle-aged man, although it does justice to both paterfamilias NJ’s acceptance of disillusionment and disappointment and its younger characters’ more volatile passions. Although Yang’s anger at globalization has faded into the background,  he still shows how economic concerns can’t be extricated from “private" life. His last film, MAHJONG, strained to capture the zeitgeist, but YI YI does so effortlessly.



Runners-up: CHARLIE'S ANGELS (McG), CROUPIER (Mike Hodges, UK), THE FILTH AND THE FURY (Julien Temple, UK), FRAGMENTS*JERUSALEM (Ron Havilio, Israel), GEORGE WASHINGTON (David Gordon Green), GLADIATOR (Ridley Scott), THE HEART OF THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, Canada), A HERO NEVER DIES (Johnnie To, Hong Kong), JIANG HU - THE TRIAD ZONE (Dante Lam, Hong Kong), LIES (Jang Sun-woo, South Korea), THE LIVING ROOM (Michael Snow, Canada),  MEET THE PARENTS (Jay Roach), PLATFORM (Jia Zhang Ke, China), 73 SUSPECT WORDS (Peggy Ahwesh), SHIRI (Kang Je-Kyu, South Korea), UNBREAKABLE (M. Night Shyamalan), URBANIA (Jon Shear), VICTIM (Ringo Lam, Hong Kong), WONDERLAND (Michael Winterbottom, UK), YOU CAN COUNT ON ME  (Kenneth Lonergan)

Best shorts (not listed above): COUPLING (Stan Brakhage), MICROMOTH (Julie Murray), MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (Jim Jennings),  RESTRICTED (Jay Rosenblatt), SURFACE NOISE (Abigail Child)

Guilty pleasures: BAISE-MOI (Virginie Desperites/Caroline Trinh Thi, France), CECIL B. DEMENTED (John Waters), CHARLIE'S ANGELS,  HOLLOW MAN (Paul Verhoeven), , THE NINTH GATE (Roman Polanski, France/Spain)

Worst films that  actually drew an audience : THE COLOR OF PARADISE (Majid Majidi, Iran), NURSE BETTY (Neil LaBute), O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (Joel Coen), SCARY MOVIE (Keenan Ivory Wayans), SMALL-TIME CROOKS (Woody Allen)

Worst films no one saw:  THE ART OF AMALIA (Bruno de Almeida), THE KESTREL'S EYE (Mikael Kristerssen, Sweden), THE LORD'S LANTERN IN BUDAPEST (Miklos Jançso, Hungary), SOUTHPAW (Liam McGrath, Ireland), TOO MUCH SLEEP (David Maquiling)

Best para-cinema: B.O.B. (Outkast music video, directed by Little X), DRIFTWOOD (Travis music video) , ELECTRIC EARTH (Douglas Aitken installation), FERVOR (Shirin Neshat installation)

Top dozen films I saw on the big screen for the first time this year: ACE IN THE HOLE (Billy Wilder, 1951), LES BONNES FEMMES (Claude Chabrol, France, 1960), DIABOLIQUE (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1955), DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1922), THE HARDER THEY COME (Perry Henzell, Jamaica, 1973), I AM TWENTY (Marlen Khutsiev, USSR, 1964), ICE (Robert Kramer, 1969), LOVE UNTO DEATH (Alain Resnais, France, 1984), MES PETITES AMOREUSES (Jean Eustache, France, 1974), ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (Robert Wise, 1959), SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (Karel Reisz, UK, 1960), SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957),  23RD PSLAM BRANCH (Stan Brakhage, 1966)

Best film books: GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE (Michael Atkinson), ITINERARIE D'UN CINE-FILS (Serge Daney), PLANET HONG KONG (David Bordwell), WEIMAR CINEMA AND AFTER (Thomas Elsaesser)


On course for next year's list: CURE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan), IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong), SKIN OF MAN, HEART OF BEAST (Hélene Angel, France)