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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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)