So, compared to last year, just how bad were movies in 2000? Let's put it this way: Last year, the wonderfully inventive and clever Election narrowly missed making my 10 Best list. I consider it a truly great comedy, and its Oscar-nominated screenplay is superb, but I just couldn't fit it in following a year that produced such milestones as American Beauty, Toy Story 2, Being John Malkovich, The Straight Story, and even South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (and that's not even including such works as Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley, both of which I saw after my year-end article had been published).
If Election had been released this year, I would've ranked it number one.That's not to say that the films I have chosen don't deserve their accolades; however, the quality of last year's best mainstream movies was almost frighteningly high, and I didn't see one film this year that had the unqualified greatness you look for in a year-end recap. But it's time for a lot of us, myself included, to stop bitching. Yes, a lot of this year's works were bad. Really bad. But, in actuality, they weren't much worse than usual; it's just that so many of last year's were so bloody good.
And, of course, here in the Midwest, it's not really over yet. Here's a sampling of the movies and performers that have been winning year-end critics' awards so far: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Quills; Traffic; Javier Bardem for Before Night Falls; Laura Linney for You Can Count on Me; Benicio del Toro for Traffic; Willem Dafoe for Shadow of a Vampire; Joaquin Phoenix for Quills and The Yards; and Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock. Catch any of 'em yet?
Probably not. Our area is still awaiting the arrival of all of these titles (some of which, no doubt, won't arrive at all), which were either screened early for the sole purpose of winning critical support, or in the Academy-heavy areas of New York and Los Angeles. And that list of films doesn't even include a slew that could be just as impressive: Dancer in the Dark, Requiem for a Dream, State & Main, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The House of Mirth, and 13 Days, to name a few. So, for the moment, we're stuck with what we got. And as far as the following 10 titles are concerned, what we got was often more than fine. What I've noticed about the films I've selected is that there's not a one of them I don't have a few qualms with, and it would be easy to argue that all of them have flaws that should keep them off the list. With very few exceptions, it's a roster of "yeah/but" movies, like when you say, "Yeah, Field of Dreams is corny and sentimental and totally manipulative, but, man, does it work me over!" So, without further ado, my list of 2000's 10 Best "yeah/but" movies:
1) ERIN BROCKOVICH
Yeah ... it's a liberal rabble-rouser - à la Norma Rae and A Civil Action - that takes a few too many easy shots (especially at heartless corporate lawyers) and leaves little room for surprise at how the story will resolve itself.
But ... it's an extraordinarily entertaining and humane liberal rabble-rouser, so beautifully crafted yet underplayed that, despite my initial, glowing review, I completely underrated it when it was released in March. Director Steven Soderbergh has such faith in the script (a terrific one, filled with wicked humor and moral indignation, by Susannah Grant), his performers, his technical team, and the film's sad, true story itself that he lets his scenes unfold with a relaxed grace that is astonishing compared to the sledgehammer technique Hollywood usually demands. There's a lot of anger on display, yes, but it's Soderbergh's beautiful scenes of domestic life - whether it's Erin speaking empathetically with her clients, stealing a rare moment of intimacy with her lover (the wonderful Aaron Eckhart), or silently weeping in the car as she hears, via cell phone, how her youngest daughter said her first word when Erin wasn't home - that stick with you. In the title role, Julia Roberts is incredibly varied and enormously appealing; it's the best role, and performance, of her career, and she's nearly matched scene-for-scene by the exemplary Albert Finney, Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones, Conchata Ferrell, and numerous others. Bonus points earned for the film's DVD release, which features deleted scenes that are just as fine as the ones that were kept in, including some lengthy ones that show Erin suffering from a devastating illness - the sorts of scenes that are usually kept in the film to ensure the lead an Oscar. Here, they're superfluous, because Roberts - deservedly - is going to win it anyway.
2) THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY
Yeah ... it's "just" a concert movie.
But ... it's chock full of something that has been sorely missing from movies this year: joy. Filmed in Charlotte, North Carolina, in front of a live, ultra-appreciative audiences, Spike Lee's coverage of the Original Kings of Comedy concert would be great entertainment if the camera merely stayed stationary and caught the riotous antics of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and the amazing Bernie Mac head-on; their exuberance and love of performing are infectious. But Lee's editing rhythms are peerless, the cameras are always placed exactly where they should be to give the performers their biggest laughs, and the segments with the quartet relaxing and joshing off-camera give the film itself true dimension; we're hip to the fact that their stand-up personas only hint at who they really are. The movie runs about 100 minutes long, and I think I had tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks for about 96 of them. Lee, who proved himself a marvelous documentarian with 4 Little Girls, has done it again; this is one of the all-time great concert films.
3) SMALL TIME CROOKS
Yeah ... it's Woody Allen's umpteenth New York comedy, it doesn't have the madcap, anything-for-a-laugh invention of his "early, funny" movies, and like many of his recent films, it's a slight, wispy work.
But ... it's the only American comedy this year with the confidence to turn its narrative on its ear, and it's something even rarer for a work of its genre: unpredictable. At first, you're in a delightful, slapstick universe where Woody and Tracey Ullman (a dream as a bickering married couple) and a trio of incompetents (the hilarious Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz, and Tony Darrow) attempt a bank heist; then you're transported to a clever-dialogue and sight-gag comedy in which our leading losers attempt to fit in with Manhattan's trendiest snoots; we land in a screwball world where Woody and his dim-witted cousin-in-law (the magnificent Elaine May) attempt another robbery; and it all progresses inevitably but brilliantly to its sweetheart of a finale. It's like watching a series of comedic short stories come alive onscreen, and the great cinematographer Zhao Fei gives it visual rapture to match the rapture of the actors and wordplay. By Woody's standards, this might be a minor work, but it's a minor work played to near perfection; Dreamworks' marketing helped, but there's another reason this was Woody's highest-grossing film in more than a decade: It's really good.
Yeah ... there are too many characters (and several of the more central ones, like Cyclops and Storm, have little to do), the visual effects aren't as polished as you might like, it's obviously geared to be the first film in a franchise, and it's based on a comic book, for God's sake.
But ... it's a work of almost shocking skill nonetheless, because the action scenes have real gravity and tension - astonishingly, many reviewers seemed to mock the film for not being a mindless thrill-ride - and the lead characters seem truly affected by their powers and their place in the world; these are action characters who suffer. Director Bryan Singer shows a sure touch for comic-book adventure scenes - there's a hilarious and terrifying one where Magneto attacks a group of cops with their own weaponry - but he also stages the quieter moments with their own power; the tender alliance between Wolverine and Rogue and the blistering ethical duels between Magneto and Professor X are as thrilling as any number of explosions. Singer and screenwriter David Hayter show such empathy for these supposedly one-dimensional characters that the film itself becomes something rather grand; a few effects might be on the shoddy side, but they have an otherworldly beauty and magic that the rest of the year's blockbusters can't hope to match. Among the sensational cast, Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen are dazzling, Anna Paquin continues to blossom into an unusually keen and soulful actress, and Hugh Jackman is the perfect Wolverine, imposing and dryly hysterical.
5) KEEPING THE FAITH
Yeah ... it has a one-joke premise that can be summarized in 10 words - priest and rabbi fall in love with the same woman - and Edward Norton's direction is occasionally spotty.
But ... it totally transcends the gimmickry of its setup with numerous laugh-out-loud moments (some visual, but mostly verbal, courtesy of the actors and screenwriter Stuart Blumberg), the best screen romance of the year (with apologies to Ben and Gwyneth in Bounce), and something amazing that might have kept it from being a bigger hit: its refusal to turn screen spirituality into a joke. Though it certainly wasn't suggested by the film's aggressive trailers, the faith exhibited by priest Brian (Norton) and rabbi Jake (Ben Stiller) feels absolutely real, and so everything that happens to them has consequence; when the radiant Anna (the radiant Jenna Elfman) enters and disrupts their lives, it has weight, so the comic moments are all the more electric and the poignant moments are all the more heart-rending. These situations are aided, too, by the remarkable bond that we feel in Norton and Stiller, completely believable as friends since childhood. The film only pretends to be lightweight; it's the most thoroughly satisfying romantic comedy we've had in ages.
6) BEST IN SHOW
Yeah ... it's not as funny as Waiting for Guffman or This is Spinal Tap.
But ... it's damn close. That comic genius Christopher Guest sends his mockumentarian talents to a dog show, bringing his beloved ensemble troupe with him (the best in this particular show are Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, and the fall-down-funny Fred Willard), and creates another hysterical but completely realistic universe where the characters onscreen are just a little crazier than you. And the story construction in Best in Show is even stronger than in Guffman, where you sometimes felt like necessary scenes were oddly excised (Red, White, & Blaine's rehearsal process felt a little rushed); here, every scene, and every reaction shot, that you're longing for is included. It all moves with supreme confidence and energy and will have you laughing out loud; in the coming years, may Mr. Guest and his collaborators focus their cameras on every eccentric American institution.
7) TIME CODE
Yeah ... it's a gimmick movie (the screen is separated into quadrants throughout the film's uninterrupted 93 minutes, with different, yet interconnected, stories of the Hollywood elite being told in each) that's under-plotted and often awkwardly performed.
But ... it proves endlessly fascinating as a viewing experience, not only for its themes (How do our actions affect the lives of others? Do our accidental encounters in life actually have a pattern?), but for the sheer chutzpah of the work as a filmmaking experiment. Though Mike Figgis' movie is more than elaborately choreographed, he achieves an amazing feeling of randomness; because you can literally choose which of the four screens you want to watch - although Figgis cannily guides your eye as well - when scenes and characters collide within them the effect is nearly explosive. Most of the film is dead serious, but the experience of watching it gets you rather giggly; every one of the movie's earthquake scenes (and there are several of them) was a kick. The acting could certainly be better (Stellan Skarsgård and Holly Hunter come off well, but Richard Edson, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Salma Hayek are mannered and fussy), but considering the improvisational nature of the work, it's not that damaging; it's a really fun movie masquerading as a thesis project.
8) HIGH FIDELITY
Yeah ... it's a dud as a love story, and it just doesn't go anywhere.
But ... not going anywhere is precisely the film's point, as it shrewdly, and often hilariously, exposes the pretension and quest for honesty in a group of 30ish singles struggling to find meaning in what seems like a meaningless world. As the owner of a tragically hip record store, John Cusack comes through with the definitive John Cusack performance - smart, funny, hyper-aware of his failings, and completely clueless at the same time. True, his screen romance with Iben Hjejle never ignites - she seems overly icy even for a rather icy role - but when you have a supporting crew as good as the one here, who cares? Among the many formidable talents director Stephen Frears lined up are Todd Louiso, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Lisa Bonet, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, and the show-stealing Jack Black, and every one of them gives the movie some zing. It's a witty, complicated, wonderful work.
9) CHICKEN RUN
Yeah ... it's a claymation feature that isn't as sharp as the shorter works from director Nick Park (the creator of Wallace and Grommit).
But ... it's sensationally entertaining regardless, with the film's claymation allowing us to rediscover the giddy thrill we all got from animation in the first place. To discuss the numerous joys of the film is to risk ruining what's great about it - how beautifully it's underplayed, and how sly and graceful its considerable streak of (veddy British) humor is. Of course, it's a terrific work for kids, but it's the grown-ups who will laugh the hardest at the movie's most inspired gags - Stalag 17 jokes abound, and your enjoyment of the work as a whole will be enhanced by a knowledge of World War II films (and their more charming clichés). But the film isn't solely a verbal treat; a scene with our heroes attempting to escape the machinations of a chicken-pie-creating device has the excitement of the Toy Story chases and is a visual showstopper as well. With delightful vocal work by Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, and the great Jane Horrocks.
10) THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE
Yeah ... it's the annual animated Disney money-grubber, and what's with that terrible title? But ... it's the most demented, hysterical, and - hold on to your hats - surprising cartoon you could imagine. The film does something rather astonishing - it trashes the Disney formula that has been so successful for the studio in the past, turning its clichés inside out and finding inspiration in, of all places, the classic Warner Bros. shorts, with the anything-goes logic of the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons. The film's "hero" (voiced by the wondrously smarmy David Spade) starts the film as a self-involved fool and stays one; the über-cutesy supporting animals turn out to be a little vicious; and there's not one soupy, Oscar-baiting song to be found. Let us rejoice! It's probably silly to hope that these changes remain in all future Disney enterprises, so let's just be thankful that this one is as brisk, enjoyable, and funny as it is. Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton voice the bad guys, and they'll forever be in the pantheon of memorable Disney goons.
AND A FEW OTHER 2000 NOTABLES ...
10-Best Runners-Up (alphabetically): The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, American Psycho, Beyond the Mat, Billy Elliot, Bounce, Fantasia 2000, Gladiator, Nurse Betty, Shaft, Wonder Boys.
Didn't Deserve Their Bad Reviews: Center Stage, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Reindeer Games, Remember the Titans, 28 Days, Vertical Limit, The Whole Nine Yards.
Didn't Deserve Their Rave Reviews: Almost Famous, The Big Kahuna, Dinosaur, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Mission: Impossible 2, The Patriot, Pay It Forward.
Most Underrated Great Performances: Christian Bale in Shaft, Annette Bening in What Planet Are You From?, Robert De Niro in Men of Honor, Tommy Lee Jones in Rules of Engagement, Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans, Jeffrey Wright in Shaft, Renee Zellweger in Nurse Betty.
Best Performances in Crap: Parker Posey in Scream 3, and practically the entire ensembles in Disney's The Kid, It's the Rage, and Where the Heart Is.
The Absolute, No-Question, Bar-None Worst Ending of the Year: Dr. T and the Women. The wedding? The cyclone? The car in Mexico? The childbirth scene? What the hell was Altman thinking?
But If There Was a Close Second: Pay It Forward. Haley Joel's a little young to be playing Christ, don't you think?
Biggest Hit that Nobody You Know Saw: Gone in 60 Seconds.
Most Fervent Hopes for the Year 2001: that Ridley Scott's Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal won't suck as badly as the book did; that we'll get Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon here before the Oscar telecast; and that Spielberg's sci-fi work A.I., which was originally to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, won't be as unbearably precious and fey as its trailers indicate.