The year 2000, not the 2000’s – that will have to wait until at least January. Not nearly as tremendous a year as 2001, it’s also prone to turn-of-the-decade deliberation: most sources list two or three of these films as copyright 1999, but since they were released in the US the following year, they qualify here.
10. HIGH FIDELITY
Admittedly, I go back and forth on this film’s actual merit. Stephen Frears’ workmanlike adaptation of Nick Hornby’s first (and best) novel attempts to sell an inherently indie story (the hapless love life of a music geek/record store owner) to a wide audience, and the two sensibilities don’t always gel. But then, the music geek in me remembers so much to love about it: Jack Black’s breakthrough performance (playing to all of his very particular persona’s strengths), Todd Louiso’s underrated one (really, the antithesis of Black’s) and of course, John Cusack as a Lloyd Dobler-type who has hit his mid-thirties and naturally still hasn’t figured it all out.
9. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH
Period costume dramas tend to bore me to tears with their stilted pageantry, but this Edith Wharton adaptation from Terence Davies effortlessly draws me in because it draws so much blood. In his highly personal British film essays, Davies tends to favor a sort of unsentimental nostalgia: here, he revels in the lush detail of early 20th Century upper-crust New York, but he doesn’t lessen any of the real devastation Wharton’s heroine Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson, unconventionally cast but nearly revelatory) faces, and is shrewd enough not to obscure how much of it she brings upon herself—that’s not to say she doesn’t receive any help from a most exquisitely bitchy Laura Linney.
8. WONDER BOYS
Another indie novel (from Michael Chabon) getting the big studio treatment (helmed by director-for-hire Curtis Hanson)—but here, everything aligns beautifully. Michael Douglas gleefully (and rather successfully) plays against type as a schlubby, ratty bathrobe-adorned author forever trying to finish a massive novel while dealing with a garden variety of eccentrics (Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire) and lovers (Frances McDormand, a pre-Cruise Katie Holmes). It’s incredibly shaggy and more than a little quirky, but also immensely likable, and one of the few instances where a tacked-on happy ending actually works better than the book’s unbearably depressing conclusion.
7. DANCER IN THE DARK
Speaking of unbearably depressing conclusions: I would rate this film much higher if I could ever stand to watch it again. Still, at a safe distance I can admire and applaud Lars von Trier’s weird, operatic combination of Dogme feel-bad melodrama and joyous, explosive Technicolor musical spectacle. Only a genius as demented as von Trier could pull this off, a true psychological slasher film—difficult to watch, but so compelling that you don’t dare to look away. But do not undervalue Bjork: her innovative songs (which almost magically fuse the orchestral with the electronic) and her unglamorous, egoless performance both give the film its soul.
6. NOT ONE LESS
Zhang Yimou made a name for himself with sumptuous, epic historical pieces that, at their best, retained the intimacy of a tight character study. Here, he forgoes the large canvas and focuses entirely on a smaller story that can be summed up as such: a young substitute teacher in rural China is instructed not to lose any of her students. When one boy leaves the village to find work in the city, she goes out looking for him. Even as it subtly points out critical differences between an evolving urban and rural China, it’s a simple, straightforward film. Fortunately, in that simplicity, the director finds much beauty—I haven’t seen it in nearly a decade now, but I can still recall how deeply moved I felt at the closing credits.
5. THE WIND WILL CARRY US
For much of the past decade, Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami has focused entirely on documentaries and minimalist digital video features that visually bear little resemblance to his best known work. So, call this entry a pinnacle of what came before. Abandoning the meta-narratives of past triumphs like CLOSE-UP, he presents a bare-bones premise—a journalist travels to an isolated Kurdish village to report on a rare burial ceremony for a dying elderly woman—and then repeatedly skirts it, focusing more on cultural differences and missed connections (never has any film wrung so much poetry from bad cell phone reception). Throughout, the mammoth, surrounding landscape plays such an essential role to the film’s almost beatific pondering of life and death that Kiarostami’s typically unresolved final scene makes for a most apt summation.
4. BEST IN SHOW
With each year, this looks more like Christopher Guest’s best show. His precise dismantling of dog shows and their trainers may not contain the unanticipated emotional heft of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN or the deadpanned brilliance of THIS IS SPINAL TAP, but it may be his funniest, sharpest effort, and certainly his darkest and most savage. Kudos to an especially inspired ensemble, from expertly drawn stock characters like Parker Posey’s yuppie from hell and Jennifer Coolidge’s golddigging poodle princess to only-in-Guest-land creations like Fred Willard’s sublimely clueless, tasteless commentator and Guest’s own drawlin’ fishin’ store proprietor/aspiring ventriloquist. As little as they may care to admit it, subsequent real competition-focused docs from SPELLBOUND to THE KING OF KONG owe a lot to this fake one.
3. JUDY BERLIN
Whatever happened to director Eric Mendelsohn? His debut feature seemed to come from out of nowhere. The type of indie film that now seems lost to a long-ago era, it’s a low budget, black-and-white fable about a day in the life of a sleepy Long Island suburb. The word fable seems most suitable due to the film’s dreamy pacing, sparse, poetic use of music and sound and gorgeous, otherworldly cinematography (the day centers on a solar eclipse); there’s also a trio of superb performances from Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie, and, in her last role, the incomparable Madeline Kahn. According to IMBd.com, Mendelsohn finally has a new film in post-production; let’s hope it’s as unique, charming and sincere as his first.
2. YI YI
Most Westerners (including this author) only know Taiwanese director Edward Yang via this three-hour familial tapestry and meditation on mortality, urban alienation and human kindness. While I would love to easily view Yang’s still-not-available-on-region-1-DVD back catalogue, YI YI seems so elaborately vast and complete that it almost compensates. Beginning with a birth and ending with a death, it marries the scope of Dickens with the pinpoint exactness of Carver. Nothing really earth-shattering occurs, but everything shifts and rearranges itself ever so slightly, creating the most profound cumulative effect as it considers something so ordinary as the passage of time and lives lived—possibly even more profound since Yang’s untimely death in 2007.
1. BEAU TRAVAIL
Although inspired by Herman Melville’s novel BILLY BUDD, this is the sort of subject matter you can imagine only working as a film, or perhaps director Claire Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard just managed to fully transform a literary work into cinematic art at a level without precedent. A stunningly shot and framed Rubik’s Cube of a movie, BEAU TRAVAIL (whose title translates as “Good Work”) is a peek into how a young recruit upsets the balance of power in a French Foreign Legion post in North Africa, but it’s just as much a rigorous paean to the kinesis of the male form. It constructs a purely visual language that would make it just as exciting to watch with the sound turned off—that is, if it weren’t for wiry, wound-up Denis Levant at the film’s center. Both his acute physical actions and monotone (but not apathetic) voiceover barely conceal a mounting intensity that is kept almost impossibly bottled-up until the film’s astonishing final scene, where it explodes in a most unexpected, ingenious and euphoric way.
My original top ten for this year:
1. BEAU TRAVAIL
2. THE WIND WILL CARRY US
3. JUDY BERLIN
4. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME
5. CHUCK AND BUCK
6. DANCER IN THE DARK
7. NOT ONE LESS
8. ALMOST FAMOUS
9. CHICKEN RUN
10. HIGH FIDELITY
Funny how # 1 and # 10 are still the same, eh? I must have seen YI YI days after making this list. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH would not play Boston until February 2001. Can't imagine how CHUCK AND BUCK and CHICKEN RUN made the cut over BEST IN SHOW and WONDER BOYS. I have fond memories of ALMOST FAMOUS as a fun, if somewhat flawed film. However, my memories of YOU CAN COUNT ON ME are vague at best—I seriously need to revisit it, because I remember feeling a little anger over Laura Linney losing the Oscar to Julia Roberts that year.