NR. 8: Sexy Beast, dir. Jonathan Glazer (UK, 2000). Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley are incredible. This young director has a flair for filmmaking, and even though he errs by excess in a few scenes, his command of scene construction is for the most part impressive. Ben Kingsley's acting has never been fiercer and more convincing. He plays a menacing psychopath in this film. The closest he has come to this role is in his portrayal of the doctor in Death and the Maiden (1994). Kingsley is Ben Logan. What a name for this vile and intimidating character. He is a page from Ray Winstone's past. Winstone plays a middle-aged gangster who has retreated to a simple but elegant existence in a post-modern house on the rocks in Spain. His wife and he live an idyllic life of seeming retirement. They reminded me of the gangsters from Goodfellas (1990) plopped down in a Philip Johnson glass house. Early in the film a boulder flies the cliff above the house and lands smack dab in the middle of the swimming pool. That boulder is AKA Don Logan-who enters their life suddenly and with devastating results. Why does he show up? To entice his old associate to complete one more job. Every scene with Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone, the wife, and the latter's two best friends is charged with chilling menace. Don Logan, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) is a hand grenade ready to explode. And when he does the film takes a delicious twist in plot and resolves that plot twist convincingly. NR. 7: Ghost World, dir. Terry Zwigoff (USA). In Ghost World Zwigoff has made a breakthrough film with the punch of American Beauty (1999). He utilizes the talents of Thora Burch, the same young actor who played the teenaged daughter in American Beauty. The film begins with a high school graduation for the ages and two cynical seniors, Enid (Thora Burch) and Rebecca (Stephanie Johannson), high school pals, who are equal parts cynical and vulnerable. The balance of those two terms is essential to the truth and the beauty of this film. These characters are lousy when it comes to dealing with feelings. ENid's girlfriend Rebecca plays the straight woman to Enid's wild streak. She gets a job; she wants to move into an apartment together. She is beginning, slowly but surely, to move into that wacky world of maturity-one step at a time. But Enid spoils for a fight with the Fates or with any of the forces of normalcy in this world. Then she meets the dorkiest of dorks, a man in his 40s who is extremely introverted-to the extent that he has no social life, lives with an overweight friend, and has no prospects for changing the tedium of his life. But Seymour is interesting. He loves jazz, he collects records, and he collects all sorts of other Americana. As I watched this film, I concluded that Enid had met the perfect man for her; but he needed to be about 15-20 years younger than Seymour to make it work. What do you do when you have met Mr. Right but the timing is wrong? Again, Zwigoff does not stoop to sentimentality. He deals in some hard truths about human interaction and human vulnerability. The only way out here is for Enid to take stock of her life and not make irretrievable errors.
NR. 6: Divided We Fall, dir. Jan Hrebejk (Czech Republic, 2000). Although the film focuses on a young Jewish man who is hidden from the Nazis in WW II, it NOT another holocaust film. Instead, it is a careful character study of the way people adapt to the difficult choices they are forced to make. So what will happen? Nothing that is predictable or cliched.. Instead, we watch their relationships unfold. In the midst of these interactions is the presence of a Nazi collaborator, an amazing character actor, who is in love with the wife and tries to ingratiate himself by plying the husband and wife with gifts. So there are two levels of collaborators here: one against the Nazis and one with the Nazis. And how is one ever to forgive those who collaborate with the Nazis? This is quite simply a beautiful, engaging film, and one where the plot twists make sense and take the narrative to new levels. After viewing a film like this, it is easy to have faith in the persistence of the human spirit to survive and forgive and do good. NR. 5: The Widow of Saint-Pierre, dir. Patrice Leconte (France, 2000). In this film Juliette Binoche's character is anchored to the real world of 1850 French Canada--in a barren landscape populated by fishermen and their wives and widows. The film begins by establishing the place as a character and then opening up the first plot point with some economy: after a night of drinking, two fishermen (who had almost been lost at sea in a fog bank-but were luckily picked up by another boat) row out to an island to confront their captain. After taunting the man and drawing him out of his house, one of the two men, August (played by Emir Kusturica), stabs the captain and later is picked up with his accomplice. A brief court scene shows the men found guilty and admitting that they killed the man for no good reason. As a consequence, the guilty man is to be executed; but in this remote land, who will sign on to become his executioner? And if no executioner is found, then the man in charge, Binoche's husband, will have to die in his place. What we have here is far more than the typical romantic love triangle we have been brought up on in American cinema. Instead, we have an exploration of what it means to love someone and to affirm-in that love-that the other person is a separate person, an individual, who has every right to pursue a meaningful path in his/her life. The irector, Laconte, is brilliant and unrelenting in his probing of the dynamics of love. il).
NR. 6: In the Bedroom, dir. Todd Fields (USA). Watching this film was like attending a funeral and then staying with the characters to attend to their grieving. At the heart of the film there was a loss, the senseless murder of a young man. There was a brief funeral scene, but most of the action takes place after that early plot development. We follow the young man's mother and father as they grieve separately and apart. We see glimpses of the older woman who was his lover and witness the profound depths of her loss. What makes a film like this special? Meaning resides in the cut, and when the cut comes in, viewers attach meaning to that image, often of a human face, reacting to his or her surroundings. This is a remarkably quiet and subtle film. Perhaps it is too quiet and too subtle; I'm sure it will be for the tastes of many viewers. But it works in its own way. The director takes time to create images that have a lasting impression. There is the iconic image of the town's cannery, a reminder of the power of the richest family in town, and a reminder that the evil young man in the film is the son of that cannery owner. Then there are the images of the human face, and especially of the three people who are grieving in this film. Sissy Spacek is perfect in the role of the controlling mother. Tom Wilkinson is astounding as the husband, a man who wants to resolve this crisis somehow and realizes how powerless he really is in the face of the subtleties of the legal system. Marissa Tomei is solid as the older woman whose summer love affair with their son leads to tragedy. There's the word for this film-tragedy-because it is all about choices, and the absence of choices, action and the absence of action, and finally an amazing moment when two people strip away the veneer of isolating grief and tell it like is to each other.
NR. 5: Lantana, dir. Ray Lawrence (Australia).
NR. 4: Gosford Park, Robert Altman (UK).
NR. 3: Angels of the Universe, dir. Fridrik Thor Fridrikkson (Iceland, 2000). Fridrikkson is quite simply one of the great directors working today. In this film he tells the unflinching story of one young man's degeneration into schizophrenia. Paul lives at home, is in love with a beautiful young woman, and is an artist. He is glib, lively and full on energy. He entertains his younger siblings like any older brother should. But the first time I saw his artwork in his bedroom I suspected something was wrong. His art works included images of beings trapped in womb-like surroundings. There were monsters in his art; and as he deteriorated, those monsters came to the foreground and demanded to be heard. Finally, he is brought to a mental hospital at the edge of the sea. Now in the mental hospital all is silence and stillness and calm. In fact, boredom is probably a better word to characterize his life in the hospital. There he meets several patients and befriends some of the them. Their adventures are humorous and sad and believable. The humanity of these patients comes to the fore. So how does a film like this end? All I can say is that at the final scene, which is perfectly rendered, gives one faith in the power of cinema to reveal what is most distressing, painful, and yet necessary in the human condition.
NR. 2: Yi yi, dir. Edward Yang. (Taiwan, 2000). The film begins with a wedding scene and ends with a funeral. Both scenes emphasize the uncertainty of a moment of passage-in the first case, the uncertainty on the faces of the bride and groom, and in the second case the uncertainty of a father who has survived an emotional and psychological passage in his life. Between these two scenes is a modern family drama played out on numerous levels. In a film like this nothing much really happens. There are few overly dramatic scenes with actors pulling out all the stops. But there is rich drama here, and it is complex and meaningful and memorable. The plot focuses on the parallel lives of a father and an adolescent daughter. The father gains an opportunity to revisit a former love affair; the daughter begins the tentative first steps of dating. The comparisons of their stories reveals what the two generations share in common-the desire for acceptance understanding, a need to be listened to, and a search for affection and intimacy. As in all great films, the director here utilizes place as a character. The city of Taipei, Taiwan, becomes one of the main characters in the film. The characters interact with each other against a cold urban landscape of glass towers and concrete walls. At the end of the film, there is a magical scene where the daughter comes into the room to find the comatose grandmother sitting up and looking quite well. The two have a quiet conversation that means everything to the young woman. Scenes like this remind us of how cinema can uplift us by facing the rigors of life with an unblinking eye. The durability of the human spirit is revealed in all of its ambiguity, ambivalence, and power in this film.
NR. 1: The Man Who Wasn't There. dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (USA). Quite simply, the best film of the year. Why? The film provides an emotional and psychological x-ray of the main character; the character Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is drawn as an Everyman character, someone who is ordinary, harmless, and invisible; it honors the film noir thrillers of the 40s and 50s in its black and white cinematography, its muddied emotional relationships, and its themes of obsession and betrayal; it realizes the 1950s American small-town setting and unites Cold War themes and fears (especially the fear of aliens dropping down in flying saucers); it introduces us to a cast of eccentrics and original characters (the con man, Big Dave the store owner, the prim and proper girl next door, her alcoholic father, the insurance investigator, the big-time lawyer, the chatty brother-in-law.) Film should create a world--even a world recognizable to us in our own experiences--but still a world we have never entered before. Film drops us into that world and we are left open-mouthed, slack-jawed, and bug-eyed as we experience it. This film noir version of 1950s small-town America is perfectly realized by the Coens. The meanings of this world need to be realized through the cut--through the syntax of film itself. And that's what happens in this film. From the first five minutes of the film I was hooked: Thornton's voice-over as the character of the second-chair barber describing the various haircuts given to clients, and then the cuts to Thornton's awful face, flaccid, drained of life, a cigarette dangling from his lips as if permanently attached. Thornton was a presence in this film.In this film I kept expecting Ed Crane to explode. I watched him suppress his emotions, hold back his reactions, and remain the quintessential observer of life. In one scene, when he knows a big secret kept from everyone else in town, we see him driving down the main street and watching people walking by on the sidewalk. In his voice-over he brags about the power he feels over these people. He knows something they don't know. But then the director cuts to a bird's-eye point of view shot of Crane lying on his back in his bed--the same type of cutting Scorsese used in Taxi Driver. Ed Crane is an invisible man. He was invisible to his wife, to the town, and finally . . . .the last scene is quintessential Coen Brothers: back to Blood Simple, Fargo, and now add this one to the list.
|1||The Man Who Wasn't There||USA||Joel & Ethan Coen|
|2||Yi yi (2000)||Taiwan||Edward Yang|
|3||Angels of the Universe (2000)||Iceland||Fridrik Thor Fridrikkson|
|4||Gosford Park||UK||Robert Altman|
|6||In the Bedroom||USA||Todd Fields|
|7||The Widow of Saint-Pierre (2000)||France||Patrice Leconte|
|8||Divided We Fall||Czech-Rep.||Jan Hrebejk|
|9||Ghost World||USA||Terry Zwigoff|
|10||Sexy Beast||UK||Jonathan Glazer|
|12||With a Friend Like Harry . . .||Belgium||Dominik Moll|
|13||Enemy at the Gates||UK/Germany||Jean-Jacques Arnaud|
|14||Oceans Eleven||USA||Stephen Soderbergh|
|15||Amores Perros (2000)||Mexico||Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu|
Le Gout des Autres (The Taste
|17||Black Hawk Down||USA||Ridley Scott|
|18||Tilsammans (Together) (2000)||Sweden||Lukas Moodysson|
|20||The Deep End||USA||David Siegel|
NR. 11: Memento, dir. Christopher Nolan (USA). The main character has a serious neurological disorder, a kind of tabula rasa complex. The onset of the disorder was a blow to his head when a man who raped his wife attacked him. He can remember about 15 consecutive minutes of his life. But after that period of time his slate is swept clean and he remembers nothing of the past 15 minutes. The most innovative aspect of this film is its structure. Instead of going forward in time, the narrative goes backward in time. The first shot shows a Polaroid photograph of a dead man. As we watch the image, it becomes lighter and lighter and eventually fades out. That shot selection suggests a metaphor for the workings of this man's mind: the more time passes the more his short-term memories fade. Nolan provides markers within each sequence to remind us that the sequences, as they relate to one another, are running backward in time rather than forward in time. The first scene in each sequence is filmed in black & white. In these opening scenes we are as disoriented as Leonard. In those scenes there are no markers to help us understand context. We get context only by watching the rest of the sequence--filmed in color. Nolan uses this frame technique to help viewers orient themselves to each new section of time Leonard lives through and then forgets. Nolan's view of the world comes across too bleak, too cynical, and too hopeless for my taste. In his world everyone who is given the opportunity either sets up a con game or scam or willingly participates in one. We see the worst of humanity: the greed, jealousy, taste for revenge, and the manipulation of others. Still, films like this one are superb as technical exercises that test and stretch the boundaries of film and show us structures we have not seen before. NR. 12: With a Friend Like Harry. . . .dir. Dominik Moll (France). The first scene of this film is perfect. The camera is trained low-angle on the sweaty young father driving his family to their vacation house. Two of the little girls in the backseat are fussing. The baby girl is colicky and feverish. The young mother is on the verge of desperation. The parents are on edge-and the family outing is nearly out of control. This scene is the place to begin. Every young family knows that this is what family life is really like when you have small children. Into this world appears-like a vision-the strange man called Harry, who approaches Michel (the young father) in a restroom motorway stop and announces that he is an old schoolmate from 20 years ago. And poor Michel does not recognize him. So the first red herring is inserted here. Has Harry made a study of Michel's past, and is he faking his schoolmate relationship? Two things we learn about Harry: 1) He likes to solve problems, and 2) excess is the only way to fulfillment. Who has the problems? Focus on poor Michel, with a car that breaks down, with a vacation house that needs more work than he has time to give it, with two parents who are cloying in their emotional attachment to their son, with a job that fills him with no passion. Yes, Michel has problems. And with a friend like Harry. . . . At the end of the film-and when you get to that last scene you will be reminded of how much mystery remains in our understanding of the role of the unconscious and the effects of "friendship" (however to define that term) on creativity, temperament, and fortune.
NR. 13: Enemy at the Gates, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud (UK). This film reminds me of an old-fashioned epic adventure from the 1960s, like Dr. Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia. The canvas is big (the Siege of Leningrad in WW II), the main characters are larger-than-life (two famous snipers and a future Premier of the Soviet Union), and the romance is as old-fashioned as Casablanca. Annaud directs with a sure hand and knows how to frame shots. The best parts of this film are the one-on-one duels between the Russian sniper and hero of the Soviet Union (Vasilli, played by Jude Law), and the German sniper who comes to kill him (Koenig, played by Ed Harris). Each of those confrontations was tense and dramatic. The battle scenes in the opening sequence of the film were reminiscent of the opening 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Don't forget the love triangle. Danilov is a Russian Jew. He falls in love with Tanya, another Jew, whose parents were murdered after being deported by the Nazis. She very much wants to kill Germans instead of working in the propaganda office. But Tanya falls in love with Vassili, the Orthodox boy who becomes a lionized heroic figure (as a consequence of the propaganda Danilov spills out in scores of leaflets and tracts. So who gets the woman? That question is older than the film Casablanca! NR. 14: Oceans Eleven, dir. Stephen Soderbergh (USA). Here's the rundown on this practically perfect film as entertainment: 1) Julia Roberts does a perfect Julia Roberts imitation; 2) Brad Pitt eats his way through the film and manages not to chew any of the scenery. His work continues to be a revelation; 3) Matt Damon is perfectly miscast as Brad Pitt's son--but that's okay, because Damon is critic proof after his Oscar-award screenplay and the cult of Saving Private Ryan; 4) Elliot Gould's chest hairs nearly stole the show; 5) Old man Carl Reiner shows he still has the fire in his eyes and the fire in his belly when it comes to performing as an actor; 6) Andy Garcia is beginning to look increasingly like Nosferatu before sundown--and yet handles his role with grace and self-control and is one of the major acting hits of the film. The ending scene, showing the entire Ocean's crew standing by the shooting fountains outside of the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip--all to the accompaniment of Debussy's Claire de Lune--was perfect filmaking.
NR. 15: Amores Perros, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico, 2000). This film is strongly reminiscent of Quentin Tarintino's Pulp Fiction (1994) in the way it organizes the stories of four characters (and sets of characters) whose lives often intersect randomly and in the backgrounds of each other's lives. I was impressed with the camera set-ups, the cinematography, and the detailed characterizations. Most of these people were losers; but in their failings they revealed something of their dreams, their ideals, and their desperation. A common theme among the three stories was the bonds (or lack of bonds) between brothers. In one story a young man becomes his brother's rival for his brother's wife. Another story focuses on a brother who hires a hit man to kill his brother and business partner. (This story was the weakest of the lot.) These Cain and Abel stories are set against the main story in the film--that of a middle-aged man who dropped out of middle-class life when his little girl was two and became a revolutionary. The fourth story is about a wealthy man who leaves his wife for a younger woman--a famous model. Their lives are changed when the woman is struck while driving her car in city traffic and eventually loses her leg because of the injuries caused by the wreck. The director wisely entwines these four stories by shifting the chronology of the events. The film begins with a car chase; eventually that chase leads to an accident (noted above). The rest of the film provides a context for this accident. The film peels away the layers of characters deliberately, without sentimentality. Each of the main characters had a dog or dogs--and their love for their animals became an essential determiner of how they responded to life crises. One dog was trained to fight other dogs; another dog was a typical spoiled lap dog who finally brought a couple together; the old man's three dogs were his greatest comfort in his lonely existence. The Spanish amores perros means "love is a bitch." That phrase is meant ironically in the context of this film, of course. What you love drives you mad. But another play on word is the reference to a female dog as a "bitch." The love of a dog (or dogs) also makes individuals do wild and crazy things. This film dealt with such truths brutally and forthrightly.NR. 16: Le Gôut des Autres (The Taste of Others), dir. Agnès Jaoui (France). The screenwriters (Jaoui and Jeanne-Paul Bacri-husband and wife?) collaborated in Un Air de Famille, a fabulous 1996 film directed by Cedric Klapisch. Jaoui directed this film, and the upshot is an entertaining comedy of manners about people from different classes, educational backgrounds, and tastes. The cultural clash is witty and insightful. The theme seems to be one step beyond, "Don't judge a book by its cover." The film suggests that an individual has the will to change and grow like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. The star of the show is the actor Jeanne-Paul Bacri, who wears a thick mustache early in the film and is a perfect subject for the camera. Bacri plays Castella, an owner of a trucking company in Rouen. Every stereotype about this plain man would suggest he is boring, uncreative, and mediocre. When a business deal compels Castella to hire an English tutor, who also happens to be a middle-aged actress, Castella is smitten. He has found his soul mate. But the tutor (Clara) is not interested in him. The barriers of class and culture are too much. Castella begins to insert himself into her cultural context.
NR. 17: Black Hawk Down, dir. Ridley Scott (USA).
NR. 18: Together (Tilsammans), dir. Lukas Moodysson (Sweden). The film takes place in Stockholm in 1975 in a commune called Tillsammans (Together). The ideals of socialism and communism guide this collective. The film begins with a quick plot point: Goran, one of the leaders of the commune, receives a call from his older sister, Anna. She tells him her drunken husband struck her in the face and she wants to leave him. So Goran brings Anna (and her two children, Eva and Stefan) to the commune so they can be safe from the abusive husband. Much of the film has the look of a documentary, and I wondered if Moodysson tried to simulate some of the style of 1970s filming, especially with the quick zoom in from wide shots to close-ups that was part of that "old style" of documentary. Sometimes the hand-held camera, the unstable shooting, and the zooming became distracting. But the power of the characterizations, the structure of the scenes, and the sensitivity to the human dimensions of these characters prevailed. I was impressed with the portrayals of the two children, who seem out of place and alienated amid these starry-eyed radicals. They seemed to have escaped one form of abuse only to be exposed to neglect. But their mother's love for the children and her attention to their needs was demonstrated repeatedly. The presence of the two children subtly begins to change this place. Giving the children equal storylines helped soften the repeated arguments of the adult commune members that were trying to figure out how to maintain the vitality of their life in a commune. This film was a compelling portrait of the human desire to form community. I was moved by so many of the scenes and the revelations of character they illustrated.
NR. 19: Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, dir. George Butler (USA, 2000). You can thank Caroline Alexander for this film. She is the author of a first-rate narrative of the failed 1914 Shackleton expedition (an attempt to cross the Antarctic continent). And for cat lovers, she is the author of Mrs. Chippy's Last Adventure, a wonderfully creative story of the expedition from the cat's point of view. But George Butler has done what Alexander could not do-through a variety of documentary film techniques he has brought the photographs in Alexander's books to life. In her books Alexander used many photographs taken by Frank Hurley. Butler re-used some of these photographs, but he also incorporated much of the film motion-picture footage shot by Hurley on the expedition. Then he added recent film footage of polar ice floes, icebergs, and images of some of the key locales relevant to the story. Into the mix he added the standard interview footage of relatives of some of the principals, and his best informant is an English professor who has a wonderful gift of storytelling. Butler copies the Ken Burns touch of using actors to give voice to the characters' words. He also includes some audio interviews with the principals later in their lives. The film introduces us to a Twentieth-Century hero, Ernest Shackleton, who was heroic in the midst of a monumentally failed adventure. The film gets at the secrets of leadership, community as it is experienced by men, and the raw lust for adventure that drives so many men. NR. 20: The Deep End, dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel (III) (USA). This film works because it offers more than the formula of the mystery genre. The opening scene (lit in an underwater aqua blue) takes place at the Deep End, a Reno, Nevada, gay nightclub. Margaret, played with admirable restraint by Tilda Swinton, shows up to confront a bad man who she believes has taken advantage of her 18-year-old son Beau. A dark-lit flashback plays in the woman's mind-a late-night accident scene (her son was driving) and a mother comforting her groggy, disoriented son. Mother and son are not communicating; their dialogue is edgy and uncooperative. The next night the same bad man shows up at their beautiful Lake Tahoe home and tries to seduce the son again. A struggle ensues, the bad man walks away, and then the bad man falls off of the dock. We presume he may have drowned. The son, assuming the man has left, returns to the house. The next morning the mother finds the man's dead body. What happens next is believable, scary, and initiates the rest of the plot perfectly. I was drawn into the woman's story. As I watched her, I wanted to know more about this woman. I wanted her to resolve her pain in some way. The film really hits its stride when a blackmailer shows up (played with quiet intensity by Goran Visnjic. In this film we love to watch the sallow, angular cheeks of Tilda Swinton and her piercing eyes. The reaction shots carry us into the heart of the mystery of these characters and the psychological changes that are transforming them.
NOTE: In all honesty Apocalypse, Now: Redux was the best film I viewed in 2001. During several scenes I was overwhelmed with a kind of cognitive overload. So many things were happening at once within the scene that I almost wanted to laugh or cry or press the rewind button. The more than three hours sped by as if in a dream. This film follows the most time-honored narrative tradition in American literature: the journey theme. Like Huck Finn and Jim in Huckleberry Finn the patrol boat carries our characters up the river into Cambodia. Along the way they make stops on the shore and have one sort of experience after another. We know from Eleanor Coppola's book and the documentary based on it (Hearts of Darkness, 1991), that the narrative strategy is to move from the present time into the past with each stop along the way. Finally, we arrive at a kind of pre-historical or pre-conscious time. This film is photographed brilliantly by Vittorio Storaro, who also photographed The Last Emperor (1987) and Tango (1998). I was also reminded of the way that cinematic history has taken us to a place where we can review a film from our teens, or 20s, or 30s perhaps 20 or 25 or 30 years later--and in doing so we see a different film because we are different people. So many critics have said the additional footage in this film was interesting but not as compelling as the 1979 version. But to me the additional footage was warranted. I appreciated especially the expansion of scenes that added women characters and developed further perspectives on the main characters (all of whom were men).
Last Updated: January, 2002
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