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Sunday, Jan. 9, 2000

Vanishing boundaries of the screen

Reality and fantasy mix it up in the cinema of '99


These days, the use of digicam footage in films to signify "real" -- even in Hollywood -- is about as common as guns that never run out of ammo.

But while many filmmakers are quick to claim their films reflect reality, few are willing to admit that this proposition cuts both ways, that the movies can resonate in reality as well -- particularly when the movies in question are violent ones. Certainly, this year, one had to wince at the similarity between the posters for "The Matrix" and the Trench Coat Mafia. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that the Columbine killers dreamt of their own Hollywood fame, imagining that studios would be fighting over their story, and arguing over whether Tarantino or Spielberg would do the best job.

"Fight Club" sought to address this dangerously confusing blur of fantasy and reality in disenchanted young men, while rubbing our face in aestheticized cinematic violence. Ironically enough, it was one of several films that found itself facing the Columbine backlash -- even a delayed release and a last-minute change in focus to the ad campaign couldn't save it at the box office.

Look for Hollywood to temporarily retreat from the extremes in 2000 -- especially as presidential candidate John McCain's Hollywood-bashing Senate commission on youth violence is in session -- while it will be the provocative indie films, as usual, that take the most heat; "American Psycho" will surely serve as the lightning rod.

In a media-fixated society, reared on the model of advertising ("monkey see, monkey do"), the notion that changing the image will fix the problem is a convenient one -- especially for a society in denial of reality, namely, the ridiculous ease of access to lethal weaponry, and acceptance of this situation as "normal."

The films listed below, the best of '99, embrace both reality and fantasy, cheap thrills and deep thoughts, violence both cathartic and disturbing. A healthy diet is indeed a balanced one.

1) "La Vie Revee des Anges"

This emotionally powerful French film, which follows two young women on the margins of society through bad jobs and worse boyfriends, achieved a gritty realism the old-fashioned way: thoughtful, passionate acting and an unerring eye for accurate detail. Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier, who shared the Best Actress award at Cannes, were a compelling study in opposites: Regnier with a bitter, self-destructive hardness, and Bouchez, open to hope, empathy and the possibility of miracles. Director Erick Zonca lifts you up to the heavens and then socks you hard in the gut with this one. Unforgettable.

2) "Safe"

Todd Haynes got a lot of attention for his flashy paean to Glam rock, "Velvet Goldmine," but "Safe" is a far deeper film. The always-excellent Julianne Moore plays an affluent Southern California housewife who succumbs to a mysterious form of environmental illness, and turns to a New Age cult to find a cure. Not half as straightforward as it sounds, this film is more about our own reactions to illness and the unknown, and Haynes' coolly detached viewpoint is brilliantly provocative in making us question what we see.

3) "Buffalo '66"

You think your parents screwed you up? See this film. Director, actor, writer, composer and egomaniac Vincent Gallo debuted with this at times almost embarrassingly personal ode to self-love and self-loathing. In its own neurotic, meandering way, this is some kind of masterpiece. Tokyo's indie hit of the year, "Buffalo '66" played for six months plus at Cinema Rise, and is still going strong. Notable for the best scene ever shot in a Denny's.

4) "Run, Lola, Run"

Fresh, fast, confident, brash and oh-so-hip. Eurofilm hasn't been this much fun since the days of "Diva" and "Subway." German director Tom Tykwer takes the flimsiest of premise (punkette Lola has 20 minutes to somehow get a great deal of money to her screw-up drug-dealer boyfriend, or he's dead meat) and runs with it through several "Rashomon"-like variations. Eye candy with style, yes, but it manages to pause for some surprisingly tender and thoughtful moments as well. Tykwer, like no one else before him, manages to effectively match techno's adrenaline beat to a similar cinematic rush -- possibly because he also programmed the beats. Mad props.

5) "Shakespeare in Love"

Goofy, buoyant romantic comedy that was irresistible even if you didn't get all the literary and period in-jokes. Gwyneth shone, and Joseph charmed. A wonderful premise too, imagining that even the Bard himself faced the same pressures as today's screenwriters, torn between art and commerce. "Love, and a bit with a dog. That's what people want," suggests Geoffrey Rush, as the owner of the Rose Theater; director John Madden largely follows this philosophy, while also ironically highlighting it.

6) "The Matrix"

"What is The Matrix?"

"The Matrix is control."

It's not often we get ontological musings on society embedded in a frenetic piece of paranoid SF spectacle. The Wachowski Bros. deliver a surprisingly effective one-two punch, though: The special-effects sequences are wonderfully inventive (for a change), and the film's subtext -- we are controlled by the machines and structures we create -- hits you like a diamond bullet straight through the forehead. This is the sort of film that the rest of SF will be cribbing from for the next two decades. Hell, even Keanu couldn't ruin this one.

7) "The High-Low Country"

Stephen Frears' gorgeous cowboy noir had Woody Harrelson finally putting all that garrulous energy to good use, Billy Crudup imploding in repressed sexual longing, and Patricia Arquette as another inscrutable object of desire. This elegiac tale closed out a century's worth of Westerns with a decidedly ambivalent view of the cowboy myth: honorable, self-reliant icons of American values, or obnoxious horny rednecks with guns? You decide.

8) "Central Station"

Neo-neo-realism from former Brazilian documentary filmmaker Walter Salles. His tale of a sour old woman who warms to the young orphan boy she finds in her care could have been incredibly maudlin in other hands, but Salles uses it to comment on the cold, Darwinian capitalism that has made "Brazilification" synonymous with an utter breakdown in civil relations. Salles senses there is hope yet, and by film's end, largely convinces us as well.

9) (tie) "I Want You/A Simple Plan"

Two wonderfully tight and well-acted suspense flicks that Hitch would have been proud to call his own. Very different approaches, though -- in "A Simple Plan," former champion of cartoon-style filmmaking Sam Raimi ("Evil Dead," "Dark Man") is almost invisible, letting the tight script (based on Scott Smith's novel), bleak Mid-west winter and excellent cast (especially Billy Bob Thornton) do all the work.

With "I Want You", Michael Winterbottom is all style, scrambling the narrative, interweaving several complex characters and shooting the bleak British northern coast through the lush, filtered lenses of cameraman Slawomir Idziak. Though nothing is more alluring than femme fatale Rachel Weisz. Sigh.

10) (tie) "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"/"Fight Club"

It was 20 years too late, but Terry Gilliam's word-for-word adaptation of Hunter Thompson's classic work of "gonzo" journalism was about as mad as could be imagined, and then some. Many fans of Thompson were surprised at how dark this film gets, but let's not forget the title of the work, after all. Plenty of lizards, bats, and jabbering.

Coming a close second in the paranoia department was "Fight Club," directed by David Fincher, who, in his own revved-up way, is as visionary a stylist as Gilliam. The film offered a twisted commentary on the allure of violence as a solution to the emasculating frustrations of consumerism, but many mistook it as endorsing the nihilism it parodied. No doubt, both these films will be considered cult classics in the years to come.

Best performance, male: Billy Bob Thornton, "A Simple Plan"

Best performance, female: Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier, "La Vie Revee"

Best directorial debut: Erick Zonca, "La Vie Re^vee" (look for his followup, "Le Petit Voleur," later this year.)

Best cinematography: "Kundun"

Best original soundtrack: "Three Seasons," Richard Horowitz

Worst original soundtrack: "Prince of Egypt" ("When you beli-i-eve" . . . heave.)

Best threat to the system: "The Blair Witch Project"

Best sabbatical: Leonardo DiCaprio

Biggest disappointments: "Eyes Wide Shut"/"The Phantom Menace"

Most promising: Christina Ricci, who debuted in "The Addams Family," matured in "The Ice Storm" and was seen this year in "Fear and Loathing," "Buffalo '66," "Pecker" and "200 Cigarettes." Look for her soon in Tim Burton's latest, "Sleepy Hollow."



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