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Sunday, Dec. 31, 2000

Reeling in the renaissance


It's significant of something when the most uncompromising, controversial independent film of the year has something in common with a Dreamworks film greenlighted by Steven Spielberg. But that is indeed the case with "Happiness," Todd Solondz's scabrous ode to sexual neuroses and suburbia, and "American Beauty," Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning film that covered the same territory, albeit with greater lyricism alongside the satire. While Solondz won't be going mainstream anytime soon ("Happiness" was even dropped by Disney subsidiary Miramax), "American Beauty" is an interesting example of how the indie aesthetic has infiltrated the majors. Whatever way you look at it, 2000 was an incredible year for American film, independent and otherwise. (Well, actually the last year or two, as some of these films take a while to open here.)

Film buffs often reminisce wistfully over the '70s, when visionary directors such as Altman, Scorsese, Coppola and Kubrick were able to thrive within the studio system. In 2000 we saw a similar renaissance: nervy and accomplished debuts from Kimberley Pierce ("Boys Don't Cry"), Sofia Coppola ("The Virgin Suicides") and Spike Jonez ("Being John Malkovich"), and Paul Thomas Anderson's magnum opus "Magnolia."

The jury is still out on whether the major studios' indie-esque subsidiaries will turn out to be a corrupting influence, but it's clear that for now anything is possible. When Fox Searchlight puts up the money for uncompromisingly queer cinema ("Boys Don't Cry"), Sony/Columbia back a Chinese-language martial arts epic ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") by art-film director Ang Lee and Warner Bros. backs both a cynical piss-take of the Gulf War (David O. Russell's "Three Kings") ilm designed to piss off just about everybody ("South Park: Bigger Longer Uncut"), we should just smile and enjoy it while it lasts. By 2010, these will be the good old days.

Not just in America is change in the air: Iran has seen a flurry of good films in the current climate of moderate liberalization. Whether this will last remains to be seen, but director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who had four of his films open in Tokyo this year, including "A Moment of Innocence," expressed confidence that the tide has turned. The fact that his 20-year-old daughter Samira took the Jury Prize at Cannes with a film about Kurdish refugees, "Blackboards," might indicate as much -- but then again, the prints had to be smuggled out of Iran.

So here's my pick of the best (and pardon my inability to limit it to just 10).

1) "American Beauty":Director Sam Mendes' debut starts off as a latter-day "Lolita," a nasty little satire of suburban dysfunction and mid-life crisis. Ever so subtly it shifts moods, though, into someplace deeper and more pensive, as its characters become more sympathetic and less pathetic. Spacey has never been this good, and his transformation from dirty old lechery to last-minute self-realization is profoundly moving.

2) "Boys Don't Cry":A film that is simply impossible to walk away from unfazed, "Boys Don't Cry" offers up one of the great flawed protagonists of all time: Brandon Teena, a petty thief and Casanova, who's actually a girl passing herself off as a boy in the heart of redneck territory. Hillary Swank took home an Oscar for her bold performance in this role, and director Kimberly Pierce brought a hallucinatory edge to the dreary western landscape of Qwik-Stops and asphalt.

3) "Magnolia":Paul Thomas Anderson's pop symphony to loneliness and desperation was a godsend. Polishing the Altman-esque ensemble style he used in "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" follows nearly a dozen characters in L.A., all loosely connected to a TV game show, to a crescendo of calamity. Anderson then brings the house down with a laughably capricious act of God that gives everyone a second chance. One more film of this caliber, and it's time to crown Anderson as the best in the biz.

4) "Being John Malkovich":The film that brought Dada-ism back to the big screen, employing a totally absurd premise -- a portal that takes you inside Malkovich's head -- with an anarchic style that recalled both Luis Bunuel and Monty Python. Wonderfully inspired gags, and an intriguing subtext on our fascination with celebrity.

5) "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon":Director Ang Lee has set the standard for the thoroughly Asian blockbuster with this gem, which picks up where Kurosawa left off: exciting swordplay with exquisitely composed scenes and solid performances to boot. Proof positive that an action-adventure film can be something more than comic-book inanity. It's too early to tell if this film's success is a fluke or will spark a string of similar films, but one thing is certain: Few directors can handle both action and acting as deftly as Lee.

6) "A Moment of Innocence":Mohsen Makhmalbaf's masterwork from '96 finally saw a release in Tokyo. This director's blend of documentarylike reality, autobiography, fiction and experimental structures is unique, but its message on love, idealism and political violence is as clear as can be. The closing shot is one for the ages.

7) "The Virgin Suicides":A melancholy ode to the '70s, ennui and the lost intensity of teen love. Shot in a hazy, sun-soaked style, Sofia Coppola fills the film with a dreamy, seductive yearning for a group of cloistered girls who fade away too young. We never learn why, but the point is that some memories are inescapable. Sleeper hit of the year, it ran for 30 weeks at Cinema Rise, where it actually made more money than it did in the entire U.S.

8) "Happiness"/"Hurlyburly":Hollywood and the New Jersey 'burbs may not seem to have a lot in common, but these two films prove they're both full of self-obsessed head cases. It's not clear whether Todd Solondz seeks understanding or disdain for the perverts and wretches that populate "Happiness," but his black humor is irresistible. Anthony Drazan's "Hurlyburly" was the motor-mouth film of the year, its razor-sharp dialogue ripping apart the sleazy world of Hollywood casting agents and wannabe starlets.

9) "The Road Home"/"Caravan":Simple stories, ravishing visuals and stunning emotional power. Set amid an explosion of fall foliage in northern China, Zhang Yimou's "Road Home" was a tale of pure, passionate devotion that could melt even the hardest heart, while Eric Valli's "Caravan," about a frost-covered trek through the Himalayas, was an epic look at a culture existing in spite of the elements.

10) "Le Petit Voleur":After making the best film of 1999, "La Vie re^vee des anges," Erick Zonca segued into this one-hour slammer on a petty thief in Marseilles that hits you like a jab from Tyson. Zonca has an eye for the lives of outcast, marginalized youth, and this film serves as a riposte to the past decade's Tarantino-inspired worship of gangsterism.

Runners-up

"A One and a Two": Edward Yang manages to rhyme scenes in this multilayered, artfully constructed family drama.

"South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut": They killed Kenny! Those bastards!

"Toy Story 2": Another step forward for CGI, and the year's best laughs to boot.

"Three Kings": "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" retold amid the denouement of the Gulf War, portraying the war as a money-grab in microcosm.

More lucky winners . . .
The Palme du Merde for monumental pretension: Lars von Trier's "Dancer In The Dark." Just try to hum a song coming out of this one. Von Trier resorts to ruthless manipulation, in order to make up for the ludicrous plotting and Parkinson's-influenced cinematography.

The "Hey, Is That Who I Think It Is?" Award for best cameo: Christopher Walken, "Sleepy Hollow" (or Brad Pitt in "Malkovich," if you can spot him...)

The "Let's Kick Some Butt" Award for, uh, kicking butt: Russell Crowe, "Gladiator"/Michelle Yeoh, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

The Golden Headphones Award for the coolest soundtrack: Air, "Virgin Suicides"/Thomas Newman, "American Beauty"

The "Not Before, During or After Dinner" Award for most effective gross-out: "eXistenZ" (that "Chinese special") or "Titus" (meat loaf, anyone?)

The "Otaku Obsessive" Award for best attention to detail: "Sleepy Hollow" -- look for the devil faces hidden in the fireplace flames.

The "Fire the Location Scout" Award for worst attention to detail: Danny Boyle and co. ("The Beach") for choosing the one beach in Thailand without palm trees and then deciding they need palm trees.

The "No, Wait, I Got An Idea" Award for brain-dead screenwriting: "The Patriot," which climaxes with Mel Gisbon magically managing to duck a sword stroke coming from behind.

The "We Can't Get Leo, But How About . . ." Award for most miscast role: David Thewlis as a romantic lead in "Besieged"

The "Get Me Some Oxygen, Quick!" Award for best sex scene: "Pola X"



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