For once it’s not just the whiny critics: This actually HAS been a bad year for movies.
Critics’ 10-best lists are as different from one another as they could be, with no films dominating. And the box office is down, too, suggesting audiences have also been underwhelmed.
Films that looked good or had good potential turned out bad. Sure-fire blockbusters — think “Hollow Man” and “Pay It Forward” — misfired.
Fortunately, November and December delivered on the goods, as the studios trotted out their Oscar hopefuls at a point when they would still be fresh in voters’ memories.
Each of the films on this list is a 2000 release, eliminating films like the great Chinese epic “The Emperor and the Assassin” and the Oscar-winner “All About My Mother” because, though they didn’t play in most cities until 2000, they were released in other cities in 1999.
By that same criteria, some of these movies haven’t been released everywhere yet, but have opened in Los Angeles and New York.
1. “Requiem for a Dream” Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing story of four drug addicts and their parallel descents into pharmaceutical-manufactured hell is one of the most gripping, powerful, disturbing films ever made. More than just a cautionary tale against drugs — though it’s mighty effective in that regard, too — it’s about the reasons for addiction, the loneliness, lack of self-esteem and other factors that lead to it.
Ellen Burstyn, as a New York widow hooked on diet pills, should win an Oscar for her fearless and devastating performance, but she probably won’t. The film’s initial NC-17 rating and subsequent unrated release will scare away conservative voters. It’s not a film to be taken lightly or shown in high-school classrooms, but for those who appreciate brilliant filmmaking techniques (shooting up heroin has never been portrayed so vividly yet unappealingly) and great acting, not to mention storytelling at its most effective, it’s an unforgettable experience.
2. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” It’s an attractive love story, it empowers women, and it has beautiful scenery. It’s a chick flick, right? No, wait: It also has the most spectacularly exhilarating martial-arts sequences ever filmed. Characters leap from rooftop to rooftop and sometimes even fly, and even though the logistics of how they’re able to do this are not explained — it’s something to do with a top-secret Oriental warrior school — the audience is too busy being astounded to ask questions. Forget how the fictional characters are doing it; how did the filmmakers pull it off?
3. “Bring It On” First we thought this would be another lame teen comedy. Its subject matter (cheerleading) and three-word title (“She’s All That,” “Never Been Kissed,” “Whatever It Takes,” “Down to You,” Freddie Prinze Jr.) made us fear the worst. Then we saw the first scene — in which a cheerleader sings a song with lines like “I’m hot, I’m cute/I’m popular to boot” — and we knew we were in for something more.
“Bring It On” succeeded by having snappy, quotable dialogue (“Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded”) and a refreshingly realistic ending, but also by going against all teen-comedy rules and treating its subject matter with no more importance than it actually deserves. In most movies, the entire universe revolves around The Big Game or The Big Dance, or whatever, and the obligatory side-plot romance is The Most Important Relationship Ever. In “Bring It On,” The Big Cheerleading Competition is important to the participants, but everyone knows it’s still only cheerleading — and the romance is kept unsentimental (which actually makes it kinda sweet in its own way).
It doesn’t treat cheerleading like a life-or-death situation, but it doesn’t fall into farce or parody, either (that opening sequence turns out to be a dream). In short, it’s the funniest, smartest comedy of the year, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come in the genre of teen comedies.
4. “Billy Elliot” A feel-good movie that doesn’t make you feel guilty for feeling good, “Billy Elliot” doesn’t manipulate our emotions; it earns them through honest acting, honest situations and honest sentiment. Jamie Bell, destined to be a star with his raw talent and slightly goofy good looks, plays an 11-year-old boy in a tough English mining town who wants to be a ballet dancer. His dancing becomes a metaphor for whatever makes us happy in life, and the sweet earnestness of the film is contagious.
5. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The Coen Brothers (“Fargo”) return to their loopy “Raising Arizona”/”Hudsucker Proxy” roots with this whimsical comedy about three escaped convicts in 1930s Mississippi. Literate, twisty and full of delicious dialogue and dorky characters, “O Brother” may not be the deepest movie ever made, but you’ll rarely have this much fun in a movie theater.
6. “State & Main” Writer/director David Mamet’s satire of Hollywood’s excesses and illogical behavior has the same attitude as “Bring It On”: Make fun of the subject without lapsing into MAD Magazine-style farce. It’s no inside-joke film; anyone with even a passing knowledge of how Hollywood operates can enjoy the good-natured jabs “State & Main” takes at it. Eminently smart and memorable, and featuring bravura performances by William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others.
7. “Frequency” A man sinking into despair tries his dead father’s old ham radio — and somehow contacts his dad back in 1969. Part science-fiction, part suspense (he has to help his dad catch a killer before his mom becomes a victim), “Frequency” is also a gentle story about father-son love. It uses baseball, action and unforced sentimentalism to create something men can enjoy for emotional reasons as well as aesthetic ones. The sappy Garth Brooks song at the end merely serves as a contrast to how unmanipulative everything had been before that.
8. “Gladiator” Unlike almost every other movie of its length (2 1/2 hours), “Gladiator” doesn’t have a single extraneous moment. Every scene is important, every performance spot-on. In particular, Russell Crowe — never anyone’s guess as a potential action hero — gave the title character depth and personality, almost single-handedly bringing respectability to the long-scorned action flick genre.
But that overlooks the work of Joaquin Phoenix, whose weaselly Roman emperor is what every villain should be: at once fearsome and pitiful, loathsome and cowardly, and with his own cool catchphrase (“That vexes me. I am sorely vexed”).
9. “Chicken Run” From the makers of “Wallace & Gromit” comes this delightfully daft clay-animation story about a group of chickens trying to escape the henhouse. You can sit there in awe of the painstaking work that went into the film, or you can ignore that and just enjoy the bad puns, good puns, endearing characters and sly satire.
10. “Gigantic” (not officially released) And finally, the best movie you didn’t see is “Gigantic” (“Absolute Giganten”), a German film that played at the Sundance Film Festival (thus making it eligible for my “released somewhere in this country” stipulation) but never found a U.S. distributor. It’s too bad, because it’s one of the most sublime, wistful movies I’ve ever seen, examining with great insight the dynamics of friendship. In sort of a German “American Graffiti,” three teen-age boys spend one last evening together before splitting up to go out into the world. There is comedy (including probably the most exciting Foosball sequence ever filmed) and typical German angst, not to mention three stand-out performances. Hopefully it will find its way into this country in 2001.
The Worst Movies of 2000
1. “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” It was a tight race, but this ill-conceived sequel to the 1999 curiosity emerges victorious in the Worst Movie of the Year category. Aside from being an obvious attempt to milk a few more dollars out of the Blair Witch craze without putting any effort into the script-writing or directing, “Book of Shadows” also commits the cardinal sin of filmmaking: It’s deathly boring.
2. “Pokemon: The Movie 2000” “Hey, you know how ‘Pokemon’ was popular a year or so ago? Well, let’s make another movie and squeeze whatever we still can out of the phenomenon! We don’t have to make it interesting or entertaining or put any effort into it. We can just throw some Pokemon up on the screen for a couple million dollars and turn a $60 million profit!”
3. “Battlefield Earth” Why isn’t John Travolta’s vanity project at the top of the list? Because it was actually so bad it was entertaining. We laughed all the way through it. The idea that anyone ever thought we’d take it seriously is what killed it; this, like most bad movies, suffers from extreme hubris (plus a bad script and bad acting).
4. “The Next Best Thing” Madonna and Rupert Everett star in a preachy, heavy-handed movie about a gay man who accidentally gets his best (girl)friend pregnant and they decide to raise the kid together. It was targeted directly at gay audiences — who found it dour and unfunny. Everett, who is gay in real life, failed to accurately play a gay man, don’t ask me how.
5. “Who Gets the House?” A Feature Films for Families production about a group of kids who, upon hearing of their parents’ impending divorce, convince a judge to let THEM keep the house and force the parents to take turns living in it with them. Never mind the stupid premise: This is a stupid movie, appealing to people who decide a movie is “good” based on its absence of profanity and sex. Sure, it’s wholesome. It’s also lame, unamusing, poorly acted and badly written. It is possible to make a movie that’s both clean AND of high quality. Could someone please pass that on to Feature Films for Families?