A FILM SNOB'S
FAVORITES OF OH OH

by Chris Dashiell

Everyone seems to be complaining about what a bad year the double zero was for movies. I thought it was a great year. I saw a lot more movies that I really loved this year than last. I guess what people are talking about are American movies. In that case, the year did kind of suck. But that just points up the narrow-mindedness of looking at film as if your own country's output is the only thing worth considering.

Every year I find myself explaining (and by inference apologizing for) the presence of several movies on my list that were technically released the previous year. But now I believe that this reflects the actual experience of moviegoers much more accurately than the usual Ten Best lists containing seven movies that haven't even made it to your area yet. Face it, most of the films that are released in December to qualify for the Oscars don't even play most places until January, and often even later. So as far as I'm concerned, the films on my list are all from the year 2000. Well, except for some of the imports which took a few years to show here.

1. THE WIND WILL CARRY US (Abbas Kiarostami).
All we have is today. If you can really see that, then you can see the restless striving of people towards an ever-receding goal as a gentle comedy of manners, just as Kiarostami presents it in this wise and brilliant film, his best ever. Like the visitor to the little town built into a mountain, with his two assistants whom we never see, waiting for the death of the old woman whom we also never see, so as to document a mysterious ceremony we know nothing about, all the while living among a people who regard him with an affable mixture of curiosity and indifference - our seeking plays out against a background of stillness. Funny and sad and serene, with a visual texture that's like a quiet embrace of the world, this picture manages to address life's greatest questions while poking fun at the nature of film narrative itself.

And it's not just that this movie is about living in the present, but that it evokes in me the very sense of attention to the moment that it is about. It rejoiced and inspirited me, and I felt somehow more alive after seeing it, even talking to strangers in the lobby about it afterwards, something I never do. In the weeks since, I continue to bring the film back into memory, with a sense of happiness. I think this movie fulfills in every way the imperative of a work of art, and that's why I dare to call it a masterpiece.

2. TOPSY-TURVY (Mike Leigh).
I love a film that creates a world and then invites you in. This movie creates the world of the D'Oyley Carte theater company and Gilbert & Sullivan. The joy of artifice, the real work that goes into it, and the people who made it happen in a particular moment of time - all this is magnificently presented, without a trace of the stuffiness or pretention of the usual period film. Leigh is an actor's director, and this film is a feast of good acting. As always, he is interested in the relationship between people's real life and the roles they play. Like The Mikado, the creation of which is the film's subject, the film is a monumental effort to achieve the most delicious escapism. One of those movies that I just reveled in as I watched in delight. And the music is great. Bravo.

3. ROSETTA (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne).
The Dardenne brothers want us to see what the iron grip of material necessity can do to a soul. Rosetta, living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother, relentlessly pursues full-time work. The hand-held camera constantly shows her in close-up, creating a sense of outward and inward entrapment as she runs from one place to another in seething and inarticulate anger. The tremendously moving performance by Emilie Dequenne in the title role lets us glimpse the conscience underneath. It is a film of intense realism and intense compassion.

4. BOYS DON'T CRY (Kimberly Peirce).
It's not often that a movie by a new director will come out of nowhere and be this good. Peirce dramatizes the Teena Brandon story, and she hits all the right notes - the boredom of a midwest town, the on-the-edge feelings of young people killing time there, the fear and menace in the air as Brandon strays farther over gender boundaries. The picture reaches unexpected heights because of two splendid performances - Hilary Swank's justly awarded one as Brandon, and Chloe Sevigny as the girl who falls for him. Knowing what happens doesn't make this film any less shattering.

5. WONDERLAND (Michael Winterbottom).
A story of three sisters, and of loneliness in the malestrom of city life. The city is London, turned into a vivid dream by Winterbottom's moody, introspective style and the music of Michael Nyman, creating the feeling, rather unusual in a film, that at any moment we can follow other paths in the city, other stories. The ensemble acting - Gina McKee, Molly Parker and Shirley Henderson play the sisters - is quite fine. The picture's sense of the hidden strangeness and sadness of our search for love is beautiful and very moving.

6. LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER (Olivier Assayas).
The title is a metaphor for the time when young people must face growing up and getting on. The film is a sharply observed, affectionate portrait of a group of friends clustered around a fortyish writer (Francois Cluzet) who is dying. Assayas' observations on relationships are delicious and funny and true to life. Among a marvelous cast, the gently charming Mathieu Almaric shines as a man who can't make up his mind about commitment. The film has an unforced, natural style which compliments its themes of striving and attraction, wish and regret.

7. LEILA (Darius Mehrjui).
A brave film from a veteran Iranian director about a woman who has so internalized her second-class status that she helps her husband look for another wife when it is discovered that she can't have children. Never preachy or pedantic, the film carefully details each step in the destructive process of a marriage. It is subtle, powerful, thoroughly adult both in theme and treatment, and with a great ending too.

8. YI YI (Edward Yang).
Extremely generous in its ability to present multiple points of view, Yang's portrait of an extended family in Taipei has the attention to detail, mundane and extraordinary, of life richly observed. His visual strategy, often looking through doors and windows or into hallways and corners, attains surprising emotional intimacy. If you cry at the end as I did, you might not be sure if it's with grief or joy. Probably both.

9. SET ME FREE (Lea Pool).
It's a rare treat to see a movie about early adolescence that is free of formula or cheap moral lessons. Pool stays true to the heart of her 13-year-old French Canadian heroine, who keeps her spirit alive in the midst of her unhappy family. The remarkably sensitive and expressive Karine Vanasse was just the right actress for the role - she gives the best performance of the year that no one has heard of.

10. MAGNOLIA (P.T. Anderson).
Self-indulgent, over-the-top, willfully obscure, narcissistic, flamboyant for the sake of it, long-winded, immature... the list goes on and on. And maybe it's all true. But who else in American film is even trying to do the kind of bold and inventive stuff that Anderson does here? With great turns by Jason Robards (his swan song), William H. Macy, and yes, Tom Cruise - it's about the grief of men and women, the curse of the gifted child, and finding some way to believe in love. Among other things...

And the B-sides:

11. THE TERRORIST (Santosh Sivan). A suicide bomber preparing for her mission. The movie treats a subject close to my heart - living on the edge of life and death - in a profound and exciting way.
12. THE CUP (Khyentse Norbu). Refreshingly unsweetened comedy about Tibetan kids in a monastery who love soccer more than Buddha. Real life clashing with religion - and nobody loses.
13. HUMAN RESOURCES (Laurent Cantet). The father is a factory worker, the son is in management. A very smart film about work and class and labor unrest, very natural and straightforward in style, and not afraid to ask big questions.
14. THE APPLE (Samira Makhmalbaf). A true story - twin girls in Iran who were locked inside their house by rigid parents for their first eleven years - played by the actual people. Remarkable for its clear-sightedness and humor, the film's semi-improvised feel is wholly engrossing.
15. BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis). Ostensibly this is Melville's Billy Budd transposed to the Foreign Legion in North Africa. Actually it's a radical experimental film that seeks to translate into images the inner life of men that no one can see, only feel. A work of fragmented memory and peripheral vision.
16. NOT ONE LESS (Zhang Yimou). Portrait of an indomitable will - a stubborn, uneducated girl who is thrust into the role of a rural schoolteacher. Zhang conveys a strong sense of the overwhelming forces arrayed against her.
17. BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE (Jasmin Dizdar). The Bosnian war comes to England. The film presents political hatred as the petty comedy that it is, without underestimating its staying power.The multiple stories are expertly woven, and there are glimmers of hope for those willing to keep their eyes open.
18. POLA X (Leos Carax). Melville again - this time it's the novel Pierre set in modern France. The artist follows his mysterious lost sister/lover into exile. The movie is like a fevered dream - full of eccentric flourishes and bold eruptions of imagery.
19. DANCER IN THE DARK (Lars von Trier). A genre-bending melodramatic anti-musical on von Trier's favorite subject - the world as a living hell of affliction for the innocent. Bjork is intense and the dance numbers are strange and beautiful. Say what you like, you won't forget it soon.
20. GIRLFIGHT (Karyn Kusama). A well-crafted movie about a young woman who wants to be a boxer - taken to another level entirely by the sensational lead performance of newcomer Michelle Rodriguez.

Other performances that moved me (or shook me):
Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball - expressiveness, toughness, sensitivity, beauty.
Nathalie Baye, so intelligent in An Affair of Love.
Liev Schreiber in Hamlet - the best Laertes I've seen.
Christian Bale, wickedly funny in American Psycho.
Maria Galiana's enduring mother in Solas.
Mike White, Chuck & Buck - so infantile he's frightening.
Robert Downey Jr.'s gay publisher in Wonder Boys.
Clive Owen, Croupier - clever and disarming.
Jennifer Connelly's weary-eyed junkie in Requiem for a Dream.
The old pro, James Caan in The Yards.
Jim Broadbent, brilliant as the exasperating Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy.
Jean-Claude Vallod, a real-life factory worker,
as the beaten-down father in Human Resources.
Michael Rispoli's working class dreamer in Two Family House.
Douglas Henshall's rueful scapegoat in Orphans.
Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -
she's the real thing - I'm talking old-fashioned star power.

And not to forget the kids:
Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot
Jamyang Lodro, The Cup
Jonathan Chang, Yi Yi

Cinematography:
Agnes Godard, Beau Travail
Runners-up:
Harris Savedos, The Yards
Edward Lachman, The Virgin Suicides

 

Score: Scott Walker, POLA X
Runners-up:
RZA, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Michael Nyman, Wonderland
Guilty Pleasure: Howard Shore's score for The Cell, a movie I otherwise detested.

Funniest scene:
Ben Affleck's orientation speech to the trainees in Boiler Room.
Runners-up:
Confessions in a plummeting airplane, Almost Famous.
Another weird aircraft - the escape in Chicken Run.

Mind-blowers:
A breathtaking duel in the treetops - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Kate Winslet as the vision of an eight-armed goddess in Holy Smoke.
A slimy rain's gonna fall - Magnolia.

Really hard to watch:
The incest scenes in The War Zone.
Mules flailing in the snow - I'll bet animals were harmed in the making of
A Time for Drunken Horses.. (Good movie, though.)
The entire ending sequence of Requiem for a Dream.

Land of the Overrated: Quills, High Fidelity, You Can Count On Me.

A Glut on the Market: Helen Hunt
Runner-up: Charlize Theron

Ho-hum Award: Traffic.

I'm Not Impressed: The Online Film Critics Society

Please Go Away: Arnold Schwarzenegger got cloned. As if one weren't stupid enough.

Interesting Failure Award: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
Maybe I just don't get Jarmusch. His gangster parody pastiche didn't add up for me, but as usual there were striking elements.
Runner-up: The Virigin Suicides. Some wonderful things here, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts and the narration really spoils it.

Best new idea: The Shooting Gallery Series,
bringing independent movies to a multiplex near you.

Best film I should have seen in '99: David Fincher's Fight Club.

Fond farewells: Alec Guinness, Hedy Lamarr, Walter Matthau, Loretta Young, John Gielgud, Claire Trevor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gwen Verdon, Vittorio Gassman, Richard Farnsworth, Julie London, Steve Allen, Jean Peters, Ring Lardner Jr., Nancy Marchand, Vincent Canby, Jason Robards.




CineScene, 2001