November 10, 2009

As We Near the End of the Decade...2000

Now seems as good a time as any to start reliving the decade that was the Aughts. There were up years and down years. There was, of course, the attacks of 9/11/01 and the two still-unfinished wars to follow - and those events have shaped not only the decade's politics, but its films as well. But, before all those things happened, we entered the century with hope. We were riding a (soon-to-burst) tech bubble. The internet could do just about anything, couldn't it? This was a time before Facebook, YouTube, and even MySpace was yet to become yesterday's news.

It was 2000 - and here are my Ten Favorite Films from that years.

#10 - Best in Show

Christopher Guest had just finished building his gigantic cult following with Waiting for Guffman a couple of years before, so there were many people salivating for what would come next. What came next was the subtle, sly, funny-as-hell Best in Show, a movie that just keeps getting funnier over time (and has helped dog shows improve their television ratings). Nearly all of the cast from Guffman return and the now-famous Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge join the crew of varying dog owners, all striving to win Best in Show at what is clearly a parody of the Westminster Kennel Club show. Everyone is great, but Fred Willard steals the show as the clueless color commentator with lines like: "I went to one of those obedience places once... it was all going well until they spilled hot candle wax on my private parts." Wouldn't you just love to hear that on a live television show? Anywho - as we go along reviewing the decade, you'll note that the #10 slot each year will tend to be reserved for a film that I continue to enjoy years down the road. Best in Show is a perfect example.

#9 - Beau Travail

One does not often get the chance to see a female French director's adaptation of a Herman Melville story set in the West African enclave of Djibouti, so when one is given the chance, one should take it. So I thought when Claire Denis' enigmatic offering arrived in 2000. Based on 'Billy Budd', Denis' film is a visual stunning examination of the French Foreign Legion, an all-male society - its rituals, its pecking orders, and the cruel punishments levied upon those who break its ranks. Clearly Denis appreciates and respects the physicality of the life of a soldier. The daily routines and workouts are filmed in an almost elegiac manner. The story (what there is of it, plot is not the top priority here) takes off when private Sentain (Gregoire Colin) saves the life of a fellow soldier after his helicopter crashes into the Gulf of Aden. Instead of praise, Sergeant Galoup (Denis Levant) doubts his charges benevolence and begins to punish and persecute him for standing out. What ensues is a game of wills. But Denis doesn't fall into the traditional traps of a thriller - there's no good (indeed, Sentain only did what he did out of sense of duty, not out of kindness) or evil (Galoup merely wants to maintain order and if Sentain gets too much praise, he could upset the order of command). It's a mysterious film with a mysterious ending. One that I can't get out of my head nearly a decade later.

#8 - The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

I'm not Jewish, nor am I a baseball fan, so it's testimony to Aviva Kempner's film that I count The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg - a documentary about a Jewish baseball player and champion slugger - among my favorite films of the decade. I'll readily admit, I had no idea who Greenberg was going in. And if you don't know who he is, here's a short intro: Greenberg, a Hall-of-famer, began his career in the midst of the Depression. Proudly Jewish (if not terribly observant), Greenberg challenged a nation filled with anti-Semitism (some from his fellow players and fans of the Detroit Tigers, for whom he played) and stereotypes. He would twice win MVP and threatened to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. The movie is great for introducing you to the man and giving you the context in which his achievements occurred. Perhaps the most revealing moment: his final year in the majors was 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The fact that there is archival footage of the two of them on the diamond together is something to celebrate. Said Robinson of Greenberg: "He gave me encouragement, Mr. Greenberg is class. It stands out all over him." A man worthy of celebrating, a film worthy of him.

#7 - The Wind Will Carry Us

At the end of Abbas Kiarostami's quiet rumination on the simple life, a grizzled old doctor tells the protagonist (an engineer far from his urban home), "Observing nature is better than playing backgammon or doing nothing." He then defines death as the moment "you close your eyes on the beauty of the world." Indeed, after watching Kiarostami's films from this period (including the 1997 gem A Taste of Cherry), you feel as if you are alive and that your eyes are open. That said, some may find themselves lulled to sleep by Kiarostami's pacing. I however find that the pacing is exactly the point the doctor is making. Slow down and appreciate what surrounds you. Our protagonist - the engineer - is part of a team sent to the remote village of Siah Dareh to observe the mourning rituals of the community. But since, the woman expected to die isn't yet dead, he interacts with the villagers and instead of observing death, he learns how to live. Honestly, it couldn't be more simple. But it's from that simplicity that beauty blooms.

# 6 - Requiem for a Dream

Darren Aronofsky's fever dream of a movie is one of the darkest portraits of addiction ever put on screen. The next year, Jennifer Connelly would win an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (blech) by saying things like, "I need to believe that something extraordinary is possible" (again, blech). She should have won for her work here. Which only proves that Oscar voters would rather here treacly inspirational lines what watch you do lines (and then there's that final scene which I can't bring myself to describe other than it involves a large plasticine phallys). Anyway, the imagery is intoxicating. The acting is astonishing (Ellen Burstyn also should have won), the score by Kronos Quartet is unforgettable, and you really feel like you need a shower when it's over. Seriously, this movie would probably do more to prevent kids from doing drugs than DARE. I've never gone back to watch it because it's so dark and yet, I can recall nearly every scene and image. A remarkable feat.

#5 - Dancer in the Dark

Everyone's favorite pixie, Bjork, stars as the 2000 version of a woman to be punished by the world. In this case, she's a single mother going blind, who endures terrible things in an attempt to save enough money for her son to get surgery that will prevent him from suffering her fate. But oh, what things she must suffer (don't they all in a Lars von Trier film?). So, to escape the cruelty of the world around her, she dreams that life is a 1930's era musical. With music and lyrics by BJork (it was a Best Original Song nomination that brought her to the Oscars in the now infamous swan dress), the film is an astonishing accomplishment. The same scene can induce cringes of pain followed almost immediately by rapturous joy. It's half Dogme; and half Warner Bros. If you haven't experienced it, you must. There's certainly been nothing quite like it before or after - although you might notice the influence of this film on Lee Daniels' upcoming Precious.

#4 - You Can Count on Me

Ken Lonergan, a renowned playwright and screenwriter, directed (so far) only one film - this 2000 gem starring Laura Linney (nominated for an Academy Award for the role) and Mark Ruffalo (should have been nominated for an Academy Award for this role). The story is simple: Linney is Sam, a struggling single mother trying to make ends meet when her prodigal brother Terry returns to their small New York town. You immediately get the sense that she loves him, but that she knows trouble follows him. She doesn't mind caring for him, but now her little boy is old enough to be influenced by his uncle, so she's wary. The siblings lost their parents in their teenage years to a car accident, so their bond is different from others; and that bond is so palpable that you can practically reach out and tough. The performance here are that remarkable. Lonergan is a master at dialogue, keeping it natural, never going over the top (he wouldn't write, "I need to believe in something extraordinary" - blech). In a scene near the film's end, Terry says to Sam: "Remember what we used to tell each other when we were kids?" Sam responds, "Yeah." And that's it. We're not privy to it, and that's fine (well, it's likely right there in the title, sure). Because that's how people talk to one another. And this whole movie is actually about how people live, act, breathe, behave and live. The characters become friends and while the film is not a tear-jerker in the traditional sense, you're sad at the end simply to see them go. If you've not revisited them or if you've never called them up, do so. You'll thank yourself and you'll thank a higher power for the incredible work of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.

#5 - George Washington

If you saw Pineapple Express last year, then you might be surprised that this 2000 film is by the same director, David Gordon Greene. This film burst onto the scene in 2000 at the Toronto Film Festival and was later released in New York, LA, and few other choice locations. Those who were able to catch it fell in love with it. I had to wait, finally catching it on video (the store nearest my home only had it on VHS, oddly) a couple years later. Boy howdy, am I glad I did. I have to borrow from my friend Roger Ebert here when he says:

"There is a summer in your life which is the last time boys and girls can be friends until they grow up. The summer when adolescence has arrived, but has not insisted on itself. When the stir of arriving sexuality still makes you feel hopeful instead of restless and troubled. When you feel powerful instead of unsure. That is the summer "George Washington" is about, and all it is about. Everything else in the film is just what happened to happen that summer.

This is such a lovely film. You give yourself to its voluptuous languor. You hang around with these kids from the poor side of town while they kill time and share their pipe dreams. A tragedy happens, but the movie is not about the tragedy. It is about the discovery that tragedies can happen."

It's hard for me to come up with any other way to put it. Tim Orr's cinematography is some of the finest I've seen in a film of this type. The cast of non-professionals are all perfect for their parts. It's simply a rare breed of a film. Criterion has since released a collectors' edition on DVD. If you've not seen this one, get thee hence. It's a perfect rainy afternoon movie.

#2 - Yi Yi (A One and a Two)

Even typing the title of Edward Yang's masterpiece, I get a little wistful. There's little other way to describe it other than to call it a family epic. But don't get too caught up in the term "epic". That implies grand scenery or glorious battles. There's plenty to look in Edward Yang's urban elegy, but the battles are interior. At the opening of the film, we attend a wedding with the Jian family - a fairly typical Taipei family. But like all typical families, they're struggling to keep things together. The patriarch, NJ, is dealing with work setbacks and the stirred up feelings of running into his high school girlfriend. His wife, Min-min, feels guilty over her mother's stroke and falls into depression. Their teenage daughter, Ting-ting, is torn between her growingly-troubled best friend and an attraction to a scrawny kid named Fatty. Finally, the youngest of the Jian clan, Yang-yang, is a curious eight-year-old who serves as the cypher for the audience. A lot of what is seen is from his point-of-view. And what a character Yang-yang is (is it coincidence that he's named for the director? I think not). He tells his dad, "I can't see what you see and you can't see what I see. So how can I know what you see?" To remedy that situation, he begins taking pictures of the backs of people's heads and giving them to them. Because what can't you see more than the back of your head? That's a perfect reflection of the way children think. And that's what makes this a perfect film. Every character thinks, acts, and screws up just like a human being. When the movie came to an end (three hours later), I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I was weeping. And yet, it's not a terribly sad ending by any means. It's simply so beautiful that it's practically overwhelming. Sadly, Edward Yang has left us. He died in 2007 at the age of 59. Yi Yi was his final gift to us. And I'm so grateful.

So, what could be better than this Taiwanese masterpiece? How about another Taiwanese masterpiece?

#1 - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Yeah...2000 was a hell of year for Taiwanese cinema. Along with Edward Yang's quiet family epic, came this true epic of Martial Arts mastery that still sends shivers down my spine and almost makes me believe that if I just concentrate enough, I could start running across the rooftops of my neighborhood or flying through the bamboo in my neighbor's back yard. Few films have been as transcendent as Ang Lee's rapturous ode to chaste love and the ability to wield a sword and kick some ass. The fight scenes between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are stunners. The cinematography is a glory - almost every shot seems to be a thank you to God, Mother Nature, or Chinese architecture. Tan Dun's score is still a stunner to this day. This is easily one of the few films that I could watch on an endless loop. There are films that I'm a total geek for (Heathers comes to mind); and there are films whose artistry I appreciate. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of the few movies where the two feelings collide. No foreign language film has come near it's remarkable $128,000,000 box office take; and I doubt one ever will again. The film was a zeitgeist that others attempted to capture and never quite could (both Hero and The House of Flying Daggers were great, but could never quite live up to their predecessor).

2000 was a great year for movies, producing a great number of classics and the second-tier of good films was quite hefty as well. Other films I enjoyed from 2000 include: Before Night Falls, Billy Elliot, Chicken Run, Chuck & Buck, Nurse Betty, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Traffic.

Over the coming weeks, I'll recap my Top 10 of each year of the decade, culminating with the Top 10 of 2009 and then a final list of my best of the decade.

What are some of your favorites from 2000?

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