Go Directly to the Top 10
If ever there was a year not to be a film critic, 2000 was it. On more than one occasion, as I sat through one recycled movie after another, I wondered if life wouldn't be more enjoyable if I threw away the critic's pen and just went to the films I really wanted to see. By every subjective qualifier imaginable, 2000 was the worst year for movies in at least a decade - maybe more. This is the first year since I started reviewing that I recommended fewer films than I did not recommend, and the combined number of three-and-one-half and four star films totaled an anemic 18 (as compared to 41 in 1999 and 33 in 1998).
Coming off an exceptionally strong year like 1999 made 2000 look even worse. Throughout the first half of they year, I found myself groping blindly for any piece of cinematic driftwood to cling to in the raging torrent of mainstream pabulum. It was difficult to differentiate between releases during January and those during July. Quality and originality were at premiums; studios threw out stale and unimaginative fare, hoping that the mere presence of name actors like Eddie Murphy, Mel Gibson, and Martin Lawrence would sell tickets.
Making things worse for the industry as a whole was the plight of the multiplexes. One by one, they have reported losses and/or filed for bankruptcy, brought to the brink of financial ruin by their own excesses. They have spent too much money on new theater complexes, saturating an already full marketplace. Now, with costs increasing, movie-goers growing apathetic with the recent fare, and the studios demanding significant portions of the early-week profits, the future looks increasingly grim for all of the major megaplex corporations. In a few years, how many state-of-the-art theaters will still be open?
Yet along the way, there were the gems to redeem one's faith in the movie-making process. True to form, most of these came late in the year (seven of the entries in my Top 10 received theatrical release after September 15, and I saw four of those seven at the Toronto International Film Festival), making the period from January to September a truly barren wasteland. Yet if there's one good thing to be said about 2000, it's that it would be hard to envision 2001 having a less appealing menu, actors' strike or not.
According to the so-called "experts", one of the big winners at the Thanksgiving/Christmas box office was supposed to be Disney's 102 Dalmatians. Another was expected to be Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up to the 1999 blockbuster, The Sixth Sense. Neither did nearly as well as expected, with Unbreakable failing to score top dollars and 102 Dalmatians proving to be a financial bust (thankfully guaranteeing that there will not be a 103 Dalmatians).
The reason? Well, it might have had something to do with the poor quality of one entry and the fact that lightning didn't strike twice for the other. But the "X" factor was the unexpected box office clout of the Jim Carrey-fueled, live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Just about everyone expected this movie to be big, but none of the major industry experts predicted just how big. When all the dust has settled, not only will this new version of The Grinch be established as a new Christmas classic, but it will reign as the king of the 2000 box office. It is also being credited with luring a largely disenchanted public back to multiplexes following a dismal October and November. So, like it or not, The Grinch had more clout than any other film this year - enough clout to knock down Shyamalan's Unbreakable and knock out Disney's dog-eat-dog Dalmatians.
The term "sequelitis" sounds like a disease, and, for all intents and purposes, it might have been one during 2000. With the exception of John Woo's hyperkinetic Mission: Impossible 2, there wasn't a good sequel to be found - although there were plenty of contenders. Sequels this year came in two categories: dumb and dumber. They existed exclusively because their predecessors had made money, not because there was any genuine creative reason for their existence. Once, not that long ago, a decent script had to exist before a sequel would be greenlighted. Now, the cart is leading the horse - give the project the go-ahead, then worry about nagging details like actually getting a plot and dialogue on paper.
Starting at the bottom of the barrel, there was the nearly unwatchable Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a movie that surely ranks as one of the all-time worst ideas ever committed to film. Making a sequel to 1999's unexpected blockbuster, The Blair Witch Project, was a bad idea from the beginning - but making this film was an unpardonable insult to fans of the original and movie-goers everywhere.
Of roughly equal quality was 102 Dalmatians, which, not coincidentally, didn't do much better than Blair Witch 2 at the box office, despite having the full force of Disney's advertising budget behind it. Then there was Scream 3, the sadly disappointing final installment to the Scream trilogy - a movie that failed to capture either the freshness or the dark comedy of its two predecessors. Another misstep was Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, a failed attempt to re-capture the delightful comic feel of the 1997 Eddie Murphy remake. Murphy was great, but the movie wasn't. Finally, there were The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas and Rugrats in Paris, two sequels that were watchable, but not great.
No actress was busier this year than Helen Hunt. Released from the tether of her long running TV series, "Mad About You", Hunt dove at full extension into the motion picture industry, appearing in rapid succession in four late-year movies. Each showed a different aspect of her talent. The names of her male co-stars - Richard Gere, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, Mel Gibson - indicate how highly she is already thought of within the industry. (The Oscar she got a few years ago for As Good as It Gets doesn't hurt, either.)
Partnered opposite Richard Gere in Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women, Hunt easily outshone her co-star, radiating an energy that seemed even more effervescent in the presence of Gere's wooden demeanor. In What Women Want, she proved to be a capable romantic foil for Mel Gibson, and in Cast Away, she was the reason that Tom Hanks kept living. Her most challenging role in 2000 was opposite Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment in Pay It Forward, where she attempted to play an emotionally damaged alcoholic, with only limited success.
Back in 1998, Dreamworks Pictures' crown jewel, Saving Private Ryan, lost out in the Oscar race because the studio was outmarketed and outspent by Miramax Pictures. As a result, the less deserving Shakespeare In Love took home the coveted statuette instead. Last year, Dreamworks rectified the situation, stepping things up in the marketing department to enable American Beauty to beat out Miramax's challenger, The Cider House Rules. But that was then, this was now...
This year, it's questionable whether two critically praised Dreamworks releases will even be mentioned around Oscar time. Both the delightful Almost Famous and the hard-hitting The Contender were hung out to dry at the box office. They bombed because they were backed by inept publicity campaigns. Almost Famous should have been up for four or five Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor), but, as a result of Dreamworks' ineptitude, it will be lucky to garner any.
On the other hand, faced with the biggest potential hit in its history, Sony Pictures Classics has pulled out all the stops for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it seems to be working. The movie has generated name recognition within the marketplace and has been drawing huge crowds in limited release. Now the only question is whether the American public will overcome their traditional sub-title phobia to the degree necessary to make this the most popular foreign language film of all time. Its competition: a pair of Miramax releases, Il Postino and Life Is Beautiful.
On more than one occasion in 2000, the MPAA became a player in the studios' marketing wars. Time after time, the MPAA slapped one movie or another with a ridiculous classification. On several occasions, this resulted in last minute cuts to avoid the dreaded NC-17. (Victims included American Psycho and Road Trip.) In the case of Darren Aronofsky's blisteringly powerful Requiem for a Dream, the decision was made to release the film unrated. Nevertheless, shock-schlock like Big Momma's House and Nutty Professor 2 were allowed to go out with softer PG-13 ratings. By their own choices and through their evident hypocrisy, the members of the MPAA have rendered their ratings meaningless while simultaneously elevating their power to make or break movies. Directors, fearful of being slapped with an NC-17 when they want an R (or an R when they want a PG-13), are making changes that endanger the creative integrity of their films. The MPAA is no longer a classification board; it has become a means of censorship.
2000 has been a very bad year for Miramax, and the once-mighty independent film distributor has no one to blame but itself. It wasn't that long ago that Miramax was hailed as a bastion for quality independent and foreign film distribution. Then came the buyout by Disney, the influx of cash, and the start of in-house productions. The studio's lackluster 2000 lineup is the end result. Not only has Miramax not had a big hit all year (excepting Scary Movie, which was released by their exploitation imprint, Dimension), but they don't have a legitimate Best Picture candidate. They're selling Chocolat and All the Pretty Horses, but I don't see the Academy buying.
Miramax has seen some success in 2000, but it has been minimal. The romantic comedy Bounce, for example, was a pleasant enough diversion, and drew modest crowds, but it won't be found on any Best 10 lists for quality or profitability. In fact, most of what Miramax released during 2000 has been mediocre and forgettable. Gazing over my Top 30, I can't find a single Miramax title - and this is the first year I have been able to make that statement since I began reviewing. Unless Miramax does something to reverse its sinking fortunes, its future is as bleak as that of the many multiplex corporations that are filing for protection under Chapter 11.
2000 was not as good a year for actors as was 1999. Nevertheless, there were some lead male performances worth singling out. First and foremost is Tom Hanks (in Cast Away). This may not be a popular choice among highbrow critics - after all, Hanks is a mainstream favorite - but the man's ability to hold an audience's attention for more than an hour (with no one to play against and almost no dialogue) speaks volumes about his talent. Ignoring Hanks just because he's well-known would be a grievous injustice.
A couple of actors deserve notice for playing psychos. The first is Christian Bale, whose high-energy portrayal of the lead character in American Psycho elevates the film. The second is Geoffrey Rush, who abandons all attempts at subtlety when bringing his interpretation of the Marquis de Sade to the screen in Quills. In the disappointingly ordinary Pollock, Ed Harris plays the obsessive artist to perfection. Finally, Gary Oldman's chilling portrayal of a Republican inquisitor in The Contender gives us one of the years most complex villains.
If this was an off-year for actors, it definitely wasn't one for actresses. I can offer no fewer than seven worthy names here - and that's ignoring several more. There's a tie for my favorite performance of the year between Kate Hudson, whose Penny Lane in Almost Famous is luminous, and Rebecka Liljeberg in Show Me Love, whose Agnes is heartbreakingly believable. Both of these young actresses do the kinds of work that makes them deserving not only of accolades, but of future opportunities to advance their careers.
Other legitimate choices include Laura Linney, who finally gets a chance to "break out" with the lead part in You Can Count On Me; Ellen Burstyn, the veteran who adds punch to the anti-drug message in Requiem for a Dream; Vanessa Paradis, the beguiling Girl on the Bridge; Michelle Rodriguez, who gives a powerful debut in Girlfight; and the odds-on Oscar favorite, Julia Roberts, who brings Erin Brockovich to life.
Hands down, my choice for Best Supporting Actor is Willem Dafoe, whose uncanny re-creation of Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire makes it easy to believe that the old-time German actor had a devilish secret to hide. The difficulty with Dafoe getting a nomination is that Lions Gate has fumbled the ball in publicizing the film. As a result, a majority of the people who are coming up with the nominations don't even know about this performance.
Other choices on my list are: Joaquin Phoenix, who could easily be mentioned for any of three films, but does his best work as the hiss-at-and-hate villain in Gladiator (his other two films: The Yards and Quills); Philip Seymour Hoffman as the brutally honest rock critic in Almost Famous and the sweet, naïve writer in State and Main; Jack Black as the wacky record store employee in High Fidelity; and William H. Macy as the director in State and Main.
Topping the Best Supporting Actress roster is newcomer Erika Christensen, whose portrayal of Michael Douglas' drug addicted daughter in Traffic is one of the film's highlights. Also deserving some attention for an anti-drug role is Jennifer Connelly, who bears all (body and soul) in Requiem for a Dream. Joining these two are Frances McDormand, the incomparable and cliché-free mother in Almost Famous; Michelle Yeoh as the kick-ass female swashbuckler in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (one could argue that she would be better placed in the more crowded "Actress" category, but, based on screen time, I have put her here); and an unconventional choice - Kelly McDonald as the fiery love interest in the sweet and perceptive Two Family House.
(Presented in reverse order - the worst last.)
10. Isn't She Great: No, she isn't, at least not in this dud of a bio-pic. I never thought a movie with John Cleese could be this unwatchable, but I was wrong. If Jacqueline Susann saw this insipid treatment of her life's story, she'd be turning in her grave.
9. The In Crowd: A dumb and ignoble thriller that tries to get away with as many exploitation tactics as the PG-13 rating will allow. The result is not only profoundly stupid, but exceedingly dissatisfying, as well.
8. Little Nicky: An Adam Sandler movie that was so bad that even Adam Sandler fans stayed away. Need I say more?
7. Bless The Child: Just about the only movie about possession and/or Biblical Armageddon this year that didn't reek of burning sulfur was the re-release of The Exorcist. Bless The Child happens to be the worst of a bad lot.
6. 102 Dalmatians: Following in the footsteps of its less-than illustrious predecessor, 102 Dalmatians earns Disney a spot on the dishonor role. Glenn Close returned, but most of the audience didn't. This turned out to be one of Disney's biggest flops in years.
5. Beautiful: Not even the sprightly Minnie Driver could save this coyote ugly motion picture, which looked more like a string of product placements than a legitimate motion picture.
4. Ready to Rumble: Made for WWF fans. No plot, no intelligence, nothing real. Kind of like a wrestling match.
3. Coyote Ugly: No film in 2000 had a more appropriate title. It's Showgirls with a PG-13 rating - meaning that the only reasons to see the film (T&A) have been sanitized. Then again, if you can't resist the idea of John Goodman dropping trousers and wiggling his backside...
2. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2: Possibly the most hideously inept and inappropriate first sequel in the history of motion pictures. The only thing of any possible value in this film is that one of the women takes off her clothing (something that didn't happen in the first Blair Witch Project).
1. Battlefield Earth: John Travolta's homage to the founder of Scientology turned into the year's biggest big budget flop. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I didn't give this one zero stars, but I don't intend to endure it again just to find out.
(Presented in reverse order - the best last.)
Runners-Up (alphabetical): An Affair of Love, American Psycho, Dancer In the Dark, Erin Brockovich, Girlfight, The Interview, Mr. Death, Titus.
10. Quills: The Marquis de Sade as a champion of free speech? Actually, Quills has a lot more to say and offer than that. From director Philip Kaufman, this movie succeeds on three levels - as social commentary, as a biting satire of morality, and as a drama. The overall effect is helped immeasurably by a powerful, colorful performance by Geoffrey Rush and a wonderfully low-key characterization by Kate Winslet. There's quite a bit of kinky sex (more hinted at than shown), but the film's thematic depth indicates that it's far more than an exploitation piece.
9. Almost Famous: Unquestionably, the feel-good movie of 2000. Unfortunately, almost no one saw it. After taking Toronto by storm, the movie went on to flop at the box office. It's a shame, because it features some of the best performances of the year, and tells a wonderfully-realized coming-of-age story that boasts a nearly perfect mix of comedy, drama, and rock-and-roll. The underplayed love story is one of the most touching of the year, and the soundtrack ranks as one of the best collections of '70s rock ever compiled for a single CD. This movie deserves to be a big hit when it finally reaches video in 2001.
8. Traffic: With Traffic and Erin Brockovich on his 2000 resume, director Steven Soderbergh has to be considered the year's most consistently reliable filmmaker. Traffic is a bold and gripping tale that takes us through the life cycle of cocaine, focusing on a variety of people who are involved with the drug trade - from the politicians trying to stop it to the addicts willing to do anything for their latest fix. The film's scope, grittiness, and unwillingness to resort to simple solutions make this a memorable motion picture.
7. Gladiator : After many years of toiling in mediocrity, Ridley Scott has again risen to the top, riding the crest of a wave called Gladiator. A grand epic set in the days of a corrupt Roman Emperor, the film is noteworthy not only because of its high octane action sequences, but because of strong acting and an involving storyline. It's a long movie, but it seems much shorter than the running time indicates. The performance by Joaquin Phoenix is a highlight - rarely has a villain been so easy to despise. And Russell Crowe, with his rugged good looks, makes for the perfect gladiator.
6. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon : It has been called the most dazzling action movie of all time by some critics, and it isn't hard to understand their adulation. Crouching Tiger contains about a half-dozen eye-popping action sequences, each of which is guaranteed to amaze and exhilarate. Add to that powerful acting, amazing cinematography, and a suitably complex plot, and the movie represents one of 2000's most enjoyable two hours spent in a movie theater.
5. Show Me Love: In this country, few people saw Show Me Love in theaters, which is a shame. One of the most poignant and true-to-life depictions of adolescence, the film avoids all of the usual clichés and relates a tale that is touching, painful, joyous, and - above all - real. The performances are perfectly modulated and director Lukas Moodysson understands exactly how to tell the story for maximum effect. One of 2000's hidden gems - well worth uncovering in a video store. (Outside of the United States, this film goes by the title of Fucking Amal.)
4. Croupier: Released as part of The Shooting Gallery's inaugural series, Croupier was rescued from undeserved obscurity and became one of the biggest independent release success stories of 2000. This taut, brilliant character study of an author working as a croupier is effective as a drama, a mystery, and a thriller. The lead character, played with style and deadpan panache by Clive Owen, is an enigma - it takes a while to get used to him and to understand his motives, but, once you do, the entire movie makes perfect sense. Directed by none other than Mike Hodges, the man behind the camera for the original Get Carter (not the abysmal Sylvester Stallone remake).
3. Shadow of the Vampire: One of the most original vampire movies ever made, Shadow of the Vampire takes a fictional look behind the making of the F.W. Murnau silent classic, Nosferatu. Part homage and part clever speculation, the film manages to bring equal slices of comedy and horror to the table. The icing on the cake is a brilliant performance by Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, the actor playing a vampire, who turns out to be a bloodthirsty beast in real life.
2. Cast Away: Despite ostensibly being mainstream, Cast Away does a number of decidedly non-mainstream things, including stranding Tom Hanks on a deserted island for half of the running length with no contrived situations to entangle him, no other actors to play off, and little substantive dialogue. The result is a brilliant and absorbing adventure film that approaches its subject matter in an unconventional manner, and offers a moving epilogue that reminds us of the fragility of fate and the uncertainty of the future.
1. Requiem For a Dream: Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to Pi is a visceral, brutal kick in the stomach. Requiem For a Dream is easily the year's most powerful and disturbing film - an uncompromising look at the bleak reality of addiction and the insidious power of drugs to destroy lives. Concluding with a tour de force of style and editing, Requiem For a Dream is guaranteed to leave viewers shaken and exhausted - hallmarks of great art and forceful movie making.
© 2001 James Berardinelli