Boy, was it a lean year at the multiplex. Out of 273 movies I reviewed in 2000, only three of them wowed me sufficiently to garner a four-star rating. As a movie buff, I practically starved all the way to September until I saw the first film that truly bowled me over ("Girlfight," listed No. 3 below). Even with the traditional December rush of Oscar-baiting prestige flicks, completing a top 10 list was literally impossible.
So here's the best I could do -- a top nine and a handful of honorable mentions, all of which I loved (in fact, I've seen several of them twice) but none of which I felt I could honestly slide into that 10th slot.
The entire year was like that -- a few "High Fidelities" oases in a desert of "Battlefield Earths." So it came as a resounding relief to finally, two weeks before the year drew to a close, discover a screwball comedy that was so clearly the best of the year that I'd could just kiss the filmmakers for restoring some joy to my job as a critic. Three cheers for the Coen Brothers and for...
No.1) "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Take Ulysses from Homer's "Odyssey," turn him into a dusty but peculiarly dapper hillbilly escaped from a Mississippi chain gang, circa 1937 (with a couple half-witted pals in tow) and whaddya got? Only the funniest, most inspired movie of Coen Brothers illustrious comedy careers. The writing-directing siblings cook up a masterpiece of a scruffy, old-fashioned Hollywood romp about a no-class fugitive (a slick-but-dumb George Clooney) trying to get home to his wife (Holly Hunter) before she re-marries to a colorless, straw-hatted dandy. Clooney gives a brilliantly jaunty performance that channels both the roguish comedic charm of Clark Gable and the earnest zaniness of Cary Grant as he leads fellow fugitives John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson on a hilarious state-crossing adventure that includes a Ku Klux Klan musical number, a bank heist with Baby Face Nelson, a crooked governor's race, and of course, sirens of both varieties (melodious nymphet and police car). The Coens' pure genius for lifestyle caricature reaches a mirthful zenith in this endlessly entertaining, wildly inventive flick.
No. 2) "Panic"
An acutely observant, darkly humorous and immaculately acted film about your average, everyday suburban father/contract killer (William H. Macy) in the throes of a midlife crisis, "Panic" is fresh, off-kilter and a little twisted. First-time writer-director Henry Bromell creates an utterly original spectacle of severely tweaked normalcy in this deft and surprising character piece, plumbing the hit man's dysfunctional psyche through hesitant sessions with a shrink (John Ritter) and his growing fixation with a sexually conflicted nymph (Neve Campbell), which is turning his life upside-down. Macy maintains an awesome balance between family man stuck in a rut, skilled killer and a acquiescent milksop who has never learned to stand up to his domineering father (Donald Sutherland). The film will play in major markets in January and February. If it doesn't come to your town, watch for it on video this summer.
No. 3) "Girlfight"
Exploding with the intense focus and attitude of its heroine -- a rage-filled teenager (newcomer Michelle Rodriguez) who becomes a boxer as an outlet for her indignation -- "Girlfight" is a skilled and unforgettable film that submerges the viewer in an often despairing environment as the girl tunes her raw power into precision and stamina with help of a washed-up boxer-turned-coach (Jaime Tirelli), who surprises even himself by believing in her ability to compete against men in the ring. Rodriguez is mesmerizing in her portrayal of coexisting fury and tenderness in this film that rivals "Raging Bull" as the best boxing movie of all time.
No. 4) "Requiem for a Dream
Forget every movie you've ever seen about the downward spiral of drug addiction. They're all as innocuous as "Alice in Wonderland" compared to this soul-rattling, cerebral and cinematically ingenious runaway train of gruesome overindulgence. Jared Leto stars as a heroin junkie dragging his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) with him into a harrowing dungeon of chemical dependency. Ellen Burstyn costars in an astonishingly powerful parallel performance as his brittle, depressed mother, who cops a habit for under-the-counter diet drugs that trap her mind in a similar waking nightmare. A psychological horror movie of infected needles, traumatic hallucinations and lascivious sexual indignities, "Requiem" amplifies its disturbing effect ten-fold thanks to director Darren Aronofsky's psyche-plumbing, genius-level reinvention of the cinematic drug trip.
No. 5) "High Fidelity"
Using on-screen narration as a form of therapy and musical pop culture references as philosophy, John Cusack plays the bitterness of being dumped with droll aplomb in this fantastically observant and acerbic dark comedy about a used record store owner tracking down the top five girls who broke his heart in an attempt to understand what he keeps doing wrong with women. Cusack (who also adapted the script from Nick Hornsby's book) and director Stephen Frears strike exactly the right balance between self-indulgent brooding and wall-to-wall wry wit in this hilarious film that could be a mature and more accomplished extension of Cusack's teen comedies of the 1980s.
No. 6) "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
A magnificently-crafted hybrid of Chinese historical epic, F/X-enhanced martial arts spectacular, mystical romantic tragedy and live-action anime, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a film that defies genre while embracing traditionalism. It's an intellectually challenging story of noble warriors in feudal China packed with eloquent swordplay and lightning-fast hand-to-hand combat. But it's also a story of a burning, long-unspoken love between two uncommon warriors (Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh) and the story of their beautiful -- but dangerous -- teenage apprentice (Zhang Ziyi), desperately seeking freedom in the face of an impending arranged marriage. Intelligent, emotional, metaphysical and peppered with incredible, gravity-exempt kung-fu and sword duels, this is a native-language masterpiece for director Ang Lee ("Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm").
No. 7) "Dancer in the Dark"
The first truly modern movie musical, employing emerging filmmaking techniques instead of reaching back 50 years for inspiration, "Dancer in the Dark" is a daring, inventive collaboration between elfin Icelandic alt-pop diva Björk and experimental writer-director Lars Von Trier ("Breaking the Waves"). The singer stars in this tragic fable of innocence and injustice as a near-blind immigrant factory worker in the American Northwest, circa 1964, accused of brutally murdering a bankrupt friend (David Morse) who steals her life savings, originally designated for an operation to save her son from going blind as well. The director discovers a way to marry his distinctive digital video vérité style with the unfettered showmanship of "Stomp"-like song and dance numbers that emerge from the imagination of its main character. A daring retooling of the musical genre.
No. 8) "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"
Mixing ancient Eastern philosophy with hip-hop street smarts and a Scorsese undercard gangland atmosphere, fiercely independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch paints a strangely serene portrait of a surgical, stealthy and enigmatic hit man (Forest Whitaker) double-crossed by the mob in this understated and penetrating urban fable. Director and star conspire to lend a mesmerizing calm to this intelligent story of a violent but internally peaceful life, juxtaposing oil-and-water elements (the deeply reflective samurai mentality, ghetto life, mafia honor, oddly light comedy and a hardcore rap score by the RZA) that leave imagery and axioms tripping around in your head for days after seeing the film.
No. 9) "East-West"
On Stalin's deceptive invitation to help build a new USSR, the young French wife (Sandrine Bonnaire) of a Russian expatriate (Oleg Menchikov) travels to the Motherland with her husband after World War II, only to find herself trapped in a dilapidated, alien world of tenement housing, paranoid communist control and rampant suspicion. Based on real accounts of emigrant Russians tricked into coming home to misery, this uncommon and personal epic of strife, despair and obstinate hope is a splendid, gripping work of cinema by Regis Wargnier ("Indochine"), packed frame-by-frame with crushing tension, fear and bottled-up emotion.
While not quite top 10-worthy, these films were each extraordinary enough to make them noteworthy in a year marked mostly by generic pap and gigantic bombs.
"State & Main"
Playwright, filmmaker and satirical dialogue savant David Mamet ruthlessly runs Hollywood through with a poison pen in this wickedly ironical and incisive industry lampoon about a film crew laying siege to a Vermont hamlet where they intend to shoot a pretentious period drama. Keenly trenchant banter, roguish industry gibes and pitch-perfect performances from William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker and more.
"Dr. T & the Women"
A capricious, celebratory fable about the dichotomy of gender from the marvelously idiosyncratic director Robert Altman, "Dr. T" stars Richard Gere as a genteel Dallas gynecologist whose sincere love for women in general has turned his life into a befuddling storm of estrogen. Superb, quirky ensemble cast includes Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Helen Hunt and Y2K It Girl Kate Hudson.
"Return to Me"
In a stunningly emotional departure role, "The X-Files'" David Duchovny plays a man whose beautiful, adoring wife dies in a car crash. Then, by chance, he falls in love with the heart patient (Minnie Driver) who gets her ticker. I know, it sounds like a horribly cheesy gimmick for a movie romance but the whole magical-innards angle is merely a jumping off point for a sincere and funny love story that is easily the best romantic dramedy since "Jerry Maguire."
"Keeping the Faith"
A side-splitting and genuinely sweet modernization of the kind of screwball comedies made by Howard Hawks, George Cukor and Billy Wilder. Edward Norton and Ben Stiller star as a conflicted Catholic priest and his rabbi rival for the affections of the magnetic Jenna Elfman. Sublimely nutty, yet surprisingly respectful of religious faith, this audience-pleasing farce even manages to slip in some delicate, honest moments of emotional candor.
Graduating gracefully and comically a comfortable, frumpy middle-aged role, Michael Douglas might be Oscar-bound as a once-bohemian Pittsburgh professor at a crossroads in his life, which goes into full tilt over one messy weekend. Directed with great little touches of winking absurdity by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential").
A confident and daring experiment in 21st Century film techniques from director Mike Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas," "The Loss of Sexual Innocence"). Shot on hand-held digital video in four continuous takes all running at once, Figgis splits the screen in quadrants like a security camera monitor then, like an orchestral conductor, unspools raw, unedited, real-time footage, tracking multiple, largely improvised narratives about a sampling of misanthropic, self-absorbed Hollywood denizens.
"The Virgin Suicides"
This moody, dark and whimsical directorial debut of Sofia Coppola is a mesmerizing and accomplished cinematic enigma about a quintet of innocently seductive teenage sisters who all kill themselves in the course of one month in the mid-1970s. The supremely talented Kirsten Dunst heads the cast in a performance of intrinsic sweetness and budding sexuality. Imperfect in places, but quite unforgettable.
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