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The task of compiling my 36th annual best-movie list has led me to reflect on how much of my life I’ve spent in the dark. I began reviewing for a long-defunct Georgetown tabloid in late 1966. Here, in no particular order, are some of the films released during my first year on the job: Bonnie and Clyde, Persona, The Battle of Algiers, The Graduate, Chimes at Midnight, Accident, Point Blank, The Exterminating Angel, The War Is Over, King of Hearts, Bedazzled, Marat/Sade, Blow-Up, Fahrenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Two for the Road, and The Young Girls of Rochefort. In retrospect, I realize that I
had the good fortune to become a reviewer at the apex of one of cinema’s golden ages.
Even accounting for dimming eyes and the loss of brain cells, I don’t think I can be accused of senior-citizen crankiness for decrying the current state of filmmaking. These days, the most interesting thing about the majority of new releases is how much money they make. Admittedly, I’ve done this gig so long that some burnout is inevitable. With rare exceptions, I haven’t much left to say about action movies, dating comedies, serial-killer slashers, chick flicks, Holocaust dramas, space epics, or James Bond thrillers. Nor do I have any burning desire to see the latest vehicles for Adam Sandler, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Meg Ryan, Bruce Willis, or Ben Affleck.
Although fewer and farther between, exciting movies continue to appear. In 2002, I saw and wrote about 40 films, roughly half the total of the previous year. Despite my laziness, I lucked out, drawing some plum assignments that refueled my flagging enthusiasm for moviegoing.
Broadway director and choreographer Rob Marshall’s feature debut, Chicago, is the liveliest movie musical of the last half-century. Marshall shakes the dust off this long-defunct screen genre, infusing it with energy and imagination. Based on the 1975 stage production starring Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, which was revived six years ago and is still running on Broadway, Chicago offers a jaundiced, neo-Brechtian view of tabloid journalism, the American justice system, and the cult of celebrity. Screenwriter Bill Condon, who wrote and directed Gods and Monsters, interweaves the satirical plotline—about two conniving murderesses with show-biz aspirations and a slippery shyster—with more than a dozen John Kander-Fred Ebb neo-Jazz Age songs that articulate the characters’ thirst for notoriety. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a veteran of British musical theater, proves to be a spellbinding singer-dancer-actress and, surprisingly, Richard Gere, who began his career in stage musicals, matches her step for step and note for note. Top-billed Renee Zellweger runs a distant third, slipping in and out of character but exhibiting enough spunk to compensate for her workmanlike singing and hoofing. Set in 1929 just before the stock-market crash, Chicago comments on the fickleness of fortune. Edited at breakneck, post-MTV pace, it never flags, from the brassy opening number through Zeta-Jones and Zellweger’s razzle-dazzle finale duet.
Writer-director Todd Haynes fulfilled the promise of his breakthrough featurette, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in Far From Heaven, a stunningly executed postmodern replication of midcentury Hollywood melodramas. Using filmmaker Douglas Sirk’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows as his template, Haynes combined social commentary and a pastiche of Universal-International’s stylized Technicolor weepies to achieve a complex tone that is, simultaneously, slyly ironic and deeply compassionate. Julianne Moore stars as a ’50s Connecticut housewife whose dollhouse existence is shattered when she discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay. Rattled by this revelation, she turns for support to her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Like Sirk, Haynes subverts the conventions of soap opera to confront the narrow-minded bourgeois moralism that ostracizes those who transgress its rigid norms.
Fans wondering how director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman could top their extraordinary surrealist comedy Being John Malkovich will be disappointed to learn that they haven’t. But they’ve come close enough to make Adaptation one of the year’s most inventive movies. The title alludes to their scriptwriter protagonist’s attempt to translate an intractable nonfiction book about a Florida orchid poacher into a viable screenplay, as well as to the Darwinian imperative of survival in an inhospitable environment—in this instance, contemporary Hollywood. Nicolas Cage, in his strongest performance in years, plays dual roles—uncompromising, self-lacerating screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his carefree, go-getting twin brother Donald—but Chris Cooper trumps him as a shrewd, dentally challenged botanical bandit. (Meryl Streep, however, trots out her grating mannerisms as the author of the book that stymies Charlie.) Adaptation collapses in its final reels, surrendering to the action-movie formulas that it previously mocked—but not before Jonze and Kaufman have assembled a fascinating free-form collage of comedy, drama, and hand-biting Tinseltown satire.
Ostensibly a thriller—it opens with the camera penetrating a thicket to discover a corpse—Lantana uses a whodunit framework as a pretext to explore the tangled lives of four Australian couples: a straying police detective and his troubled wife; a lonely, insecure woman and her estranged, hapless spouse; a psychotherapist and her professor husband, scarred by the murder of their child; and a struggling working-class pair whose marriage, unlike the others’, is untainted by alienation and mistrust. Andrew Bovell’s knotty screenplay gains resonance from director Ray Lawrence’s realistic presentation—he shot in actual locations using available light sources. Strong performances by Anthony LaPaglia, Leah Purcell, Geoffrey Rush, and Barbara Hershey illuminate this absorbing if somewhat diagrammatic character study.
In Time Out, a middle-age Grenoble businessman loses his job but conceals the bitter fact from his wife and children by pretending that he’s obtained an important new position with the United Nations in Geneva. Convincing the family of this deception emboldens him to more daring duplicity, including sweet-talking friends into participating in phony investment schemes and joining forces with a career criminal who imports and sells fake designer goods. Gradually, the protagonist’s initial humiliation becomes a form of liberation, freeing him from paper-pushing corporate servitude to revel in a dicey vagabond existence—until time runs out on him in a denouement that is redemptive, ironic, and heartbreaking. French director Laurent Cantet’s deliberate pacing makes the film feel unnecessarily sluggish, but patient viewers will be rewarded with a richly ambiguous examination of an adult theme, subtly performed and artfully calibrated.
This year’s Filmfest DC offered restorations of two forgotten classics by French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy. Lola (1961), Demy’s feature debut and his masterpiece, is a black-and-white, widescreen romantic fable focusing on an assortment of unwittingly interrelated characters either experiencing the intoxication of first love or attempting to survive abandonment and heartache. Sparked by Anouk Aimee’s enchanting performance in the title role, Lola overflows with allusions to the movies that forged Demy’s beguiling vision: Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town, Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, and the swirling, circular films of Max Ophuls, to whom Lola is dedicated. One would have to struggle hard to resist the moonstruck, melancholy charm of this magnificently photographed movie.
Bay of Angels (1963), Demy’s second feature, is an alluring love story featuring one of Jeanne Moreau’s signature performances. Moreau, who partially bankrolled the project, plays Jackie, a quirky, compulsive gambler who sacrifices her husband and child to her fatalistic obsession with roulette. In a casino, she encounters a young bank clerk, Jean (Claude Mann), a novice at games of chance. Initially, they bring each other luck, winning enough money for a luxurious Riviera fling. But when Jean asks Jackie to renounce the capricious thrill of the roulette wheel, their affair turns sour. Aided by cinematographer Jean Rabier and composer Michel Legrand, Demy creates a dazzling, sun-struck Nice. Meanwhile,
Moreau, clad in an all-white Cardin wardrobe, gives an unforgettable performance, combining Marilyn Monroe’s disheveled voluptuousness with Bette Davis’ pop-eyed volatility.
Hollywood skewers itself in director Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal, a freewheeling, stylistically adventurous comedy-drama that nobody seems to have enjoyed but me. Following his glossy, empty remake of Ocean’s Eleven, the filmmaker returned to his indie roots with an ensemble piece that unfolds in Los Angeles during a 24-hour period climaxing with the 40th birthday party of a movie producer (David Duchovny). The tangentially linked characters include an insecure aspiring screenwriter (David Hyde Pierce), his restless businesswoman wife (Catherine Keener), a lovelorn masseuse (Mary McCormack), and, playing dual roles as actors and characters in a film-within-a film, Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts. Juxtaposing crisp 35 mm footage and digital video processed to achieve a panoply of textures and tones, Soderberg clearly reveled in an opportunity to explore cinematic form. Admittedly, Full Frontal’s illusion and reality games hardly break fresh ground, but it’s bracing to watch the filmmaker and his stellar cast indulging themselves by taking a holiday from their customary commercial pursuits.
The Reel Affirmations Festival premiered Italian director Laura Muscardin’s Giorni (“Days”), arguably the most thoughtful film about AIDS to date. Thirtyish, HIV-positive Claudio (Thoms Trabacchi) leads a meticulously ordered existence, circumscribed by his bank-manager job, his longtime domestic partnership, rigorous gym workouts, and the exacting regimen of medications required to support his immune system. Then a capricious erotic encounter with a handsome young waiter in a public park changes everything. Claudio embarks on a tempestuous (and heedlessly unprotected) affair marked by a spontaneity that he has hitherto denied himself. Muscardin chronicles her protagonist’s days in a mosaic of crisply edited vignettes, depicting Claudio’s troubled relationships with his concerned doctor, neurotic sister, and taunting friends. The sex scenes in this rich, artful film vibrate with a palpable eroticism rarely captured onscreen, underlined by the unspoken dread that can (and does) transform the act of passion into a death sentence.
A few more satisfying 2002 movie memories: veteran French director Claude Chabrol’s sure-handed narrative command in the excessively muted psychological thriller Merci Pour le Chocolat; the galaxy of glamorous French actresses showcased in Francois Ozon’s lumpy souffle 8 Women; and the unflinching realism of Polish filmmaker Robert Glinski’s Hi Tereska, screened at Filmfest DC, a grim account of an impoverished girl’s descent from sweet-faced first-communion celebrant to cold-eyed dominatrix.
I’ll bypass the customary dishonor roll of misbegotten movies. Let’s just fa-la-la-la-la and forget them. CP