City Paper is not for tourists
The funniest thing that happened at the movies this year was that most of the major exhibition chains wentor anticipated goingbankrupt. But that joke might not be so funny in the long run. Certainly in Washington, which had just begun to benefit from the recent cinema-building boom, the theater chains’ bad fortune could be ours as well. Although the city finally got some new screens this yearincluding a desperately needed art house in Visions Cinema Bistro Loungeplans for more are being scaled back or canceled.
Overbuilding is one reason for the financial woes of Loews Cineplex Odeon, AMC, United Artists, General Cinema, and Regal, as well as those of other chains that don’t have a presence in the area; capacity increased far more than the audience possibly could have. But there’s another reason that these companies are in trouble: People just didn’t turn out for bad movies this year. Although Hollywood still has hopes for the Christmas season, summer revenues were down 13 percent from 1999. The kind of stuff Hollywood usually gets away withjuvenile comedies, lame sequels, sententious dramas, underplotted action flicksjust didn’t work.
That is, that stuff didn’t work as often as it usually does. Even such hits as Gladiator, Mission: Impossible 2, and X-Men weren’t really much smarter than the widely reviled Battlefield Earth. And most of the year’s well-reviewed smaller American films didn’t draw a crowd either, whether they were such weak last gasps of Tarantinoism as Reindeer Games, The Way of the Gun, and Nurse Betty, or smart and distinctive work such as Wonder Boys. (The latter actually flopped twice, in its original release and then in reissue.) Most satisfying was the commercial failure of Pay It Forward, the year’s most egregious bit of mock-tragic blather. On the other hand, Remember the Titans did quite well, despite being equally phonyor even more phony, because it professed to be a true story. Allow me to name Titans the worst movie of the year, just for old times’ sake. (A full list of the year-2000 films that made me sorry to be alive, at least for periods of approximately 90 to 120 minutes, would overwhelm this column.)
Does Hollywood need some artificial energy, or is it just a coincidence that there were so many films this year about drugs and their attendant subcultures? The Beach started the bad trip, followed by Jesus’ Son and Requiem for a Dream, both hard to recommend to the average filmgoer but stronger than such happy druggie flicks as Saving Grace, Human Traffic, and Groove. Then Grass tried to explain it allor at least some of it. And early next year comes Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which is half bloody drug-runner drama, half soap opera.
Hollywood’s other major source of energy supplements was Asia, especially Hong Kong. In addition to straight imports both modest (The Cup) and grand (The Emperor and the Assassin), Hollywood released two Jackie Chan filmsone new, one remodeledand turned to HK action aces to energize such movies as M:I-2 (a garish mess) and Charlie’s Angels (the year’s most agreeable junk-food hit). Asian-Americans figured in such culture-clash comedies as Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, What’s Cooking?, and Chutney Popcorn, and Jim Jarmusch turned to the medieval Japanese warrior’s code for the ambitious but underwhelming Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. And then there’s the wildly overrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an upscale martial-arts epic whose box-office possibilities have yet to be tested.
As always, my top 10sthe first for commercial films, the second for repertoryare alphabetical and comprise movies that debuted in Washington this year. That’s a bit confusing, because New York and D.C.’s film releases were particularly out of sync in 2000. A full 10 prestige filmsThirteen Days, Before Night Falls, Traffic, Shadow of the Vampire, Pollock, Tigerland, The Claim, In the Mood for Love, Save the Last Dance, and The House of Mirthwere screened locally for best-of consideration even though they won’t open here until next year. In addition, Visions brought usbelatedly but gratifyinglyseveral films that opened in New York last year.
Alice and Martin André Téchiné’s drama needlessly postpones revealing a plot point that comes as no surprise, yet the performances are engrossing and the mood enveloping.
East Is East Damien O’Donnell’s culture-clash comedy is earthy and boisterous, but its psychological portrait of a bullying father is acute and its political undertones grave.
The End of the Affair Neil Jordan’s best film since The Crying Game actually improves on Graham Greene’s semiautobiographical novel, simplifying the narrative and strengthening the redemption theme.
Late August, Early September Irma Vep director Olivier Assayas moves into grown-up concerns with this ensemble piece, whose deceptively episodic story and crypto-documentary style are ultimately very powerful.
Not One Less Pressed into teaching children only a few years younger than herself, a 13-year-old girl earnestly battles adult indifference in Zhang Yimou’s candid portrait of contemporary China.
Rosetta Dogging their heroine with a handheld camera, brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes made a study of working-class Belgium that’s as monomaniacal as its central character.
Show Me Love Lukas Moodysson’s exuberant, intimate film about two teenage girls who fall in love is set in small-town Swedenbut its depiction of adolescent frustration is universal.
Such a Long Journey Adapted from Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Sturla Gunnarsson’s film is as complex, piquant, and brutal as Bombay, the city whose chaotic pageant it successfully captures.
The Wind Will Carry Us Set in culturally separate Kurdistan, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film is part documentary, part deadpan absurdist comedy, with an ambiguity that suggests the allegorical gamesmanship of Kafka and Beckett.
Wonder Boys Curtis Hanson’s freewheeling academic-world comedy is so much richer than most recent Hollywood movies that I almost don’t mind that it depicts the usual array of brilliant, troubled men and supportive, incidental women.
Other good films that didn’t quite make the cut include Girl, Interrupted; Kadosh; A Room for Romeo Brass; Set Me Free; The Terrorist; A Time for Drunken Horses; The War Zone; West Beirut; and You Can Count on Me. Among the significantly flawed films that nonetheless had powerful aspects were Dancer in the Dark; 8 1/2 Women; Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai; Humanity; Kikujiro; Orphans; Requiem for a Dream; The Third Miracle; and Winter Sleepers. I also enjoyed, without buying them for a moment, three music-culture/young-love frolics, Almost Famous, High Fidelity, and Human Traffic. And I definitely need to see Time Regained again.
At the city’s nonprofit repertory houses, this was actually a better year for revivals and retrospectives than for premieres of recent movies. Still, it’s not difficult to recall 10 such films that outclassed nearly everything that showed this year in the commercial megaplexes.
Beresina, or The Last Days of Switzerland (National Gallery of Art, Filmfest DC) A Russian prostitute accidentally overthrows the Swiss government in Daniel Schmid’s mordant political satire.
Crazy (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garnden) Heddy Honigmann’s documentary about the music that sustained Dutch soldiers and relief workers as they worked in earthly hells is one of the year’s most moving films.
Disparus (Washington Jewish Film Festival) A rich evocation of late-’30s Paris, Gilles Bourdos’ intellectual thriller investigates the roles of Stalinism, Trotskyism, and surrealism in a dead-serious historical sideshow.
42 Up (Filmfest DC) The latest installment in this British documentary series, which began with 7 Up, shows how everyday lives develop more or less as expectedexcept when they don’t.
Good Work (Hirshhorn) Claire Denis’ most poetically elliptical film turns Melville’s “Billy Budd” into a ballet of masculinity and a meditation on exile.
Goodbye South, Goodbye (National Gallery/Freer Gallery of Art) Physical motion and emotional stasis define the bustling yet going-nowhere characters in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1996 film, which brilliantly conjures the texture of daily life.
The Mission (Freer) An understated mob procedural raises an unexpected moral dilemma in the final act of this movie by Johnny To, the reigning master of the Hong Kong gangster flick.
Smoking/No Smoking (National Gallery) These two 1993 Alain Resnais films, adapted from Alan Ayckbourn plays, are playful and stagey, yet their interest in various different narrative possibilities suggests the director’s influential earlier work.
A Summer’s Tale (National Gallery) The missing one of Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons films finally arrives, and its story of young romance is characteristic and yet charmingly singular.
A Sweet Smell of Death (American Film Institute) In small-town Mexico, a murder investigation becomes an inquiry into macho culture when a teenage boy is pressured to slay the supposed killer.
Rejoining the reliable National Gallery, Hirshhorn, and Freer programs, the Library of Congress’ Pickford Theater was active for much of the year; it’s dark now but will commence showing again in February, the same month that will bring the next burst of activity at the beleaguered AFI. Among the smaller local film programs, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s Films on the Hill is filling a significant void, showing older pictures that are rarely screened in any context. Together, these institutions provide a remarkable publicand artisticservice. Contemplating the many repertory films I didn’t manage to see in 2000, I conclude that a very satisfying year at the movies could be spent without ever entering a commercial theater. Given the way the business is going, that may turn out to be more than just an idle thought. CP