It was a year for movies. It’s probably foolish, but some kind of demented probity demands that I select the year’s top 10 films from the ones I personally reviewed in these pagesthe pool of choices being the product of expediency, happenstance, and, sometimes, high-pitched but effective whining.
To not much avail. Great directors weighed in, but with lame or loser movies. They fiddle-faddled (Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie), skidded out (David Cronenberg’s Crash), lost their way (Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), faked enlightenment (Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane), displayed their contempt for the audience (Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary), openly jerked off (Oliver Stone’s U-Turn), or crawled so thoroughly up their own behinds in an effort to escape Hollywood romanticism that they ended up making the swooniest, darkest kind of Hollywood romanticism (Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book; see Guilty Pleasures). But budding auteurs like Nick Cassavetes (She’s So Lovely) and David Fincher (The Game) kept hope alive, as did a few august arty types.
In chronological order, then:
Hamlet However unpleasant it is to contemplate Kenneth Branagh’s fancies of himselfis he a Sir yet?his full-text reading of this most difficult and popular of Shakespeare’s plays does credit to them both. Bypassing the usual sober period piece or socially glib updating (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) for a sensible, relaxed, and sumptuous retelling, Branagh makes the text sing again and brings it to vibrant new life with the use of some of the sharpest casting choices ever: Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, (so help me) Billy Crystal, and His Bad Self. The schematic color scheme and dizzying chronological conflation only make the languageand more importantly, the language’s emotional justificationmore prominent and poignant.
Gridlock’d Not Tupac Shakur’s last filmsurely we haven’t seen the end of the late rapper’s screen backlogbut nevertheless worthy of conclusion for his lovely, intelligent performance. He and weaselly Tim Roth are paired as a couple of drug addicts trying to kick just as the exigencies of New Year’s and the social welfare system work in tandem to keep them hooked. A short, sharp-eyed jazz fugue on the state of the union.
When We Were Kings Leon Gast’s documentary of the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” took 23 years to make it to the screen, but it’s a gift and a revelation now, since nothing in film has remained as it was. The commentary by boxing insiders and visiting authors is insightful and respectful, and in between Gast manages to expose the inner workings of the fight biz, African politics, American race politics, and sports insanity simply by pointing his camera. An extraordinary film that should be screened next to The Battle of Algiers as the apotheosis of documentary style and its fictional counterpart.
Grosse Pointe Blank John Cusack plays a hit man who returns to Grosse Pointe for his high-school reunionand, incidentally, has a job to carry out. Yuppie guilt, anyone? But Cusack is an appealing modern cipher, blank of eye and muffled of emotion. His slightly galled look is perfect for the coldhearted assassin thawing out under the pressure of love and Midwestern wackiness. Minnie Driver is her pulchritudinous self, and the movie is a true dark comedy, smart and cynical in tone and rich in quirky detail.
Selena So sue me. The music is terrific, and Jennifer Lopez is so sexy, real, and generous as the doomed Tejana singer that you forget she’s doomed and ride with the bio of Selena’s girly, glittery, family-entangled starstruck life with perfect faith in the filmworthiness of the subject. A small-scale glory.
Soul in the Hole Hoop Dreams with a streetside view, full of quotidian revelations and ghastly surprises. The filmmakers follow Brooklyn b-ball legends Kenny’s Kings as they advance through a cutthroat series of playoffs, with an eye on Ed, one enigmatic young genius who could end up dead, in prison, on the streets, in college, or in the NBA. You never see what’s coming, and when the whole thing is over it seems inconceivable that there’s such a thing as fiction in a world with such stories to tell.
Kissed Lynne Stopkewich’s brief little movie enjoyed some notoriety as part of “The New Perversion”for the 35 seconds it played in Washington. But Kissed is no friend of Crash. Part fairy tale, part love story, this dreamlike tale of a young female necrophiliac is a meditation on the validity of the human soul. In an age when any film-school nudnik can make a picture look good, Stopkewich’s Vermeerlike eye is never less than staggeringly beautifuland emotionally right.
Chasing Amy The most generous and realistic vision of women in contemporary film, Kevin Smith’s third movie stares unflinchingly into the heart of a young man tormented by his girlfriend’s sexual past. If girls ever wonder what’s said about them when they leave the room, Chasing Amy has the answers. Its clarity is dazzling and grueling; it’s also one of the funniest films of the year.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery There are times when American movie audiences validate the lonely critic, and the success of Mike Myers’ utterly ridiculous, magically delicious sub-Bond spoof is one of those things that keeps us going. If Myers is a girl-crazy butt fetishist reared on campy ’60s spy flicks, this compendium of schoolyard scatology and keen weaponry is just the exorcism hewe allneeded.
Boogie Nights Paul Thomas Anderson avoids all the pitfalls of his subjectprurience, mockery, callownessand builds a jigsaw puzzle of art-house yearnings and fine characterizations into an argument for family togetherness in any form. The porn scene never looked so welcoming, the dangers outside it so threatening, until Anderson concocted this tale of people safer, happier, and more lovedin the nonphysical sensewith their own kind.
The Beautician and the Beast There are worse ways to spend two summer hours than watching Fran Drescher mince around in Shantung capris and twin sets bellowing, “Svet-laaaa-na!” across fake Soviet fields. It is what it is (Cinderella with a political twist), it makes all the right moves and a couple of great ones, and they didn’t have to make her a hooker to get the story over.
The Pillow Book In spite of everythingwe have to adjust our standards in these grade-inflated timeshe’s Peter Greenaway, and his worst film (this may be his worst film) is still 100 times more beautiful and finely calibrated than anyone else’s. And the leadsVivian Wu and Ewan McGregorfit into the hard-edged, pounding, modern loveliness with style and grace.
Waiting for Guffman Christopher Guest’s minor improvisatory wonder ain’t no big thing, but its sweet, rueful, goofy little joys are many and varied. It doesn’t really matter what it’s aboutstagestruck small-town denizens putting together a variety act for the town’s 150th-birthday celebrationit’s the cast’s willingness to do anything for a character-perfect laugh that makes this a swell way to spend an evening.
Addicted to Love I keep forgetting how much I hate Meg Ryan when I’m watching her (this never happens with Andie MacDowell, the watching of whom is an act of constant reminding). Ryan’s romantic comedies go down so easyI.Q., French Kiss (both rentable without shame), and this good-looking, easygoing disaster-romance flick with Matthew Broderick, everything in it derived from the thin-line beauty of engineering diagrams and astronomical charts except for the thorny problem of love itself. Cute, when cute was still cool.
Good Burger Stone-stupid humor is really just as valid as rapier witand a good deal easier to come by. I take my laughs where I can find them, and I found them all over this candy-colored paean to good friends, honest business, loyalty, hard work, and blanketing naiveté. Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson are a beguiling pair, and there isn’t a nasty moment in this frenetic sketch.
Worst Movie of the Year, Maybe Ever
Mondo An adorable gypsy orphan on the loose in Nice to perform a sentimental overhaul on the whole damn city. Mimes might find it too twee.
Movie? What Movie?
Boys on Film
Ben Chaplin in Washington Square, Peter Outerbridge in Kissed, Naveen Andrews in Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Joaquin Phoenix in Inventing the Abbotts, Leslie Cheung in Temptress Moon, Richard Gere in The Jackal, Viggo Mortensen in G. I. Jane, Ben Affleck in Chasing Amy, Colin Salmon in Tomorrow Never Dies, Clancy Brown in Female Perversions, Ewan McGregor in everything.CP