By Jonathan Rosenbaum
I’ve been getting increasingly suspicious of ten-best lists–maybe because the studios have been treating them as increasingly important. I’ve always regarded such list making as a critical activity, a form of stocktaking that benefits critics and audiences alike. But it’s becoming obvious that studios value the lists only as a part of their ad campaigns, and they seem to arrange their multiple end-of-the-year screenings and mail out their numerous “screener” videos for the press accordingly. Why else are so many reviewers implausibly claiming that most of the best movies of 2000 came out during the last two weeks of the year or haven’t even surfaced yet? Are they suffering from amnesia? Or are they simply going for the bait?
The studios define the year according to when movies open in New York and Los Angeles, where they’re often first screened in November and December so that they qualify for that year’s Oscars. As a consequence, critics in what the studios see as the hinterlands, including Chicago, are being encouraged to put movies on their ten-best lists that their readers can’t see for some time.
If studios cared about the services performed by criticism–which range from providing background information and an overall context for new releases to launching discussions about their subjects and explaining why these movies matter–they’d try to let critics see films shortly before they have to review them. This is what they do most of the year, but during the last couple of months the system goes haywire. The studios throw numerous movies at reviewers, no longer looking for reviews so much as snap judgments (the same sort of knee-jerk reflexes that in test marketing ruin a lot of movies). The critics oblige, and their instant verdicts are immediately converted by the studios into hype. Thus watching all the year-end studio issues becomes a kind of movie pig-out that ultimately brutalizes more than educates sensibilities–which is undoubtedly why critics’ favorite films are often so goofy. (I’m told the New York Critics Circle’s selection of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic as the year’s best film was basically an inadvertent compromise that pleased no one–precisely the thing that happened with another mainstream Soderbergh thriller, Out of Sight, at the National Society of Film Critics awards two years ago, when most members were fighting for either The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan.)
Another problem is that sometimes art houses such as the Music Box prefer to show some films after practically everyone else on the planet has seen them. Brian Andreotti, the Music Box’s booker, says this is because the art houses want to wait for the New York reviews–which sometimes means waiting to hear what reviewers who don’t even like foreign films have to say. Why should their verdicts be so precious? Especially since New York is already months behind cities such as Tokyo and Paris, which places Chicago somewhere west of Dogpatch in the pecking order. Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, my favorite movie to play in Chicago in 2000, premiered at the Venice film festival in August 1999 and made it to Paris and Tokyo two or three months later; New York didn’t open it until the following summer, and Chicago got it almost a half year after that. I saw it for the first and second times in Toronto in September 1999, 15 months before it wended its way here. And the most exciting new film I saw last year, again in Toronto–Jafar Panahi’s The Circle–won’t open in New York until this spring, which probably means we can’t expect to see it here before the summer or fall.
In this context, what does it mean to pick the “best movies of 2000”? I’ve decided to take my picks from what one could have seen here last year. This includes screenings of films and videos at the Film Center, Facets Multimedia Center, and the Chicago International Film Festival, as well as the more commercial fare. But I saw so many worthy items here last year that I’m going to list my favorite 20 overall plus 5 selections in each of four special categories–nonfiction works, videos, films seen at the Chicago International Film Festival, and guilty pleasures–for a grand total of 40 selections.
A New York friend just left me a message saying that she loved Traffic when she saw it but now can barely remember anything about it. This sounds like an ideal response from the vantage point of the studios, which often seem to design movies to be forgotten–the movie as disposable tissue. But the guiding principle behind my choices was that I had to remember each vividly enough to regard with pleasure the prospect of seeing it again. One could of course argue that a pleasurable film one has forgotten can be seen again as if for the first time, but for me pleasure is too closely tied to memorability; my sense of the best ones derives from what seems inexhaustible about them.
1. The Wind Will Carry Us. With these principles in mind, I part company with those among my colleagues–some of them quite sympathetic to Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece–who describe the film as minimalist, apparently on the basis of its having more offscreen than on-screen characters and a slender story line. I’d call the movie beautifully and triumphantly essentialist, a different thing entirely. The same misunderstanding often crops up with the more radical and avant-garde filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, who are called minimalists when they favor landscape over human presence–a position that makes sense only if you regard the natural world as minimal.
In the case of Kiarostami, keeping characters offscreen isn’t the same thing as eliminating them, and paring down plot doesn’t mean reducing incident or other kinds of detail. On the contrary, part of the film’s grand achievement is to expand and enrich what we ordinarily regard as “presence,” through sound as well as image. The remote Kurdish Iranian village that’s created as well as discovered by the film is such an exciting, multifaceted, and populated (in every sense of the term) entity that I’ve barely begun to penetrate it after half a dozen viewings. And the ethical nuances of the interactions between the locals and a crew of media people from Tehran are sufficiently well defined to create a plausible picture of what’s happening on the planet at the moment.
2. Rosetta. It’s been almost a year since Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s controversial Cannes prizewinner played in Chicago, but its passion and energies remain firmly imprinted on my senses. Much less philosophical and far more visceral than The Wind Will Carry Us, this picture is no less evocative of what’s currently happening around the world–a subject most American filmmakers, in spite of their many merits, are too provincial to see, much less depict.
The unidealized saga of a working-class teenager (memorably played by Emilie Dequenne) trying to find and hold a job–played out in a nondescript stretch of French-speaking Belgium and delivered without an ounce of sentimentality and only a modicum of thesis mongering–Rosetta has the weight of lived experience without presuming to say anything more than is apparent about its angry heroine as she shuttles between her various jobs and the trailer park where she and her alcoholic mother live. The film’s depiction of the moral dilemmas of having to fight for one’s existence and the scars such fights leave was strong enough that in Belgium it led to a change in the minimum wage for teenagers.
3. Beau travail. Claire Denis, a tough and idiosyncratic African-born French writer-director, finally won me over completely with this film. She had the good sense to hire a good choreographer to distill her terse poetry about the Foreign Legion and an electric physical actor–Leos Carax’s discovery Denis Lavant–to perform some of the choreography. I can’t say that Billy Budd, Foretopman has ever been one of my favorite Herman Melville tales, and she makes better emotional than intellectual use of her other main source of inspiration, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (from which she borrows one of her central characters, played by Michel Subor). But her subtle ways of hinting at how the African women are amused as they leer at the young men’s military exercises redeem this bitter tale from the homoerotic poster art it might have become, and her wonderfully musical sense of editing and mise en scene combined with her feeling for landscape make this a speculative travelogue, closer in some respects to song than story.
4. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. My favorite American film of the year, which opened here in March, is a clever and suggestive piece of multicultural sampling that gave Jim Jarmusch a broader audience–this was his first feature to escape the U.S. art-house ghetto–and confirmed the revelation of Dead Man that his orientation is literary as well as cinematic. (The soulful links made in this movie between readers of Rashomon and Frankenstein–both pointedly privileged above their movie versions–are even more pertinent than the title hero’s samurai handbook.) Ghost Dog also offered intertwining snippets of black American, black Caribbean, Italian-American, and Japanese culture (not counting a Native American cameo and borrowings from a French movie called Le samourai), all rendered in cartoonlike form. (Some Italian-Americans have objected, but it appears that Japanese audiences were delighted.)
It’s my impression that Jarmusch doesn’t spend much, if any, time on the Internet, yet I can’t think of another contemporary film that better conveys metaphorically what E-mail does to people’s grasp of their own identity. (Forest Whitaker, in one of his noblest performances, uses this sort of insight to make his implausible character live.) Which is another way of saying that Jarmusch is just as plugged into what’s happening globally as Kiarostami and the Dardenne brothers.
5. The River. The Taiwanese film that had the biggest impact last year was Edward Yang’s magisterial Yi Yi, but since it’s been shown locally only at the Chicago International Film Festival–it opens commercially at the Music Box in early March–I’d rather draw attention here to Tsai Ming-liang’s shocking masterpiece, a 1996 family story that opened belatedly here in April at Facets. In some ways The River is even more of an apotheosis of Tsai’s obsession with water imagery as a symbol of blocked libido than his subsequent feature, The Hole (1998). It also uses many of the same actors as Rebels of the Neon God and Vive l’Amour, his first two films. Given his small range of themes and stylistic options, he surely deserves the label “minimalist” a lot more than Kiarostami, but that doesn’t prevent this film from registering with maximal impact.
6. The House of Mirth. I read Edith Wharton’s extraordinary 1905 novel for the first time last summer in anticipation of Terence Davies’s adaptation and woefully concluded that any film version, no matter how great, would still be a losing proposition by virtue of its reductiveness. Consequently it wasn’t until my second viewing of the film, which brought me close to tears, that I realized how powerfully Davies had imposed his own reading of the novel, and his own Catholic sense of doom, without fundamentally betraying too much of either the spirit or the moral complexity of the original.
I’m still not sure that a relatively non-Jewish Rosedale and a sweeter Selden (well played by the miscast Eric Stoltz) are entirely acceptable, but Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd are so uncommonly good I’m tempted to cut the others some slack. And Davies, who’s every bit as obsessive and minimalist as Tsai, stretches himself here to become more of a narrative director than ever before. He’s leagues ahead of every other living English filmmaker in both dedication and sheer emotional intensity. (This film, which opened at the Music Box late last month, was produced for Showtime and will ultimately air on cable, but Davies’s exquisite artistry ought to be seen on the big screen.)
7. The Smell of Camphor, the Scent of Jasmine and The Child and the Soldier. This is the only tie in my top 40, my way of acknowledging the distinction of the Iranian New Wave over the past year. It’s represented here by both the old guard (Bahman Farmanara, returning to directing in The Smell of Camphor after a quarter of a century’s absence) and by the up-and-coming (Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi, showing a keen sense of how to underplay a picaresque narrative and trust the audience’s perceptiveness). Both films turned up in October in the Film Center’s invaluable annual festival of Iranian films.
8. Khroustaliov, My Car! The inelegant title of Alexei Guerman’s 1998 autobiographical, phantasmagoric look at the last days of Stalin’s rule, in February 1953, doesn’t begin to describe its brilliant, grim, and intractable textures–all built around a subjective camera moving through cluttered and claustrophobic interiors and snowy exteriors. The film showed at Facets in April, and I’m still far from shaking loose its delirious and paranoid atmospherics.
9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Apart from the two Iranian films tied for seventh place, this is the only movie in my top 11 that I’ve seen just once, so I’m only guessing that it will hold up as well as the others. It’s the first Ang Lee picture I’ve thoroughly enjoyed without feeling some qualm about its middle-class view of the world, its academicism, or its genre, and both the stars and the fight choreography have a lot to do with what keeps it flying. It opened late last month.
10. Kikujiro. Takeshi Kitano’s biggest fans tended to turn up their noses at this melancholy experiment in picaresque comedy, but I think it’s his only late picture that lives up to his reputation, memorable especially for its strange handling of time. When it turned up at the Music Box in late June, I hypothesized that its treatment of the very Japanese primal trauma of mother loss is what made it so haunting and grief-ridden–even though it was nominally a comedy and a genuine departure for the filmmaker in many respects, including its lack of violence. (I’m told it lost him heaps of money, which might explain why he reverted to his formula of sentimentality plus violence in Brother.)
Rather than risk overload by discussing my ten next favorites, I’ll simply list them with my warm recommendation: West Beirut, Human Resources, Jesus’ Son, Beyond the Clouds, Time Regained, Hamlet (the Michael Almereyda version, amateur in the best and most moving sense), High Fidelity, The Virgin Suicides, Space Cowboys, and Time Code.
You Can Count on Me, which I caught up with on video at year’s end, might have squeaked onto the list if I hadn’t been so dissatisfied with its music. This may sound like carping, since I was even more irritated by the glee with which Space Cowboys indulged in nostalgia for cold war xenophobia and by the overloaded and ludicrous plot of Time Code, which was steeped in Altman-esque self-ridicule. The perennial problem with these lists is that if you make them up a day later or earlier they’re bound to come out different.
In the first of my special categories, films that showed at the Chicago International Film Festival, my five favorites are all strong enough to have made it onto my top-ten list, though so far only two of them are scheduled for a local commercial run, both at the Music Box: Yi Yi opens in March, and George Washington, David Gordon Green’s touching independent feature in ‘Scope, opens later this month. Chantal Akerman’s The Captive is a highly personal, eclectic adaptation of Proust (the Albertine episode, for me the least successful portion of his novel). It’s clearly influenced by Vertigo, though inflected by a feminist view of male obsession that places it well beyond the parameters of Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s probably the feature of hers that works best as narrative–so perhaps some distributor will pick it up.
The Day I Became a Woman–written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and skillfully directed by his wife, Marziyeh Meshkini–is one of the four films I saw last year that emerged from Makhmalbaf’s idealistic and productive film school, most of whose students so far are members of his own family. (Makhmalbaf explains in his preface to the script of The Day I Became a Woman that he hoped to make this a state-run school, but Iran’s ministry of culture replied “that one dangerous filmmaker like me was enough for one country.” His curriculum is by no means limited to cinema and generally focuses on one subject per month, including bicycling, painting styles around the world, and traditional Iranian music.) Some Western commentators have ridiculed or scoffed at this enterprise, suggesting with paternalistic condescension that he should go back to being an old-fashioned auteur, though I can’t imagine why. His project of directing personal films seemed to come to a natural end, at least temporarily, with his autobiographical A Moment of Innocence, and given the uncommon distinction of his daughter Samira’s two features to date (The Apple and Blackboards) and this, his wife’s first feature–a provocative trio of sketches about women of three ages–I can’t imagine how he could be making a better use of his time, or ours, for that matter. The utopian aspects of his school are clearly related to Iran’s current reformist and youth movement, which also helps to account for much of what’s happening in Iranian cinema.
Bela Tarr’s powerful Werckmeister Harmonies isn’t being distributed anywhere because of financial problems, so its American premiere in Chicago at two festival screenings was an event of singular importance. (It received only one private screening–its last to date–in New York shortly afterward.) Given the strong reception this black-and-white film received in Cannes, Toronto, and here–most often by viewers encountering his remarkable work for the first time–it seems criminal that it should remain in limbo, so let’s hope someone devises a way to rescue it.
In the category of nonfiction works, my favorites are Citizen Langlois by Edgardo Cozarinsky (which played at Doc Films in April), The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda (Chicago International Film Festival), Nobody’s Business by Alan Berliner (Saint Xavier University in March), Grass by Ron Mann (Music Box in June), and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg by Aviva Kempner (Music Box in June).
A poetic 1995 French documentary made by an Argentinean emigre, Citizen Langlois digs deeper into the genius and madness of Henri Langlois–cofounder of the French Cinematheque and the most probable father of the New Wave–than the Richard Roud biography, even if it takes the characteristic urbane French approach of saying nothing about the man’s sex life or his paranoia. Ultimately I didn’t care, because the traumatic meaning of fire and the passionate meaning of cinema for this Turkish exile were so well attended to. Agnes Varda’s documentary about food and aesthetics (among other things) is the closest she’s ever come to Chris Marker, and it has the best use of digital video I’ve seen all year. I haven’t seen the 1996 Nobody’s Business, Alan Berliner’s film about his crotchety father, for four years, but I’m happy that this singular piece of personal filmmaking finally made it to town.
Grass was made by a good friend of mine, and I contributed an essay to its tie-in book. Yet I hope I can still be allowed to say that I found this archival history of absurd laws hilarious agitprop more enjoyable in some ways than Mann’s other documentaries. Coincidentally, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg was edited by one of my oldest friends, whom I’ve known since high school, but this fascinating bit of social history–gripping even to someone like me who appreciates a baseball game about as much as a dirt sandwich–was reviewed in this paper by Lisa Alspector, favorably and quite perceptively.
My five favorite videos are One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich by Chris Marker (Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers in September), Negative Space by Chris Petit (Chicago Cultural Center and Chicago Filmmakers in May), Flat Is Beautiful by Sadie Benning (Film Center in May), The Second Civil War by Joe Dante (Doc Films and Chicago International Film Festival in October), and 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle by Rustin Thompson (Chicago Underground Film Festival in August).
These videos are all over the map, though the first two are profound critical essays about cinema, among the best I know. Marker’s video is a poetic analysis of his friend Andrei Tarkovsky and Tarkovsky’s films, and Petit’s video is a poetic analysis of America and the future of images, pursued through fascinating interviews with critics Manny Farber and Dave Hickey, two of America’s most vibrant writers. Flat Is Beautiful, made two years ago, is Benning’s longest video to date, and it boldly incorporates life-size painted masks and animation into its arsenal of black-and-white images, amply fulfilling the promise of her shorts.
The Second Civil War, Dante’s satirical made-for-cable movie dating from 1997, is the middle feature in his so-called war trilogy that began with Matinee and ended with Small Soldiers. It came to town only because Jim Healy, a devoted Dante scholar, programmed a small tribute to the director during the Chicago International Film Festival; it has had some well-deserved play at European festivals, so it was nice to see it getting the same treatment here. Thompson’s video documentary about his political discoveries in Seattle in December 1999 was a welcome eye-opener–and it led me to Naomi Klein’s exciting book No Logo, the bible of global and antibrand politics.
My favorite guilty pleasures are Nurse Betty by Neil LaBute (released commercially in September), American Pimp by Allen and Albert Hughes (Landmark’s Century Centre in July), The Ninth Gate by Roman Polanski (released commercially in March), Pola X by Leos Carax (Fine Arts in October), and Hollow Man by Paul Verhoeven (released commercially in August).
All five are problematic for very different reasons. Nurse Betty was loads of fun; I was especially delighted by the tragicomic team of Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, whose characters deserve a feature all their own. Yet in retrospect its life-is-media conceit foundered by too persistently flattering the viewer as media savvy and postmodern hip–that is, clued into the idea that nothing’s real and nothing really matters anyway, an offensive and particularly American conceit that’s been aired in Wag the Dog, The Truman Show, and other overrated entertainments.
American Pimp was ideologically inexcusable, but the Hughes brothers’ decision to let a few pimps fashion the equivalents of their own music videos and test reels was wickedly irresistible. The Ninth Gate, many of my colleagues insisted, was a mess, but they’ve said the same thing about at least half of Polanski’s films–nearly all of which are better-crafted pieces of storytelling than most recent Hollywood movies; this was minor Polanski but full of offhand pleasures. Hollow Man offered at least as many incidental delights; Verhoeven is another misanthropic European master we love to hate, working here in a minor mode all his own. Pola X was outrageous, puerile fun and no doubt more than that for those who know Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (a club I regrettably still don’t belong to)–spoiled-rich-kid stuff, and sexist to boot, but also giddy and pungent poetry.
Finally, I’d like to bestow my annual F.W. Murnau award on the film or films that did the most to enhance my sense of film history. I can think of one studio restoration and one retrospective that are especially deserving of this honor: Rear Window, my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie, as fresh as ever when it was rereleased in February, and the Hou Hsiao-hsien series at the Film Center over the first three weeks in June, which gave us our first extended local look at the greatest living Asian filmmaker. Thanks to Universal Pictures and the Film Center for doing their jobs so splendidly.