It would be great to report that Hollywood knocked audiences dead at the cineplex this year, but instead, they were more intent on delivering a ring full of sucker punches.
Indeed, time and again, audiences were hammered with a whirlwind of dreck. Bad performances, reformulated scripts, ridiculous stories, weak characters and poor direction seemed to be the mainstay in an industry that, just a year ago, was taking so many risks, it appeared we might be moving toward another heyday.
Not the case. Out of the nearly 225 films I saw and reviewed this year, it was more difficult than ever to come up with 10 movies worth seeing again. Some films currently causing a stir, such as Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Stephen Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” won’t be seen in Maine until 2001, so they haven’t been considered for inclusion here.
Still, 2000 wasn’t a complete cinematic bust. The films listed below are well worth seeing again. Some, such as “Almost Famous,” “Aimee and Jaguar” and “Wonder Boys,” did what the best movies do – take us into worlds we’ve never before seen or experienced while allowing us into lives we mistakenly believe are familiar. Others, especially “Chicken Run” and “Best in Show,” were among the funniest and most creative, while the smaller films “Croupier” and “American Psycho” once again proved that filmmakers don’t need to spend a fortune to tell a strong, rousing story.
What are the top 10 films of 2000? The list begins with one boy’s brush with fame – and ends with one of the world’s most famous women finally coming into her own.
1. “Almost Famous” – Marked by its strong script and outstanding performances, Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” is the best film of the year. It follows a 15-year-old boy coming of age in a world of rock stars, rock groupies, mind-bending drugs, sex, single motherhood and – underscoring it all with an exclamation point – the early 1970s. At its core, it’s about the loss of innocence, certainly the loss of adolescence, but the film works so well because it doesn’t trivialize the boy’s push into adulthood nor does it assume that adulthood comes at any great emotional cost. The film is, in fact, in love with the idea of becoming an adult, which is no surprise when one considers it’s based in large part on Crowe’s own experience as a reporter for Rolling Stone in 1973.
2. “Aimee and Jaguar” – Directed by Max Farberbock, “Aimee and Jaguar” is a love story set against the chaos of Berlin in 1943-1944. For film buffs, that period and setting might make the story’s romance seem cliche, even rote, but since “Aimee and Jaguar” isn’t concerned with just any love affair, that isn’t the case. Indeed, the film is about a love affair between two lesbians, one of whom is a Jew posing as a Nazi, the other of whom is a pro-Hitler, anti-Semite mother of four blond sons whose husband is a German officer periodically away at war. Couple this with the fact that the film is based on a true story – and that it hails from Germany – and you’re left with a beautifully shot movie that features Academy Award-worthy performances from Juliane Kohler and Maria Schrader. ON VIDEO
3. “Best in Show” – With the exception of two of 2000’s worst films, “Battlefield Earth” and “Autumn in New York,” some of this year’s biggest laughs came from Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” a brilliant mocumentary about dog shows that fatally skewers the people behind them. Guest and his gifted cast, working only from a 15-page outline, ad-libbed much of the dialogue, which easily is among the year’s wittiest. In its cruel-yet-accurate observations, the film suggests that those dog owners who peddle their pooches in elaborate dog shows are no better than some beauty pageant mothers – cloying, hysterical, insecure louts who will do anything to make certain their little Fifi or Fido take home the trophy for Best in Show.
4. “Wonder Boys”- There’s a moment in Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” when Michael Douglas’ character, Grady Tripp, a boozy, adulterous, pot-smoking English professor who has failed to follow the success of his first novel with anything remotely publishable, says this about his favorite student’s work: “It gets close to the truth.”
And that’s exactly the case with this film-it gets close to the truth, very close, which is perhaps the highest praise one can give any work of art. “Wonder Boys,” Hanson’s first film since his Academy Award-winning “L.A. Confidential,” is terrific for many reasons, but most of all for its performances and especially for its restraint, which shows across the board as Hanson brings together his colorful, offbeat threads with seamless ease. ON VIDEO
5. “Croupier”- Mirroring Stephen Soderbergh’s 1999 film, “The Limey,” Mike Hodges’ “Croupier” is a cold, emotionally removed movie that feels as if it were directed by a street-smart sociopath – one who beat the hell out of his inner child. Infused with chilly detachment and underscored with noir, the film follows Clive Owen’s Jack Manfred, a mysterious writer who becomes a croupier at a London casino only to get caught up in a hive of intrigue that threatens to bring him down morally, financially, physically and emotionally. Owens’ performance is a stunner, but this film is ignited by what it keeps hidden. It is deliberate in its ambiguity – and pointedly ambiguous in its details. It has little interest in its characters other than to use them to mount the film’s underlying mystery: What happens when a croupier decides to bet against the odds and gamble with his life? The answer might surprise you.
6. “Chicken Run” – The best commercial film of the summer wasn’t the overhyped “Gladiator,” “Mission: Impossible 2” or “Dinosaur,” but “Chicken Run,” a hilarious comedy about petrified poultry pecking their way out of a poisonous prison coop. Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park (the Academy Award-winning creators of “Wallace and Gromit” and “Creature Comforts”), the film is a parody of prisoner-of-war movies. It follows Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha) and a cluck of other chickens desperate to break free from the prison of their chicken coop – a dingy hellhole run by the nasty Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), her henpecked husband, Mr. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth), and their evil band of ferocious dogs. Running on pure protein, “Chicken Run” soars with a sophisticated wit, an intelligent script and clay animation that’s so stunning, it shakes and bakes – and does chicken right. ON VIDEO
7. “Cast Away” – Overlook the film’s weak start and its sudsy ending, and what audiences are left with in Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away” is a movie of remarkable power as realized through its remarkable restraint. Yes, there’s that word again – restraint – but in a culture that essentially tossed restraint out the window the moment it opened the door for such pop peculiarities as Christina Aguilera’s crazed hiccup of a voice, it’s gratifying to see that a commercial film director still is willing to shun convention in favor of less-commercial choices in direction. How far does Zemeckis go? Considering that three-quarters of his film is essentially without dialogue or a musical score, he goes far, easily positioning “Cast Away” as one of the year’s best through his solid direction – and Tom Hanks’ remarkable performance as a FedEx employee stuck on a remote Pacific island.
8. “High Fidelity” – Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” is a beautiful marriage of pop culture and – pop culture. It not only wallows in it, it also features characters who are as accessible as the art they love. The film follows Rob (John Cusack) and his two music-fanatic clerks, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black), who use their fierce knowledge of pop lore to hide behind their insecurities. Stuck between the refuge of adolescence and their overwhelming fears of becoming adults, these men use pop songs to categorize their otherwise structureless lives, while also leaning on those songs to give their lives some sort of meaning.
The film’s true insight? Initially, Rob seems as superficial as the songs he admires, but like those songs, a closer examination reveals depth. With Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins in strong supporting roles, “High Fidelity” is never static. It’s pop art that shouldn’t be missed. ON VIDEO
9. “American Psycho” – Violence as an extended metaphor for something deeper is hardly new, so it’s to director Mary Harron’s great credit that she makes it seem new, fresh and exciting in “American Psycho,” her feminist take on Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial, 1991 best-selling novel. As the film’s co-screenwriter, Harron successfully trimmed much of the novel’s underlying fat while staying true to the novel’s satirical concept: the greed of the 1980s as realized by an ax-wielding, head-severing, junior master of the universe. Mixing horror with humor and wit with graphic violence, Harron mines the truth out of what can politely be described as an imperfect man living in wildly imperfect times. Her film forces us to reconsider the 1980s while also asking us to look hard at its soulless characters and find ourselves in them. That takes guts, which, when Harron isn’t spilling them on the floor, “American Psycho” has in spades. ON VIDEO
10. “Erin Brockovich”- Think of Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich” as “A Civil Action” meets “Norma Rae,” “Silkwood” and, well, a side of “Debbie Does Dallas.” Somehow Soderbergh and his foul-mouthed star, Julia Roberts, pull it off. As Erin Brockovich, Roberts enjoys the role of her life. Based on a real-life woman, her Erin is a smart, uneducated, pretty, tough woman who takes on corporate America in a padded bra, six-inch stiletto heels and hair that’s so outlandishly big, it rivals the Sydney Opera House in size and structure. Perfect casting? You bet. But Roberts, who never has been better, doesn’t entirely steal the show. The other Academy Award-worthy performance here comes from Albert Finny as Erin’s boss, a worn-out-yet-respectable lawyer who takes a chance on Erin – and wins big because of it. ON VIDEO
Christopher Smith is the Bangor Daily News film critic. His reviews appear Mondays in Style and Thursdays in the scene.