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Year zero

In search of excellence in the films of 2000

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It was the year of winning by default. A year for the nice try, for the A-for-effort and the gentleman's C, for diplomatic compliments rather than unqualified raves. It was a cinematic year that spoke to all audiences, in the sense that there were films to disappoint, disgust and divide just about everybody.

What the hell happened? Did last year's Y2K jitters and next year's potential actors and writers strikes put a damper on the work released in 2000? Were filmmakers transfixed by the voting skullduggery of "Survivor" and the presidential campaign? Or were they too busy recording audio commentaries for DVDs and downloading Lord of the Rings tidbits to make actual movies?

Given that 1999 was a year unusually blessed with creative, committed work passionately addressing relevant subjects, the big bust of 2000 is all the more baffling. We saw no generational touchstones like Forrest Gump or American Beauty. No films that founded mini-genres like Pulp Fiction or even The Blair Witch Project. No lavish but enlightening epics of the recent past or distant history, like Schindler's List or Shakespeare in Love.

Being underwhelmed by the Hollywood output is not so much a surprise as an annual tradition, although it's especially unfortunate that a filmmaker as exciting as John Woo couldn't offer anything more than Mission: Impossible 2 (the year's second biggest money-maker behind The Grinch). The striking thing about 2000 is that genuinely impressive independent fare, the stuff of Sundance and other film festivals, was unusually thin on the ground as well. Variety reported that the indie market dropped by 15 percent this year, and the dearth of excellence might have something to do with that.

Not that films went entirely unrecognized or unpraised this year. But most of the significant work came from ideas and directors more prone to inspire fierce pockets of loyalty rather than across-the-board adoration. Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty, Miguel Arteta's Chuck and Buck, Mary Harron's American Psycho and even M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable are all, unlike George W. Bush, dividers and not uniters.

The election year saw both major political parties apparently in competition to see who could scold Hollywood most severely, mostly over the issue of marketing R-rated films to minors. A strange double standard emerged, in which American Psycho lost scenes of sexuality and, bizarrely, the direct-to-video Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker lost scenes of violence to facilitate their releases. But a strangely permissive attitude extended to films with a raunch content to take Howard Stern aback, as shown by the PG-13 rating for the scatological Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and the R-rating for the numbingly lewd Scary Movie.

Censorship is alive as an issue, and in illustrating its dangers perhaps we need a film like Quills, which overstates the case for artistic freedom in its dramatization of the life of the Marquis de Sade. A more nuanced portrait of both freedom of expression and sexuality comes from Night Must Fall, Julian Schnabel's biopic of Cuban novelist and poet Reynaldo Arenas, which incidentally proved the year's best film about writing. Notable others like Wonder Boys, Joe Gould's Secret and Finding Forrester were more about not writing.

Instead, one of the most persistent themes this year involves music appreciation. 2000 could be called the year of the rock fan, with Cameron Crowe's romanticization of Rolling Stone in Almost Famous, Stephen Frears' letter perfect depiction of love among obsessive music collectors in High Fidelity and Julien Temple's collage-like history of the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury.

It may be no coincidence that the year also saw high-profile re-releases of two of the most beloved rock films ever made, This is Spinal Tap and A Hard Day's Night. Dancer in the Dark may succeed less as a tribute to classic Hollywood musicals than a showcase for the untamed acting of Icelandic pop diva Bjork. On the other hand, the cracker screwball comedy of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? isn't nearly as palatable as the film's loving tribute to blues, gospel, bluegrass and other period songs.

The Filth and the Fury proved more an essay about the Sex Pistols' influence and importance than a "Behind the Music" exposé of the band, and it was but one documentary to "break out" this year. The paucity of quality fiction films had the pleasant side effect of increasing the enjoyment of nonfiction releases, such as the Atlanta runs for the 1999 documentaries The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the post-Oscar attention to One Day in September, and even Spike Lee's concert film The Original Kings of Comedy, which was embraced far more than Lee's provocative Bamboozled.

The reportage of Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic nearly qualify that film for Best Documentary, and it should be no surprise that a year devoted to rock music should also focus on drugs. In Traffic, Soderbergh offers an Altmanesque canvas of the causes and consequences of the drug war on both sides of the Mexican-American border. (And, with Erin Brockovich as well, Soderbergh staged a kind of one-man revival of 1970s-style issue film.)

In Jesus' Son actor Billy Crudup and director Alison Maclean offered an unpredictable, original portrait of a hapless junkie. Its quiet quirkiness stands diametrically opposed to Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a hyperbolic, speed-freak depiction of addiction in which the wild visual compulsiveness was undermined by an overly simple message -- which could be summed up by "South Park's" Mr. Mackey: "Kids, drugs are bad. Don't do drugs, mmmkay?" Like Mike Figgis' one-of-a-kind, four-screen, real-time experiment Time Code, Requiem proved mostly an exercise in style.

Loving the styles and genres of the past is part of loving film, and homage itself proved a motif in 2000, as in Shadow of a Vampire's salute to Nosferatu and Gladiator's revival of the sword-and-sandal epic. But the most memorable films were the ones that blended different kinds of film and transcended them, such as the way P.O.W. camp cliches became fodder for hilarious sight gags in Chicken Run (the year's only significant animated film, the expense of Dinosaur and the poetic moments of Fantasia 2000 notwithstanding). Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon employs both the stunts and settings of Chinese martial art epics and the characterization of 19th century novels to create a unique cinematic experience.

In a stronger year, Crouching Tiger would be only a (martial) art-house favorite, but in 2000 it's a contender for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Oscars aren't a good indicator for quality, with Gladiator's scope probably making it this year's front-runner, but the inconsistency this year means that dark horses and beloved "little" movies like You Can Count on Me and Billy Elliot may get the attention they deserve without being surprise hits like The Full Monty.

The year 2000 ends with disheartened critics, puzzling until their puzzlers are sore, trying to come up with enough films deserving of placement on a "Top 10" list. There's always next year, and perhaps we can hope that in 2001, cinema will address subjects broader and deeper than simply sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

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