The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
It was not a great year for the movies. The year's best films absorbed us with their stories and narratives, instead of electrifying us with their stylistic invention as "Being John Malkovich," "Magnolia" and "Three Kings" did last year. The only title in my top ten with that kind of bold invention was "Requiem for a Dream," although "Traffic" did a skillful job of juggling parallel stories and "George Washington" was a triumph of style in a more muted key. And yet, as stories, what pleasure they gave! "I almost hugged myself" during "Almost Famous," I wrote, and a friend told me he was looking forward to seeing it again even before it was over. "Wonder Boys" was the kind of character study that evokes another person's life so observantly we know our way around in it--and so, in a comedy, was "High Fidelity." Two of the year's best films, "You Can Count on Me" and "George Washington," evoked the feelings of the characters instead of just marching them past the stations of the plot; they didn't force closure on stories that by their nature could not be closed. Special effects were central to the power of "The Cell" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"--but how astonishing to learn the treetop and rooftop scenes in "Tiger" were (ital) not (unital) done with computers but with human beings suspended from lifelines! Effects also helped evoke the drug-addicted worlds in "Requiem for a Dream," with its subjective closeups of how it feels when the dose hits. And in "Pollock," Ed Harris learned to paint (or at least look like he could paint) like Jackson Pollack, in a film suggesting it was easier to paint Pollack's paintings than live his life.
1. "Almost Famous"
Huckleberry Finn as 15-year-old rock critic, in one of the best coming-of-age movies ever made. Writer-director Cameron Crowe based the film on his own experiences, when he was 15, convinced a Rolling Stone editor he was an adult, and was assigned to accompany the Allman Brothers on a road trip.
In the film, Patrick Fugit is perfectly cast as the young, bright, earnest kid who talks himself into a magazine assignment and goes on the road with a band named Stillwater. One performance after another is performed with uncanny accuracy: Billy Crudup as the rock-god lead guitarist, not as fearsome as he looks; Kate Hudson as the groupie Penny Lane, who adores the Crudup character but takes sympathy on the kid; Frances McDormand as the hero's mother, trusting him on this first step into adulthood but laying down the law about drugs and lecturing Crudup over the phone in a classic scene; and Jason Lee, as the lead singer, who wants better billing on the T-shirts.
2. "Wonder Boys"
Another film about a writer--this one a 50ish college professor played by Michael Douglas, who wrote one very good novel and has been working on a second for much too long. We follow him through a winter weekend on a chilly campus in Pittsburgh, as his life comes crashing down. He drinks too much, is stoned on pot, wanders forlornly in a shabby bathrobe, is facing the end of his affair with the chancellor (Frances McDormand), is hiding from his editor (Robert Downey Jr) who has been promised the long-delayed manuscript, and deals uncertainly with two of his best students. "Wonder Boys" is the first movie by Curtis Hanson since "L.A. Confidential." It's as sure-footed. but more tender about its characters, more sympathetic to the way their dreams elude them. At its center is Michael Douglas' best performance.
3. "You Can Count on Me"
Laura Linney plays Sammy, a single mom, in a film filled with Oscar-caliber performances. She has an 8-year-old son, is a bank loan officer, is doing okay financially, is dating a guy who doesn't excite her, and hates her new boss. Then her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) shows up in town. He's a charmer who drives her nuts because she loves him but can't trust him.
"You Can Count on Me," a film of great tender truth, begins as they meet again after one of Terry's long, unexplained silences. The movie, written and directed by Ken Lonergan, avoid soppy payoffs and looks at these people with an affectionate but level gaze; one of the joys of the film is the way it avoids steering the plot into neat resolutions, but shows its characters dealing with life in all its baffling contradictions.
Steven Soderbergh's film has the courage and ambition to survey the drug problem in America in all of its frustrating facets. Interlocking stories involve the chain of sale and use: Two honest Tijuana cops, a Mexican army general, a middle-man importer, a wealthy and respectable American businessman who is secretly a drug lord, two undercover San Diego drug agents, an Ohio judge who is appointed the nations new drug czar, and his daughter, who becomes addicted to cocaine. Each story stands on its own, and it's surprising, considering how much ground the story covers, how strongly the characters emerge--especially Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican cop and Michael Douglas as a parent faced with drugs in his own family. The movie sees addiction as a public health problem, not a crime, and many audience members may be led to the conclusion that the nation's drug laws function mostly as a price-support system for the drug industry.
5. "George Washington"
The most stylistically entrancing of the year's films drifts through summer days that seem aimless until a terrifying event interrupts the calm. The movie takes place in a rusty industrial cityscape of abandoned factories and railyards, where the heroes, children around the age of 12, play and kill time, and engage in desultory conversations. We meet some of their family members, and when an accident happens we see how it becomes a dread secret. The power of the movie is not in the plot but in the mood, which has an uncanny resonance with "Days of Heaven," even though the two films are otherwise quite different. It allows us to join the rhythm, slowness and heat of summer days, and knows how conversations can hang hauntingly in the air.
6. "The Cell"
A virtuoso thriller that combines psychology with psychic abilities, a serial killer with a police procedural, and stark landscapes and sterile laboratories with an astonishingly imagined mindscape. Jennifer Lopez stars, as a social worker who's involved in a project to share the thoughts of a little boy locked in a coma -- she hopes to coax him out -- when the FBI enlists her in an urgent attempt to enter the mind of a serial killer and discover the location of his latest victim before a fatal deadline. Tarsem, the director, is a visual virtuoso who juggles his storylines effortlessly; it's dazzling, the way he blends so many notes, styles and genres into a film so original.
7. "High Fidelity"
The movies don't often focus on the everyday lives of young working people, but here is a comedy with charm and heart about the owner of a Chicago used vinyl store (John Cusack), his two opinionated employees, and the women in (and mostly out) of his life. Directed by Stephen Frears, the movie is a comedy of attitude: It studies the strategies used by the characters to combine relative poverty with the conviction of being one of the chosen. Cusack, always a fine actor, surpasses himself here as a man who morosely compiles lists of ex-girlfriends and hopefully sallies forth to make the same mistakes again.
A triumph for Ed Harris, who in his directing debut has made one of the best biopics about an artist; this is a film that contains understanding about the art world and how it juggles greed and inspiration while trying to accommodate the impossible personalities of many artists. Harris stars in a powerful, nuanced performance as Jackson Pollock, an important abstract expressionist who found professional success and personal misery. Marcia Gay Hardin co-stars as his painter wife, Lee Krasner, who knows what she's getting into when she courts the alcoholic, depressive painter, and stands beside him as long as she can take it.
Ang Lee grew up on Taiwan reading martial arts novels, and the images in his memory were an influence on this film, he says. Poetic and more thoughtful than most works in the genre, it also contains some of the most exhilarating action sequences ever filmed. Viewing a rooftop chase and a heart-stopping fight by two characters clinging to swinging treetops, I assumed it was computer animation of some sort, and was astonished when Lee told me those were real actors up there, hanging from cranes on invisible wires. For once the action wasn't the point in the martial arts movie: It was the canvas for a story of myth and obsession, beautifully told.
10. "Requiem for a Dream"
Most drug movies focus on the world of addicts rather than the inner space they retreat to when they're using. Darren Aronofsky's movie is intensely subjective, using extreme closeups to show drug reactions, dilating pupils, etc., and then using speed-up and sound to recreate the delusional worlds of his characters. At the heart of the film is a great, brave performance by Ellen Burstyn, as a housewife who gets hooked on diet pills and hallucinates that she is destined to appear on TV. Jared Leto plays her son and Jennifer Connelly his girlfriend; addicted to heroin, they undergo a sickening descent to self-destruction.
Special Jury Prizes
At many film festivals, the Special Jury Prize is awarded to a film that didn't quite win first place. This year I'm choosing ten titles, alphabetically, for such an award. Any of these titles could easily quality for the top ten list.
"Before Night Falls" is painter Julian Schnabel's second film, after "Basquiat" (1996), to show an artist driven to homelessness and despair by the inner demons of his art. It tells the story of the Cuban poet and novelist Reynaldo Arenas, who ran away from home to join Castro's rebels but was later imprisoned and persecuted for his homosexuality and his work. Javier Bardem plays him as whimsical, petulant, big-hearted and brave.
"Best In Show" was the funniest movie of the year, a mockumentary by Christopher Guest about a dog show, its dogs and their owners, the officials, and a hilarious broadcast team. Fred Willard steals scenes as the color commentator, hilariously inappropriate and misinformed, and the movie exploits one of the basic formulas of comedy, the attempt to give form and shape to that which is not formable and shapeable -- a dog, for example.
"Chuck and Buck." Miguel Arteta's film is about childhood friends who meet again after many years. Chuck (Chris Weitz) incautiously invites Buck (Mike White) to visit him sometime in L.A., and Buck turns up with the persistence of a stalker, insinuating himself into Chuck's life while remaining totally oblivious to hints and snubs.
"The Contender." In a year when party politics played a larger role than ever before, this was a political thriller about a Democratic president (Jeff Bridges) who wants to fill a vice-presidential vacancy by appointing a woman senator (Joan Allen). A Republican committee head (Gary Oldman) objects, and William Petersen plays a Democratic governor whose own bid for the post leads into murky waters. Written and directed by Rod Lurie, whose October film served as a curtain-raiser for an autumn of partisan debate.
"Dancer In The Dark." Some reasonable people will admire this film, I wrote, "and others will despise it. An excellent case can be made for both positions." Lars Von Trier, the Danish architect of the Dogma movement, starred the pop singer Bjork as a Washington state punch-press operator going blind. The plot was as deliberately melodramatic and manipulative as an early silent movie, and then von Trier pulled the rug out from under his dark images with unexpected musical numbers. Audiences had to figure out for themselves if they liked it, and why.
"Jesus' Son." Billy Crudup had a good year, with this film and "Almost Famous" demonstrating his ability to disappear into a role. How could the cocky guitar god of the rock movie also be the mournful drifter from Iowa in this one? Samantha Morton co-stars, as his fellow druggie, and the movie follows Crudup through a derailed relationship and into rehab, a job in an emergency room (Jack Black from "High Fidelity" is hilarious as an orderly) and into a strange romance with Holly Hunter and a stint as the editor of a newsletter at an old folks' home. Why is he the son of God? Aren't we all?
"Rosetta." Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, this is a film centering on a virtuoso performance. Emilie Dequenne (who won as best actress) plays the title character, a poor young woman from the wrong side of the tracks, whose sights are set firmly on finding a better job. Beneath her yawns a chasm of homelessness and poverty, and somehow her desperation seems to create problems, not solutions. The performance is deadpan, inward, containing painful secrets, and impossible to forget.
"Shadow Of The Vampire." Willem Dafoe gives one of the most astonishing performances of 2000, based on one of the most astonishing performances of 1922, Max Schreck's title role in F. W. Murnau's "Nosferatu." E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow" is a movie about the filming of the silent classic, which all but founded the vampire genre. His twist: Schreck really was a vampire. John Malkovich plays Murnau, Catherine McCormack plays Schreck's co-star (guess what happens to her), and Dafoe quite simply embodies Schreck and his performance. Avoiding the pitfall of irony; it plays the material straight, which is truly scary.
"The Terrorist." Santosh Sivan's film from India is simple and deep, the story of a few days in the life of a teenage girl revolutionary (Ayesha Dharkar) who volunteers to become a human bomb in an assassination attempt. What goes through her mind during the few days of training before the crucial moment? She is sent to a farm for a waiting period, and the farmer, who may not know of her mission, introduces her to his wife, who has been immobile in a coma for years. In its direct, subtle way, the film generates enormous power. "Titus" was the Roman gladiator film to see in 2000, not the bloated "Gladiator" with its see-through special effects. Julie Taymor, director of "The Lion King" on Broadway, wrote and directed this version of Shakespeare's tragedy, bridging ancient and modern times and creating a visually brilliant frame for Anthony Hopkins' title performance.
Every seven years, director Michael Apted revisits the same group of British citizens to ask them how they're getting on. This project, which began as the documentary "7 Up," is now up to "42 Up" and is a stirring use of film as a time machine. We have seen these people as children, teenagers, young students, newlyweds and now into early middle age. We see that for many of them, the child was indeed father to the man, while for others (especially the troubled Neal) life holds great surprises. Seven years ago we feared for his future. Now he has had an amazing turn of fortune. Few films offer such a provoking insight into the nature of time and personality.
Documents from Life
The average moviegoer doesn't often attend a documentary, maybe because it's too much like going back to school. A shame, since a good documentary can generate drama and tension that fiction films can only envy. The year's five best docs were:
"Dark Days," about the people who build their homes in the eternal darkness of the railroad tunnels beneath Manhattan; "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye," about the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of TV's weep 'n pray queen; "The Filth and the Fury," about the strange birth and chaotic death of the Sex Pistols, pioneers of punk rock; "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," continuing the story three young men from West Memphis, Ark., who seem to have been framed for a murder while a more likely suspect all but turns himself in on screen; and "South," also known in an expanded version as "Endurance," with its actual footage from Shackleford's doomed 1915 expedition to the South Pole.
Billy Bob Thornton's "All The Pretty Horses," with Matt Damon and Henry Thomas as young cowboys seeking their dreams on the Mexican prairie; Frederic Fonteyne's "An Affair Of Love," with its erotic secret behind closed doors; John Swanbeck's "The Big Kahuna," with Spacey and DeVito debating life, death and sales; the high-pressure sales tactics in "Boiler Room;" Peter Lord and Nick Park's "Chicken Run," with birds desperately trying to avoid becoming pot pies; "Chocolat," Lasse Hallstrom's enchanting fable about a woman who trusts generosity and shames the prudes; "The Claim," Michael Winterbottom's sad story of a man who creates his own world but cannot fill it with his own family; Lodge Kerrigan's "Claire Dolan" and its great performance by Katrin Cartlidge as a hooker trapped by her own life;" and Majid Majidi's "The Color of Paradise," from Iran, about a deaf boy who is a hindrance to his father's remarriage plans.
Also Gregory Hoblit's "Frequency," with its touching communication between a father and a son over the decades; Patrice Leconte's "Girl on the Bridge," as a knife-thrower offers a would-be suicide a job; Karyn Kusama's "Girlfight," with Michelle Rodriguez's blazing performance as a young woman who would rather fight than anything; "Joe Gould's Secret," by Stanley Tucci, who starred with Ian Holm in the story of a character who claimed to be writing an oral history of New York, and has an oblique influence on the New Yorker writing telling his story.
Also Bruno Dumont's "L'Humanite," the hypnotic story of a drab policeman and a monstrous crime; Robert Redford's "The Legend Of Bagger Vance," about golf and eternity; "The Legend Of Drunken Master," one of Jackie Chan's most amazing performances; Scott Elliott's "A Map Of The World," with Sigourney Weaver's brilliant work as a stubborn farm woman; Wolfgang Petersen's "The Perfect Storm" and its awesome special effects; Nicole Garcia's "Place Vendome" and Catherine Deneuve as an alcoholic who pulls it together and reenters the diamond trade; Phil Kaufman's "Quills," with Geoffrey Rush as a dying but indomitable Marquis de Sade."
And Scott Hicks' "Snow Falling On Cedars," the softly, beautifully told story of a murder trial that hinges on racism; Sturla Gunnarsson's "Such A Long Journey," based on the Rohinton Mistry novel about everyday life in Bombay; Sam Raimi's "The Gift," with Cate Blanchett's perfectly modulated work as a psychic whose gift mires her in a redneck murder case; "Thirteen," David D. Williams' lovely story of a teenage girl who disappears, reappears, and grows up a little; Roger Donaldson's "Thirteen Days," with Kevin Costner in the riveting story of the Cuban missile crisis; "Time Regained," Raul Ruiz's inventive treatment of Proust; the animated "Titan A.E." by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, with its spellbinding cat-and-mouse chase through intergalactic ice rings; Raymond De Felitta's "Two Family House," with Michael Rispoli as a man who can't help doing the right thing; Tahmineh Milani's "Two Women," from Iran, about a woman who disgraces her family because a madman attacks her; Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," a sad and gentle meditation on doom; and the jolly "What's Cooking?" by Gurinder Chadha, which cuts between African-American, Jewish, Vietnamese and Latino families in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving.
And I also valued "Aimee & Jaguar," "American Psycho," "Cast Away," "Croupier," "Dr. T & The Women," "East Is East," "Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai," "Hamlet," "The House of Mirth," "Human Resources," "Kadosh," "The City (La Ciudad)," "Meet The Parents," "Me Myself I," "Mifune," "My Dog Skip," "Nurse Betty," "Pola X," "Return To Me," "Small Time Crooks," "Space Cowboys," "State And Main," "A Time For Drunken Horses" "Tigerland," "Time Code," "The Tao of Steve," and "Unbreakable."
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An interview with Michael Shannon on Freeheld, 99 Homes, Boardwalk Empire, and more.