Traffic Stands out in a Weak Year of Films

by: Phillip Stewart

Published in the January 25th edition of The Davidsonian 

Many critics have named the year 2000 the worst year of movies since the advent of the talking picture in the 1930’s.  Being only 22, I can say with confidence that this is indeed the worst year of films in my lifetime, but I do not have a problem trusting the critics.

1.  Traffic.  It begins in a desert and ends at a baseball diamond, but perhaps it should have been the other way around—the despair the movie leaves us with is profound.  Traffic is the only film this year that effectively balances style and substance, intelligence and entertainment.  When a movie has over 140 speaking roles (in two languages), 3 distinct story lines, and 2 opposing visual styles, a confusing mess is likely, but Steven Soderbergh (who is one of the best directors working today) balances the ensemble so well, the film almost seems intimate.  The story is a disparaging and brutally honest look at the drug trafficking problem in North America, from the slums of Tijuana to a posh neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Some character portrayals seem a bit over-the-top, but such minor quibbling aside, the film is nothing short of astonishing.  Watch for Benicio Del Toro’s earth-shattering performance in two languages.  He’ll win an Oscar for it.  


2.  You Can Count on Me.  Here is a film that leaves style at the door.  Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut emphasizes character over plot and style—so much so that the camera is nearly invisible; he places it in the scene and lets his actors and script do the work.  He couldn’t have picked better a better cast to interpret his writing, which is crisp, smart, and more importantly, real.  Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) are siblings whose parents were killed in a car accident while they were children.  Years later, we find them estranged, Sammy living in the same house with a child, and Terry in a perpetual state of travel, going in and out of jobs and jail.  Their relationship is tested through a homecoming visit from Terry.  The best thing about the story is that the characters are never one-dimensional; they are always carefully observed; Sammy is not always good, Terry is not always a screw-up.  While the film seems more like theater with all the dialogue, the unsentimental and finely tuned performances and writing make it better than the most technically proficient and innovative movies.

3.  Wo Hu Zang Long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).  Few movies stir an audience to applause, but this one got cheers no less than five times at the screening I attended.  It is impossible not to stir with excitement during the gravity ignoring and hyper-kinetically choreographed kung-fu action sequences, which make The Matrix look like child’s play.  Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh add dramatic force while Ziyi Zhang provides energy and some comedy to this tale of lost love, ill-fated love, and a sword.  Each character is vital and multifaceted, but the reason this film ultimately succeeds far beyond expectations is its director, Ang Lee, who has made a string of great English-speaking films (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm).  His return to Chinese cinema is mind-blowing—each scene leaves you breathlessly anticipating the next one, and that makes great entertainment.

4.  Chuck and Buck.  It is probably one of the most uncomfortable films to sit through ever made, but that’s what this material lends itself to.  Chuck and Buck grew up together, but Chuck moved away at eleven, leaving Buck alone.  Some disturbing things happened in their childhood causing Buck to stay in the mindset of an eleven year-old into his adult years.  When his mother dies, Buck moves to Los Angeles and latches on to Chuck and basically stalks him.  Shot on digital film and mostly handheld, the look of the film is very real—almost like a documentary, and those visuals exponentially increase the discomfort we feel for all the characters involved.  A brilliantly conceived climax and dénouement leave us with more questions than answers, but we thrive on challenges, right? (Not for all tastes)

5.  Almost Famous.  Cameron Crowe makes great movies, but he takes his time.  He has directed four films in eleven years, and this is his second-best effort after the landmark romantic comedy Say Anything.  It is semi-autobiographical, recounting his chance invitation to write a column for Rolling Stone Magazine on a rock band.  The movie is filled with small scenes and moments of purity and sublimity, like when he listens to The Who for the first time, or when his mother welcomes him home.  Billy Crudup and Frances McDormand are wonderful, but Kate Hudson is the real knockout here. 

6.  Requiem for a Dream.  Less a film and more the personification of addiction, Darren Aronofsky’s second film is a nice counterpart to Traffic.  The plot is basically non-existent as we watch four connected characters fall slave to drugs.  Jennifer Connelly, who is not always the best actress, does a fine job alongside Jared Leto, but Ellen Burstyn’s brave and unbelievable performance as a diet-pill addict is mesmerizing.  This should be required viewing for ninth-graders; D.A.R.E. take note.  (Rated NC-17 for scenes of deviant sexual activity and prolonged drug-use)

7.  Dancer in the Dark.  It has its problems.  Some scenes are really unbelievable, some moments a bit too earnest, but the movie IS a musical, so we should expect some implausibility and saccharine.  Björk plays an immigrant with an eye disease who works night and day to ensure her son can have an operation to keep him from the same fate.  The film is digital, giving it a grainy, washed-out, and urgent feeling.  Lars Von Trier employs jump cuts as his main stylistic idea, but he switches style completely when staging the musical numbers.  They are crisp, colorful, and uplifting, adding much needed relief from the very grim story.  Björk’s performance is the best of the year, but she probably will not be recognized by the traditionally conservative academy.

8.  Wonder Boys.  Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential is one of the best films ever made—a throw back to the days of Roman Polanski’s brilliant Chinatown, and a time when characters and situations were complicated rather than easy.  Wonder Boys is a lesser achievement, but its characters are unforgettable—smart, insecure, and multi-dimensional.  Michael Douglas plays a writer struggling to write a follow-up to his brilliant first novel.  His rough draft is over two thousand pages and there is no end to writing in sight.  It’s his performance that drives the movie, and the writing is as literary as screenwriting gets.

9.  The Virgin Suicides.  Sohia Coppola directs Kirsten Dunst in this dreamlike world of repressed sexuality.  The scenes seem ethereal, floating by without explanation or the need for it—somehow they all connect for a cohesive and very interesting whole.  If only because it raises endless questions and makes the viewer sit in bewilderment, The Virgin Suicides should be seen.

10.  Rang-e Khoda (The Color of Paradise).  The most profoundly sad movie on my list is also the most beautiful.  The story is deceptively simple, and the acting amazing.  Iranian and in Farsi with English subtitles, young and smart, but blind Mohammed must struggle daily because his father views him as a helpless burden.  The imagery and symbolism are rich and the dialogue sparse but poignant.  The film gives more insight into the life and challenges that a blind person faces than any movie I have seen, and little Mohsen Ramezani is one of the great child actors.

The worst:

1.  Hollow Man.  Insulting, disgusting, and worst of all, maddeningly boring, Hollow Man marks a new low in the horror genre.  This is worse than the latest Friday the 13th installment, because it was marketed as a quality film.  Utter dreck, and the worst of the year.

2.  Autumn in New York.  The best part of the movie (Warning: major spoiler) is watching Winona Ryder die slowly in a hospital.  Painfully slow, stylistically inept, and full of logic holes, the story is not fit for a Lifetime made-for-cable movie.

3.  What Lies Beneath.  The movie has a terrific opening hour.  Too bad it turns out to be a major red herring and completely useless to the story.  The last hour-and-a-half is a mess of plot, and the ending is just laughable, ugly, and insipid.  It might have some good scares, but the fact that Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer signed on for this movie is shameful.

4.  The Patriot.  Braveheart in America, and all we get is one good scene in two-and-a- half hours.  Mel Gibson is better than this garbage.  Unlike You Can Count on Me or Wonder Boys, characters are one-dimensional; Englishmen are depicted as the scum of the earth with absolutely no redeeming qualities.  Unforgivable. 

5.  The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows.  The movie makes absolutely no sense, and is a disgusting combination of gore, sex, and drugs—the absence of which made the original work so well.