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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
makes absolutely no sense, and is a disgusting combination of gore, sex, and
drugs—the absence of which made the original work so well.