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The year in great movies

Ella Taylor's Best of the Year

The only truly independent American movie I can place on a best-of-the-year list without flinching is David Gordon Green's George Washington, made by a young first-time director who has translated his worship of Terrence Malick into an achingly beautiful, casually interracial mood piece about a bunch of kids noodling poetically through ordinary days and extraordinary tragedy in a North Carolina hick town.

If that makes 2000 sound like a dispiritingly slack year for American-made independents, it has been—and it hasn't. This year, we've seen a modest flouting of the conventional wisdom that studio penetration into independent production and distribution has nudged indie filmmaking toward the soft center. Three of the most interesting independent movies of 2000 were made within the studio system, two of them by the same director. If Steven Soderbergh ends the year cleaning up trophies for both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, he'll richly deserve this almost unprecedented honor for two social-issue dramas that are also triumphs of cheeky formal invention—and a fun night out at the multiplex. Not to mention that Soderbergh made an actress out of Julia Roberts in one and a heartthrob out of Benicio Del Toro in the other. Erin Brockovich also cleaned up at the box office, and with luck, Traffic may, too.

No such luck for Curtis Hanson's elegantly literaryWonder Boys, which proved so resolutely uncommercial it had to be re-released by Paramount, doubtless more to jog the memories of critics and the Academy than out of any hope for a larger audience. Consolation may be at hand should Michael Douglas win the Oscar he deserves for once for his wonderfully saggy performance as a professor in full midlife meltdown, or Robert Downey Jr. (given current events, I wouldn't bet on it) for his witty turn as Douglas' editor, or Frances McDormand for her deadpan serenity as a high-achieving woman past 40 who is actually loved by her lover.

Even on the map of U.S.-distributed foreign films, which arguably has been whittled down to chipper tales of English-speaking proletarians dancing their way from poverty to the stars, there are glimmers of taste. First Look Pictures had the guts, if not the business acumen, to pick up Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, an exquisitely made slice of Scottish miserabilism if ever there was one about a sensitive Glasgow tenement lad who scrabbles his way through guilt and garbage to a provisional happiness. Sony Pictures Classics released Terence Davies' The House of Mirth, an operatic beauty of an Edith Wharton adaptation, which you should see—not least for Gillian Anderson's outstanding performance and magisterial hair—before it tanks, as I very much fear it will, for lack of an audience that can handle the movie's tortoise pacing and absence of uplift. Or maybe not: Taiwanese director Edward Yang's meditative three-hour drama Yi Yi, about a family unraveling in small but significant ways, has hung in there, as well this masterpiece of humanistic filmmaking should. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is making a fortune in limited release. And Julian Schnabel's vibrant Before Night Falls, about the fate of art under Cuban Stalinism, is snapping up attention for Javier Bardem's splendidly jittery rendering of the novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas.

For my money, though, the jewel in this year's movie crown is a lone work of genius that came and went as difficult films with subtitles do—in a heartbeat. Aside from the abiding beauty of its images, Raul Ruiz's free adaptation of Marcel Proust's last novel, Time Regained, has the brilliant audacity to offer an almost purely visual account of the workings of a literary imagination. Passing from one snooty belle époque Parisian salon to another, Proust is also passing through the echo chambers of his own memory, sorting, embroidering and reinventing as he goes, until the world's most facilitating cookie, the madeleine, releases a monumental artistic voice from the prison of a body racked by illness. Ruiz's best film, and it's the top of the world.

Honorable mentions: Kippur (Amos Gitai, Israel); You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, USA); Croupier (Mike Hodges, U.K.); Chicken Run (Nick Park and Peter Lord, U.K.); Two-Family House (Raymond De Felitta, USA); Dark Days (Mark Singer, USA); Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark); Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, USA); The Decalogue (out for the first time in the USA on video, courtesy of Facets Video); Girl on the Bridge (Patrice Leconte, France); Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (Mark Jonathan Harris, USA); Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, Germany); My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog, Germany); Place Vendôme (Nicole Garcia, France); Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France); Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, USA); Suzhou River (Lou Ye, People's Republic of China); and Getting To Know You, a little unreleased gem by Lisanne Skyler.

Manohla Dargis' Hot 10Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France): A formal and poetic revelation, the film reconfirms that one of the greatest filmmakers in the world also happens to be a woman. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark): A movie I hate and love equally and just can't get out of my head. Eureka(Aoyama Shinji, Japan): This emotionally shattering story about the aftermath of a violent crime also features one of the greatest performances of the year from Koji Yakusho, who played the salaryman in Shall We Dance. The film's best shot at domestic distribution was hurt by a boneheaded New York Times review; here's hoping one of the micro-distributors picks up this (and here's my money quote) "brilliant, ravishing, stunning" film. The House of Mirth(Terence Davies, U.K.): Sony Pictures Classics is banking on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but its reputation will be made by films such as this; see it before it disappears. Kippur(Amos Gitai, Israel): The film has the worst opening and closing scenes of any great movie I can remember, but its middle hour, amid the mud and the blood, is extraordinary. Platform (Jia Zhang Ke, People's Republic of China): This three-hours-plus epic played in an essential series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the best Los Angeles venue for new Asian cinema. Pola X (Leos Carax, France): Rapturous nonsense, in part—but the music and the fucking and Carax's love for the medium are unparalleled. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, Hollywood): I've said plenty about Soderbergh recently, but the film is so good-looking you should see it before it gets shredded in your local theater. Wreckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary): The whirlpools of grain and bottomless blacks of this hallucinatory film—about what? the end of history in Eastern Europe, among other revelations —are why digital filmmaking remains an oxymoron. Will it ever come to OC? I don't think so!

Finally, Yi Yi (A One and a Two)(Edward Yang, Taiwan): Love and other reasons to keep going. . . . I can't wait to see it again.

 
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