|by Andrew Howe
To the public at large, the year in film is destined to be remembered for four things: the preordained box-office success of Harry Potter, The Fellowship of the Ring meeting all but the most unrealistic expectations, the unexpected delights of Moulin Rouge, and the lacklustre script that torpedoed Pearl Harbor. Extreme highs and lows are tailor-made for the history books, but on a personal level 2001 may prove to be the year when foreign-language film finally took centre stage, laying the competition low with a mixture of hard-edged drama, bittersweet musings and a little of that ol’ ultraviolence.
I sat through more new releases in 2001 than ever before, and the results were occasionally depressing. You can count the number of positive reviews I wrote between August and October on the two fingers I used to express my feelings about the remaining films released during that period, with my disillusionment exacerbated by the fact that few of the lowlights were premeditated failures (Johnny Depp playing the cocaine game, Nic Cage playing the mandolin – the films didn’t want for potential, but the scriptwriters checked whatever abilities they possessed at the door). Anyone who takes a seat at the cinema more than once a month will know this isn’t a momentous observation – you spend most of your life wondering why you bother, then an Aronofsky or a Jeunet wanders in to set your world to rights. 2001 was no different in this regard, and our salvation invariably arrived from unexpected quarters.
You can always count on the local scene to provide a number of refreshing alternatives to the deluge of Hollywood product, and the world’s perception of Australian cinema received a boost via the international release of The Dish, Chopper and Lantana, which provided the perfect tonic to Paul Hogan’s failure to realise that he’s a one-note performer who’s spent the last two decades flogging a dead brumby. La Spagnola gave us one of the movie moments of the year via the now-infamous “kitchen scene”, and Clara Law’s meditative road movie The Goddess of 1967 featured, in Rose Byrne, one of the strongest performances by an Australian actress in recent memory.
David Caesar returned with another ode to the everyday, and while Mullet featured another annoying character played by Susie Porter (US audiences had a chance to experience her previous in-your-face performance in Better Than Sex, which was released late in the year and received the critical caning it deserved), the participation of Ben Mendelsohn and Caesar’s incisive script made for an uneven but affecting experience. The Man Who Sued God was a pleasant little affair that amounted to little but was saved by its unexpected excursions into low-level drama, while He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, Silent Partner, and Let’s Get Skase weighed in on the flipside, reminding us that for every Cosi and Siam Sunset there’s a quirky Aussie comedy that makes us look like beer-swilling yokels.
2001 was another appalling year for action flicks, but comedies fared somewhat better, with Bridget Jones’s Diary, State and Main, Series 7: The Contenders and Zoolander reinvigorating my much-abused sense of humour. My annual fix of historical epics was sorely missed (the raft of Gladiator imitators failed to materialise, doubtless due to teen comedies costing $100 million less to bring to the screen), and the “intelligent horror” genre continued its run of one film every three years.
The usual suspects made us wonder why we ever thought so highly of them in 2001 – Frank Oz wasted both De Niro and Norton’s valuable time with The Score, Kevin Spacey turned his talents to nothing better than Pay It Forward, and the less said about Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson the better. It was also a dark day for William H. Macy, who chose Jurassic Park 3 as the vehicle for his assault on the mainstream (to his credit, he almost single-handedly saved it from oblivion), and Philip Seymour Hoffman took a break from his quest for recognition via ubiquity by having a mere two films to his credit all year.
The days when you could bank on a respected director indulging in something resembling a work ethic at least once a year appear to be well and truly over - Frank Darabont took another extended siesta, P.T. Anderson continued his quest to chalk up the longest pre-production period in history, Oliver Stone was absent without leave, and John Woo and Martin Scorsese were rewarded for actually doing something by having their release dates pushed back into 2002. For those that did show their faces the news wasn’t good – Ridley Scott traded the glory of ancient Rome for loving recreations of dinnertime lobotomies, and Kevin Smith made us wish we’d never asked.
However, the absence of the big guns allowed us to lavish our attention on the alternate vendors, and this year’s top 10 tells the story. Six of the films could have been made on the budget of any one of the remaining four, and only two were helmed by “name” directors (plus you could argue that Peter Jackson was a relative unknown until he confessed to a lifelong passion for Tolkien).
As usual, I warn interested parties that the films in contention are based on the Australian release dates, so we won’t know what I think about the likes of Mulholland Dr., In the Bedroom and Gosford Park until next year. Two of the films never received an Australian release outside of the festival circuit (and were made in 2000 to boot), but I can only call it when I see it, so anyone who actually cares about such matters may accept my sincerest apologies.
The overall slate isn’t as strong as last year, but the top 5 does its best to face down the one-two punch of American Beauty and Magnolia. And if you’re wondering what those films might be, let’s kick off with:
#10 – Yi yi (A One and a Two)
Local distributors were only too happy to release the “commercial” foreign-language films Everybody Famous! and Divided We Fall, but the Australian public never got the chance to embrace writer/director Edward Yang’s unassuming tale of an extended Taiwanese family. Anchored by Nien-Jen Wu’s sublime performance as a father and husband who glimpses a life he left behind long ago, an undercurrent of stoic resignation infuses the philosophical ruminations and restless relationships with an even greater power than they would have otherwise possessed. Absorbing, intelligent and atmospheric, the universal concerns of the protagonists invite you to become invested in their lives, and after three hours you’ll be hard-pressed to view them as mere fictional creations.
Petition your local distributor, import it on DVD – do whatever it takes to see this film, because there’s a message at its core that Yang wants you to hear, and it’s one that few of us can afford to ignore.
#9 – Quills
A film about the Marquis de Sade? I’d pay to see that, and Doug Wright had other things on his mind than scripting a mere catalogue of perversity. You still wouldn’t invite the Marquis to a dinner party (well, maybe in the swinging Seventies), but Geoffrey Rush invests the man with such decadent charisma that time spent in his company is not without its pleasures.
Set almost entirely within the confines of a prison and concerned with nothing more than the Marquis’ efforts to continue peddling his manuscripts (when he’s not busy needling the Abee and warping Kate Winslet’s impressionable mind, that is), it’s a testament to the finely crafted dialogue and universally admirable performances that it’s never less than engrossing. Joaquin Phoenix stakes his claim as the Next Big Thing, Rush could have been excused for heckling his countryman Crowe at the Academy Awards, and the dark undertones work their way deeper into your psyche than you might desire. It gives you something to talk about with your therapist, and if Rush doesn’t get the chance to play Lord Byron before he dies then somebody’s not doing their job.
#8 – Amores Perros
Alejandro González Iñárritu wants to send you a wake-up call, and subtlety is not on the agenda. There is savagery in this film – not the kind of comic-book violence that can be dismissed with impunity, but the dispassionate amorality of everyday life on the Mexican poverty line. Getting down and dirty with human flotsam is never a pleasant experience, and the characters invite you to distance yourself from their suffering, but every so often you connect with their basic humanity, and before it’s over you’ll be staring into the abyss that borders even the most reputable existence. Car crashes, stabbings and dog fighting provide the momentum, but the film’s crowning achievement is to prove that we are never as far from the jungle as we like to believe, for however diligently we suppress our base tendencies we are all cut from the same emotional cloth.
There but for the grace of God? You might not want to believe it, but Iñárritu has our measure, and reinforcing our illusions is the last thing on his mind. Depressing, disturbing, and essential viewing.
#7 – Battle Royale
Every year I include one film which doesn’t seem to belong amongst its esteemed competition, and in 2001 it’s Kinji Fukasaku’s one-man mission to prove that there’s nothing you can’t get away with if you treat the notion of appeasing the US censors with the contempt it deserves.
Battle Royale is one of the damnedest things I’ve ever seen – 42 high school students are invited to spend three days on a deserted island carving each other into sushi, with the winner being the last man (or woman) standing. It contains some of the most brutal bloodletting you’ll ever witness, but the unexpected characterisation gives you license to cheer your favourites and take perverse satisfaction in the violent death of their opponents for the duration (and that, after all, is the aim of any good action flick). There’s another fine Takeshi Kitano performance, several scenes that achieve an almost poetic intensity, and a fate for the chief scumbag that will have you dancing a jig in delight. It’s a nasty, disturbing affair, but it’s also one of the year’s guilty pleasures, and if you can take the pace you’ll be privy to one of the most remarkable action films you’re ever likely to see.
#6 – Remember the Titans
Remember the Titans is pure formula, gives new meaning to the word “manipulation”, and peppers the narrative with scenes which will only appeal to the very drunk or the incurably romantic.
I love it to death, and since I’ve never been afraid of looking foolish in public I’ll sing its praises until they come to take me away. Denzel Washington turns in another emotional performance as the head coach for a high-school football team, Will Patton proves that the odd moments of sensitivity he displayed in Armageddon were no fluke, and the likeable supporting players leave you no choice but to cheer the T.C. Williams squad to victory. If you view it as a an exercise in schmaltz it’ll leave you cold, but if you throw caution to the wind and allow yourself to be swept up by the film’s depiction of friendship, sporting glory and overcoming oppression then you’re in for a truly satisfying evening (and any film that finds space for both Fire and Rain and Peace Train on the soundtrack is fine by me).
#5 – Cast Away
Tom Hanks is an actor whose abilities are derided by otherwise good-natured cinemagoers with an uncharacteristic vehemence, but after Saving Private Ryan I don’t see that the man has anything more to prove. This didn’t deter him from nearly starving himself to death for the role of Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee who discovers that, when it comes to leisure time, it’s certainly possible to have too much of a good thing. Laced with poignant meditations on loss and blessed with a conclusion that neatly sidesteps Hollywood formula, it’s a unique take on the Crusoe myth that dares to be different and suffered at the box office because of it. It’s worth noting that scriptwriter William Broyles, Jr. went on to nothing better than Planet of the Apes, but for creating one of the most memorable supporting characters in movie history he has my eternal respect.
#4 – The Fellowship of the Ring
The cast and crew captured the spirit of the novel, and those ten words are all I need to justify its inclusion here.
#3 – Moulin Rouge
Ah, the pleasures of revisionism. In April I took Luhrmann and his cronies to task for their paper-thin script, before admitting that I had to physically restrain myself from applauding like a madman when the curtain went down on the final dance sequence. During a recent viewing of the DVD I did that and more, and now have little hesitation in proclaiming the film a near masterpiece. Say what you like about the acting, characterisation and derivative narrative – it’s still one of the most original, visually stunning releases in recent memory, a gamble that paid off through Luhrmann’s single-minded obsession with creating an atmosphere of fairytale excess. Whatever you think of his creation, one thing is certain – of all the directors who earned a paycheque in the year just passed, the project he chooses for an encore will be one of the more intriguing stories to emerge from 2002.
#2 - Amélie
Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet harbour a boundless affection for the human race, so they wrote a hymn to the magic we lost on the day we were no longer moved to tears by the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner. While it joins Moulin Rouge in singing the praises of the Bohemian ideals of “Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love”, it tells us that the greatest thing of all is not to love and be loved in return, but simply to love.
Amélie will renew your sense of kinship with your fellow man, and it might just start you thinking about some things you’d prefer to leave buried away. It’s a joyous, thought-provoking ode to the everyday, a catalyst for change that slips under your guard and leads you to the light, and I’ll be returning to its embrace whenever I need to be reminded that our greatest gift is the ability to laugh at our own folly.
#1 – Requiem for a Dream
If Trainspotting conspired to make heroin addiction seem like a valid career choice, Requiem for a Dream provides the other half of the equation. Chronicling the life and times of four non-recreational drug users, Aronofsky’s inspired camera techniques and narrative devices never lead you to question whether he’s just showing off, for they provide the film with a unique feel that leaves you as tightly wound as the protagonists.
There are two extraordinary sequences in this film – Ellen Burstyn’s heartrending account of the loneliness that haunts the winter of her life, and the breathtaking final montage – but there’s barely a wasted second in the lead up to the shocking denouement. It’s a powerful, depressing account of the cycle of degradation that lies in wait for anyone who spends their life trying to escape from it, and if the government had any sense they’d replace the entire “Just Say No” campaign with a single mandatory viewing of Aronofsky’s masterpiece.
Some months ago I expressed a desire to shovel every print of Hannibal into a rendering factory furnace, and time has not mellowed my views. A sickening, reprehensible piece of filmmaking, its greatest crime was causing me to question the integrity of Ridley Scott, Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman and Ray Liotta, none of whom had a case to answer prior to their participation in this misguided advertisement for atrocity.
Runner-up awards go to Tomb Raider, which best exemplifies the dreck that littered the release schedules during the US summer season; The Ladies Man, which was as amusing as a documentary on involuntary euthanasia; and Silent Partner, probably the most appalling Australian film since Razorback.
The surprise absentee is Pearl Harbor, because I’m prepared to forgive it the worst of its crimes for the stunning depiction of the title assault. It did, however, cause me to revise my opinion of Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask), and the days when I tout his name as the man of choice for anything other than historical epics are now well and truly over.
Tom Hanks reigns supreme for Cast Away, but Ellen Burstyn gave him a run for his money with her astonishing performance in Requiem for a Dream (if I only merely disliked Julia Roberts prior to her speech at the Academy Awards, it’s now something closer to hate).
All of the films in my top 10 obviously feature at least one memorable performance, with special mention going to Audrey Tautou, Denzel Washington, Ian Holm, Geoffrey Rush, Richard Roxburgh and Jim Broadbent (who had a good year, providing a brief but enjoyable turn in Bridget Jones’s Diary). However, as always the most interesting runners-up are the ones who plied their trade in films outside the winners circle but were memorable nonetheless, for which we need look no further than Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates, Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Nicole Kidman in The Others, Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Guy Pearce in Memento, James Gandolfini in The Last Castle, Owen Wilson in Zoolander, and Jack Nicholson in The Pledge.
It wasn’t a good year for villainy, with few reaching the heights of detestability scaled by Percy Wetmore in The Green Mile and Colonel Tavington in The Patriot. However, one young man puts them to shame, and that’s Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) from Battle Royale, the kind of guy who’ll pump you full of lead but be considerate enough to amplify your death screams through a megaphone for the benefit of your friends.
The honourable mention goes to The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) from Moulin Rouge – he wasn’t really a villain (he seemed intent on winning Satine’s heart through means fair rather than foul), but Roxburgh’s insistence on turning in the performance of his career made every scene in which he appeared a delight. Tim Roth nearly made the grade in Planet of the Apes, but that’s primarily down to the look on his face when he realised he was beaten, and a single scene isn’t enough to get you through the door.
Best action sequence
Gotta go for the obvious, which is any twenty minute period chosen at random from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The destruction of Pearl Harbor and any scene featuring an unsheathed sword in The Fellowship of the Ring weren’t far behind, while the only other serious contender was the sight of Jackie Chan sliding through a cashier’s window in Rush Hour 2.
The worst action sequence goes to the climax of The Last Castle – what the hell were they thinking?
Planet of the Apes – please explain.
There were several pleasing conclusions during the year, with the winner being a toss-up between Cast Away and Blow (it was, as a point of fact, one of the only good things about the film).
Most pleasant surprise
The fact that nobody gave away the plot to Memento before I saw it, and Liv Tyler’s failure to be irredeemably awful in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Most unpleasant surprise
Director Richard Lowenstein deciding he was a better man to rewrite the plot of He Died With a Felafel in his Hand than the novel’s author (who offered to do so), and Penelope Cruz’s inability to be even remotely watchable in both Blow and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Oh, and Mark Hamill allowing Kevin Smith to convince him that his comeback aspirations would be well served by playing a character known as “Cock-Knocker”.
The post-awards party
Held in the abandoned Hobbiton set, the main topic of conversation is whether Peter Jackson will refund the price of a ticket to anyone who dies before The Two Towers hits the screens. Ian McKellen is pleased to discover that, for the first time in his life, door security doesn’t direct him to the head waiter’s quarters, J.K. Rowling fields polite enquiries about whether making creative control of Harry Potter a dealbreaker sprung from a desire to ensure the film remained true to the novel or garden variety megalomania; and Jane Siberry eludes a lynch mob incensed by her decision to allow Mimi Leder to back the closing scenes of Pay it Forward with her ethereal anthem Calling All Angels, ensuring they’ll never be able to listen to the song again without being overcome by nausea.
It’s a low-key affair, with everyone wondering whether the big guns will emerge from their self-imposed seclusion to make next year’s bash a party to remember. Maybe so, but we made it through the year without them, and we look to the future with the usual anticipation. I’ll be seeing you all on that long and lonely highway, and may the coming year bring you truth, beauty, freedom and love, but one of them most of all.
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originally posted: 01/12/02 21:52:17
last updated: 01/12/02 23:33:01