Nitpicking in Reverse

While there was plenty to criticize about the year's big releases, 2000 shone nonetheless for its subtle surprises

Welcome to the cinema, the great communal meditation chamber, circa 2000. Okay, now throw open all the exit doors, because some of our communal celluloid putrefied over the course of this year, and we're going to clear the air by dispensing with the top offenders first. Whether it was the truly ghastly misogyny of Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man (which, despite some astonishing digital effects, sucked so much it should've been called Swallow, Man!) or painfully trite, sterile romances like the Brazilian imports Bossa Nova and Woman on Top, there was a lot not to be thankful for this year in film.

While Book of Shadows made the original Blair Witch fluke seem like a Visconti-Welles coproduction, Hollywood also sent not one but two cataclysmically middling missions to the red planet, and a misdirected so-called thriller like What Lies Beneath prompted the miserable response: nothing! Capping it off, David Mamet's State and Main earned this critic's special E.T. (Egregious Turd) Award for its premise, employing a string of moderately amusing culture-clash gags in service of a literal payoff excusing -- hell, celebrating -- statutory rape. The only thing that could have been worse would have been the story of a dangerous, insane cracker filching the presidency, but intelligent audiences would have hissed all the way through test screenings for a movie so depressing and implausible...right?

While we're wafting away those assorted stenches, we may as well get a shovel and a wheelbarrow to cart off the mounds of mediocrity the industry left scattered throughout our collective consciousness. For example who would have dreamed that a remake of Shaft could be just so-so, that an energetic director like John Singleton could reduce the popular urban icon to a chaste, witless meanie? While audiences responded favorably to nautical entertainment like U-571 and The Perfect Storm, the success of these paeans to workin' men who drown must be chalked up to a simple lust for massive special effects. (Certainly we didn't show up at the box office to ogle George Clooney in a John Deere cap with Marky-Mark at his side, bellowing about how much he just loves fishin'!)

And now that we're at the year's end, we get Steven Soderbergh's dope manifesto, Traffic, which already is the toast of many critics, but -- let's face it, boys -- the movie is a bloated bore, a mostly badly tinted slop barely rescued by edgy performances from Don Cheadle and Amy Irving, plus some exceptionally heavy mugging from Benicio Del Toro. Otherwise it's simply the year's second round of Michael Douglas playing at sorting out family problems. Having already suffered through Curtis Hanson's flabby and interminable Wonder Boys, this punishing double shot of mopey Douglas seems particularly unfair.

Speaking of punishment, the cinematic menu for the year 2000 featured several bombastic works from young directors hooked on radical themes such as "Drugs are bad" and "Unhappy people tend to hurt each other." While James Gray's The Yards featured some gritty work from Joaquin Phoenix (who also spent the year impressing us in Ridley Scott's choppy, overrated Gladiator and Philip Kaufman's elegantly obvious Quills), Gray's formalist concerns were eclipsed by a forced, almost silly sense of grimness.

Similarly Darren Aronofsky and Leos Carax seemed determined to ignore their own respective senses of humor and spontaneity, as the uniformly thudding Requiem for a Dream and Pola X vividly illustrated. Slightly more inventive was Jeremy Podeswa's The Five Senses, which transformed Toronto into a giant therapy session for the terminally repressed, and Lars von Trier's The Idiots, in which clever Danish youths learned to enjoy life to the fullest, naturally, by pretending to be retarded.

In an attempt to rescue us from these handicapped imaginations, Sofia Coppola helmed her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Virgin Suicides, which effectively transcribed seemingly conventional male angst into universal allegory. Delivering deliciously doomed young ladies and the lads who adore them, the movie valiantly attempted to sump-pump the teeming teen T&A -- represented, here and in the more lucrative Bring It On, by Kirsten Dunst -- out of our psyches. Bravo for that! (It also showed that Danny DeVito, late of crackling comedies such as Drowning Mona and Screwed, is near to usurping Gene Hackman's throne for appearing onscreen in something at all times.)

As if to balance Ms. Coppola's gender exploration, Von Trier's other entry this year -- the sensational and ridiculous Dancer in the Dark -- indicated just how silly men can be when they attempt to illustrate the glory of the feminine in the form of a nearly-blind, impossibly innocent chanteuse who moonlights as a martyr for no apparent reason. In Dancer the musical segments were absolutely wonderful, but the rest made me wish I'd thought to bring some stale produce.

Of course no great hordes of moviemakers ventured down emotionally experimental roads, and many opted instead to remind us (yawn) about the virtues of "grrrl power" (or, in the case of Jun Falkenstein's smart, whimsical The Tigger Movie, "T-I-Double-Guh-Er" power"). As the new millennium launched two movies about female boxers (the congenial Knockout and the fiercely reactionary Girlfight), it became clear that kicking ass has become a delightful new component of feminine protocol. Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love and Basketball, featuring the taut, intense presence of Sanaa Lathan, also pushed this theme, but when Lathan and Omar Epps play highly competitive bedroom one-on-one for each other's clothes, the director shows us that any victory without love is hollow and pointless.

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