Nitpicking in Reverse

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

Disregarding this advice with a voracious smile, relative newcomer Amanda Peet gladly flounced her way through the clever (if slight) The Whole Nine Yards and Whipped, but it may take a while for her look-at-me style -- possibly on loan from the equally toothy Denise Richards -- to develop enough complexity or wryness for anyone to take the kick-ass girl seriously. (Attention, Charlize Theron: Please find a role to show them how it's done.)

This year the two grandest instances of this chemistry -- complexity on one hand, wryness on the other, kick-ass on both -- were the big hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Charlie's Angels, both of which feature pretty girls whizzing through the air to kick, punch, and slash at villains. Crouching Tiger, considered by many critics to be the year's best film, is considered by this critic to be, in a word, "nifty." Coming from someone who loves Ang Lee's work -- The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, Ride with the Devil, all of it -- this may seem odd, but his martial arts masterstroke, lush and sensuous as it is, feels a bit like a forced amalgamation of technique and marketing. (Blasphemy, perhaps, but even a brilliant scene like the fight in the treetops made me long for the easy grin of Jackie Chan leaping a stubby tree and slapping it into an attacker's face, as in the spotty but charming Shanghai Noon, or playing with pointy things under a train, as in the newly re-released Legend of Drunken Master.)

Bereft of any solemnity whatsoever, Charlie's Angels was without question the year's best thrill ride (topping even the rockin' Vertical Limit and the ho-hum M:I-2), but you'd think with an effects budget big enough to make Cameron Diaz's glutes seem real, they'd be able to create a more convincing illusion of Drew Barrymore moonwalking. Ultimately the music brought the magic; the Crouching Tiger cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma, and Angels producer Barrymore's CD collection, proved as satisfying as the movies themselves.

Truly this was a year of unlikely heroines, as Helen Hunt's performance as a frazzled Las Vegas mom lit up the otherwise pompous Pay It Forward (in which Kevin Spacey also put in his year's best work). The year belonged to the Pretty Woman, however, as Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich pleased crowds and wowed critics all over the place. Well, except for this one. While the film was rousing and impressive in its bouncy way, it was really hard to get around the notion that this was little more than Julia Roberts doing Norma Rae-meets-Silkwood with cleavage and extra histrionics.

Now here's something to think about: Are overpopulation and rapid technological advancement leading us into bizarre new realms of self-perception? Really, it doesn't take someone as infinitely intelligent as a film critic to realize that something strange is both afoot in our world and reflected in our entertainment. Perhaps we've produced so many humans now that it's becoming difficult for an individual to feel significant, unique, or complete, as this year's spate of split-identity movies seems to attest. Yet to be seen is Nicolas Cage taking a break from explosions to portray The Family Man (like Matt Damon in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, he's yet another confused and pallid whitey in need of a soul man's mentoring), but the plot sounds exactly like a lovely little film that arrived from Australia this year called Me Myself I. This winsome gem finds a single professional Rachel Griffiths suddenly facing off with her married self (complete with obnoxious brood) and then replacing her. This, in turn, sounds remarkably like Demi Moore's soppy, inferior Passion of Mind, in which the lady repeatedly falls asleep in the French countryside to find herself on top of the Big Apple, and vice versa -- sans transatlantic telephone service, which would instantly curtail the confusion.

Mike Hodges's sharp and clever Croupier, with Clive Owen playing both Jack the novelist and Jake the high roller, also figures into this paradigm, and Schwarzenegger got cloned. Hell, arguably, even Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence took their prosthetics to the big schizophrenic dance this year, adding their special emphasis on ... well ... the amazing comedic potential of the ass.

One of the year's more moving and disturbing portraits of a severed self was Gough Lewis's Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, about a real-life university student called Grace Quek who renamed herself and became, fleetingly, a legend of pornography. The year 2000 was a splendid year for documentaries in general, headed up by fine work such as Marc Singer's Dark Days, wherein homeless people inhabiting a Manhattan subway tunnel extol the virtues of "growing" in their sheltered existence, actually being able to suggest what to have for dinner.

We also got to retrace the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols in Julien Temple's punchy The Filth and the Fury, while David Schisgall's The Lifestyle gave us more information about AARP-eligible swingers than anyone may ever desire. While not technically documentaries, films such as Ann Lu's Dreamers, Nicholas Reiner's The Gold Cup, Kevin Jordan's Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire, and Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking? painted down-to-earth portraits of Tinseltown, minus the tinsel. Considering the ever-accelerating frequency of displaced people making their pilgrimages to L.A., only to be exploited by the entertainment machine, these films serve as hopeful documents of hidden humanity.

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