Dec. 21, 2001-
I Had Too Much to Dream Last Year
By Mark Jenkins
2001 wasn't a great year for the people who own movie studios andespeciallymovie theaters, but then, it also wasn't much of a year for most mainstream filmgoers over 12. It's almost certain that 2001's three top-grossing movies will be Shrek, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Monsters, Inc.all kiddie flicks, two of them 'toons. Christmas always brings a major crop of "adult" films, but to judge by the fate of such fare earlier this year, most of them will fade quickly.
Of course, fading quickly isn't what it used to be. Thanks to superwide releases, which put heavily promoted movies on thousands of screens at once, would-be blockbusters can make a fortune in their first weekend, possibly even paying for themselves before audiences realize that all they're buying is hype. The stultifying A.I. Artificial Intelligence, for example, did big business at first, before fatal word of mouth began to circulate. Essentially, a megamarketed film has become a pay-for-view event that you have to leave home to see. That's profitable for the studios that can presell a mediocre movie as a major happening, but it means that even the biggest films vanish in a matter of weeks. Second thoughts and sleeper hits are banished to video.
For filmmakers without killer clout (or ad budgets), it might be better to stay on the art-house circuit. The winningly energetic and visually witty (if indifferently plotted) Josie and the Pussycats disappeared from theaters even as its pop-punk soundtrack continued to sell, suggesting that a new marketing campaign might have given it a second life. Meanwhile, the overrated but undeniably intriguing Memento lingered for months, at least in brainy-demographic markets such as Washington. Hollywood's one-size-fits-all strategy still rules, but the city's art and repertory theatersnotably Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, which turned over new films breathlesslyprovided dozens of interesting alternatives, including most of the year's best movies.
If there was a recurring theme this year, it was expressed by the title of Waking Life, or what a character in Vanilla Sky labels "vivid dream." The movies were full of charismatic young men lost in some sort of fog, whether it was short-term-memory loss (Memento again), schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind), erotic obsession (Suzhou River), or a stark-raving-mad society (Our Lady of the Assassins). In some cases, entering the reverie was largely a matter of submitting to a godlike director's perverse logic, as in David Lynch's ominous but ultimately goofy Mulholland Drive, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's too-labored-to-be-entirely-charming Amélie, Alejandro González Iñárritu's dog-eat-dog Amores Perros, Takashi Miike's dating nightmare Audition, or Tsui Hark's dazzling yet soulless Time and Tide, perhaps the trippiest Hong Kong action movie ever made.
My own best-of list, I noticed in compiling it, contains no films about men in dreamscapes and many about women in the real world. This is in part because of two remarkable Iranian films, The Circle and The Day I Became a Woman, that introduce a certifiable trend: Next year we should see at least two Iranian films about Afghan women, Baran and Kandahar. Women also took a guiding role in another art-house trend that couldn't have less to do with Iran: the sexually explicit downer. This category includes Fat Girl; Wayne Wang's The Center of the World, which fails to deliver on an intriguing premise; Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-Moie which offers provocation-for-the-hell-of-it fucking and killing; and Patrice Chéreau's aptly named Intimacy, a bracing film that deserves better than to get lost in the year-end flurry of releases. (It opens Dec. 26 at Visions.)
As usual, my top 10 is alphabetical and comprises movies that debuted in Washington this year. It thus can include films that debuted elsewhere in 2000, yet none of the many movies opening in late 2001 in New York and L.A. but not appearing here until 2002. The list of Oscar-courting New York– and L.A.–only November and December releases seems to get longer each year, and this time it includes Gosford Park, Behind the Sun, Piñero, The Devil's Backbone, I Am Sam, Charlotte Gray, Baran, Kandahar, Last Orders, Iris, Black Hawk Down, Lantana, Monster's Ball, and Italian for Beginners.
The Circle Jafar Panahi's feminist La Ronde follows Tehran women on a nonlinear course, matching naturalistic performances and techniques to an exacting structure.
The Day I Became a Woman Working from a scenario by her husband, leading Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marzieh Meshkini offers not only a tour of Iranian womanhood but also a quick survey of Iranian cinema and society.
Faithless In Liv Ullmann's bruising film, Ingmar Bergman's private contemplation of a long-ago affair blossoms into a rich portrait of his former lover, embodied by Lena Endre in an unflinching performance.
Fat Girl Not another teen movie, Catherine Breillat's savage tale of two sisters at the beach tops a brutally candid depiction of a cad's seduction with a stunningly unexpected ending.
Ghost World Based on Daniel Clowes' comic book, Terry Zwigoff's first fiction film is a fresh, smart dispatch from the overlapping zombie universes of soulless suburbia and late adolescence.
The House of Mirth Terence Davies' impeccable adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel is perhaps the most chilling account of social climbing ever.
In the Mood for Love Nominally the tale of a friendship that may or may not have become adultery, Wong Kar-Wai's film is a sumptuous evocation of the vanished world of his Hong Kong childhood.
Our Song Jim McKay's loose, naturalistic tale of three teenage girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is simple and unforced yet emotionally profound.
Va Savoir This cerebral yet playful French sex farce is a minor film by the standards of director Jacques Rivette, but it charmingly balances intellectual concerns with a boisterous comic finale.
Yi Yi (A One and a Two) Edward Yang's latest Taipei story focuses on one family but portrays an entire world, following threads of everyday lives while musing on the purpose of art.
There were many other films I enjoyed or admired, at least in part, but only a handful that really grabbed me despite being significantly flawed: the previously mentioned Josie and the Pussycats, Time and Tide, Audition, Takeshi Kitano's Brother (which seemed smart when it kept its English-language mouth shut), Shinji Aoyama's brooding Eureka (which needed to lose an entire subplot), Jonathan Nossiter's Signs & Wonders (which featured a muddled thriller payoff it neither needed nor could make work), Tran Anh Hung's The Vertical Ray of the Sun (which was so big on atmosphere that its shortchanged the story), and Barry Levinson's Bandits (the year's funniest mainstream Hollywood picture, even if it was ultimately too long and too timid).
It was a good year for reissues, with reprises of such rarely (or never) seen films as Band of Outsiders, Billy Liar, The Blue Angel, Bob le Flambeur, Once Upon a Time in China I and II, The Wide Blue Road, and Apocalypse Now Redux (though the last is more of a remix than a reissue). Although attendance slipped a bit after Sept. 11, the city's noncommercial repertory programs provided a wealth of worthy retrospectivesincluding the programs on Kon Ichikawa, Ermanno Olmi, Sergei Paradjanov, Jacques Tati, Valerio Zurlini, and Merchant-Ivoryand festivalsincluding Filmfest DC, Reel Affirmations, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights, the Asian Pacific American Film Festival, and annual roundups of new films from Germany, Hong Kong, Turkey, Latin America, and the European Union.
Thanks in large part to Visions, fewer foreign and indie films are restricted to one- or two-time D.C. screenings, but the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the American Film Institute, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress' Mary Pickford Theater, Films on the Hill, and the various festivals still offer plenty of exclusives. Among the notable new films they debuted this year were Takashi Kitano's Sonatine, Jean-Jacques Beineix's Mortal Transfer, Johnny To's Needing You, Ah Nian's Call Me, Don Boyd's My Kingdom, Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep, Rajiv Menon's I Have Found It, Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, and Nagisa Oshima's Taboo. The last is scheduled for a February encore, and with any luck we'll see more of them return. With these venues in operation, it's no great annoyance to cede the multiplexes to the under-12s. CP