Knowing where to look
Many outstanding movies made it to Chico in 2001 only on video or cable
Movie-wise, the year 2001 was an improvement on 2000, even though not quite as interesting or bewildering, in its diversity. By my count, at least, more really good films made it into Chico theaters than in the previous year.
But a remarkable, and at times troubling, trend from 2000 continued to flourish and confound in 2001—the market logic of demographics and hype choked the theaters with mediocre glop while also leaving less and less room for the real thing. Thus, while there were more really good films in local theaters this year, the number of outstanding films that arrived here only on video and/or cable went up also.
Films like Memento, Mulholland Drive and Mexico’s Amores Perros were further signs of a heartening new narrative freedom in international film.
But movies written and designed to suit their own advertising flackery remained the industry’s idea of “leading edge” work. And even though there was still room for some feisty and inspired “indies” (Hedwig & the Angry Inch, State & Main, The Pledge, You Can Count on Me, Ghost World, Haiku Tunnel, etc.), such gaudy trifles as Pearl Harbor, Angel Eyes and Vanilla Sky were prominent among the numerous signs that mainstream American moviemaking has lost its way to everything except the box office.
Fortunately, there was room as well for a handful of truly outstanding American works: Memento, The Deep End, Mulholland Drive and Baby Boy, in particular. Those four, each in its own way, play fast and loose with conventional Hollywood-bred expectations and emerge with great mainstream potential just the same.
The tepid response of supposedly mainstream audiences to at least two of these films, The Deep End and Baby Boy, suggests that the mainstream is slowing to a trickle, if not drying up altogether.
Those four American films are among the 10 or so best films I saw in Chico theaters this year, joining a couple of raucously brilliant British films (Sexy Beast and Snatch) and four foreign-language gems—Amores Perros (Mexico), The Princess and the Warrior (Germany), The Circle (Iran) and Under the Sand (France). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon belongs in the Chico Top 10 for 2001 also (though, technically, it is a 2000 release).
And there were a good many foreign films worthy of runner-up status in Chico theaters—Bread and Tulips (Italy), Together (Sweden), The Road Home (China), Vertical Ray of Light (Vietnam), The Closet (France), With a Friend Like Harry (France), Divided We Fall (Czech Republic), Widow of St. Pierre (France), The Time of the Drunken Horses (Iran).
But the list of outstanding films that reached us only through video or cable is every bit as impressive as the best of the local year’s theatrical releases: a couple of masterpieces, Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained (an inspired adaptation of Proust) and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (the National Society of Film Critics’ choice for Best Film of 2000), head the list of a dozen or so major foreign films that reached us only on video, and another half-dozen, including Claire Denis’ extraordinary Beau Travail, Alain Resnais’ Same Old Song and the monumental Fragments * Jerusalem, arrived here only via cable television.
The most unjustly neglected film of the year is probably John Singleton’s Baby Boy, an astonishing drama about Southern California hip-hoppers and their families. Critics and audiences alike almost everywhere in the country overlooked the film, but it’s available now as a rental on VHS and DVD. And DVD is the way to go with this one, if you can: The disc’s extra features help put this daring film’s provocative elements into perspective.
The best video rental premieres of the year include an impressive array of recent foreign films: Yi Yi, Time Regained, Madadayo (the final film of the late, great Akira Kurosawa), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong), Venus Beauty Institute (Tonie Marshall, France), Set Me Free (Lea Pool, French Canada), Human Resources (Laurent Cantet, France), Humanité (Bruno Dumont, France), Bread and Roses (Ken Loach, U.K./ U.S.A.), The Legend of Rita (Volker Schlondorf, Germany).
DVD continued to emerge as a special boon to film buffs. The classics and special features of the Criterion Collection have been especially noteworthy, and some special films (like Venus Beauty Institute and Humanité above and the restored version of Apocalypse Now) are available locally only on DVD. And occasionally there are films that are virtually unwatchable in “formatted” VHS but that come across very well in letterboxed DVD—with Wim Wenders’ goofy Million Dollar Hotel and Mathieu Kassovitz’s hellacious Crimson Rivers being two recent examples.
The best documentaries I saw during the year were Fragments * Jerusalem (on the Sundance Channel), Ken Burns’ Jazz (on PBS), Frederick Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine (also PBS), Keep the River on Your Right (shown here at the Pageant) and Agnes Varda’s wonderfully quirky The Gleaners and I (Sundance Channel).
Some other personal favorites from 2001:
Best Performances: the ensembles in Yi Yi, Va Savoir, The Deep End, You Can Count on Me, State & Main, Sexy Beast, Venus Beauty Institute and The Dish. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love). Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy). John Corrrigan (Hedwig & the Angry Inch).
Best Cinematography: Amores Perros, In the Mood For Love, Yi Yi, Crimson Rivers, Sexy Beast, Life as a House.
Best Nostalgia: O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Best Western (an out-of-favor genre that still matters to me): All the Pretty Horses (a year-end release from 2000), The Claim (see it on DVD) and the horseback segment of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Missing in Action: We can get along without the ultra-offensive Baise-Moi, and Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl are likely to turn up sometime soon—but how come no local theater has had time for Barbet Schroeder’s Our Lady of Assassins?
Best Old Pro: Gene Hackman in Heartbreakers, Heist and Behind Enemy Lines.
Guilty Pleasures: The Mexican, Kiss of the Dragon and Blow.
Best Boxed Set: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (DVD).
Best Marathon Movie: Bela Tarr’s eight-hour Satantango (at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley).
Best Cinephile Event: Quentin Tarantino’s four-day seminar on the westerns, B-movies and cliffhangers of William Witney (at the Seattle Film Festival).
What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been: rented an unsubtitled tape of Amores Perros from Aztec Video before the film was released in the U.S., then got a preview tape with subtitles when it was released. Liked it without subtitles, had second thoughts with fragmentary viewings of the subtitled tape, then went to see it at the Pageant and rediscovered once again what a difference a big screen and proper framing can make. It was just sly and violent on the little screen, but in even a smallish movie theater it took flight as a great tragicomic vision—and as the best film of 2001.