Flashbacks: The Year in Movies

Some movies are ahead of the audience—and the critics. Maybe Eyes Wide Shutwill be the best film of 2001. Robert Horton

The worst offenses of the year were Jar Jar Binks, Eyes Wide Shut, and the news that Jodie Foster will play Leni Riefenstahl—will that be Hopkins or Hedaya as Hitler? —Graham Fuller

Kudos must go to The Matrix and its message: Love can change the very fabric of reality. The catch? It only works if the object of adoration is Keanu Reeves. —Chris Chang

The more I watched the brothers Dardenne's Rosetta, the more it reminded me of, and seemed to conceptually redress, the brothers Wachowski's The Matrix. Both films detail the Sisyphean efforts of a solitary individual to slip the surly bonds of gravity and soar into a self-determined sky. Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) lives in a box (her bunk) within a box (the trailer home she shares with her mother), plugged-in to an appliance (her blow-dryer) which is her only source of physical comfort; in the end, she joins the planetary workforce, but finds its demands more alienating than her earlier exclusion. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a Web jockey, plugged into a box within a box, who, once liberated, joins a planetary resistance, but retains his solitary mantle, "The One." Both are unwitting coppertops, lulled to sleep in Capital's cradle; both are rezapped into living by heterosexual encounters of the moist kind.

Rosetta is a realist (and perhaps—egads!—a Marxist) endeavor, which means, at its end, there is no closure, only the inevitability of further fight before further flight. The Matrix is a Joel Silver joint, which means, at the end, there's a sequel coming. And the redressing? Imagine, if you will, in the place of Carrie-Anne Moss's aquiline Trinity, Rosetta—an action hero who battles gravity with mud-stuck boots, not wire-work wizardry. Ah, the various liberations that might foretell: there'd be no wake-up kiss for Keanu, only Neo left drowning like Mouchette in Bresson's pond while Rosetta, her blow-dryer now a jet-pack, soars off into the CGI sky. One yearns to imagine the Dardennes' remix of Fight Club (itself The Matrix in a muscle shirt), in which the boys are all long by the wayside, and Dequenne, Moss, and Helena Bonham Carter band together as a kind of rubber-clad, ass-kicking, socialist Heroic Trio. —Chuck Stephens  

To say The Blair Witch Projectis an emotional experience says everything—there's nothing to it except the high-octane Fun Factory of don't-knows and whazzats; no text, no plot, no layers, no history. It's raw tumult, conceived so beautifully it could allow itself to be executed sloppily, and the result is a movie-audience relationship that seems to be less a relationship than a visual gauntlet, an ordeal by light. In terms of traditional film syntax, which has always implied that you the viewer will unambiguously receive all of the pertinent information you need, the movie is a radical act, withholding information and contriving to be without control over its own visual narrative. (No film since Michael Snow's Wavelengthhas prioritized off-screen space as profoundly.) This structuralist chestnut opens a window on how terrifyingly shallow and tenuous our grip on the world is. What more do you want? Michael Atkinson

The second time I saw The Blair Witch Project, it was in a nearly empty screening room. The first viewing had really unsettled me, but I'd decided, going in, that it wasn't going to work its devious magic on me now that I knew its secrets. I sat there in the last row, arms crossed, for almost an hour. About the time Josh disappeared, I felt somebody tapping my shoulder and I screamed my head off. I jumped up and started yelling, "Who are you? Who are you? What the fuck do you want?" And it was just some bewildered guy who'd come into the wrong theater. He goes, "I . . . I . . . I just walked in here and I wanted to know what movie this is." And I said, "It's called The Blair Witch Project, and you should NEVER sneak up on a person when she's watching this movie." —Justine Elias

I hope Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't read the reviews of Magnolia, though he seems exactly like the kind of insecure young megalomaniac who would not only pore over them but take them to heart. Most critics, schoolmarmish in their chagrin, prescribe discipline: "He's so talented and so good with actors—if only he would applyhimself." (The most condescending review called it "a great terrible movie.") Those who claim that, in its unabashed lunacy, its breathless embrace of excess, Magnolia self-destructs, or turns desperate, or presents no more substantial a "message" than we have to be nice to one another, misdiagnose the film's towering ambition as out-of-control brattishness and dismiss its ardent humanity as a glib attempt at closure. But, built to spill over, Magnolia holds up to scrutiny. The self-consciously melodramatic pitch and the diagrammatic relationships make sense in the big picture, thanks to Anderson's deconstructive intelligence and his sincerely benevolent attitude. I wouldn't contest that the movie is an act of supreme indulgence, but I'm amazed, thrilled, and grateful that it exists. Dennis Lim

Harmony Korine's work is the ultimate triumph of the kid in the back of the class eating boogers in a desperate plea for attention. When is someone going to finally take his trust fund away and send him to bed without dinner? —Mike Rubin

Wouldn't it be fun to swap Julien Donkey-Boy and Jar Jar in their respective movies? I'd watch both films again. David Edelstein

Best performance of the year: Om Puri in My Son the Fanatic—hands down, but not in a culture that only celebrates white actors. To pick Russell Crowe or Jim Carrey is not an aesthetic choice but a racial preference. —Armond White

Thank heaven for the decline in the subgenre of "sweetie-pie" gay movies, in which an adorable trick from the boonies comes to the big city in search of Mr. Right. The new batch of good gay flicks—four of which made my top 10 this year (six if you include Beau Travail and Fight Club, as well you might)—has turned up with the genuine article, something resembling the real blood, sweat, cum, and tears of gay life. —Elliott Stein

Let's have a moment, shall we, to appreciate the irritating, cruel, and cartoonish portrait of middle-class families in American Beauty, portrayed as they were with all the latitude and respect that the Japanese received in The Sands of Iwo Jima. Certainly this year's Emperor's New Clothes, Sam Mendes's carpet-bomb plays like an outcast's childish act of revenge. Wes Bentley's enigmatic dealer aside, there wasn't a character in sight that didn't make the cast of South Parkseem positively three-dimensional. —Michael Atkinson

Sam Mendes may be shooting fish in a barrel, but his aim is terrific, and so are the fish. Brian Miller

After viewing Catherine Breillat's gynecologically graphic testament of orifice and Tsai Ming-liang's surprisingly touching squalid-tenement love story in consecutive days, my wife observed, "The Hole should have been called Romance, and Romance should have been called The Hole." —Mike Rubin

In 1965, Kenneth Tynan wrote this of his friends who were shell-shocked by the experience of seeing Lenny Bruce: "Some found him offensive—a reaction they smartly concealed by calling him boring." I thought of that line everytime I read some hapless reviewer dismissing Catherine Breillat's Romance as "talky," or, knowingly, "very French," or—my favorite—"pornographic and unarousing." It was painfully obvious that they didn't know what to do with a movie that was seething with sexual rage but in control enough to hone and direct that rage. Though journalists can call out their Guardian of Free Expression mantle when a director has trouble with the ratings board or the Catholic League decides it needs some ink, they couldn't deal with a movie whose exploration of sex includes actually showing people fucking. Actresses wearing the movie's great invention of post-coital apparel, the bedsheet breast turban, is natural to them. The sight of something all of us have done, removing a used condom from a softening cock, sends them atwitter. Charles Taylor

Where was the summer of 1999? Where were the lumbering, patronizing bustblockers with 10-page scripts and publicity budgets that could keep Bangladesh fed on truffles? No comic-book sequels, no disaster epics, no Lethal Weaponor Batmanparade float, nothing from Mel Gibson, James Cameron, Harrison Ford, Michael Bay, or Robert Zemeckis. Did Don Simpson die for nothing? Have things genuinely changed? Let's hope. Unless you're waiting on tenterhooks for Lethal Weapon 5or Batman Again (Ben Stiller as The Bookworm?), it might be a real reason to pop a cork and sing hoi hoi and hoi polloi. —Michael Atkinson

A few nights back some talk-show type asked Atom Egoyan what his favorite movies of the year were, and without hesitation he replied, "I loved The Sixth Sense." The year might be summarized with the king of decon detachment professing love for a Bruce Willis blockbuster—spring and summer 1999 offered plenty of left-field American crowd-pleasers with agendas usually confined to the art house, whether it was cockeyed history lessons from The Iron Giant and Dick, scenes from the class struggle in Office Space and Election, or acid-bath satire from South Park, while the crux of The Sixth Sense wasn't Willis's sainted shrink but the ineffable anguish of a mother and child. Only the scary one did any real business, and that was the sole predictable aspect of a beautiful year. —Jessica Winter

You need a 10-worst list because some of us are more definite about what we hate than what we like. That's why we're critics. 20 Dates, for instance. I don't love any film this year as much as I hate 20 Dates. It gives a grossly distorted picture of obnoxious Jewish heterosexual men: Many of us have been working hard to overcome our narcissistic sense of entitlement and then this schmuck comes along and sets us back many decades. —David Edelstein

Best Minneapolis movie you probably never saw: Driver 23, Rolf Belgum's $700 Hi-8 doc about a metal-rocker's efforts to record his debut album despite a long history of leg problems, tension-related gastritis, clogged sinuses, chronic depression, apparent hypochondria, and abundant bad taste. Only Scorsese's The King of Comedy digs deeper into the flailing artist's delusions of grandeur. Coming soon to the Whitney Biennial and DVD. Rob Nelson

While the Walter Reade's near-complete Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective was exceptional, the award for New York's Best Retro of the Year probably has to go to the MOMA for its Robert Bresson series: the same Bresson films that have drawn crowds of five or six to Anthology Film Archives over the years (to watch unsubtitled prints dissolve into vinegar) were the subject of near fistfights in the MOMA lobby as hardcore cineastes, New Yorker readers, and the museum's usual collection of snoring seniors, yammering tourists, and misanthropic regulars all battled amongst themselves for the right to claim seats in Titus 1 as if they were Lancelot's Grail itself. —Mike Rubin

WIDE ANGLE: THE DECADE, THE CENTURY, THE DEATH AND/OR REBIRTH OF CINEMA

One might place the blame for '90s cinema's zeal for bed-hopping from genre to genre, through remix and remodel, and into the polymorphic pantopia of post-irony's last resorts, on Wes Craven's decision, all those years ago, to remake Bergman's Virgin Springas Last House on the Left. —Chuck Stephens

My tie for director of the decade needs a few words. Hou Hsiao-hsien seems obvious—who's greater? But Téchiné merits a bit of explanation. His films are all imperfect, he always reaches a bit further than his grasp, and the tone of his work takes some getting used to—breathless, pouncing on moments rather than letting them flow. But there's no one whose work has touched me more, whose characters' horizons and responses to life seem the most real. —Kent Jones

The director of the decade has to be Steven Spielberg for the unbeatable combination of humanist daring (from Hookto Saving Private Ryan) and populist astonishment (from The Lost Worldto Amistad). One day film culture's pseudo-sophisticates will catch up to him. —Armond White

My director of the decade is Richard Lester, not for his The Return of the Musketeers (which went directly to cable in 1991), but for the influence that freewheeling Lester classics like A Hard Day's Night and Petulia had on the likes of Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh, and David O. Russell. —Michael Sragow

The '90s was the period when the most prominent New York tastemakers turned their backs on virtually everything of importance happening in world cinema; to learn what was going on, one most often had to pay attention to J. Hoberman, Dave Kehr, and Kent Jones. But alas, even the first two weren't much help with Eyes Wide Shut, a film whose New York reception reminded me of the fates of the similarly unfashionable and out-of-time Gertrudand Seven Womenin the '60s. No matter: Even if the movie fails to acknowledge the importance of living in New York in the '90s—for me it evokes a dream vision of that city in the early '60s—it will be remembered and increasingly valued in the years ahead, as most other Kubrick features have been. Jonathan Rosenbaum

While Iranian cinema continues to breed boosters like hamsters across the constantly blooming and dying desert of foreign-film exhibition in the States, the renaissance of filmmaking in South Korea this decade has garnered little acclaim, and even less support on American screens. —Chuck Stephens

Ten Best Films of the Century?

Oh please! —B. Ruby Rich

How the fuck should I know? I haven't seen everything yet. —Justine Elias

You've got to be joking. Who do you think you are—Time? —Bruce Goldstein

All this bavardage about the End of Cinema, raped and looted by digital this and virtual that. Sometime in the future, a perfected electronic form might replace the chemical process, but what's particularly silly is the persistent contention that virtual game-playing, in its present form and beyond, will supercede filmgoing. I'll lay everything on movies and give great odds for a very simple reason: However they may have seemed in the last 20 years to have become pure visual/visceral experiences, movies are still about storytelling. Stories, it should be noted, have endings we can't change, and that's why we like them. Begin to interact and control the story, and what you've got is energy-expending, worklike, and unsatisfyingly shapeless. It's the difference between the number of people who actually play a recreational sport and the number of people who recreationally watch sports. How can controlling a search-and-kill game—and eventually, inevitably losing—rival the voyeuristic thrall of a Hitchcock or a Scorsese? —Michael Atkinson

We are witnessing either the rebirth of American filmmaking or the galvanizing flailing of a twitching corpse. In any event, there's ferment in the air—and some of it is wafting off the screen. —Michael Sragow

How long are weary, graying baby boomers going to insist that the glory days of creative American cinema ended in 1975? We were in a renaissance then, and we're in a different one now. Owen Gleiberman

Like Y2K and the Apocalypse, the great movie renaissance of 1999 looks like another millennial fizzle. Peter Keough

Note to world-cinema doomsayers (Denby, Sarris, Sontag, et al.): The tragedy these days isn't that foreign masterpieces don't exist; it's that finding them often requires leaving your neighborhood. —Rob Nelson

I predict that all movies will be animated or computer-generated within 15 years. —Bruce Goldstein

When I began reviewing movies I had no adjectives, so I would look around and come up with a few and sprinkle them in. One adjective I noticed other critics saving for special occasions was sublime, and I, too, waited for a chance to use this wonderful word. This comes back to me noticing (once again) that my real favorites were made before the mid '60s. Here is someone who experienced the early '70s (yes, the "sacred" '70s) as a sad falling off—not only from the New Wave but from the Hollywood of Hawks, Ray, Fuller, Siegel, etc. The '80s and '90s, however, have been no worse than the '70s. A level of inspiration, of faith perhaps, left the movies, as it has left books, too. Perhaps it will come again. —Georgia Brown
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