Millennium Movies Get a Second Chance

Meteor showers didn't wipe out humankind, Times Square didn't go up in flames, but millennial panic definitely hit the movies, for better and worse. Parties weren't meant to last, and the embarrassment of riches poured upon grateful audiences in 1999 felt like an exhilarating rush of giddy, fatalist delirium just before an apocalyptic blackout: Being John Malkovich, Topsy-Turvy, The Blair Witch Project, Magnolia, Fight Club—and those were just the idiosyncratic sparklers that happened to be in English. The morning after that glorious bender, movies found themselves knocked up, hard used, and hungover, and still haven't pulled out of their dehydrated funk. The last 18 months have been among the most dismal in recent memory; the long-hovering threat of an industrywide strike goes a ways toward explaining the proliferation of bad films but not the scarcity of good ones.

Ticket buyers unfortunately can't stage their own strike, or more precisely, they won't. The gloomy summer of 2001 once again proved that moviegoing is an unbreakable addiction—a disease or a magnificent obsession, depending on the season. The multiplex keeps a short leash on the optimistic, the idle, and (during the blockbuster months) any poor soul without a functional air-conditioning unit. What else could explain the $67.4 million first-weekend take for Rush Hour 2, the biggest-ever opening for a comedy? Chalk it up to a bunch of movie winos staring at an empty cabinet on a muggy Sunday morn and guzzling rubbing alcohol to ward off the DTs. We need our fix in any form.

Lucky for us, many of the virtuoso cocktail chemists of 1999 return with follow-up films this fall, so maybe the directors and screenwriters who sent off the last century in such high style can succeed in blasting open the next one. After confounding fans and detractors alike with his ambling John Deere detour The Straight Story, David Lynch resumes fire-walk-with-me stride in Mulholland Drive. Master show-off Michael Mann presents Ali, which could well be as shamelessly rousing and feverishly stylized as his last fast-and-loose biopic, The Insider (though with, um, Will Smith trying to fill Muhammad's boxing trunks, we're already a bit nervous). The redoubtable gang at Pixar, who set a new bar for digital animation with the witty, wistful pathos of Toy Story 2, try to top themselves yet again with Monsters, Inc. French troublemaker Catherine Breillat, who garnered plenty of ink for her succès de scandale, Romance, delivers Fat Girl, a sensation at this year's Berlin Film Festival. She's joined by her hopelessly romantic countryman Patrice Chéreau, who stripped his bereaved Parisians emotionally bare in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and now raises the melodramatic stakes in the naked-in-all-senses Intimacy.

Richard Linklater delivers a digital dream work in Waking Life.
courtesy Divya Srinivasan/2001 Fox Searchlight
Richard Linklater delivers a digital dream work in Waking Life.

Hope springs eternal all over the autumn movie slate, and nowhere higher than for The Royal Tenenbaums: Director Wes Anderson and cowriter Owen Wilson, peerless architects of transcendent absurdist melancholia, add to their brief but so far spotless track record with the best ensemble cast of the season. One of their stars, Ben Stiller, finally emerges from his filmmaker's exile (dating back to The Cable Guy) with the male-model farrago Zoolander. Old reliables always worth a visit check in: Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York), Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's 11), the Coens (The Man Who Wasn't There), Jacques Rivette (Va Savoir), Richard Linklater (Tape and Waking Life). But name brands aren't the whole story: Sundance critical favorites get a place at the table (In the Bedroom, Donnie Darko), and so do a pair of festival hits from current cinema hotbed Argentina (La Ciénaga, Burnt Money). There's no telling if yet another movie season will end up passed out drunk in a gutter somewhere, but no matter—determined cinephiles will always take another chance on love. Here's a selective preview; bottoms up.

Ten to Watch For

September 28

Directing for the first time since the acutely misunderstood Cable Guy, Ben Stiller plays an over-the-hill fashion model who's brainwashed to assassinate the Malaysian prime minister. The premise sounds one-joke, but never underestimate Stiller's capacity for unhinged comedy and queasy psychodramatics.

October 3

Lucrecia Martel's slow-burning first feature focuses on the daily lives of two large families during a hot, torpid summer in a forlorn former resort town in rural Argentina.

October 12

David Lynch's best since Blue Velvet—a TV pilot dropped by ABC, then molded by the director into a stand-alone feature—is a tender lesbian love story, a Hollywood cautionary fable, a seamy tale of professional disillusionment and shattered romanticism, and above all an inspired structural stunt.

October 19

Not just a Jack the Ripper gorefest but an adaptation (by the Hughes brothers) of Alan Moore's graphic-in-both-senses novel, an epic, obsessive postmortem of the Whitechapel murders. Johnny Depp plays the investigator; hopefully Ian Holm and Katrin Cartlidge cancel out Heather Graham.

October 19

All unairbrushed sex and unquiet desperation, Patrice Chéreau's anguished character-study posits loneliness as a permanent human condition—the passionate grapplings of extraordinary leads Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox stand in stark contrast to hyperreal scenes of conversational disconnect and meltdown, achieving a tension that's cumulatively devastating.

October 26
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