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“It’ll be just like in the movies: We’ll pretend to be someone else.” So says Betty to Rita in Mulholland Drive, an invitation to an adventure, leading to a dream that morphs into a nightmare. Mulholland Drive swept the third Village Voice Film Critics’ Poll in 2001, winning best film, best director, and best original screenplay for David Lynch, and best performance (a category that remained gender-neutral until 2007, when it was divided into best actor and actress) for Naomi Watts. An unforgettable “love story in the City of Dreams” (per its tagline), one of the greatest films about being seduced by movies ever made, and now our pick for best-of-the-decade, Mulholland Drive provides a point of entry to study Voice polls of the past 10 years, as we look at some who broke out, some who unjustly faded away, and some who came back.
Mulholland, which J. Hoberman described in these pages as “a poisonous valentine to Hollywood,” evinces tremendous empathy for the plight of actresses in the biz. It also gave Watts—as sunny Tinseltown hopeful Betty Elms in the film’s dream-half and abject stalled actress Diane Selwyn in its nightmare waking-life segment—the role(s) of a lifetime, launching an A-list career. But what about Laura Elena Harring, Watts’s equally thrilling co-star, who played both amnesiac Rita and manipulative, powerful starlet Camilla Rhodes? Sadly, Harring’s post-Mulholland career has been the inverse of Watts’s—and Camilla’s. Supporting roles in the forgettable John Q (2002), Willard (2003), The Punisher (2004), and Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) followed, plus a bit part in Nancy Drew (2007) as dead movie star Dehlia Draycott—a pleasing wink to Mulholland‘s girl-sleuthing and actress fixation.
Five years after Mulholland, Lynch said goodbye forever to celluloid, releasing the DV-shot Inland Empire, an even more uncompromising examination of Hollywood as stygian way station, and a showcase for the extraordinary talents of Lynch vet Laura Dern. Opening in 2006, Inland Empire came out the one year since its 1999 inception that there was no Voice poll. How long must we wait for the opportunity to vote again for Lynch, who appears to have abandoned feature filmmaking indefinitely, devoting his time instead to extolling transcendental meditation?
While Lynch may have shifted priorities, other Voice-anointed directors have made remarkable comebacks. Terence Davies’s unsparing adaptation of The House of Mirth came in at #3 in the 2000 poll, as did Davies’s screenplay; the filmmaker placed fifth among best directors. Eight years of silence followed, until Davies returned with his first documentary ever, the aching, astringent Of Time and the City, which is #2 on this year’s list of best docs. Will Gillian Anderson, whose heartbreaking Lily Bart in Mirth topped the best-performance list in 2000, have as triumphant a return? We want to believe: After The X Files went off the air in 2002, Anderson had minor roles in A Cock and Bull Story (2005), The Last King of Scotland (2006), and How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008)—and a major role, of course, in the dud X Files movie (2008). Would another Wharton adaptation—of The Custom of the Country, say—give Anderson the big-screen glory she should have had?
If Hollywood is hell for actresses, as Lynch’s film reminds us, it’s an even more infernal place for women directors. Yet female helmers, both those working within the system and thousands of miles outside of it, have fared well in Voice polls of the past 10 years. The decade began with Claire Denis’s Beau Travail winning best film and Denis taking the #2 spot for best director; her 35 Shots of Rum places #5 among best films this year. In 2001, Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I topped the documentary list, while this year, The Beaches of Agnès ranks third among docs. Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher was voted best first feature in 2000—a category in which Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (2007) also won. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was crowned best film in the Voice poll of 2003; Coppola’s movie would also be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture that year, as would she for best director—the last woman to have been so. As the aughts end, will Oscar voters replicate the good sense of Voice-poll participants and finally acknowledge the genius of Kathryn Bigelow, whose nail-biting The Hurt Locker tops the best-film list this year? Bigelow, who has struggled in the past for commercial support, is poised to make history, becoming the first woman ever to win an Oscar for best director. “Don’t play it for real until it gets real,” a gnomic director tells Betty at an audition in Mulholland Drive. Let’s hope the bankrolling of Bigelow’s future projects becomes very, very real.