New Centuries Are Rare

The best films of the year 2000

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Confronted with the thought that I would have to watch the Andy Samberg comedy Palm Springs on Hulu because it was getting so much attention while movie theaters are closed, I gave up. I didn’t want to subscribe to another channel to see this Groundhog Day retread, even if it came with a free introductory offer. I’d already seen The Wrong Missy on Netflix. We are living in a repetitive hellscape, sure, but I have my limits.

While I was avoiding Palm Springs, article after article appeared online about how movie theaters were not going to bounce back and might never reopen. There was one in The Atlantic with the excellent headline “Hollywood Is Finally Admitting That the U.S. Is a Lost Cause.” A paragraph in, I realized that maybe it was the other way around—the U.S. was admitting that Hollywood wasn’t worth dying for.

There is a certain gleeful subtext in these pieces. One type of glee is that entertainment journalists now get to wring their hands about a big problem while simultaneously tsk-tsking the film industry. Another kind is that if movie theaters go away, then the entire domestic audience will have to live like suburban middle-aged entertainment journalists do, and only see movies at home. None of these pieces admits that time in a movie theater is not the same as time at home.

As I read articles like that one, I realized I would rather read about movie theaters never opening again than watch another new movie on TV. When I saw a link to another article about this same subject in a publication I’d never heard of, the Military Times, I read that too. Its headline put it this way: “We can’t have nice things—Top Gun: Maverick grounded yet again, release bumped to 2021.” In the piece, the writer, J. D. Simkins, boiled it down in a way The Atlantic never would.

Simkins wrote that “America’s strategy of getting bored with COVID-19 appears to have done shockingly little to deter the virus’ ferocity. Previously reopened places continue to shut their doors after our species demonstrated a blatant inability to socialize in moderation or follow elementary instructions supported by scientific evidence.” Reading that, I was glad to find a veteran who could so plainly state the truth to his readers: America’s strategy failed. There would be no blockbuster Navy recruitment film with Tom Cruise on the big screen this year. Our species had blown it, or at least Homo americanus had.

Soon, audiences in France, South Korea, and Taiwan would be able to see Tenet in theaters. In America, if we owned a car, maybe we could go see The Goonies at a drive-in, where we could pretend it was 1985 and Ronald Reagan was still president. Since these drive-ins all seem to be showing 1980s movies for some reason, maybe they’d show the original Top Gun too. Once again we’d be able to hear Anthony Edwards, as Goose, announce that “the Defense Department regrets to inform you that your sons are dead because they were stupid.” Remember Goose? Everybody liked him.

 

Let’s not go back that far. While I was obsessively reading about American movie theaters never opening again, I got an assignment from another magazine to write a twentieth-anniversary piece about two films from the year 2000. I was saved. Now I could watch those instead of Palm Springs and whatever other new movies were coming out exclusively on some streaming service I didn’t want, like Greyhound with Tom Hanks on Apple TV.

Watching those two movies from 2000 entailed watching other movies from the same time period. Soon I was immersed in the cinema of Y2K. Trapped at home, my dive into movies from twenty years ago threw the present into stark relief.

The most alluring movies from the turn of the century have staying power because they were the most original and unexpected. The ones most remembered from that year, however, can be lumped into a single movie called Gladiarequiemento, aggressive self-impressed entertainment masquerading as innovative cinema. As for the then-cutting-edge narratives which experimented with hyperlinked stories, they have not retained their interest. The Traffic Code Perros movies now exist as sets of dated signifiers of a cost-cutting, distracted future that has come to pass. So what? During the Bush-Gore election campaigns in 2000 and the last days of the dot-com bubble, many of us knew what was coming. So instead of those movies, here are what I think are the thirty-five best films of 2000, in order of theatrical release wherever they came out first—a grouping that represents how I spent my summer vacation twenty years later, because of Covid-19 and because I don’t have a car.

Peppermint Candy

Blown backwards in time, like in Walter Benjamin’s description of the Angelus Novus, a man (Sol Kyung-gu) tells the story of his suicide in reverse chronological order. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature film is an anti-Memento in which the antihero can’t forget anything that has ever happened to him. A South Korean political history of the previous twenty years, Peppermint Candy is not tempered by its hysterical edge, which adds unpredictable violence to its vignettes of romantic, domestic, and business failure. Lee links these incidents with police torture of left-wing students, divided by shots from a train moving backwards. The candy of the title is a sweet memory that can’t survive the corruption of the times. Available on streaming services in a crap transfer.

Barking Dogs Never Bite

The year 2000 was something of an annus mirabilis in South Korean cinema, already by then becoming known for high-grade genre movies and stray artiness. In addition to Lee Chang-dong, three other Korean directors are represented on this list who had all made two or three films by 2000. But it was the feature-film debut of Bong Joon-ho, who went on to the make The Host and Parasite, that in retrospect solidified the South Korean New Wave.

Bong’s concentration on how the wealth gap destroys the poor, focused through his love of animals, makes his first film a blueprint for his others. In a high-rise apartment building, a struggling grad student (Lee Sung-jae) can’t concentrate because of a barking dog, so he decides to kill it. A young woman (Bae Doona) who works in the building learns the dog is missing and decides to investigate, settling on a homeless man (Kim Roe-ha) as the likely culprit. Barking Dogs Never Bite is tense, dark, and provocative, aware of the limitations a corrupt society places on people without options. It maintains a feel of pop comedy while longing for nature in an unnatural world. Available free on Tubi.

Audition

A prolific director known for his willingness to try anything as long as it’s weird, violent, or evil, Takashi Miike outdid himself with Audition. This work of sick surrealism starts as an almost cloying movie about a widower, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), who would like to marry again. Misogynistic undertones creep in as he begins to videotape young women auditioning for the role of wife. He decides on the stunning Asami (Eihi Shiina), a quiet girl who has known the vicissitudes of life and has a résumé with a lot of holes in it. When Shigeharu phones her, we learn she lives alone in an apartment empty of everything except the telephone and a man tied up in a burlap sack. Shigeharu’s dating life with Asami begins, then makes a truly shocking turn into homicidal S&M, defined by injections of a paralytic drug and unsubtle feminist statements that combine acupuncture and wire saw. Available on streaming services.

Beau Travail

It seemed out of the blue for anyone to release a French Foreign Legion movie in 2000, but Claire Denis’s Djibouti-set Beau Travail defies expectations. It’s not a war movie or an action movie. The Legionnaires spend their time on “training, guard duty, washing, ironing” and on half-clad calisthenics in the sun, to the music of Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Denis concentrates on soldiers’ bodies and the black lines of tightropes or the white laundry lines crossing the frame, while Denis Lavant, as Galoup, the second-in-command, agonizes over a new recruit, Sentain (Grégoire Colin), in ways he can’t understand. Galoup’s buried longing eventually causes him to displace his feelings by punishing a Black Legionnaire (Adiatou Massudi) to spite Sentain and drive him away. The film starts with an air kiss in a disco and ends with Galoup back in Paris, dancing alone, one of the great final images in any movie, performed by one of the cinema’s most distinctive actors, who combines intense interiority with a sublime balance wholly his own. Only available on DVD and Blu-ray.

American Psycho

Serial killers in American movies usually show some kind of primitive mastery, its exactitude a sign of their idiot-savantism. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), on the other hand, is a nervous, status-obsessed Harvard finance guy who lectures his victims about Huey Lewis and Phil Collins. In Mary Harron’s virtuosic but compact adaptation of the infamous novel, which takes place in a late 1980s that seems as much the present today as it did in 2000, Bateman becomes a “mask of sanity” with nothing underneath. His killing spree is a hall of mirrors in which nothing really happens and no one is responsible. American Psycho directly addresses the horror of capitalism, in which other people are just props for the fantasies of men who get wealthier by the second. Bale’s out-there performance takes in many moods of sarcasm, anxiety, and violence. He glides by the Twin Towers at night to return videotapes, explains, in voiceover that he does not hope for better world and that “there is no catharsis,” then goes home to read the Zagat Guide to New York City Restaurants. On streaming services.

The Virgin Suicides

Released a week after American Psycho, this assured debut, also based on a novel, provided the equally morbid female half to the deadly gender binary of Harron’s serial killer movie, maybe to the whole year in filmmaking. In Sofia Coppola’s film, young women are perfect angels too good for this world. The five Lisbon sisters, denizens of the golden suburb of 1970s Grosse Pointe, Michigan, live under the control of their strict parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods), who protect them from harm by denying them basic schoolgirl pleasures like going out with boys. The boys narrate this tale of the Lisbons’ deaths, never really getting to the core of the girls’ lives, perhaps because after a certain point they can only communicate with them from a distance, in code. At first the film seems too awkward or smart-aleck. By the end, The Virgin Suicides is a rare thing, an anti-coming-of-age movie. These untouched girls will never get older, but Kirsten Dunst’s beatific face will forever beam down on the lost men who tell her story without sufficient understanding or care. On streaming services.

Hamlet

Sam Shepard, as the Ghost, is transparent in this modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Glimpsed at the end of a hall, we can see a Pepsi One vending machine right through him. Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is also a catalog of New York City in the year 2000—fax machines, floppies, Blockbuster video stores, those horrible, all-but-forgotten celebrity taxicab safety recordings, the sound of dial-up modems and price-check guns. These are the background for the power struggle between Ethan Hawke’s hipster Hamlet and his CEO stepfather, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), of the Denmark Corporation.

Shakespeare commanded “put your discourse into some frame,” and here Almereyda succeeds where other Hamlet movie adapters have failed. The film pops off the screen in brilliant color and striking arrangements of actors. The hip cast also includes Julia Stiles as an Ophelia shedding Polaroids, Diane Venora as a Gertrude in limousines, Steve Zahn as a dudely grunge Rosencrantz, and Bill Murray, maybe the only man at the time who could have played both Polonius and Bosley in Charlie’s Angels. Almereyda gets extra points for avoiding the suffix a lot of films added to their titles that year and not calling this movie Hamlet 2000. On streaming services.

La Commune

Peter Watkins, an iconoclastic separatist from cinema, turns history and politics into epic-length narratives that mix documentary, fiction, and “media.” La Commune tells the story of the two-month workers’ uprising in Paris in 1871 as a nearly six-hour, on-the-spot TV news broadcast in black-and-white, with competing channels, one socialist and the other monarchist, reporting the story.

Watkins shot this film in thirteen days, building the streets of Paris and all the film’s interiors on a vast soundstage in an empty factory, employing a cast of over two hundred nonprofessional actors to play the parts they felt closest to—leftist National Guardsmen, workers, immigrants, members of the women’s union, government functionaries, anarchists. The Commune ended when the Versaillais government invaded the city to reclaim authority from the Communards, who wanted, among other things, to cancel debt, increase women’s rights, and allow unions to reopen closed factories. This film is so obviously pertinent right now that I’m surprised it’s not screening outdoors daily. The complete version is available free on YouTube in an excellent transfer.

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

Hong Sang-soo’s third film is also in black-and-white but concentrates on a mere three people in contemporary, wintertime Seoul. Lee Eun-ju, a star actress in South Korea who committed suicide in 2005, here in her second film, plays Soo-jung, a fledgling scriptwriter who works for a brusque, unorganized, somewhat unpleasant filmmaker (Moon Sung-keun) looking to cajole production money out of a rich acquaintance, Jae-hoon (Jeong Bo-seok). Over drinking bouts and boozy restaurant dates, told in eight chapters, Jae-hoon falls for Soo-jung and they start sleeping together, though their relationship is clumsy and uncertain. Halfway through, the film starts over again, and we see the same scenes played out with minor differences, as if the perspective is now Soo-jung’s.

By the end of the film, more than their failing relationship is uncertain, because Hong refuses to let us understand whose perspective is whose. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors presents human relations as complicated, unworkable, and opaque. This early film from a director who has now made over twenty more is one of his most radical. Or maybe all that drinking just makes it hard to remember what order things happened in. Free on YouTube in a crap transfer.

Jesus’ Son

This loose, riveting, spooky adaptation of Denis Johnson’s interlinked (not hyperlinked) collection of short stories set in the 1970s stars Billy Crudup as a character known only as Fuckhead. Samantha Morton is the junkie girlfriend who gets him hooked. Jesus’ Son bears a relationship to another film from 2000, Almost Famous, which takes place in the same period, the same America, and also co-stars Billy Crudup, but this film is better, more plainspoken and credible, the opposite of Cameron Crowe’s thumbs-up to himself. Alison Maclean’s work, in contrast, tears down its characters, who are flops at life, unemployable, and prone to disconnected outbursts of chatter or violence.

Every role in this film is just nailed by its actor (Michael Shannon, Holly Hunter, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary—a lot of Dennises around), each playing drug addicts and alcoholics with time on their hands, drifting through empty landscapes that stretch through the Midwest to Phoenix. How has this film fallen through the cracks? Author Denis Johnson plays an emergency-room patient with a hunting knife stuck in his eye, in this ultimate grunge film that capped a narcotic era that began with Drugstore Cowboy about a decade earlier. Only available on out-of-print DVD.

The Gleaners and I

Agnès Varda’s essay film about people who gather and pick vegetables and fruit after harvests are over in the country, and after farmers markets have packed up in the city, is serious, but light and airy. It glides by on Varda’s presence, on her intelligent, witty narration, and of course through her unerring eye, never seeming to rest for long, diverted by happy accidents. One of those is meeting the Marey family in their vineyards, who live and work on the property where in the 1880s Étienne-Jules Marey used his chronophotographic rifle to “shoot” film and capture motion one frame at a time.

An unimpressed gleaner Varda meets says to her, “The year Y2K is upon us. Great, eh?” A New Year’s countdown clock on TV ushers in 2000, while Varda’s film documents how for many people life has not improved since Millet painted his gleaners some 150 years before. On streaming services.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The challenge for Ang Lee in making a Hong Kong-style martial arts film as a blockbuster American co-production in mainland China was in creating exciting fight scenes without letting the film’s intertwined love stories become perfunctory. By casting Chow Yun-fat—maybe the biggest marquee name outside the US at the time—Lee found a star who could unite all the elements of this feminist Qing Dynasty epic. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon depends on its three main women characters playing off and against Chow: Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh), who loves him; Jen (Zhang Ziyi); who wants to surpass him, and Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who wants to kill him. The grace of Li and Jen’s sword fight in the bamboo trees is justly celebrated, but from Yeoh’s first fight scene, the film soars. That scene, under clay-tiled roofs in a courtyard, reminded me of a de Chirico painting that Yeoh was dotting in lines and swirls of black. On streaming services but it looks too bright.

Les Destinées

At the beginning of the twenty-first century it looked, from a certain perspective, like the cinema, going forward, was going to be defined by the work of Olivier Assayas, the director of Irma Vep and Cold Water. That did not pan out. Perhaps it had to do with Les Destinées, his three-hour-long film about a porcelain manufacturing family set over three decades, beginning around 1900 and leading to the Depression. The film, perceived as boring at the time, a deviation into Merchant-Ivory-ness from a vanguard director, is in fact a masterpiece of interior detail and European landscape. A study of capitalism and factory work told through the lives of a minister-turned-industrialist (Charles Berling) and his two wives (Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart), the film moves sharply and elegantly. Berling’s close resemblance to Christopher Guest added an odd element, it must be admitted, for this viewer. Only available on out-of-print DVD.

Cecil B. Demented

When this late-period John Waters movie came out, it seemed dated, even corny, with its punny title. A satire of guerrilla filmmaking and Hollywood location shooting, it features radicalized film-terrorists played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Adrian Grenier, presided over by Stephen Dorff as a glammed-up Andreas Baader-type, and Melanie Griffith as the movie star the gang kidnaps. Seen today, Cecil B. Demented is hilarious, cheap, and necessary. A series of low-budget set pieces, the film mocks all aspects of film production, bemoaning the loss of trash to blockbuster entertainment, exhorting young filmmakers across America to form queer families and blow things up. Teamsters rampage against chop-socky fans and porn enthusiasts in the streets of Baltimore, culminating in a riot at a drive-in that descends into vulgarity. Kevin Nealon, in his greatest role, plays himself as the star of Forrest Gump II. Impossible dreams abound: “Pay no attention to the studio executives in the helicopter above!” Free on Tubi.

Chopper

Even by the often psychotic standards of films in 2000, Australian director Andrew Dominik’s first feature is violent and blood-soaked. Based on the life of a sociopath who was still living at the time the film was made, Chopper presents the criminal underworld of Melbourne and its maximum-security prison as staggeringly dangerous and insane. Or, it’s Chopper (Eric Bana) who is those things. Bana, in his first film role, plays him like Tom Cruise cast in Mean Streets. He is horrifying and convincing in equal measure, happy-go-lucky stabbing someone dozens of times in prison or, back outside, doing heroin and trying to frame other thugs before things go wrong and he shoots them. Dominik’s direction is controlled and precise, filming long scenes with great patience despite the mayhem and the tight running time. There’s no good reason this director has only made two films since. As for Bana, what happened to this genius actor when he started working for Spielberg and Apatow? Only available free on YouTube in a crap transfer.

With a Friend Like Harry

One of the few post-Chabrol psychological thrillers to really get near Hitchcock, and to successfully update him in some ways, this French film probes deep into the mind of its protagonist, Michel (Laurent Lucas), a would-be novelist and family man frustrated by middle-class life. On a vacation trip, he runs in an old friend in a rest stop men’s room. Harry (Sergi López), a businessman with a fancy car and a hot girlfriend (Sophie Guillemin), is far more successful than Michel. The pair invites themselves to Michel’s rundown summer house, where Harry decides to help him by eliminating the impediments holding Michel back as a writer—family, an unreliable car, that sort of thing. With a Friend Like Harry is savage in its depiction of bourgeois values. While taking care of parricide and other murders, director Dominik Moll also manages to fit in Michel’s short stories about flying monkeys and eggs. On streaming services.

Dancer in the Dark

Lars Von Trier’s hate affair with America begins in Dancer in the Dark, his anti-death-penalty meta-musical starring Björk as a factory worker going blind. The film has a deep distrust of spectacle and is meant to destroy the viewer through brazen emotional manipulation. Von Trier creates a pathetic sense of unease and modesty in Björk’s character, Selma, a naive, good-hearted Czechoslovak immigrant in 1964 Washington state. She has every disadvantage, the film exposes her to every possible danger, and she inhabits a country with no protections for anyone. When she catches a cop (David Morse), who is also her landlord, stealing her life’s savings, he begs her in his ignominy to kill him. His gun goes off in their struggle, and Selma is arrested for murder. After several musical numbers, she is sentenced to death. On the gallows, she dies shouting “I can’t breathe!” Von Trier infamously harassed Björk while making this film, yet its power, insight, and prescience, unpleasant and hard to take, are undiminished. On streaming services.

 

A collage of figures from the films of the year 2000.
© Ted Jouflas

The Isle

I can swear it’s not just me, it was the times, but in recommending as one of the best films of 2000 this surrealist fable, which features prostitution, rape, attempted suicide, murder, and fishhook mutilation, and was directed by a pariah filmmaker who makes Von Trier look easygoing, I am, in part, asking: what was up that year? Many of the best South Korean films from 2000, including Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle, offer frenzied characters in political parables, eager to check out of their society forever. The desultory body horror and sex in The Isle call to mind In the Realm of the Senses (1976), but unlike in Oshima’s film, here distance and blankness make politics harder to read—they are submerged, like the characters in The Isle are submerged in a lake.

Other films, from all over the world, dealt in similar extreme variations on what is now called toxic masculinity. A complete breakdown into sexualized violence and killing, in an era of unprecedented capitalist growth, permeates serious cinema at the turn of the century. These are eruptions of perversion and trauma bound to that system, which we still live under and which did not improve in the subsequent twenty years. A recent strain of cinephile culture has understandably reacted against that, favoring gentle, healthy movies. The Isle is sick, but it is not empty spectacle. Its mysterious, misty final shot, of lone female emancipation, is the opposite of the end of Dancer in the Dark. On streaming services in a crap transfer with the subtitles too low.

The Circle

Not unpredictably, the antidote to, or the converse of these last two films comes from Iran. Jafar Panahi, a Kiarostami disciple, switched from focusing on children in his movies to make The Circle, a birth-to-jail roundelay that proceeds from woman to woman in an exposé of official and unofficial Iranian sexism and oppression. It begins in a hospital with a grandmother disappointed her daughter-in-law has just given birth to a girl. We meet ex-cons rejected by their male relatives and denied abortions, a mother trying to abandon her toddler daughter in the street, a prostitute taken to a cell in a prison where the new mother from the first scene is about to be booked on unspecified charges we can guess about. Scenes of indifference, rejection, and abuse accumulate without rage or pity in this desperate feminist film made with mostly nonprofessional actors. Only available free on YouTube in a crap transfer.

Joint Security Area

The movie that put Park Chan-wook on the map—right on the border between South Korea and North Korea—Joint Security Area is a bold genre film that’s not quite in any genre, changing gears between action thriller, murder mystery, courtroom drama, and army buddy movie. Being a South Korean film from 2000, it also includes suicide. Four soldiers, two from the South (Lee Byung-hun, Kim Tae-woo) and two from the North (Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-kyun), become clandestine pals after the North Koreans save one of the South Koreans who has half-tripped a land mine while lost in a field at night. This tense, ominous scene, shot in deep blacks, dark blues, and jewel greens, is told in flashback, part of a murder investigation conducted by a Swiss-Korean Army Major (Lee Yeong-ae), a young woman from the international committee overseeing the DMZ. Song’s tough, endearing performance shows him in full command as an actor twenty years before the West caught up to him as the chauffeur father in Parasite. On streaming services.

Yi Yi

This finely observed three-hour film follows three generations of a modern Taipei family through a year that’s marked by loss and by the realization of life’s shortcomings and disappointments. The subtle drama is punctuated in the end by the random violence that defines our time.

The style and strategies of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi have been enormously but quietly influential on film and TV production across the globe, and as one of the most respected films of the twenty-first century, it has, I think, been absorbed and no longer seems as masterful and unexpected as it did in 2000. What keeps it from This Is Us-ism is Yang’s eye for detail—there is a reason the film is three hours long. The photographs of nothing the Jian family’s little son (Jonathan Chang) takes are an example of Yang’s emphasis on the spaces around things. A nondescript elevator lobby in a hotel where the boy’s father (Wu Nien-jen) will have his not-quite-affair with an old flame (Su-Yun Ko) is charged in a way that’s inaccessible to standard film and TV production. On streaming services.

The House of Mirth

Terence Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel plumbs deeper tragedy than Scorsese’s Wharton movie, 1993’s The Age of Innocence. Gillian Anderson’s nuanced performance as Lily Bart, Wharton’s doomed heroine in The House of Mirth, should have put her in the first rank of big-screen actresses, but it didn’t. American audiences in 2000 did not want films like this. I remember reading two sportswriters-turned-film-critics proudly writing that even though the movie starred Agent Scully, they refused to see it—it was a chick flick. Like Anderson, the rest of the cast is excellent and equally unexpected. Society in turn-of-the-century New York shows its harsh, unforgiving, duplicitous face in frozen looks from Anthony LaPaglia, Dan Aykroyd, and Laura Linney, playing wealthy, mean-spirited liars, rigid in their contempt for anything but money. What has changed? Lily’s sad fate is as tangible now as it was in 1905 or 2000. Only available on out-of-print DVD.

La Captive

Chantal Akerman and Marcel Proust had in common their desire to be alone in their rooms in bed. But Proust had been a social butterfly, and Chantal Akerman never was. Her adaptation of The Prisoner, Volume Five of In Search of Lost Time, is therefore cold and austere, forbidding even by her standards of social distance and noli me tangere.

La Captive is set in the present, not in the 1910s, but Akerman makes little attempt to include the contemporary. She does change the characters’ names. Here, Simon (Stanislas Merhar) obsesses over the whereabouts and feelings of Ariane (Sylvie Testud), fussing over their relationship as a rich grandma’s boy by enlisting her beautiful friends, played by French actresses on the verge of greater fame, to report to him about her every move and frown. While it exposes Simon as unnecessary and annoying, the film does not quite propose an all-female Proust. Instead, it lets Ariane slip away and disappear into the sea, a resonant and familiar exit in Akerman’s films. On streaming services.

Lumumba

“I came fifty years too soon. What I wanted for our country others didn’t want,” says Patrice Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) in voiceover as he is led into the forest by his assassins. In Raoul Peck’s biopic, Lumumba comes across as a hard-working father and husband beset by authoritarians in his own country and by Belgian right-wingers in the Army. Lumumba is framed by long, menacing scenes, lit by fire, of its main character’s 1961 arrest and disappearance, his murder and the disposal of his body, sinister and indelible passages into doom. Peck lets us know that Lumumba, as a communist and pan-Africanist, was perceived as a threat to the West, but concentrates on Lumumba’s day-to-day struggle to establish the Republic of the Congo. As Mobutu, the dictator who took over and ruled for thirty-two years, Alex Descas is uncharacteristically bland, just a man who will get to wear a special uniform instead of an ordinary suit. Free on Tubi.

Best in Show

The mockumentary form is light as a helium balloon in the hands of Christopher Guest and his troupe. In this parody of best-of-breed dog shows, where competitors parade their pooches to and fro in hopes of a blue ribbon, all the characters have stubs in their souls, two left feet or six kimonos. As a backwoods Louisiana fisherman with a bloodhound who is also a part-time ventriloquist, for instance, Guest’s Harlan prides himself on his lost childhood knowledge. “I used to be able to name every nut that there was,” he drawls to the camera.

Halfway through Best in Show, Fred Willard enters. As the TV color man for the dog-show broadcast, he magisterially provides terrible jokes like a clueless perpetual motion machine. Guest’s stroke of genius was placing the idiosyncratic banality of Americans against the indifference of their gussied-up doggies, raising the film beyond the merely silly. Parker Posey’s high-strung yuppie sums up decades of American culture: “We are so lucky to have been raised amongst catalogs.” On streaming services.

In the Mood for Love

As catalogs go, Wong Kar-wai’s archeological investigation of the objects, outfits, colors, and textures of 1962 Hong Kong can’t be beat. This panoply of fetish items is a brooding, smoldering rehearsal for infidelity, starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung as neighbors who fall in love while their unseen spouses are cheating on them with each other. In the Mood for Love uses slow-motion to describe the peak of romance while simultaneously presenting milk-green cups and saucers and telephones, red restaurant booths, dozens of dresses, neckties and handbags, against rich medium browns in yellow light. Cheung, always coming home from the movies, and Leung, a journalist, pass each other closer and closer on the sidewalk in the rain, on the stairs, in the hall, until things get so intense that Leung has to move to Singapore, then visit Angkor Wat, Wong’s incredible last foray though space and time in this quiet, devastating film that floats by on Michael Galasso’s theme music and Nat King Cole singing in Spanish.[*] On streaming services.

Esther Kahn

Among the best films ever made about acting, Arnaud Desplechin’s moody, harrowing Esther Kahn follows a young Orthodox Jewish woman (Summer Phoenix) as she leaves her family to become an actress on the stage in late 1890s London. Phoenix’s diffident performance is singular and fearsome. She stops and starts as Esther proceeds from uneducated, mesmerized playgoer to learn her trade step-by-step, through small parts and a love affair with a critic (never a good idea). When she is picked for the title role in the British premiere of Hedda Gabler, her agonizing self-doubt causes her to harm herself and eat broken glass to avoid going on stage. The film folds Truffaut into Mike Leigh but is also something totally new in cinema. When it was released, British and American audiences found it uninteresting. Phoenix, as great an actor as her brothers, basically quit the profession after this tour de force. “Who gives a fuck about your opinion!” Esther shouts at someone in the film, an angry sentiment Phoenix may have recalled when Esther Kahn came out. Only available on out-of-print DVD.

Bamboozled

The initial shock of Bamboozled’s blackface revival gives way to melancholic revelation, conjured from the history of cinema. By the end of Spike Lee’s Swiftian excoriation of racist entertainment, the grim fates of its Black main characters fade into a montage of demeaning, racist scenes from the history of American film, scored to Terence Blanchard’s requiem. The film was dismissed by critics and audiences in 2000, right before a new kind of Black minstrelsy took over reality-TV. Damon Wayans’s television executive and Savion Glover, as the tap-dancing star of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, were satires of a mode firmly in place on TV and behind the scenes. Wayans’s daring performance reveals the hidden psychosis of his character’s profession. His motivational FEED THE IDIOT BOX sign links him to sociopathic male leads in other 2000 movies: Christian Bale and American Psycho’s FEED ME A STRAY CAT ATM screen; Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, in which scientist Kevin Bacon has a YOU SHOULD BE WORKING sign on the ceiling over his bed. Only available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Yards

The outer boroughs in James Gray’s New York are forlorn, and The Yards is a lament for a good-hearted white loser (Mark Wahlberg) entrapped by a corrupt system, specifically and unexpectedly, in this case, patronage in the rail yards. Joaquin Phoenix plays his semi-cousin-in-law, a fixer employed by James Caan, here the slick head of a train repair company. The two men conspire to pin the blame on Wahlberg’s Leo after he’s roped into sabotage and murder. In The Yards, Gray’s second film, the criminal life of Queens and Brooklyn is dingy and sad, with ugly aluminum-sided apartment buildings around the corner from dark Romanesque mansions. Gray was more at home in these confines than he is in the Amazon and outer space of his most recent films. We wait for his return. Ellen Burstyn, as Leo’s woeful mother, is more affecting under Gray’s direction than she was in the other 2000 movie in which she played a dejected Brooklyn mama. On streaming services with the Miramax happy ending; Gray’s cut only available on out-of-print DVD.

Dr. T & the Women

The dumb title and the logline—Richard Gere as a Dallas gynecologist with women problems—were a turn-off. They’ve depreciated this congenial late-period Robert Altman movie. Dr. T & the Women is filled with Texas blondes—also not a sympathetic demographic—but is unexpectedly complex and tricky, with a triple shock ending. Altman presents Dr. Travis as helpful and patient to all women, as long as he can now and then escape them in his Cadillac convertible. Farrah Fawcett is Gere’s wife. Losing her mind from high-end shopping, she strips in a mall fountain, then reverts to a child-like state psychologist Lee Grant deems “the Hestia complex.” Their daughters buzz around Gere in her absence: Kate Hudson, a bride-to-be who can’t admit she’s gay; Tara Reid, who plays a tour guide at the Conspiracy Museum in Dealey Plaza and exits scenes by announcing “I’ve gotta go, the Zapruder film starts in five minutes.” Free on Tubi.

Merci pour le chocolat

One of the most commanding of screen actresses, Isabelle Huppert, in the films of Claude Chabrol, deploys three subtle looks: ready to kill someone; has just killed someone; slight confusion when anyone wonders about her inherent correctness. In Merci pour le chocolat, she plays a Swiss industrialist and philanthropist who runs a chocolate firm and raises money for pain treatment centers—an ultimate Huppertian combo. Her life begins to unravel when her concert pianist husband (Jacques Dutronc) meets a young musician (Anna Mouglalis) and decides to give her lessons. At a board meeting of the chocolate firm, a meddlesome executive (Michel Robin) talks about the future. “New centuries are a rarity,” he says, “and I have great fears for next year.” Huppert looks at him like his days are numbered, then goes back to figuring out how to poison her relatives and make car accidents appear unsuspicious. On streaming services under the new title Nightcap.

Unbreakable

The onscreen texts at the beginning and the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable are unnecessary and almost ruin the movie. Forget about them. This strange, quiet film about fear, fragility, dignity, and power is an anti-superhero movie made on the cusp of the superhero apocalypse. Casting Die Hard star Bruce Willis as a demoralized security guard in a struggling marriage whose son is losing respect for him, then having him play against a florid Samuel L. Jackson with canes or a wheelchair and his best movie hairdo, produced a narrative and a feeling Shyamalan couldn’t quite repeat. Unbreakable is a study of America at the end of the twentieth century. It contemplates the threat of domestic gun violence and terrorism, racial inequality, and, in the year’s oddest scene, basement weightlifting. “These are mediocre times. People are starting to lose hope,” says Jackson’s art gallerist, a would-be supervillain predicting how Hollywood would respond to the next decade. On streaming services.

Migrating Forms

Filmed in black-and-white through a smudged periscope by someone hiding behind a couch, James Fotopoulos’s Migrating Forms, which gave its name to a film festival, is a last-stop art movie, avant-garde but not gallery art. Indebted to Cocteau and David Lynch, this story of a nondescript man (Preston Baty) and a woman with a worsening growth on her back (Rebecca Lewis), who regularly get together for quick sex, is almost without dialogue. When the characters do talk, they mumble, but this isn’t mumblecore either. The sex is distressing and isolated because Migrating Forms is also an anti-Flaming Creatures. Its low, scrofulous level of existence forces basic cinematic questions: who are these people? where is this taking place? why was it made? Fotopoulos is prolific and persistent, but this seems produced without ambition. More films should be made like this. Only available on out-of-print DVD.

Battle Royale

The infamous last film of Kinji Fukasaku, the yakuza-movie director who in the late 1960s made Black Lizard and Black Rose Mansion with the drag queen Akihiro Miwa, Battle Royale invented the genre The Hunger Games imitated: a group of young people is relocated and forced to fight to the death until a single winner survives. In this Japanese pop Salò, they are watched over and continually threatened by one of their teachers, played by Beat Takeshi Kitano in a silver-gray tracksuit, looking less elegant than in the films he makes himself. That a seventy-year-old man decided to make this parable of winner-take-all competition in a meritocratic society speaks to his inventiveness, his insight, or his hostility. As kid after kid bites it, Fukasaku keeps coming up with set pieces that top the ones before. The last half hour is the most successful, a final interlude of generational warfare, then radical anonymous freedom. Free on Tubi.

After the Reconciliation

Like a smarter, more sophisticated pre-nouvelle vague short from the 1950s, After the Reconciliation, by Anne-Marie Miéville, concentrates on a quartet of Parisians, lovers and ex-lovers. The leads are played by Miéville herself and Jean-Luc Godard, her partner in Sonimage. They drive through Paris and shop as Miéville’s camera cuts away to look at plants growing up through the sidewalks. As night falls, we hear a somber jazz recording of the theme from Rosemary’s Baby. Miéville’s in-store conversations involve “starting again from black” and how “life passes by” when we have to live “from hope to disappointment and from disappointment to hope.” Back in her apartment, arguments lead to hurt feelings. Godard breaks down in angry tears. Fitting—he had just made a short called The Origins of the 21st Century. The four reconvene for a movie, a scene in theater seats infused with a special dark magic I’d never seen before, and maybe never will again. Not officially available in the US in any format.[1]

 

[1] For a Top Forty, I considered adding these (by release date): Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood)—a beautifully written, directed, and acted sports drama, with Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, not sentimental but still too nice for me. Screwed (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski)—Norm Macdonald, Dave Chappelle, and Elaine Stritch in a prescient, supremely stupid-funny comedy about labor and capital, with a too-easy ending. But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit)—Natasha Lyonne and a vibrant cast in an underfed gay-conversion satire, John Waters-lite, that plays it too safe because it knew it was ahead of its time. Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson)—his weird, unique view of society and cinema is gray, grotesque, maybe comic, maybe not, but definitely alien and off-putting. You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan)—this intelligent drama of upstate family dysfunction and office amour, with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as reckless siblings, keeps stopping on the brink of Greater Tragedy (a town in the Catskills).

 


[*] Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the film In The Mood for Love features Nat King Cole singing in Portuguese. Cole’s songs in the film are sung in Spanish.

A.S. Hamrah is a writer living in Brooklyn. He contributed a column on film to n+1 from 2008 to 2019, and his essays and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, Bookforum, Cineaste, and other publications. His first book, The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018, was published by n+1 Books in 2018.

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