Let’s face facts: 2000 was a lousy year for movies. A preponderance of stinky cinema left us with few truly great films. Fortunately, Y2K pulled out of its death dive at the last possible second, with a host of fine films crowding into theaters (in New York and L.A. anyway) before the Dec. 31 Oscar-consideration deadline. As a result, fully half of the films in my top ten have yet to open in Montana. On the plus side, this means that the usually dead time of January will be packed with great films—so keep your eyes peeled for ’em.
Almost Famous It didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, but this largely autobiographical love letter to early ’70s rock ’n’ roll by journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) does everything right. Both hilarious and heartfelt, it captures the unbridled joy that music is capable of breeding in its creators and its fans. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Picture, Best Director (Cameron Crowe), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Patrick Fugit), Best Supporting Actress (Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand).
The Claim I’m not even sure this one will make it to theaters. British director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland) has crafted a gorgeous, epic retelling of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel The Mayor of Casterbridge as set during the American gold rush. Pathos and passion are pushed to the limit in this slow-building, soul-shaking parable, the script of which owes as much to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as it does to Hardy’s novel. Like Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo) without the macho posturing or Terrence Malik (Days of Heaven) without the boring bits, this is lush, elemental filmmaking. I guarantee you won’t see a more beautiful film all year. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
The Contender Even I’ll admit that the weak-kneed ending drops the ball, but this political thriller about a liberal female senator (Joan Allen) whose nomination for vice president is all but destroyed by a vicious Republican smear campaign (led by chameleonic Gary Oldman) makes for a powerhouse actor’s showcase. As if—in the wake of the recent presidential election—there’s any doubt about how nasty and partisan our government has become, just check out this political eye-popper. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Director (Rod Lurie), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Joan Allen).
High Fidelity This adaptation of Nick Hornby’s smash novel silenced most of the critics (who objected to the movie’s scene-shift from London to Chicago) thanks to John Cusack’s lived-in performance and Stephen Frears’ light-touch directing. Some found this examination of an obsessive loser enumerating his dating woes off-putting. Others found it uncomfortably close to the truth. High Fidelity sported the best ensemble cast of the year and some of 2000’s most sharply observed comic dialogue. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (John Cusack), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Black).
O Brother Where Art Thou Stupid film critics. Ever since Cannes, they’ve savaged this latest Coen brothers film because it doesn’t live up to the frosty black humor of Fargo. Have they never seen Raising Arizona? Or The Hudsucker Proxy? Or The Big Lebowski? This slapstick re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey as set in the 1930s South is this year’s biggest hoot. Star George Clooney (who leads a trio of prison escapees on an epic quest for buried treasure) has never been looser or funnier on screen. Deserves Oscar Nominations for Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Score.
Requiem for a Dream Dark, depressing and utterly hypnotic, this piercing examination of four people tumbling down the slide of drug addiction in New York’s Brighton Beach marks the coming-out of this year’s indie auteur to watch Darren Aronofsky (Pi). Adapted from the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), this razor-sharp mood-piece doesn’t so much de-glamorize drugs as de-humanize them, showing us just how far people are willing to sink for that ever-important fix. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Director (Darren Aronofsky), Best Supporting Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score.
Shadow of the Vampire Willem Dafoe handed in this year’s most bravura performance as a method-acting vampire hired to star in famed director F. W. Murnau’s silent horror classic Nosferatu. While this fantasy-cum-biopic appeals most to excitable movie fans familiar with the Murnau original, even the most casual moviegoers can appreciate the film’s moody atmosphere and sly humor. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Director (E. Elias Merhige), Best Actor (Willem DaFoe), Best Cinematography.
Traffic This scathing drug war drama pretty much serves as a template on how to make an Oscar-winner. Unfortunately, director Steven Soderbergh’s best competition may be Steven Soderbergh himself (for 2000’s Erin Brockovich). Juggling a massive ensemble cast and three concurrent storylines, Soderbergh pulls off an epic feat. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Picture, Best Director (Steven Soderbergh), Best Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro).
Unbreakable One of those “love it or hate it” propositions, this follow-up to the immensely successful Sixth Sense seemed to wither in the shadow of that first film’s hype. Taken on its own merits, however, this is a devilishly clever re-imagination of the entire superhero genre—sort of a thinking man’s comic book. Director M. Night Shyamalan’s theatrical gimmickry worked wonders with this thoroughly unexpected, eerily moody urban fairy tale. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Actor (Bruce Willis), Best Original Screenplay.
You Can Count On Me Probably the nicest surprise of 2000 was this supremely understated character study about a brother and sister (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney) trying to get along as adults. She’s the organized, overprotective older sister. He’s the ne’er-do-well young drifter. What makes this all-too-common situation work so beautifully is the added poignancy that we, the viewers, know their parents were killed when they were young children. With no parental figures to guide them, they’re stuck repeating the roles they established as children. The actors carry off their pitch-perfect dialogue with a sublime perfection. Deserves Oscar nominations for: Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Laura Linney), Best Actor (Mark Ruffalo).