Ten the Hard Way

Making sense of another mediocre year in cinema.

Maybe it wasn't such a bad year for filmgoing after all, if only because it's far harder to assemble a top-10 list this year than it was last year. Or maybe the best of 1999 towered so far above the worst (and the middling, which includes the grossly overrated American Beauty) that ranking them was a no-brainer on par with Coyote Ugly, Battlefield Earth, Little Nicky, Road Trip, and Pay It Forward. Speaking of which, Kevin Spacey might look into a little thing called "being picky": Between Pay It Forward and The Big Kahuna, the dude's this close to getting his Oscars revoked . . . or having someone use them to bash some sense into that head of his. And just when we were forgetting all about Hurlyburly.

Last year's derring-do has given way to this year's derring-don't (three Jerry Bruckheimer films, for starters and enders). Suddenly, every film feels as though it was made in 1983 and filtered through NBC on its way to becoming one of TNT's "modern classics." Little surprise that two of this year's releases -- The Tao of Steve and Remember the Titans -- are on their way to the small screen: They played tiny even at the cineplex. Even the "quality" pics of 2000 feel like pilots for hourlong dramas -- chief among them, critics' fave You Can Count on Me, starring Laura Linney as that woman from Providence, Matthew Broderick as his character from Election, and newcomer Mark Ruffalo as Vincent D'Onofrio. About the only movie of 2000 that bore any of 1999's adventuresome residue was The Cell, which was beautiful to look at, if only you didn't actually pay attention to its story . . . or dialogue . . . or characters.

But do you trust any year in which the ironically named Proof of Life makes the best-of list in Time? (Or, for that matter, the dreary, overlong Sunshine and Nurse Betty, which proved that you can never trust a trailer?) If Proof of Life is a top-tenner, Autumn in New York and MVP: Most Valuable Primate can't be far behind. Expect to see Frequency on more than one list too. And Billy Elliot. Sometimes you feel like a chump, sometimes you don't . . .

Ah, but there were some remarkable films released this year, movies that will live long past the arbitrary expiration date bestowed upon them by critics rushing to compile glib top 10s (some job, eh?). I've failed to include many of them -- George Washington, Before Night Falls, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Black and White, Best in Show -- simply because, as moving and marvelous as they are, their prowess and achievements fail to cut deep to the bone. (If this list went to 20, the next 10 entries would be named Croupier.) They strike my head and not my heart, and lists such as these should favor those movies that make an impact emotionally as well as intellectually. It's little wonder, then, that several of the films on my list (which is arranged alphabetically) are about writers, music fetishists, comic-book fans . . . or all three (though I'm not sure what the inclusion of American Psycho says about me). Your top 10 list will no doubt be far different, as well it should. Just don't put The Perfect Storm on there.

Almost Famous -- Cameron Crowe makes the perfect concept album about a teen (and teeny) rock crit on the way up, a rock band on its way up and out, and a groupie on the way home. Sure, it's glossy and damp with nostalgia. It's supposed to be. Docked points, though, for containing the third-best Billy Crudup performance of 2000, after Jesus' Son and Waking the Dead.

American Psycho -- Mary Harron's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's lurid, turgid novel isn't to be celebrated for excising the violence and trimming the Huey Lewis speeches. It's to be celebrated because it's the funniest movie of the year -- a comedy with, ah, guts.

Chicken Run -- The best Mel Gibson movie of the year is the one in which he doesn't actually appear; that's what men want, anyway. And this is the movie women should have wanted: The Great Escape starring chicks. Claymated chickens, anyway.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- Or, the anti-Charlie's Angels. Ang Lee's Eastern fairy tale dolled up for the Western multiplex is the most thrilling and moving film of 2000: It kicks your ass and breaks your heart. What else do you need? (Due in Cleveland in early January)

High Fidelity -- Yeah, yeah -- it drops the better ending from Nick Hornby's novel, and some of the best scenes landed only on the DVD. But what guy out there hasn't chosen his record collection over a girlfriend? No, be honest.

Quills -- It's not about censorship or, for that matter, sex. And it's not about Geoffrey Rush's cock either, though showing his schlong will do wonders for his Oscar chances -- stripped naked for his art, blah blah blah. Actually, Philip Kaufman's movie, adapted from Doug Wright's play, is about how little control the artist (in this case, the Marquis de Sade) has over his art -- meaning his dick.

Traffic -- The Academy's going to give Steven Soderbergh the nod for Erin Brockovich, which, when translated from the original Urdu, means "Julia Roberts's tits." But he deserves the praise for this piece of reportage from the frontlines of the war on drugs, which might be the best Miami Vice episode ever made.

Unbreakable -- So you hated the ending. Yeah, and comic books are for kids too.

The Way of the Gun -- For his directorial debut, Chris McQuarrie, the man who wrote The Usual Suspects, loads the shotgun (and machine gun and Glock . . . and so on) with dark, resonant laughs. Audiences and critics hated it because it was way too smart, but only in a brilliant kinda way.

Wonder Boys -- Paramount Pictures released it twice. Most people didn't see it once. Must have something to do with Michael Douglas, who's never been more likable . . . or more stoned.