Best Surprises of 2000
Bad media are rarely startling. Good movies, videos, or TV shows, however, are often revelations -- or at least pleasant surprises. Most of us might have known, for example -- just looking at the briefest of story outlines -- that there were serious problems with, oh, say, Ladies Man, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Battlefield Earth, not to mention Little Nicky (though, to be fair, it seems unlikely that there was an outline to look at for Little Nicky), the deluge of lookalike rump-shaker music videos, The Michael Richards Show, or Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? A few of us might even have foreseen that Play It As It Lays was a bad idea. But how many of us could have imagined just how deliriously nice it would feel to see -- on a big, luminous screen -- the elegant vitality of Ang Lee and Yuen Wo-Ping's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that came with a fine pedigree and great location shots, and so much festival hype that it was hard to imagine it wasn't being oversold.
Below, the best surprises of my year, happily more than 10, and in alphabetical order.
1. American Pimp (Albert and Allen Hughes)
This little-seen documentary (now available on video and DVD) offers a harsh, insightful, and often distressing view of The Life. Interviews with pimps reveal that they are (predictably) full of themselves, but also of stories to tell. These fellows (and they are mostly fellows) do love to talk. The film briefly sets up a "history" of pimping in the U.S., offering clips from classic fiction films like 1973's Willie Dynamite by way of example, but focuses its energies on the men (and few women) who are doing it now, appreciating their gaudy glamor and self-aggrandizing, but also revealing their conformity to a system that's all about capital, power, and oppression.
2. "Bag Lady" (Erykah Badu)
This music video is provocative, political, and great fun, all the same time. From the opening moments when Badu (who also directed the video) literally changes the shape of the screen, using her hands to make it skinny and tall rather than "letterboxed," the video is one lovely surprise after another. Not the least of these is the break -- not on the single or album (Mama's Gun) versions of the track -- in which Badu and her four fellow ladies change from their bright colored dresses to all black leotards and come at the camera like wide-angled rappers, labeled after familiar types of bags ("Nickel Bag Lady," "Grocery Bag Lady," et. al.), at once using and challenging stereotypes. "Pack light"!
3. Bamboozled (Spike Lee)
Bamboozled generated the usual "Spike Lee Movie" controversy, but it also made a cogent argument concerning the persistence and popularity of racist images and policies, and this in itself makes it a surprise -- not for Lee, who is so often on target, but for this moment in time, when heads remain too typically in the sand over such issues (extending to, say, the presidential election). Props also to Jada Pinkett and Tommy Davidson for strong work that was somewhat lost in the hubbub overt the film's visible raging against the machine.
4. Bring It On (Peyton Reed)
Written by journalist Jessica Bendinger, this high school is so peppy it's almost painful, but the girls, Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku, and Gabrielle Union, are straight-up excellent in every scene (and sometimes not strictly straight, either): it's fun and smart, deals with race politics as they might actually affect some young people, and respects its demographic -- all uncommon qualities. Dunst deserves special mention, for her work in this film and The Virgin Suicides, as does Union, for bringing brief life to TV's dying City of Angels.
5. Chuck & Buck (Miguel Arteta)
This is one of the more disturbing films to come down the pike in some time. Screenwriter Mike White himself plays the unnervingly childlike Buck, part-stalker, part-savant, in a film that adroitly deconstructs "sympathetic character" conventions.
6. The Corner (Charles S. Dutton)
Who knew that Roc was such a brilliant storyteller or inspiration to greatness? Every one of the actors in this HBO miniseries -- including Sean Nelson, Khandi Alexander, T.K. Carter, and Glenn Plummer -- gives a heartbreaking performance, and Dutton's mix of doc-style interviews and on-the-street camerawork makes their situations come alive, but never makes them seem distant or demonic, as too many other, sensationalistic junkie-dealer stories do.
7. Dark Angel (produced by James Cameron and Charles Eglee)
While the basic outline of this Fox series will be familiar to Cameron fans (or anyone who's seen Titanic or the Terminator movies), features a strong female lead -- charismatic Jessica Alba as Max -- who not only kicks ass but also has a tender heart and unstoppable passions, not to mention some useful genetic engineering that allows her to leap over buildings in a single bound. Max has been called an "urban" Buffy, but she's coming into her own as a character. Among the series' many surprises is an episode (well-named, "Flushed") in which Max's genetically-engineered addiction is misread by her two best girls, Original Cindy (Valarie Rae Miller) and Kendra (Jennifer Blanc), as "regular" junkiedom, in need of regular cold-turkey treatment. I don't think I've ever seen a tv series treat addiction with such compassion and non-vilification. And of course, there's the Chuck D theme song.
8. George Washington (David Gordon Green)
If I had to pick a favorite movie of the year, George Washington would be it. It is fiercely poetic, effectively alarming, and quite unlike any other movie you've ever seen. Produced, written, and directed by 25-year-old David Gordon Green, it's an astonishing debut, an unusually wise, beautiful, and disturbing film. It focuses on the lives of a group of youngsters living in the rural American South, beginning with a brilliantly slow build-up of details, of their activities, interests, hopes, and boredom. And then, everything changes -- but also not enough changes -- as the children must deal with an accidental death. The film is an eloquent response to the general and often sloppy pop-press panic over the dearth of "kids' values today," dealing with deep and awful questions with remarkable intelligence and poise.
9. Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch)
It's not surprising that a Jarmusch film is strange and unpredictable, or that it demonstrates his ability to work well with others (in this case, WuTang's RZA on the soundtrack, and star Forest Whitaker in conceptualizing the project). The movie blends hip-hop lyricism and the filmmaker's usual deadpan humor, jabbing at martial arts, gangster, and hood movies, with lovely, understated performances by Whitaker and young Camille Winbush as Ghost Dog's protege.
10. Girlfight (Karyn Kusama)
Newcomer Michelle Rodriguez is the big news in this movie, playing a New York City boxer, sweating and pummeling her way into what turns out to be an admittedly corny climactic bout against her boyfriend (pretty Santiago Douglas). Rodriguez's work, aided by generous supporting performances by Paul Calderon and Jaime Tirelli, is at once raw and assured, and Kusama has unusual verve and vision.
11. Jesus' Son (Alison Maclean)
This movie is a less sensational, more disturbing exploration of obsession and loss than Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (see below). Brilliantly fragmented, it follows the travails of one "Fuckhead," as the Billy Crudup character is called. The actor brings out this loser's vulnerability and sensitivity, alongside his drugged-out, irredeemable selfishness, in a performance that expands exponentially Crudup's credits in my book -- he did the same in two other movies this year, Cameron Crowe's overrated Almost Famous and Keith Gordon's haunting Waking the Dead (officially a 1991 release, but slipping into many theaters this year). Even aside from Crudup's considerable talents, Jesus' Son brings other complexities, including a great performance by Samantha Morton.
12. "Ms. Jackson" (F. Gary Gray)
This video for Outkast's straight-up wonderful single is a wondrous thing unto itself, what with the wise owl echoing and mimicking Dre's plaint ("Forever ever? For ever ever??"), the dogs and cats nodding on beat, the rain pouring down through all cracks and holes in the house of love and commitment -- it comes together to make one of the more innovative, expressive, and memorable videos of the year.
13. Pitch Black (David Twohy)
Absolutely astonishing for its first half -- from monster-protagonist Vin Diesel's description of his jailer as a "blue-eyed devil" to the blasted-white visuals until the suns go down --- this film combines SF-slasher conventions, demonstrating that Alien still merits a reverent updating. It makes extremely good use of its talented cast (including Radha Mitchell, Vin Diesel, Keith David, and Cole Hauser) and bleak Australian locations. Though the script has mediocre moments, the look, conjured by Twohy, cinematographer David Eggby, Art Director Ian Gracie, and Production Designer Graham Walker, all working on a minuscule budget, is flat-out fabulous.
14. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky's movie is about all kinds of addictions (to drugs, TV, loneliness, love) and a grueling, mesmerizing anti-thrill ride based on a 1978 Hubert Selby novel. Alongside its slap-your-head immediacy, digitally enhanced visceral effects (the throbbing refrigerator is unforgettable), it features strong performances by all four primary players -- Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans.
15. The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola came to the movie game with heavy burdens, being Francis Ford's daughter, Nic Cage's cousin, and Spike Jonze's wife, but she delivers in a major way with this first feature, made of equal parts alarming depth and gossamer lightness. It's so subtle that some viewers took the narrator's voice (representing a collective of boys observing neighbor girls) as the film's own perspective. But The Virgin Suicides' profound and even tragic insight is that the boys never come to understand what's going on, with the girls or with themselves. It's all about missed opportunities, but it never becomes soggy or sentimental.
16. You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan)
This movie came late in the year and without much fanfare -- until the critical drumbeat started, and now Laura Linney is getting Oscar buzz. Small, closely focused, and refreshingly subtle in every way, it features excellent performances by Linney and Mark Ruffalo, as siblings unable to articulate their frustrations with one another, much less with their own lives. But it also has something else that is a rarity: a little kid's role -- specifically, an 8-year-old played by Rory Culkin -- that is written to be neither condescending nor cute (think: Jonathan Lipniki or Rory's older brother Macaulay), but rather, canny, sympathetic, and wholly believable.