The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

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Third World charm

Film - the year in review

by Peter Keough

The Wind Will Carry Us. The WindThe land of the free and the big budgets might get all the hype, but it's downtrodden countries like Iran and China that are shining most brightly on the screen. From the former comes The Wind Will Carry Us -- not the best film by Abbas Kiarostami, but the best film of the year. City slickers tool into a remote Kurdish village that's shot with paradisal beauty. The group's leader, the enigmatic Engineer, tours the place with a boy from the village, but he's too distracted by his cell phone to savor his surroundings. Gradually it emerges that the Engineer and his friends are in town to record a funeral on film. For what purpose? Perhaps metaphorical -- as the old ways die, new ones emerge from the grave. Or maybe the meaning is more mystical. In The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami not only holds a mirror up to the world, he unveils the visionary one beneath.

Not One Less Not One Less. Less was all this year, and one of the best films proved to be Zhang Yimou's minimalist tale of a teenage girl who's recruited to substitute-teach a class of schoolchildren in rural China. Promised a bonus if all the kids -- and not one less -- remain in class until the teacher returns, young Wei is forced to extreme measures when a troublemaker goes truant. She tracks him to the big city, and the film becomes a critique of progress and wealth at the expense of simple human values. At first motivated by greed, Wei and everyone around her are transformed by compassion, and the simple premise embraces the universal. A movie celebrating the least among us, Not One Less expands into something much more.

Psycho American Psycho. From Cambridge feminists to Catholic League members, lots of people looked forward to being offended by Mary Harron's adaptation of the notorious Bret Easton Ellis novel. What they found most offputting was not the film's sexism, its racism, its elitism, or its sex and violence -- American Psycho is less blatant than the average Scream episode -- but its cutting irony and subversive playfulness. Title psycho Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale, in what should be a breakthrough performance) is a 26-year-old Wall Street executive at the height of the Greed Is Good '80s who's bored and empty and likes to kill people. The obvious antecedent is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. But Bateman, for all his voiceover protests, actually seems to have a suffering soul beneath the crazy mask, and that makes this film, despite the fun and games, a real horror show.

the year in review

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Meet the Parents. His Austin Powers was funny, but Jay Roach's Meet the Parents takes a simple gag and builds it into a fugue of hilarity. The premise is a common tragedy -- the need to lie to one's future in-laws. Ben Stiller's Greg is a nerdy male nurse in love with Teri Polo's Pam. All looks rosy until Greg has to meet the parents, and then Stiller undergoes tortures more excruciating than even those in There's Something About Mary. Pam's dad, Jack, regards Greg as something between a bad smell and the downfall of Western values; played with menace by Robert De Niro, Jack's a former CIA operative with an uncanny knack for detecting falsehoods. Unfortunately, telling lies is Greg's response to Jack's hostility; he spins a pitiful web of deceit that's paralleled by a conspiracy of the physical universe, a conspiracy that Roach orchestrates with the aplomb of a silent master like Buster Keaton.

Before Night Falls. Back in 1996 painter Julian Schnabel made a bold foray into the mind of a tormented artist with his underrated debut feature, Basquiat. He goes a step farther with this hypnotic account of the life of gay Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas. Although charged with political issues in this post-Elián age, the film succeeds best as an utterly subjective re-creation of a human life, and an astonishing one. Portrayed by Javier Bardem in the best performance of the year, Arenas was a perennial scamp tormented by the authorities not so much for his sexuality or his politics but, as one friend points out, because the realm of beauty he ruled lay beyond their tyranny. Schnabel does justice to that realm in a rhapsodic movie that evokes the torments of Papillon and the flights of The Wizard of Oz.

Time Code. Mike Figgis's film should probably get four mentions, as the screen is split into four parts, each showing the same story from a different point of view and each shot simultaneously in real time and in one continuous take with a digital camera. It's worth your paying attention: Time Code is that rare commodity, a philosophical movie. Four characters dominate each screen quadrant; ultimately uniting them all is Alex (Stellan Skarsgård), a dissipated producer faithless to both his art and his wife. Giving us lust, drugs, and earthquakes along the way, Time Code subverts the familiar Hollywood Gothic of treachery and revenge, making it hard to look at movies or the world the same way again.

X-Men. Any comic-book movie that opens with the Holocaust must take itself seriously. In a death camp in 1944 Poland, a young prisoner rips the barbed-wire gates apart with his suddenly discovered powers of magnetic attraction. Years later, as supervillain Magneto (Ian McKellen), he's trying to prevent another genocide, this time of his fellow mutants, by organizing them into an army. Meanwhile his adversary, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), has set up his own mutant force, the X-Men, to protect the ungrateful human race, and the two sides are headed for a surreal showdown at the Statue of Liberty that's the culmination of Bryan Singer's tautly scripted, visually dense narrative. With X-Men, the genus of the summer blockbuster has taken an evolutionary leap forward.

Beau travail. What do men want? It's a question Claire Denis has pursued throughout her career, no more so than in this fever dream of a film, a reworking of Herman Melville's Billy Budd set in a Foreign Legion camp in the Sahara. Denis Lavant is tortured and inarticulate as a veteran sergeant torn between desire and envy for a handsome new recruit, and his obsessions grow poisonous in the pointless drill of the camp and the hallucinatory beauty of the landscape. Told in cryptic voiceovers and flashbacks, Beau travail combines the claustrophobia of a crumbling mind with the physical ecstasy of the male body in motion.

Ratcatcher. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's film doesn't stint on the squalor, and that makes the rare gleam of innocence and beauty stunning indeed. Twelve-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie) accidentally drowns his friend in the canal that drains the Glasgow slum in which he lives, a place made more noisome by an ongoing garbage strike. He keeps his guilt secret, just one more item in the pile of woes that accumulate like the uncollected trash. It's prime breeding ground for stereotype and sentiment, but Ramsay instead uncovers the underlying humanity and tragic workings of fate.

Erin Brockovich. Julia Roberts not only has the deck stacked in her favor, she is stacked. Trussed up in her Erin Go Bra, Roberts is some pretty woman. And the movie's not bad either. Directed by indie favorite Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich turns a true-life tale of civic heroism into a funny and authentic look at gender, class, and power. An unemployed twice-divorced mother, Erin turns adversity into advocacy when she takes a job with a local lawyer (played brilliantly by Albert Finney) and uncovers an industrial-pollution case that eventually involves some 600 plaintiffs and a settlement of $333 million. Although the ending is a fizzle -- a close-up of a check -- Erin Brockovich offers a new look at Roberts's assets and Soderbergh's mainstream bankability.

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