- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2000

Ang Lee's sublime martial-arts spectacle "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" outclasses the other movies of 2000.

Mr. Lee secured a Golden Globe nomination for best direction, and his picture may be a cinch as best foreign language film. Comparable Oscar nominations could occur, perhaps for costuming, decor, musical scoring and visual effects.

In all likelihood, however, the Hollywood backslapping will be confined to titles such as "Erin Brockovich," "Gladiator," "Wonder Boys" and "Cast Away."

Two titles that arrive in Washington in January, "Traffic" and "Thirteen Days," would appear competitive in certain Oscar categories.

For example, the Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood contributes an extraordinary impersonation of John F. Kennedy in "Thirteen Days," in part by appropriating some of the tension Frank Sinatra got into his performance as the troubled intelligence officer of "The Manchurian Candidate." Who would have thought that the Kennedy-Sinatra connection would pay this sort of dividend?

All the Hollywood contenders are worth seeing for one reason or another, but none seems to elevate and rejuvenate the whole medium in the way that "Tiger" has done. The film combines a stirring fable of chivalrous valor and sacrifice with state-of-the-art kinetic excitement in combat duels that evoke superlative dance duets and ensembles.

Ironically, this happened to be a year in which the moribund movie musical was taking more abuse from freakish variants: the Lars von Trier tear-jerker "Dancer in the Dark" and the Spike Lee polemic "Bamboozled." These ordeals certainly divorced song-and-dance numbers from any semblance of pleasure and sophistication.

Many other critics regard 2000 as the sorriest year for movies in recent memory. I don't think it's that special. Compiling a list of the 10 or even 20 "best" movies of the year wasn't that challenging, but what's interesting is how many of the titles originated outside the Hollywood orbit and reflect "alternate" cinematic cultures.

The 20, more or less in order of preference, though the distinctions tend to flatten out at midpoint, are: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Such a Long Journey," "West Beirut," "Bring it On," "Dr. T & the Women," "The Emperor's New Groove," "Chicken Run," "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," "Croupier," "Best in Show," "You Can Count on Me," "The Perfect Storm," "Shanghai Noon," "The Girl on the Bridge," "Hamlet," "Into the Arms of Strangers," "Mr. Death," "Boiler Room," "Dinosaur" and "Genghis Blues."

The first three titles are art-house imports, and two of them were late arrivals to even specialized exhibition in the United States. Four of the titles are documentary features, also lucky to get a single booking in a handful of cities.

The American comedies on the list were not only clever and amusing but also marketed in hesitant ways that seemed to minimize their potential. "Bring it On," "Dr. T," "New Groove," "Best in Show" and "Shanghai Noon" remain stealth attractions, awaiting belated discovery and word-of-mouth popularity on home video.

By contrast, such heavily promoted monstrosities as "Mission: Impossible, Part II," "Charlie's Angels," "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps," "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Vertical Limit" lead viewers to conclude that Hollywood standards of storytelling and craftsmanship have suffered a terminal collapse.

Even the beneficiaries of great serendipitous success in recent years were busy fouling their own nests.

Miramax insulted its "Scream" thrillers with "Scary Movie," perhaps the last word in wretched and self-incriminating parody. The "Blair Witch Project" group authorized a disillusioning and shabby "Blair Witch 2." The very lucky M. Night Shamalyan of "The Sixth Sense" dreamed up a portentous letdown titled "Unbreakable." The last film ended with the curiously prejudicial suggestion that the supreme source of evil in our midst was a crippled black man.

The science-fiction thriller took repeated hits, from "Supernova" to "Mission to Mars" to "Battlefield Earth" to "Red Planet." "Battlefield Earth" is the consensus worst movie of the year, mainstream division, and John Travolta made 2000 a completely lost year with "Lucky Numbers."

Other actors who guessed wrong about suitable roles included Matt Damon, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Gwyneth Paltrow, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly and Penelope Cruz.

Clive Owen was the most diverting discovery of the year in the wittily enigmatic British mystery thriller "Croupier," which found an appreciative niche in Washington. This bodes well for the opening of a new art-house multiplex downtown in the year ahead.

Michael Douglas got the best change-of-pace showcase as the rumpled, stymied author in "Wonder Boys." Jeffrey Wright was the movie stealer of the year, making "Shaft" a personal triumph though Samuel L. Jackson had the starring role. Come to think of it, 2000 wasn't such an auspicious year for Mr. Jackson, the evil one of "Unbreakable."

Owen Wilson came into his own as the kibitzing cowboy sidekick of Jackie Chan in "Shanghai Noon" — and then put a little frosting on the cake as a minor scene-stealer in "Meet the Parents."

Shelley Long enjoyed a gratifying comeback as a lovelorn nurse in Robert Altman's "Dr. T," which also boasted one of the year's better comic ensembles. A double-billing of the largely feminine group of "Dr. T" with the largely masculine group of "Boiler Room," which contributed the year's best caustic dialogue, might be fun. The performing teamwork in "Best in Show" was also a sneaky delight, especially when Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge were paired off.

A Writers Guild strike in March could place pickets around the Oscar ceremony. Given the ramshackle construction and trite dialogue that afflict most screenplays that reach the screen, writers probably should be content to complain that producers are sabotaging their handiwork.

Lobbying for the kind of "creative" authority now reserved for producers and directors could make writers seem equally responsible for all the bad work the system allows.

A Screen Actors Guild strike in June could result in an extended production hiatus, although the volume of major studio releases might not be affected until 2002.

But titles will persist in coming from rival sources even if the American industry needs some time to update its labor agreements and establish the foundation for future misunderstandings.

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