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Hollywood fizzles but foreign, indy films shine

By David Sterritt Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 2000

Hollywood hoped to usher in the new century with a parade of great movies and a mountain of box-office profits. What happened was the opposite: lackluster ticket sales and a 12-month gasp of dismay from critics who began the year looking for art but were happy to settle for effective entertainment by the time December rolled around.

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Not that screens were entirely empty of good-quality films. The studios eventually found their footing with substantial dramas like "Almost Famous," about the glory days of rock 'n' roll journalism, and the soon-to-be-released "Thirteen Days," wherein Kevin Costner solves the Cuban missile crisis.

Adventurous director Mike Figgis coaxed Sony into releasing the improvised "Time Code," the most avant-garde theatrical picture in recent memory. And first-rate films by independent and overseas talents rushed in to fill the artistic void of a year that found pundits wondering if the ham-fisted "Gladiator" might dominate the Oscar race.

So if my selection of the year's best pictures is heavy on offbeat releases, it's because nonstudio productions are a good source of above-average cinema. It's also because Hollywood came up short. For now, here's hoping the moguls renew their energies and take a lesson from the indies and imports that gave 2000 most of its brightest movies.

1. Beau Travail, by Claire Denis. This ravishingly beautiful, hauntingly enigmatic drama transplants Herman Melville's classic tale "Billy Budd: Foretopman" to the French Foreign Legion, where a man named Bruno Forestier - resurrected from "The Little Soldier," a Jean-Luc Godard film of 30 years ago - works out his destiny amid emotional tensions as overheated as the African desert where the story takes place. Denis has long been recognized as an important director, but this mysterious masterpiece raises her to the top rank of European screen artists.

2. The Wind Will Carry Us, by Abbas Kiarostami. A sophisticated city dweller comes to a rural Iranian town to make a movie about the rituals that will follow the demise of an elderly woman, but the feisty villager refuses to die on schedule, causing the visitor to enter the community's life in ways he never expected. No plot synopsis could capture the poetic power of Kiarostami's exquisite images or the subtle intelligence of his wry meditations on life, death, and the complexity of the human spirit. This delicate drama reconfirms his reputation as a giant of modern film.

3. Dancer in the Dark, by Lars von Trier. The year's most controversial movie found both critics and audiences deeply divided, howling their arguments above the melodious warble of Bjork's inimitable songs. A riveting performance by the Icelandic pop star is only one virtue of this strange but touching melodrama about a woman who sacrifices health, happiness, and life itself for the sake of her little boy's future. It takes enormous risks that sometimes fail but sometimes raise it to heights most recent movies have hardly dreamed of.

4. George Washington, by David Gordon Green. This meandering, utterly original yarn focuses on a quiet Southern town, African-American youngsters and their slightly older friends, a tragic accident, and a boy who dares to dream of being an American hero. The acting is excellent and the screenplay is expressive, but the real star is Green's eloquent camera work. He gives ordinary places a gliding elegance that makes this deceptively small-scale movie a gem of humanism and compassion.