Hollywood fizzles but foreign, indy films shine

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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.

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.

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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.

5. Chunhyang, by Im Kwon Taek. Korean cinema has been growing in stature, and this sublimely gorgeous drama could become a breakthrough hit with American audiences. The title character is a courtesan's daughter who falls in love with a ruler's son, then suffers a thousand torments when a selfish governor decides he wants her for himself. Rarely does a film's narrator make a major contribution to its entertainment value, but nothing in a Hollywood spectacular could be more thrilling than the chanted "pansori" storytelling that accompanies and explains Chunhyang's poignant tale as it takes its suspenseful course.

6. Traffic, by Steven Soderbergh. The director of "Sex, Lies & Videotape" gave us two socially alert dramas this year. "Erin Brockovich" is an engaging example of populist hit-making, but the soon-to-be-released "Traffic" is the more stirring and challenging of the two. Several intertwined stories converge and diverge during its 140-minute running time, illustrating the complexity of today's drug culture through the different perspectives they provide.

The high-powered cast includes Michael Douglas as a government drug czar with family-values problems, Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican cop on the narcotics beat, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a woman whose life turns chaotic when her husband becomes a pawn in a drug-related intrigue. The movie's message is skeptical toward the war on drugs but hopeful regarding the ultimate decency of right-thinking people, and that's a powerful one-two punch.

7. Kadosh and Kippur, by Amos Gitai. This is a tie between two films by Israel's finest director, whose career has taken an enormous leap in quality - and doesn't stint on quantity, since both came to the US this year.

"Kadosh" is the wrenching story of a young Jewish woman caught in a loveless marriage with a religious man whose spiritual adviser wants them to divorce; not because they don't love each other, but because her infertility means one fewer ultra-Orthodox baby will be born.

"Kippur" is an antiwar movie, using Israel's bloody Yom Kippur war to illustrate the true horrors of violent conflict. Both are indelible documents of Israeli life.

8. Humanite, by Bruno Dumont. Booed at during its Cannes premiere, this French drama received rave reviews on US screens. The hero is a small-town policeman investigating a murder with unusual methods, and the story takes various paths before arriving at a deliberately ambiguous finale that evokes the need for spiritual transcendence in our flawed world. At once disturbing, with its jolting images, and inspiring, with its religious outlook, Dumont's movie is a thought-provoking experience.

9. Bamboozled, by Spike Lee. For reasons of his own, an African-American writer dreams up a TV show so racist that it's surely doomed to fail. But it becomes a runaway hit, revealing much about bias and bigotry in the American mindset. This is another of Lee's wildly overstuffed concoctions, full of miscalculated moves but crammed with more energy and ideas than a dozen ordinary films.

10. Beyond the Mat, by Barry Blaustein; Sound and Fury, by Josh Aronson; and The Specialist, by Eyal Sivan, in a tie. "Beyond the Mat" explores pro wrestling with wit, intelligence, and candor. "Sound and Fury" visits two families who disagree on whether their deaf children should have surgical procedures that might allow them to hear. "The Specialist" is a fascinating gaze at Nazi engineer Adolf Eichmann during his trial for Holocaust atrocities. All three of these documentaries are as gripping as anything Hollywood has to offer.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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