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Road Warriors: Naomi Watts and Laura Harring took a long, strange journey in 'Mulholland Drive.'

Shrek and Call

The year's best films--animated, indie and Iranian--washed away the memory of 'Moulin Rouge!' and, shudder, 'One Night at McCool's'

By Richard von Busack

I HAVE SEEN the future of film, and it doesn't bode well. Among the emesis to come: Sean Penn in I Am Sam, pantomiming a mental handicap fit to make Jerry Lewis spontaneously combust with jealousy. You owe it to yourself to study Penn: slack-jawed and snuggling the frosty perfection of a child actor less natural than Haley Joel Osment's plastic-wrapped kid in a box from A.I.

That's the worst of it. Also looming are the kind of bulldozing war movies that would slam the patriotism out of George Washington. These pictures reflect what the mass media claims is a supposed change in the national mood. Fortunately, our nation (God bless it, preserve it and give it good sense) is subject to mood swings.

Thankfully, we turn to 2001, complete at last except for "prestige" Oscar chasers waiting for January release outside New York and L.A. Last year was actually a banner one for actresses. You'll never hear the end of complaints over the lack of female roles, but part of the trouble is that the complainers didn't keep up with the independent and foreign movie scene.

In addition to Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World and Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive, there was Franka Potente in The Princess and the Warrior and Charlotte Rampling in Jonathan Nossiter's Signs and Wonders, the best Dogma movie that wasn't Dogma. There was Molly Parker putting her war paint on in The Center of the World and Stockard Channing in The Business of Strangers hissing to Julia Stiles, "Well, what are ya waiting for? Sing."

There was Helena Bonham Carter, hugely amusing in chimpanzee drag or wheedling opiates off of Steve Martin's square dentist in Novocaine--not to mention the beautiful intimidation of Liv Tyler's woman-warrior in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, or Cameron Diaz in Vanilla Sky, laughing in Tom Cruise's face, as well she might. And locally we haven't yet seen Kate Winslet, irresistible as the young novelist Iris Murdoch in Iris, or Cate Blanchett, spellbinding as the lady spy Charlotte Gray.

At this time, these were movies that were good in their moment, and look even better in the rear-view mirror:

Shrek What ought to be picked for the best movie of a year? Something with the most cross-generation appeal, maybe--a film that enchants children and appeals to adults without requiring them to give up their adulthood. Shrek also earns respect as a "locals rule" entry, since the animation was done at Palo Alto's PDI, and the perky cover of "I'm a Believer" was by San Jose's Smash Mouth.

Ghost World "I saw that movie. What was it called? With the two annoying adolescent girls whining and bitching about everything? It reminded me of high school!"--An idiot sitting in front of me at a movie, San Francisco, late November.

Mulholland Drive "Don't let the stars get in your eyes. They'll burn your lights out."--Comic-book artist Gary Panter.

With a Friend Like Harry For richly deserved SUV slander, revenge served cold, the less attractive side of family bonding. Best Hitchcock varietal of the year.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring The year's most pleasant surprise--after all, what could be more surprising than to expect garbage and find depth, to expect commerce and find art.

Djomeh and The Circle Two fine examples (a third--Makhmalbaf's Kandahar--arrives soon) of the vitality of the Iranian film. No other nation imported better films here this year. (France will bounce back--2001 included A Matter of Taste, Va Savoir, A Ma Soeur! and the reissue of Godard's svelte Band a Parte, all mitigating the popularity of the terminally silly Amélie.) The work from Iran was constantly refreshing. Shrewd, economical and heartbreaking, these cool 90-minute-long pictures are your genuine modern film noirs.

Startup.com In memory of those laid-off--and those yet to be pink-slipped.

Divided We Stand A Turn for the Wurst: this Czech comedy was an accurate yet comedic look backward at the glorious days of World War II. The evil Nazi enemy is revealed as a pathetic, horny jerk trying to make a buck.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch And then, after everything she'd been through, her name was stolen by Harry Potter's owl.

Matt Dillon and Liv Tyler
Hall of Shame: Matt Dillon and Liv Tyler struggled through 'One Night at McCool's.'

Finally, the best unmade film of the year was the documentary There Is No Substitute for a Ball Struck Squarely and Firmly: Barry Bonds' Record Year. I know, you've heard enough gush about him. Still, isn't it heartwarming that he'd rather stay here than be a turncoat and join those pinstriped bastard Yankees and corner the World Series? Our Hero is kind of a symbol for everyone who remained in Northern California despite the haunting Chekhovian regret of how much better their careers could have gone if they'd headed to New York (or L.A.).

Of the worst films? Life As a House, a hamster-sized version of The Fountainhead. In the words of "The Grinch Song," Moulin Rouge! nauseated, with a nauseous super naus. (Let all true Vincente Minnelli fans join in defiance of Baz Luhrmann!) Pearl Harbor was really appalling, but one was braced for it. By contrast, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was a real sucker punch.

Big Eden seems all the worst for its sacred-cow qualities, as if a gay-themed romance couldn't radiate every bit of teeth-hurting coyness as a straight one. For example: the similarly revolting Someone Like You, which I watched, hated, then watched on a plane, hated again, then watched again on the plane home when the tape for the other scheduled movie broke . . . and, well, let's just say that sometimes the cinema loses its charms.

Oh, why go on. Nothing was worse than One Night at McCool's.

We look forward to the upcoming year without much hope but with this thought: Whatever else happens, we won't have to put up with any more of 2001.

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From the January 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2002 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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