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[whitespace] Alien-Wielding Chicken Feather-Weight 2000

'Chicken Run' outran the competition for best film of 2000; 'Battlefield Earth' confirmed critics' worst fears

By Richard von Busack

HOW CAN MOVIES be so good in particular and so awful in general? The ever-stimulating part of being a movie fan is in waiting to see what comes next. The movie business is a world without laws, without a unified theory and without any experts worthy of the name.

Big stars can't guarantee a huge opening weekend. Bankrupting sums are spent on promotion, and no one turns up. Popular themes make unpopular movies; reliable directors make repellent films. Even fogbound, inept moviemakers can score; like the blind pig in the proverb, they occasionally find a truffle.

And now comes news that a writers' strike may shut down film production next year. The early reports claimed that if the Hollywood product dried up, theaters would be reduced to showing foreign films and revivals. Bring 'em on, I say! Let the rest of the country be as spoiled as we are by the plethora of movie revivals that we get in the Bay Area. And until the lawyers are appeased, we can use that combo of lightweight cheap cameras and unemployed actors.

It's exciting to see the chance of a really good shake-up for a system that, at heart, no one likes. (Remember: even George Lucas considers himself an independent filmmaker.) Equally thrilling for me is the claim (in a front-page article in Variety this March) that film critics are completely out of touch with the mass audience.

The last time we heard this kind of bleating was in the 1960s, when the trade papers lambasted critics for praising eggheaded, smutty foreign films instead of the latest Julie Andrews vehicle. Even the laziest, most passive and undiscerning critics had to complain about the likes of Pay It Forward and Gone in 60 Seconds. Makes me proud of the profession, for a change.

LOOKING BACK at the year 2000, it seems noteworthy that the best movies didn't deal with the present. Quills takes the viewer back to 1800. Judy Berlin, set in 1998, conveys the silvery dying-light afternoon of the mid-1960s. Girl on the Bridge is really a 1967-style film, a classic redo of French New Wave (though with the soft ending we've come to expect in today's pictures).

Jesus's Son and The Filth and the Fury are definitive films about the 1970s. Best in Show, though modern-day, is also coated in a thick mid-'70s atmosphere of kitsch and failure, polyester and sexual polymorphism.

High Fidelity, nominally set in the present, re-creates the spirit of a record store circa 1985. It seems to take place right before numerous CD reissues broke the criminal pride of collector's record shops like the one John Cusack runs. And Twilight: Los Angeles records events of 1992, which seems in some respect like old history.

Twilight: Los Angeles is the videotaped version of Stanford professor Anna Deavere Smith's one-actor show. In the style of journalist Studs Terkel, Smith went out and interviewed some 300 people for a mosaic portrait of the city after the fires were quenched. It's the best investigation of the vanishing of 50 lives and $3 billion yet done, and it demands to be seen. Unfortunately, the film never made it to San Jose. And when I think of what did, instead ...

Traffic, which opens in January in this area, is Steven Soderbergh's sprawling but generally first-rate analysis of the drug war. Soderbergh shows us a struggle that's as dirty as a civil war--which, of course, it is. A similarly complex look at crime is in the recent four-volume DVD release of the first season of HBO's The Sopranos, which counts as an unofficial Best of for 2000. The Sopranos is the first serious inquiry into meaning of the Mafia since The Godfather trilogy.

The superb James Gandolfini, as the patriarch Tony, melds the appetites of Al Capone and the baffled sweetness of Curly Stooge. Lorraine Bracco, as his provocative psychiatrist, says more with a blink than most actresses tell in a speech. Also excellent is Edie Falco as a neglected aging wife--the opposite of the snorting, awkward girl she played in Judy Berlin.

WHILE A TOP 10 LIST was tough to assemble, the single best and worst films of 2000 were a breeze to pick. In both, greedy interlopers were overcome with airplane power. Chicken Run, the one movie of 2000 you could recommend to anyone from kid to codger, told the story of an uprising. A union of hens, sick of squeezing out eggs and being sent to the block, rallied and escaped.

It was a story that could be cheered by burned-out dotcommer or old-time factory worker alike. In this satire of workplace misery, Chicken Run opposed today's 1929-level faith that the market is the ultimate good, with powers that can fix anything.

Battlefield Earth didn't sweat much about its slaves; what really mattered was a messiah with military hardware--very old military hardware. "Our superior technology is no match for your puny weapons!"--as the two drooling aliens on The Simpsons once put it.

Most of the notable movies this year were, like Chicken Run and Battlefield Earth, nostalgic. Chicken Run was a tribute to the WWII adventure film, and Battlefield Earth served up the most inane kind of sci-fi movie of the 1950s.

Movies seem to be looking backward now more than ever. But a nostalgic attitude toward old films is an excellent way to start off the new century. Movies are timeless; and that's what's meant by the magic of them. The competition between generations of artists is less relevant than the way artists of all eras harmonize.

Truly creative spirits are unfixed in time. A young director can tell the world about how good Orson Welles or Lon Chaney was, while the work of Welles or Chaney gives the young filmmaker inspiration. The dialogue never ends. In the movies, the ghosts of the great talents are as alive as you are today.

Best of 2000

Best in Show
Chicken Run
The Filth and the Fury
Girl on the Bridge
High Fidelity
Jesus' Son
Judy Berlin
Twilight: Los Angeles
Runners-Up: The Terrorist, Venus Beauty Institute, A Map of the World, You Can Count on Me, Waking the Dead, Love and Basketball, Shanghai Noon, Cecil B. DeMented, Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, Dr. T and the Women

2000 Hall of Shame

Battlefield: Earth, easily 10 times as bad as the nearest competitor
The Hollow Man
Drowning Mona
Gone in 60 Seconds
Black and White

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From the December 29, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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