Y2K: The Prequel
But enough of bad movies. Here, in ascending order, are a few pictures that at least sparked my interest at year's end:
In Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone has some fun translating Hollywood onto the football field. Al Pacino plays old-time pro coach Tony D'Amato, a guy who resembles an aging movie director. Fifteen years ago, he won football's equivalent of the Oscar. Today, he gets no respect from the money people, from the ladies in the bar (who now charge for something they used to give away free) and especially from the big-headed young players. Jamie Foxx plays the rising star--that is, the hot new quarterback who won't follow Tony's playbook.
When a football player comes at an opponent the way Stone approaches a scene, he's called for unnecessary roughness. Yet the actors seem to have enjoyed themselves, splashing around in the mud--and before Stone tacks on a half-dozen happy endings, he does throw into your face a bucket's worth of real, present-day racial animosity. That's precisely the stuff from which you're shielded by so many other films, from The Green Mile to Norman Jewison's misconceived The Hurricane--so the experience is pleasantly bracing.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is Errol Morris's documentary portrait of a self-taught American engineer who designed equipment for executions: a more efficient electric chair, an improved gallows, the machinery for lethal injections. Building upon this experience, Leuchter went to Auschwitz in 1988 on behalf of a Holocaust denier and conducted a "forensic investigation," which claimed that the camp had contained no gas chambers. His "Leuchter Report" has since circulated among pinheads of all nations.
Morris has been terrific at exposing Leuchter's attitudes. (Talking to the camera, Leuchter says he built execution equipment to spare the condemned needless suffering--but he seems most of all to have wanted to sanitize executions, so they wouldn't disgust prison guards and witnesses.) Morris has also done excellent work in bringing in a historian, Robert Jan van Pelt, to demolish Leuchter's conclusions. ("A victim of the myth of Sherlock Holmes" is van Pelt's exasperated description of "this fool.") The bad news is, Morris shoots like Oliver Stone. He can't stop fussing with the angles, the stock, the exposure, the camera speed. Somewhere amid these distractions, you lose Leuchter. Other people tack judgments onto him--he's just a little man, they say, led astray by vanity--but the subject is never allowed to unfold, as it did so strangely and movingly in Morris's Gates of Heaven.
If you're looking for that kind of astonishment, I would recommend instead one of December's few unalloyed pleasures: Man on the Moon. It's ostensibly the life story of Andy Kaufman: TV actor, burlesque wrestler, Elvis impersonator, song-and-dance man (as he called himself)--all in all, one of the strangest figures to pop up in American culture in the seventies. But since the film proposes that Kaufman had no identifiable self, the movie ends before it can begin. There is no life to tell.
With that as the fundamental gag, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have spun out another of their portraits of highly evocative American weirdos. First came Ed Wood; next, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Compared with these, Man on the Moon contributes little to the social and cultural history of America. But under the loving direction of Milos Forman, it takes a venerable theme--that life is a series of comedy skits--and makes it bubble into your brain. "What the hell was that?" you ask, as each moment goes pop. No time to answer; the next improbability is already upon you, acted out by Jim Carrey at his slickest. He performs the way a tissue of liquid encloses thin air: roundly, seamlessly, so that he's visible while verging on disappearance. Why didn't he get the lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley?
No--too dangerous. Only inventive filmmakers with unconventional minds would have made such a choice; so catch Carrey in Man on the Moon. Rejoice that such a talent is among us, and that filmmakers such as Forman, Alexander and Karaszewski know how to put him to use.
The rest is goose eggs.
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While I'm in a retrospective mood, here's a list of favorite films from the past year: Topsy-Turvy, Magnolia, Three Kings, After Life, Being John Malkovich, All About My Mother, Rosetta, Election, The Insider, The Dreamlife of Angels, A Moment of Innocence (released briefly and late in the United States in 1999), Time Regained (Raul Ruiz's miraculous film of Proust's final novel, not released in 1999), The Lovers on the Bridge (miraculously released, seven years late), Holy Smoke (Jane Campion's latest whatzit, to be reviewed when it's actually released), Boys Don't Cry, Buena Vista Social Club, The Rage: Carrie 2, Regret to Inform (to be broadcast on PBS, January 24), Summer of Sam, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Autumn Tale, Dick, Dogma, The Muse, West Beirut, The Limey, eXistenZ, Felicia's Journey, On the Ropes, The Apple, The Straight Story, Mystery Men, The City, Black Cat, White Cat, Dr. Akagi, Sweet and Lowdown and (of course) Man on the Moon. Any year that could toss up thirty-seven Best Films had something to recommend it. Here's hoping 2000 can do as well.