Chocolat (2000)

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Starring: Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Lena Olin, Victoire Thivisol, Aurelien Parent-Koenig (in his only film), Peter Stormare, Hugh O’Conor, Carrie-Ann Moss, Leslie Caron

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Summary: A woman and her daughter open a chocolate shop in a small French village that shakes up the rigid morality of the community

Other Nominations: Actress (Binoche), Supporting Actress (Dench), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score

Binoche is far and away the best thing about this movie-she’s incredibly charming throughout, but has the dramatic chops she needs when it’s called for; the second best thing is probably Dench, who’s good in everything, especially when she’s an older woman who doesn’t put up with anyone’s shit like she is here. Besides those two things, this is a very mediocre movie. It trudges along as a generally light-hearted film about conformity and repression, but is occasionally punctuated with really, really intense movies every once in awhile that feel very out of place. There’s also a lot of really broad, over-the-top villainy with some half-hearted/poorly executed scenes where they come to realize the error of their ways. Finally, Depp is the love interest here (with an Irish accent because why not) and I didn’t get a lot of sizzle from that either. If not for a couple of the performances, this is a (mostly) inoffensive and mildly charming movie that was solely nominated because Harvey Weinstein and Miramax HAD to have a nominee every year.

Rating: C

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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Starring: Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei-pei

Director: Ang Lee

Summary: Two warriors in pursuit of a stolen sword and a notorious fugitive are led to an impetuous, physically skilled, adolescent nobleman’s daughter, who is at a crossroads in her life

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Foreign Language Film*, Original Score*, Original Song (“A Love Before Time”), Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Costume Design, Film Editing

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is mainly remembered for its action, which has a magical quality (through both the wire work and speeding up/slowing down footage) that was totally original for Western audiences and has the actual actors were doing the work instead of stuntmen. Besides just the action, the visuals in general are excellent from the costumes to the cinematography.

The thing that holds this back from being truly great is that the story and characters are merely serviceable (even if I liked Yeoh’s and Ziyi’s performances a lot). This wouldn’t be as big an issue in a different kind of action film, but the film really does focus on them more than a lot of the genre does. The story of personal growth from Ziyi’s character works really well, but the middle of the film dies a death when we get an extended flashback focusing on the romance between Ziyi and Chen’s characters that didn’t do anything for me. I think it either needed to have more action (the primary appeal of the movie), or it needed to be trimmed down quite a bit in the middle. Still, I liked the movie, it felt different for someone who’s really only used to Western action movies and is the kind of movie you don’t see the Academy reward often enough.

Rating: B

Erin Brockovich (2000)

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Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Summary: An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Roberts)*, Supporting Actor (Finney), Original Screenplay

For better or worse, this feels very much like a Hollywood-ized Norma Rae (a movie I reviewed back for the 1979 ceremony). Roberts is a perfect fit for the role as written: charming, sometimes abrasive, smart and above all sympathetic. On that last point, the movie stacks the deck about as much as possible to get the audience to root for her and forgive her (honestly kind of significant) flaws to the point of being manipulative sometimes. At it’s best, it’s a good movie about a woman who finally gets respect for what she has to offer even if it means straining her family life; at it’s worst, it’s a hammy women’s empowerment/little guy fights back against the evil corporation movie that feels slick and over-processed. In the vein of movies like Jerry Maguire and The Blind Side, this is the kind of feel-good crowd-pleasing movie that is accessible to everyone and has enough merit to it that it does great business at the box office (which it did to the tune of over $200 million domestic) and even gets Oscar nominations. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t get me excited in any way either.

Rating: C+

*Gladiator (2000)*

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Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed (in his posthumous final on-screen performance), Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi

Director: Ridley Scott

Summary: When a Roman general is betrayed by an emperor’s corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Crowe)*, Supporting Actor (Phoenix), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design*, Film Editing, Visual Effects*

Gladiator is basically Braveheart crossed with Ben-Hur, where a once-prominent Roman is betrayed and made a slave and seeks out his revenge against the man responsible for murdering his wife. As someone who is a big action movie fan and enjoys film a good epic, this was pretty underwhelming for me. First the good: Joaquin Phoenix does a wonderful job chewing the scenery as a sadistic, cowardly and disturbed bastard of an emperor, and Oliver Reed (who died with 3 weeks left to film, requiring a script change and a CGI body-double) brings a great energy and presence. The costumes and sets are also on point, and the effects for 2000 standards are pretty seamless (especially with the Coliseum, as they only built about a third of it with the rest being computer generated).

The rest of the movie didn’t do a lot for me though. There’s a fine line between steely & determined and dull & brooding, and I would definitely put Crowe’s character and performance on the latter end-he just wasn’t that interesting of a main protagonist, something that wasn’t an issue in movies like Braveheart, Ben-Hur and Spartacus. The fight cinematography and editing is surprisingly poor: it’s entertaining for the sheer spectacle of a couple of scenes (like with the tigers), but the constant quick cuts and frequent close-ups lessen the impact of the blows and you can’t track movement all that well. While it has its strong points, it fails to be great as either an epic or an action film and is one of the lesser Best Picture winners.

Rating: C+

Traffic (2000)

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Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Dennis Quaid, Luis Guzman, Topher Grace (his first film), Jacob Vargas, Miguel Ferrer, Tomas Milian, Clifton Collins Jr., Amy Irving, Steven Bauer, Albert Finney, Viola Davis

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Summary: A series of interconnected stories about America’s war on drugs

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Del Toro)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Film Editing*

Much like Crash was to race, Traffic is a series of interwoven stories all taking on different angles in America’s war on drugs; I’ll talk about how successful Crash is when that film pops up in a few years, but Traffic does a good job of giving a nuanced, mature portrait, even if it sometimes feels over-dramatic. It covers wide swaths of territory and gives no easy answers-I thought it was especially effective seeing the disconnect between actual U.S. Senators (people who are part of setting the policy) giving their genuinely unscripted thoughts about what needs to be done to win the drug war, contrasted with the same kind of thing from people who were on the front line, in charge of border security. It addresses so many of the reasons why it’s so hard for a country as wealthy as the U.S., who throws tons of money at the issue, to effectively combat drug trade (demand never goes away and because cartels have a clear goals and how to achieve them (even if there’s rivalries between them), an established hierarchy within, and no limits on methods vs. two huge bureaucracies (U.S. and Mexico) with lots of different opinions, incentives and limits. The cast of thousands is also good, with Del Toro winning an Academy Award for his fairly subdued performance and for me, Zeta-Jones was the other highlight.

The problems I had with it are two-fold I guess. First is an inherent problem with any film of this kind, that there’s some important issues that it touches upon but doesn’t give as much coverage as might be warranted-one example being how we (or Americans at least view “drugs” versus other forms of self-medication like alcohol and tobacco. The second is that is goes “big”, dipping into excessive melodrama a little too often. Still, this was a film that did a good job executing a difficult premise.

Rating: B

2000 in Review

One Notable (Short) Film from 2000

I have a huge soft spot for animation and once again, I will be discussing an animated film-the difference is this time, it’s from a solo animator, and one of the most unique voices in filmmaking of his generation. Today, we look at Don Hertzfeldt’s breakout animated short, Rejected.

Rejected came about as a germ of an idea Hertzfeldt had after the success of his previous short, Billy’s Balloon (a movie shown in competition at Cannes and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance about balloons gaining sentience and deciding to attack children)-he was offered work doing commercials. Hertzfeldt, being the violently anti-corporate man that he is, turned them down but jokingly in the back of his mind thought about accepting the jobs only to create the worst cartoons possible and see if they would make it to air. This led to Rejected, a 10-minute animated short about an animator making commercials for companies that keep getting rejected for being too surreal and eventually leads to the animator’s full-on mental breakdown.

It became one of the most popular and oft-bootlegged cartoons during the early days of the internet because it was endlessly quotable, surreal and extremely violent. Amazingly enough, it was nominated for an Academy Award despite it’s style and content. Rejected is still very enjoyable and entertaining, but it feels like the closing chapter on the first part of Hertzfeldt’s career (and couples well with Billy’s Balloon in tone and content), although Lily and Jim, his excellent 1997 short about a blind date that goes wrong, sticks out as something of a preview for his later work.

So how do you follow up an extremely popular violent and goofy animated short? With a completely different direction-a series of abstract looks at subjects like humanity, mental illness and life itself. The culmination of which was his most recent short, the thought provoking but still humorous World of Tomorrow, which was also nominated for an Academy Award (with many were sad that it didn’t win). Hertzfeldt is an uncompromising iconoclast in all the best ways and his work is well worth seeking out, no matter where your tastes lie.

Other Notable Films from 2000

In the Mood for Love

Cast Away

X-Men

Almost Famous

American Psycho

Battle Royale

Best in Show

Battlefield Earth and Dungeons & Dragons

Memento

Requiem for a Dream

High Fidelity

Snatch

Amores Perro

2000 in Review

Traffic: B

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: B

Gladiator: C+ (Won Best Picture)

Erin Brockovich: C+

Chocolat: C

2000 was one of the worst years for nominees in ages, the first since 1988 to not have a movie rated above a B by my standards (and I would take Working Girl over either Traffic or Crouching Tiger without hesitation). Gladiator really is a redux of Braveheart, an above average movie that made big money and had an epic enough feel that it somehow won Best Picture; at least it didn’t rob anything especially memorable for the award. It was also a year where movies like Almost Famous, Requiem for a Dream, even Cast Away were better BP options among those that received nominations in other categories. At least 2001 looks much better in comparison, so I’m looking forward to that.

For 2001: Russell Crowe continues to dominate the Oscars, starring in his third straight BP nominee and second straight winner; Downton Abbey was originally conceived as a spin-off of this movie; it made $43 million despite never entering the Top 10 at the box office; this movie made so much money for New Zealand that they created a Minister position to take advantage of all the economic opportunities the film series provided them; and the first live-action musical to get a BP nomination in 22 years.