For forty-nine weeks out of 52 the year limped and stumbled from overhyped blockbuster to smarmy romance, leading many of us to write it off; coming after the brilliant 1999 it was particularly painful to have to deal with wretched films like "What Lies Beneath" or "Gladiator" or "M:I 2" or "The Perfect Storm" or "The Grinch" or "Bounce." But those three weeks... ahhh. In order of opening dates, the three films that saved the year are:
Yi Yi -- An extraordinary understanding pervades this elegant study of a contemporary Taipei family by the writer-director Edward Yang. With ease and warmth he lets us in on the lives of a husband who owns a software company, his wife who spirals into a depression, his daughter who is in the throes of first love, his brother who may have made a bad deal for the company, his old girlfriend whom he had abandoned thirty years before, and best of all his 8-year-old son who tries to see things that no one else can (he photographs the backs of people's heads "because that's the half of themselves they can't see." An unobtrusive stylist, Yang has written so well that we hang on every word, every look, every moment in the lives of all his people. The film barely made a ripple in the United States, but in time to come it will be seen as a masterpiece.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- Ang Lee and his writers have given us a film of wonder and delight, perhaps today's equivalent of the magnificent Errol Flynn 1938 vehicle "Adventures of Robin Hood." A great cast headed by Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi fly through bamboo forests, leap to rooftops, and step across the surfaces of lakes without a backward glance. The story is a delicious fantasy adventure of a sword stolen from its owner, a desert romance with a bandit prince, and the sadness of ending one's lifelong mission. Lee has filled it with beauty and excitement, yet he never overpowers his story or cast with directorial flourishes. It's been compared with "The Matrix" because of similarities in the martial arts and magical flights, but "Crouching Tiger" far outclasses it in wit, power, and exuberance. This film is why movies were invented.
Traffic -- Steven Soderbergh set himself an enormously complex task, showing a three-faced prism of stories about cocaine smuggling from Mexico to the United States. Cutting back and forth from one to the other, doing his own camerawork, and editing with genius, he has made a brilliant film in which people, not plot devices, determine what happens. Led by a magnificent performance by Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican cop, and a mysterious one by Catherine Zeta-Jones as the wife of a La Jolla drug kingpin, most of the cast is utterly believable and terrifyingly real. Only Michael Douglas as the U.S. drug czar is out of his depth, but it's hard to imagine that anyone could play the role believably, since no one has in the real world.
A notch or two below these are a good number of worthwhile films, some of which come close to greatness. In alphabetical order, they are:
Before Night Falls -- Julian Schnabel's biographical film of the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, played by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem with a sexy wit and enlivened by two cameos by Johnny Depp. As realistic as a documentary, the film leaps from episode to episode with a painterly freedom that comes from Schnabel's own background.
Chicken Run -- Charming and skillful, this claymation feature by the makers of the Wallace & Gromit shorts has enough plot to hold us, and enough visual wit to carry the repetitions of its sequences.
Dancer in the Dark -- As Lars Von Trier's ambitions grow, the quality of his films seems to diminish. This one is a hyped-up tearjerker that's redeemed by an emotional blockbuster of an ending that will tear your heart out.
Erin Brockovich -- Julia Roberts is so beautiful and the camera loves her so much that we forget how good an actress she is. She is at her best here, and no one ever looked so good in slutty clothes.
Girlfight -- Karyn Kusama's debut feature, with an amazing performance by Michelle Rodriguez as a young Latina in Brooklyn who was born to be a boxer. A wonderful, funny and honest film.
Ratcatcher -- Another first film, by Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay, that got almost no play in the United States. A boy lives in the dregs of the Glasgow housing projects, with dreams and fears triggered in part by a death we see at the beginning of the film. Powerful, evocative, not easily forgotten.
Titus -- Julie Taymar's version of the Shakespeare play, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus and Alan Cumming as his nemesis. The huge sets and gorgeous, almost forbidden colors and sheer grandness of her conception put this on the list. Over the top when few directors have the courage to go there.
Two Family House -- This small gem is a beautifully observed life of a Staten Island man with a dream, and of the way in which his dream plays out over the years. Wonderfully written and acted by a cast drawn in part from "The Sopranos." Michael Rispoli as Buddy, the dreamer, is sensational.