Like the rest of American life, this year's cinema was divided into two distinct epochs: before Sept. 11 and after. In the immediate aftermath of the New York and Washington tragedies, studios began pulling potentially offensive trailers from theaters, pushing back the release dates of especially violent pictures and wiping the image of the World Trade Center out of finished films that were ready for distribution. With all of this self-censorship going on -- and a general softening-up of content (bandied about as the industry's modus operandi for the foreseeable future) -- some moviegoers and critics carped that Tinseltown was engaging in that dreaded activity, "letting the terrorists win."
People, people ...Ã?Hollywood actually shows some dignity and restraint for once, and the only thank-you we can muster is to ask when we're getting our crap back? Anybody who feels personally punished by "Serendipity" will be eating his or her words when the statute of limitations on decency runs out and movies directly start to confront the Attack on America with the clumsy piety only mainstream film can manage. (Freddie Prinze Jr. is Geraldo Rivera in "Smoke 'Em Out and Get 'Em Runnin'!")
The thaw may already have begun. Warner Bros. Pictures has resumed trailers for "Collateral Damage," the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner bounced by terrorism from its Oct. 5 release date. (It's now slated for Feb. 8, 2002.) Early in the trailer, a motorcade is bombed; apparently, Warner's isn't too concerned that some Al-Qaeda intern will fly a Cessna into an SUV anytime soon. Addressing his mass-murdering quarry, our Arnie delineates the moral difference between the two of them: "I'm only going to kill you." That Austrian imp sure has a way with the zeitgeist, doesn't he? Welcome to Operation: Enduring Catchphrase.
Indeed, this year's luckiest war profiteers were the producers of the military-themed dramas and action epics that were put together back when American-flag underpants were still going dirt cheap. Vanished are the days when army pictures were destined to go straight to video, or even to View-Master. Just look at the sturdy box-office legs of the fatuous "Behind Enemy Lines," in which the complex Bosnian conflict is sorted out by the dynamic duo of Owen Wilson and his chin.
Before the twin towers fell, angst in the movies worked mostly on a personal level. Guy Pearce hunted down his wife's killer while struggling with his own faulty memory in "Memento," and the result was a picture so splendid that comparing it to other movies is almost unfair. Mark this one instead on your list of the best of everything -- roller coasters, soups, first dates, Supreme Court justices. Then seek out writer/director Christopher Nolan's previous potboiler, "Following," which is now available on DVD and VHS. To call Nolan the new Hitchcock is to invite instant, incredulous dismissal, so I'll just hedge my bets a bit and say he's like DePalma with the proper release papers.
Every year needs a severely overrated critics' darling, and "The Deep End" filled that bill in 2001. In this tepid thriller, a mousy mom (Tilda Swinton) confronted the criminal forces unleashed by her son's hidden homosexual dalliances -- forces that would have held little sway in their household had she been willing to force the kid into a potentially awkward discussion or two. Here's the Deep End script in a nutshell:
Mom: Where are you going?
Mom: What are you doing?
Son: Having a clandestine meeting with my older, obviously psychotic gay paramour.
Mom: Take a sweater.
Some reviewers fell all over themselves pronouncing "Deep End" the best film of the year, generously overlooking the five months that remained in 2001 at the time of its release. Though Swinton's performance was limited to the conveyance of exactly two emotions -- dismay and utter dismay -- talk persisted that she was entitled to some sort of award. How about Best Actress Whose First Name is Also Spanish Punctuation?
A more interesting interpretation of familial dysfunction was on display in "L.I.E.," which drew an NC-17 rating not because of graphic imagery (it had none) but due to its disturbing, nonjudgmental scenarios of teen prostitution and pedophilia on New York's Long Island. After the film had its area premiere in October at Tampa's Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in Tampa, it played for two weeks at Regal Cinemas' Winter Park Village 20. I caught it on its closing night there, when the audience overwhelmingly consisted of single men who looked nervously around the theater before taking their seats. (And here you thought that listening to WHTQ-FM was the best way to date yourself!) Even the most liberal reviewers greeted "L.I.E." with muted praise, many unable to accept filmmaker Michael Cuesta's thesis that a child molester could be the strongest father figure in a kid's life.
Woody Allen was unavailable for comment.
Though the hayseed comedy "Joe Dirt" offered us the sight of a shame-faced, seemingly sedated Dennis Miller interrogating a mullet-wearing David Spade, I'll still stop short of calling it an entirely worthless endeavor. "Dirt" narrowly escaped that stigma via the participation of two engaging celebs, namely, Christopher Walken and ... his chin? No, rappin' redneck Kid Rock, who was eminently believable as a hillbilly bully. (Don't take on any Holocaust-survivor roles just yet, cowboy.) The appearances of Walken and Tokin' led me to award the film one-and-a-half stars, though that decision came back to bite me in the butt later on, when I realized I could not in good conscience grade any of the year's remaining films lower than the otherwise atrocious "Dirt." I fully expect to receive a Christmas card from the entire cast of "13 Ghosts."
Plenty of folks had unkind words for the canines-vs.-felines kiddie caper "Cats & Dogs;" a film professor who I hold in high esteem pronounced it "the worst movie ever made." Nevertheless, I kinda enjoyed it. I've always shown at least partial deference to pictures that were smart enough to work in cameos by cute four-footed types, and in 2001, I finally came up with a cogent defense for that sentimental leaning: As a rule, animals are better at playing animals than humans are at playing humans. I've seen bipeds commit some heinous scenery-chewing in my time, but I've never walked out of a film muttering that a dog's performance was wholly inauthentic and ruined the experience. That score again at halftime: Shih-tzus 5, Mandy Patinkin 0.
Other highlights of the year included Terry Zwigoff's acerbic and delightful underground-comic adaptation "Ghost World." Among the lowlights were the Mariah-maddening "Glitter" and the Keanu-afflicted weeper "Sweet November." Then there was Baz Luhrmann's willfully ridiculous "Moulin Rouge," which I'm tempted to list among the worst and best films of the year -- for identical reasons.
Yet for all of this activity, an overall ennui pervaded the filmic landscape. For the umpteenth year running, the complaints were loud and sustained that the summer releases in particular were the limpest ever foisted upon us.
The problem, I would argue, is not that films are too violent, too sugar-coated, too overhyped, or simply too poorly made. It's that there are too damn many of them. There are only so many decent ideas to go around, and I can't help but believe that the art form would be greatly enhanced if every five greenlighted scripts were folded into one before shooting commenced -- at random, if necessary.
That may seem a harsh, even malicious suggestion. But tell me that you wouldn't gladly throw $7.50 at "Deuce Neutron: Boy Gigolo" if the opportunity arose.
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