Denver Bar Association
January 2002
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2001 Bests From the Silver Screen

by Greg Rawlings


Look for these on video rental store shelves.

By Greg Rawlings

The most intriguing film to hit Denver in 2001 was the Korean film "Chunhyang." Directed by Im Kwon-taek, this is his 97th film, but first to be released in the U.S. The gimmick of this work, if you can call it that, is the use of the Korean story-telling method pansori, where the story is vividly related by a man on a stage before the crowd sees the action on the screen or stage. It seems both modern and ancient at the same time.

Without a doubt, the most discussed cinematic work of 2001 is "Memento." Starring Guy Pearce (much better here than as the goody-geek cop in "L.A. Confidential") and directed by Christopher Nolan, "Memento" is also a gimmick film, in that it’s told back to front, one pungent layer of onion peel after another. This is one to see more than once, trust me.

What promises to be even more rabidly over-analyzed than "Memento" is David Lynch’s "Mulholland Drive," one of the weirdest films ever to emerge from Hollywood. Only Lynch could have foisted this eerie load of mayhem upon us. His is a singular cinematic vision. As the film’s ingénue, Naomi Watts gives the most nuanced performance by a young actress in years, and the finest performance by an actor in any of Lynch’s films. It may be the most assured debut of the last decade. I still haven’t figured out what happens in this cinematic rebus, or who is who, I don’t really care—"Mulholland Drive" is a mind-warping blast of happy confusion.

"Ghost World," based on a Daniel Clowes comic book, is Terry Zwigoff’s follow-up to his masterful documentary "Crumb." Clowes’s work is incisive, forceful and thought provoking, unlike most real novels these days. In Zwigoff’s film, Thora Birch and Scarlett Johanssen are best friends whose friendship is unraveling as they veer off on different life paths. Though Birch stars, and is quite affecting, Johanssen is going to be huge. Her cool bombshell presence reminds me of the young Lauren Bacall or even Catherine Deneuve. Her acrid lines sparkle, muttered in a dry, knowing monotone. Steve Buscemi should be nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role, as a loser’s loser. Another highlight is the sizzling blues music that connects Birch’s and Buscemi’s characters.

"Startup.Com" charts the true tale of the rise and subsequent demise of a much-vaunted dotcom. This is a riveting story of greed, drive and failure. It limns a world of 80-hour weeks, transient relationships and industrial espionage—a world of seemingly unlimited money and glory that vanishes like ash in a windstorm.

"The Deep End" has elicited much critical praise and I enjoyed it tremendously, with some caveats. While well acted, especially by star Tilda Swinson and her handsome blackmailer Goran Visnjic, a few plot points don’t add up (mainly issues of motivation); still, the film has a carefully calibrated pace, striking visuals and will probably garner a few well-deserved Oscar nods.

As for "Sexy Beast," this odd little English flick is worth seeing for a gloriously splenetic performance by Ben Kingsley—maybe his best. Shot in an engaging manner, it features quality acting, plangent music and Kinglsey.

In "The Man Who Wasn’t There," by the Coen Brothers, one actor steals the show. Tony Shalhoub plays a cocky lawyer in a murder trial in small town California. His mouth never stops, running it seems always one half step ahead of his brain. Worse, he never really listens to anything. No trial lawyer should miss Shalhoub’s performance. Also fine are Billy Bob Thornton and Francis MacDormand. There is one glaring plot hole that keeps this from ranking with the better Coen Bros. films, but I’ll let you figure that out.

"Waking Life" is a visionary computer animated philosophy lesson by Austin auteur Richard Linklater. Shot with real actors, and then painted over using a new computer process, this film is so visually engaging that you won’t mind the numerous egghead discourses and the vexing dearth of plot.

Of course, what overview of film in any year is complete without the requisite French love story/comedy/what have you? This year’s biggie is "Amelie," directed by euro-weirdo Jean-Pierre Jeunet. With a big star turn by Audrey Tautou, this is a charming trifle of a film about an adorable young woman who does good things for others. Not a great film, but a little charm never hurt anyone.

So there. Some quality viewing. Still, re-releases often overawed new works, with "Apocalypse Now Redux," the extended version of the last great American film; "Band of Outsiders," Godard’s sharp tale of English lessons and crime, with gamine Anna Karina (Godard’s wife) in one of her coolest roles (next to Vivra sa Vie). Lastly, Kieslowski’s epic "The Decalogue" was finally released in the U.S. This modern contemplation of the "Ten Commandments" (made for Polish TV in 1987-1988) is a masterpiece, simply not to be missed by anyone who cares about cinema. Rent this instead of "Sex in the City" next time you’re out looking to kill a few hours (while all the while remembering that Thou Shalt Not Kill).

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