Just about everyone agrees that 1999 was a great year for movies. We here at The A.V. Club do not beg to differ: We affirmed that consensus opinion last summer, when we revisited and ranked the bygone year’s finest films, discovering no shortage of old favorites that still looked like triumphs in the harsh light of hindsight. (Yes, Fight Club holds up. Really!) But if ’99’s reputation as a mini- cinematic renaissance remains more or less undisputed, what can be said about the year that followed? What has been said about it?
There are fewer champions, certainly, of our new millennium’s first new movies, especially when you limit it to the ones that hit American theaters before Y2K become Y2K1. Plenty of critical appraisers in December of two decades past couldn’t help but compare the best movies of the year to the best movies of the previous year. The Oscars didn’t much help 2000’s rep: As Hollywood’s blockbuster version of an old-fashioned swordplay epic took on the unexpectedly successful-in-America Chinese version, the undercard painted a picture of an off year for the medium… even if a few of the nomination leaders were actually pretty good. (See below.) And then there was the sudden proliferation of movies shot on video—not the sleek, celluloid-approximating video we’ve grown accustomed to today, but the primitive low-grade kind seen (and never successfully unseen) in adventurous but butt-ugly indies like Chuck & Buck, Time Code, and Lars von Trier’s otherwise superb Dancer In The Dark. If there’s any such thing as a transitional year in the never-ending forward flux of moviemaking, Y2K might qualify, at least on technological grounds.
But if 2000 couldn’t compete, in the immediate estimations of cinephiles, with the treasures of 1999, some distance has done favors to the cream of its crop. Which is to say, yes, there were plenty of outstanding movies released at the dawn of the century. American comedy made a strong showing, with filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Christopher Guest, and even David Mamet offering up some of their most gut-busting features. “Unadaptable” books got superb adaptations. Lars von Trier made a musical. Jim Jarmursch made a samurai picture. Steven Soderbergh dropped two movies in nine months. Meanwhile, the art-house was flooded with first-rate visions from around the world, not all of them featuring clashing blades on verdant treetops. And, in one positive development for the industry, plenty of movies by women made a splash with critics and audiences—by no means a common occurrence then.
To narrow things down, we as usual limited ourselves to films released in America sometime over the year in question. That means, once again, that a few holdovers from the previous year’s festival circuit (see, for example, No. 2 or No. 7) were deemed eligible, but also that a few that premiered in 2000 but didn’t hit theaters by New Year’s Eve were disqualified. (Check back next summer for a list featuring films from Christopher Nolan, Wong Kar-wai, and one of the greatest Cannes Film Festivals ever.) Otherwise, the list below reflects only the taste of the 13 contributors who voted—and, furthermore, how they felt a week ago, not 20 years ago. For a 2000 take on the 2000 year in film, consult Google. Just be prepared to hear how much better the movies of ’99 were.
A real documentary about competitive dog breeding would presumably feature some eccentric characters of its own. The mockumentary version, set in the kooky and warm-hearted world of Christopher Guest, is like a ThunderShirt for humans. Guest’s ensemble is at its strongest here, with Waiting For Guffman players Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, and the director himself returning to the fold. The film also introduces some hilarious new faces to the Guestverse, like Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch as, respectively, a dog breeder and trainer whose affair isn’t as clandestine as they think it is, and John Michael Higgins as the loving but high-maintenance hairdresser dad of shih tzus Miss Agnes and Tyrone. It’s the loving part that’s key to Best In Show’s appeal; even laugh-out-loud jokes like Fred Willard’s clueless color commentary have a sweetness that blends perfectly with the silliness, creating a comedy as cozy as it is hilarious. [Katie Rife]
“Is it true that you never talk to nobody and you got no friends?” Pearline (Camille Winbush) asks the hitman Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), shortly before his number of friends climbs to two, her included. The other, an ice cream man (Isaach de Bankolé), doesn’t speak English. It doesn’t matter that the pair can’t communicate with language; understanding arrives through feeling. The same can be said of Jim Jarmusch’s funny but undeniably mournful crime drama. Anchored by the magnetic Whitaker and pulled inexorably forward by a can’t-miss score from RZA, Ghost Dog tosses out tropes from Westerns, samurai pictures, mob films, and noir, all to drop us into the life of a character adhering to a code (or genre) no one else follows. Whitaker’s stillness acts as line breaks do in poetry: It allows Jarmusch to punctuate the sparse dialogue, bursts of violence, and surreal, almost cartoonish humor with tranquility, like a cardinal balanced on the barrel of a sniper rifle. [Allison Shoemaker]
Michael Almereyda’s eclectic, three-decade career is largely made up of inspired oddities, and his modern-dress adaptation of The Bard’s longest play is no exception. Starring Ethan Hawke as the moody crown prince of the Denmark Corporation, this Y2K Hamlet bursts with visual invention and witty anachronism, treating its contemporary New York City backdrop with a genuine sense of wonderment, while also capitalizing on the jarring disorientation of its ultra-modern setting. Well-known for his various experiments with the PixelVision camera, Almereyda juxtaposes a range of low-grade video formats with hyper-clear images of high-rise penthouses and Wall Street wealth. Running just under two hours, the film is too aggressively pared down to be a truly definitive Hamlet. But for its technology-driven transformation of the text, it’s among the most imaginative. [Lawrence Garcia]
The late Abbas Kiarostami closed out a decade of poetic cinema with a languid community portrait that doubles as an appreciation of life’s small ironies. The Wind Will Carry Us follows a four-person film crew—led by “The Engineer” (Behzad Dorani), the only member we meet—that travels to a remote village hoping to capture the mourning rituals of the locals following the imminent death of a 100-year-old woman. Unfortunately for them, the woman not only doesn’t die, her health actually improves, stranding the team in limbo. To pass the time, the Engineer invests himself in the townsfolk’s struggles. Kiarostami often keeps key information out of frame, relegating it to the dense, intricate soundtrack; he essentially invites audiences to fill in the visual blanks with their own imagination, and cues them to the rhythms of daily rural life. The director’s style was always unique, but rarely was it more intellectually and emotionally engaging. [Vikram Murthi]
Although it was advertised as a supernatural thriller, M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense turned out to be an ingenious superhero origin story set in the writer-director’s mythic Philadelphia. A sense of mystery and regret surrounds its reluctant hero (Bruce Willis) and the wealthy comic book collector (Samuel L. Jackson) who helps him discover his powers, creating one of the most artful (and moving) statements of Shyamalan’s career theme of miracles and clashes of good and evil hiding in plain sight. While Unbreakable’s reputation as the realistic superhero anti-blockbuster has only grown since comic book movies and franchises achieved global domination, a large part of its eerie potency is owed to the fact that it still delivers on all of the quintessential pleasures of a post-Batman superhero film—from memorable costuming to a knockout score—with style. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
The war on drugs is a failure, and almost everyone in Traffic knows it. Steven Soderbergh won the Best Director Oscar—beating his work on Erin Brockovich, for which he was also nominated—for this ensemble drama following the competing maneuvers of a drug czar (Michael Douglas), a Mexican police officer (Benicio del Toro), two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán), and a kingpin’s housewife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Stephen Gaghan’s script, adapted from a British miniseries, explores how fluidly forces of greed move over the American/Mexican border, devastating both sides. Traffic is most interested in the heroism (and, often, the futility) of fighting corruption—a theme that would come to shape the rest of Soderbergh’s career; he’s since become one of American cinema’s most astute critics of institutions, and how often they’re at odds with the very people they were created to protect. [Roxana Hadadi]
Maybe High Fidelity is supposed to look problematic today: a glorification of snobby gatekeepers, rockists, and bad boyfriends that’s predicated on reducing real life to top-five lists. But consider the considerable daring of John Cusack lending his sensitive-guy image to a self-obsessed record-store owner who is, all things considered, less likable than the murderer-for-hire he played in Grosse Pointe Blank. High Fidelity shares with that dark comedy a screenwriting team and an ambivalent relationship with nostalgia (along with, yes, another killer soundtrack). It’s also uncommonly perceptive about its characters’ moral weaknesses while understanding the walled-off allure of sitting around making pointlessly authoritative lists (ahem), whether of “side ones, track ones” or devastating breakups. These qualities were present in the Nick Hornby novel, here faithfully transposed from London to Chicago, but they gain resonance when placed into the Cusack canon of nerdy heartbreak. High Fidelity now feels downright prescient on the fraught relationship between the ecstasy of fandom and the agony of being kind of a bastard. [Jesse Hassenger]
Thanks to Parasite’s unexpected Oscar victory, mainstream America is finally discovering Korean cinema, but cinephiles have long known of the demented innovations emanating from that country’s southern half. Lee Myung-se’s Nowhere To Hide can be hard to stomach, especially at this historical moment—the film arguably celebrates police brutality, cheering on cops who think primarily with their fists—but few action movies have pushed visual abstraction to such delirious heights. A fistfight photographed entirely as shadows on walls; a wrestling match that abruptly metamorphoses into a tender waltz; black-and-white footage punctuated with what look like hand-colored freeze frames (synchronized to the musical score); an assassination set piece built around the atypical, non-disco Bee Gees hit “Holiday”—there’s scarcely a moment that doesn’t prioritize style over substance, often to the point where the latter feels downright irrelevant. Lee ultimately failed to create a new kind of cinema, but this initial attempt remains galvanizing. [Mike D’Angelo]
It should have been one of Hollywood’s most notable disasters: Years into production on an animated epic called Kingdom Of The Sun, Disney decided that the project wasn’t working, inspiring its director (Roger Allers, who co-helmed The Lion King) to quit. Several songs that Sting had been commissioned to write were scrapped, and the whole thing was hastily re-conceived as a broad, wacky comedy, with an obnoxious supporting character voiced by David Spade becoming the film’s new protagonist. It sounds like a sure-fire recipe for failure, but replacement director Mark Dindal and his crew apparently felt liberated by the chaos, adopting a what-the-hell attitude that embraced sheer lunacy for its own sake. The result is as close as Disney has ever come to Chuck Jones’ anarchic sensibility, exemplified by the moment in which villain Yzma (Eartha Kitt) orders dim-bulb flunky Kronk (Patrick Warburton) to pull the (wrong) secret lever, dropping her into a pit of crocodiles, and returns to wearily ask, “Why do we even have that lever?” [Mike D’Angelo]
Love & Basketball didn’t put too many points on the box office board. But looking back, its eventual rise to cult-classic status—and its influence on a generation of filmmakers—should have been predictable. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut spans several decades, or “four quarters,” as aspiring pro players Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) try to balance their personal lives with their athletic dreams. One of the few sports movies to this day told from a woman’s point of view, the film is also a deeply nuanced portrait of Black love, with keen insights into evolving gender roles and Black affluence in the golden age of hip-hop and NBA superstardom. From its psychologically expressive gameplay scenes to its inventive sensuality (a game of strip-hoops stands out), Love & Basketball reinvigorated the sports drama, and paved a path for its reinvention. [Beatrice Loayza]
David Mamet channels his caustic wit and cynicism into a Preston Sturges-esque ensemble comedy about a Hollywood production that takes over a tiny Vermont town. The big-fish-in-a-small-pond premise is nothing new, but a cast of ringers (William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alec Baldwin, among others) livens it up, as does Mamet’s singular rhythmic dialogue. Line for line, State And Main is the funniest American film of the year, but its politics have aged curiously well, too—not something that can be said about many other works by this playwright-turned-filmmaker. The second half hinges on the production’s desperate attempts to cover up their star’s sexual abuse, and the film nails the moral cowardice from almost everyone involved, whose rationalizing rhetoric frequently plays like the most cringeworthy defenses from #MeToo’s worst offenders. Mamet’s conclusion is depressingly salient: When enough money and power is involved, “doing the right thing” has little real-world value beyond the protection of one’s soul. Turns out the film, much like the film-within-a-film, really is about purity. [Vikram Murthi]
Not since his alter ego hurled a trashcan through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria had Spike Lee tapped so directly into his own righteous anger. Combining elements of past showbiz indictments like Network and The Producers, this scathing satire follows a Black TV executive (Damon Wayans) whose scheme to free himself from his contract backfires spectacularly when his deliberately offensive creation—a throwback minstrel variety show, set on a watermelon patch and starring Black actors in blackface—becomes an improbable hit with viewers and critics alike. Lee overstuffs the film with subplots, broad supporting characters, and editorializing asides, but he never loses sight of his thesis: how dehumanizing stereotypes have evolved over the decades, taking on the cosmopolitan shape of “edgy” comedy and satire itself to wedge themselves deeper into the cracks and crevices of our pop culture. Grossly underrated upon release, Bamboozled looks timelier than ever as the lie of a post-racial America has crumbled in broad daylight; the only thing dated about the film is its hideous digital cinematography. [A.A. Dowd]
Even though all the short stories in Denis Johnson’s 1992 collection Jesus’ Son are narrated by the same guy—a sloppy junkie known only as “Fuckhead”—the book seemed like unlikely fodder for a movie adaptation, given that its vignettes are often grotesque, surreal, and only loosely connected. But director Alison Maclean, a team of screenwriters, and star Billy Crudup (ably supported by an eclectic cast of top-shelf character actors) found a meaningful narrative in Johnson’s work, turning it into a picaresque story of life on the margins. The sweet, soulful Fuckhead—speaking throughout in Crudup’s quirkily halting voice—takes us on a tour through the strange and darkly comic lives of drug dealers and users in America’s heartland. Even as he himself tries to find a way out of addiction, the man remains a keen observer of humanity at its best and worst—never judging, ever-marveling. [Noel Murray]
The North Carolina of George Washington is a liminal space between naturalism and romanticism, between the harsh realities of an impoverished America and the dreams of its young inhabitants. Following a group of mostly Black adolescents over one of those sweltering last summers of childhood that maybe exist only in the movies, David Gordon Green’s micro-budget first feature remains one of the great indie debuts of the new millennium—and for Green himself, a tough act to follow, which may explain the zigzagging course his career has taken in the years since, swerving from Hollywood stoner comedies to slasher reboots. If the filmmaker never returned to the earnest magic of George Washington—a young man’s movie in every sense—plenty of others tried to conjure it anew; just as Green drew from the 1970s triumphs of Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett, his own swoony style has echoed through Sundance sensations and jeans commercials. [A.A. Dowd]
“What do you love about music?” teenage journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) asks Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the “guitarist with mystique” in mid-tier 1970s rock band Stillwater. “To begin with, everything,” Russell says, cutting through the toxicity, ego, and hubris that Cameron Crowe depicts with simultaneous honesty and warmth over the preceding two hours (or two and a half, in the luxurious director’s cut) of his semi-autobiographical dramedy. William is supposed to maintain skepticism as he tags along on Stillwater’s cross-country tour, but he can’t help falling in love with the poetic fruitlessness of a struggling, occasionally transcendent band—and with world’s greatest fan Penny Lane, brought to life by a never better Kate Hudson. For that matter, has anyone in this movie ever been better elsewhere? Even heavyweights like Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman match their best work in an ensemble that imbues every player with palpable joy and sadness as they live, breathe, and yell at each other. Crowe loves hokey 1973 rock ’n’ roll, sure, but he loves his characters even more. [Jesse Hassenger]
Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou? has a shaggy-dog quality to it, as if the brothers were still shaking off a White Russian-and-Maui Wowie hangover from The Big Lebowski. Or maybe it’s just the humidity, as the writer-directors gather up a whole mess of 1930s pop cultural signifiers, wrap them up into a bindle, and embark on a joyful ramble through the Depression-era South. The name of the film is a reference to Preston Sturges’ screwball classic Sullivan’s Travels, and the structure is cribbed from Homer’s Odyssey, but the true heart of the film lies in the more homespun art form of its bluegrass soundtrack. George Clooney brings movie-star charisma to the proceedings as Everett, leader of a bumbling trio of escaped convicts; he’s accompanied by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as Pete Hogwallop and Delmar O’Donnell, humble men whose obtuse dispositions can be readily discerned from their Christian patronymics (as the grandiloquent Everett would put it). Offstage, they’re wanted criminals. Onstage they’re the Soggy Bottom Boys, a singing group whose debut song, “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” is better than it has any right to be—both within the film and without. [Katie Rife]
Out of all the selfless women in the Lars von Trier oeuvre, none are subjected to more sadistic anti-karma than Selma (Björk), the nearly blind immigrant factory worker who escapes into imaginary song-and-dance numbers in Dancer In The Dark. Yet the Danish provocateur’s 1960s-set take on the Hollywood musical is one of his most fluid and compelling works. Despite the deglamorized video aesthetic (which includes complex musical fantasy sequences cut together from a variety of static, surveillance-like angles), von Trier’s signature blend of emotional manipulation and deconstructive distancing effects is as heightened as ever, drawing the film’s disarming sincerity to a grim conclusion. The behind-the-scenes relationship between the director and Björk was notoriously toxic, but good luck finding any evidence of it on screen in this vision of punished innocence. That someone like Selma couldn’t exist in our world is ultimately the point. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Amid all the poverty and abuse and harrowing deaths typical of British miserablism, Lynne Ramsay salvages beauty, compassion, and precious life to reach a high-water mark of that pejoratively termed movement. In her debut feature, the 30-year-old Scot resisted the bludgeoning dourness that hangs over many superficially similar neorealist dramas, matching her unsparing depictions of trauma and hardship in ’70s Glasgow with passages of arresting lyrical wonder. A mouse tied to a balloon sails to the moon and joins a colony of its happy brethren; in the most transcendent scene, our boy James (a durable yet vulnerable William Eadie) climbs through a window and takes off into an Elysian field of wheat, fleet and free. He’s got plenty worth escaping, which Ramsay duly articulates. And yet like the protagonists of the other three films in the compact Ramsay canon, he has no choice but to forge ahead out of the darkness, one way or another. [Charles Bramesco]
Before Lost In Translation established Sofia Coppola as one of the foremost authorities on boredom and ennui, her dreamy debut—an adaptation of the celebrated novel by Jeffrey Eugenides—offered a radical, haunting portrait of girlhood and thwarted puberty draped in floral print and soft pink. Who were the Lisbon girls, and why did they decide to take their own lives? These questions linger in the minds of a group of neighborhood boys, whose perspective we adopt as they struggle to understand these mythical young women and their fiery ringleader, Lux (a luminous Kirsten Dunst). Countering the inadequate words of her male narrator, Coppola steeps the film in intoxicating, impressionistic imagery—white dresses with grass stains, a sweater clinging to a bare shoulder, glossy magazines and sluggish bodies spread out on a carpet. The Virgin Suicides is that rare coming-of-age film in which the mystery of the teenage girl coexists with a palpable understanding of what it feels like to be one, stifled and yearning for more. [Beatrice Loayza]
Long overshadowed by The Age Of Innocence (which boasts bigger movie stars and a legendary director working against type), Terence Davies’ exquisitely odd take on Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel nonetheless ranks among the very greatest literary adaptations of the past two decades. Davies somehow recognized a hitherto untapped quality in Gillian Anderson, who was still known almost exclusively as Dana Scully at the time (the film was shot between seasons seven and eight of The X-Files); her performance as Lily Bart, a poor and independent-minded woman struggling to maintain her tenuous place in high society, is so intensely deliberate that it creates the impression of someone treating her very existence as a theatrical role, striving to keep it sufficiently diverting that potential benefactors don’t lose interest. The film opens with a tone of wry amusement and moves inexorably, almost imperceptibly, toward resigned devastation. [Mike D’Angelo]
When it first premiered, American Psycho was seen as a very specific satire of 1980s culture. But its story of a murderous Wall Street investment banker has only proven more and more timeless since. In adapting Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial 1991 novel, director Mary Harron and her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, pared down the book’s violence, upped its satire, and added a pointed feminist lens. And they anchored the film around the darkest of jokes: The average entitled finance bro is literally indistinguishable from a serial killer. Christian Bale’s egoless performance is key to selling the humor of Patrick Bateman’s vanity-obsessed, embarrassingly uncool world of competitive machismo, where business card pissing contests and restaurant reservation anxiety are the norm. (Good luck getting a table at Dorsia.) Thanks to Harron’s pitch-perfect mastery of tone, American Psycho is alternately disturbing, absurd, and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also a prescient warning about the intertwining dangers of capitalism and toxic masculinity. [Caroline Siede]
The Chinese film industry was in a state of flux in 2000, as the 1997 handover of Hong Kong and China’s impending entry to the World Trade Organization threatened to upset old balances of power. Still, no one expected a wuxia throwback from a Taiwanese director already ensconced in Hollywood to popularize the more romantic side of Chinese-language action filmmaking for the international masses. Ang Lee’s sweeping, balletic throwback enchanted viewers (and blew minds) around the world. Featuring a cast that included bona fide superstars Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Cheng Pei-pei—as well as standout newcomer Zhang Ziyi—this elegantly choreographed tale set in 18th-century China introduced millions of viewers to the exhilarating artistry of Chinese sword-and-chivalry martial arts epics. And they responded to the tune of more than $200 million worldwide. [Katie Rife]
A wayward soul (Mark Ruffalo) returns to his charming but stifling hometown to visit his more responsible sister (Laura Linney). Together, the two reflect on their past, present, and future, working through their trust issues. The premise of this first feature from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, who’d go on to make Margaret and Manchester By The Sea, sounds like the dreariest kind of indie drama. But Lonergan’s writing and staging—coupled with two heartbreakingly vivid lead performances—is so bracingly present, revealing who these people are through what they do, in scenes that are often short and to the point. You Can Count On Me expresses its themes in simple slice-of-life moments, where something as basic as whether a flighty family member can reliably perform a daily errand provokes edge-of-the-seat suspense. [Noel Murray]
A reverie of physicalities and opacities transforms Claire Denis’ reimagining of the unfinished Herman Melville novella Billy Budd into an enigmatic ballet. At a Foreign Legion camp in Djibouti where recruits spend their days in training drills and their nights in local dance clubs, an officer (the singular Denis Lavant) becomes consumed with jealousy toward a young legionnaire (Grégoire Colin). Though rich in references and subtexts, this masterpiece is beautifully resistant to intellectualization. From its opening moments, one is simply invited to go with the flow, as Denis weaves her fascinations (among them male bodies, music, and the African countries of her childhood) into a frequently wordless movie that feels equal parts improvised and permeated with poetic double meanings, building to a transcendent final shot. Beau Travail remains Denis’ most celebrated work, and one of the essential art films of the turn of the millennium. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Edward Yang knew life was bittersweet. Why else would he begin his final film at a wedding and end it with a funeral? Yi Yi, a serene masterpiece of longing, regret, and commiseration, unfolds over the year (and three hours of running time) separating these events. The late, great Taiwanese director gracefully juggles the relationship woes of a middle-aged father (Wu Nien-jen), his teenage daughter (Kelly Lee), and his financially irresponsible brother-in-law (Xisheng Chen), in wide shots so artfully composed they could be displayed in a museum. He creates some beautiful rhymes, too, as in a passage that intercuts a reunion between estranged lovers with the hesitant courtship of a first date. If the filmmaker has an onscreen surrogate, it’s a little boy with a camera, snapping pictures of people’s napes to show them the world from a new perspective. But one can also see a little of Yang, who died of cancer a few years after the film’s release, in the parting, possibly imagined affection of an ailing grandmother, returning from the brink of oblivion to offer some solace before she goes. In a way, isn’t that what Yang gave us with this magnificent swan song: a farewell as comforting as a warm embrace? [A.A. Dowd]