Of all the lousy years to start reviewing movies.
There I was on "Catholic Answers Live," earnestly defending the cultural and human value of movies as an art form and as entertainment, citing Vatican II’s Inter Mirifica on how movies and other forms of communications media can "greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction"; and meanwhile what was Hollywood doing?
Making bad movies, for the most part; but also making money. Movies this year were so bad that theater attendance was at an almost ten-year low; yet, paradoxically, box office revenues hit record highs — thanks largely to increased ticket prices. Never before have so few paid so much to see so little.
Some movies this year were so bad that nobody saw them… including me. Even Adam Sandler fans, who’ve made Sandler one of the most bankable stars of recent years, had the sense to stay away from Little Nicky, the Adam Sandler movie from hell. Even Scientologists, who’ve got a long history of artificially inflating sales of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s books, didn’t bring box-office salvation for the catastrophic big-budget sci-fi flop Battlefield Earth starring Scientologist John Travolta and based on Hubbard’s novel.
The big audiences that in previous years made smash hits out of remakes and adaptations like The Flintstones, 101 Dalmatians, and The Nutty Professor failed to return for this year’s crop of sequels to the remakes (The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas; 102 Dalmatians; Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps — the exception being Mission: Impossible 2, which outgrossed its blockbuster predecessor). As far as I know, none of this year’s sequels (except maybe Rugrats in Paris, which I didn’t see) was any good at all. (Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows may be the worst of the bunch.)
But other, equally bad movies were box-office gold. The huge
winner, of course, was How
the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ron Howard and Jim Carrey’s
bloated, depressing, revisionist extravaganza. Another big hit
was the ultra-crude Scary Movie, a horror spoof that — in
the name of "comedy" — perhaps got away with more than an
Of course, bad movies didn’t get all the box-office glory. Fair-to-middling movies got some too (The Perfect Storm; Gladiator; The Patriot); and a few hits (X-Men; Chicken Run) were actually quite good. But I’ll have more to say about them later.
What about the year’s best films? Critics are drawing up "Top Ten" lists, mostly consisting of movies no one saw: Almost Famous, Requiem For a Dream, Pollock, Quills, Wonder Boys, The Contender (see article). Many of these (not all) I haven’t seen myself (some, like Quills, I have no desire to see, ever).
Yet, looking at the movies I have seen this year, I’m not sure I could come up with a credible top-ten list of my own. Of course, the very idea of trying to list and rank the year’s all-around "best" movies is somewhat foreign to the spirit of the Decent Films Guide, which makes a point of considering separately a film’s artistic and entertainment value on the one hand, and its moral and spiritual value on the other.
The 1995 Vatican film guide, which listed 45 of the most outstanding films of all time, was even more discriminating, with its three-fold distinction between films that were noteworthy from the point of view of Religion, Art, and Values. For the purposes of day-in, day-out movie reviews, I find it helpful to consider "moral and spiritual value" together rather than to try to make a distinction between "religion" and "values" (which wouldn’t be applicable to most movies anyway, and would only further complicate ratings information). Still, over the course of a year, it might not be too much to hope that one film might distinguish itself in its depiction of religious themes or subject matter and another in its treatment of human values and moral affections.
Granted, this wasn’t the best year to make that case (1997,
with The Apostle on
the one hand and Life is Beautiful or
Amistad on the
other, would have been better). Nevertheless, following the
categories of the Vatican film list, here are the first annual
Decent Films Guide Awards for the year’s
best films with respect to Art, Religion, and Values (see the
full reviews for ratings information, including appropriate-age
This was not a year of daring creative experimentation or bold cinematic achievement. With a few exceptions like Requiem For a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s merciless depiction of drug addiction and squalor, moviemakers generally didn’t even try to push the boundaries of the medium. A handful of critics were thrilled by The Cell’s odious horror-show; but the movie’s slick, soulless imagery, though undeniably powerful, was just recycled Goth music-video fare and hipper-than-thou visual quotations from artists like Damien Hirst.
But Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands apart from the crowd. Images of startling directness and mysterious power, almost dreamlike action sequences, a contemplative, languorous narrative style, and magnificent vistas of Chinese landscapes and classical architecture all come together in this film to create a sense of mythic power and epic grandeur in a fantasy world of larger-than-life, mystical hero-warriors. Poetic and dazzling, this is a movie to delight the senses and fire the imagination. Even if you don’t like martial arts, you should see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The quest for a film of special religious significance among this year’s crop is more daunting. In 1998 we had The Prince of Egypt, and The Apostle in 1997; but among this year’s theatrical releases there was nothing similar; no film of any religious significance comparable to the artistic achievement of Crouching Tiger.
Among small-screen productions, it’s worth noting that DreamWorks followed up The Prince of Egypt with a direct-to-DVD/VHS animated "prequel", Joseph: King of Dreams. Though a much more modest effort than its predecessor, Joseph: King of Dreams is a worthwhile and enjoyable retelling of the biblical story of the patriarch Joseph and his brothers that will appeal to Jewish as well as Christian parents looking for edifying entertainment for their children.
There was also the Hallmark/NBC miniseries In the Beginning, another production in the vein of Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, and Arabian Nights. None of these efforts have ever been especially good, though some (Merlin) have been more watchable than others (The 10th Kingdom). While last year’s Noah’s Ark was atrocious, In the Beginning was relatively watchable - some cringingly bad attempts at impressive imagery and a few unjustified liberties notwithstanding.
But neither In the Beginning nor even Joseph: King of Dreams holds a candle to another small-screen production: The Miracle Maker, the BBC’s reverent, well-crafted animated retelling of the ministry of Jesus. Working with astoundingly lifelike stop-motion animation for the main narrative, traditional animation for flashbacks and other special sequences, and computer-aided effects here and there, the filmmakers have done something almost revolutionary: they have basically followed the unadorned gospel narratives, resisting at every turn the temptation to editorialize or spin the story. This is more than a remarkable animated film; it ranks among the all-time noteworthy depictions of the gospel story in any media. Even if you don’t like animation, you should see The Miracle Maker.
Among theatrically released films, alas, the picture is grimmer. Probably the most noteworthy and interesting depiction of religious faith and culture in a theatrical film this year was in Return To Me. This charming romantic comedy starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver features a refreshingly positive depiction of piety and folksy Catholic devotion among its Irish and Italian supporting characters, led by Carroll O’Connor and Robert Loggia. For once, religion in a film is neither a punchline nor a scapegoat, nor any other kind of plot point, but is simply taken for granted as a healthy part of the characters’ milieu — a common assumption in movies fifty or sixty years ago, but not, alas, any more. Even if you don’t like David Duchovny, you should see Return To Me.
Like religion, values had a weak movie year: no The Straight Story (1999); no Life is Beautiful or Amistad (1997); no Dead Man Walking (1995). Again, there was the cautionary anti-drug message of Requiem For a Dream; but that film’s imagery was so brutal and degrading (it was released unrated to avoid an NC-17) that some have questioned the moral value of its cinematic shock therapy (see the ).
What this year did have was Frequency, a paranormal thriller with a surprisingly human heart. Behind its deceptively simple premise (a freak accident allows a grown man to speak across the decades with his father in the past) is a story that celebrates fatherhood and sonship, touches upon the mystery of masculinity and feminity, explores the legacy of family, honors the heroism of parents, pays tribute to the nobility of uniformed heroes (firefighters and policemen and nurses), and revels in the love of baseball. The film also engages our profound longing to transcend the constraints of time, to see the wrongs of the past somehow set right. Even if you don’t like baseball, you should see Frequency.
Note: When I originally identified the 2000 DFG Awards winners, I restricted the awards to the three main categories. Although there were other films I wanted to acknowledge, I had not yet determined how I would do this.
The creation of the "Bonus Awards" allows me to acknowledge on
a year-by-year basis films that excel in one way or another
without committing myself to set categories. I am therefore
retroactively awarding two bonus awards to 2000 films: Chicken Run for Family
Chicken Run comes from Oscar-winning British claymation master Nick Park, creator of the quirkily brilliant Wallace and Gromit shorts, and fellow animator Peter Lord. A hilariously nutty homage to old World War II-prison escape movies, it was a big hit both with children and with their parents. In a year of almost unmitigated dreck in family entertainment, Chicken Run was a must-see gem.
Marking the triumphant return of the super-hero movie, Bryan Singer’s X-Men was arguably the best film in the genre since the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, appealing to fans and casual viewers alike (and completely obliterating the bad taste left by the failure of the Batman franchise). Classy British actors Patrick Stewart (Star Trek’s Captain Picard) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf in the upcoming Lord of the Rings trilogy) brought Shakespearean dignity to this compelling tale of prejudice and tolerance. (By contrast, an unconventional super-hero movie from M. Night Shyamalan, the eagerly awaited Unbreakable, was a clever but unsatisfying follow-up to last year’s smash hit The Sixth Sense.)
As a postscript, I can’t resist mentioning one of X-Men’s deleted scenes that can still be seen in the DVD/VHS release: a sympathetic description of the persecutions of the early Church and the conversion of Constantine. In this scene, Storm (Halle Berry) lectures at Professor Xavier’s school on the sufferings of the early Christians and Constantine’s conversion, specifically mentioning Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky, the legitimization of Christianity, and the crosses Constantine’s troops bore on their shields. This deleted scene ties thematically into the main plot of the film; it’s a shame it was cut from the main continuity.
Triumphs like X-Men and Crouching Tiger aside, 2000 was a year for modest 3-star action movies. Clint Eastwood led an all-codger cast in Space Cowboys, an entertainingly swaggering rebuttal to 1998’s chaotic, overwrought Armageddon; and Matthew Maconaughey gave a stripped-down, competent performance in the stripped-down, competent submarine movie U-571, a taut caper flick set in the second World War. The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, was a manipulative but heartfelt and sometimes rousing caricature of the Revolutionary War; while Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was a less involving but more intriguing look at second-century Rome.
Less worthwhile than any of these, but more successful in the box office, were The Perfect Storm, a special-effects extravaganza marred by confusing storytelling, and Mission: Impossible 2, which not even John Woo’s stylish set pieces could save after a disastrously lethargic first hour.
For martial-arts fans, on the other hand, it was a very good year. In addition to Crouching Tiger, the most opulent and aesthetically satisfying martial-arts movie of all time, not one but two Jackie Chan films were also in theaters. The first, costarring Owen Wilson, was Shanghai Noon, the latest mainstream "buddy" film in Jackie’s new Hollywood career (and the follow-up to the popular Rush Hour, costarring Chris Tucker). A goofy cross between a traditional Western and a chop-socky film, interspersing sly allusions to other Westerns with low humor including comedic drunkenness, Shanghai Noon was an enjoyable trifle of a film for those with a taste for that sort of thing.
The year’s other Jackie Chan film was a redubbed rerelease of one of Jackie’s most popular Hong Kong films, the much less mainstream The Legend of Drunken Master (originally released in 1994 as Drunken Master 2, the sequel to the first Drunken Master film that made Jackie a star). Possibly the greatest kung-fu movie of all time, this film featured some of the most virtuoso displays of martial-arts skill and choreography ever filmed, including an enormous set piece in which Jackie and an ally single-handedly defend themselves against a veritable army of hatchet-wielding opponents. With broad humor so low as to make Shanghai Noon look like Crouching Tiger, and as slipshod in construction as the Ang Lee film is polished, The Legend of Drunken Master is certainly not for everyone; but special fans of the genre will be dazzled.
Finally, still playing in theaters at this writing are 2000 releases Cast Away and Traffic, a pair of complex, intriguing films. Tom Hanks gives a riveting performance in Cast Away, a film about a man marooned on an uninhabited island, and what happens to him afterward; while Traffic offers a thought-provoking exploration of the seemingly intractable reality of international drug trade. Not yet in wide distribution is the eagerly awaited Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalized look at the making of the landmark 1922 silent vampire film Nosferatu (listed in the Vatican film list under the heading "Art") with an outrageous central conceit.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.