Note: This essay was originally published as part of the Counting Down the Zeroes film series.
Here are my selections for favorite films from the year 2000, ranked alphabetically. Eligible films received a first-run theatrical release in the United States during the year. Honorable mentions have been capped at ten.
(d. Ang Lee / Taiwan)
One of the few films to be nominated for Oscars in both the Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film categories, Ang Lee's mythical martial arts spectacular blew many away upon its debut in 2000 and still, I'd argue, has the ability at the very least to ruffle your hair on subsequent viewings. Although the film has many qualities you wouldn't necessarily associate with action films—it's a period piece, decorated with classic romanticism and serenity and laced with a strong feminist edge—it is nonetheless a declarative example of the well-thought and well-made action film that values plot and character but still knows how to delight the eye. Lee recruited the choreographer of The Matrix (Yuen Woo Ping) to plan his fighting sequences, many of which defy gravity but, fitting with the film's mythos, feel more authentic and less gimmicky than the previous film. This is a top-to-bottom example of glorious filmmaking.
(d. David Gordon Green / USA)
This first feature film of David Gordon Green, made when he was 25 and coming out of film school in North Carolina, is a depository of my dictionary's adjectives: lyrical, stirring, mysterious, haunting, etc. And yet the best adjective to describe this independent film — Malickian — hearkens back to a different sort of language and can't be found between the covers of Webster. Green's proficiency is best demonstrated through the on-screen laconism captured by cinematographer Tim Orr, set in a hollowed out but ethnically diverse southern town with a postcards-from-the-wasteland sort of feel. There are some ways in which George Washington reflect Green's youthfulness and inexperience (as J. Hoberman put it, his "intentions are as obscure as his command of film craft is unclear — his originality is indistinguishable from his mistakes"), but instead of detracting from the experience, they are unexpectedly enriching.
(d. Stephen Frears / USA)
The things men do in High Fidelity — forming top-five lists where any subject is eligible for enumeration; hypothetically pitting one artist against another; drifting untethered through the land mines of love and commitment — are not new, but the vibrant appeal of Stephen Frears' adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel is an experience of equal parts freshness and joy. So much of that is owed to the voice, not only in Hornby's words through the characters but in Frears' language, which blends the past with the present with impressive and hilarious trenchancy.
(d. Darren Aronofsky / USA)
From its expressionistic cinematography to the frightening suddenness of its descent into a virtually unwatchable final half-hour, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream is a sensory and cinematic overload. This tale of four desperate addicts and their nightmarish fates is ultimately depressing as hell in its story and thematic elements, but a conversely enthralling display of pure cinema. Ellen Barkin delivers the performance of the year as an amphetamine-addled widow who dreams of the attention and love a moment on television could bring to her lonely life.
(d. Roger Donaldson / USA)
The eyes of a film critic are on a constant scour for works of originality and excitement, but sometimes excitement proves itself to be enough. There is not much fresh earth upturned in Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days, a potboiler political thriller documenting the Cuban Missile Crisis inside the Kennedy administration, but it is swift, urgent, and punchy. The point-of-view character is Kenneth O'Donnell, a real aide to the president, who lets us observe the cool intellect of JFK (a gallant Bruce Greenwood) in the crossfire of his cabinet secretaries, his military advisers, and his conscience. Even if its core demographic trends more toward The History Channel set, Thirteen Days satisfies the cinematic desire for excitement in multiple ways.
(d. Steven Soderbergh / USA)
Determined to make a film about drugs that didn't revolve around addicts, director Steven Soderbergh pursued an American adaptation of a U.K. mini-series chronicling three interwoven tales of the effects drugs have society. His resulting film, Traffic, is a knock-out in every sense of the word. The greatest successes are when Soderbergh holds close to look, pace, and balance of documentary, and the information can be compelling and clear without becoming didactic. Although the film went on to win numerous Oscars — supporting actor for Benecio del Toro, adapted screenplay for Stephen Gaghan, director for Soderbergh, and an honor for editing — there's still a compelling impression of individuality and independence to Traffic, echoed by the fact that all major Hollywood studios passed on the film and, fittingly, ate their hats in the end.
(d. Abbas Kiarostami / Iran)
Stark, spiritual, and endlessly rewarding, The Wind Will Carry Us is Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's poetic statement on a well-lived life. An engineer arrives at a small, secluded town, his immediate purpose there a mystery to both the villagers and the audience. As the film unfolds we follow the engineer as he makes contact with the community and the outside world, in a delicate pace that keeps us both guessing and utterly engaged. The cinematography is similarly slow but savors the barren world and its few surprisingly bountiful elements. In a lovely way it's all there before us, even if we are at first blind to it. It's a fulfillment of the correlation famously espoused by Ernest Hemingway's iceberg theory: 90 percent of the world may be hidden from view, but nonetheless its sensations can reverberate. Kiarostami knows that and is determined that we feel each subtle shock.
(d. Curtis Hanson / USA)
At once both a humiliating and necessary thing to admit, I appreciate Wonder Boys today far more than I did upon its release in 2000. This is the tale of a stymied writer and professor whose world seemingly falls apart (or does it?) in the course of a weekend-long literary festival at the university where he teaches. I've tried to put my finger on what it is I failed to connect with on the first past — too young? too idealistic? too ingenuous? — but this time Wonder Boys spoke to the self-exiled adversity in art in a way that few films that attempt the topic do. Michael Douglas, who stars as the writer and professor, had a banner year in 2000 with this film and Traffic, but his performance here is careful and smoldering with a relatable lukewarmness. Although still revered by many, today the film glows like a hidden gem to me.
(d. Edward Yang / Taiwan)
The most strikingly beautiful aspect of Edward Yang's masterful Yi Yi are the numerous reflections: lights and silhouettes rippling in windows, a longing stare out into nothingness but also a stare into physical figures, into the very humanity of the characters. The motif is staggeringly apropos—this three-hour, multi-layered examination of middle-class family in contemporary Taiwan stares into the very souls of its audience. Like life the film is haunting, funny, tragic, beautiful, ugly, surprising, and comfortably cyclical. Yang also wrote the film, which, despite its length, is one of the most remarkably paced films I've come across. There's nary a moment I would second-guess a decision Yang made in crafting this exquisite film.
Before Night Falls (d. Julian Schnabel); Best in Show (d. Christopher Guest); Chicken Run (d: Peter Lord & Nick Park); Croupier (d. Mike Hodges); Erin Brockovich (d. Steven Soderbergh); Hamlet (d. Michael Almereyda); Jesus' Son (d. Alison Maclean); O Brother, Where Art Thou? (d. Joel & Ethan Coen); Pollock (d. Ed Harris); The Virgin Suicides (d. Sofia Coppola)