As seen in many lists lately, cinema has had various great/important years. Releases from all over the world becoming, high- and low-budget classics shot black and white, color, and sometimes both at the same time, containing gritty stories, happy endings, stellar camera work and career-defining performances have followed cinema’s history since its inception as an entertainment medium.
By 1999, cinema itself was 104 years old and we all wondered what would become of the medium in the new millennium. As 1999 has been deemed one of the most important years in film history, it can be argued that the stylistic and formal importance of ’99 bled into the year 2000 as well.
The action movie was somewhat re-defined and given epic status with Gladiator, also bringing Ridley Scott back into the fold after a lacklustre decade in the 90s. Post-Matrix cinematography and visual effects yielded various blockbusters like The Perfect Storm and X-Men as well as a renewed interest in martial arts action.
Comedies like Meet the Parents and Nurse Betty juggled the awkward/dark comedy styles while The Emperor’s New Groove and How the Grinch Stole Christmas leaned more towards family entertainment. Robert Zemeckis made the world fall in love with a volleyball in Castaway while John Travolta helped produce one of the worst films ever made with Battlefield Earth, showing the studios that reliance on effects and big names are not always a safe bet to make.
M. Night Shyamalan attempted build on his status as a cutting-edge filmmaker with the divisive Unbreakable. Classic iconic actors Walter Matthau, Richard Farnsworth, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, and Jason Robards passed on, allowing us to say farewell to some of cinematic history’s greatest talents.
Yet, despite the technological advancement, Hollywood blockbusters, and overall fare that each year produces cinematically, the year 2000 also saw some important genre- and career-defining works for many directors worldwide. The prestigious Sundance Institute directors from the 90s carried on with some amazing independent and mainstream features while overseas talent showed the West a thing or two about great filmmaking as well.
Independent artists created labors of love that are still talked about to this day and define certain directors’ styles and approaches to film form while the award-winning soundtrack nestled comfortably into the mix for many films of the year.
There is a lot to cover, so here are twenty picks from the year 2000 that solidify its importance in cinematic history.
1. Memento – Christopher Nolan
The world was introduced to Christopher Nolan through his secondary effort, Memento in 2000. Made a couple of years after his independent release Following (1997), Nolan proved his talent with this genre-bending neo-noir told both chronologically backwards and forwards while keeping the mystery hidden from the viewer until the very end regardless of where the film is situated.
Shot in black-and-white as well as in color, the film follows Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator who suffers from short-term amnesia after being attacked in the middle of the night by persons unknown. The assailants also raped and murdered his wife in the attack, which is the last clear memory Leonard can fully form.
Vowing revenge, Leonard uses his tactics as an insurance investigator along with another unique way of retaining his progress: tattooing clues onto his body, in order to find the men responsible for sending his life into a downward spiral. Along the way he teams up with an undercover cop named Teddy and Natalie, a bartender who Leonard has a dark connection with.
Leonard hops from hotel room to hotel room and tries desperately to unravel the mystery surrounding his wife’s death, attempting to formulate as many new memories possible while gaining as many clues as he can out of Teddy and Natalie until the truth is finally revealed.
The film opens with Leonard killing Teddy in cold blood, which adds to the overall mystery of the plot as soon as it gets underway. However, the storyline is able to stay quite linear through the interspersing of the films black-and-white segments, which propel the film forward. The mystery of Leonard Shelby becomes clearer to us as viewers while still remaining one step ahead of the audience through its excellent handling of narrative dissection.
Formally, Nolan borrows from fifty years of mystery storytelling. Rather than have the sleek Philip Marlowe of the film noir years, Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby as a confused, and sometimes bumbling man with a mental condition that everyone seems to forget about.
The story has elements of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, as well as contemporary dark mysteries like David Fincher’s Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs. Giving Christopher Nolan (and to a lesser extent, his brother Jonathan Nolan who wrote the short story the film is based on) credibility as master storytellers. Memento was an underground success due to its style and great application of narrative mystery and was the first in many Nolan projects that bend the ordinary.
2. Amores perros – Alejandro González Iñárritu
A directorial debut that took world cinema by storm, Iñárritu’s network narrative of Mexican life following chaos is an amazingly-layered look into the lives of the rich, the poor, and the disillusioned.
Following a horrible car accident on a busy Mexico City street, the plot divides itself into three parts, each having something to do with the accident, whether they were in close proximity to the accident or if they were responsible for it is made known, but the camera follows each one in lengthy segments taking place both before and after the accident.
The dog motif of each story connects the characters thematically and physically as canines are a large part of the film’s narrative, illustrating loyalty and disunity among human beings.
The first story is about Octavio, a low-level street hood who takes up dogfighting in order to elope with his brother’s girlfriend. The second story is about the relationship between supermodel Valeria and her partner Daniel. Valeria is the victim of the film’s car accident and must stay at home bedridden while she recovers. Things take a turn for the worse when her dog escapes into a hole in the floor and refuses to come out.
Valeria’s relationship with Daniel then becomes heated and questions arise as to why they are together at all. The third and final segment is about El Chivo (“The Goat”), a vagrant with an interesting past who witnesses the car accident at the beginning.
Although appearing as a crusty homeless man, El Chivo is also a hitman with revolutionary ties, he is also a former schoolteacher. His time is spent caring for a pack of stray dogs in an abandoned warehouse in the city and attempting to reconnect with a long-lost daughter. The themes of love, loss and murder darkly connect each story and portray a savage view of everyday life.
Despite this being Iñárritu’s first film, the rule of threes eventually would become a motif for the filmmaker in later projects (21 Grams, Babel) while his focus on inner turmoil and squalor has been a trait of all his works (even more refined in Biutiful and Birdman).
However, if one wants to see his masterful beginnings, Amores perros is a perfect place to start. Although world cinema really took off for Hollywood-loving filmgoers after 9/11, Amores perros (along with a few other world filmmakers works of this time) helped get the ball rolling for talent outside of North America.
3. Requiem for a Dream – Darren Aronofsky
After taking indie cult scenes by storm with his Eraserhead-like debut π (Pi, 1998), Darren Aronofsky released his adaptation of Hubert Selby’s 1978 novel of the same name in 2000. This emotional rollercoaster depicts the horrors of addiction in the same ways that Danny Boyle did five years previously with Trainspotting. However, Aronofsky’s approach offers no redemption in sight as the pangs of addiction creep around everywhere like a spectre and no one comes out unscathed.
A supposed operatic tale of funerary proportions following the lives of a group of Brooklyn youths in the Coney Island area, Requiem for a Dream shows each of them get addicted to heroin, partying, love, and most of all, hope. Barring the tremendous performances from Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans (who has never topped this role since), the top honors go to Ellen Burstyn in her Academy Award-nominated performance as Sara Goldfarb, the mother of Leto’s character, Harry.
While the younger characters get mixed up in drug abuse and dealing, Sara unfortunately suffers from a psychological blow that is of no real fault of her own. Phoned by a talent agency saying she has won an unnamed contest and will be appearing on and undisclosed television show at an unknown date, her widowed life of seclusion is given a whole new meaning. She longs to appear on television in the same red dress she wore to her son’s graduation years before in much simpler times.
Being too large for the dress, but not active enough to lose the weight, Sara is referred to a dietician who prescribes her diet . These , mixed with her own hopes and dreams, become an unholy mixture of hellish torment that begin to parallel the trials and tribulations of her drug-addicted son and his friends.
Dynamically shot with postcard images of Coney Island’s social decay and some cutting-edge cinema vérité-style handheld and steadicam shots make this film amazing to look at while the dark tones and concentrated hues add to the film’s melancholy feel.
The dreary storyline helped solidify this film’s reputation with the adolescent crowd. However, if there is one thing that has carried this film’s reputation over the past decade and a half is Clint Mansell’s haunting score. His composition “Lux Æterna” follows the film’s narrative (divided into the four seasons of the year) and each has a different alteration of the requiem-like nature of the score.
It has been used in many subsequent epic films (like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) and commercials and trailers. Despite the amazing score, this film is also loaded with excellent performances from main stars and bit parts alike (for example, the charismatic Greek Chorus-like role of Christopher Macdonald’s Tappy Tibbons), dynamic cinematography, and horribly bleak storyline make this a film that has yet to be topped in this genre.
4. Code Unknown – Michael Haneke
The first of Haneke’s French film career, Code Unknown took the Austrian director’s thought-provoking narratives outside of his homeland to reveal a detailed network narrative of European xenophobia and miscommunication. Following many characters throughout the entirety of the film, Code Unknown explores racism and family values through complex camera work and slow-flowing storytelling.
The film’s entire title reads Code Unknown: Incomplete Tale of Several Journeys, already preparing the audience for a film with a lack of resolution. Four of these journeys are shown at the beginning of the film in one long fluid handheld take. A French couple walk down the street eventually ridiculing a Romanian beggar.
A Malian immigrant steps in to defend the vagrant and a fight ensues. Despite both immigrants being victims in this situation, the police arrest them instead of the Parisians which results in deportation, beating, and shaming. What follows are lengthy segments following those involved in the misunderstanding, delving into their domestic lives.
Any fan of Haneke’s would praise his use of dynamic cinematography (usually long static shots and images of television screens), and this one is Haneke at his most conceptual. Not only does the camera move seamlessly through chaotic scenes, but it also stays put and captures the faces and demeanors of human beings. Every wrinkle and twitch is caught, and Haneke goes through obvious motions to represent this in many scenes.
A character boards the Paris metro with a switch-operated camera to covertly take portraits of everyday people without them knowing about it, capturing the expressions and demeanors of society in general. Even the classic television shots are there, but in most cases the televisions are turned off and instead focus on the reflections inside the TV monitors.
At times similar to Hitchcock’s Rope while also evocative of the works of Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky, Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown is a masterpiece of film language and is complimented by amazing performances from Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic and Ona Lu Yenke, it is a piece of European cinema that has an eye for the world around it and the problems that snowball due to xenophobic ignorance and misunderstanding.
5. Best in Show – Christopher Guest
Comedian Christopher Guest is no stranger to the mockumentary genre. His successes with cult hits This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and his low-budget independent Waiting for Guffman (1997) are widely documented and his relationship with his regular cast of characters is rock solid. His second effort as a writer-director-star, Best in Show, is one of his sillier yet totally believable films.
The film documents a popular dog show taking place in Philadelphia. Guest’s film follows five of the show’s entrants: goofy Floridian couple Gerry and Cookie Fleck, dysfunctional Chicago married couple Meg and Hamilton Swan, Southern yokel Harlan Pepper (played by Guest himself), trophy wife Sherri Ann Cabot who is attending with no-nonsense dog trainer and lesbian Christy Cummings, and the homosexual couple Scott Donlan and Stefan Venderhoof.
Each has a dog complimenting the respective entrant’s styles and mentalities leading to tension and much hilarity between canine and competitor well before the show gets underway.
Throughout the trip, various plot points are given to illustrate the ridiculousness of each character and their drive to win the competition. While traveling to Philadelphia, it turns out that Cookie Fleck was quite the hussy back in the day much to the surprise of her awkward husband Gerry (who has two literal left feet), the Swan’s infighting creates anxiety for their dog, Sherri Ann and Christy seem to have an obvious attraction to each other yet unsuccessfully mask it for the cameras.
By the time the show begins, each character is familiar enough with the audience to capture the intermingled web of emotions and behaviors.
As stated earlier, being a Christopher Guest project, many of his regulars from his troupe are found in the film: Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, and Guest himself uniquely perform their characters with trademark goofiness and seriousness combined, yet the showstopper of the whole film is Guest regular Fred Willard playing the absent-minded and nonchalantly annoying color commentator Buck Laughlin. It feels like an indie comedy, it feels like a real documentary, it is pure Christopher Guest at his best.
6. George Washington – David Gordon Green
The heyday of 1990s American indie film projects surrounding Robert Redford’s prestigious Sundance Film Academy and the film festival it annually produces was at its peak by the year 2000.
The “Sundance Kids” (a group of popular indie filmmakers from the previous decade including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Steven Soderbergh) each had films either released in 1999 or 2000 (many of which were included in many “1999 was important” lists), but a new generation of Sundance Kids was beginning to take form, most notably through the projects of Darren Aronofsky and David Gordon Green.
As seen above, Aronofsky received critical acclaim for Requiem for a Dream while David Gordon Green went a different direction making strictly independent projects with low-budgets and unknown actors. Green’s debut, George Washington, is part Malick-esque Southern gothic tale à la Badlands and part rural retelling of Larry Clark’s Kids.
Much like Kids, the film contains virtually unknown actors (some in their only cinematic roles) and tells its story through a very toned-down script and masterful handheld cinematography. Although not widely seen at the time of its release, the film garnered many positive reviews and proved to be a successful first attempt at directing by an obvious talent.
The film is told through poetic narration by one of the films characters named Nasia, a twelve-year-old girl from a small North Carolina town containing a tight knit group of friends, both Black and White. Over the course of the film, she breaks up with her thirteen-year-old boyfriend Buddy for the slower and zen-like George who suffers from a soft skull problem.
This is a mere footnote in the film’s larger story which mainly focuses on the activities of the children and young adults living together in this town. It falls into darker Southern gothic territory near the film’s middle and becomes an even more introspective drama as certain characters come to terms with sudden shock and loss.
Introducing the world to David Gordon Green’s Malick-inspired style, George Washington helped gain the young auteur’s reputation and stylistically fuel the auteur’s further projects like Undertow and Prince Avalanche.