Adam Spector's Top 10 of 2000

Listen closely and you can hear the sobbing. No, it's not from Florida ballot counters, it's not from Wall Street traders or even from Washington Wizards season ticket holders. The crying is that of critics and entertainment journalists about the state of films in 2000. It's the worst in ten years. No, the worst in 25 years. No, according to a USA Today article, it's the worst in the history of sound movies. Stop whining, it's not that bad. So many people fell all over themselves about the 1999 crop, which, according to Entertainment Weekly, was "the year that changed movies" that 2000 was bound to be a disappointment. But the pendulum swung too far and 2000 was over-pilloried as much as 1999 was overpraised. And who says critics don't like melodrama?

All right, maybe 2000 was not a banner year. No film captured the public's imagination like The Sixth Sense, advanced visual effects like The Matrix, or had quite as innovative a story as Being John Malkovich. But the year was no drought. Some films did break new ground, while others took established formulas and tweaked them to perfection. As evidence, I offer my "Honorable Mention" list -- films that did not crack my Top Ten, but proved entertaining and even thought-provoking:

Beautiful People
Before Night Falls
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovich
Love and Basketball
Nurse Betty
Shadow of the Vampire
Wonder Boys

That leaves my Top Ten, an eclectic mix of films, some of which dazzled through their visuals, and others that won me over with earnest simplicity. Some served as a showcase for emerging talents, while others showed the range of some old pros. But as with the Top Ten of any other years, these films displayed an intelligence in its story and characters and never shortchanged the audience.

10. Billy Eliot (dir. Stephen Daldry)

A poor kid overcomes enormous obstacles to realize his dream. Yeah, we've seen that in films before. But Billy Eliot is able to be moving without feeling manipulative. Daldry avoids cliches and gives characters that are so believable and interesting that a whole film could be made about any one of them. He deftly contrasts Billy's dream of ballet dancing with the striking workers' struggle for fair wages in his British mining town. Jamie Bell is completely natural and comfortable in the title role, and he is helped by stellar supporting performances from Julie Walters as his teacher and Gary Lewis as his father. Hey, any film that can get me to care about ballet has to be an achievement.

9. Traffic (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Many films have explored drug addiction, and many others have delved into the world of drug trafficking, but few have done both. Soderbergh effortlessly glides among three interlocking stories, all of which illustrate the substantial, but varied impact that drugs have on the lives of the disparate characters. Soderbergh gives each of these stories (all of which he photographed himself) a distinct look. His hand-held documentary-style camerawork lets you feel like you are eavesdropping as life unfolds. He also coaxes some wonderful performances from his talented cast, particularly Benicio Del Toro as a determined but weary Mexican cop, Michael Douglas as the U.S. drug czar who has to struggle with his own daughter's addiction, and newcomer Erika Christensen as the drug czar's daughter.

8. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (dir. Aviva Kempner)

Kempner's documentary provides a strong sense of the time and place as well as the man. She illustrates Greenberg's greatness as a baseball player without neglecting his personal qualities and his life outside the ballfield. This by itself is a remarkable but Kempner also shows what Greenberg meant to American Jews in the 1930s and 40s when they were often made to feel like outsiders and Anti-Semitism was still prevalent. From interviews with Greenberg's fans, the film lets you see how Greenberg's acceptance as an American hero made American Jews believe that they could belong too.

7. Chicken Run (dir. Peter Lord and Nick Park)

One of 2000's great ironies is that Chicken Run's old-fashioned claymation trounced the state-of-the art computer graphics of Dinosaur. Perhaps that's because Lord and Park understand that animated films are no less dependent on story and character than live-action films. Chicken Run does not lack for hijinks and adventure but also features clever humor that includes spoofs of Alien, Star Trekand the Indiana Jones films. Chicken Run's very premise is a homage to some of the great POW films such as The Great Escape and Stalag 17. Lord and Park combine visual treats like a monstrous chicken pot pie machine with the witty interplay among the hens of Coop 17, their determined leader, and the cocky stunt rooster Rocky. Like the Toy Story series and the Muppet movies, Chicken Run satisfies children without boring the adults.

6. Meet the Parents (dir. Jay Roach)

Sometimes the funniest comedies come form the most basic concepts. Take The Odd Couple. Meet the Parents milks laughs out of some very common anxieties. While there are some brilliant physical moments, the humor really flows from Greg Focker's insecurities and awkwardness in trying to win over his girlfriend's domineering father. Of course the harder he tries, the deeper a hole he digs for himself. The story builds on the basic conflict by placing Focker (Ben Stiller) in the worst possible situations and placing more obstacles in his path, including his girlfriends near-perfect ex. Roach helps himself by the dead-on casting of Stiller and Robert De Niro. He perfectly harnesses their talents, particularly Stiller who is at his best playing a decent guy driven to the edge. Even when Meet the Parents veers a little toward sentimentality at the end, Stiller brings it back during the final scene with a hilarious riff.

5. You Can Count on Me (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

The seemingly simple story about an uptight repressed sister and her irresponsible drifter brother gradually becomes more complex and involving, not through any cheap gimmicks but through their relating to each other and the world around them. Writer-Director Lonegran takes his time, gives his characters space and lets the story flow through them. You Can Count on Me is one of the best films about family dynamics, as it explores how family members fall into certain roles and how they react differently to life-changing events (in this case the death of their parents when they were little). Laura Linney and Mark Rufalo give wonderful, understated performances that draw you into the film. Lonnegan also gets strong supporting work from Matthew Broderick (going against type as an anal, petty bank manager) and Rory Culkin (in the second best child performance of the year, after Jamie Bell).

4. High Fidelity (dir. Stephen Frears)

"It's not what you are, it's who you like." Such is the mantra of Rob Gordon (John Cusack) and the denizens of Championship Vinyl, who do not just think about music, but think through music. High Fidelity draws you into the world of obsessive fandom, where your Top Five albums define who you are. The film's freewheeling structure fits the story perfectly, giving Rob the opportunity to relate his love of music and his struggles with women directly to the audience and showing how they are intertwined. You can identify with Rob while still laughing at his frailties, faults, prejudices and insecurities. Frears also skillfully plays Rob off against his two assistants -- the yin/yang team of Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso). Black's manic intensity and Louiso's mild-mannered drollness together almost steal the film. High Fidelity is perfect for those who feel the same way about movies as the characters in the film feel about music.

3. Almost Famous (dir. Cameron Crowe)

Crowe's semi-autobiographical film also explores a fan's love of music. But here the story is more about the relationship with the bands themselves, and the young fan is also a reporter. Crowe beautifully recreates the early 70s rock scene though the eyes of his surrogate William, a 15-year-old sent to cover the band Stillwater for Rolling Stone. Like any teenager, William wants to belong, especially to this world. William struggles with his adoration of the band's charismatic lead guitarist (Billy Crudup) and his growing love for Stillwater's lead groupie (the luminous Kate Hudson). But the real conflict is between his fandom and his journalistic obligations. Does he tell the story he wants to write (and that Stillwater would like him to write), or does he tell the truth? Crowe tells the story though small strokes, setting Williams coming-of-age against rock's evolution. Frances McDormand, as William's mother, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as rock critic Lester Bangs, provide a critical moral center and outside perspective Almost Famous combines a fan's love with a journalist's precision and the result is a sweet film that is not sappy or overly nostalgic.

2. Requiem for a Dream (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

While Traffic lets you observe the ravages of drug addiction, Requiem for a Dream places you right smack in the middle. As noted earlier, addiction is not a new subject for film. But Requiem for a Dream shows the universality of addiction by including Sara, a 68-year-old widow, along with the twentysomethings you would expect to see as druggies. Through Sara, the film illustrates that the traits and choices that lead down that path are no more confined by age than they are by race or gender. Aronofsky brings you inside each character for their dreams and hallucinations. His unrelenting camera work and crisp editing take you quickly from one character to the other. Ellen Burstyn is harrowing as Sara, and the rest of the cast is almost as riveting, particularly Marlon Wayans in one of his first dramatic roles. Requiem for a Dream is not an easy film to watch. It's pacing and imagery leave you drained, and its graphic sex and drug use scenes are not for everyone. But for those willing to take the chance, it's an unforgettable and rewarding experience.

1. Cast Away (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Not often can you call a film that has grossed over $200 million underrated. Even though audiences have flocked to Cast Away, the praise seems reserved for Tom Hanks's performance. Hanks certainly deserves commendation for his portrayal of Fed Ex troubleshooter Chuck Noland. But Zemeckis is no less worthy. Together Zemeckis and Hanks tell a personal story that in its own way is as harrowing as Requiem for a Dream. Noland is a self-absorbed driven man obsessed with the clock. We go with him as he loses everything that matters to him, especially time, which is meaningless once he's stranded on a desert island. Unlike Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson, Cast Away does not stress adventure but rather Noland's solitude and metamorphosis. Few films have better explored the power of silence. Zemeckis uses no music or external sounds for the island scenes. The only dialogue is with "Wilson" the volleyball and is actually between different sides of Noland's psyche. Noland's scenes back in the "civilized world" after his rescue have been wrongly labeled the film's weak link. Through these scenes, Zemeckis beautifully illustrates the changes in Noland and his priorities. Hanks's famed weight loss is less important than the way he molds, shapes, and changes Noland. Cast Away is a physical, mental, and spiritual journey that not only takes you along but stays with you long after you leave the theater.