UNBREAKABLE (A-2, PG-13)
is a dazzling comic-book superhero fantasy. Bruce Willis is a football
stadium security guard, a self-described “ordinary man,” who slowly
realizes that he has extraordinary powers, including intuition, strength
and apparent indestructibility. Even more importantly, he realizes
he has the obligation to use these gifts to “protect and guard” weak
This sounds like the
opening episode of something like Batman or Spiderman,
but writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (who debuted impressively with
The Sixth Sense) opts for a gloomy, noirish realism that is
convincing and adult. Two people help the hero realize his mission:
His young son (Spencer Treat Clark) and an eccentric art collector
(Samuel L. Jackson in top form) who was born with a disease that makes
his bones very breakable.
The movie suggests deeper
themes beyond the triumph of good. Among them are the later-in-life
discovery of one’s inner strength, and the basic rationality and balance
of existence. It’s the eternal tale we love to hear about heroes who
are destined to rise from the people and save us from evil. Somewhat
slow and over-controlled, but solid multidimensional entertainment;
O.K. for adults and mature youth.
MOVIES AS 2000 ENDS
MOVIES AS 2000 ENDS:
Last year was skimpy, especially if you count as Oscar counts. If
we focus on films actually available to most of us in Y2K, we’re able
to include some late 1999 releases for a respectable Ten Best list.
The most obvious explanation
for lack of choices is that commercial movies tend to be aimed at
younger regular moviegoers to (1) guarantee solid box-office and (2)
have a shot at the big money. These are unlikely to strike audiences
past 35 (25?) as profound drama or comedy experiences.
So-called art films,
which traditionally help critics fill out lists of the best, are in
decline. Most distributors consider The Full Monty (1996) an
art film because it cost little to make, yet it grossed over $200
million worldwide. A true art film, like Kieslowski’s Decalogue,
played eight weeks in Manhattan’s Lincoln Plaza to sold-out houses.
But the profit was modest. Few outside the biggest cities get a chance
to see such films, except on tape.
The Best: These
(in random order) were the best reviewed here in the last 12 months
(and are all highly recommended for video rental).
The Straight Story:
David Lynch’s funny-sad, based-on-reality tale focuses on an old man’s
adventures driving a lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to make peace
with his dying brother.
This elegant, culturally and morally insightful account of the genesis
and staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado includes fascinating
characterizations of the authors and the London stage of a century
Sweet and Lowdown:
Woody Allen mixes his love of jazz and Fellini movies in this poignant
story about an improbable 1930s romance between a gifted but shallow
jazz guitarist (Sean Penn) and a sweet-natured mute (Samantha Morton)
from Atlantic City.
This based-on-fact entertainment focuses on an attractive nice-but-feisty
underdog single mom (Julia Roberts) who helps a small law firm representing
common folk kick the tar out of an arrogant corporate polluter and
its bevy of haughty attorneys. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Clint Eastwood’s wry, John Glenn-inspired adventure about geriatric
astronauts on a space-shuttle mission to rescue an ancient Russian
satellite is a rare combination of fun and spectacle.
Scott’s impressive (yet violent) ancient-Rome movie is not specifically
Christian, but it is idealistic enough to extol both democracy and
the soul’s immortality. Russell Crowe becomes an icon with his tough
portrayal of the death-transcending warrior-hero.
Norman Jewison’s superbly executed bio of controversial boxer-activist
Rubin Carter is powerful, inspiring stuff in the Dead Man Walking
class, with a great performance by Denzel Washington.
Color of Paradise:
Iranian director Majid Majidi’s gorgeous film about a blind boy, his
desperate father and the magic that underlies the visible world of
nature is in the mysterious, quasi-theological domain of the best
of Ingmar Bergman.
This comedy-of-errors and cross-country road movie is about a generous
but unloved Kansas waitress who deservedly yet ironically fulfills
her dreams via her passion for a TV-hospital soap opera. Directed
by up-and-coming Neil Labute, it has more wit, subplots and complications
than most other films this year.
This gift to starved dance-musical lovers describes with both humor
and sensitivity the exploding talent of a boy in a British mining
town who loves to dance. Director Stephen Daldry also doesn’t forget
or ignore the family, friends and striking workers great artists and
athletes often leave behind on their way to wealth and fame.
Also Definitely Worth
Seeing: End of the Affair, The Perfect Storm, Wonderland,
The Legend of Bagger Vance, Pay It Forward.
Award (to film with best metaphor about grace and the benevolence
of the universe): The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Doting Grandpa Award
(for best A-2 movie not in Ten Best): U-571.
Favorite Male Actors:
Greg Kinnear, as the TV actor who perceives Betty’s delusions as excellent
improvised acting (Nurse Betty); Philip Seymour Hoffman, as
the strange and uncorrupt rock critic (Almost Famous).
Favorite Female Actors:
Hayden Panettiere, as the young football-buff daughter of the white
coach (Remember the Titans); Elaine May, as the endlessly gabbing
friend of the safecrackers (Small Time Crooks); Julie Walters,
as the patient, caring, no-nonsense dance teacher (Billy Elliot).
The humiliations routinely expected of family and visitors on visiting
day at state prison (The Hurricane); the rock-band members
confess their sins as their private plane roars through the turbulence
of a severe thunderstorm (Almost Famous).
Award (for self-sacrifice): to Tommy Lee Jones, who blasts himself
to the moon (Space Cowboys), and the child hero (Pay It
Forward), who risks his life defending a friend beset by school-yard
Lines to Remember:
“Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” (The Talented
“God is happiest when
his children are at play.” (The Legend of Bagger Vance)
“Hate put me in prison,
love will bust me out.” (The Hurricane)
“He will bring them
death. And they will love him for it.” (Said of the protagonist and
spectators, in Gladiator)
“Principles only mean
something if you stand by them in inconvenience.” (The Contender)
“If we don’t come together,
we will be destroyed...like they were.” (Coach, talking to his black
and white players, in the mist of the battlefield at Gettysburg, in
Remember the Titans)
Among Many Contributors
to Film Culture Who Died in 2000: producer Father Ellwood Kieser
(Romero); critic Vincent Canby; animator Carl Banks (co-pioneer
of Donald Duck); writers Edward Anhalt (Oscar for Becket),
Curt Siodmak (genius of classic horror films like Donovan’s Brain
and The Wolf Man); editor Sam Osteen (Cool Hand Luke);
actors Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Loretta Young, Claire Trevor,
Hedy Lamarr, Walter Matthau, Vittorio Gassman, Richard Farnsworth,
Francis Lederer, George Montgomery, Jason Robards, Jr. Also, two veterans
of Gunga Din (my favorite boyhood flick) died: Douglas Fairbanks,
Jr., and Sam Jaffe, who in the title role died marvelously as the
brave water-bearer blowing the bugle to warn the bagpiper-led British
troops of a deadly ambush.
TV IN 2000
TV IN 2000 was the classic
mixed bag. Don’t talk about sitcoms, which have become a dreaded category.
But religious programming was definitely up, with more dramas about
Jesus and biblical characters than we are accustomed to. Unfortunately,
few of them were of great artistic merit. But good stuff of all kinds
was available to viewers who were selective and pored carefully over
It’s a tough medium
for a critic, because the content of TV covers virtually all civilized
(and some uncivilized) topics. When you find something to watch, the
criterion is not so much excellence or beauty as lack of cynicism
or raunchiness. But the variety is immense, and probably no human
being has a handle on it all. There are good TV shows nobody sees
or knows about, just as there are thousands of good books published
each year that few people discover or read.
This year’s notorious
hits were Survivor, a Darwinian trend that apparently is destined
to continue, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, whose genial
host Regis Philbin makes greed easy enough to take (but three or four
nights a week?).
The fictional presidential
drama The West Wing also reached hit status (high ratings and
nine Emmys), perhaps as a bright, idealistic refuge from the misery
of the nonfictional election and post-election coverage that news
departments and pundits will have great difficulty living down.
The sad moments were
major: the deaths of Charles Schulz, Steve Allen, Victor Borge and
Loretta Young (who many forget was a major star of TV as well as movies).
Borge may be identified more with concert appearances than TV, but
the Tube is where many people discovered this lovable, wacky, talented
musician who loved to kid pretentious music.
Steve Allen was an extremely
funny guy, a man of many talents who was truly liberated by the loose
structure of his pioneering version of The Tonight Show. Sure,
much of it was silly, but it’s gotten much worse in the 44 years since
he passed the mike to Jack Paar (a totally different but equally witty,
spontaneous, unforgettable host). In recent years, Steve Allen became
identified with clean-up-TV movements that were uncharacteristically
grouchy but hit a responsive note for many moralists. In any case,
they don’t make entertainers like this guy anymore.