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Halfway to Hell: filmcritic.com’s Mid-Year Roundup, 2001

We’re six lonely months into 2001, a time of such pathetically dismal cinema that I feel akin to Scatman Crothers roving the halls of the Overlook. ‘Hello? Anybody here? HELLOOOOOOO? ANYBODY HERE?’ Instead of Jack Nicholson jumping out with an axe, though, the most terrifying sight of the summer will probably be sell-out Tim Burton’s painfully generic looking Planet of the Apes. At least with crapola like Pearl Harbor and Swordfish, it was a foregone conclusion: They never had a chance. Burton is a different kettle of fish altogether: This guy was making weird personal statements that were actually pretty good, reaching his zenith with the heartfelt Ed Wood. When Hollywood failed to give him the support he deserved, he fell into a slump. Apes doesn’t even have Christopher Walken on board to provide some glimmer of hope, though at least he was around to liven up the Spike Jonze-Fatboy Slim music video, ‘Weapon of Choice.’ I haven’t seen it, but some claim it’s the movie of the year!

We’re drowning in a sea of mediocrity that makes one thankful Moulin Rouge is around. Our editor, Christopher Null, absolutely loved it. I despised it with passion. Jeez, this is a good thing! At least there’s a flick out right now which inspires genuine commitment one way or the other, though I’ll admit I haven’t been so baffled by a movie since The Island of Dr. Moreau (and Jim Broadbent’s pinch-me rendition of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ is right up there with Marlon Brando and Mini-Me rolling over Beethoven on the grand piano. There are the moments, my friends, that make going to the movies worthwhile — and only prove that there’s a thin line between dreadful and cosmic).

Andre Gregory once said that in the future, people would pay good money to be castrated just in an attempt to feel something. He wasn’t far off the mark, considering the numb acceptance of whitewashed movies and music. I’d start rattling off a list of names, but what would be the point? We’ve already forgotten them, just as Evolution will be a foggy memory in to weeks. By the time we reach August, no one will remember that David Duchovny was in a movie this summer at all. Did Kevin Costner do a movie earlier this year? Or how about Penelope Cruz? My point exactly. I seem to recall this has been a particularly bad year for Brendan Fraser, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. As my 12-year old kid brother said, ‘Harrison Ford can still kick Fraser’s punk ass!’ Well said, my good lad.

Shrek was a punchy little number. Sticking to the conventions of the fairy-tale with a few postmodern tweaks, it was pleasing to actually see a ‘positive message movie’ for kids that could make ’em feel good about their crappy lives. To paraphrase the terrific opening monologue from Velvet Goldmine, ‘Childhood, adults always say, is the happiest time in life — but Jack Fairy knew better. He knew there were others like him, chosen for a great gift, and someday, the whole stinking world would be theirs!’ Yeah, the outcasts and underdogs prevail for once. Yet for every ballsy music choice (John Cale’s melancholic cry of ‘Hallelujah’), there was a Smashmouth number that will be dated in six months. I’m also not a fan of computer animation — and don’t even get me started on Final Fantasy. That ‘cinematic’ counterattack to the noble profession of acting will only serve to numb our cultural palate, though after the ‘let’s put on a talent show’ pomposity of The Anniversary Party and The King is Alive, who can blame them? Indulgence paves the way for neglect.

There have been some good movies, not that anyone bothered to see them. Sean Penn‘s The Pledge was overambitious, to be sure, but Jack Nicholson’s sad-ass performance was his best work he’s done in the past 20 years. Stripped of vanity, hiding inside his own shapeless bulk, Nicholson’s detective was the anti-hero we need nowadays to remind us just how asleep at the wheel we are. His search for the serial killer transformed into an absurdist’s nightmare, since it was really about his own pathetic insistence that his life has meaning. It exposes The Hero’s Journey and Joseph Campbell as the pathetic frauds they are, all in two-and-a-half hours.

It’s nice to see that Memento struck a chord with people, though I can’t think of a movie which will suffer more from the hype machine. It’s an utterly engaging thriller, one which makes you feel awake and attentive to detail as you ride the Ferris Wheel backwards. The fastidious writer-director, Christopher Nolan, earns major points for his sense of humor, playing pranks on his memory-loss protagonist throughout. This funhouse probably won’t hold up for repeated viewings, since the process of watching the movie was its most engaging quality. Lightning in a bottle doesn’t strike twice.

There’s hope for the late summer and early fall, mostly in the form of creature flicks. By now, everyone I know is sick of me praising Larry Fessenden‘s Wendigo, but we’ll see who’s laughing when this non-CGI monster comes flying at you like a sudden storm from out of nowhere. I won’t harp on it any more here. Brad Anderson’s Session 9 brings back David Caruso (and I’ve always thought he’s a great actor that never deserved the Shelley Long treatment) in a haunted asylum movie — the Gothic New England location is said to be harrowing, and the emphasis is said to be on implied rather than literal horrors.

Finally, our favorite poker face Hal Hartley has Sarah Polley confronting some dangerous mythical creature in No Such Thing, whose savage response in Cannes only makes me want to see it more. Hartley’s been moving further and further into fantasy with each movie (Henry Fool, The Book of Life) and this one seems to be his most extreme, for better or for worse. Even if it sucks, it’s a game try.

We need more horror movies right now, frankly. If human behavior is unpredictable and shocking, the supernatural fills us with astonishment. The best movie of the year was too offbeat for viewers and sunk into the mire, Daniel Minahan‘s Series 7. Assailed as being redundant, it brought to the forefront our own lack of empathy for public humiliation as contestants kill each other off during a televised event. It merits the highest praise, but is also the high water mark for ‘realism’ in the sense that it’s a Swiftian depiction of our lives as they are now. Minahan picked the scab, and the only salve cinema needs right now is David Lynch’s escapist dreamscapes. Let’s quit slapping down our hard-earned dollars for The Mummy Returns and start supporting movies with the strength of their convictions. Otherwise, 2001 will be remembered as the year we failed to make contact. Truly, it’s a time that could live in infamy.

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