At this point in my life, I have seen 3,237 feature-length movies. 2,280 of those, or slightly more than 70%, I screened for the first time in the last ten years. So if the 80s were my years of first awestruck contact with the movies, and the 90s were the decade of pulverizing impressions and irrevocable falling in love, then the 00s, or the Aughties, or the Naughties, or whatever we wound up calling them, have encompassed the exponential explosion of my filmgoing horizons. I see many, many, many more new movies per year than I ever did before, but it's also the decade in which I started delving deeply into movie history. As a time-capsule commemoration of the decade that's about to end, I'm starting a year-by-year digest of my most definitive in-theater experiences. My way of saying thanks, saying goodbye, and starting to look forward to (hopefully!) another decade of cinema.
Jan 5, Landmark Embarcadero, San Francisco
The first movie ticket I bought in the new millennium was for a first-run screening of Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, while on a weeklong visit to some friends in the Bay Area of California. What better city than this historic haven for queers in which to see this landmark of transgender representation. The audience was so rapt, moved, and respectful; I can't remember ever sitting in a theater so quiet.
Jan 31, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I was lucky enough to see 8½ for the first time on a big screen in Boston, MA, the previous summer, but I thrilled even more to La dolce vita in 35mm.
Feb 22, Lincoln Plaza 6 and United Artists Union Square 14, New York City
As it quickly became obvious that Jane Campion's Holy Smoke! had been too much of a commercial and critical non-starter to make its way to Ithaca, New York, I surprised even myself by spending $69.50 on a round-trip bus ticket, five hours each way, to go see it in New York City. Making a pilgrimage for Jane Campion is one thing; infinitely more ignominious was knowing in the back of my mind that the sojourn was equally motivated by my need to see The Green Mile, because even though I'd concertedly snubbed it during its Ithaca run, I couldn't bear to enter an Oscar season without seeing all five Best Picture nominees. Never again could it be denied: I am an insane person. This one didn't go so well for me, but I enjoyed railing at it from my own little pulpit. To fill the time between Smoke and Mile, I squeezed in a mid-afternoon matinée of Julie Taymor's Titus, in the UA14's then-novel atmosphere of stadium seating. I had left Ithaca just before 5AM on a Monday, and I took the 2AM bus back, so as to show up on time to my graduate seminar in 19th-century fiction.
Feb 26, Cornell Cinema (Uris), Ithaca, NY
Solaris: a boy's first in-cinema Tarkovsky. It resonated.
Mar 13, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
The Tarkovsky series continues, and so does my habit of fastidiously marking movie milestones, and jerry-rigging them to be worthy of the occasion: I spend my 1,000th movie-viewing experience at a gorgeously restored print of Andrei Rublev, a movie I have now seen three times, every time projected from celluloid.
Apr 19, Fall Creek Pictures, Ithaca, NY
Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys offers welcome proof that the plot and the style of a film can seem as literary as they come but the execution can still be elegantly cinematic. Proof, too, that I can notice such execution despite my English-major tendency in those years to contemplate and review all movies primarily in terms of story and acting. Several early correspondents to the website, always fairly if not always nicely, had called my attention to this training-wheels failing of mine, and I was very proud to have remarked how skilled and eloquent were the edits, rhythms, and framing choices of Wonder Boys. I'm not as huge a fan these days as I was then, but it's still a cozy, engaging picture, and I'm glad it was the one that prompted my friend Kathleen to coin the phrase "a seer-againer."
May 8, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Is it becoming obvious how life-sustaining the moviehouses of Ithaca, New York, really are? They certainly were for me, not least when they furnished my sublime introductions to films as great as Aguirre, the Wrath of God. My viewing companions appeared decidedly nonplussed, and I couldn't figure out why. It had me from the opening shot of the waterfall.
May 20, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
Knowing my tastes as most of you do, can you believe I skipped Erin Brockovich until more than two months into its theatrical run, and only caught it during a last-ditch pick-up at the local arthouse, after the malls had given it up? Astonishing, almost as much so as the film, which remains a favorite.
May 20, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Later that night: Casablanca. It's true: some wonders really are more wonderful if you see them with someone with whom you're in love.
May 24, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
The perils of small-town living, and a thumbnail sketch of two-way prevarication among academics. I couldn't believe that my tutorial advisor suddenly wanted my term paper on the films of David Cronenberg a full three months before the deadline we had agreed upon. I protested that I simply couldn't write it in the six days he was suddenly giving me. He protested in turn that already, as things were, he would have zero time in the next week to do anything except reading through his students' looming assignments so that he could finally proceed into his own long-postponed research, for which he hadn't had a spare second for months. We both left the meeting, cordial but a bit huffy with each other, and quite self-important in our insistence that neither one of us had a single second of spare time on our hands. So what did I do? I hot-footed it that same afternoon to Ridley Scott's 155-minute Gladiator, months before it became an Academy-stamped Important Film. And who did I encounter there? My tutorial advisor. Quick, embarrassed acknowledgments. Seats taken, several rows away from each other.
Jul 3, Fall Creek Pictures, Ithaca, NY
Confident critics are willing to run against the grain, even about movies that no one much cares about, and this was very much my experience of Philip Haas's widely disdained and even more widely ignored Up at the Villa. I still like this one, enough to keep making a point of it.
Jul 11, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Why is Victor Erice's El sol del membrillo, aka Dream of Light, aka The Quince Tree Sun, still unavailable on any home format? The film has more titles than it has available means of exhibition. I didn't know it was such a rare and precious treat when I bought my ticket; I simply thought the calendar description sounded enticing, and boy was I right.
Jul 21, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Boys Don't Cry again, and what a profound difference the change in audience makes. No longer cloistered among the reverential, humbled, palpably sympathetic audience of San Francisco, I watch the film with a heavy contingent of summer-schooling adolescents, whose self-conscious status as "gifted and talented" has not equipped them with the maturity or wisdom to receive a film and a life story that they obviously receive as strange and bewildering. So they laugh, loud and often, even after my demands that they hush, and even during the rape. It took me years to grant this audience the alibi of their youth and their nerves. I wonder now if the transgender narrative would confound these students so tremendously, and prompt such heartless and skittish disavowals, in the form of josh and jest. At the time, I stormed home angry, and then literally fell on the bed, crying, at roaring volume, for at least a half-hour.
Aug 20, 23, 28, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Cornell's valorous attempts to reign in a new crop of loyal audience members at the outset of each academic year means programming some big-gun spectacles, sometimes literally. In 2000, this tactical onslaught of masterpieces led to my first screenings of Seven Samurai, which my partner and I frankly disliked, and of Breathless and The Battleship Potemkin, which we loved as much as the rest of the world does. "New York Herald Tribune," people!
Sep 12, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
Tarsem's The Cell was the first movie I ever paid to see four times in the theater, even though, yet again, I waited till the last week of its commercial run to finally catch up with it. That first viewing was pretty unimprovable. The town was being battered by a high-intensity thunderstorm while I watched it; you could hear the stentorian claps and the dull roar of rain like a submerged soundtrack throughout the movie. Then, at the precise moment that one of D'Onofrio's monstrous alter egos is wheeling Vince Vaughn's entrails onto a spit, the room exploded with a noise and went pitch black. It turned out the theater had been struck by lightning, but none of the six of us in the theater, all of us attending alone, knew that. As we slowly started calling out to each other, several of us professed, "Do you think this is part of the movie?" We were wrong, but The Cell was demented and rococo enough to lend credence or at least plausibility to our shivery, paranoid surmise. We actually moved to sit nearer to one another in the dark, waiting for the lights and the film to come back ontalking without being able to see each other's faces, which we wouldn't have recognized anyway. Seven or eight minutes passed before the coiling of the intestines resumed apace. I can only assume that Tarsem would have relished all of this.
Oct 5, Loews Lincoln Square, New York, NY
The Exorcist, re-released to theaters in advance of a new DVD pressing, with cut scenes restored. This means: the arched-back spiderwalk down the stairs. So terrifying I almost retch. Lots of people in the cinema hoot with ironic distance, but the movie has got me and my friend well in its clenches, despite the fact that I've seen the film once before and read the novel twice (once in high school with a chopping knife on my nightstand, just in case... in case of what, exactly?).
Oct 12, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
When I first saw Dancer in the Dark, as Selma plunged down to her hooded death, someone in the front row of the small, 150-seat theater wearily exclaimed, "FINALLY!" and was greeted with an entire phalanx not just of shushes, but of, I don't know, spitting-cobra admonishments. "What is WRONG with you??" somebody shouted. Other people cried so voluminously that their snuffling was audible. Someone threw his popcorn on the floor on his way out, huffing. Quite a response. I saw it again in November, and then two months later in January, in Paris, to a rapt audience of ticket-buyers with assigned seats: my first experience of movies being treated like real Art by a general public. (My partner was teaching the French equivalent of an eighth- or ninth-grade class that year in Lyon, and I remember him telling me about his students spontaneously debating the merits of Dancer and Yi Yi.) The movie has never stopped marking key moments in my life. A year later, I was teaching it in a course I designed around Greek tragedies and modern equivalents. I watched the movie with my students on the evening of September 10, 2001, and despite the events of the next day and my explicit instructions to stay away from the movie if they needed to, every single one of them showed up for the second screening on September 12, 2001. "What better time to have to confront this material?" one of them said. I was so proud.
Oct 14, Hoyts Triphammer Mall 4, Ithaca, NY
I "got" the auteur theory when I went to see Robert Altman's Dr. T & the Women, a film that not only elevated its mediocre narrative with its inspired lightness of execution (zooms, pans, fizzy performances, brief cutaways among multiple plot strands), but which managed to evoke much greater Altman pictures in a way that further dignified this one. Though I must say, I still find Dr. T an easy and enjoyable sit. I was perplexed then why I was virtually alone in the cinema, and I still think the movie, however obviously far from heaven, still deserves better than being perpetually crowded into some kind of parenthetical or subordinate clause in which acolytes of Altman try to sweep some of his "minor" pictures under the rug of his deservedly vaunted reputation.
Oct 24, Cornell University Film Forum, Ithaca, NY
I still don't attend celluloid projections of experimental film nearly as often as I should, but Mike Hoolboom's Panic Bodies was such an unusual, memorable, and affecting experience, not least because of the piece's confrontation with questions of sexuality and disease, that you'd think I'd take more initiative to seek out these kinds of opportunities. A mission for the next decade!
Oct 27, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
Every year has its letdowns, but was I absolutely alone in being so excited for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2? I showed up about 45 minutes early to the first screening, which barely had a dozen people in it by the time the previews started. After the movie was over you could see why, but naïvely or not, I just felt so crushed: not just because the movie was bad, but because it so explicitly rejected or vandalized everything that was remotely special about the first one. For that reason, an even more bitter experience than The Legend of Bagger Vance, which I saw at a free preview four nights later. I checked my watch so often at that one that the person next to me asked me to stop. Much to my chagrin, but even more to the chagrin of most people who read it, my write-up of Bagger Vance remains by far the most visited review on this site.
Nov 4, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Experiences like those make the sublime encounters with new masterpieces all the sweeter, so no wonder I relished Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai so much that I practically floated out of the theater, like a hip-hop carrier pigeon. I still love this one, and yet it's another title I had skipped during its commercial release. I only and rather capriciously caught it during a three-night revival at the campus cinema, so it was a pretty crucial experience in making me a more ecumenical ticket-buyer during the initial runs of a wider swath of movies, and in convincing me that I'm far less talented than I used to think I was at guessing in advance what I will or won't like.
Nov 9, Hoyts Triphammer Mall 4, Ithaca, NY
I recently told the story of the infuriating circumstances under which I trudged to an out-of-the-way theater, a deliberately out-of-the-way theater, in order to see Spike Lee's Bamboozled. That retrospective piece, as well as the review I wrote at the time, makes clear how important I think that film remains and how attached to it I still feel, despite its manifest and often grating flaws.
Nov 10, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
But speaking of flaws, I learn just as much from my own as from those in the movies I watch, and I wonder if I was ever as wrong about a movie as I was 24 hours later, when I sourly rejected Claire Denis's Beau travail, and wrote a now-embarrassing pan from the rigid, blinkered standpoint of wanting the film to be more loyal to the obvious intertext of Herman Melville's Billy Budd. I published a retraction a little while later and have not yet made good on my promise to articulate not just the admiration but the love I now have for this movie. As we keep moving up the already-high echelons of my Favorite Films feature, I'll eventually seize the opportunity to sing the praises of this jewel-toned, brilliantly choreographed, intricately layered achievement. Shame on me, but thank goodness for a publishing platform that allows one to emend (and admit!) one's mistakes.
Dec 8, Cornell Cinema (Uris), Ithaca, NY
Sustaining the pattern by which I spent the early years of the 00s only barely catching films in second-run that I had obtusely avoided upon their debuts, for reasons that would no longer hold any water with me. Anyone who even half-follows this site has surely heard me blaring my adoration of Peyton Reed's Bring It On, particularly here and here. A definitive nail in the coffin of any suspicions I once harbored that a 100% "pop" movie can't hold its own, and more, alongside more ostentatiously "prestige" fare.
Dec 16, City Cinemas Village East, New York, NY
Still, I'm glad that I virtually ended the year with an opening-night screening in a theater I had never attended, of a movie that I would literally have kicked myself for missing, if I'd only discovered it years later on DVD. The movie was You Can Count on Me, important to me in part because its aesthetic modesty nonetheless encompassed a remarkably focused, controlled, concisely written, and judiciously edited story, the equal of which any novelist would be proud to achieve at twice the length; but equally important to me because I just loved it on sight, in that way that makes you want to hug the screen. And this despite my previous indifference to Laura Linney, who to me was the boring blonde who kept popping up in bland roles in stuff like Congo and Primal Fear without finding a way to do much with them. I expected her to fade away like a Kim Greist or a Rebecca De Mornay or a Gretchen Mol or a Monica Potter, one of those blondes that come and go perpetually in Hollywood movies. How wrong I was, though at least I was right that Mark Ruffalo would remain a highly watchable fixture through the ensuing decade, even if he hasn't been granted quite the opportunities that I'd have hoped after this film-acting debut (still one of the four or five most electrifying I saw during the last ten years). I loved You Can Count on Me then, and I love it now, in part because the eponymous phrase is what I hear the cinema whispering to me, every time I sidle up to the ticket window, step into a lobby, and sink into a seat.
Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2000 (Chronological):
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, The Battle of Algiers, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Shanghai Express, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shame (review), Night of the Living Dead (review), The Great Train Robbery, Postcards from the Edge (review), Cabaret, Swept Away (review), Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Conversation, Chungking Express, Do the Right Thing, Dog Day Afternoon, 42nd Street, Possessed (review), The Earrings of Madame de..., Notorious, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Gates of Heaven, Brother's Keeper (review), Carrie, and Daughters of the Dust. I look at this list and practically start to weep.
Labels: End of 00s