It's been a year of great, inspiring films from American filmmakers -- and from Austin filmmakers in particular.
Making Top 10 lists is to me a distasteful experience and was even back in the day when I worked as a film reviewer (if writing for The Daily Texan and in the early days of the Chronicle counts as "working"). My passions are too mercurial, my attention span so short, that they were a painful chore. Should this film or that film go in, what did I really feel about one film, did I even remember watching another, what title did I leave out? If asked a week later, my list would probably be different, and the thought of that haunted me. I am not a list-maker.
Which doesn't mean I don't love reading them. The more the merrier, the more diverse topics the better. I am a list-reader. Which makes this issue a pleasure. I contribute no lists, and I get to read plenty.
Watching two brilliant films in the past couple of days got me thinking about how great the Austin filmmaking scene is. Neither The Royal Tenenbaums nor A Beautiful Mind were shot in Austin or by Austin-based talent. But they are such wonderful examples of creative, adventurous filmmaking.
The party line is that RT is not as well-crafted and controlled as Rushmore, Wes Anderson's previous effort. I'll happily pay lip service to that, but I think it is a pretty meaningless evaluation. An amazing effort, RT slips the bounds of conventional cinematic storytelling, throws together a mess of characters and incidents, mixes it up with overarticulated costumes, truly eccentric sets, and a New York out of a slightly fevered dream. I'm not even sure it could be said that Anderson takes chances; the Anderson/Wilson clan milieu seems to be set in a slightly alternative universe where these things would be more mundane. There really is something intoxicating about the experience of watching an Anderson film. I'm not even going to get started on the cast, because the Gene Hackman rant would have to go for pages.
On the other hand, Ron Howard has turned into Hollywood's greatest chance-taker since John Huston. "What genre, form, narrative strategy can I tackle next?" seems to be the directorial theme. If the works were facile garbage, this would be sheer vanity, but more often than not they shine. As Marjorie Baumgarten has claimed to me, A Beautiful Mind could be Ron Howard's best film. Which, when you're talking about the director of Apollo 13, Splash, and Night Shift, is saying a lot. Read Baumgarten's review. A Beautiful Mind is a life romanticized, sure, but it comes from one of the craftier directors in the business stretching way past boundaries. This film sets you up, again and again, and when you think you have its number, it explodes in your face. The last hour is so beautifully nuanced as you're watching it and rethinking the first hour. It is about the life of the mind -- inspired, common, and ill -- metaphorically rendered by story and image. The film literally swirls around your brain, a noble ambition and even more astonishing achievement. Russell Crowe's performance is stunningly controlled. The cast is consistently great. Jennifer Connelly is caught in poses that evoke the classic collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich -- using the whole range of cinematic tools to define a woman's beauty, matched by the complicated intensity of her character.
So what does this have to do with Austin? This community is blessed by just such adventurous, accomplished talents. Filmmakers who care more about film than they do about money. What a year it's been. Elizabeth Avellán and Robert Rodriguez scored a huge hit with Spy Kids, with Spy Kids 2 and Once Upon a Time in Mexico coming up next year. Linklater resumed his reign as a leading inspiration of innovative filmmaking with the stunning one-two of Waking Life and Tape. Guillermo del Toro delivered The Devil's Backbone, a lyric cinematic poem via EC Comics, which will open in Austin next week. His Blade 2 has generated great word-of-mouth from early screenings and is due in 2002. Mike Judge's King of the Hill series went into syndication. The richness of character and dialogue only makes the show funnier and funnier. Paul Stekler won an Emmy. The documentary community notched itself up to serious speed. A ton of independent features were shot. The Austin Studio project, which I'm involved with, turned out to be a huge success, a brilliant example of cooperation between the city, the staff, and a nonprofit. In 13 months, three Hollywood features and three independent features have shot there. 2001 also saw the hugely successful first Texas Film Hall of Fame awards (which I'm also involved with), and March 2002 will see the second. So some good news, at least, as we begin this New Year.
Welcome to 2002. We're looking forward to traveling it with you.