You’ve heard this again and again, but it bears repeating: 2001 was the worst movie year in a long, long time. I looked over lists for the last 20 years, and none of them comes close. Even 1986, the year of “Howard the Duck” and “Clan of the Cave Bear,” also had “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Platoon,” not to mention “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Aliens.” The number of interesting fall releases, along with the promise of several end-of-year home runs, provided a tantalizing sense of possible greatness (well, possible OK-ness), but too many of the studio offerings fell flat.
The year was not without its high points, mostly courtesy of documentaries (“The Endurance,” “Sobibor, October 4, 1945, 4 P.M.” and especially Agnes Varda’s indescribable “Gleaners & I”) and animated films (“Shrek,” of course, but also “Waking Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”). I had lots of problems with “Moulin Rouge,” but in this era of CGI mediocrity, we need as much go-for-broke direction as we can get. And the late emergence of “In the Bedroom” gave moviegoers at least a glimmer of hope for film’s future.
And how about theater-based material? 2001’s offerings were a mixed bag: certainly better than the average fare -- and leagues better than such 2000 fiascos as “It’s the Rage” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” -- but rarely exceptional. “Piñero” took on a pretty tricky subject and pulled only a few punches; Benjamin Bratt surprised me with his depth, but I’m afraid Leon Ichaso’s fragmentary style may keep the average moviegoer from getting enough of a sense of the tormented poet-playwright. Other well-acted but flawed films included a clunky rendering of David Mamet’s “Lakeboat” (with a criminally unheralded performance by Robert Forster) and a visually inventive but pedantic adaptation of “Focus,” an early novel by Arthur Miller.
Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” received a lot more attention than his “Tape,” but they’re both worth checking out. The latter film, based on Stephen Belber’s three-character drama (back on the New York stage in a Naked Angels production), asks for a little suspension of belief in terms of the central relationship, and a few climactic revelations feel a little too clever, but it took advantage of its claustrophobic setting and pushed this modern-day morality play into some surprising directions.
If any movie with a stage pedigree is going to get any real attention in terms of Academy Awards, it’s probably “Lantana” by default. This finely wrought jigsaw puzzle of a thriller boasted several sterling performances, including Anthony LaPaglia and the new-to-me Kerry Armstrong, and a beguiling screenplay by Andrew Bovell, who adapted from his own Speaking in Tongues. The narrative relies on coincidence after coincidence, but somehow it never feels contrived. In fact, the film has grown on me steadily over the last few months. Far flashier than “Lantana” were two virtual one-man shows by two downtown theater vets, John Cameron Mitchell and Danny Hoch. I’ve gone to bat for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop” several times in this column already, so I’ll keep the praise to a minimum here. But both (especially “Jails”) found ingenious ways to bring their seemingly stage-bound material to the big screen, and both seem to have the makings of cult immortality -- “Hedwig” is already well on its way. I may grow to value the steely logic of “Lantana” in time, but I’m leaning toward Hoch and Mitchell’s flash for now.
Television drama hit its stride this year, with acclaimed versions of “Wit,” “Dinner With Friends” and “A Huey P. Newton Story,” along with adaptations of plays by Neil Simon, A.R. Gurney, Stephen Sondheim and Christopher Durang. 2002 opens with another TV adaptation by Dinner With Friends playwright Donald Margulies, who has also adapted his “Collected Stories”: The two-character drama, starring Linda Lavin and Samantha Mathis, airs Jan. 16 on PBS.
One footnote to all this: The Village Voice is known for its revisionist and obscurantist picks -- they prefer the phrase “defiant Top 10 choices,” which I think says it all. And true to form, the weekly lists David Lynch, Wong Kar-Wai and Bela Tarr as the year’s three best directors. But the poll did remind me of one terrific stage-based title of 2001. Under the category “Best Undistributed Film (1996-2001),” Manoel de Oliveira’s elegiac and gorgeous “I’m Going Home” -- which I was lucky enough to catch at last year’s New York Film Festival and which features vivid scenes of plays by Shakespeare and Ionesco -- lands in the top spot. I don’t know how much clout a poll like this has among distributors, but this movie deserves an audience as soon as possible. It wouldn’t cost much to pick up, John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve have small parts, and it offers one of the best views in recent memory of a creative mind (Michel Piccoli) begrudgingly winding down.
Every once in a while, Film Forum enters a mini-binge for theater buffs. The choice offerings usually come from the theater’s repertory screen, but the new stuff actually holds a fair amount of interest right now. Showing through Jan. 15 is “Eisenstein,” a biopic of the famed Soviet film director (“Battleship Potemkin”) starring Simon McBurney, best known as the creative force behind Theatre de Complicité. (McBurney wrote, directed and starred in last year’s sublime Mnemonic.) Eisenstein is primarily of interest to film buffs, but he spent his earlier years under the tutelage of Vsevelod Meyerhold and later drew upon his knowledge of Kabuki and Noh theater in his final film, “Ivan the Terrible.”
After “Eisenstein,” Film Forum follows up with a profile of another prominent artist from the Left: Bertolt Brecht. “The Farewell” takes place entirely on a single day in 1956 at Brecht’s summer cottage, as he is surrounded by his various romantic conquests, past and present. And opening in February is “Much Ado About Something,” an Australian documentary that delves into the often-bruited question of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Mark Rylance of London’s Globe Theater joins in the discussion.
As for the repertory screen, “Dial M for Murder” and “Kiss Me Kate” already ran as part of its “Greatest Hits” series. The real draw will come when “Sweet Smell of Success” hits the big screen on March 15. That’s the day after the Broadway musical of the same name is scheduled to open -- and the day all the reviews will run. Not even J.J. Hunsecker could plan an item that far in advance.
With Craig Zadan and Neil Meron scheduled to move directly from the “Chicago” movie (now scheduled for a Christmas Day 2002 release) to the Matthew Broderick-Kristen Chenoweth “The Music Man” this spring, their “Footloose” TV project has been pushed back a bit. It looks like the ABC musical film -- which is scheduled to feature choreography by Mark Dendy and new songs from Dean Pitchford, who also pitched in on the stage version -- won’t be reaching television screens until November at the earliest.
Speaking of Sweet Smell, John Lithgow has a supporting role in “Orange County” (Jan. 11), along with Jane Adams. And such end-of-year offerings as “The Shipping News” (with Judi Dench) and “Black Hawk Down” (Sam Shepard and Danny Hoch) continue to open around the country. By the way, Beth Henley was one of many screenwriters to take a crack at “The Shipping News” over the last several years. From what I understand, the existing screenplay bears no resemblance to her efforts.
Your Thoughts: Did I miss any big highlights (or lowlights), from a stage-lover’s perspective? Was 2001 as bad as it seemed to be? Now that Piñero and Brecht are out of the way, which major theater personage would you most want to see a biopic of? Who would play him or her?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.