Take 2000

Film - Jonathan Romney finds some excellent releases in a so-so year

A doyen of film criticism whose passion for the movies is second to none recently fixed me with an Ancient Mariner glare. Cinema's jig, he pronounced balefully, is more or less up - the medium, it seems, simply doesn't have it in itself to matter that much any more. Usually, I'd be sanguine and protest that film is only as dead as painting or the novel - as dead as you want it to be - and that, if you care to look, there are so many pockets of energy, within and outside the mainstream, that even in bleak times there is always something to hope for.

Now, however, I'm not so sure. Perhaps film has been undergoing some sort of millennial detox, but cinema seems hardly to have harnessed the world's imaginative energies this year. There have been some outstanding films, but certainly no overall patterns to suggest that any surges of renewal are imminent. Two years ago, the wave of digital film-making spurred by the Dogma group seemed a startling "new thing"; but already it feels worked into the ground as an "old thing", with its own mythologies and orthodoxies. We may be entering a phase where everyone but the high-budget elite is obliged to shoot digitally instead of on film, for financial expediency rather than for the medium's aesthetic possibilities. Digital offers a certain matter-of-fact immediacy, and occasionally its own peculiar plasticity, but it is hard not to miss celluloid's tactile grain. To paraphrase one critic, digital gets the house built, but it's like building in marzipan.

I say it has been a so-so year, but the following list of highlights may not, at first, seem to bear that out. More than a few excellent films have been released this year, but many of them were first screened in 1999 or earlier, either at festivals or on the press circuit. Very little that was startling emerged afresh this year and, judging from what I've seen of next year's releases, don't worry about missing much if you're planning a long hibernation.

The Hollywood mainstream was pretty much dead, but a handful of American films made a difference. The best by far was Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, a film so wilful in its ambition to lay bare a swathe of Los Angeles society that Anderson is already looking to become the Balzac of Californian film. Magnolia also had the most outrageous deux ex machina I think I've ever seen in the cinema. Along with some others, it offered proof that young American cinema at its best was becoming distinctly weird and confounding all the rules of script construction and high-concept pitching. Being John Malkovich was a feat of controlled nuttiness, and was, up to a point, rather profound - chances are, the director Spike Jonze and scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman are both great hopes. An even greater hope may be Sofia Coppola (Jonze's wife, as it happens), whose under-rated The Virgin Suicides is one of the only American pop-culture films ever to have done the Seventies with a real feel for image and texture, although the content is more fragile.

Low-key or left-field comedy was pretty much the genre that kept American cinema interesting this year. Woody Allen turned in a small classic - hardly a watershed for him, but more than pleasing - in Sweet and Lowdown. Among the best were Curtis Hanson's droll, literary (and misunderstood) Wonder Boys, Eric Mendelsohn's suburban idyll Judy Berlin and Neil Labute's uneven, exuberant and enjoyably acidic Nurse Betty.

Not unusually, some of the best takes on America were from British expats, who were especially formally inventive this year. The extended simultaneous takes of Mike Figgis's Time Code were dismissed by some as a party turn, but the result was both simple and complicated enough to make you rethink some of your assumptions about how screen storytelling works. The best thriller of the year by far was Christopher Nolan's Memento - an essay in murder, memory and phenomenology, and a reminder that "clever" is still a compliment. And perhaps the most American film of the year was Wisconsin Death Trip, made by the British director James Marsh for the BBC's Arena - an eerie, provocative piece of Gothic social anthropology.

The best foreign-language films were largely ones hanging over from 1999, taking even longer than usual to arrive because of the desperate state of art-house distribution. One of the best was Rosetta, the Cannes 1999 winner from a Belgian duo, the Dardenne brothers; a no-frills story of a young girl scuffling for subsistence, it featured the newcomer Emilie Dequenne, perhaps the most affecting, and certainly the most bloody-mindedly determined, screen presence of the year.

My favourite French films included Beau Travail, Claire Denis's remarkable variation on Billy Budd, a balletic study of colonialism and male jealousy in a desert setting; Cedric Kahn's L'Ennui, a dark, moodily forensic and surprisingly funny essay on sexual obsession; and perhaps the most un-conventional take ever on the costume-drama tradition, Time Regained, a fantasia on Proust by the prolific Chilean genius Raoul Ruiz, who unexpectedly became a bankable art-house name this year.

From Russia came Of Freaks and Men, Aleksei Balabanov's elegantly seedy tale of flagellation in old St Petersburg - a sort of Dostoevskian bedroom farce. My absolute outsider favourite of the year was the German director Fred Kelemen upholding the tradition of northern European gloom with Abendland, a film that somehow drew only bile from the few British critics who reviewed it. The problem was that it demanded to be seen not so much as a film, with all the narrative expectations that this implies, but more like a sort of animated Gerhard Richter painting. Catch it if you ever get the chance (although I suspect you probably won't). Other than Kar-wai Wong's sweltering, claustrophobic In the Mood for Love, there was nothing outstanding from south-east Asia, for the simple reason that very little got released (there were plenty on the festival circuit, however - let's hope it seeps out next year).

The most underrated British films were The House of Mirth, Terence Davies's commandingly severe adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, and Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy. Doomed as a box-office prospect by virtue of its subject matter, Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy was a bold and affecting piece of character work, as well as social reconstruction, which more than deserves reappraisal. Both films took on the tough challenge of reimagining the costume-drama tradition; both faced the problem that a costume film invariably looks like a costume film and, for those of us who don't like the genre, it is hard to get beyond the wrappers and see just how differently things are being done. These two, like Time Regained, were so far out of the mould that people often didn't realise.

And talk about disappointments. Several major names released films that their admirers would probably rather forget, if they haven't forgotten them already - Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, Wim Wenders, Lars von Trier. A horrible excess of fuss was also made about the wrong films - it became a national heresy to question the cinematic achievements of the British theatre directors Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, with American Beauty and Billy Elliot respectively. American Beauty, for all its glibness, had a visual sophistication that is hard to argue with. Billy Elliot, the film I disliked more than any other this year, was too inconsequential and well-meaning to spend time carping about, if only you didn't have to swallow all the consensual blurb-mongering about it being the greatest British film of all time. In British critical vocabulary, "of all time" has become the most overused phrase of all time.

These days, trying to argue the case against Billy Elliot is rather like casting aspersions on the British Olympic rowers, so I'll only say that, if you want greatness, you should look to Iran, where cinema continues to show equal commitment to creating powerful images and to commenting on the human condition. Fortunately, it is possible to end 2000 with one of the year's best films - and, along with Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, one of two Iranian gems - Blackboards by Samira Makhmalbaf.

In a border region between Iran and Iraq, a group of itinerant teachers wander the mountains, blackboards on their backs, in search of pupils, who prove to be scarce. On their journey, the blackboards become wings, shields, roofs, walls and, occasionally, mediums for teaching - although, in this harsh landscape, learning comes a sorry second to the more immediate requirements of survival. The young director - the daughter of the leading Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who edited and co-wrote the film - has made a great leap from her debut The Apple. It is customary in the west for directors of simple, concise first features to progress to something more ambitious, expansive and (as often as not) unwieldy, as if directing a graduate career programme. But Makhmalbaf has made a decisive advance on her first film simply by side-stepping into a different, just as concentrated, austerity. Blackboards is passionate, haunting film-making and, even though it is in no way what you'd call a feel-good film, as more or less the last release of the year it could almost make you feel optimistic.

Blackboards (PG) is released on 29 December at the Renoir and Curzon Soho in London