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I See Smart People.

By Coury Turczyn

APRIL 10, 2000:  Last summer, two "event" movies managed to not only break box office records but also pierce our cultural consciousness. Exhaustively parodied on TV and minutely covered by the media, they were transformed from simple movies into everyday references—catchphrases quoted, scenes reenacted, actors worshipped. And unlike a certain other event movie involving Gungan doofuses, they actually deserved the hype because they were also really good, smart movies. Which makes you feel a certain amount of confidence in Cinema Today, considering that they came from nearly opposite ends of the moviemaking spectrum: The Sixth Sense (PG-13, 1999) and The Blair Witch Project (R, 1999).

When Blair Witch was released July 16, it had the benefit of an ingenious marketing plan that had already paved its way to "eventness." While Sundance kudos are always useful, they don't exactly guarantee blockbuster status, so the marketers at Artisan hatched a clever plan: to create a webpage that posited the movie's plot and mythology as reality. This meshed well with Blair Witch's crafty filmmaking gimmick of placing the cameras in the hands of actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard and letting them live the movie. All this cleverness created word of mouth, which led to surprising box-office, which led to massive media coverage, which finally led to massive box-office. But how does it stand up almost a year later? Pretty well—the trio star as filmmakers trudging through Maryland woods while making a documentary on the "Blair Witch." As they get lost and start antagonizing each other, you can't help but feel their tension at being cut off from the outside world (and trapped with such annoying people). When the hoo-doo starts (weird noises, odd twig sculptures, etc.), a delicious sense of creepiness develops. Is it "the scariest movie ever made?" Not by a longshot—but it is the scariest bit of experimental film ever made, and its popular success is an amazing feat for independent cinema.

Ironically, when The Sixth Sense was released August 6, it was viewed as a horror-movie battle between evil Hollywood and the bold indies. As it turned out, Sixth Sense was neither a horror film nor a typical "Hollywood" movie. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan (an indie art-house director with Praying with Anger and Wide Awake), it is instead a spiritual (in both senses of the word) suspense film with a story that inspires contemplation rather than terror. Bruce Willis (in his mature mode) stars as a child psychologist who is trying to help a troubled boy (Haley Joel Osment) who believes he can see ghosts. Whereas the Blair Witch crew worked without a script, Shyamalan crafted a humdinger with a genuinely surprising ending that begs repeated viewings. What's more, Osment almost single-handedly brings the movie to life with his passionate, soulful acting—which makes Sixth Sense the true winner of this spooky showdown.

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