The year 2001 was not a good one for Hollywood, with the threatened actor and screenwriter strikes in the spring and the fears of an audience backlash following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Neither occurred, and the final few months of 2001 saw studios rushing to cash in on the nation’s newfound patriotism by moving up the release of war movies like “Behind Enemy Lines” and “Black Hawk Down.” Go figure.
In a year that saw a larger than usual amount of crap oozing into American Cineplexes, several gems (many produced outside the studio system) managed to find their way to the screen. Many of these films came in under the radar, and disappeared as quickly as they appeared, but they represent some of the greatest works of genius to appear on the silver screen in quite some time. The best films of 2001 pushed the limits of traditional cinema, reveled in complex emotions and challenged our ways of looking at the world. Here are my picks for the best (and worst) films of 2001.
“Memento”: Director Christopher Nolan (working from a short story by his brother) creates a unique work of art that moves beyond being a mere gimmick movie to become a heart-wrenching look at a lost man’s need for revenge. Told backwards and forwards with a climax that happens somewhere in the middle, “Memento” relays the story of a man (brilliantly portrayed by Guy Pearce), who, as the result of an assault, is unable to create new memories. Relying on routine, a Polaroid camera and the clues tattooed on his body, our hero attempts to find the man (the elusive John G.) who raped and murdered his wife. The movie’s structure creates a puzzle that holds together even on repeated viewings, but also creates a world where the audience identifies with the main characters inability and unwillingness to trust the people around him. Thought provoking and as close to perfect as movies come.
“Moulin Rouge”: A tragic-comic-dramatic musical that is full of life and seems to explode onto the screen by the force of its own will. This is a movie freed from the confines of realism, a play freed from the confines of the stage, a work of sheer and utter genius. “Moulin Rouge” isn’t so much about its characters as the underlying emotions they represent, from love to jealousy to madness. This is a movie that shows the capacity of film to capture the spirit and joy of what it means to be alive. Through its songs (which incidentally are our songs) “Moulin Rouge” (along with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) revived the dying movie musical genre and easily stands alongside such musical classics as “The Sound of Music,” “Mary Poppins” and “West Side Story.”
“Waking Life”: Less a movie than a series of monologues on what it means to be alive and human. Director Richard Linklater filmed this movie with actors and then animated over them to give the film its own unique look. The movie itself is like watching a dream. What emerges is an intelligent and thoughtful film full of big-ideas (but, unfortunately, short on revelations) on the human condition that, ultimately, leaves it to the viewer to make up their own mind.
“The Royal Tenenbaums”: Quirky, with an unforgettable cast of characters, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a movie that exists in its own special world (a world, I am sure, that could also be home to director Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” and “Bottle Rocket”). The film tells of a family of geniuses presided over by a mean old cuss of a patriarch named Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman in the performance of his career). Upon getting to know this selfish and unkind man, it is easy to see why the rest of his family is so screwed up. The film is about his transformation, and is so breezily told even the harsher bits are easy to swallow. Excellent.
“The Lord of the Rings”: The Fellowship of the Ring: Yes, unlike many other reviewers, I’ve read the books (four times). Director Peter Jackson succeeds brilliantly in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision to majestic life on the screen. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen and the rest of the extended cast are pitch-perfect in their roles. This is a fantasy movie that doesn’t shy away from its own dark nature and earns its PG-13 rating (an R-rated director’s cut is rumored to be in the can). At times violent, haunting and awe-inspiring, this film will make you long for the sequels, just as Sauron longs for his ring.
“The Deep End”: Tilda Swinton delivers an unforgettable performance as a mother who covers up the death of her teenage son’s older gay-lover, only to be blackmailed by two men who have video-evidence of her son and the victim together. A rare movie that lets the audience know more than the characters, “The Deep End” pulls off a twist when one of the blackmailers (Goran Visnjic /_” yes, Dr. Kovac from “ER”) begins to fall in love with the mother. A heartbreaking conclusion makes this movie unforgettable.
In the Bedroom: An intimate look at a failing marriage that is tested further by an untimely death and a plan for revenge. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson are both brilliant as a couple who love and loathe one another. Nick Stahl is great as their precocious son, and Marisa Tomei is fantastic as his older lover. The movie is told slowly and deliberately, which heightens the impact of a dramatic twist in the center, and the emotional catharsis at the end. Brilliant.
The Pledge: The story of a retired cop obsessed with a promise he made to catch the killer of a little girl, whose fanatical fixation on the case brings about his own destruction. Jack Nicholson embodies the character of Detective Jerry Black, and proves once again that he is the premiere actor working in Hollywood today. The final revelation may seem cruel (and probably is), but allows us to see what happens when heroes fall from on high and begin to despair.
Monsters, Inc.: Smart, wacky, inventive, and always very funny. “Monsters, Inc.” continues the Pixar tradition of making instant classic children’s stories that are sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy. Complete with a thrilling chase sequence through a warehouse of bedroom doors, and hundreds of throw-away gags in the background of every scene, this movie is as fun as that other 2001 computer animated feature (the one with the green ogre), but serves up its tale with an extra helping of heart.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence: Spielberg channels Kubrick in this odd hybrid that manages to be better than if either had gone it alone. Haley Joel Osment gives an unblinking (literally) emotional performance as a robot-child programmed to love, and Jude Law is incredible as the sexbot Gigolo Joe. With awe-inspiring special effects (you will believe a teddy bear can talk), and awesome visuals, “A.I.” looks gorgeous. It’s the story, though, that will reel you in. A modern and darker retelling of Pinocchio that may have one ending too many, but succeeds in its terrifying vision of the future.
I also admired: “Hedwig,” “From Hell,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Others,” “Ghost World,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Iron Monkey,” “Training Day,” “The Score,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “The Majestic,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Shrek,” “Blow,” “Tailor of Panama,” “Shadow of the Vampire,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Amelie,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Rat Race,” “Made” and “Gosford Park.”
“Pearl Harbor”: “We interrupt this melodramatic, poorly acted, soap operatic love triangle with this important announcement: Pearl Harbor is under attack by the Japanese! We now return you to a truncated version of the Doolittle Raid and the conclusion of the sappy love story already in progress.” “Pearl Harbor” was an injustice to an American tragedy, and to the careers of all who were involved. I’ve seen worse movies, but not many.
“Hannibal”: Plays like the director and screenwriters had eaten half their own brains. Lacks the suspense, character conflict and realism that made “Silence of the Lambs” so great 10 years ago. Also lacks Jodie Foster, who opted wisely not to reprise her Oscar-winning role. I wish Anthony Hopkins had done the same; he’s too good an actor to appear in this rubbish.
“Scary Movie 2”: Slapped together. Proceeds from a funny prologue spoofing “The Exorcist,” to a horrendously predictable, and episodic, spoof of every other movie of the past two years. The jokes can be seen coming from a reel away, and aren’t even funny in hindsight. Note to Weinstein: Give ’em more than a year to put it together next time.
“Jurassic Park 3”: The characters are stranded on an island with the dinosaurs. Been there. The velociraptors are smart and vicious, and the spinosaurus (standing in for the t-rexes in the first two) is hungry and has a wicked sense of smell. Done that. What this franchise needs is an original premise. Even the cast seems bored by this contrivance.
“Ali”: We know Muhammed Ali was an excellent fighter in the ring and was a personality outside the ring in his public appearances. What we don’t know, and what this misguided movie doesn’t show us, is what the private Ali was like. Despite a great performance by Will Smith (and others by Jamie Foxx and Jon Voight) “Ali” grows tiresome, and reveals itself to be less a biography than a greatest hits compilation. Ali the man remains an enigma.
Special prize for the best-looking bad movie of the year: “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.”
Special prize for the best-acted, best-directed bad movie of the year: It’s a tie between “Vanilla Sky” and “Planet of the Apes.” n