In many ways, 2001 marked another low for films, especially Hollywood. The glut of entirely forgettable and absolutely vapid films reached a new level of gridlock (The Fast and the Furious, Pearl Harbor, etc.), major pedigreed projects by auteurs like Spielberg, Mann, and Crowe fell flat on their faces, and, unlike previous years, there is no dominant, epic picture poised to sweep the awards.
On the other hand it was a fantastic year for film. Mavericks like David Lynch, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Robert Altman dropped some of the finest films of their careers. The foreign scene was fully alive,with vibrant films coming from Sweden, France, Vietnam, Britain, and Germany,and there were several extremely auspicious debuts by both actors and directors.
1. Mulholland Drive
David Lynch’s near epic of surreal, passionate, and visceral proportionswas the most fully realized film experience of the year. Previously, Lynchhad found his greatest success working in the confines of middle and ruralAmerica, channeling his youth (he grew up in Montana) into the jittery,hallucinogenic grandeur of Blue Velvet and TwinPeaks. When he delvedinto the new home of his dreams and nightmares, Los Angeles, the resultswere more uneven. Lost Highway was probably the most incoherent Lynchfilm, as it seemingly tried to top the weirdness factor and little else.
With Mulholland Drive, Lynch works with a stunning fluidity and comfort.Returning to his favorite Hitchcockian theme of light lady/dark lady,Lynch fashions a wormhole head-trip, leading the viewers into the recessesof Hollywood mysticism and erotica. Bewildering to many critics (who forsome reason think that films have to be fully understandable after oneviewing), Mulholland Drive is a puzzle of a film, for sure, but hardlya disjointed one. Lynch, with the support of Naomi Watts, Laura ElenaHarring, Justin Theroux, and, yes, Billy Ray Cyrus, crafts the most palpablevision of failure, dreams, memory, passion, and ultimately betrayal atthe hands of grand disappointment since the heyday of Luis Bunuel. MulhollandDrive is a brilliant, breathtaking American film, signifying both thatthere is hope for serious filmmaking within our borders and that America’sweirdest national treasure is working at full force.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson is the ying to David Lynch’s yang. Both are absolutelyoriginal and seemingly inimitable, and both have no fear in jumping intothe river of weirdness. But where Lynch kicks the bottom out and staresinto the abyss of the bizarre, Anderson takes bittersweet comfort in theoddity of life. The Royal Tenenbaums, the story of a dysfunctional familyof geniuses split apart and held together by their cad of a father, graspsthe small, yet seemingly massive theatrics of family with a startlingclarity. Anderson’s magic is that through his characters’ idiosyncrasies,their comic-strip attire, and the obsessively cultivated world of kitschthey inhabit, they are never marginalized or made fun of. Anderson drawsliving, breathing characters, haunted by their pasts and paralyzed withtheir futures. The film bears the best ensemble cast of the year, withall the marquee players (Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller) sinkingtheir teeth into their uncouth roles. Like Lukas Moodysson (see Together),Anderson is fascinated by the big-hearted messiness of life—howoften things need to be destroyed to turn out right.
3. Donnie Darko
Oh so quietly, Richard Kelley, a 25-year-old whiz kid, set several milestoneswith his debut of Donnie Darko. One of the best rookie efforts ever, DonnieDarko was a wholly original, enormously ambitious feature that resonatedwith me with considerable potency. Part sci-fi, part Catcherin the Rye coming-of-age tale, part barb of 80s egoism, DonnieDarko is nearly unclassifiablebut also entirely cohesive, weaving a tapestry that’s similar tothe best works of Atom Egoyan or Robert Altman hummed with a mythic spirituality.Jake Gyllenhaal, a talented young actor, came into his own with a performanceof classic youth frustration. Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze,and Jenna Malone all added touching depth and poignancy to the film. Inthe end, Donnie Darko is unequivocally remarkable, an acerbically funny,thought-provoking film whose emotions were real and whose tragic implicationswere the most forceful of the year.
As I had thought, the Amélie backlash is beginning. Last monthFilm Comment ripped the film to veritable shreds, and the Golden Globespassed Amélie up for the much more obscure No Man’s Landfor best foreign film. It seems that audiences and critics aren’tready to flip for another foreign phenomenon so soon after Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon.
Amélie, however, is a completely enchanting film, a poppastiche of French sensibilities, crafted by Jean Jeunet, a man unafraidof melodrama, slapstick, and the winds of destiny. Fusing early FrenchNew Wave lovey-dovey flippishness and the visual energy of silent films,Cocteau, and Jean Jacques Beneix, Jeunet lifts this ordinarily difficultstory of a do-gooder to heights of sheer, irresistible charm. Unlike themawkish Payit Forward, Amélie, like the film’s namesake, understandsthat an unusual world requires unusual good deeds. Jeunet proceeds witha refreshingly playful spirit to treat a Paris that most certainly doesn’texist as his personal playground for fun and mischief. It is easy to findreasons to hate Amélie for its Why Me Worry? philosophyand naïvecarpe diem attitude. Yet at a time when uplifting art is at a minimumoutput but at a maximum need, Amélie was the year’s mostlovely elixir.
5. Ghost World
Terry Zwigoff, the director of Ghost World, and Daniel Clowes, the creatorof the comic book on which the film was based, do not fit into today’sworld. They do not understand the new trends and do not particularly likethem, either. This is what Ghost World is about. For anyone who has everfelt burnt out, frustrated, or plain bewildered by the world around them,Ghost World is a bracing, hilarious film. Skewering the world with intelligenceand acerbity, Ghost World follows the paths of the disaffected, the deflated,and the disillusioned. The film, however, is not depressing, nor doesit feel content to simply turn its back on modern life. Zwigoff and Clowescraft a message of individuality, of carving your own niche in the rougharound you. Some found this depressing and cynical, but I found it tobe one of the few honest comments on society amidst the glut of mindlesscynicism and foolhardy sentimentality.
6. Gosford Park
Robert Altman is easily the most fascinating, maddening, and uneven directorof the last 30 years. At his worst (which is depressingly often), hisfilms are smug, vapid ruminations about things not particularly significantin the first place (1994’s awful Ready to Wear is a perfect example).At his best, as with Nashville, The Player, ShortCuts, and now GosfordPark, Altman is the most remarkable and bracing humanist around, penetratingand capturing literally scores of characters with a staggering off-handfluidity.
Gosford Park is a triumph for Altman. Nearly 77, he is still workingat the peak of his creative potency and has transposed his talents toforeign soil with the most success ever. In this case it is an Englishcountry house circa 1932 and the disastrous hunting party of the nextfew days. What makes Gosford Park so imminently watchable and whip smartis the way Altman eliminates all traces of nostalgic reverence and letsthe stellar cast sink into depression, anxiety, and quiet nobility thatfeels as modern as anything in In The Bedroom. GosfordPark, like allgreat Altman films, needs to be seen more than once, but even after oneviewing it is impossible to deny the film’s poignant and hilariousimpact.
Lukas Moodysson is obviously an Altman fan, as his luminous, big-heartedfilm Together is like the sweetest film Altman never made. The settingis a Swedish commune circa 1975 that’s unraveling as egos inflate,tempers run high, and the ideals of the last decade begin to turn intobluster. The film is laugh-out-loud funny, but Moodysson also shows thegreatest empathy for his characters of any film this year. What was thelast American film that didn’t treat a wife beater like an absoluteanimal? In Together, Moodysson doesn’t excuse the actions of anyof his characters, but he is beautifully wary of passing judgment. Moodyssonis fascinated with contradictions, and the film expertly laughs at thelofty, sometimes achingly pretentious ideals of the commune, while simultaneouslyapplauding the characters for their idealism. The cast seamlessly interactwith each other with the raw energy of a Mike Leigh film. Like Amélie,Together is a genuinely uplifting film that dares to be sincere and sentimental,and succeeds with a quiet grandeur.
8. The Vertical Ray of the Sun, Battle Royale and In The Mood for Love
Asia, specifically China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan, areproducing some of the most challenging, beautiful, and intelligent filmsin the world today. The year 2000 brought the effervescent CrouchingTiger, Hidden Dragon and the massively brilliant Yi,Yi, both of which were amongthe five best films of the year. The year 2001 has given us three wildlydifferent but equally accomplished films from the Far East. TheVertical Ray of the Sun is Anh Hun Tran’s follow up to 1993’s gorgeousScent of Green Papaya. Tran, one of the world’s best purely visualdirectors, turns Hanoi into the most exotic, romantic place in the world.His simple tale of three sisters loving the struggle of life and relationshipsmiraculously makes the sleepy lull of everyday life seem like the mostsexy and wonderful thing in the world.
Battle Royale, a film that, sadly, may never be released in the U.S.,is one of the most vicious and potent satires I have ever seen, as itstale of junior high students forced to kill each other on an island seethescommentary on competition, youth violence, and the awful world of juniorhigh and high school.
In The Mood for Love, made by Hong Kong’s Wong Kar Wai, recallsYi, Yi in the way that it infuses immense elegy and romance into the lovelystory of two people, both married, inching towards each other. Together,these films offer an amazing display of the passion, intelligence, anddaring that Asia is taking right now. America should take notes.
9. In The Bedroom
Todd Field’s remarkable film of family, revenge, and unspeakabletragedy is not afraid of rawness or of moral ambiguity. It answers tothe call of realness and sincerity, and no other American drama was morecommitted than In the Bedroom. Following the lives of the Fowler familythrough an idyllic summer that is shattered forever by a dumb, violentact, Field and his stellar cast paint an image of staggering realism andepic force. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson deliver the two best performancesof the year, digging into their characters with a fierceness and dedicationthat is absolutely inspiring.
In the Bedroom is not a fun film, not light nor uplifting, but it isbeautiful, heartbreaking, and enormously watchable.
10. The Man Who Wasn’t There
The most consistent filmmakers in the world deliver again in 2001 withthe beguiling Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coen Brothers uber-laconic,ironic, yet heartbreaking film of murder, identity, and fading to blackrecalls the chilly existential breeze that made BartonFink and Miller’sCrossing such effective and atmospheric pieces. Sporting some of the verybest cinematography ever and steely, precise performances by Billy BobThornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, and Tony Shalhoub, TheMan Who Wasn’t There doesn’t so much mimic noir as it embodiesit, emulates it, lives it.
Many people criticize the Coens for being overly smug and ironic, butI think it is much more complex. The Coens recognize the biting absurdityof life, and much of their films are dominated with that. But they alsounderstand emotion, loss, and real heartbreak. In the case of TheMan Who Wasn’t There, it is the story of a man who decided to find himself,only to discover it is too late.
1. Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor was the most expensive greenlighted picture ever. With themassive marketing blitzkrieg and the $5 million premiere party, the budgetapproached $200 million. There were magazine covers, tie-ins galore, MTVspecials, even ludicrous Oscar predictions from director Michael Bay.The end result was something approximating a three-hour soap opera withthe best cinematography you ever saw. Pearl Harbor is simply one of themost vapid, worthless, and flat-out groaningly boring films I have everseen.
Historically it was not particularly accurate, as it tried to be bothpainstakingly PC and yet unflinchingly patriotic. Romantically and emotionally,the characters were flat cut-outs, messily glued together from a thousandprevious archetypes. The only thing of real interest in the film was theactual attack, but after September 11th the thrill of seeing a real, historicalsneak attack, pumped up and fetishized for the big screen, seemed, I don’tknow, just flat out depressing.
If it weren’t for the horror that is PearlHarbor, Snatch wouldeasily have been number one on this list. My hatred for this movie isnearly unrivaled. Why? Because it is derivative, unimaginative pulp thatbelieves a film is cool just because it deals with tough thugs and hasa kitsch R&B soundtrack.
Guy Ritchie, the director, has been praised as a talented writer andsomeone with a keen visual flair. He is neither. The jokes in the filmconsist of one character saying something dumb and another going “for@#%#’s sake!”, but, see, it’s funny because they haveBritish accents.
His visual tricks, like freeze-frame narration—well, Mankiwiez usedthat about 52 years ago in All About Eve. How about the action sloweddown to a dreamlike pace? Jean Vigo was doing that in 1933. Richie hasalso been compared to Quentin Tarantino, but there’s a big difference.Films like Pulp Fiction turn kitsch inside out, and craft their own universeof caricatures and mythic figures that somehow in the end get to you.Ritchie’s films are a barren wasteland of amped up throwaway lines.If you want a good British crime film, rent GetCarter, Mona Lisa, Sexy Beast, etc. As for Ritchie, well, he can fade to black.
This one had the makings to be stellar. The same cast, except for oneof the best replacements ever in Julianne Moore, a director (Ridley Scott)with a potent and visceral style and juicy, dark material to work with.But, unlike The Silence of the Lambs, that deftly floated into seriouscommentary on violence, sex, and gender while being one of the best thrillersever, Hannibal was little more than an elaborate slasher film. Preposterouslysymbolic and heavy handed, grotesquely and inconveniently violent andflat out boring in many parts, Hannibal railroaded the Lecter franchise,from the grand and mythic creepiness of Manhunter and TheSilence of the Lambs to a critical albatross for MGM, Anthony Hopkins, and everyone elseinvolved with this year’s Red Dragon. The shame, the shame.
Blow had the coolest trailer of the year, a tri-screened freeze-frame-a-thonthat made the film look like the second coming of BoogieNights. The actualresult, however, was far soggier. Blow is the worst kind of bio-pic: itneither relishes its distinct historical period nor does it penetrateits subject, cocaine founder George Jung, with even a trace of objectivismor grit. Instead of a story on how cocaine hit and ravaged America, weget the story of a poor dreamer who rises to riches only to be duped bythe women in his life. The late director Ted Demme tries to infuse thefilm with an edgy, wild sensibility, but it’s for naught. Blow isa tepid, empty film that was depressing for its mediocrity and littleelse.
At the time, Swordfish seemed like a fine summer diversion, but in retrospectit is the essence of icky Hollywood violence and nihilism. With a storyline that was as muddled and confusing as it was paper thin, Swordfish relied exclusively on slick violence, cars, and sex. While these elementsare seemingly necessary for any successful action film, they were theonly elements of Swordfish, which was yet again a perfect example of theTower of Babel style of Hollywood filmmaking, where millions of dollarsare spent on films with no soul.