A Year in the Dark

Is it possible that 2001 was actually a good year for movies?



Common Year 2001 exploded with uncommon cinema.
By Gregory Weinkauf

Generally, in the realm of motion pictures, producers are evil, actors are pathetic, screenwriters are delusional, agents are bottom-feeders, and true directors scarcely exist. Contrary to the glitzy stories the mainstream media continually jam down your throat, making movies is quite often an ugly, unpleasant business, based on the ultimate goal of separating you from your hard-earned. If the corporate tie-ins aren’t shoving you toward the box office, the moronic payola “critics” are, and even if a movie tanks (or stanks), you’re being trained to own it, own it, own it on DVD. In this distasteful environment, the discerning consumer scarcely stands a chance.

But, whoa. What’s this? As far as cinema is concerned, did we just have … a good year? Why, it sure looks like it — quite possibly a great year. If you can get past the junk — with titles not unlike Drek, Drivel, Monsters Stink, Ocean’s Elegy, and Don’t Lay a Turd (tagline: “I’ll never smell…”) — there was much to rock and revel to in 2001. Come, let us survey the field of recent cinematic endeavor.

Last winter, in an unusual move, Hollywood forewent its usual bevy of babes long enough to sell us two portly old actors waddling through dire circumstances. With Sean Penn’s The Pledge and Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, we got Jack Nicholson (doing his crude Christian Slater imitation) and Anthony Hopkins (punching the “aplomb” button) representing two sides of murderous evil and AARP eligibility. Both films are gloriously atmospheric, a tad boring, and end on nasty downers, but at least we learned that Benicio Del Toro has a talent for Muppet voices and Ray Liotta has brains. Well, had brains, anyway, but post-sauté he got himself wedged into the cleavage of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in the ironically flat Heartbreakers.

Speaking of which: Attention, Mr. Hackman, please take a year off to refresh yourself! Heartbreakers was one of five feature outings for our friend Gene this year, revealing — along with The Mexican (clunky), Behind Enemy Lines (pointless), The Royal Tenenbaums (floundering), and Heist (utterly lousy) — that the septuagenarian thesp works in exactly two modes: pugnacious jerk and sappy jerk. Spewing Heist‘s ultra-trite dialogue by director David Mamet (who also trited up Hannibal), Gene actually makes one pine for the year’s (shudder) superior caper movies, such as Frank Oz’s The Score and Barry Levinson’s Bandits. Really, did we do something wrong? Is this stuff a punishment?

But I mentioned a good year, right? With a few exceptions (we’ll get to them), it was mostly uphill from this fodder. The ever-dependable Johnny Depp came through twice for us — oddly, both times in praise of narcotics. Adding glamorous sleaze to Ted Demme’s American coke epic, Blow, Depp traded on every ’70s hairstyle in the book, yet still avoided upstaging adventurous costars Penélope Cruz, Paul Reubens, and Franka Potente (the Run Lola Run star who reteamed with Tom Tykwer for the less-than-dazzling The Princess and the Warrior). Depp also played with laudanum while sniffing out Ian Holm in Albert and Allen Hughes’ wicked adaptation of Alan Moore’s dense Jack the Ripper comic, From Hell.

There was also a lot of impressive material out there having to do with the shocking thesis that alienated people tend to feel alienated. In Charlotte Gray, Cate Blanchett (aka the female Gene Hackman) takes her stab at the ultimate Outsider Chick. She’s eclipsed, however, by Thora Birch in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and Leelee Sobieski in Christine Lahti’s My First Mister, who hit their miserable notes with rare precision, even if their overwrought performances aren’t much fun to behold. Essentially dismal and hopeful sides of the same archetype (arty girl who hates everyone), the films gave us memorable work from Steve Buscemi and Albert Brooks, who stride the volatile middle ground between boyfriend and patriarch.

Actually, a dearth of dependable fathers informed a great many movies this year, ranging from ambitious indie trash such as Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut to schmaltzy Hollywood fare such as Irwin Winkler’s Life as a House and Scott Hicks’ Hearts in Atlantis. Confused, disturbed young men roamed the cinema, as usual, from John Singleton’s touching Baby Boy to Eric Bana’s grisly, engrossing portrayal of Mark “Chopper” Read in Andrew Dominik’s Chopper to Guy Pierce (all teeth and torso) in Christopher Nolan’s mildly diverting gimmick flick Memento to Jake Gyllenhaal striding the beautiful nightmare realm of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. (The latter is one of three films this year — including Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast and Mia Trachinger’s Bunny — to feature a huge, anthropomorphized rabbit, but that’s another essay.) Even Ali fits this mold, although only its first, Sam Cooke-tinged segment really flies, and the producers missed a golden opportunity to cast superior actor Jeffrey Wright in the lead.

To stave off the misery of isolation, the cinema turned to romance, and, happily, a lot of it worked. English comedian Ben Elton transformed his book Inconceivable into Maybe Baby, a smart comedy involving Joely Richardson and Hugh Laurie as a yuppie couple desperately trying to get pregnant. Freaky Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet made the dream girl flesh — thanks to saucer-eyed minx Audrey Tautou — in his wantonly flashy Amélie, and Finn Aku Louhimies’ supremely sexy Restless depicted yet another disoriented young fellow, who — like his Icelandic counterpart in the delightfully charming 101 Reykjavik — learns to get it on (life, that is). Sure, we had to deal with slop like Kate & Leopold (Want chivalry, girls? Try being pleasant), but when a pic like Monster’s Ball overcomes its dreary racist clichés (and yet more pathetic fathering) with hot love via Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, there must be hope.

Ghost stories were also in no short supply in 2001, including both effects-laden emptiness such as Thirteen Ghosts and extremely spooky nerve-janglers, including Brad Anderson’s excellent Session 9. In one of the year’s weirdest simultaneous collusions and severings, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise got spooky in The Others and Vanilla Sky, respectively, with the Great Red Hope’s former flame producing Alejandro Amenábar’s misty English spook-fest while starring in Cameron Crowe’s odd but engaging remake of Amenábar’s Abre los Ojos. While there were still plenty of movies bent exclusively on kicking ass — Swordfish, The Fast and the Furious, the reprehensibly vulgar Black Hawk Down (aka Blacks Shot Down), etc. — popular cinema revealed a distinct turn toward spectral encounters.

And, lastly, let us not forget the many movies featuring people being chased by digital stuff that isn’t actually there. These films tend to take an unfair beating by stodgy practitioners of this trade, but fun’s fun, and this year we were afforded awesome kicks along with Brandon Fraser in The Mummy Returns and Henry Selick’s way-underrated Monkeybone (Tim who?), plus some guy with big boobs running around shooting stuff in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the amusing Jurassic Park III, and the striking Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, wherein actors finally became unnecessary.

Was it a great year? Heck, when the list of runners-up includes terrific must-sees such as The Dish, A Beautiful Mind, In the Bedroom, Last Orders, Last Resort, Our Song, Mulholland Drive, Chain Camera, Rush Hour 2, Snide and Prejudice, Training Day, and Iron Monkey, the question answers itself. Now here’s la crème de la crème.

10. Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back Those who have evolved beyond copycat pretense will recognize this as the year’s funniest movie. In addition to barking 2001’s best line (“What the fuck is the Internet?”), Jason Mewes — aka Jay — stands as cinema’s rawest nerve since Brando was a boy. Everyone catches shrapnel as director Kevin Smith — aka Silent Bob — deftly detonates his beloved Askewniverse. (But, dudes, you would have ranked higher if you’d sent the posters as promised.)

9. Atlantis: The Lost Empire Yes, a rollicking Disney cartoon devoid of crap and full of wonder. So what if the polychromatic cast smells like marketing statistics and Leonard Nimoy can barely croak his lines as the King of Atlantis? Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) outperform all expectations, trotting out their Jules Verne trappings to support a tale about ancient beauty, modern exploitation, and an archaeologist caught between.

8. The Charcoal People Got Slavery? This engrossing film from Oscar-winning documentarian Nigel Noble reveals everything you don’t want to know about iron sourcing in the Brazilian Amazon. Essentially, lacking other occupations, local tribes have taken to tearing down their forests, burning the wood in huge smelting ovens to produce pig iron, and destroying their bodies, communities, and environment in the process. The director’s matter-of-fact approach will have you thinking twice about your sporty SUV.

7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Yea, and as I walk through the valley of critical hostility, I shall have no fear. Sure, this is a big, honking product of the AOL Time Warner machine, but it’s also a luminous, boldly faithful adaptation of a wonderful story. In the lead, Daniel Radcliffe holds his own while ensconced in much magic, as Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman turn in stellar supporting performances. Anyone with a modicum of imagination will feel right at home at Hogwarts.

6. Vengo Not unlike the impressive import Behind the Sun, this passionate effort from Tony Gatlif (Latcho Drom) derives its drive from a familial blood feud, but the incredible Andalusian Gypsy music adds a powerful dimension. Flamenco dancer Antonio Canales fights for his business and family while musicians Tomatito, Sheikh Ahmad Al Tuni, and La Caita burst into plangent, raging song, nearly prompting one to distribute lozenges. When they sing, “I come from nowhere … I have no homeland,” anyone can relate.

5. The Shipping News Lasse Hallström drags Kevin Spacey to the harsh coast of Newfoundland and finally makes a man of him. Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx, this seemingly icy tale warms up via crackling performances from Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Scott Glenn, and Cate Blanchett (who steps in briefly as the ho to end all hos). Stark, tender, and funny, the movie toes the line of sentiment without becoming sickening — a daring feat. Now, Mr. Hallström, it’s time to deliver your balls-out thriller.

4. Waking Life A director must be sparking if you can close your eyes and still be transported by his film. Case in point: this eclectic experiment from Slacker director Richard Linklater, which offers the extraordinary sounds of Austin-based string quartet Tosca as it floats among dreamers, beautiful and otherwise, who add their unique philosophy to this state of the union address. Connoisseurs of visual stimuli will appreciate that it’s also animated in all kinds of weird ways.

3. Moulin Rouge It’s loud, garish, divisive, and delightful, this big pop circus. Baz Luhrmann’s indisputably unique and confident vision lights up the screen as Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor defy the odds (and the hecklers) to deliver a romance so exaggerated it becomes real. Jim Broadbent’s an awesome impresario, and songs such as “The Children of the Revolution” and “El Tango de Roxanne” prove irresistible.

2. Two-way tie! Simon Magus and Simon Mágus Although these fine films are both date-stamped 1999, they finally debuted in the United States in 2001. The former’s an English production by neophyte Ben Hopkins, featuring a superb Noah Taylor as the deranged mystic Simon (based on Jesus’ thirteenth disciple) struggling for balance in his rustic village amid bewildered Jews and Christians, plus the devil (Ian Holm, the year’s most charismatic actor) and an elitist poet (Rutger Hauer in fine form). Only its contrived conclusion keeps this richly moody gem from the top spot. The other Simon is a Hungarian production set in modern France, with Péter Andorai starring as the titular magician who travels to Paris to solve a murder but ends up competing with his old arch-nemesis, Péter (Péter Halasz). Director Ildikó Enyedi loads her film with subtle verve, and her leads — including the lovely Julie Delarme — make much of this elegant tale. Both films also feature terrific soundtracks, the former featuring a somber score by Deborah Mollison, the latter spanning from Bartók to Massive Attack.

1. Three-way tie! Okay, so I dig English classics (even when they’re lensed in Prague or New Zealand). Insanely undermarketed this year was Pandaemonium by Julien Temple (The Filth and the Fury), which chronicles the exploits of 19th-century poets William Wordsworth (John Hannah) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Linus Roache). A darkly fascinating study of inspiration, insurrection, addiction, and exploitation, this lush film has as much to do with today’s pop stars as with the dusty old visionaries who gave us “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and “Kubla Khan.” From the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie), Temple and his sublime cast transport us through perilous friendship and haunting prescience.

Meanwhile, in and around Camelot (by way of the Czech Republic), The Mists of Avalon proves that a grand film needn’t be judged by the size of its screen. As cheap, muddy video stampedes our cinemas, this four-hour TNT miniseries from Uli Edel (Christiane F.) commands cinematic appraisal. A sensuous adaptation of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley’s modern classic, Mists explores the women of the King Arthur myths, including witchy Viviane (Anjelica Huston), daring Morgaine (Julianna Margulies), and nasty Morgause (Joan Allen). Beltane rites, brutal fights, and men in tights — there’s something for everyone.

And then there’s the little matter of this humble sleeper called The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Director Peter Jackson is docked several points for casting the irritating Elijah Wood as Frodo and the distracting Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, but almost all the other elements shoot this epic Tolkien adaptation right back to my triad at the top. Already the project’s controversies are making themselves known: the Lords of Cha-Ching at New Line hyping their mega-budget when in fact New Zealand taxpayers fronted a huge chunk of the tab, etcetera. The means may be quite dubious, but the results are up on the screen, and you just can’t argue with that. It makes the whole ugly industry seem almost worthwhile.

Are You In or Out?

Or, one man’s passion for Clooney, killers, kooks, and corn.
By Robert Wilonsky

In time, 2001 might well be remembered as the year of the overhyped and undercooked, the year storybook wizards cast spells to eradicate critical good judgment, the year in which there was so much detritus to choose from that much of the good stuff made best-of lists only by default. It was the year that proved synthespians could star in hollow sci-fi-action junk as easily as their flesh-and-blood counterparts; it was the year Steven Spielberg played Stanley Kubrick and rendered gigolo Jude as lifeless as, well, Stanley Kubrick. Some insist it was the Year of Nicole Kidman, which it was if you didn’t mind her, ahem, “singing” and “coughing” in the dazzling (and, ultimately, dazzlingly vapid) Moulin Rouge and “acting” in The Others, which wasn’t half as terrifying as How High or Freddy Got Fingered.

It’s almost easier to pick the year’s worst than its finest. Leading the pack is I Am Sam, in which Sean Penn does his Rainman dance for Oscar only to watch it misfire horribly, followed closely by Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (Nic Cage, who, given recent choices, might be mentally challenged), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Kevin Smith proves you can make a movie with your head up your ass), The Center of the World and Intimacy (highbrow porn, which is so beside the point), Hannibal (or, Ridley Scott’s Glad He Ate Her), The Mexican (Brad + Julia – George = oh, God, no), Novocaine (and what ever became of Steve Martin, anyway?), Waking Life (not stoned enough to care, dude), Mulholland Drive (a movie better when it was a failed TV pilot), and Vanilla Sky (did I say that out loud)?

Fine, that’s a bit too much hyperbole; the bad always outweighs the good in an industry that abhors its audience by giving it what it only thinks it wants. Yes, we desire more Chris Kattan and Tom Green. Can’t live without more laughless movie parodies. Will cease to exist unless Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider or David Spade make a movie a year. Studio bosses and their brainless minions might as well spit in our eyes. (No, wait, they did. Or didn’t you see America’s Sweethearts?)

And on that note:

In the Bedroom and A Beautiful Mind will linger long after the expiration date stamped on so much Hollywood and indie “outsider” product offered up this year. They’re touched by magic, much more so than those two movies about stones and rings. Same goes for Monsters, Inc., which has made nary a Top Ten list and finds in its rightful place Shrek, which is as empty as the head of Kevin Spacey, who once more loses cred and goodwill with K-PAX and The Shipping News, two films that so want to be liked you can’t help but loathe them.

There were some intriguing contenders for this list, among them In the Mood for Love (how could something so Wong be so right?), The Devil’s Backbone (spooky, at least to the art-house set), The Royal Tenenbaums (better on second viewing, though not worth a third), Panic (the best Sopranos episode ever), Sexy Beast (nononononono, yesyesyesyesyes), Ghost World (not as good as the comic book), Gosford Park (Altman’s best in years, for what that’s worth), A.I. (a touching toy story undone by its finale, when the batteries ran down), The Million Dollar Hotel (loathed for all the wrong reasons), The Business of Strangers (buy Stockard in Channing), even the terribly flawed Black Hawk Down, which is the best sort of war movie — overwrought but ashamed of its thrills, pro-heroics but anti-war — undone, finally, by its hysterical anti-Clinton politics and the uncomfortable sight of watching a few dozen good ol’ boys mowing down a few hundred black men without thought or consequence. (The film breaks your heart by playing up the deaths of nineteen soldiers; it breaks your spirit by playing down the deaths of thousands of Somalis.)

But even the good stuff was too much like Ali (the movie, not the man), which floats like a butterfly only to sink like a BB. We expect too much, we get too little. Sounds like business as usual. What follows is, of course, in alphabetical order — though A Beautiful Mind would top the list, regardless.

A Beautiful Mind The biopic that Ali should have been — a “true-story” reverie never caught flat on its feet. Don’t know when Ron Howard learned to direct, but this adaptation of Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Forbes Nash Jr. is wrenching but never strained, poetic but never sentimental. Trapped inside the broken mind of the mathematician who won a Nobel Prize in 1994, we’re never sure what’s real or imagined, and when the truth’s revealed it’s devastating. Too bad Russell Crowe won the Oscar when he didn’t deserve it.

Chopper Former music-vid director Andrew Dominik makes his feature-length debut with a movie about a violent, self-righteous criminal whose published (tall) tales may or may not be the stuff of self-made myth. Eric Bana plays Mark “Chopper” Read as likeable rogue, and the movie never judges; we’ve plenty of room to do that ourselves in a film that eschews narrative for vignettes woven together with blood and bullets and the occasional knife to the ear.

Hybrid: One Man’s Passion for Corn Monteith McCollum’s documentary about his grandfather Milford Beeghly’s obsession with crossbreeding corn makes all other docs look flat and dull; it’s the David Lynch film of the year, at least better than the real thing’s willfully odd offering. McCollum’s six-years-in-the-baking film, shot on 16mm black-and-white stock with old footage of his grandpa spliced in, is short on narrative but long on the beautiful and bizarre — so much so that either you love this movie, which presents corn as a living entity, or you despise it for being like nothing you’ve ever seen. Does make it hard to take a bite, though — all that talk of “ripened ovaries” and incest. Yuck…and, oddly, yum.

In the Bedroom First-timer Todd Field sticks close to Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings,” and fills in the blanks with Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, and a whole lot of overwhelming grief that sticks with you days later. Spacek gives one of those performances people always talk about but rarely deliver; she says everything with her silence and red-rimmed eyes that evoke tangible pain. Wilkinson is a portrait of sedate, sad rage; his actions are unexpected, but explicable nonetheless. And this contains the second great Nick Stahl performance of the year, after his turn as the Bully who bites it.

Memento Probably the best oddball offering since Being John Malkovich, a promise yet to be fulfilled two years later by most films. Chris Nolan’s bass-ackwards tale of murder, betrayal, madness, and memory loss is beguiling and hysterical, a tattooed love letter to film noir; even the actors couldn’t make heads or tails of it upon first viewing, though they insist it stuck close to the script (go figure). On second and third (and eleventh) viewings, it holds up, precisely because it never feels the need to explain everything. Okay, anything. Cameron Crowe, we’re looking at you, pal.

Monsters, Inc. To those who insist Shrek is the better animated movie, give it five years, then go back and see how vapid and slight it is — and ugly, to boot, like something trimmed out of a PlayStation game. (Just see how funny that Matrix gag plays, or that Smash Mouth song.) This Pixar offering, with John Goodman as the cuddliest furball this side of Ron Jeremy and Billy Crystal as one of my Jewish uncles, is timeless, richly rendered, and deeply felt — a lush fairy tale, without need of being fractured.

No Man’s Land Danis Tanovic’s debut is the year’s best (war) film, combining the dark laughs of a M*A*S*H with the chilly thrills of a Lifeboat with the guilty pangs of a Three Kings. Two Bosnian soldiers and their Serbian counterpart are caught between enemy lines (speaking of which, Owen Wilson oughta be ashamed) but never resolve their differences; an American director would have had them meeting in the middle for a cathartic hug. Funny and bleak till its sobering finale, which catches in your throat — the chuckle that turns to a sob.

Ocean’s Eleven The snobs sneer at its star power; the cynics, its sheer, giddy fun. It’s as though there’s some kind of resentment against Steven Soderbergh for not making a “serious statement” when he just wants to round up the boys (Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Cheadle, Garcia … and Roberts) for a slick night out of gins and grins. (And these are the same naysayers who loathe Traffic, so go figure.) Also, bonus points for hiring Elliott Gould (underused since the ’70s, when he had less body hair), Carl Reiner (shades of Your Show of Shows), and Bernie Mac, who talks the way Clooney looks and acts — smooooove.

The Pledge Sean Penn directs Jack Nicholson as an obsessed cop who gives in to his demons — which may or may not exist, far as anyone else can tell. For a moment, all of this seems too familiar — the retired cop who refuses to acknowledge he is past his prime and becomes determined to solve a closed case. But there’s no glib resolution, no easy answer. We wonder whether Jack is motivated or mad; his brain spins with images and utterances laid out along the way like clues, if indeed there is a murderer still on the loose. And it’s not hard to see why actors love working with Penn, even in the smallest roles; he lets them speak monologues even when they’re saying nothing at all.

Startup.com A film of its time, for all times: Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim document the rise and fall of a friendship and a dot-com, well before their tale was oft-told in headlines. You feel like hell when Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman’s go bust, along with their govWorks.com site, but they have it coming; the duo never understand that having a great idea doesn’t count for shit when you can’t make it work, and they never do — at least, until it’s too late.

The Deep Stuff

Murder in the multiplex, and other new (and slightly used) goodies.
By Bill Gallo

1. In the Bedroom First-time director Todd Field turns a dark tale by the late short-story master Andre Dubus into a precocious film masterpiece about murder, grief, and repressed marital rage, set in quiet Camden, Maine. Tom Wilkinson and likely Oscar nominee Sissy Spacek star as the highly civilized parents of a college student (Nick Stahl) whose summer affair with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) ends in his murder, propelling the parents into a scheme of vengeance that disguises an ulterior motive — the bitter couple’s desperate desire to survive each other. An actor and photographer with an uncanny eye, Field is a merciless chronicler of telling details, and his vision of the violence submerged in small-town life is thoroughly chilling.

2. The Deep End Gifted Tilda Swinton is the centerpiece of Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s neo-noir thriller about a housewife who discovers the body of her eldest son’s lowlife lover on the beachfront of her Lake Tahoe property. The filmmakers play off the self-sacrificial mother’s undeniable urge to set things right for her family against her strange attraction to a melancholy blackmailer (Goran Visnjic), setting a dangerous mood that carries their drama to dizzy heights of suspense. Adapted from The Blank Wall, a little-known 1947 novel by all-but-forgotten Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, this portrait of a mother’s will — and her weakness — makes for high-octane noir.

3. Mulholland Drive David Lynch cultists, rejoice. Here’s the old Twin Peaks weirdness in spades, on the big screen and properly furnished with midgets. When the dazed victim of a car wreck wanders into a strange house, Lynch sets loose a series of indefinable mysteries and horrors that give off a very high spook quotient and the director’s usual scent of surreal humor. Throw in a dumb blonde, a dumber cop, and half a dozen red herrings, and the recipe for dreamy intrigue is complete. It’s hard to believe this long-delayed project started as a TV pilot. What could the network suits have been thinking?

4. Shrek The “hero” of DreamWorks’ tart and subversive animated fairy tale is an ornery, basically unlikable green ogre who speaks in a Scottish burr (credit Mike Myers), eats rats, and sets out to romance an overweight princess because it will bring him material gain. No saccharine denouements for this spiky misanthrope: Instead, he lays gleeful siege to his Disney antecedents — including Pinocchio, Cinderella, and the rest of the crew. The animation is beautifully drawn, and the dark wit of the proceedings is enough to please the most sophisticated audiences, let alone children with the age-old yearning to get a little bit scared.

5. Memento The young British writer-director Christopher Nolan means to yank our chains, and he does so brilliantly in this exceedingly dark, strangely haunted comedy about a former insurance investigator named Leonard (Guy Pearce), who’s lost his short-term memory. The poor guy’s trying to solve the apparent murder of his wife, despite the evil intentions of some devious “friends” (Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano) and the fact that he can’t remember what happened five minutes ago, much less get a grip on his consciousness. As if this weren’t enough fun, the malicious Nolan tells the entire story backwards, as if to test the limits of our perception.

6. Apocalypse Now Redux The torturous Vietnam epic that once drove Francis Ford Coppola to the brink of madness may be 22 years old, but 2001’s major re-edit (enacted by Coppola and Walter Murch) serves to deepen and clarify the original film’s ideas about war, the demons of conscience, and what Joseph Conrad called “the horror.” Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz now emerges into daylight to mock Martin Sheen, those frightened Playboy bunnies inhabit a heartbreaking new scene in a wrecked helicopter, and the ghost of T.S. Eliot speaks more ill than ever of his ruined century. For Coppola, this must be closure. For us, it’s fresh revelation.

7. From Hell That Allen and Albert Hughes, makers of 1993’s bleak ghetto classic Menace II Society, should find themselves in Victorian London, on the trail of Jack the Ripper, is not so odd. In their view, the Ripper signals a new breed of egocentric evil and emotion-free ultraviolence that will come to infect all big cities everywhere in future decades. Johnny Depp’s absinthe-swilling, opium-smoking police detective prowls the dank, dark cobblestones with spooky intensity and manages to solve the case: He, too, foreshadows the mood and manner of the coming 20th century.

8. Fat Girl A dozen Hollywood moviemakers have built careers exploiting the insecurities of teenagers. France’s Catherine Breillat goes much further, taking a merciless look at adolescent trauma and the ruthlessness of carnal gamesmanship in the harrowing tale of two sisters wrestling with their emerging sexuality while on vacation at the seashore. The shapely, pretty girl (Roxane Mesquida) gets the boy, while her doughy, dejected younger sister (Anaïs Reboux) gets nothing. But there are no winners on this psychosexual battlefield, and in the end we are stunned by violence. Here are the cruel facts of life, unsugared.

9. Amélie Like Jane Austen’s famous meddler, Emma, the heroine of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bracing comedy is a doe-eyed crusader who resolves to emancipate her friends and acquaintances alike — all of Paris, if she can. It’s a beguiling quest filled with sensory overload, some spirited intellectual gymnastics, and an introduction to an intriguing new actress named Audrey Tautou. In the end, Amélie, who’s both an artist and an angel in her way, even manages to find love for herself.

10. The Man Who Wasn’t There Ethan and Joel Coen’s new excursion into film noir is always lightened by the brothers’ irrepressible urge to wise off and their underlying postmodern view. The requisite 1940s antihero, a placid, small-town barber played by a perfectly deadpan Billy Bob Thornton, gets entangled with blackmail, murder, and a wonderfully sleazy lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), but the Coens’ surreal comic tilt keeps us always on the verge of a laugh. Roger Deakins’ gorgeously textured black-and-white cinematography gives the most beautiful look of the year to a pulp fiction fantasy that’s great, dark fun.

A Top Ten Odyssey

Looking back (and backward), 2001 had a few worthy mementos.
By Andy Klein

Had anyone asked me back in September how 2001 was looking, I would have been tempted to rate it as even worse than the dismal 2000 (which suffered further from proximity to the wondrous 1999). But my assessment shifted during the final quarter of the year — half because of some fine late entries, half because of some catching up and even some reevaluation. What I now see is a year with a few great films, a very large number of pretty good films, and only a smattering of the truly wretched and/or offensive.

In other words, no cause to break out the champagne or the prussic acid.

As usual, for my Top Ten, I’m using Academy rules: Films must have played for at least a week in Los Angeles, beginning no later than December 31.

1. Memento Christopher Nolan’s sophomore feature more than fulfills the considerable promise of his low-budget 1999 Following. Certainly no other 2001 movie absorbed as much of my mental energy (in an entirely enjoyable way). While it is not above criticism, the two major charges critics used to dismiss it were both, frankly, pig-ignorant: No, the film’s bizarre chronology isn’t an arbitrary gimmick, but is the only way to convey the hero’s point of view; and — even if the story, when rearranged in chronological order, isn’t very interesting (and I think that it is as interesting as, say, Betrayal or The Killing, to name two other great films told out of order) — so what? It’s a bit like saying, “Well, Blazing Saddles isn’t a very interesting story, if you remove the clutter of all the jokes.” I wrote about 8,000 words analyzing Memento for Salon.com, and I could have written three times as much.

2. Mulholland Drive The one film that had a shot at displacing Memento on my list had many of the same great qualities: a bravely unusual structure (which may have been mandated by the project’s weird history, but that’s irrelevant to an appreciation of the end product), a multilayered puzzle, and exquisite execution. Indeed, David Lynch’s latest also has higher highs than any isolated moments in Memento: the audition, the Club Silencio, the sex scenes. Naomi Watts’ performance was simply amazing. In many ways it was a warmer version of the director’s earlier Lost Highway.

3. Amélie Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier French films, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, were completely sui generis, stylistically startling and hilarious in an uncomfortable way. His latest may represent a shift to the more conventional, at least in subject matter, but the style remains as ever. In fact, it is the tension between his hep, hyped-up style and the conventional romantic sentimentality of the story that makes it so interesting. And Audrey Tautou is great.

4. Shrek Simply the funniest thing I saw all year, with Eddie Murphy the standout in an altogether perfect voice cast.

5. Audition Unbelievably prolific director Takashi Miike is overly obsessed with pushing our buttons and grossing us out. But, because this 1999 film is way more controlled than the other Miike titles I’ve been able to track down, it is also his best. The excesses here don’t seem as gratuitous. The film totally freaked me out, and even the marginally squeamish should stay away.

6. In the Mood for Love Wong Kar-wai’s latest may strike some as intolerably slow, but Wong works turf that is off the standard maps of cinema and creates moods that are altogether unique.

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Okay, I probably enjoyed the Harry Potter film more, but it didn’t have an ounce of risk in it. (Still, for Chris Columbus to be turning out competent hack work is definitely a big step up.) Here, Peter Jackson, an infinitely superior filmmaker, takes on an even more daunting project and brings more inspiration to it than Columbus could ever aspire to, while still satisfying the most fanatical Tolkien fan.

8. The Fighter I usually fudge my list by segregating documentaries, but Amir Bar-Lev’s chronicle of two utterly engaging alte kackers revisiting the sites of their Holocaust experiences was moving in ways that one would not have predicted. Other first-rate documentaries were Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I and George Butler’s The Endurance.

9. Gosford Park It took me two viewings to completely warm to Robert Altman’s skewed take on Agatha Christie-style mysteries, but with a cast that includes half the greatest living British actors, there is even more to look at here than two viewings would allow.

10. Sexy Beast The plot of Jonathan Glazer’s debut feature may be standard-issue heist material, but Ben Kingsley’s performance was so transcendent it almost obliterated brilliant work from Ray Winstone and Ian McShane.

Special citations:

Eyes Wide Shut Award for Films That Will Take Me More Time to Decide About: Most of my friends completely loathed A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, finding it structurally awkward and disgustingly mawkish. I’m not sure I think it’s good, but it’s so ambitious I still haven’t been able to assimilate it fully. To those complainers, however, I suggest the following experiment: Pretend Stanley Kubrick had directed it himself and had turned out, frame for frame, exactly the same film. Once you put aside your Steven Spielberg baggage, does the structure look inept? Or daringly original? Does the ending appear sappy? Or actually bittersweet? Maybe even just bitter? Look at it the way you might look at 2001 (the space odyssey, not the year). Interesting, huh?

Hong Kong Action Cinema: It was great to see Tsui Hark’s latest directorial effort, Time and Tide, get a brief American release; it may be incomprehensible, but when it rocks, it really rocks. Still, the winner this year was Miramax’s reissue of the absolutely great 1993 film Iron Monkey, produced by Tsui and directed by Yuen Wo-Ping. For once, Miramax released an HK film essentially unchanged, with subtitles instead of dubbing. And guess what? It did better business than their last several Jackie Chan reissues, even without a major star in the cast. One can only hope they’ve noticed.

Simultaneously Great and Awful: The animated sections of Osmosis Jones are hilarious and wonderfully executed; unfortunately, they’re intercut with Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s inept, ugly, unfunny live-action sequences. Get the DVD and skip the Bill Murray stuff.

Simultaneously Great and Awful, Part 2: I love what I think Baz Luhrman had in mind with Moulin Rouge and what he achieved during parts of the film. But did I have to sit through the most hideous, assaultive, unpleasant opening 45 minutes in the history of cinema to get to them?

Among the other films that I greatly enjoyed and admired, any number of which might have made my list on a different day, are, roughly in chronological order: The Taste of Others; The Dish; Spy Kids; Eureka; Maybe Baby; The King Is Alive; Divided We Fall; Cure; The Deep End; Ghost World; The Others; Together; Va Savoir; Joy Ride; Training Day; Fat Girl; Donnie Darko; Monsters, Inc.; The Man Who Wasn’t There; In the Bedroom; Ocean’s Eleven; Baran; Lantana; The Royal Tenenbaums; Kate & Leopold; Ali; A Beautiful Mind; and Monster’s Ball.

Shut up and Watch!

If you didn’t like this year’s movies, you didn’t look hard enough.
By Luke Y. Thompson

When people say it’s been a bad year for movies, what they often mean is, “Of the big, hyped studio movies that opened at my local multiplex, most were less satisfactory than I expected.” So don’t blame the movies, because you didn’t look for the good ones. I’ve had people tell me this year was bad, then admit they had never heard of Ghost World or Memento or… well, we’ll get to my list in a minute. Honestly, if you truly thought Pearl Harbor and Planet of the Apes would be great films, you deserved to be disappointed.

Which is not to say it’s been a perfect year, either. Numerous films had wonderful moments without being truly great; even the botch-job Pootie Tang had a couple of transcendent scenes. If I could have shortened In the Bedroom and The Princess and the Warrior and Mulholland Drive, deleted John “Jar Jar” Leguizamo from Moulin Rouge, cut the Smash Mouth songs from Shrek, recast the Peter Stormare and Jimmy Smits roles in The Million Dollar Hotel, rewritten the ludicrous deus ex machina coincidence in Training Day, and tweaked the endings of Donnie Darko and The Others, they might have made my list. But they’re all still well worth a look.

I’ve opted not to include on my list some excellent Japanese films: Kinji Fukasaku’s high school bloodbath Battle Royale, Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon, and the animé biopic Spring and Chaos, which told the life story of poet Kenji Miyazawa as enacted by anthropomorphic cats and hallucinogenic visuals. None has yet had a theatrical run, and only Spring and Chaos is available in the United States on DVD. Avalon may soon be dubbed into English for release on these shores by Miramax, which is a terrible idea; sci-fi or not, it’s a slow-paced art-house film (think eXistenZ if David Cronenberg had ever actually played a videogame during his life) that won’t cross over, but could do well in limited release if handled well.

Before we get to the best features of the year, though, here are some “awards” in other categories.

Best Documentary: William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories. Gibson’s writing often is tedious, but the man proves to be articulate and compelling, especially when seated in the back of a car that appears to be driving across different dimensions.

Best Short Film: Commercial for Golden Sun for Nintendo Game Boy Advance. Minute for minute, this ad — which pits angelic statues and skeletons against an opera-house orchestra and singer, culminating when a chandelier morphs into a dragon and shatters — is some of the year’s finest filmmaking. Videogame commercials are often the most vital forms of surrealism we have, ever since rock videos essentially abdicated that throne.

Best Rerelease: Akira. Finally translated correctly, the 1987 animé is revealed as the classic it was all along, now that we can understand it properly.

Best Trend: Onscreen nudity. From let-it-all-hang-out indies such as Baise-moi and Dancing at the Blue Iguana to big-screen babes Halle Berry, Piper Perabo, and Penélope Cruz baring all, this was a great year for pissing off the fundamentalists. We critics aren’t supposed to admit we like this stuff, for some reason.

Most Overrated Movie: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s cool to love a freaky trannie, and middle-aged critics just long to be hip. But get past the admittedly rockin’ soundtrack, and you’ll find that not one of the characters, save the unlikable lead, is well-developed, and what little story there is is poorly told, with key relationships going unexplained. A cult film it is; a great movie it is not.

And now a drum roll, please, for the best of the best. Bear in mind that I haven’t seen everything, but chances are I’ve seen more than you have.

1. (tie) Ghost World and Amélie Two sides of the same coin: raven-haired beauties who’d rather intellectualize their world from a distance than actually live in it (anyone who writes for a living can relate). Watch the two films as a double-feature and imagine that on her last bus ride, Thora Birch morphs into Audrey Tautou, then ends up in a fantasy Paris. It makes more sense than Mulholland Drive.

2. Spy Kids The best children’s movie in a decade or so, and the smartest comedy of the year, loaded with visual gags and imagination. Ten years from now, today’s youngsters will smoke pot to this film in their dorm rooms. Just ignore the gratuitous and horrible bonus scene added for the “special edition.”

3. Memento Yeah. What everyone else said.

4. Session 9 Crushed when it opened opposite The Others, Brad Anderson’s low-budget art horror flick reinvigorates the genre and makes David Caruso look like a good actor. Boasts some of the year’s best dialogue scenes, as well as the biggest scares.

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Even Chris Columbus couldn’t screw this one up. Movies were meant for spectacle like this; they just usually forget to include a plot. This one had so much it actually put some people off. Kudos to scripter Steven Kloves for his subtle, yet faithful, tweaks to J.K. Rowling’s world.

6. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within More proof that audiences resist too much plot. Ignore the red-herring issue of whether or not virtual actors will ever replace real ones; Final Fantasy is animation first and foremost, and a sophisticated form of it at that, with a healthy dose of Eastern spirituality thrown in amid spectacular alien phantoms.

7. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence I know, I know, you hated it. But any movie that freaks out Spielberg fans for being too dark and Kubrick fans for being too sappy has to be doing something right. Though it compares itself, repeatedly, to Pinocchio, the better analogy is to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, a downbeat fairy tale about the most loyal toy in the world.

8. Chopper Eric Bana deserves an Oscar he won’t get for his grimly comic portrayal of Aussie psychopath Mark Read, but all the action figures they make of him when Ang Lee’s Hulk comes out should make up for it.

9. The Royal Tenenbaums Like a demented children’s book in therapy and on Zoloft. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson do it again with their best filmic collaboration to date.

10. Black Hawk Down Hoo-ah!

If my list had been longer, the following would have made it: Behind the Sun, The Center of the World, Dinner Rush, The Devil’s Backbone, From Hell, Iron Monkey, No Man’s Land, Swordfish, and Trouble Every Day.

And ask me again about The Lord of the Rings in two years.