Another year of really, really crappy movies was saved, in the end, by a Bohemian storm, a magical ring, a robot boy, and a lonely mademoiselle. A feeling of the otherworldly permeates every movie on my best-of list this year, even the one documentary. And the weird thing is that most of these films were released and had earned potential spots on this list before September 11, when escaping into a fantasy world didn’t seem quite as urgent as it later would.
In alphabetical order, here are my top 11 films of 2001:
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
This powerful updating of the Frankenstein story is part cautionary tale for the new millennium, part archetypal hero’s journey, part myth, part philosophy of science, daring us to consider how programmed we are as human beings. If Haley Joel Osment never appears on film again, he will be remembered for this, the most stunning child performance ever in a film that could not exist without his talent.
With its cotton-candy world of dreamers and lovers lost in faded-postcard Paris, this delightful film is the most magically transporting of the year. An almost unbearably wonderful reminder of what The Movies should be.
Finally, the nightmare of Generation X’s adolescence has hit the screen, and it ain’t pretty. Necessary alienation from a cookie-cutter world, and stoic acceptance of impending apocalypse: Donnie is the anti-Ferris, the teen we actually were when we weren’t wishing we were Marty McFly.
Almost documentary in style, this “Tibetan Western” brings to us the myth and culture of a people as removed from the modern world as possible, in the process demonstrating the universality of the human experience. And it’s just as visually majestic as The Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
If Frodo Baggins doesn’t break your heart, then you don’t have one. And if you don’t love this movie, it’s time to reconsider whether you’re a movie lover at all. Thank God for Peter Jackson, the geek who turned the ultimate geek book into one of the most beautiful and wise fantasies ever made. Maybe now everyone else will understand why we’ve been going on about Tolkien all these years.
Not only does Chris Nolan’s brilliant exercise in fucking with movie-time challenge our ideas of how stories should be told, it challenges our ideas of what makes us us. What good is a revenge we don’t remember? How can we grieve if we can’t forget a loved one? Here’s hoping that Nolan’s success with this experiment will challenge other filmmakers to take greater risks.
It’s the most daringly original movie of the year, period, lush in every sense — visually, emotionally, musically. Baz Luhrmann didn’t just reinvigorate the musical, reminding audiences who’ve forgotten how powerful a form of storytelling it is; he reinvented it, interweaving familiar lyrics in one grand, running song in a keen awareness of how pop music is the soundtrack of our own lives and loves.
Spookily old-fashioned and knowingly modern, this is a ghost story that plays off our expectations of ghost stories, giving us everything we expect and a few things we don’t. Not much can shock a jaded moviegoer like me, and so surprises like this film delivers are all the more, well, surprising.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Snark-boys Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson pretended to adapt a book for the screen here, and the result is sublime: an off-kilter-funny and surprisingly moving portrait of a dysfunctional family in a fantasy-tinged New York City, performed by one of the best ensembles this year.
Within this snarky deconstruction of fairy tales beats a cynical yet ever-hopeful heart: We know we can’t believe in happily-ever-after, but we so want to. And it’s so much easier to identify with a grumpy ogre than the virtuous heroine of a Disneyfied Grimm story, isn’t it?
Startup.com (not reviewed)
In that fantasyland known as the Internet startup, two friends lose their innocence and test their friendship. This documentary about the rise and fall of GovWorks.com couldn’t be more pointed if it were a scripted fictional story. A truly gripping, almost painfully intimate film.
The wonderfully deadpan Ocean’s Eleven is the best popcorn movie of the year; Bandits, another heist caper, is a close second. Only the Coen Brothers could have made The Man Who Wasn’t There (not reviewed), a snarky, pulpy noir comedy-thriller. With a Friend Like Harry is a tasty Hitchcockian tidbit. Ghost World does teen angst one better by focusing on underexplored female angst. Gritty reality gets showcased in Training Day and Black Hawk Down (not reviewed). The best extended music video performed by a transsexual rock star is Hedwig and the Angry Inch (not reviewed).
Best Guilty Pleasures of 2001: the old-fashioned screwball comedy Legally Blonde; the Roger Corman-esque The Fast and the Furious (not reviewed); the bodice-ripping, scheming, lusty The Affair of the Necklace; the cheesy Masterpiece Theater installment Gosford Park; the Chinese Robin Hood fable Iron Monkey; and Kevin Smith’s insane Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
Hall of Shame
Or: The Most Gawdawful Movies I Saw in 2001. May their names be forever enshrined in the annals of cinematic hell. These are the things that will haunt my nightmares till the end of my days:
…and the painful demise of Jake Gyllenhaal’s unexpected erection…
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
…and the sight of women young enough to be his adopted daughter fawning all over Woody Allen…
…and the telepathic songwriting scene…
Head Over Heels
…and Freddie Prinze Jr.’s explosive defecation…
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
…and Angelina Jolie’s pneumatic brassiere…
…and Josh Hartnett’s crucifixion…
…and Keanu Reeves trying to emote…
3000 Miles to Graceland
…and its appallingly antisocial, anarchic attitude…
…and the runaway testicle…
Town and Country
…and the frightening rictus grin of an embalmed Charlton Heston.