2001. The year that Britney Spears offered career advice to Mariah Carey. Digital touchups didn’t just occur in George Lucas films, but in television specials to “soften” the impact of anorexic performers’ skeletal frames. The year Halle Berry bared her breasts in one film only to wow critics with a career-defining performance in another. The year that animation features actually competed with life action films on almost equal footing. The year that filmmakers got so excited about “hybrid” genres that they forgot how to make endings for their films.
No Hal 9000. No trip to the moon. No monoliths to spark our imagination.
Only movies. So here we go, working our way slowly to what I consider the best films of the year:
THE LITTLE BOX:
Starting small, so to speak, I want to acknowledge that many of the best-filmed stories I saw this past year were on television. At the top of the list:
The Best Single Hour of Television this past year was “The Body,” a spring episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy’s mother has died. But “The Body” is not about dying. It’s about grief and all those small moments after death, when the world seems to stop (or seems like it should) and yet it keeps going, the ticking clock marked by the increasing pallor of the body. In fact, the death occurs off-screen, and even more remarkable in a series filled with mayhem and death, seems to be of natural causes. As the episode progresses, the visual style shifts from very dynamic moving camera with jump cuts and asymmetrical compositions to more and more static shots almost perfectly balanced (feeling off-balance in their symmetry). The sound design progresses as well in each act, beginning at the end of each commercial break with almost complete silence, isolating only a single sound (such as the scissors snipping away the body’s slip) and gradually letting the sounds of the world intrude on (and sometimes overtake) the images. The initial sequence with the paramedics is filled with dynamic camera movements, compositions and edits that reinforce and punctuate the internal beats of the scene. The smallest of details become heightened (such as Buffy pulling down her mother’s skirt or soaking up her vomit with a paper towel) by the visual and/or sound designs.
Best Series: 24. Finally, an intelligent, twisty and surprising “spy” series.
Best Guilty Pleasure: CSI.
Best Depressing Series: Project Greenlight.
Should-Have-Been-Best Honorable Mentions: Six Feet Under, which started out strong but gradually began to unwind. Hopefully the second season will restore its initial creativity. Second place goes to Grosse Point.
And now on to…
THE BIG SCREEN:
Joy Ride—Nasty? Yes, but what suspense thriller isn’t? The furthest on the edge of my seat that I sat all year. This variation on Duel is one of the most satisfyingly suspenseful films I can remember in a long time.
Josie & the Pussycats—How can you not like a movie that begins with a Backstreet Boys-like band singing an ode to anal intercourse? Add to the mix outrageous product placements and catchy pop tunes, and you have a film that may have been too clever for its own good. Sort of the film equivalent of television’s short lived Grosse Point (which started off as one of the most wicked series I’ve ever seen until they lost their nerve and became the very thing they were parodying).
And speaking of guilty pleasures…
I already mentioned Halle Berry’s breasts, right? But breasts alone do not a lust object make. In the female category, the 40-year old man in me says hands down it’s Julianne Moore (The Shipping News). Just the right blend of feisty tragedy, a quick smile and a true heart. What more could you ask for in mid-life romance? If Julie won’t return my calls (damn her), then the college kid in me gets all excited because next in line is Marisa Tomei (In the Bedroom) — if we could just get rid of her pesky husband. Summer of ‘42, anyone? And that kid jumping up and down in the background (or is it a mosh pit?) is my inner-teenager who wants Rachael Leigh Cook (Josie & the Pussycats) all to himself. Where was she when I was in high school?
As for the men, despite perennial lust object Matt Dillon (One Night at McCools) and the up and coming Hugh Jackman (Someone Like You, Swordfish, Kate & Leopold), this year the man I’d most want to bundle home and take care of is Glenn Fitzgerald (Series 7). If he doesn’t return my calls (damn him), maybe Eduardo Noriega (The Devil’s Backbone) would console me. Is that a wooden leg in my pants, or am I just glad to see him? On the other hand Robert Redford sure ain’t looking too shabby (The Last Castle) these days. To paraphrase my grandfather, I sure wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers.
But I digress…
Without a doubt in my mind, Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive). Not particularly known for selecting the most talented actors or when he does, not particularly encouraging their best work, Lynch hit a gold mine with Watts who elevates his film to an entirely different level.
Best Voice-Over Narration:
Voice-over narration is one of the most over-used and poorly-used techniques in filmmaking. At its worst, it verbally repeats what you’re seeing on the screen (i.e., The Affair of the Necklace) or tells the audience the plot (hmmm, The Affair of the Necklace again, which is not to say that it’s the worst offender this year).
At it’s best, voice-over narration provides counterpoint, adding additional layers of meaning and poignancy to a story. Far and away, the film from 2001 most deserving of “best:” in this category is:
Amelie—Succinct, poetic, funny and revealing — all the things that the Worst Voice-Over Narration of the Year (i.e., The Royal Tenenbaums) wanted to be but wasn’t.
To be honest, I find this category far more relevant than a “worst of” list. Anyone in their right mind knows that Freddy Got Fingered is going to be bad. To put it on a “worst” list is redundant. More to the point are those films that have pretensions of being greater than they are and films that should have been better than they are. At the top of my list:
1. The Royal Tenenbaums. Yes, I know it’s on everyone else’s “best” list, but have you seen it? Other than Anjelica Huston’s, there is not a single character here, just collections of eccentricities. The best that can be said of this film is that it’s a cautionary tale to the Britney Spears of the world — too much too soon makes for a pathetic life. This film made me want to hit my head against the wall — repeatedly. Each new scene made me sink lower in my seat as I realized the film wasn’t ending yet. Eccentricity overrides any humanity (with the exception of the Tent scene between Paltrow and L. Wilson which is too little, too late), and the fundamental sweetness of Rushmore is completely missing. The “characters” here evoke no sympathy, much less empathy. I’m also a bit tired of Hollywood’s flirting with (and justifying) incest.
2. Pearl Harbor. A far cry from the film it wants to be, Titanic, this is a prime example of a cinematography/special effects reel trying to pass for a movie. Enough said. It’s already gotten more attention than it deserves.
3. Jurassic Park III. The most subversive ending of just about any film this year. If it were intentionally subversive, you could almost forgive it. But it’s not. You spend 90 minutes being hunted and chased only to come face to face with the dinosaurs — who walk away. Oh, and those people on the beach, those are the Cavalry!
So where does that leave us?
I’d have to say that very few films in 2001 even aspired for greatness much less achieved it. There were a lot of good films, but few clearly and unequivocally stood out above the rest.
We saw some of the most advanced and costly animation ever (Final Fantasy) next to some of the simplest and least expensive (Waking Life). Guess which was more compelling?
In the guise of “more is better,” The Shipping News turned on not just one secret’s revelation, but secret after secret until it all became exhausting and rushed. Much more elegant was the construction of Gosford Park which grows in my estimation with each conversation I have about it.
DV films continued their slow creep into our theaters, Tape and Session 9 putting to shame last year’s attempts, with Tape offering probably the finest performance I’ve seen from Uma Thurman.
The trick ending was alive and, well, a little tired in 2001. The Others, while one of the best made films of the year, pales in its immediate comparison to The Sixth Sense. And Vanilla Sky offers little over the Spanish version it is based upon and seems a poor brother to the rash of virtual reality films from a couple of years ago.
And finally, an unlikely range of films (from the likes of In the Bedroom to Mulholland Drive) would like us to believe that it may have all been a dream. Emphasis on “may.”
So here are the films I saw this past year that I would present as the best we had to offer. As in previous years, there were many “doubles” and doppelgangers, some worthy of notice as well, and others that should be killed as evil twins. What follows below are hypothetical double-features, some of which are worth 4 hours back to back and some of which would allow you a 2 hour dinner break.
The Best Films of 2001
In no iron-clad order, but generally from most satisfying to least. Recommended films are in bold:
Mulholland Drive versus Memento
The two most memorable non-linear narrative films of the year are Mulholland Drive and Memento. David Lynch continues his exploration of formal strategies and despite being one of our most striking imagist filmmakers, he has struck the perfect balance between form and image with Mulholland Drive, arguably a masterpiece. Memento ultimately seems to be little more than a clever film, despite several scenes of eerie brilliance, though as clever films go, it’s one of the best. Both films raise questions about memory and identity, though Mulholland Drive creates the more long-lasting and haunting impression. In my estimation, Lynch is one of our finest filmmakers of horror. Though his films often employ elements of the genre in ways that thwart their usual interpretation, guiding us to the creepy rather than the horrific. The evocative rather than the explicit.
Ghost World versus My First Mister
When it comes to linear narrative films of 2001, the smallness of Ghost World stands tall. Where My First Mister was all manipulation, implausibility and affectation, Ghost World delivers an elegant aching. One of only a handful of films this year that actually delivers an ending that’s both satisfying and consistent with its setup, Ghost World reminds us that many of the ghosts in our world are alive.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring versus Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter fulfills all the elements of the book but feels vaguely “paint-by-numbers.” The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring magically retains all the mystery and awe that a fantasy film should. Not nearly as neatly wrapped up as Harry Potter, Fellowship of the Ring is actually much more satisfying in its messy sprawl. One way of thinking of these two films is that one is for kids, the other is for adults.
A.I. versus Truly Human
2001’s best filmic explorations of what it means to be human are the Kubrick/Spielberg hybrid A.I. and the Dogma 95 film, Truly Human. Though not yet in general release in the United States, Truly Human has shown at several film festivals, and I was lucky enough to catch it at the Chicago International Film Festival. Despite an ending that seems forced upon it by some Hollywood executive, Truly Human is one of the most genuinely funny, disturbing and poignant films I saw this past year. In this unusual ghost story, a little girl’s imaginary playmate who may be the soul of her parents’ aborted first baby is given the chance to take on the physical form of an adult male. His naivete and efforts to learn appropriate human behavior are by turns funny and tragic. Though not quite as weighty as A.I., it is a worthy companion piece and in many ways, more satisfying. A.I. is really three or four films, each with its own style and feel. With the exception of the “battle bots” rip off with its full moon and WWF feel, these vignettes are beautifully rendered if somewhat disjointed. Spielberg returns to his thematic tradition of parental ambivalence and anxiety. The family scenes are painful to watch in their sharpness and accuracy. Wanting simply to fit in, to find his people, our young protagonist ultimately has to face the fact that he will always be on the outside — even his discovery by advanced A.I.s at the end of the film offers little comfort or inclusion.
Monsters Inc. versus Shrek versus Waking Life
I know, I know, the box office and DVD sales would seem to imply that Shrek is the best animated film of all time. But is it really? No. Despite a wicked slam at Disney (just who are all those fairy tale characters being rounded up for expulsion? Just who does the Lord Farquaad of Duloc resemble in his strange hat?), the film is fun but not particularly engaging. I guess as an audience, we like to be a bit removed from our entertainment, if this year’s infatuation with Shrek and The Royal Tenenbaums is any indication. On an even more abstract level, Waking Life feels too much like that buzz after staying up all night in the college dorm, arguing with fellow neophytes about the meaning of life, though the animation is beautiful. Me, I want to actually care about the characters in a film and feel some emotion (besides disgust). Which means that Monsters Inc. is on my list for one of the best films this past year. I’ll never think of kitties in the same way again. While I do appreciate (and want to thank) whoever fought for Shrek’s ending — whether ‘legend’ or fact, the rumor that there was pressure to make Princess Fiona svelte and blonde and pale-skinned at the end both saddens me and seems all too likely — I think Waking Life would have to be the one to share the marquee with Monsters Inc.
In the Bedroom versus The Deep End
Ah, the love of a mother. Both of these films have much to recommend them and contain some great performances. Up until the last 30 minutes, I thought that In the Bedroom was easily my best film of the year. Unfortunately, In the Bedroom falls victim to the malady of many films this past year. Not knowing how to end the film in a thematically or stylistically cohesive way, filmmakers seem to have tacked on endings that belong on some other film we didn’t get to see. The first two-thirds of In the Bedroom are tragic and flawless, which only underscores the crime of the last third, and I don’t mean the events on the screen. The Deep End is essentially a series of escalating actions all occurring because of the main characters’ inability to have frank conversations with each other. Tilda Swinton’s character really only speaks honestly twice in the film — both times to strangers. Both scenes point to the irony that we can be most honest with those we neither know nor love. Though flawed, In the Bedroom and The Deep End are the two best adult dramas of the year.
Amelie versus Our Lady of Assassins
These two films would make an interesting double-feature not for what they have in common, but rather for the contrast they provide. Each sees the world in a distinct (and distinctly different) way. Amelie is lush and magical, romantic and hopeful, a world far from perfect, but one we would all hope to live in. Our Lady of Assassins is bleak and deadly, romantic and hopeless, a world that would seem to be a nightmarish fantasy if it weren’t so close to the world around us. My only real frustration with Amelie was with the main character herself; her push/pull approach/avoidance behaviors eventually wore thin. On the other hand, some of the elements of the film are so well done (such as the mysterious photo booth guy) that you cannot help but smile. Harkening back to early Ally McBeal episodes, some of the visual tricks seem a little too familiar and expected, but every once in a while, a fantasy moment occurs that takes your breath away. On the other hand, Our Lady of Assassins makes for a depressing forecast of the encroaching violence of our world. Dulled by the day-in day-out lawlessness, the characters are no longer even surprised by the world around them but simply accept it. When I want to see a cynical film, I’ll take this over The Royal Tenenbaums any day.
Donnie Darko versus K-PAX versus A Beautiful Mind
One of the more interesting trends this year: schizophrenia is “in.” Voices in your head? Hallucinations? Delusions? Hey, you could be the perfect movie character. Though the film version of K-PAX is one of those rare adaptations where the film is actually better (and more focused) than the novel, Kevin Spacey’s performance pales when compared to the lead actors of either of these other two films. But like K-PAX, A Beautiful Mind makes schizophrenia seem benign, a mere inconvenience. Donnie Darko stands apart in its creepy snapshot of adolescence. Despite all the raves for Russell Crow and Kevin Spacey, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie is the bleaker and more painful vision of mental illness and therefore the more real, because his internal world threatens the safety of all those in his external world, including himself.
Moulin Rouge versus Hedwig & the Angry Inch
Who would believe that a musical could be made about the survivor of a botched sex change operation? Or that a post-modern appropriation of 20th Century songs would be the musical of the year. Both of these films invite either a “hate it” or “love it” response. Hedwig is basically a stalker movie with fun music. Moulin Rouge is basically a Sunday night at Sidetracks with a bunch of gay men singing along to clips of their favorite (i.e., camp) music. Or maybe it’s the visual equivalent of a gay club’s DJ mixing music while on crack. Which film will we remember years from now? Moulin Rouge. Despite the fact that there is nothing remotely resembling a scene in the first half of the film (which annoys me to no end), the sheer audacity of the production design, camera work, editing and musical numbers blurs in the mind until one finally has to simply succumb.
Series 7/The Contenders versus 15 Minutes
In reviewing these two films this past year, I pointed out that I usually reserve the word “film” for cinematic works that achieve a certain level of seriousness and aesthetic style that sets them apart from entertainment-driven work, though this is not to say that films can’t be entertaining. At a qualitative level, both films and movies can be good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, depending upon a number of factors. I’m not proposing (or assuming or even believe) that Films = Good, Movies = Bad.
Movies for me fall into a couple of categories. The good ones strive primarily to entertain and have no pretensions of saying something important. The bad ones are filled with pretensions, often as some sort of apology for their baser instincts. Usually the first type of movies are quite fun and enjoyable; the second type are painful to watch and at their worst, infuriating.
Films, in contrast, are often so rooted in the writer/director’s authenticity (to her vision or ideas or experience) that, at their best, they inadvertently say something meaningful to the rest of us. Films operate as if their audiences are intelligent. Movies generally do not (which would explain their often heavy-handedness).
I would argue that anyone can make a Movie, but that very few directors can make a Film.
Series 7/The Contenders is everything that 15 Minutes wanted to be: a sly, intelligent and thought-provoking comment on reality television (and perhaps even modern America). Though I am not a big fan of reality TV shows (expect for the sporadic MTV Real World series), and though I could read larger allegorical elements into Series 7, ultimately the film works because it says something about being human. The best films always do.
Here’s hoping that 2002 brings us many “best” films.
Joe Steiff spent approximately 200 hours of his life in darkened movie theaters this past year just so he could make this list. Condolences can be sent to Victor.
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