Posted: 02/11/2002


Best & Worst 2001

by Jon Bastian

Updated after your intrepid critic finally caught up with the best film of the year just passed.

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A quick preface: two films that screened in 2001 are not on my list only because they did not technically debut in 2001. The first, Apocalypse Now: Redux, proves that it is possible to improve a classic by adding depth to the characters. The other, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is my number one film of all time. Warner Brothers almost missed the obvious tie-in between the film and the year, nearly repeating the gaffe made by the producers of 1984, which was released in early 1985. Luckily, they squeaked it out in selected cities just in time for us to experience the big screen magic before the film’s title begins to refer forever backwards after thirty-five years.
Now, onward to the list.

The Best Films of 2001

1. Mulholland Drive
In previous years, there’s usually been one film that I’d missed from the year before that I would have put in my top ten after finally seeing it — but this is the first time a film that I caught late blew the rest of the competition out of the water, and so I felt compelled to update the list for posterity. Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s masterpiece, the work of a director who is absolutely certain of what he is doing in every single frame. Far from being incomprehensible, he shows us in his first two shots what’s really going on, then takes his time letting things weave in and out of each other, never explaining but giving us a sudden revelation exactly when he intends to in a scene that builds to an amazing emotional climax that had me sitting up and thinking, “Oh yeah. Now here comes the true story…” Then, he strings us along a bit farther, pretending to reveal “what really happened” when he’s still not telling the true story. He still hasn’t by the final fade-out, but his symbolism and imagery are so well-defined and consistent that we can easily start to figure out the story for ourselves. Not a film for those who can’t pay attention to every little detail, but a great film nonetheless — Lynch has given us a Finnegan’s Wake of his own, one which would do Joyce proud.

2. A.I.
For me, A.I. achieved the impossible — Steven Spielberg made a Stanley Kubrick film, only failing at the very end, during which Kubrick’s inherent darkness and Spielberg’s sentimentality would not reconcile. That flaw aside, though, A.I. is an epic that carries on with the issues raised in Kubrick’s 2001 — the place of mankind in the universe, the role of spirituality as both inspiration and trap, and the meaning of life. A.I. is an incredibly dense and symbolic film that bears repeated viewings and deep analysis, which is probably exactly why it didn’t do so well with mainstream audiences. Like all of Kubrick’s films, this one requires the viewer to pay attention and, above all, think. Do that, and the rewards are endless. Don’t, and you’ll never understand the film.

3. Moulin Rouge
In some ways, Moulin Rouge is about as far from A.I. as possible. Where the former requires intense thought, Moulin Rouge requires intense feeling, but it delivers. Director Baz Luhrman’s style is exuberant, flamboyant and loopy. This could have been a distraction, but it’s not. Instead, his insane camera movements, incredible miniatures, hyper-colored sets and costumes and pop tune pastiche all add up to an incredibly fun and wild ride. Yes, the story is just recycled Camille — but given the fin-de-(last)-siécle setting of the film, it’s a perfect choice. And gh Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor can sing, too.

4. Amoresperros
Amoresperros is a puzzle-box of a film, in which we’re shown the outcome right upfront then spend the rest of the two and a half hours finding out how that moment came to be. The result is a tour-de-force character study in which people who would seem to have absolutely no connection to each other wind up impacting each other’s lives in deep, long-lasting ways. The mystery is revealed with slow deliberation, and yet nothing is hidden from our view. The tiny mistake that causes every other event is right out there in front of us the entire time, and yet it’s very easy to miss. It’s the best dramatization of the chaos theory I’ve ever seen — the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Florida. Or that a young girl opening a door can… well, just see the film. (Incidentally, although it was eligible for last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, it wasn’t released in this country until 2001 (unlike the heap of garbage that won that award), hence its inclusion on this year’s list.)

5. Spy Game
Brad Pitt is the Robert Redford of this generation and, in fact, it’s uncanny how closely they resemble each other at times in this film. This is just an added bonus to what is essentially a twenty-four hour race against the clock story abetted by flashbacks over the course of Redford and Pitt’s characters’ several decade, multi-continent relationship. Pitt has been arrested for espionage in China. Redford, at CIA headquarters in Virginia, has to simultaneously explain to his bosses just what the hell Pitt was doing on an unauthorized mission, and try to rescue Pitt before he’s executed. It’s a tense and exciting story and, by the end of it, we suddenly realize that the audience, like Redford’s bosses, have no idea which parts of his tale are true and which are complete fabrications. The final icing on the cake is this: since Pitt and Redford’s history plays like The CIA’s Greatest Hits (Viet Nam, East Germany, Beiruit, Cyprus, China), it’s a nice reminder that certain world events didn’t just happen because some people resent our freedom.

6. The Mexican
Two Pitts in a row. It may seem an odd choice, but The Mexican had all the trappings of a big Hollywood film (Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts) and none of the flaws. An intricately plotted heist/road movie, it plays against all of the required stereotypes. For example, screen couple Pitt and Roberts spend hardly any time together. When they do, they’re usually arguing. And yet, the film works as their separate paths lead toward a conclusion that has been destined by a bit of magical realism but that isn’t obvious until it’s revealed at the end. When it is, everything that’s come before makes perfect sense, and a film that’s seemed to be cynical, dark and nasty reveals the sweetness that’s been machinating everything all along.

7. Shrek
Proof that a certain rodent inspired company does not have a lock on children’s films that have adult crossover appeal, Shrek works on all levels while providing a completely new character and story, rather than recycling an old fairy tale — and yet does it by recycling and then tweaking old fairy tale characters. The broadsided swipes at all things Disney are a nice touch, too. When our heroes are confronted with a singing doll display at the castle of the villain, the satire is pretty vicious and on the nose, and you’ll wet yourself laughing. This film also has just about the best use I’ve ever heard of the phrase “Eat me!”

8. The Anniversary Party
Take some of the best actors in the business, throw them into a rented house, give them a digital HD camera, and you’d expect the result to be an ego-driven, plotless disaster. The Anniversary Party creators Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming (two of our most brilliant young actors) avoid all that and instead give us a funny, insightful, character-driven look into the lives of a group of people who get together for the sixth anniversary of a couple who have only spent five years together. Since that missing year has only recently ended, the emotional landmines are planted everywhere, and they go off constantly. The acting on display is the heart of the film, and it’s phenomenal. If you’re up on your show biz trivia, you’ll also spot the places where the actors’ real lives blatantly spill over into their onscreen characters.

9. The Doe Boy
Randy Redroad gave us this gentle indie film that presents realistic Native American characters without the usual pretentious “wise red man” crap, and I hope he brings us more in the future. James Duval finally gets to prove he can act as Redroad’s hemophiliac with a Native American mother and a white father dealing with life and coming-of-age in Oklahoma, circa 1984. Everything builds to a climax that acknowledges and deflates shamanistic mysticism in the same blow, with hints of the legend of Parsifal thrown in.

10. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
I really feel as if judging this film now is rather like rating an entire play based on the first act, but Peter Jackson’s adaptation of this classic bit of nerdporn (which I’ve never read) is an incredible opening. Ultimately, I think the project should be looked on as one v-e-e-e-ry long movie in three parts, rather than as a trilogy made of three separate films. Still, the visionary wonders he brings us are balanced by his very able cast, with Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Viggo Mortenson and Sean Astin as standouts.

Honorable Mention:

American Pie 2, a sequel that matched the original and had a damn funny line at Band Camp; Gosford Park, Robert Altman meets Murder by Death by way of Masterpiece Theatre; Monster’s Ball, for having the balls to deal with Things That Are Usually Not Mentioned; The Man Who Wasn’t There, ‘cause it’s the Coen Brothers (it’d be on the top ten, I’m sure, if I’d actually seen it); Pearl Harbor, because it actually didn’t suck but should have been much better on that budget; Spy Kids and Monsters, Inc., delightful films for parents and kids, but unfortunately they lose out on the best list for having theatrical re-releases with “restored scenes” or “outtakes” (from an animated film no less), a cynical attempt at extorting parents into double-dipping. Bad move, guys.

Worst Films of 2001

1. Shadow of the Vampire
Shadow of the Vampire is one of the finest examples of how a bunch of incredible elements — great concept, great script, great actors — can be completely screwed by an incompetent director. Steven Katz’s script is imaginative, taking off from the idea that method director F.W. Murnau found a real vampire to star in his silent classic Nosferatu. Willem DaFoe and John Malkovich give their best playing, respectively, the touchy vampire and the megalomaniac director. The period detail is perfect, the supporting cast is right on the nose and the cinematography is gorgeous. And yet the whole thing is treated with such a ponderous hand that it all turns out as lifeless as its title character. This was entirely the fault of second time director E. Elias Merhige, who proved that it is possible to spin gold into shit.

2. Town and Country
This little (ahemn) gem is the polar opposite of The Anniversary Party. Toss together some huge Hollywood egos, rework the script so much that there isn’t one when the cameras roll, assume that Warren Beatty is still a box office draw, and get this absolute mess.

3. Along Came a Spider
I can’t speak for James Patterson’s Noah Cross books, of which this film is but one of a few adaptations, but if they’re as full of plot holes and problems as the movie, then it’s a wonder they sell. The key problem here is that Cross is early on made a material witness to a high profile kidnapping case, and then somehow manages to become its chief investigator, despite the FBI having jurisdiction. It’s also a stretch to think that a DC Cop could even find a public restroom, given their glowing success in the Chandra Levi case. Piled on top of all these problems is a late in the game switcheroo, in which we lose the most interesting villain and get stuck with a big betrayal of one of the film’s sympathetic characters for no discernable reason. A high-profile waste of celluloid.

4. Hearts in Atlantis
Stephen King pops out novels at the same rate an average person takes a dump. The results are often equivalent. And yet, Hollywood keeps adapting, with very mixed results. Yes, one of King’s non-horror stories managed to become a great movie, Stand by Me. Hearts in Atlantis, adapted from two different stories, managed to not, despite the presence of the great Sir Anthony Hopkins. The next time a studio head is pondering greenlighting a project just because King’s name is on it, let’s hope that the Lowmen pay him or her a visit and set things right.

5. John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars
You have to wonder why John Carpenter still insists on putting his name in the titles of his films. Why does he want to admit to creating a lot of his recent work? John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars was a silly, non-sensical mess that just shames the creator of Hallowe’en and Escape from LA. I wonder if it’s the Mars factor. Is Hollywood just not capable of making a good film about Mars? Of Red Planet, Mission to Mars and Total Recall, only the latter is a good film. The first two just sucked. With this latest addition, we’re batting .500.

6. Spy Kids — The Special Edition and Monsters, Inc. Now with Outtakes
The original films were fun. Releasing “improved” versions six months later is nothing more than a cynical money-grab by the studio, knowing that the kids who loved the originals would drag their parents once again to the theatre for a double dip. They should have just waited for the DVD release but they couldn’t, and so good films are tainted by their greed and wind up here.

7. Anything SNL
I say this every year and they never listen, and so every year we have a group of really, really bad movies involving SNL alumni who seem to think that mugging off cue cards once a week qualifies them to be cinematic comedy superstars. It doesn’t. This year’s lamentable entries: The Animal, Joe Dirt and Corky Romano. There are probably more, but I’ve thankfully forgotten them. Memo to Lorne Michaels: Austin Powers was not an SNL character.

8. Freddy Got Fingered
I just don’t get Tom Green. Even given that I can recall what sort of silliness amuses college boys, I still don’t get him. Apparently, luckily, the film-going public doesn’t either. The best part of Freddy Got Fingered is that it probably ran out the shot clock on Green’s fifteen minutes and he’ll just go back to Canada and live out his days doing public access. Which is where he should have stayed in the first place. Drew, count yourself lucky and make sure he pays the alimony, m’kay?

9. The Royal Tenenbaums
An interesting concept and a promising cast adds up to nearly unwatchable. Even Gene Hackman’s performance can’t bail out this badly written, overstuffed attempt at comedy. And you would not believe the expense Disney is going to in an effort to yank out a WGA Award nomination for this one. I wouldn’t be surprised if their next step were to send out the cast members to give blowjobs. Nice Christmas card, guys, but actually sending us the script to read was a mistake. It’s even worse on paper.

10. Bubble Boy
Nothing can beat Freddy Got Fingered for sheer bad filmic taste in 2001, but Bubble Boy tried damn hard. And where does it say that one of the symptoms of having no immune system is also to be incredibly, appallingly dim-witted?

Dishonorable Mention:

Sequels without “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” or “American Pie” in their titles; uninspired anachronisms, which this year means anything with “Knight” in the title; anything based on a video game, no matter how impressive the computer animation and/or star’s breasts (you know that’s the only reason you loved one particular film, Mr. Ebert); trailers that give away the entire plot and/or all the best jokes — the mitigating factor being that, in the case of really, really bad movies, they save us the time and trouble of seeing them.

Jon’s “Venal Trend of the Year” Award:

And the winner is… every company that first released a regular DVD of a film at inflated price, only to turn around and release the special or ultimate or incredibly amazing deluxe version six months later at an even more inflated price. Know what? Because of this trend, I’m not going to rush out to buy any Hollywood studio DVD on first release no matter what goodies it contains. The first perpetrator of this travesty that I noticed was Boogie Nights, a great film that, unfortunately, released not one but two special editions. It was a rarity at the time, but by now it’s become all too common. And incidentally, widescren format, language selection and subtitles are not special features, gang.

Jon Bastian is a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Film Monthly. He is a resident of his native Los Angeles, an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and TV hack who should stop being so surprised every time this year that he can come up with a hundred nominees for worst film while having a hard time filling ten slots for best.

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