Final Countdown: Michael’s Best and Worst Films of 2001
by Michael S. Julianelle
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Top Ten Movies of the Year:
3. Memento, Christopher Nolan—In a year where a few giants of the industry made comebacks, this Brit’s second feature heralded the arrival of an innovative new talent, and added new depth to the idea of a puzzle film. Forget pulp like The Usual Suspects where the end is a cheat that unravels the entire film, Memento’s ending might appear to be a red-herring, but it only serves to reinforce the film’s existential themes of revenge, identity, and self-denial. The superb work by Guy Pearce as the beleaguered anti-hero, doing his best to make sense of a life without any guideposts, and letter-perfect support from Joey Pants and Carrie-Anne Moss help make this more than a gimmick film. It is a riveting, perfectly executed film, with a few of the most exhilarating sequences I’ve seen at the movies all year.
4. In the Bedroom, Todd Field—It’s astonishing that the piano player from Eyes Wide Shut could fashion so powerful a film his first time out. But Todd Field has done just that with this gripping, intense, lyrical and unbearably REAL domestic drama that gets to the heart of a struggling marriage coping with tragedy. Anchored by searing performances from Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, watching this film progress towards its two terrible acts of violence is painfully mesmerizing. Slowly-paced but emotionally honest, the bucolic Maine setting stands in sharp contrast to the jagged feelings that lurk beneath the surface and combust on screen, first with words and then with actions. Alternately wrenching, despairing and repulsive, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. The final scene is a testament to the director’s patience and vision, and to the actors’ ability to get to the mangled hearts of their characters.
5. Gosford Park, Robert Altman—An ensemble cast, over-lapping dialogue, improvisation. All hallmarks of Robert Altman. But a British murder mystery/comedy of manners? Leave it to the 76-year old auteur to direct one of the year’s most entertaining movies, skewering the British class structure and managing a speaking cast of over 20 characters, all without missing a beat. Park flows so effortlessly it’s almost like the audience is a guest at the table. While we ride along with the camera, soaking in every piece of gossip that is trafficked between the servants and the snobs, we are treated to an adorable performance from Kelly McDonald as a maid who serves as the heart of the picture. By the time the identity of the murderer is revealed, it barely matters. Adding in sparkling performances from Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emily Watson and Croupier’s “Please make him the next James Bond” Clive Owen, Altman turns a stereotypically dry affair into a witty, ceaselessly interesting, and remarkable accomplished, outing of Clue.
6. Waking Life, Richard Linklater—Some of it is a bit didactic and dry, and it has been rumored to cause nausea for the way the screen ripples and flows like water, but the groundbreaking animation serves as the perfect backdrop for Linklater’s typically conversational foray into the nature of dreams and reality. Not for everyone, the film sometimes plays like a philosophy lecture, but its topics are so intriguing, that you get sucked along into the odd, shape-shifting world of the narrator. It’s safe to say it looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and though it may be the animation that sucks you in, it’s the passionate discussions that keep you there.
7. Amores Perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu—A Mexican Pulp Fiction, but it deals more with real life than pop culture, this arresting debut feature from music video director Inarritu carries you along on the strength of its acting and visceral imagery. It deals with three separate stories all linked by dogs and a car crash, and though you can feel the heft of it’s message, it is never overwhelmed with self-importance. The performances are filled with humanity, and though often brutal and rather violent, the unpredictable stories are loaded with heart.
8. Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff—Finally, a movie about teenagers that isn’t made for 10 year olds. Great acting, an honest portrayal of teen angst, and an oddball assortment of characters that you’ll have no doubt exist, make this movie deceptively simple but endearingly real. Steve Buscemi finally plays a nice guy, and comes through with one of this best performances ever, and is complimented by Thora Birch, who zing zing zings! everyone to keep from crying about the fact that she doesn’t fit in to a world she despises. Zwigoff obviously loves these characters, and gets distinct pleasure from mocking the conventions of the plastic, conformity parade that is today’s mainstream. Touching and cynical, smart and funny, Ghost World feels like real life.
9. A.I., Steven Spielberg/The Fellowship of The Ring, Peter Jackson—Spielberg’s foray into Kubrickian sci-fi is nowhere near as bad as its detractors say. Flawed, overlong, and burdened by a disappointing midsection, Hollywood’s reigning escapist tackles tough subjects but succumbs a bit too much to his own sensibilities. The early section, which focuses on family, is cold and distant, like Kubrick, and is as compelling as the late director’s best work. But by the time Chris Rock and Robin Williams are making voice-cameos, Spielberg has muddled the movie too much to save it, and the multiple endings are confusing and overwhelming to say the least. But it has some breath-taking imagery and another great performance from Haley Joel Osment, and is more intelligent and challenging than most any other film this year. The most talked about fantasy film of the year, TFOTR, is not quite as good as the hype would make it seem. Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellan make excellent impressions, but there is little characterization and it’s really one long chase scene. Overlong, redundant, and too cheesy to completely enthrall, it is leagues better than Harry Potter, but for my money does not compare to the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker was a brat, but he wasn’t anywhere near as much of a wuss as Frodo and his fellow hobbits.
10. A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard/The Others, Alejandro Amenabar—Both of these movies contain stunning performances from their leads, and some excellent supporting work from other members of the cast, but are too incomplete to unequivocally praise. A Beautiful Mind just felt off to me, despite Russell Crowe’s amazing performance and Jennifer Connelly’s keen support. Ron Howard saps up the ending, as usual, but at least manages to keep some of the ambiguity and edge alive for the bulk of the movie. The material, and his direction, combine admirably to throw the viewer for a few loops, once you learn the twists, it feels a bit cheap, and the heavy-handed depiction of the main characters demons succumb to sentimentality. The Others is an example of letter-perfect direction and first-rate acting from Nicole Kidman that is undone by a derivative, disappointing ending. Amenabar (who also wrote and directed the original Vanilla Sky, the superior Abre Los Ojos) certainly knows how to ratchet up the suspense and create a chilling, logically coherent environment for terror, but his psychological thriller collapses under its own weight with its decent, but deflating, final twist.
Honorable Mention: From Hell, Sexy Beast, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Oceans’ 11, The Devil’s Backbone
Unfortunate Didn’t-Sees: Donnie Darko, Blackhawk Down, Amelie, The Deep End, With a Friend Like Harry, Ali, Monster’s Ball, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, Moulin Rouge
Five Worst Films:
2. Hannibal—a desecration of the once menacing Hannibal Lecter character, who is reduced to a horror movie caricature in this laughable gorefest.
3. Pearl Harbor—not so bad if its called Armageddon and doesn’t pretend to be important. The 45-minute action sequence is incredible at first, but turns boring in a hurry. The dialogue in this movie is so bad it’s…just really, really bad.
4. Jurassic Park 3—why?
5. Shrek—not this bad, but horribly overrated. Nowhere near as funny or smart as it pretends to be, the Toy Story’s blow this fart-joke laden flick out of the water.
Michael S. Julianelle is a freelance writer living in Boston.
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