It vexes me that I'm going to come off like an art film snob because there's not a single mainstream American movie on the Best of 2001 list you're about to read. But what bothers me more is the fact that there wasn't a single mainstream American movie this year worthy of being listed.
The only Hollywood picture that came close was "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring." It's daring and ambitious, it's action-packed and otherworldly and it lives up to the hype and its own history better than any movie since "Titanic." But the fact that the film quite literally has no ending -- just a dangling "to be continued..." slapped on to a pivotal point in the story -- means that "Fellowship" simply cannot stand on its own as a cinematic achievement. It's not a great movie; it's only part of one.
There were certainly other enjoyable, even impressive, Hollywood movies this year -- "Moulin Rouge," "Ocean's Eleven," "Monsters Inc." and "Shrek," to name a few of the better ones. But none came without nagging flaws, notable plot hurdles or other undeniable problems that held them back.
So while I feel like some highfalutin elitist for having a list of only seven movies -- four of which are foreign and three of which are independents that barely played outside big cities -- the fact is, these are all sublime, inventive, meaningful, wonderful, unforgettable films. And they are the only seven pictures out of 240 I reviewed this year that made my movie-saturated brain go "WOW!" on some level -- which is my gold standard for making this list.
So without further ado...
No. 1) "Amélie"
This delicious, spellbinding French confection is quite simply the best movie I've seen in five years. It tells the story of a coy, young, semi-reclusive ingenue (Audrey Tautou) inspired to fanciful acts of self-made magic and anonymous Good Samaritanship as ways to ease herself into a bigger world. After helping an old man rediscover his childhood, a lonely widow remember her love, and several other selfless acts, Amélie falls for an equally shy oddball -- from afar, of course -- and begins formulating an elaborate, enchanting ploy to compel him to seek her out. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a virtuoso at creating alternative worlds in darker films like "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children," this multifaceted delight of whimsical wonderment is a feat of light-hearted genius, packed with perfect performances and the kind of vivid details that absolutely envelop an audience. Don't miss it. (In major markets now, may open wider in 2002.)
No. 2) "Memento"
Short-term memory loss haunts a man out to avenge his wife's death in this mesmerizing, deconstructionist film noir thinker. Emulating the fact that the main character -- played with intense tension and frustration by Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential") -- cannot form any new memories and only retains information for a few minutes at a time, the story is told in reverse, beginning with Pearce's brutal murder of a cop named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Writer-director Christopher Nolan then takes us back in time a few minutes to learn why he killed Teddy, then back in time again and again through a building mystery of all the steps that led Pearce from broken-hearted insurance broker to cold-blooded revenge killer. Nothing and no one in this ingenious film is what they seem, and like "Fight Club," "The Sixth Sense" or "The Usual Suspects," the surprises in store once "Memento" reaches the "beginning" are so intensely mind-warping that wanting to watch all the puzzle pieces fall into place over and over again is almost an involuntary reflex.
No. 3) "No Man's Land"
Brilliant in its unpretentious simplicity, this small-scale battlefield farce speaks volumes about the absurdities of modern ethnic conflicts in the age of ever-present but under-effective UN Peacekeepers -- and it does so without the soap box speeches, overblown battle sequences and metaphorical violin soundtracks of self-important Hollywood war movies. Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic boils down the ironic truths of centuries-old enmity in his homeland and presents them in a meaningfully funny story about two soldiers from opposite sides of the war, trapped together between enemy lines in an abandoned trench. In the entertaining serio-comic, anti-war tradition of "Dr. Strangelove" and "Catch-22," "No Man's Land" isn't a great war movie because it blows your mind by making you feel or making you think. It's a great war movie because it's confident enough in its emotions and convictions to focus on the laughs, knowing you'll get the message anyway.
No. 4) "The Road Home"
Zhang Ziyi (the girl warrior in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") gives a brilliantly earnest and girlish performance in "The Road Home" as an idyllic rural teenager in 1950s China who falls in love with her remote village's new schoolteacher (Zheng Hao), a young man barely her senior. You can tell he just lights her up inside because Zhang's delicate, eager, ingenuous, resilient performance makes the audience feel so close to her it's as if we're the butterflies in her stomach. An unabashedly and deeply romantic film -- even though there's not a single kiss, not even an embrace because of the formality of their cultural decorum. A wonderful work of emotional purity and simple visual gracefulness.
No. 5) "With a Friend Like Harry..."
The antidote to the Hollywood assembly line of formulaic, cookie-cutter psycho movies, this hit Hitchcockian thriller from France is so sublimely subtle and tangible it makes "The Talented Mr. Ripley" look like a dog and pony show. The title character has an M.O. similar to Tom Ripley's -- he elbows his way into the life of an old classmate who doesn't remember him. But Sergi Lopez's performance is so wonderfully elusive you just can't quite put your finger on what it is that bugs you about this guy until he secretly and systematically begins sabotaging or eliminating anything (and anyone) he sees as an obstacle in the life of Michel (Laurent Lucas), the old pal who considers him a complete stranger. Very amusing but wildly discomforting and shrewdly chilling.
No. 6) "Donnie Darko"
A neurotic -- possibly psychotic -- teenager is clouded by mood-stabilizing drugs yet still haunted by demented visions of a giant, monstrous rabbit in this unsettling, very darkly funny bit of cerebral science fiction that plays like a comic book-y David Lynch film. Eerily vexed Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is hypnotically influenced by the rabbit, which compels him to misanthropy, capricious vandalism and worse. But as he tries to get a grip on what's happening to him, Donnie's delusions manifest themselves in more and more unearthly ways, including a portentous twist of temporal physics that turns his idiosyncratic world in on itself in ways that boggle the imagination. Written and directed by first-timer Richard Kelly, "Donnie Darko" is at times a little sloppy and a few characters are transparent plot devices. But it's a brilliant mind-bender nonetheless and Gyllenhaal's corporeal performance is completely absorbing and compellingly turbulent.
No. 7) "Waking Life"
Watching "Waking Life" is like eavesdropping on a theoretical discourse between Kierkegaard and Kerouac, while standing in a modern art museum as the paintings come to life and melt into your visual cortex. An eye-popping, mind-blowing, groundbreaking, conceptual piece of stream-of-consciousness pop-art philosophy, director Richard Linklater has created a film that turns the notions of dreaming and reality inside out, while telling an absorbing tale of a teenage boy (Wiley Wiggins) trying to wrap his head around a ponderous waking dream from which he can't seem to escape. Shot on in live-action on digital video, every frame of "Waking Life" was painted over in post-production with wildly vivid, even more abstract, yet startlingly life-like animation that lends the final product a surreal artistic and cerebral vitality that is unique in the history of cinema.
While the preceding seven titles were films I would drag friends to see and gladly watch again and again in the process, the following are movies that I would recommend highly, but that didn't completely blow my mind, touch my heart, engross my intellect, make me laugh uncontrollably or otherwise make me forget myself and become utterly absorbed. They're great pictures, but they don't quite measure up to standard set for the list above.
"Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring"
An audacious, transporting, spectacularly cinematic, weighty, complexly detailed epic fantasy of good versus evil, so faithfully and tangibly adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's novel it will take your breath away. The only two problems: repetitive battle scenes and that frustrating non-ending that leaves you hanging until Part 2.
If Busby Berkeley, Federico Fellini and Groucho Marx were to get fractured together on absinthe and make a musical, it might turn out like this melodramatically tragic love story jam-packed with ingeniously scored, enormously splashy, rock'n'roll show tunes. Fun and wildly inventive.
"The Royal Tenenbaums"
Thick with director Wes Anderson's unique brand of laughing-on-the-inside irony, this bittersweet comedy of bourgeoisie dysfunction stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller as failed ex-child prodigies moving home to mother (a caustically austere Anjelica Huston) and fending off insincere apologies from their petulant, pejorative, neglectful pop (Gene Hackman at his grumpy greatest). Brilliantly oddball, awkwardly melancholy and densely packed with dark chocolate quirks.
This brilliantly illustrative documentary began as a candid snapshot of a typical dot-com's rocket-fueled rise, but inadvertently became a definitive time capsule of the internet bust. Follows the birth of two friends' $100 million company, which implodes when the bottom drops out of the dot-economy.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
A weird and wry, sardonic and ironic concoction of transsexual punk rock melancholy-mirth about a Ziggy Stardust-meets-Joan Rivers drag diva struggling with obscurity while her musical protege enjoys lavish MTV prosperity. Hilariously caustic, oddly warm, very cathartic and boasting an awesome soundtrack, it's uniquely entertaining and original work of musical-dramedy invention.
This Mexican import from first-time director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu displays an impressive range of moods in following a trio of stories that revolve around the brutal underground world of dog fighting and a horrific Mexico City car crash. Comprised of moving and disturbing, overlapping and intersecting ruminations on coincidence, consequence, fate, love and seizing the day. (Note: dogfight scenes are quite violent.)
Viciously intimidating Ben Kingsley is a cockney gangster forcing bank robber Ray Winstone out of retirement for a big break-in. The first half is a savage, dialogue-heavy battle of wills between the two toughs. The second half is the heist, with a twist. Edgy, oily, feral, eloquent, stylish and substantial noir thriller with incredible performances.
An intense, pulsating, ironically noise-fueled redemption fable from Thailand about a sociopathic, melancholy and morally conflicted deaf-mute hitman. Visually innovative, action-packed filmmaking by the writing-directing Pang Brothers with emotional potency to spare from a powerfully silent lead performance (by Pawalit Mongkolpisit) and a tragic revenge rampage finale.
A surreal, mind-bending, labyrinthine David Lynch chiller about a wide-eyed ingenue (Naomi Watts) mixed up with a femme fatale amnesiac (Laura Harring) in a dark, esoteric Hollywood mystery. Brilliantly (if excessively) layered, beautifully photographed and full of Lynchian twists, including a last act that turns everything inside out.
Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson star as two misanthropic out-crowd high school grads who drift apart from different viewpoints on their loathsome, nondescript semi-suburban "real world" of Starbucks and strip malls. Pitch-perfect sardonic performances sell this extraordinary 180-degree turn from Hollywood's assembly-line teenager flicks.
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