Last January in my annual recap of the year's best movies, I commented that 2000 had a lot of "good" movies but few "great" ones. Well, 2001 was both better and worse. There were a lot more "very good" movies (i.e. ones that got 3.5 stars from me) but - again - few "great" ones (i.e. the 4-star flicks). The movies that did get four stars from me were hard to rank; for instance, my #1 and #2 movies could just as easily have been reversed - and almost were. There were also a lot more titles competing for space on my list of the year's worst, but that's another story altogether.
Making this year even more confounding was the fact that some movies which deserved to be on this list can't be here. Henry Bromell's Panic had been dropped by its distributor after one bad test screening. I loved the film when I saw it in April 2000, so I put it on last year's ten best list. Shortly after I did that, another distributor picked up Panic and released it in early 2001. Although it is as good as any film on this year's list, it didn't seem right to put it on two years in a row.
I tried to avoid a similar problem with Lift, a bold and compelling independent drama from DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter. I saw this movie at the Maryland Film Festival and was completely blown away. If I was including it on my 2001 list, it would rank as #2. The only reason it's not here is that there's a possibility (and, in my mind, a certainty) that Lift will find distribution in 2002. I am counting on it appearing on next year's list.
Additionally, there were a number of movies that competed for the #10 slot on my list. Narrowing my choices down was hard, so allow me to give respect to the "runners up" that didn't quite grab a slot, but were definitely in the running. They are: The Anniversary Party, A Beautiful Mind, Bridget Jones's Diary, The Deep End, Ghost World, Hearts in Atlantis, The Man Who Wasn't There, Mulholland Drive, Plaster Caster (a great documentary that deserves good distribution), The Pledge, and Vanilla Sky.
In addition to these movies, I'd also like to recognize the following 3.5 star titles: Ali, Angel Eyes, Blow, Chain Camera, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Enemy at the Gates, 15 Minutes, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Heartbreakers, Life as a House, Lord of the Rings, Monsters Inc., Ocean's Eleven, Osmosis Jones, The Others, Sexy Beast, Someone Like You, Spy Kids, When Brendan Met Trudy, and Zoolander. That's a lot of really good movies.
And finally, although it's probably nobody's idea of one of the year's ten best films, I want to honor Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, which was as much pure fun as any movie I saw all year. In fact, I went to see it twice.
Enough with the pregame show. It's time to list my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2001:
9. Bully - Another heavy film but, again, one that stays with you long after you've seen it. Larry Clark's bleak look at teenage apathy is based on the true story of Marty Puccio, a Florida punk who, along with several dope-addled idiot friends, brutally murdered his friend Bobby Kent. The reason: Bobby was an abusive jerk who inflicted injury on everyone around him. As in Clark's previous movie Kids, Bully feels like a documentary even though it isn't; the director makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on the lives of these wayward teens. The movie wears you down with its depiction of adolescent sex and drug use in order to create a portrait of how these teenagers lived. By getting down in the dirt, the film achieves an understanding - not a condonement, not an approval - of how these lost children could so simply choose murder as a solution. I was absolutely rattled when this movie was over.
8. Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back - The year's funniest comedy. Kevin Smith brings back the "friendly neighborhood drug dealers" from his previous four flicks to mercilessly satirize the way film geeks buzz about movies on the internet. Jason Mewes plays motormouth to Smith's silent routine, and there are cameos from Chris Rock, George Carlin, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Mark Hammill, and the great Jason Lee. As if that weren't enough, Smith brings back Morris Day and the Time for a grand finale performance of "Jungle Love." I laughed so hard at Jay & Silent Bob that I had to go back and see it again to get all the jokes.
7. Startup.com - This documentary perfectly depicts a phenomenon of our time: the dot-com disaster. Kaleil Tuzman and Tom Herman are lifelong best friends who started a website called govWORKS.com that allowed users to pay parking tickets and do other similar business online. Caught in the wave of dot-com optimism, the duo went from nobodies to millionaires almost overnight. Then, like so many internet businesses, they went bust just as quickly. Although a remarkable account of an online company's rise and fall, Startup.com is even more memorable as an example of what big business can do to a friendship. Once things start to go south, Tuzman betrays Herman in such a heinous manner that he easily becomes 2001's most detestable villain.
6. Shrek - How can you not love this movie? Mike Myers provided the voice of the title character, an ogre sent to rescue a beautiful princess (Cameron Diaz) with the help of a wisecracking donkey (Eddie Murphy). John Lithgow was also on board this computer-animated blockbuster, giving voice to the vertically challenged bad guy who wants the princess for his very own. I adored this movie when I saw it back in May. Now that it's out on video, a lot of my adult friends are seeing it for the first time and telling me they don't think this is a movie for kids. Recently, I popped the DVD in late one night for a second viewing. They're right! Kids love it, but this is clearly a sophisticated tale aimed at their parents. Gotta dig that kind of subversiveness.
4. Moulin Rouge - One word: Wow! Baz Lurmann totally reinvented the big-screen musical with this masterpiece. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor mixed a period setting and contemporary tunes for a tale of love, honor, and art. Everything in this movie amazed me: the cinematography, the acting, the blending of music, and the sheer spectacle of it all. When I walked out of the theater, a thought went through my head: "I don't know how you make a movie like that." I recently picked up the special edition DVD and can hardly wait to digest all the extra features to find out. Moulin Rouge is grand in a way that few movies are. The screen just pops with mind-blowing images, while the story manages to hit you on an emotional level. All in all, a big risk that paid off mightily.
3. Memento - The Online Film Critics Society voted this Best Picture of the year (it tied with Mulholland Drive). Like my colleagues in the organization, I was blown away by Christopher Nolan's told-in-reverse revenge tale. Guy Pearce played a guy with short term memory loss trying to find his wife's killer. The catch: he can't remember anything new for more than 15 minutes or so. Memento gives the audience a sense of how he feels by telling the story in reverse order so that you constantly have to remember what you have just seen in order for things to make sense. Despite starting the story at the end, Nolan manages a few nifty plot twists (he's the only filmmaker I've ever seen who could surprise you backwards). This is the kind of movie you have to talk about a lot after you see it. As I said to the friend sitting next to me in the theater when it was over: this is one of the coolest movies ever.
2. The Majestic - Critics like to say that movies stand on their own, regardless of anything else. But the fact is that sometimes the right movie comes along at the right time. Frank Darabont's ode to patriotism and heroism comes after the tragedy of Sept. 11 only by sheer coincidence. Nevertheless, our national discussion of those issues made this film an even more powerful experience for me. Jim Carrey starred as a blacklisted screenwriter with amnesia who is mistaken for a long-lost small town war hero. As his memory slowly starts to return, his view of what it means to be "all-American" changes. The townspeople's memories of their fallen son prompts Carrey to embrace the ideals of truth and freedom. I admit that the film's ideas brought me a small measure of comfort in our new world. Not many people have plunked down money to see this one, which is a real shame. In another time, The Majestic would have been a very good movie; in our time, it is a great one.
And my choice for the best film of 2001 is:
Those are my picks for the best of the year. If you've missed some of these titles, give them a try. You might agree or disagree with my passion for them, but in every case you will at least see a movie that tried to do something interesting. Let's hope 2002 continues this trend.
Return to The Aisle Seat