Although I prefer to shy away from discussions about whether a particular year is a good one or a bad one for movies, I'll say straight up that I've always found 2001 to be a weird year for movies. I can remember being wowed by very little before September of that year, and then afterward there was that pervasive feeling of numbness for the remaining months. It's the only year of the decade that I've required copious amounts of time of revisiting and re-examining films with somewhat fresh eyes and to figure out what, if any, thematic relationship forms from my ten favorites. As far as I can tell, it's not much — perhaps some quirky selections here and there, and a general elusion (brought on by underwhelmed personal response) of a dissatisfying selection of mainstream American cinema.
And yet that's one of the curious aspects of 2001: critics on the whole tend to be an homogenous group, and looking back on the year produced a fractured evaluation. For A Beautiful Mind to win Best Picture at that year's Oscars seemed to say less about the quality of the film as it did about what felt like the normal thing to do: a popular actor, a previously uncrowned director, a tragic but redeeming biopic. I can imagine many Academy voter shrugging as if to say, Sounds good enough to me.
That fractured sense of critical assessment has produced a disproportionately large number of cult films from the year as well. Amores Perros, Donnie Darko, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Waking Life (all on my list), and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Mulholland Drive, Amélie, Ghost World, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Sexy Beast have all produced an hermetically ravenous fan base; from what I understand from my own students, many of them still float around from dorm-room to dorm-room on college campuses. The act of elevating many of those films to a top-ten list at the end of 2001 seemed like digging into the underground and abandoning the mainstream; but yesterday's neglected films have become today's pop hits.
Like I said, a weird year indeed. It might be enough to prove that point by noting my favorite film of the year, In the Mood for Love, is considered by many to be a 2000 release. (At least as far as its official year is concerned; my system of eligible films is outlined below.) If you took that film out of my equation, I'd have a difficult time selecting a real #1.
So here are my selections for favorite films of 2001, ranked alphabetically. For all annual lists post-1998 (the year I began publishing reviews), my standard of eligibility has always been based on first-run theatrical release in the United States during the year. If you don't see something you might have expected, check back for 2002.
• Ali (d. Michael Mann, United States)
Michael Mann's Ali was knocked around a bit unfairly for telling the story of Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay) in virtual long-shot instead of close-up, but I find something very thrilling and honest about the way the story of the legendary boxer weaves and floats around the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. Mann is a virtuosic director, most abundantly on display in the film's first heart-pounding thirty minutes and in the detail-oriented and beautifully rendered recreations of Ali's fights (without a doubt influenced by the genre-defining work of Michael Chapman and Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull). Will Smith is a powerhouse as Ali, and Jon Voight practically channels the soul of Howard Cossell. In a decade saturated by biopics, only the strong survive — and Ali's got it.
• Amores Perros (d. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico)
Chaotic yet graceful, breakneck yet arresting, the first feature film from Alejandro González Iñárritu is a hyperlink tale of three stories with their own angles on desperation, isolation, humanity, and the boundaries of love in Mexico City. There isn't a lot of new ground broken, at least as far as the formal elements are concerned, but there's a degree of control on the narrative and the production on the part of González Iñárritu that's noteworthy in its rarity and its simultaneous verve.
• Donnie Darko (d. Richard Kelly, United States)
Drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Robert Zemeckis to David Lynch, first-time director Richard Kelly concocted this bizarre, and for its time oddly relevant, psychological drama set against suburban satire and the coming-of-age of an angst-filled and medicated high school student (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film has become a sensation on DVD, even leading to a director's cut with about twenty extra minutes; but in its theatrical release, only weeks after 9/11, it stewed in the limbic margins of my mind, more so than Lynch's own Mulholland Drive. Kelly's script isn't airtight, and at times he seems to rely on flat characters that are present simply to make a metaphoric point, but there's no doubt in my mind he's produced an original work that's as rewarding as it is irresistible.
• In the Bedroom (d. Todd Field, United States)
Adapted from a short story by the brilliant writer Andre Dubus, In the Bedroom is the third and final film by a first-time director to come onto my top ten list for the year. Todd Field, an actor and photographer, helmed this story of domestic tragedy that socks you in the gut and, thanks to the fierce performances from all the major players, forces the pain to linger. It would be too much to reveal the story to the unacquainted, and much better for those who have not seen this film to do so soon. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek inhabit grief in all its multitudes and complexities; both were nominated for Oscars, as was Field for the screen adaptation and the film itself for Best Picture. (A fifth nomination went to Marisa Tomei, for supporting actress.) Based on the nominees that year, if I'd had a vote, Wilkinson and Spacek would have each walked away with gold, and Field would have won his two categories.
• In the Mood for Love (d. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
The best film of the year, and a top-five contender at this moment for best film of the decade, is Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. What a knockout film this is: quiet, psychologically penetrating, heartbreaking, and so marvelously gorgeous. This is the nuanced and difficult story of two neighbors (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai) in 1962 Hong Kong who discover their respective spouses are having an affair with each other, and the troubling psychological waters the neighbors encounter when they begin counseling each other to understand why and how this has happened — and eventually, perhaps most disturbingly, how it happens, down to the subtlest movements. The film's most impressive element, if such a singular aspect be identified as its best part, is the mesmerizing way Wong takes such a simple concept adapted from a short story and folds it back in on itself with repetition of style and theme (the cinematography and editing are formidable). Wong has spoken at length about the influence Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo had on the production, particularly the development of such a moody relationship, and it's without exaggeration that I say he does Hitchcock proud.
• Memento (d. Christopher Nolan, United States)
Memento is a gimmick, but in the able hands of director-writer Christopher Nolan, an entirely successful one. A detective story that unfolds forward and backward simultaneously due to its protagonist's haunting form of memory loss, we follow Leonard (Guy Pierce) reassembling the pieces of his life and seeking vengeance for a crime against a loved one. This is "meta-noir," as J. Hoberman called it, and as such it doesn't quite have the same shelf-life of other films; after one viewing, this thriller never plays the same way again (not so ironically, you might guess), but what it gives on that first viewing is masterful.
• Monsters, Inc. (d. Peter Docter, United States)
No studio has had a better decade than Pixar, and their first official entry into the 2000s, Monsters, Inc., sometimes gets lost among the few better films they've made. There's a lot to admire in this, the studio's fourth feature-film, from the satiric riff on the bottom-dollar 9-to-5 workweek to the inventive re-imagining of there's-a-monster-in-the-closet to the impeccable choice of voice-work (Billy Crystal and John Goodman as heroes, Steve Buscemi and James Coburn as villains). From a purely technical standpoint, I think Monsters, Inc., is an important film because I believe it's the first Pixar film that made a lot of people sit back and say whoa. The attention of detail in the computer animation was, for the first time, truly stupendous, from the textured pieces of wood in the closet doors to the million waving hairs in Sulley's coat as he's banished into the Himalayas. Not to mention, the little girl is about the most adorable child ever animated.
• Ocean's Eleven (d. Steven Soderbergh, United States)
To call Ocean's Eleven a guilty pleasure would give you the wrong idea. If I were ranking these, this would definitely be toward the bottom, no doubt, but I also don't believe there's anything inherently guilty about adoring a stylishly slick and sublime heist movie from the capable hands of Steven Soderbergh and presented by a cast that, gasp, genuinely appears to be having a good time. By scrapping basically everything about the campy '60s Rat Pack film and infusing it with nothing but fun craftsmanship, it's impossible for me to deny the joy forms a symbiotic relationship with at least this particular audience member.
• The Royal Tenenbaums (d. Wes Anderson, United States)
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson continues his stylistic signature first brought to acclaim in 1998's Rushmore; in that way, you can't really call what he's doing here fresh, but I think there's an argument to be made that Anderson's cinematic language feels more developed and mature in this twisted and funny film, one of the year's best comedies due to director's vision and the script co-written by him and Owen Wilson. As far as the director's filmography is concerned, at this point The Royal Tenenbaums is the Andersonian ideal: outsiders, prodigies, failures, and the intellectually tortured all under one roof, led by Gene Hackman in a splendid performance as the self-centered and ostracized Tenenbaum patriarch.
• Waking Life (d. Richard Linklater, United States)
The form here is interpolated rotoscoping — or, layering animation atop previously filmed material. The effect is often hallucinogenic and definitely dreamlike, two qualities that match the thematic material of Richard Linklater's cerebral Waking Life in sheer harmony. Essentially this rather remarkable and beautiful film is a series of conversations — poetic, philosophical, post-modern — that ask the sorts of questions with answers like nailed down Jell-O. Its saving grace is the way the film looks and feels against our eyes and brains; a backslide into pretension seems only millimeters away, but mercifully we never go there. Linklater is too talented for that, so he delivers an unbound, offbeat affirmation as only he can.
A Beautiful Mind (d. Ron Howard); Black Hawk Down (d. Ridley Scott); The Circle (d. Jafar Panahi); The Gleaners and I (d. Agnès Varda); Gosford Park (d. Robert Altman); The Man Who Wasn't There (d. Joel & Ethan Coen); Mulholland Drive (d. David Lynch); Shrek (d. Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson); Under the Sand (d. François Ozon); Werckmeister Harmonies (d. Bela Tarr)
Care to agree, disagree? Have your own top ten for the year 2001? Counting Down the Zeroes wants to hear your opinion on the year 2001.