The Best Films of 2001


The Best Films of 2001

This was not a good year for American films. My ten-best list shows only four films created and shot here, and one of them was made almost twenty-five years ago. Though we seem to be moving into an era where independent films dominate, I was excited by only a couple of the new entries. And although there was (and still is) great buzz about "Memento," which I thought a meretricious piece of claptrap, I felt encouraged that it didn't make it onto the year's-best list of even one of the New York Times's four film critics. I'll take that as a mark of good critical taste.

One thing about my list this year is that only one of them could even conceivably be called a well-made mainstream Hollywood film, and that one - "Harry Potter" - is hardly a standard studio product. What makes the films so endearing is that - succeed completely or not - they are for the most part outrageously inventive works of imagination and artistry. And we should value that quality in film above almost all others.

What remains to be said about all year-end selections is that they don't belong to critics. It would be better if everyone made a list each year, and not just of 'best' films. Why not make a list of the worst films you've seen that year? Just the act of listing them would help focus your critical faculties on why some films are good, even great, and why some films are abominable. At the very least it should save you a little money on unnecessary theatre admissions.

In past years I've not ranked my choices numerically; usually I've listed them alphabetically, or in the order they were released. This year's films, though, seemed to rank themselves in a sequence from absolute best to what you might call less-best. And when I finished, oddly enough there were just the conventional ten movies on the list. Here they are.

1. Amores Perros - This extraordinary work by the first-time(!) Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu follows three interrelated stories triggered by a car accident. A brilliant, wickedly kinetic vision of life at three levels in Mexico City, it is the new decade's answer to the startling genius of "Pulp Fiction." Here, though, Gonzàlez Iñárritu has added a novelistic richness and tragic underpinning to his film's texture -- qualities the Tarantino film avoided - and given it an anchor in reality. You might say it has the kinetic power of "Traffic" with a Tarantino distancing. Surely among the boldest films in years, "Amores Perros" shows a security of control over content and technique that is rare in films by even the most experienced directors. Each story involves dogs in one way or another, from tragic to hilarious, but the film's power comes from his ability to let us share the lives and acts of his people.

2. The Princess and the Warrior - Tom Tykwer had already established himself with "Run Lola Run," that glorious 1999 triptych of life, love, and irony. This time he reaches far beyond anything he's done previously, searching out meaning in the lives of two crippled birds: a psychiatric nurse, Sissi (Franka Potente), and an almost numbingly depressed would-be criminal, Bodo (Joachim Krol). Tykwer's gift is to put them together in a moment of extraordinary power and then let them learn how to deal with it. We are mesmerized as we watch them.

3. Apocalypse Now Redux - Yes, I know it was made in 1979, but seeing it again, with newly added footage and, most essential, the proper ending restored, we see with the perspective of 21 years a controlled, exquisitely made statement about American values, American hubris, and the devastating price the world pays for having to live with us. A breathtaking work of genius.

4. Series 7, The Contenders -- Talk about your independent films! Whew! Like Darren Aronofsky's "Pi," Daniel Minahan's "Series 7" is a work of monumental hubris unfettered by anything resembling normal restraint, which is exactly what an independent film should be. Minahan postulates a television show in which randomly selected contestants in a small town - think a visit by a Publisher's Clearing House from hell, if that's not redundant - are given not a check but a gun and told to kill their six opponents before they are killed themselves, in order to win a million dollars. And then Minahan makes us watch the show with him. What makes the film work is how well each of the characters is drawn, so that we know and respond to them. Brilliant.

5. Hedwig and the Angry Inch - Another delicious piece of independent filmmaking. John Cameron Mitchell's film is the story, from birth to the present, of the composer and singer Hedwig, née Helmut, who is currently performing with her group behind the salad bar at the Bilgewater chain of low-price family restaurants, and chasing her former lover/protegé Tommy, who's stolen her best songs. Mitchell, who wrote and directed as well as starring in the film (from his off-Broadway hit play) is magnificent. Not a mockumentary, not a "Rocky Horror" clone, this film is sui generis. Wonderful songs, brilliantly performed, with wit and a mature understanding of life and love.

6. Divided We Fall - Is it possible to find wit and warmth anywhere near the Holocaust? The Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk gives us the story of Josef, a passive man who reluctantly takes in and hides a Jewish escapee from a concentration camp during World War II, and is torn by his desire to go along with the occupation while also dealing with the moral issues of resistance and collaboration. And then Hrebejk moves us into even deeper waters when a baby must be conceived to further the coverup. A lovely film that harks back to the great days of Czech films like "Closely Watched Trains."

7. Gosford Park - Robert Altman's best film in a decade is also a miracle of traffic control as he moves a score of characters through a hunting weekend at a country estate outside London in 1932. The upstairs/downstairs lives of titled lords and ladies and their various valets, maids, cooks and footmen are handled with a seeming insouciance that belies the skill needed to separate and give life to each of them. Altman shows an almost Bunuelian touch in his observations of his people. The story is a bit thin for the running time, but you'll be too caught up with the machinations to care.

8. Harry Potter - An almost impeccable translation of the first book, with brilliant casting of every role and a wise refusal to overuse the magic of computer-generated effects. This is the story of a boy's first year at boarding school, no matter the subjects taught, and it works like a dream.

9. The Score - The perfect heist movie, that rarest of all pleasures. The plot is put together like a Swiss watch, with each step of the planning and heisting laid out for us in elegant fashion. Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando cakewalk their way through the challenges, the fears, the crosses, double crosses and triple crosses that only the best heist film can handle. Well directed for suspense and balancing wit by Frank Oz, this film was underrated and underappreciated in its summer release, but deserves to be seen again.

10.Mulholland Drive - A bad film, yes, but so what? David Lynch is not capable of a) making a really good film; and b) making an uninteresting film. "Mulholland Drive" has every standard Lynch touch: incomprehensible plot, marvelous scenes, bizarre switches of character, and a nice erotic touch. Do you really want more?

Some other films that come to mind as being well worth the visit are "The Endurance," the adventure documentary about Ernest Shackleton's aborted expedition in 1914 to try and cross the continent of Antarctica; "Moulin Rouge," a monstrous failure that only a genius could make, with the most sumptuous costumes and sets and camerawork in ages; "Shrek," with its sly wit and charming message; and "Bread and Tulips," an understated view of a woman's coming into her own. All in all, a year that squeezed out not more than a couple of handfuls of worthy films, but those were truly worthy.