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Best Movies of 2001

By Eric Beltmann

I viewed nearly 150 American films released in 2001, and on some level I admired nearly a third of them. Nevertheless, positioned at the top of my 10-best list are two elliptical imports, by Jafar Panahi and Marzieh Meshkini. I've been warned that my preference for their films betrays a bias for Iranian cinema, but I think the prejudice lies in thinking that anything but homegrown choices are automatically suspect. Some may squint in dismay that my favorites are from Iran, but if my top two choices were both made in the United States, would anyone scold my "bias" for American movies?

1. The Circle. Nationality matters less than the convictions I share with a filmmaker, and Panahi's sharp-eyed realism represents what most interests me about cinema and its constructive possibilities. Openly defiant about the way women are marginalized in Iran, The Circle follows several female protagonists, some newly released from prison, as they dodge police and abuse in contemporary Tehran. These characters are coded as hunted animals, as offenders able to stay free only because they belong to a gender that is, by policy, overlooked. Of course I admire how Panahi fearlessly gives voice to a group denied a voice of its own -- this film was banned in its native country -- but what crafts The Circle into such a lip-biting kick is the way it geometrically unfolds its secrets. By supplying artistic brawn to his political agenda, Panahi's formalism exposes similar curveballs like Memento as mere chicanery. If cinema's noblest purpose is to record what actually exists, then this lifelike brainteaser, containing Tehran's horrors but also its mysteries and profound beauty, is the most vital film of the year.

2. The Day I Became a Woman. Unlike the grimly observant The Circle, this lollipop mosaic offers an optimistic version of Iranian feminism. Three curious women on the island of Kish resist the circles fencing in their lives, and Meshkini tells their stories separately -- life as daughter, as wife, as widow. The middle allegory, shot in perpetual motion, achieves an ecstatic harmony of sound, speed, and image: Forbidden to ride a bicycle, a young wife glancingly pedals along the lonely Gulf shore, and I swear I could hear her billowing chador whispering radical insolence from deep within its folds.

3. Ghost World. Not another teen movie, but a true portrait of what it means to be young in America. Skeptical, corrosively self-absorbed, and wary of maturity, Thora Birch shrewdly reminds me of some of the adolescents I know. Director Terry Zwigoff's creative impulses are spiky and hilarious, but also wide: As the self-loathing loner Birch first mocks and then befriends, Steve Buscemi exploits his mournful, jumpy eyes to help Zwigoff deftly study how we continue to nervously evolve, even as adults.

4. Amores Perros. With one devastating car crash, Alejandro González Iñárritu intersects three urban stories about what happens when love is warped by selfishness. Although it features a zigzag structure, seedy characters, and bursts of violence, comparisons to Tarantino disregard what makes this ambitious Mexico City symphony such a bracing experience. More than just another gimmicky triptych, Amores Perros announces I–árritu as a supreme stylist, a neo-realist with something modern and important to say.

5. A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg has made another sci-fi picture about using knowledge responsibly, but what separates this from Jurassic Park is the specific moral scope of the parable. By asking us to invest our emotions in a robot boy, Spielberg raises tough metaphorical questions about cloning, the Internet, stem cell research, and even class envy and race division. Most visionary, though, is the suggestion that our natural descendants may be our machines; that someday we might pass on our humanity through our brains, our science, rather than through our DNA.

6. The Road Home. Zhang Yimou's color-soaked poem dramatizes the thrill of pure flirtation, with similar shooting elation. Wearing a red scarf, a North Chinese girl is smitten with the local schoolteacher, and dreams of forming her village's very first "love match." That scarf's trenchant color symbolizes rebellion, passion, lust, exuberance -- all qualities embodied by Zhang Ziyi, who stirs up romantic longing so palpable it reddens the blood, even before the story matures into a celebration of enduring love.

7. The Man Who Wasn't There. Since photographer Roger Deakins impeccably apes the lighting strategies of black-and-white film noir, this suspense-comedy would be beautiful and great fun even with the sound turned off. But then we would miss how Billy Bob Thornton quietly expands upon the existential notions established in classic noir. His scheming barber seethes with subtle psychological misgivings, humorously standing in for every humdrum male who has ever felt socially extraneous.

8. Go Tigers! Both rousing and intensely creepy, Kenneth A. Carlson's sports documentary chronicles his hometown's obsession with its high school's winning tradition. The stirring juxtapositions illustrate how shared passion can bolster a community's spirit, but they also question the way such unity often pollutes educational ethics. Natural drama is found, chillingly, in a pivotal budget referendum, since its passage depends more on the football team's record than on the school's leaky ceilings.

9. Amélie. Whirlingly cinematic. Set in a sparkling version of Montmartre, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's daydream concerns a waitress who derives wide-eyed pleasure from improving the lives of her neighbors. Such relentless good cheer (which maddened some cynics) isn't what hooked me within five minutes, though. From the first frame, this meditation on chance and destiny pulses with kinetic invention, romantic gestures, and nimble surprises. It blissfully binges on the joy of making pictures move.

10. In the Mood for Love and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. The first is Wong Kar-Wai's coiled drama about suppressed passion, and the second is Tran Anh Hung's delicate gaze at three Hanoi sisters. Placed together primarily because I can't choose between them, these voluptuous titles share a cinematographer but also a swooning aesthetic principle. Both explore -- successfully, I think -- how cinema can set off the same sensors in us that music and dreams often reach. Languorous but ravishing, listless but exquisite, their streams of imagery reproduce the wistful pleasure of being half-awake.

The Next Fifteen: The Royal Tenenbaums; In the Bedroom; Monsters, Inc.; Gosford Park; Memento; Mulholland Drive; The Widow of Saint-Pierre; Moulin Rouge; Crazy/Beautiful; With a Friend Like Harry; A Beautiful Mind; Ali; The Closet; Waking Life; Bread and Roses.

Guilty Pleasures: Driven; Ginger Snaps; Legally Blonde; Osmosis Jones; Series 7: The Contenders.

Special Mentions

Conspicuously set in a parallel present, Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale concerns Japanese high school students required by law to participate in a bloody survival match, apparently to teach them a lesson about manners. I question whether this political satire will mean as much five or 10 years from now, but in 2001 it strikes me as an important movie, because it reminds us that when alarming events occur, sometimes it is the reactionary response of the victims that is most frightening.

Also, in a year when computer effects continued to advance, and continued to emasculate movies by shredding their humanity, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a startling exception. In terms of ideas, this big-budget, good-versus-evil fable is the least daring, least subversive title listed here. Still, Peter Jackson's epic visions of Middle-earth, brimming with grandeur and scope, plunge deep into Tolkien's fantasy world. Jackson is a more skilled mythopoet than, say, George Lucas, so this tense adventure doesn't dull out during the computer-assisted action scenes -- there's always something human at stake when the swords begin to clatter.

The Worst

1. Freddy Got Fingered. Tom Green's defenders label his confrontational comedy "daring," as if tactless nonsense is a virtue. Smug insensitivity may indeed be Green's entire "ironic" point, but it's the sort of point only a snickering jerk would push. If Green were truly risky, he'd find a way to fasten his raunch to an authentic narrative, to make it count for something more than just stupid throwaway window-dressing. Feeble boorishness has rarely existed in a safer vacuum, a blacker hole of nothingness. If I could graffiti this picture, I'd paint horns on Rip Torn and an oversize dunce cap on Tom Green.

2. Swordfish. Much has been made of how director Dominic Sena brassily lingers upon Halle Berry's assets, but more distressing is how he stages violence with identical lewdness. Mirroring John Travolta's dispiriting performance, Sena's suspense tactics and visual effects cop a "Me So Cool" attitude completely severed from a recognizable moral landscape.

3. The Musketeer. Since most of the stunts are dimly lit or veiled behind shadows, it's easy to miss just how graceless and lumbering this union of Dumas and Hong Kong action really is. Neglecting the eloquent martial arts ethos at the root of all kung fu classics, Peter Hyams' murky swordplay favors instead a teenybopper aesthetic, reducing D'Artagnan's adventure to a grotesque fantasy about hair.

4. Scary Movie 2. Masquerading as an offhand act of toxic provocation, this wobbly sequel is so resolutely crude that all it prompts is resentment. Although few teenagers are sufficiently self-aware to recognize it, surely the Wayans brothers are fully conscious of how their obscene sketch-comedy encourages kids to pamper their own worst impulses, and for that they deserve our contempt.

5. America's Sweethearts. A wheezing, narcissistic goo-ball that coasts on the goodwill extended to stars Julia Roberts, John Cusack, and Billy Crystal. Casually mimicking La-La Land's numbskull notions of what constitutes love, this "inside" Hollywood romantic comedy is glamorous, silver-tongued, and utterly infatuated with itself.

Dishonorable Mentions: Calle 54; Cats & Dogs; The Center of the World; From Hell; Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; Monkeybone; Snatch; Songcatcher; 3000 Miles to Graceland.

Most Overrated: Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Himalaya; Innocence;; Together.

Article published 01.14.2002.

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