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Best Movies of 2001

By Rob Vaux

For those of you who thought the year 2000 represented a new low point at the movies... welcome to the new millennium! 2001 was marked not so much by awful films as an overall malaise -- a lack of energy or effort on the part of a huge percentage of filmmakers. Hollywood trundled out one mediocre "event" picture after another while the independents easily matched the big boys for uninspired premises and by-the-numbers execution. In an environment like this, the good pictures become all the more important. We cling to them for sustenance, trusting in their innate quality to sustain through the long weeks of drek. In many ways, they matter more now than they would during a quality year: we need them to keep us going. Here then are 10 bright points of light to fend off the darkness -- 10 films which reminded us that cinema could be a good and noble thing, despite the likes of Pearl Harbor clogging the screens.

10. The Tailor of Panama. Thank God Pierce Brosnan has a sense of humor and John Boorman a cold black little heart. Not only did this vicious send-up of the spy genre save us from taking espionage too seriously, but it adroitly demonstrates how our shared illusions can have devastating repercussions on real-world politics.

9. Session 9. 2001 produced a bumper crop of good horror movies, one of the few positive trends of the year. Several come immediately to mind but this small, overlooked, immensely creepy exercise tops them all. Proof that someone can still tell scary stories for grown-ups.

8. Amélie. You can keep Meg Ryan. For cute-as-buttons girls who beg to be taken home and cuddled, my money's on Audrey Tautou as the unconventional heroine of this relentlessly imaginative French romantic comedy. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet proves once again that foreign films don't need death-obsessed Swedes or incomprehensible storylines to draw attention to themselves.

7. Mulholland Drive. No, it doesn't make a lick of sense but who cares? No one embodies the weird logic of dream-life more than David Lynch, and Mulholland Drive exhibits his skill like nothing since Blue Velvet. He pulls us unerringly through the vivid atmosphere of an L.A. that may never have existed, holding us rapt regardless of the "whys" and "wherefores." Few films this year could approach its visual power... or its grasp of cinema as a medium.

6. Shrek. Sometimes, being clever is enough. Or in this case, being cataclysmically clever while simultaneously proving that Disney no longer has the monopoly on great animation.

5. Black Hawk Down. I had to sneak into a screening for this one, which was showing in a scant four theaters nationwide. The effort paid off. With a bare-bones plot and simply-sketched characters, Ridley Scott paints a visceral image of modern combat that fully exploits what the battle scenes in Gladiator only hinted at. The best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.

4. The Deep End. Thrillers come in all forms, but few resonate the way this one does. The underrated Tilda Swinton stars as a mother who learns just how far she'll go to protect her children, balancing her increasingly desperate scheming with a disturbingly normal soccer mom schedule. As good a film as any about the dark side of domestic life. Speaking of which...

3. In the Bedroom. I had no faith in this film before I actually saw it; it smelled like another pretentious piece of canned theater. How wrong I was. A sharp, intense, quietly powerful meditation on the unseen depths of grief, it balances a masterful character study with a domestic drama, a portrait of small town life... and a surprising tale of murder and revenge.

2. Memento. What, you need me to tell you this was good? If you haven't seen Christopher Nolan's existential puzzle box yet, you've missed out on the biggest conversation piece of the year. There was good cause for all that talk, and this would have easily been the top film on my list were it not for one late entry...

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. There were more important movies to come out this year. There were movies that challenged us more, that stretched the boundaries of the medium further, that fulfilled the definitions of "art" more succinctly. But the first chapter of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation embodies the essence of why we go to the movies. The Fellowship of the Ring reminded us what Hollywood cinema is capable of, producing a breathtaking vision that no other film this year could match.

Honorable Mentions: A Beautiful Mind; The Caveman's Valentine; From Hell; Ghost World; Hedwig and the Angry Inch; The Man Who Wasn't There; Monster's Ball; The Others; The Pledge; Sexy Beast.

"Now where was I?"
--Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), Memento

Article published 01.14.2002.

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