Top 10 films of 2001
By DAVID N. BUTTERWORTH and JOSHUA TANZER
How the critics can moan that it was a terrible year at the movies what with both "Corky Romano" and "American Pie 2" leading the way is a mystery to us. David and Joshua had no trouble finding ten (plus) standouts in 2001, including a consensus pick for number one. Along the way, we liked a pair of movies from Richard Linklater, the followup to Wes Anderson's "Rushmore," and half the celluloid output of Korea.
See Joshua's list |
See David's list
Our other top 10's: 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2000 |
(In alphabetical order.)
Few films that an entire country have taken to heart (typically France, and
that's the case again here) turn out to have much going for them, but
"AmŽlie" (or "Le Fabuleux Destin d'AmŽlie Poulain") defies the odds by
being all things to all people: charming, sentimental, whimsical, funny,
magical, and consistently creative. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's ("Delicatessen,"
"The City of Lost Children") fantasy stars the elfin Audrey Tautou as a
free-spirited do-gooder whose selfless turns inspire, motivate, and
generally alter the fates of those with whom she comes into contact
(including, ultimately, herself). Buoyed along by Yann Tiersen's giddy
accordion strains, "AmŽlie" is an outstanding film that can be appreciated
on multiple levels, and on multiple viewings.
Amores Perros (Mexican)
Nominated in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, the brutal, beautiful
"Amores Perros" ("Love's a Bitch") commands the attention from its very
first frame. First-time director Alejandro Gonz‡lez I–‡rritu has taken an
original story by Guillermo Arriaga and fashioned it into a tale that is
gritty, multifaceted, and brimming with edgy performances Gael Garc’a
Bernal is especially good as is Emilio Echevarr’a as El Chivo (The Goat).
However, for all of its Tarrantino-esque violence smashes, crashes,
shootings, and stabbings (and, of course, violence towards dogs; not that
Tarrantino went there) "Amores Perros" emerges as a crackerjack,
fast-moving film with a surprising underlying humanity: the men here do
what they do for love and for no other reason. You might question (and
even balk at) their methods but, as unsettling as the film is, you cannot
deny the purity of their motives.
Ghost World (tie)
"Ghost World" is the first of two 2001 films to deal honestly with the
relationship between an older man and a much younger woman. In Terry
Zwigoff's film, Thora Birch plays Enid, a counter-culture rebel slash
social outcast who falls for a self-deprecating collector of old blues 78s
slash social misfit (Steve Buscemi in an Oscar¨-worthy performance). The
director of "Crumb" keeps his tale beautifully in perspective as Enid's
infatuation with Seymour (Buscemi) threatens the relationship with her best
friend Becky ("The Man Who Wasn't There"'s Scarlett Johansson). Smart and
very real characterizations are the order of the day here.
Last Resort (British)
Pawel Pawlikowski's "Last Resort" is a small film brimming with big themes
and beautifully nuanced performances. At the forefront of this poignant
drama is the stunningly good Dina Korzun as a young Eastern European woman
forced to seek political asylum when her fiancŽe fails to show at an
English airport. As wonderful as Korzun is she's given staunch support by
Artiom Strelnikov (as her outspoken son Artiom) and Paddy Considine as the
shy and sympathetic arcade manager who befriends them, exposing them to the
complex flavors of Indian cuisine, for one thing, and painting their flat
blue. From the sadly now-defunct Shooting Gallery film series (which
brought us the intriguing independents "Croupier," "Orphans," and "Titanic
By presenting the conclusion of his mystery first ("Memento" takes place in
reverse chronological order), director Christopher Nolan has created a
unique challenge: how can an audience appreciate a gutsy and highly
original noir thriller if they start out knowing the film's ending? But
Nolan's brilliant direction, his brother Jonathan's complex and witty
script, and Guy Pearce's accomplished performance as a man with short-term
memory loss searching for his wife's killer, make "Memento" a fascinating
experience from beginning to end (or, rather, end to beginning).
Australian director Baz Lurhmann's follow-up to "William Shakespeare's
Romeo + Juliet" is everything that film was and more! Nicole Kidman and
Ewan McGregor star in a spectacular spectacular, a fabulous (if loose)
adaptation of the Orpheus legend in which a penniless writer (McGregor)
tragically falls in love with a high-priced courtesan (Kidman) in the
seedy, bohemian world of 1900's Paris, all the while crooning contemporary
songs (Madonna's "Like a Virgin," The Police's "Roxanne," Nirvana's "Smells
Like Teen Spirit," etc.) on the soundtrack. Outrageously inventive and
entertaining, "Moulin Rouge" is an unashamed triumph of style over
substance . . . but ah what style!
My First Mister (tie)
Christine Lahti's feature debut is (in a tie with "Ghost World") the year's
second film to feature a Goth-styled teenager obsessed with an older man.
Here the older, 49-year-old male is the manager of an uppity men's clothing
store and is played with calm forebearance by Albert Brooks ("Broadcast
News," "Defending Your Life"). Lahti's trump card, though, is to sit back
and allow her actors (which include the ubiquitous Leelee Sobieski as the
perennially pierced and perturbed Jennifer) to do the work and their work
is exemplary. "My First Mister" manages to be both funny and sad and,
unlike any film in which Woody Allen beds a seventeen-year-old, genuinely
The Royal Tenenbaums
The other film starring "Behind Enemy Lines"' Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson
is Wes Anderson's wild, wooly, and wonderful follow-up to his surprise 1998
hit "Rushmore." In "The Royal Tenenbaums," Anderson and co-writer Wilson
(they wrote "Rushmore" together) continue their theme of an overachiever in
search of redemption by extending it to an entire dysfunctional family.
Eliciting pitch-perfect performances from a wonderfully diverse cast has
been Anderson's forte before now, and "The Royal Tenenbaums" maintains the
writer/director's equilibrium in this area. Full of keen observational
humor and incredible detail, "The Royal Tenenbaums" is beautifully
realized, brilliantly constructed, and finely acted (by Hackman especially
as the paterfamilias Royal). And while it's often extremely funny, a real
sadness pervades the film, making it more, much more, than just a wacky
You know you're in for a treat from the very beginning of "Sexy Beast."
Gal ("Nil By Mouth"'s Ray Winstone), a slightly portly ex-villain with a
thick British working class accent, lounges around on his bright white
Costa del Sol sundeck in his skimpy yellow Euro Speedos talking to himself
about how "bloody 'ot" it is while The Stranglers' punk classic "Peaches"
plays loudly on the soundtrack. Suddenly a huge boulder careens down the
Spanish hillside above Gal's opulent stucco villa and crashes into the
ornately tiled pool, missing Gal by inches and soaking him to the skin.
This is the first of two major interruptions in Gal's otherwise stress-free
life. Superior writing, acting, and direction almost always define a great
movie and they're all here in "Sexy Beast." Screenwriters Louis Mellis and
David Scinto create a battle of wills and words that gives the likes of
David Mamet and Steven Berkoff a run for their money, and the film veers
from comedy to drama and back again without skipping a beat. And then
there are those performances, by Winstone, Amanda Redman as his wife "dirty
Deedee," and an amazing Ben Kingsley as the volatile, bile-spewing thug Don
"Spring Forward" stars Ned Beatty and Liev Schreiber as two park
maintenance workers who go about their daily routine while pontificating
about life and love, instant karma, cheap sex, death, profanity,
prescription drugs, homosexuality, and '77 Datsuns (to name but a few
topics). That's pretty much it, but Tom Gilroy's deliberately-paced film
is totally absorbing from the first frame to the last, a marvel of
simplicity and depth, comfort and compassion. Gilroy consistently hits all
the right notes, and the performances of his two leads are nothing less
than remarkable. As the seasons change from spring onwards (hence the
title; the film was shot over a one year period in a sleepy New England
hamlet), so too does the relationship between Murph (Beatty) and Paul
(Schreiber), developing into a genuine fondness and a believable friendship
by retiree's end. "Spring Forward" is a little gem in the truest sense of
the word: bright and valuable and worthy of our attention.
Richard Linklater ("Slacker," "Waking Life") takes Stephen Belber's talky,
three-character drama and "opens it up" for the big screen in a way that is
by turns complex and claustrophobic. Three high school friends meet in a
Lansing, Michigan motel room ten years after and reminisce about a
disturbing incident from their past that calls to the fore the notions of
friendship and coercion. What might have been a static, grainy affair is
given a whole new dimension by Linklater's taut direction, roving
camerawork, and the masterful performances of Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean
Leonard, and Uma Thurman.
I regret that I didn't spot any top-caliber unseen films from American newcomers
(like last year's "Too Much Sleep"
and "Play for Me"),
but the city's film festivals did yield three unreleased treasures from, of all places,
South Korea. In particular, "Peppermint Candy" compares well with the brilliant "Memento," in every respect I hope we'll get a chance to see it in U.S. theaters soon.
1 (tie). Memento
Sets the noir genre back, and back, and back again. What makes "Memento" great is
the mind-tantalizing, clue-dropping plot, the challenge of a mystery told
backwards every scene shows the results of something earlier and leaves
the reasons as a puzzle
and the sheer visual inventiveness that includes clues tattooed right across the hero's body.
It's an information-age thriller without any cyber-gimmickry it's all about the interplay
and consequences of information, real and false.
It's a brilliant thrill ride in which everything has a purpose, nothing is forced, and people
were left debating what happened for months after seeing it.
1 (tie). Peppermint Candy (Korean, unreleased)
Like "Memento," a story masterfully told backwards in time, in which the mystery is
what started events in motion rather than how it ends in this case with the
hero in the opening minutes of the film hurling himself into the path of an oncoming
train. Unlike "Memento," it's a cunning political drama with a burning anger over a
history that those of us outside Korea should know more about. (New Directors, New Films festival)
3. The King Is Alive
Another Dogme 95 entry (like its cousins "The Celebration," "The Idiots" and "Dancer in the
Dark") that strips away much of the special-effects veneer of modern moviemaking, leaving a
taut, entirely original drama with the emphasis on writing and acting. A busload of Western
tourists are stranded in the desert with scant food and water, leaving their basest human
and inhuman instincts from murderous and lecherous to hopeful and defiant
gradually to emerge. It's a clash of "Lord of the Flies" with "King Lear."
(Uncharacteristically, my fellow Dogma 95 fanatic David is
than I am on this one.)
4. The Gleaners and I (French)
French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda picks up a digital camera and sets off to film
everything she can find on the subject of gleaning that is, a look at what people
throw away and who picks it up. This unstructured documentary, starring anyone from potato
scavengers to found-object artists, tells a stunning amount about who we are as human beings
and does so with personality and unexpected charm.
5. The Isle (Korean, unreleased)
Sickening but profound, "The Isle" has left a trail of stomach distress (see the review for
more details) and heated disagreement in film festivals worldwide. The aptly named "When
Korean Cinema Attacks" festival gave New Yorkers a chance to see what all the fuss was about
in fact, the fuss was about a film of rare beauty, deep meaning and (you've been warned!)
several scenes of shameless gore. (When Korean Film Attacks festival)
6. Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (French)
"Shoah" director Claude Lanzmann saved one interview out of that epic Holocaust history to
make into "Sobibor" 16 years later. Told patiently and in minute-by-minute detail, it's an
edge-of-the-seat and uncommonly inspiring Holocaust story about those who
fought back in one of the worst hellholes of the Nazi extermination machine.
7. Life and Debt
Next time you hear that "a rising tide lifts all boats" or hear world-trade protesters described
as ignorant malcontents (which is all the explanation you're likely to get in the media from Fox
News Channel to NPR), think of this excellent film. It passionately and unforgettably makes the
case that the Third World is being economically eviscerated by globalization, from farms and
factories to schools and governments. If there were a legitimate debate about economic issues in
this country, "Life and Debt" would be the starting point. (Recent visitors to Jamaican resorts
should wait one hour after eating before attempting to view this film.)
8. Joint Security Area (Korean, unreleased)
A tense mystery ensues after gunshots leave the North-South Korean border stained with blood
and all sides prefer some official version of events rather than the truth. It's a powerful
drama along the lines of "A Midnight Clear," exploring humanity in wartime. (Asian American International and When Korean Film Attacks festivals)
9. The Personals (Taiwanese)
A wonderfully jaunty, though ultimately serious, comedy about a blind-dating Taiwanese woman's
search for love in all the wrong places. What I like best is how it captures everything about
how we meet people, in blind dates or elsewhere how idealistic and hopeful and utterly
wrong our assumptions may be at first, and what happens as people reveal themselves to one another.
10. Waking Life
Full of philosophizing, coincidence and inspired mumbo-jumbo, Richard Linklater's creation
combines the stream-of-subconsciousness free association of "Slackers" with the earnest
undergrad bull-session brilliance of "Before Sunrise." And then there's the animation
hyperreal and unreal at the same time, the cartoon people look intensely genuine while the
places shimmer and twist playfully and thoughts materialize like wisps of evanescent smoke.
If it doesn't make you seasick (as it did one friend of Offoffoff), it's a visual revelation.
Late addition: Amélie (France)
Would surely have been one of my favorite few films of the year if I'd seen it last year.
"Amélie's" sense of wonder at the endless invention of life speaks right to the soul, for anyone
whose soul is ready to hear it. Parts of it remind me of other films that are close to my
heart "Delicatessen" (from the same director), Kieslowki's "La Double Vie de Véronique,"
plus a pinch of "Run Lola Run." It's a wonderful, giddy ride to just sit back
and enjoy, but it also includes moments of discovery about what life is all about.
Late addition: Monster's Ball
"Monster's Ball" never advertises its big themes just lets their effects filter through its character's lives. A prison execution takes an unacknowledged toll on the minds of everyone involved. Anger, guilt and misfortune plague the survivors' lives until they arrive at a destiny a little more human and just than where they started. It's as powerful as it is subtle.
More honorable mentions:
Too Much Sleep (already on my list in 1999), L.I.E., Feedback,
The Hair Under the Rose, Off the Hook,
Samia, Calle 54,
Jump Tomorrow, Startup.com.
Movies I watched so you wouldn't have to:
Fast Food Fast Women,"
"God, Sex and Apple Pie" (though I must say
I got an exceptionally good-natured e-mail from the filmmaker),
|DECEMBER 31, 2001|
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