The 10 Best Films of 2001

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Article by Mark Dujsik

The year 2001 will not be remembered for its films. Far too many more important things happened in the world for anyone to realistically say otherwise. For those of us who have a stake in film, though, the year was a distinctly bipolar one. The great films seemed almost too good to be true and the bad ones just made you appreciate the great ones even more. It was the year of anticipation and hype. Whether it was Hannibal Lecter returning after ten years or a young wizard with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead, far too many movies were events. The summer exemplified this trend, as week after week a new blockbuster appeared at number one at the box office only to fall considerably to next week’s competition. Only a few movies lived up to the hype they created, and an even rarer few actually outdid expectations. As usual, a good deal of under-the-radar films proved that word-of-mouth still exists and is pretty decent advertising. These films also showed that while the line between Hollywood and independent films may be blurring every day, there is always room for the true independents to shine. Yes, the year in film was severely marred by a great deal of poor movies, but as I look over my list, I realize that a year that offered these exceptions couldn’t have been that bad. Now, my list of the ten best films of 2001:

10. (Tie) Monsters, Inc. and Shrek
Two superior examples of family films technically make this a list of eleven and have something for everyone. Although they are creatively and technically equal, they couldn’t be more dramatically different. Pete Docter’s Monsters, Inc. is a sweet, tender, undeniably cute comedy about two monsters trying to hide a "deadly" little girl, while Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson’s Shrek is an edgy, pop-culture laced, occasionally ribald comedy about a lovable ogre on a quest for solitude. Both contain imaginative worlds and characters and allow these to provide more than ample humor. Both show huge technical leaps in the art of computer animation. Both have perfectly relevant themes. Shrek exceeds the boundaries of "kid’s" movies with universal and wicked humor; Monsters, Inc. exceeds them with a surprisingly touching central relationship. Both are an unadulterated joy to experience.

9. Panic
For his debut, Henry Bromell wrote and directed this film about the mid-life crisis of a hit man played by the incomparable William H. Macy. Panic is alternately quirky and poignant but somehow always genuine. The premise may be a familiar one nowadays, but Bromell allows his characters to simply exist and play out their lives without the convention of a solid plot. Ultimately, it’s about the sins of the father passing onto the son and one man’s desire to break free of a lifetime of psychological abuse in order to save his son. Macy captures this internal struggle, and Donald Sutherland plays the demon of the father with a deeply unsettling calm. This is one of the prime examples of a great film stuck in the limbo of obscurity and extremely limited release.

8. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson has only made three films, and he’s already established himself as a respected filmmaker—a director whose future works we should anticipate with eager hearts and open minds. With The Royal Tenenbaums he’s made a masterful, heartfelt, and distinctly American comedy, combining elements of screwball humor and wit. The dysfunctional family of geniuses, much like J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, is not the target of ridicule, but instead the script by Anderson and Owen Wilson allows the characters to grow from extreme types into human beings we sincerely care about. A great ensemble cast, led by Gene Hackman’s patriarchal screw-up, holds it all together. The purely bittersweet tone of the film just feels right as the atypical American family falls apart and comes back together—usually at the same time.

7. Waking Life
A revolutionary achievement in animated films, Waking Life is bursting with energy and thought. Pop philosophy and brilliant images are combined to bring a wholly unique and surprisingly engaging experience. Abandoning almost all traces of traditional plot structure, writer/director Richard Linklater gives us an episodic series of debates and discussions about the nature of dreams, society, violence, life, art, and death. The conversations and monologues range from intellectually stimulating to genuinely frightening, and they are all fascinating. The animation is dreamlike with characters and backdrops changing at will. Shot on digital and then essentially drawn over and colored in with a technique called "rotoscoping," the film was created on ordinary computers. This groundbreaking technology adds another intriguing possibility to the already countless available to modern filmmakers—especially independent filmmakers.

6. A Beautiful Mind
Russell Crowe drops his intense, fiery persona to give a brilliantly authentic and subtly rich performance in Ron Howard’s grand, uncompromising Hollywood drama. At heart, A Beautiful Mind is a biopic. Yes, some parts of mathematician John Nash’s are glossed over or ignored, but the screenplay by Akiva Goldsman has no pretense that the film is a wholly accurate portrayal of his life. Even so, it still manages find the arc of one man’s life and present his faults in an honest, respectful way. The film gives the sense of a full life passing by and also serves as an engrossing and disturbing study of schizophrenia. Jennifer Connelly more than holds her own as Nash’s long-suffering wife, and the combination of these two indelible performances makes for a heartbreaking and sincere look at the price at which love sometimes comes.

5. Gosford Park
This is not your typical Anglophile’s murder mystery, and like most great films, it defies convention and categorization. Gosford Park weaves a rich tapestry of characters and class as the aristocracy of Britain slowly and stubbornly breathes its death rattle. At times a comedy of manners, the film is intriguing in the way it observes and mocks the social system at hand. The murder in question is the least important thing to happen in the film, and its purpose is more crucial in terms of symbolism than plotting. Robert Altman’s film is about a specific time and place. It’s about its characters and the way everything to which they have become accustomed will slowly fade away. An outstanding ensemble cast manages to create characters that simultaneously serve as caricatures for the allegory and richly developed people for the human drama.

4. Moulin Rouge
The movie musical makes a triumphant return with Baz Luhrmann’s flashy and melodramatic spectacle. Moulin Rouge relies on big emotions and basic storytelling but somehow transcends this simplicity with its intelligent and innovative assortment of pop songs. The film is stylistically strong and varied without becoming overbearing. Instead of assaulting us with a barrage of images the entire time, Luhrmann makes distinct choices. Some of the song and dance sequences are cut like a music video, while others are far more restrained. The theatrical performances are on the mark, and the actors are more than prepared for their big singing numbers. Nicole Kidman shines as Satine, the sickly courtesan, in a performance that solidifies her star status. It’s a thoroughly involving, audacious, and polarizing experience, which is destined to become a cult classic and perhaps revive the genre itself.

3. Memento
Christopher Nolan’s ingenious revenge thriller certainly uses a gimmick, but a great part of its success is that it is not controlled by it. There’s method behind Memento’s reverse-ordered confusion. As each new scene unfolds, we realize that we have no way to place it. When we see the following scene, the scene before it makes sense, but there’s still something missing until we see the next scene. Multiple viewings not only clear up the plot details but also help illuminate something deeper under the surface. Guy Pearce is given an extremely difficult task, playing a man whom, in all reality, we should have no emotional connection, but his performance is utterly compelling, intense, and sympathetic. Underneath all the lies and deceptions is the tragic study of man-turned-machine—an honest and human look at the futility of revenge.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The big Hollywood epic was absent from view until mid-December when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring rolled into theaters, and it completely filled the void. A grandly realized, fiercely executed work, Fellowship seemed destined to crumble under expectations, but it not only lives up to them, it exceeds them. Director Peter Jackson has delivered the kind of film that works on multiple levels. Full of rich landscapes, developed and developing characters, intense action sequences, and impressive special effects, here’s the kind of film big budgets were meant for. So it doesn’t have a clear conclusion—that’s the point. This is only the beginning, and this installment stands on its own and establishes itself as an instant classic. That it promises two more chapters within the next two years is only the icing on the cake.

1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
One of the most anticipated ventures of the year and a film that took me two viewings to fully appreciate, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is the most ambitious film to be released this year. It’s not only visionary; it has a heart, a soul, and a brain. Perhaps it’s not the experience that everyone expected it to be, but Steven Spielberg has created something timeless—a film that will last—and solidifies his role as auteur. The special effects are perhaps the best I have ever seen, and a young actor named Haley Joel Osment holds the weight of his difficult character on his shoulders, giving the best performance of any actor this year. Many have complained about its "happy" ending, but I argue it’s better described as hopeful and bittersweet. Either way, it’s given us something to ponder, argue, and discuss for years to come, and that is a rarity for Hollywood these days.

Special Mention:


Based on Margaret Edson’s play, Wit is a powerful, intelligent, and uplifting story of an English literature professor’s struggle with ovarian cancer. She is played by Emma Thompson, in what is the strongest female performance of the year. If you haven’t heard of the film, directed by Mike Nichols, don’t worry—it was inexplicably not released in theaters. It was shown on HBO and is now available on video and DVD. Slowly unfolding through a series of monologues and flashbacks, we get the picture of a fully developed human being struggling with a disease far too many of us have been affected by in some way. It raises important and timely questions and dialogue about life, death, illness, and medical care.

Honorable Mention:

Amélie, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Dish, Donnie Darko, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Heist, The Last Castle, The Majestic, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Monster's Ball, O, The Others,

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.