A perilous cruise through the heart of 2001
The year was a near disaster, but here are 10 films (13, really) that did deliver.
NEW YORK — Let's face it, friends in movieland: The year 2001 was a lot less exciting than the movie "2001," which didn't even get the wide-scale revival it deserved. Month after month brought disappointment after disappointment - a diverting romp here, a mildly original story there, but little that clung to memory once the final credits had faded.
Compiling a 10-best list is challenging on such occasions. But hey, I'm a film critic, so danger is my business. Although some of the pictures chosen here were let-downs when I saw them, at year's end they stand out as the best of the crop. I've listed them in alphabetical order, except for the Iranian films that close the roster with a four-way tie.
All these movies had their American theatrical premières within the past 12 months:
Apocalypse Now Redux. The year brought reissues of many excellent old movies, including Jean-Luc Godard's comedy-thriller "Band of Outsiders" and Luis Buñuel's surrealistic "That Obscure Object of Desire." But this edition of Francis Ford Coppola's epic is a new movie of sorts, reedited to accommodate 53 minutes of material left out of the original 1979 release.
Some of the restored footage adds more length than substance to Coppola's episodic journey through the Vietnam war, loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness" about a civilized man's harrowing voyage into a netherworld of terror and despair. Much of the drama still carries a powerful charge, though, especially when intrepid soldier Martin Sheen finally confronts demented genius Marlon Brando in a makeshift jungle kingdom that embodies the horror and insanity of a geopolitical world gone mad.
It's as messy as it is ambitious, but it remains a haunting emotional experience, as well as a key document for anyone interested in the Vietnam conflict and its soul-searching aftermath.
Ghost World. Terry Zwigoff's first fiction film shows the same affection for eccentric ideas and marginalized people that made his 1994 documentary "Crumb" so revealing.
Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson are just about perfect as two high-school grads who shudder at the thought of entering an adult world they neither like nor understand. Steve Buscemi is even better as their newfound friend, a reclusive record collector with antisocial tendencies of his own. The film isn't fast or flashy, but it has social, psychological, and ultimately mystical overtones that raise it miles above the sort of everyday teen comedy it superficially resembles.
Gosford Park. Robert Altman's rambling satire takes a not-so-discreet peek at just about everyone in an English mansion during a hunting-party weekend about 70 years ago, almost beating the TV classic "Upstairs Downstairs" at its own class-conscious game. A key figure in modern American film, Altman helped invent and refine this sort of large-canvas comedy in pictures like "Nashville" and "The Player." While this doesn't quite reach their level, it has high-spirited humor and thoughtful subtexts to spare.
The Man Who Wasn't There. After the klutzy comedy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the talented Coen brothers made an almost-instant comeback with this darkly humorous takeoff of novelist James M. Cain's brooding brand of ultra-pulp fiction.
Billy Bob Thornton dominates the story with his stylized portrayal of a 1940s barber whose painstakingly sculptured haircut is his own worst advertisement. Frances McDormand is also excellent as his cheating wife, and Jon Polito steals several scenes as the dry-cleaning entrepreneur whose tempting business deal lures our hero into a bungled web of crime and misadventure. Joel Coen directed with flair, and Roger Deakins's black-and-white cinematography is almost as expressive as the Beethoven piano music that wafts through the sound track.
Mulholland Drive. David Lynch is the most dedicated surrealist in movies today, and this is one of his most radical departures from standard-issue cinema. It begins with a wannabe actress agreeing to help an amnesiac figure out who she is and why her purse is crammed with cash. But the story soon sprouts so many bizarre leaves and branches that no pigeonhole could possibly contain it. Lynch says it all makes sense - unlike his nightmarish "Lost Highway," which stumps even him - and deciding whether that's true is half the fun.
The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson's movies have grown steadily more ambitious, from "Bottle Rocket" to "Rushmore" and now this rambunctious comedy-drama about an eccentric family. Gene Hackman plays the patriarch, a disbarred attorney who develops renewed interest in his disaffected brood when his estranged wife decides to marry another man. He gives the movie much of its oomph, making this dubious dad fascinating to watch even when some scenes make him more a caricature than a character. All the acting is strong, though, and Anderson peppers the picture with offbeat directorial touches.
This is the year's most original comedy, even if it does fall short of its early promise, like the Tenenbaums themselves.
Va Savoir. Jacques Rivette helped launch France's explosive New Wave movement in the 1950s, and decades later his work is as youthful and vibrant as ever. The characters of this delicious comedy-drama are European stage actors, whose artistic and amorous adventures subtly blur the boundaries that supposedly separate reality, artifice, myth, and imagination. From its tantalizing title - "Who Knows?" - to its life-affirming finale, it's a nonstop treat.
Waking Life. This is the movie of the year if you've ever suspected that life is but a dream, just as the old song says. Richard Linklater uses a combination of live performances and high-tech animation techniques to create the hallucinatory look of the meandering story, centering on a young man's conversations with a motley crew of acquaintances as he tries to figure out whether he's asleep, awake, or caught in an endless reverie that offers no escape.
The dialogue often has a grad-schoolish ring, but sheer novelty keeps the hero's creatively crafted delirium absorbing most of the way through.
With a Friend Like Harry.... What if a long-lost chum came back into your life, insisted on doing you favors you never asked for, and gradually revealed himself as the last person you'd ever want to have around? French filmmaker Dominik Moll gives a truly Hitchcockian touch to this slyly engrossing drama, helped by vivid acting and a screenplay that generates more suspense than most mystery-thrillers dream of. Who would have guessed that the year's scariest movie wouldn't have a special-effects scene in sight?
Baran, The Circle, The Day I Became a Woman, and Kandahar. It was another superb year for Iranian cinema, and making this a four-way tie keeps Middle Eastern movies from crowding several other pictures off the list. In addition to being splendidly made and utterly original, each of these pictures illustrates the compassionate concern with women's rights that has distinguished many of Iran's best recent films.
Two other specimens of almost equal value, "Djomeh" and "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine," were also released in 2001. Will this troubled nation ever run out of extraordinary cinematic visions? There's no sign of it yet.
Runners-up include Steven Spielberg's flawed but unique "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," based on the late Stanley Kubrick's long-cherished project; David Mamet's clever "Heist"; Ousmane Sembène's affecting "Faat-Kine"; the Canadian horror romp "Ginger Snaps"; Agnès Varda's loving documentary "The Gleaners and I"; the ferocious indie drama "L.I.E."; Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust study "Sobibor"; and the just-opening-this-week docudrama "Ali," for Will Smith's uncanny acting.
Maybe the year wasn't as awful as I thought!