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Best Films of 2001

by Dan heaton

I can't remember another year where I have struggled so much with creating a definitive list of my top ten films. This collection could easily cover more than 20 films that all provided something original or at least very entertaining. However, there weren't as many standout releases that easily separated from the others in my mind. I witnessed plenty of great films, but only a few classic stories. That said, here is a list of my top ten films, with a decent amount of honorable mentions and also-rans mentioned subsequently. Keep in mind that I have not seen In the Bedroom, A Beautiful Mind, Monster's Ball, Amelie, and obvious classics like The Mummy Returns, Pearl Harbor, Freddie Got Fingered, and American Outlaws. Enjoy!

1. The Royal Tenenbaums

Bottle Rocket and Rushmore creators Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have returned with this wonderfully inventive comedy about a dysfunctional family. This story will have you laughing uncontrollably at one moment, then quickly shift gears towards scenes of touching sadness. Gene Hackman gives one of the year's best performances as Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch who returns to wreakhavoc among his three children (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson). This film contains a score of memorable roles and provides some of the funniest comedy of the year.

2. Ghost World

Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson shine in this biting film version of the original comic book by screenwriter Dan Clowes. This offbeat story presents two young girls who have graduated from high school and convey intense disillusionment for the adult society. This is another story will the ability to mix sparkling drama with almost constant hilarity. I can only hope that Blues Hammer will be touring sometime soon. Steve Buscemi also turns in a fine performance as Seymour, the middle-aged, dorky guy who attracts Birch's attention.

3. Amores Perros

Easily the year's most stunning directorial debut, this kinetic film tackles three stories connected by a vicious car accident. Translated as "Love's a Bitch," this story pulls few punches in revealing an unsentimental look at humanity and our flaws. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu creates a stark, realistic feel that brings you directly into the action and generates intense energy. This look is especially prevalent during the brutal dog fights, which will make even the most hardened viewer cringe.

4. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Heavenly Creatures director Peter Jackson's three-hour masterpiece is epic filmmaking at its finest. The unbelievable visual style creates Tolkien's world of Middle Earth in a manner technically impossible only a few years earlier. Filmed in New Zealand, this classic fantasy tale leads the band of hobbits, humans, a dwarf, and an elf through a remarkable landscape. The acting is superb across the board, especially from Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, and Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. If the next two films live up to this one, this trilogy could stand as one of the greatest in film history.

5. The Princess and the Warrior

German writer/director Tom Tykwer's stunning follow-up to Run Lola Run contains similar visual majesty, but it actually tops its predecessor with a complex, involving romantic story. Franke Potente brings a charming subtlety to the lead role, and the supporting characters produce numerous memorable moments. The interwoven threads of fate and coincidence are dealt with superbly in this film, which paints a remarkable picture of random elements that influence our lives. Tykwer once again proves his directing mettle with amazing shots that are difficult to forget.

6. Waking Life

Animated features will never be the same again. In this thought-provoking and colorful film from Richard Linkletter (Dazed and Confused, Slacker), Wiley Wiggins journeys through a dreamlike state of confusion and intellectual discussion. During his wanderings, he encounters numerous characters who discuss a wide array of topics on the meaning of life and our place in the spiritual world. While not for all tastes, this deliberate story will reward viewers looking for more than just bare-bones entertainment.

7. Memento

This inventive film will probably top a lot of amateur critics' lists, and for good reason. You've probably been living in a cave somewhere if you haven't heard about this film. Using a masterful device, writer/director Christopher Nolan starts the story at the end and works backward to reveal the mysteries uncovered by lead Guy Pearce. Intertwined within this timeline is another phone conversation that slyly reveals much of the missing pieces. This story excels because it is open to several interpretations and provides no definite answers.


Easily the best documentary I viewed this year, this tale follows Kaleil and Tom, two young entrepreneurs starting an Internet company. It provides an intimate look at the rise (and unfortunate fall) of the technical boom through the eyes of the site's dedicated employees. What makes this story more than a simple look at an era is the strong friendship between Kaleil and Tom, which faces dire consequences during the site's downfall.

9. Mulholland Drive

Originally conceived as a television pilot, this eerie David Lynch creation satirizes the false nature of Hollywood while offering his usual crazy eccentricities. Due to a sterling performance by Naomi Watts and an intriguing (yet extremely confusing) plot device, this stands as my favorite Lynch entry. There are plenty of silly moments mixed with troubling darkness, and the combination works in a similar vein to Twin Peaks. Although this film left me scratching me head, it also made me care about the characters, which doesn't always occur with Lynch's films.

10. Time and Tide

Although it received only a limited theatrical release in the states, this Tsui Hark thriller easily ranks as my favorite action film of the year. Unlike disastrous special effects-laden films like Tomb Raider that pass for entertainment these days in Hollywood, this story emphasizes character and unbelievable stunts to succeed. Several extensive sequences are masterful in both their setup and payoff, and there's hardly a moment to catch your breath in-between. The action is even more enjoyable upon the second viewing, when the complex plot is more easily decipherable.

These six films fall just a bit short of the list:

Ali - Will Smith gives one of the year's top performances and overcomes immense obstacles to create a believable portrait of Muhammed Ali. I would not argue at all with an Oscar nomination for this role. Unfortunately, shabby editing keeps this release from being one of the best of the year. This is a surprise from Michael Mann, who is known for taut masterpieces like The Insider.

Baby Boy - John Singleton shows impressive maturation as a director with this energetic story about becoming a man and facing responsibilities. This film is especially notable for several strong female roles and a lively first role for singer Tyrese Gibson. Much of this material covers similar ground to Boyz n' The Hood, but with a more adult sensibility that reflects Singleton's own growth.

Black Hawk Down - Possibly the most technically proficient war film ever made, this film drops us directly into the chaotic action and refuses to offer any moments of solace. Director Ridley Scott proves once again that he's a remarkable director, but the screenplay completely avoids the political context of the mission. This lessens the lasting impact of the story, whose message is reduced into a simpler idea of "not leaving any men behind." However, it's still a powerful picture, and the acting is top-notch.

Curse of the Jade Scorpion - Woody Allen keeps the laughs coming with this nostalgic tale reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the early days of Hollywood. Allen and Helen Hunt are a strange match, but they have a warm comic chemistry and carry the story nicely.

The Man Who Wasn't There - The Coen Brothers journey back into the depths of film noir with this effective and spellbinding chiller. Billy Bob Thornton perfectly embodies the death-like trance of the lead role, and James Gandolfini does an impressive supporting job. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous.

Panic - William H. Macy gives an incredibly complex performance in this unfortunate tale of a professional killer who wants to escape the sinister family business. This low-key film also features a chilling, dominating role for Donald Sutherland, who's never been more effective. Neve Campbell (finally, she's in a good film!) provides the charm as an energetic girl who brings life in Macy's dreary life.

I also enjoyed these films (with reasons briefly mentioned):

The Cat's Meow - Peter Bogdonavich nicely recreates the excitement of early Hollywood.

The Endurance - Spellbinding documentary about Shackleton's voyage in Antarctica

Made - Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau return for more laughs and a silly take on the gangster genre (plus a great cameo from Screech).

Shrek - A highly entertaining crowd-pleaser with top-notch animation and nearly non-stop laughs throughout the story

Vanilla Sky - I loved Cameron Crowe's direction and the strange, complex sci-fi plot.

Vertical Ray of the Sun - Gorgeous, dreamlike scenery and beautiful moments that will remain with you for a long time

The Widow of St. Pierre - Wonderful direction from Patrice Leconte and an emotional performance from Juliette Binoche

Issue 8 1/2, February 2002 | next article

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