Friday, January 18, 2002

The Best and Worst Movies of 2001

January 18, 2002


1 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Few times in the recent past has a movie so swiftly shattered the highest expectations of our moviegoers and totally restructured the way we view the cinema. Peter Jackson's first of three installments of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy of "The Lord of The Rings" is exactly that kind of movie, one that not only tells its story thoroughly and wisely, but also takes us to places more elaborate, lush and vivid than those of the most intimate corners of our imaginations.

Like the source material, "The Fellowship of the Ring" grasps at its audience through the sense of a difficult undertaking; as you watch it unfold, you begin to wonder just how many sleepless nights the filmmakers endured to put so much work into their screen endeavor. Every frame is drenched in breathtaking beauty, layered so cohesively that there is never a moment when we think, "oh, this is too much," or "there isn't enough there." It's like watching the interpretation of Middle-earth directly through Tolkien's eyes, and no doubt he himself would have approved of the result.

But "Fellowship" isn't the best film of the year simply because of its visuals or its detail, but because it is, ultimately, THE essential thrill ride of 2001. The film is endlessly exciting, never slow, always interesting and observant, and loaded with energy. I myself have seen the picture four times since its release, and the experience gets better during each new viewing. Given those examples, just imagine the surprises that wait for us in the next two installments of the trilogy.

2 - Gosford Park
Robert Altman, resuming his directing career after two recent highly successful (but also highly overrated) endeavors—"The Gingerbread Man" and "Cookie's Fortune"—finally struck gold with this English murder mystery set in the countryside, as characters from every elite corner of society descend into an atmosphere soused with intrigue, suspicion, struggle, naivety and intense dislike. As the screenplay puts microscopes onto its individual characters, it wisely begins to intertwine their detailed personal stories in a way that justifies several motives for committing murder, amplifying our experience from regular viewers to investigators.

The cast is topnotch right down to the minor parts. Maggie Smith is an Oscar contender as a snotty cousin who sometimes speaks the most painful truth, and Kristen Scott Thomas is superb as Lady Sylvia, who gets a little too close to a valet even when her husband is killed in their own house. "Gosford Park" is magic from beginning to end, a real model for the notion that it doesn't necessarily take originality to be entertaining.

3 - Shrek
The year's greatest animated film is also one of the most amusing satires in recent memory. "Shrek" leaped onto movie screens last May with little promotion and hype, but almost instantly it won over audiences with its imaginative and thought-provoking scope of storytelling, where everything from Grimms' fairy tales to old Disney movies fell victim to the witty and introspective sense of humor of the screenplay. No stone was left unturned, especially when it came to poking fun at the Mouse House cartoon clichés. Heck, even the three fairies of "Sleeping Beauty" were doused into humiliation.

But above all else, "Shrek" wasn't just about having fun at the expense of someone else's creations. It was about trying something fresh and invigorating with the tired fairy tale angle, and Dreamworks proved once and for all that they could undertake familiar territory with an innovative twist. The look of the film is semi-PIXAR in detail but totally unique in style, utilizing computer animation to a degree that will likely shape the studio's future endeavors from now on. When it comes to animation, Disney still dominates, but now, finally, they appear to have competition.

4 - Mulholland Dr.
David Lynch isn't exactly the most coherent filmmaker of his generation, but once "Mulholland Dr." begins to work its magic, you realize that this is hardly a problem. The movie is a diving board for nightmarish ideas and unconventional techniques, as we are sent face-first into a world when nothing is certain, except for the fact that the journey will be splintered by plots with dead ends, players with multiple identities and images that never implement closure. But it's never boring and almost always engrossing; not until the final frame plays out do our eyes lift from the screen.

To prevent our senses from feeling cheated in the meantime, Lynch enlists grade-A acting talent from several new faces, the most notable being Naomi Watts, who may very well be on her way to an Academy Award nomination next month. Others do an astoundingly emotional job with the spontaneous substance they are given, and every scene stands out with energy and beauty. This is not a movie for the casual viewer, but those who understand (and admire) the director's past work will find this to be his greatest endeavor yet.

5 - Bandits
Many critics lashed out at this Barry Levinson vehicle like it were a speeding vehicle destined for a deadly crash, but "Bandits" is far from being the mess that so many have proclaimed. Here is an endlessly invigorating crime caper that never hesitates to deliver an entertaining payoff, with plot twists that leave smiles on our faces, story arcs that many of us can easily relate to, and physical comedy situations that have us rolling in the aisles.

The script by Harley Peyton juggles several different devices into one neat and creative package, utilizing clichés and formulas to such a high level of energy that we don't mind the familiarity in the least. And to top it all off, the movie employs a concluding twist that is one of the most believable and well-executed of the genre's recent past, allowing viewers to exit the theater uplifted rather than disappointed. It's a wonder that more people didn't admire it.

6 - Memento
Few people have been able to stride through the last year without hearing a word about Christopher Nolan's breakthrough feature, a massive critical success and immediate classic in the minds of those ambitious few who made an effort to see it last spring. On the surface, "Memento" barely exhibits a dent of intrigue, but beneath a basic plot lies an edifice so profoundly unconventional and effective that the script inherits a remarkably bright sheen, keeping us focused and baited for a good two hours. When the lights finally go up, only then do we realize why the movie structures itself backwards; the actual beginning of the story is much more climactic than the ending, which in turn serves as the film's introduction. Confusing? Yes. But it's compelling all the same.

7 - From Hell
The story of Jack the Ripper was brilliantly realized in the graphic novel "From Hell," but for once in a very long time, here is a movie adaptation that takes the source material to a much more intense and enthralling level. Directed by the Hughes brothers, who are well-known for their violent (but effective) "Menace II Society," this is a thriller that does more than depict the literary events; it lives and breathes them. Johnny Depp effectively plays an inspector who combs crime scenes looking for small imperative details, and the atmosphere he is surrounded by comes off as one of the most creepy and unnerving settings of recent cinema history. In fact, when characters hear footsteps in the distance, there is even an urge in us to look over our own shoulders.

8 - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Whereas "Memento" survived greatly on the basis of its offbeat technique, "Final Fantasy" came across vigorously on two levels: for its magnificent digital visuals as well as its sense of exciting storytelling. Few critics saw it that way, alas (some even contend that the plot is merely a paint-by-number endeavor to help exercise the CGI-rendered aspect of the movie), and the film sank at the box office very fast despite an extreme buildup of hype weeks prior. Now that it is available on DVD, maybe those who at one point showed interest in the project will take the opportunity to discover all of what the film has to offer. And take it from yours truly: the list of goodies featured in this cinematic treasure is almost endless.

9 - A.I. - Artificial Intelligence
A Spielberg and Kubrick collaboration? That question is what countless viewers had on their mind when they went in and saw "A.I.," an effort that was planned by the late "Eyes Wide Shut" director, but later passed off onto his good friend and confidant. The material here is conveyed as if it were a synergy between these two titans of cinema; it emphasizes subtle plot dynamics to a bizarre degree, while the visuals are so rich and evocative that they practically jump off of the movie screen. Ultimately, however, it all comes down to whether or not you can accept the fact that the story provides a non-living being with an emotional core. If you can embrace the notion, then the movie scores. If not, you're likely to despise the director's very attempt at trying.

10 - The Endurance
Documentaries seldom attain importance with moviegoers because they are frequently seen as boring retellings of events we learned much about in high school history classes. "The Endurance," however, ultimately proved how erroneous the general consensus can be, and the fact that it's one of the year's best movies period goes to show how exciting the movie experience can be even when you're visiting the past. Unlike most documentaries, however, this is a film that deals with material so few of us are familiar with: an arctic expedition in the early 1900s that inflicted chaos and resulted in near-fatality for a crew of ambitious explorers. Going along with accounts from relatives of the survivors is archival footage shot by a crew member on board the ship itself, which is so thorough and clear for its time period that our intrigue is raised to complete astonishment. Liam Neeson is the narrator behind the film, and while his voice carries us through the details, the images and retellings create a powerful human portrait that persists even after the ship in the title crumbles under a blanket of ice.

Honorable Mentions: 2001 wasn't exactly the greatest year for movies, but it was home to some other solid endeavors. Among them are: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, A Beautiful Mind, Blow, Bridget Jones' Diary, The Deep End, Ghost World, Hannibal, The Homeboy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Jurassic Park III, Monster's Ball, Monsters Inc. and The Mummy Returns.


1 - Bubble Boy
When it comes to pathetic attempts at humor, nothing in 2001 could beat the travesty that is "Bubble Boy," a film that was unfairly boycotted for its use of immune deficiency in a humorous tone, but should have been thrown into the garbage for its childish approach and lazy direction. Jokes fly off the screen like paper airplanes with torn noses, and then the audience is actually expected to buy into a plot that is rendered useless by the infuriating climax. This trash is a waste of respectable celluloid.

2 - Zoolander
It isn't much of a stretch from "Bubble Boy" in terms of stupidity, but "Zoolander" goes beyond that to come across as one of the most tone-deaf and lethargic comedies of recent memory. What's even more baffling is how the film managed to score a respectable ensemble cast, composed of Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Milla Jovovich and featuring countless cameos from big-name celebrities. As you watch familiar faces scroll through the screen, you wonder with much deliberation, "why are the even there?" Some actors don't even have their own lines of dialogue, leading many of us wonder if they're present simply for the sake of preventing audience members from dozing off in complete boredom.

3 - Freddy Got Fingered
No one likes to assume anything about a movie before they actually see it, but few of us could get past that factor when it came to "Freddy Got Fingered," the wild child of Tom Green's incredibly morbid imagination. The very title of the film suggests something disturbing about the material, and yet nothing on this planet could prepare us for watching it unfold. Green, who directed, wrote, produced and starred in the film, can be credited with having big enough balls to take comedy as low as it can go, but the outcomes of his efforts are disturbing, unfunny, creepy, callow and utterly nauseating. When he has the audacity to swing a newborn baby around the room by the umbilical cord in the picture, we begin to wonder if he's actually reenacting what his own mother did to him when he was born.

4 - Glitter
As if the last few years of her music career couldn't already prove that she lacked genuine substance, Mariah Carey had the nerve to participate in this calamity of a film to try and prove to the world she could also be a decent actress. Perhaps her much-publicized visits to hospitals last summer can be attributed less to exhaustion and more to shame; this is a movie so bad in so many ways, even its own stars wouldn't have the guts to defend it.

5 - Pearl Harbor
It may be history, but even that doesn't excuse "Pearl Harbor" from failing to deliver a concise direction and clear narrative. Like "Titanic," it utilizes the love story angle to draw us into the historical events, but whereas James Cameron's movie was also a technical triumph, Michael Bay's endeavor is simply loud, overproduced and annoying. A tragedy this big in US history deserved a much more significant treatment.

In brief:

6 - Saving Silverman
Characters may be trying to save Silverman from something in this film, but who is going to save unsuspecting viewers from watching this dreadful experience?

7 - Along Came A Spider
Considered a prequel to the magnificent "Kiss The Girls," this crime thriller sees the familiar Alex Cross character wade through a web of intrigue so muddled and senseless that not even the villain himself seems to carry a purpose.

8 - Planet of the Apes
Tim Burton may be the most visionary director of his time, but the perspective employed in his version of the famous "Planet of the Apes" story detracts him from truly realizing the crucial purpose of the material.

9 - Hardball
Half sports movie, half coming-of-age story, all of it predictable and pointless. Keanu Reeves stars in his most detestable role to date here, a slacker with a gambling debt who hides behind negativity so heavy that none of us are ever able to identify with him.

10 - The Princess Diaries
The ugly duckling-turned beauty queen cliché received one-too-many screen treatments with this highly successful teen comedy from Disney, a film that put its cuteness factor on overload and slogs its way through so many dreary emotional moments that we end up crying for all the wrong reasons.

Other disasters this year: A Knight's Tale, Captain Correli's Mandolin, Scary Movie 2, Tomcats and Town and Country.

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