Rewinding 2001 -- The Year in Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
December 31, 2001

Go Directly to the Top 10

When looking back on a year - any year - in film, it is necessary not only to consider the quality of the released movies, but also the context in which they were released. No form of art, be it popular or esoteric, exists in a vacuum. Consequently, any retrospective of 2001 must not only examine the relative quality of the year's product, but how it was woven into a social fabric that experienced a massive and unprecedented upheaval on an initially unremarkable September morning.

Of course, the events of September 11 did not physically change any of the movies arriving in theaters. There were some postponements (the most obvious of which, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage, was moved from an October opening date to February 2002) and a few digital tweaks (the Twin Towers mysteriously vanishing from the release print of Serendipity), but the overall roster remained largely intact. Nevertheless, the public's perception had changed. Films involving terrorists, terrorism, and war violence were seen in an entirely different light than the one in which they were produced. Lightweight, escapist motion pictures were welcomed as a respite from the oppressive crush represented by reality.

In the wake of September 11, people continued attending the movies, and, for the most part, their choices of films did not change. Expected blockbusters became blockbusters. Expected duds flopped. As far as multiplexes were concerned, it was as if the attack never happened. Critics and pundits have microanalyzed the cinematic trends resulting from September 11, but those who are brutally honest recognize that any so-called shifts were virtually negligible. Movie-lovers, regardless of what genre they prefer, have not changed their habits.

Production alterations, if there are any, will not become apparent until the second half of 2002. That's when movies that began filming after September 11 will start to emerge. And it will take about a year before we encounter pictures that were written after the terrorist attacks. Will the result be a kinder, gentler form of movie? Perhaps. Will there be more jingoism? Possibly, but there's always the consideration of whether an upsurge in U.S. patriotism will hurt overseas sales. Ultimately, the impact of September 11 on the motion picture industry will be short-lived. In the absence of another source of global upheaval, Hollywood will probably be back to churning out movies in the pre-September 11 mold before another couple of years have passed.

And that brings me to the most depressing aspect of the 2001 crop of movies. With the exception of the above-average releases of November and December, this was the most depressing year for movies in a decade. Worse that 2000? Take away the final 60 days of the year, and the answer is a resounding "yes". Even more distressing is that there's no indication things are about to get better. Hollywood is making money- and lots of it - by turning out crap. As long as people will pay to see this sort of drek, there's no motivation to change. So, for the foreseeable future, until movie-goers revolt, we are doomed to endure one big-budget film after another where plot, character development, and intelligence are reduced to footnotes in lavish productions that emphasize quick cuts, loud music, louder explosions, and lots of cool special effects.

The majority of movie-goers no longer want to think during a movie. They want the closest possible analog to an amusement park ride. Thinking isn't fun, but mind-numbing action is - or so the Hollywood mantra goes. This leads to countless intelligent men and women failing to understand something like Vanilla Sky, although everything is explained in the last reel. Or to viewers giving up on Memento and walking out because they don't get it. Instead, flashy-but-lobotomized eye candy like Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park III were among the year's biggest grossing movies. They follow the formula perfectly: don't challenge the audience, but give them lots of neat stuff to look at.

2001 was the year of the "first weekend". Movies are opening bigger than ever, then plummeting at an alarming rate. The idea of a movie having legs seems to be a thing of the past, despite the fact that we're only a few years removed from the phenomenon of Titanic (which made most of its money by staying at the top of the box office for week after week after week). This year, anything staying for more than one week at the top represented a prodigious feat. Even a behemoth like Harry Potter wasn't immune. Sure, it rested on top for three weeks, but the precipitous drop in its box office take made the $400 million mark (a pre-release "guarantee", according to many pundits) an unreachable goal. Audiences are treating new movies like shiny toys - get to them when they first come out, then discard them when there's something else to play with. It is no longer unusual for a motion picture to accumulate more than 50% of its gross domestic earnings during its first weekend of exposure.

Even disappointing films aren't really losing money - at least in most cases. Factor in the overseas profits and the video/DVD/cable TV rights, and a mountain of red ink can quickly evaporate. Thus, with Hollywood awash in profit, why change? The top honchos at most of the major studios recognize that their product is lacking on the creative side - they have admitted as much - but heads will not roll, nor will attitudes change, until the public decides that they're ready for something less insulting to the intelligence.

For the small group of cinema-lovers who still enjoy being challenged by a movie, at least there's the independent arena. With a few notable exceptions like Shrek and The Lord of the Rings, everything worth talking about has played primarily in art houses and specialty theaters. Movies like Amelie and Memento have had flirtations with multiplexes, but they didn't last long in the shadow of Hollywood's obscenely expensive output. So, in 2002, as in 2001 and the years immediately preceding it, it is to the art houses that we must look for the product that will keep us caring about movies, rather than regarding them as noisy distractions from the business of living.

Two towers may have fallen, but the pillars holding up the Hollywood machine have not been shaken.

Performances To Be Remembered

In the past, I have used this space to present my choices for actors and actresses worthy of nods by the Academy Awards nominating committee. This year, however, I have decided to do things a little differently. Instead of listing the top four or five performances of the year, I will restrict myself to one. The point is to emphasize that single performance. This is not to say that there weren't other great portrayals to be found on the screen during 2001 - but these are the best. No "honorable mentions" in any category - just a single name.

Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind: For more than a decade, Jennifer Connelly has been recognized by many critics as one of Hollywood's unsung treasures - bright, talented, and glamorous. For some reason, she has always been overlooked by the Academy. Whether or not they ignore her again, her work as Alicia Nash in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind is one of the most moving and stirring performances of the year. As good as Russell Crowe is in the lead role, this movie would not have been as powerful without Connelly's effective and affecting supporting work.

Best Supporting Actor - Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast: If ever it could be said that a supporting performance makes a movie, it's Ben Kingsley's work in Sexy Beast. Playing a character that can only be described as evil and viciousness incarnate, Kingsley tears into this role with the kind of gusto that leaves viewers astounded. The force of the actor's personality is so great that the movie all-but-falls apart when he is not on screen.

Best Leading Actress - Tilda Swinton, The Deep End: 2001 has not been a great year for amazing performances by actresses, but there are a few of them out there, and, at the top of the heap, is Tilda Swinton's portrayal of a loving mother in the underrated thriller, The Deep End. Swinton, an acting chameleon who can play almost any role, burrows beneath her character's skin and makes every situation experienced by Margaret Hall seem real. She acts with her body language, her facial expressions, and her voice - all of which results in what is for me the most memorable female performance of 2001.

Best Leading Actor - Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom: Tom Wilkinson's work in In the Bedroom is not flashy or showy (the way Ben Kingsley's is), but it's incredibly moving and powerful. This kind of performance can only come when an actor has surrendered himself to a character. His interpretation of Matt Fowler displays quiet dignity, aching impotence, and simmering fury. And Frank's confrontation with his wife (played by Sissy Spacek) is one of the year's most wrenching scenes.

The Not-So-Elite (The Bottom Ten)

(Presented in reverse order - the worst last.) There were a lot to choose from (too many, really, and I skipped a handful of films that looked unwatchable), but these are the ones I have singled out for special mention...

10. Domestic Disturbance: Arguably the worst career choice for John Travolta since his resurrection. A few more like this, and he'll be back on the scrap heap.

9. Antitrust: The first movie of 2001 was also among the worst. This dumb excuse for a thriller highlights bad acting, inept direction, and awful scripting.

8. Head Over Heels: What would a Bottom Ten list be without a Freddy Prinze Jr. movie?

7. Say It Isn't So: More gross-out gags than you can stuff up a cow's butt, but nary a funny moment to be found.

6. Left Behind: Christian-produced movie about the rapture. Apparently, all the good actors were assumed into heaven, leaving us with Kirk Cameron.

5. Josie and the Pussycats: Why, oh why, do filmmakers find it necessary to adapt forgettable cartoons into even more forgettable movies??

4. Glitter: Whatever Mariah Carey thinks she's doing in this movie, it's definitely not acting.

3. 3000 Miles to Graceland: A truly painful thriller. It would have been more entertaining had the filmmakers thrown out the script and just gone for two hours of mindless chases and shoot-outs.

2. Corky Romano: In many other years, the sheer idiocy and complete lack of humor in this movie would have earned it the Worst of the Year Award, but, in 2001, we had...

1. Freddy Got Fingered: Even eight months after I saw this movie, words still fail me when I try to describe how unbearable this Tom Green vehicle is. The lowlight isn't the manual manipulation of animal genitals, nor the shot of the exposed bone in a leg injury, nor even Rip Torn's backside. Instead, it's having to endure Tom Green for 90 minutes. Clearly, the prohibition against cruel and inhuman punishment doesn't extend to critics having to watch this motion picture.

The Elite (The Top Ten)

So to the Top 10 we come. As usual, a disproportionate number of my highest-rated films were released at the end of the year (40% of the Top 10; 50% of the Top 30). Of course, that's par for the course, so it's hardly worth noting. I recommend each and every one of these films highly. I have no qualms about compiling a "Ten Best" list - even during down years (such as 2000 and 2001), there are still a number of very good and excellent productions to be absorbed. Here, in my opinion, are the best of those:

(Presented in reverse order - the best last.)

Runners-Up (alphabetical): The Deep End, In the Mood for Love, Monsters, Inc., No Man's Land, Under the Sand.

10. Waking Life: Watching Waking Life is like entering a dream world and having a conversation with the most interesting individual you have ever met. It's a rich experience that's made all the richer by the herky-jerky computer animation. There is no plot or character development as such. This is a 90-minute flight of fancy that takes us across a vast landscape of philosophical and sociological issues. Some viewers with short attention spans have deemed it to be sluggish and boring; I found it to be mesmerizing.

9. A Beautiful Mind: The premise sounds ripe for being mishandled as a big-budget tear-jerker, but, by staging much of this movie as a mystery and by keeping the focus on the characters (rather than resorting to the easy way out of relentless manipulation), Ron Howard has crafted a wonderful drama. A Beautiful Mind shows the price of genius and the redemptive power of love, and is highlighted by wonderful performances by Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe. Unlike Waking Life, this film is easily accessible to mainstream audiences.

8. Bridget Jones's Diary: One could easily argue that this smart, sassy, breezy romantic comedy is better than the popular book from which it was adapted. A re-working of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for today, Bridget Jones's Diary offers everything an audience could want from this sort of film. Plus, it helps that the leads play their parts so well, including a chunky Renee Zellweger immersing herself in a British persona and Colin Firth taking a second shot at playing Mr. Darcy.

7. Bully: Tough as this film is to watch, it's ultimately rewarding and revealing. Looking for a little insight into teen-on-teen violence? Spend a couple of hours with the characters populating Larry Clark's Bully. As usual, Clark delights in shocking the audience, but there's a point to every uncomfortable moment. And his cast of largely-unknown actors bares everything - not only their bodies, but their souls - to make the characters and their bleak circumstances real. Not for the faint of heart or those who dislike graphic sex and nudity.

6. Shrek: Not only is Shrek the top animated feature of the year, but it's the best thing to come along in the genre since Disney's early-'90s efforts (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King). A winning combination of comedy, romance, and top-flight animation, Shrek has rightfully become a favorite of movie-lovers of all ages.

5. Amelie: I feel sorry for those who avoid subtitled movies, because, by missing Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, they are depriving themselves of a wonderful cinematic experience. A frothy, delightful romantic comedy of the first order, Amelie takes us into the life of its intensely likable heroine, played by Audrey Tautou, and follows her on her adventures and misadventures through a version of the City of Lights that can only exist in the movies. For pure, uplifting entertainment, nothing in 2001 rivals Amelie.

4. The Princess and the Warrior: Tom Tykwer's follow-up to Run Lola Run received neither as much acclaim nor as much notice as his previous outing, but, in both construction and execution, it is the superior film. A twisted fairy tale (as the name implies), the movie surprises and entertains with its ambitious exploration of fate, destiny, and how the hardened heart can be softened. Truly, one of the year's most overlooked efforts.

3. In the Bedroom: Todd Field's In the Bedroom is a masterful look at the destructive power of grief. Featuring several of the best performances of the year, In the Bedroom has been recognized by scores of critics as one of 2001's most moving motion pictures, with telling insights into the human condition. The hope at this point is that the movie-going public will respond as enthusiastically to this film as the reviewers have.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: For years, it was argued that a live-action interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was impossible. New Zealand director Peter Jackson has proven everyone wrong, crafting an adaptation that remains largely faithful to the text while being fully cinematic in its execution. An epic fantasy adventure like no other to reach the screen, the grand success of first volume of The Lord of the Rings has me breathlessly awaiting the remaining two films in the trilogy.

1. Memento: When I first saw Memento early in the year at the Sundance film festival, I knew it would be one of 2001's best. As it turns out, none of the nearly-200 movies I saw between then and now was able to eclipse it. A remarkably skilled thriller that forces audiences to think, postulate, and re-watch, Memento stands as a monument to what can be accomplished by a director who is willing to take risks and who doesn't care if 90% of his audience fails to "get it". Memento is an amazing ride - even if you have to see it multiple times, backwards and forwards, to figure out what's going on.

Note: The films Black Hawk Down and Monsters' Ball, which have received a fair amount of recognition on some film critics' Top 10 lists, are not eligible for my 2001 edition. Since there were not any local screenings of these films in 2001, they will be considered for the 2002 list.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

Back Up