Favorite Films of 2001
1. Memento (Christopher Nolan)
When you peel away the backwards layers of director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan's sophomore effort, you realize that while it is still one of the most original stories put to screen this year, the plot is nothing if not simplistic. The catch is that you have to peel away the layers to figure that out. From the eerie un-development of the Polaroid shot that opens the film to the ending-beginning that you see coming a mile away but surprises you anyway, Memento keeps you riveted by sending dramatic irony pirouetting like a ballerina on the edge of a cliff, while forcing you to piece together the mystery that the superb Guy Pearce is trying so desperately to dissect.
2. Together (Lukas Moodysson)
Another flawed gem, Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson's touching story of a ragtag group living in and around "Tillsammans" ("Together" in Swedish), a mid-'70s commune in suburban Stockholm, touches on every human emotion, from pre-pubescent to deathbed, without once pandering to its audience or its diverse group of players. The cinematography and pace aren't perfect, and the story seems more a succession of conversations than a masterful arc, but in the end Together will win you over with that oldest of moviegoing cliches: it'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry.
3. Hedwig And The Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell)
The most original script on this list sounds in abstract like a complete disaster, but writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell assembles the inexplicably human tale of an outsider (and brilliant hero-heroine) who refuses to shrivel up and die despite having a certain part of his anatomy that has done just that. Several scenes are among the funniest this reviewer has seen on film recently, and if the soundtrack doesn't have you shouting along, then you're just not that fun.
4. Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh)
Speaking of fun, Steven Soderbergh proves he can have some with the most entertaining big-budget-big-buzz-big-cast Hollywood movie of the year. Forget the three-headed ClooneyRobertsPitt monster that looks like it's suppressing the urge to wink at itself every time it's on-screen, the real thrill of Ocean's Eleven is the endlessly deep and talented supporting cast, a script tighter than shrinkwrap and Soderbergh's Schwarzkopf-esque command behind the camera. Under his bespectacled eye, the chaos of Las Vegas and the daunting girth of over a dozen main players come together as the prettiest well-oiled machine to hit the big screen this year.
5. Go Tigers! (Kenneth A. Carlson)
There are few judgments passed in Kenneth A. Carlson's spectacular documentary about the high school football obsession that has consumed Massillon, Ohio, for close to a century, which is amazing when so many judgments could have been passed. Here you have a town that is so consumed by competition that it will hold boys back a year in junior high school so that they're bigger for high school football; that will forgive -- and make captain of the team -- a young man who spent a year behind bars after being accused of rape; whose support of school funding seems to hinge not on books and teachers but on the win-loss percentage of its fighting Tigers. No, none of these seeming contradictions is put up for ridicule; they are simply chronicled. It could just as easily have been basketball in Indiana or soccer in England or religion in the Middle East -- the common denominator here isn't sports, it's obsessions, and Go Tigers! excels at showing us that we've all got them.
6. The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel Coen)
If you stared at a candle long enough -- not a fire, but the single, flickering flame of a candle -- you could pull an entire history out of its gentle sways, slight color changes and subtle jumps. This is how Billy Bob Thornton makes you feel his presence as the profoundly banal protagonist Ed Crane in the Coen brothers' black-and-white love letter to film noir that is accurate right down to the projected landscape outside the window during car scenes. Thornton is given plenty to lose his cool over -- from his alcoholic wife (the always excellent Frances McDormand) to her boss-lover (James Gandolfini in perfect sleaze form) to a fast-talking lawyer (Tony Shalhoub in his best role since Big Night) to the Beethoven-playing Lolita Birdy Abundas (Ghost World's Scarlett Johansson) -- but the few times he does, it's only for split seconds. Yet, it's these times in which there's no doubt he is really "there" that make The Man Who Wasn't There so chilling in its dead calm.
7. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer)
Ben Kingsley's Don Logan couldn't be more opposite Thornton's Ed Crane in European commercial director Jonathan Glazer's feature debut. On the surface, Sexy Beast appears to be your standard they-keep-pulling-me-back-in tale of the criminal lifestyle. But thanks to Kingsley's whip-cracking performance and the self-conscious reactions of those around him (including the quietly conflicted Ray Winstone as Gal), combined with a whitewashed landscape and hallucinogenic visions that will make you sweat even in an air-conditioned theater, Sexy Beast is an altogether different creature. It works not by hitting the same tough-guy notes simply in a different progression, but by posing a common psychological question and then answering it like this: bullies are only as tough as their victims are weak, but no matter what, they're the most insecure guys on the playground.
8. With A Friend Like Harry (Dominik Moll)
Another psychological riddle from Europe, French director Dominik Moll doesn't fall back on an overactive imagination a la Fight Club or sociopathic insecurity a la American Psycho, he uses a real person. While on summer vacation with his family, Michel (Laurent Lucas) encounters the charming and successful Harry (Sergi Lopez), an old schoolmate who describes his trade by saying "I fix problems." Harry then sets out to show Michel how his life would be if he acted on every selfish impulse to leave his lips. The actions mostly horrify Michel and his family, but as the movie draws to a close, Harry has indeed "fixed" many of Michel's problems and seems to have left him better off than when they met a few days earlier, leaving the viewer to ponder whether madness really is the key to the good life or just a selfish diversion from the long, deliberate road to happiness.
9. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
You expect David Lynch to confuse the hell out of you, but the problem with Lost Highway was that there wasn't much besides confusion. He's back in tip-top weirdo form with his own version of noir in a mind-bending journey that seems to make perfect (or at least relatively perfect) sense until the appearance of a harmless little box two-thirds of the way in, then you're left to question everything you've seen and will see for the remainder of the film. Mulholland Drive is dark, cryptic, and saturated with scenes of delectable sex and horrifying violence, along with some of the most breathtakingly sublime sequences put to film this year. In other words, it's Lynchian.
10. Startup.com (Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus)
By following a single company over the course of a year, we're treated to the tenacity, unbridled enthusiasm, good intentions, pseudo-stardom, unchecked egos and heartbreaking despair that made the dot-com boom the strangest business phenomenon of our generation. Those who weren't part of the late-'90s "movement" will probably watch this documentary (one of whose directors also made The War Room) with a man-bites-dog sense of the story's ridiculousness, while those who were part of the explosion and resulting implosion will recognize it as a depressingly common tale of woe.
Hollywood In-Fighting Makes for Bad Fairy Tales
Shrek Jeffrey Katzenberg hates Michael Eisner and Disney. Okay, we get it already. Though Shrek was entertaining and many of the jokes were funnier if you have a knowledge of what they're really about, too many had no other shtick than the little man's personal vendetta against his former employer.
Size it up against Monsters, Inc., the least impressive of Disney's four computer-animated features to date, and it's just not as good, for one simple reason: THE FUCKING STORY, PEOPLE! Make insider jabs all you want, but if the underlying story isn't airtight -- something that, no matter what your opinion of them, Disney has pretty much nailed down -- you won't have a "classic" fairy tale. You'll simply have an entertaining movie that will make tons of money and then promptly disappear from the pop landscape in several years. In other words, politics is fine, but check your personal baggage at the door. Besides, if the people at DreamWorks were really so concerned about their true-beauty-is-on-the-inside message, wouldn't that message had been better served by having the princess voiced by Camryn Manheim rather than that other, rail-thin Cameron?
Those of us who are bigger fans of Swingers than anything else Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn have done were lining up to see them again in Made, and while it was quite entertaining watching Vaughn basically play his Swingers alter-ego (read: a guy who could be cool if he wasn't such a moron), once you got past that, you realized there wasn't much there. A couple more drafts and Made could have plugged up those huge plot holes and filled out the characters a little more. Here it's Vince Vaughn being Vince Vaughn and everyone else just telling him to shut up.
The screenwriting debut by Richard Kelly had somewhat of the opposite problem as Made. None of the characters really jump out at you, but the story, an unsettling mix of Contact, Memento, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has "potential" written all over it. For the most part, it delivers, with the exception of some frustratingly awkward spaces in the dialogue and plot that lead to a resolution you can't fully buy. Yet again, a couple more drafts, and it could have been this reviewer's favorite film of the year.
The dialogue is usually the last thing you have to worry about with a Cameron Crowe film, but that's exactly what jumps out at you in Vanilla Sky a remake of the Spanish film "Open Your Eyes." It's slow, choppy, and smug in all the wrong places, thanks largely to bad emoting by Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz (Edward Norton and Nicole Kidman could have done much better), but mostly it's just shoddy word choice that announces itself as outdated. There are other problems with Vanilla Sky, but you can't help but think that if the dialogue had been fixed, the other problems may have disappeared in kind.
Invariably, Ted Demme works on good scripts with good actors and good soundtracks, and invariably, he does nothing with them. Beautiful Girls could have been a beautiful movie, but apart from the chemistry between Timothy Hutton and a 12-year-old Natalie Portman, it was pretty much an empty shell. The Ref could have introduced Denis Leary as a great comedic actor, but his buddy Demme didn't give him anything to work with. And Blow -- based on the autobiography of infamous cocaine kingpin Bruce Porter -- could have been an only-in-America epic, but by the end of the long journey, we're not left wondering whether to hate Johnny Depp's Porter or feel sorry for him. We're left wondering whether we should have opted for some licorice instead of popcorn at the concession stand.
Likewise, Terry Zwigoff has only made two movies, and Crumb was a documentary so it can be forgiven for its seemingly arbitrary start and end points, but Ghost World is different. Though it had some exceedingly funny scenes and stellar performances by Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi, there just wasn't a lot to feel about it by the time it was said and done. Maybe next time Zwigoff will have a stronger grasp of the weirdness of her characters so that she can hone in on the plot.
The Existential Emperor's New Clothes
The latest from Richard Linklater has the paradoxical distinction of being something entirely new and being very old hat. On its surface -- literally -- Waking Life is a beautiful movie, with its swirls of impressionist animation and its frenetic interchange of color and light. Likewise, the dialogue is both much headier and much more adventurous than most American movies, mainstream or independent. But you can't help but notice that if the colors were stripped away and we were looking at the original digital video print, it would be Slacker 2. And we all know that sequels suck.
Remember that thing about how sequels suck? Well, forget it. The second installment of the coming-of-age vehicle du jour dropped the pretense of self-discovery and got down to the jokes, and it's a much better movie than its predecessor because of that. Where American Pie was all awkward encounters and stumbling punchlines, American Pie 2 is a think-with-your-dick piece of lowbrow puffery. Stifler is the overworked, undersexed meathead along for the ride on a summer of discovery by the lake, except this time he gets to go buck-wild while his more tame friends still grapple with their own sincerity, but they're much more self-effacing about it. Jim is still a dork trying to land the perfect woman, Kevin and Oz are still trying to be the honorable men, and Finch is still longing for one more shag with Stifler's mom. There are even feel-good messages -- nerdy girls deserve love too, nerdy guys can arouse unnaturally hot women, porn and phone sex are A-OK -- so that when you've seen it all, you get the sense that you've not only been thoroughly entertained, but you've also been thoughtfully educated. Yeah, right.
Everything about Ghosts of Mars was bad. Everything. The script? Awful. The dialogue? Puh-lease. The set design and music? Dumb and dumber. The acting? Well, Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube were serviceable, but for the most part it sucked, too. And yet, I loved it nearly as much as I love "Saved By the Bell" reruns. Perhaps we all need something to prove that, deep down, we all have horrible tastes. For me, there's nothing less tasteless than John Carpenter movies. God love 'em.
The Motherfucker's Got a Way With Words
David Mamet, The Heist
Perhaps he's a modern-day Shakespeare or perhaps he's way too stylized for his own good. Either way, people just don't talk the way they do when David Mamet's writing the scripts. With lines like "My motherfucker's so cool, sheep count him to fall asleep" and "'Don't you want to hear my last words?'...'I just did,'" the actors could be on a blank stage just reading the lines and you'd still be mezmerized. Here's to hoping Mamet keeps the acerbic juices flowing.
The Indiscreet Banality of the Bourgeoisie
The Anniversary Party
Upon release of The Anniversary Party, co-writer/co-star (with Jennifer Jason Leigh) Alan Cumming could be heard telling anyone and everyone how easy it was to write and make a movie. Yeah, when you write and make movies like this incredible piece of starfucking pap, it's quite easy. The only plotline is a dinner party and vague details of a breakup and an aborted child, which leaves the stellar cast (Leigh, Cumming, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly) to basically stand around as themselves and then let loose for a painful talent show and pointless Ecstasy-by-the-pool scene. The message Cumming and Leigh seem to want us to take away is that rich and famous people are just as down-to-earth and emotionally instable as the rest of us. But, not even halfway through, it wasn't wine with the beautiful people in films for which I was thankful, it was keg beer and fat bastards on sitcoms.