by Tony Dayoub
Continuing my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, today I spotlight my favorite films of 2001. Some reminders: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I haven't seen it; also, if I already wrote a review for it, I'll simply link back to the review. Since I was late with this one, I'll be posting these once a week or so (2002 is scheduled for early December) up until the end of the year. In January, I'll post my ten best for 2009, culminating with a follow-up announcement of my 10 best films for the past decade. And that list won't necessarily feature one picture from each year.
And now, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2001...
Black Hawk Down, director Ridley Scott - Intense and gruesome, this controversial war film depicts the true story of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Scott's prescient casting blessed him with future stars Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean), Hugh Dancy (Adam), Josh Hartnett (30 days of Night), and Jeremy Piven (Entourage), while using some seasoned vets, like William Fichtner (The Perfect Storm), Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting), Sam Shepard(The Right Stuff), and Tom Sizemore (Heat) as the strong anchors in the chaos. Nearly all of them are rendered interchangeable, as each soldier's dirt-encrusted face blends into the next man's—which is sort of the point. As the Somali mob confronts the American troops—often framed from a distance—it is hard not to recall the weaker ants overcoming the better armed scorpion at the start of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). Eric Bana (The Time Traveler's Wife) is the standout performer, playing the efficient Delta Force soldier Norman "Hoot" Hooten, the only man to avoid getting even a spot of blood on himself, while pulling off some of the most daring engagements of the battle.
El espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone), dir. Guillermo del Toro - An antecedent to the the better known Pan's Labyrinth (2006), The Devil's Backbone is a gothic horror story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The Mexican director maintains a consistent and continuous sense of dread in this film—symbolized by the unexploded bomb mired in the orphanage's central plaza—more effectively than in its famous followup. And the marriage of the allegorical with the phantasmagorical is far better suited to this grim tale. Veteran supporting players Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega, and Marisa Paredes are all superb.
Gosford Park, dir. Robert Altman - "We all have something to hide, Mr. Meredith," says Probert (Derek Jacobi), one of Sir William's (Michael Gambon) valets in Altman's nod to British drawing room murder mysteries. Here we see Altman's usual trademark improv style uncannily given new life by an unlikely and stellar cast of Brits who are all impeccable in their roles. The most fascinating aspect is how tightly the director intertwines the Agatha Christie stylings with an Upstairs, Downstairs look at the customs of the upper-crust riche and their servants. Little quirks, like the fact that in the work areas each servant is referred to by their master's name, or how one Countess grills her maid for gossip she may have overheard from the other servants, illustrates how each social class is not so truly different from the other.
In the Bedroom, dir. Todd Field - Is there a more horrifying tragedy than the death of one's child (Nick Stahl)? Perhaps there is when the killer is a rich local bad boy (William Mapother), and one sees him roaming freely through town—out on bail—with the prospect of jail time growing dimmer by the minute. Particularly disturbing to the aggrieved and grieving parents (played expertly by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) is the senselessness of their gifted son being murdered (on the eve of his initiation into a tough architectural school) because he interfered in a domestic dispute involving his ex-girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) and her recently estranged husband. A stunning directorial debut by actor Todd Field (who counts Kubrick among his mentors), the film explores the alienating effects of grief on a small community. Best scene: Tomei's respectful apology to Spacek rebuffed with a stinging slap to the face by the angry mother.
Monster's Ball, dir. Marc Forster - In retrospect, Heath Ledger's stunning death scene rivals the painful sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton for most affecting. But this drama about racism (and the life-changing effect grief can inflict on all who experience it) transcends its more lurid moments to become an eloquent indictment of parents who punish their sons by demanding stereotypical masculine behavior. Ironically, the kindest of all the parents is the death row convict, stunningly portrayed by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who passes his love of art to his son Tyrell. Sadly, it is Tyrell's mother Leticia (Berry) who puts pressure on him to be the "man of the house," adding a level of stress that leads to overeating and—indirectly—an untimely death.
Moulin Rouge! dir. Baz Luhrmann - This musical is as Spectacular Spectacular as the titular play within the film. The first half hour can test one's ability to remain focused, as its rapid-fire editing is specifically meant to break down one's attention span. But the viewer is rewarded by the following scene, a medley of famous love songs (that begins with Elton John and throws in U2 for good measure) performed by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut). Luhrmann (Australia) is bold in his use of color, special effects, and stagecraft in shaping a work of art that is singularly cinematic—something that cannot even be evoked in any other medium. We could stand to see more films like this one.
Mulholland Drive, dir. David Lynch
The Pledge, dir. Sean Penn - What starts off as a hackneyed thriller (there's even a close-up of a creepy clown at a fair) in the "obsessive cop" subgenre becomes something entirely sublime in its last 20 minutes. That's when retired cop Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), vexed by the brutal murder of a little girl on his last day with the force, puts his girlfriend's (Robin Wright Penn) young daughter at risk by using her as bait for the same killer he's sure is targeting her. The way this all ends up is the most haunting and impressionistic conclusion to a cop story since Friedkin's The French Connection (1971).
The Royal Tenenbaums, dir. Wes Anderson - Possibly the best ensemble cast of the entire decade—Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, and brothers Luke & Owen Wilson (who cowrote the film)—each giving indelible performances in Wes Anderson's look at the pitfalls AND rewards of dysfunction in a family of geniuses. The film's depiction of New York is like a Richard Scarry storybook come to life, a style that will carry over to Anderson's next film. If for nothing else, the film is worth seeing for Gene Hackman's singular performance as patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, especially in a montage where he takes his grandchildren out for a day of mischief in the city.
Vanilla Sky, dir. Cameron Crowe - While very underwhelmed when I first saw this movie, on second viewing the film touched me very deeply. Cameron Diaz's turn as a stalking ex-girlfriend reminds one how under utilized she is when it comes to dramas. Her devastatingly pathetic rebuke to Tom Cruise's David Aames, "I swallowed your c**!" literally drew gasps from the audience I saw it with, moments before she sends the car on a suicidal plunge off a bridge. Cruise hides behind a mask for the early part of the movie, the most literal physical depiction of his real life penchant for secrecy yet depicted on film. In many ways this seems to free him from the usual distancing effect one usually finds in his perfomances. An underappreciated remake of Alejandro Amenábar's Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) in which the stellar cast of Cruise, Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Jason Lee, and (most surprising) Kurt Russell are directed to great performances by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous).
For more of this ongoing series, click here.