Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: The Best Films of the 00s: 2001

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Best Films of the 00s: 2001

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 AmenĂ¡bar'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.


Adam Zanzie said...

One film that I think automatically warrants a spot on this list is A.I.. It is one of the few films from 2001 that has aged majestically, and the Spielberg/Kubrick hybrid offered something that only comes once in a lifetime in cinema. I used to have quibbles about the final act until I learned that Kubrick had envisioned all of it from the very beginning; Spielberg remained faithful to the intentions of his mentor, and more. Also, the film is headed by an exceptional child performance from Osment.

A lot of people I know still don't understand the film, so I usually refer them to Jonathan Rosenbaum's review- the best thing anyone has written on it:

Another film that I would argue deserves a place on the list is Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It's not the best of the trilogy (for me that would be Return of the King), but after I saw this one in the theater, I could never look at CGI epics the same way again. Some were hailing Jackson as the successor to James Cameron; I, however, am prepared to hail him as the next David Lean.

Sam Juliano said...

A.I. is actually my own #1 film of 2001, and I posted a review to that intent at the Zeroes Project. You have all great choices though I am no fan of BLACK HAWK DOWN, and couldn't quite go with VANILLA SKY that high.

Ryan McNeil said...

Pretty good year in hindsight! And wowsers - there are days where I swear I'm the only person who actually likes VANILLA SKY!

I did my own post about 2001 back here if you were interested, but in brief some titles I'd add to this list include:


Tony Dayoub said...


I've had problems with Rosenbaum's reading of a film before (I don't know if you remember my argument with him at this very site over Inglourious Basterds). But I certainly respect the man. So with all due respect to him and you and Sam, I still think A.I. is a deeply flawed film. There is so much about it that is good that I confess it would have probably made my top TWENTY. I still have problems with its third act (despite Rosenbaum's defense of it), which while maybe being a downer "when you think about it," like Rosenbaum says, plays like a typical Spielberg feel-good ending, as if he were giving into a temptation to hedge his bets. As for The Fellowship of the Ring, I like it. It is a GRAND technical achievement, but I've seen the archetypal Campbell hero story a billion times before. And the comparison to Lean is specious since Lean achieved what he did without the use of CGI.


I can see why you might not like either film. They are ones I've been on the fence about before as well.

Mad Hatter,

Love Ocean's Eleven and Ghost World. Memento is a 2000 film and made it onto my previously published list for that year.

Jake said...

I'm making my own list for best of the decade (I'm going straight for the whole thing because I feel I've been following movies too short of time to do an in-depth by-year but could maybe swing an overall list), and Mullholland Dr. is absolutely going to be on it. A) it owes a clear influence to Persona, one of my picks for the ten best films ever made and B) it contains all of Lynch's directorial strengths and none of his weaknesses (the meandering weirdness for the sake of being weird, as some passages of Inland Empire).

I need to revisit A.I. though. I remember loving it until its coda, but Rosenbaum's review that Adam posted is one of my favorites of his and a beautiful defense of the film, so I'm gonna sit down with it again to see what I might take from it.

And Vanilla Sky? Oh, come here you.

Unknown said...

Goo call on THE PLEDGE - something of an underrated film. I really dig Jack Nicholson's performance in this one... how he becomes obsessed with this case until it consumes him entirely. Great stuff. Have you ever seen Penn's first directorial effort, THE INDIAN RUNNER? That's another keeper.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great list, Tony. I need to re-watch Vanilla Sky as I remember really liking it, but thinking it fell just short of being in my top 10 for 2001. Here's my own list:

1. Apocalypse Now Redux
2. The Royal Tenenbaums
3. Mulholland Dr.
4. The Claim
5. No Man's Land
6. The Tailor of Panama
7. The Pledge
8. Ghost World
9. The Majestic
10. Wet Hot American Summer

Looking forward to the subsequent lists.

Adam Zanzie said...


Yep, I remember that duel of wits between you and Rosenbaum. I thought it was unfair of him to disregard the rebuttals you guys were offering to his dubious review of the Tarantino film. At the same time, even when I didn't ultimately agree with him equating the film to Holocaust denial, I could kinda, sorta... understand what he was getting at.

About the ending of A.I., popular opinion has always suggested that Kubrick would have ended the film with David at the bottom of the ocean. But as Spielberg explains in this Richard Schickel interview, that is a falsehood:

It turns out that everything in the current ending- the Supermechas, the Monica clone- all of it was Kubrick's idea from the very beginning. And it really is a sad closing to the film; the Supermechas try to invent paradise for David in order to extract any evidence he may have of ancient human civilization and its religious ties. But the experiment, like their others, is a failure.

In the end, nobody gets what they want. David isn't talking to the real Monica- he's talking to the Monica as he would have wanted her to be, and eventually even she perishes. Then David perishes, and with that, the Supermechas lose their last remaining grip on the past.

Now, people have argued that Spielberg still tries to fluffen up the ending with the Williams score and with Kingsley's narration about David "going to that place where dreams come true", but really, this is all merely part of the experiment the Supermechas set up. The entire procedure seems happy, but it's fake and artificial.

The film ends with the lights going out, and the end credits are scored not with the same fluffy Williams tune, but with a melancholy opera song. It's the most pessimistic Spielberg ending since The Sugarland Express, and only one in a line of pessimistic Kubrick endings.

Tony Dayoub said...


I'm a big fan of another Penn film, The Crossing Guard. But The Indian Runner has eluded me, despite my strong desire to see it (wasn't it inspired by Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman"?).

Great list. I deliberately don't count Apocalypse Now Redux because it just doesn't seem fair. But I'm a big fan of The Claim, Tailor of Panama, and Ghost World.

None of what you said escapes me. I guess it's just a matter of Spielberg's more sentimental tone of expression versus Kubrick's more detached one. In fact, Rosenbaum acknowledges in his defense of the film that Kubrick felt Spielberg was better at capturing the sentimental than he was. This is one of the strengths in the early parts of the film. But I feel the last act would have benefitted from Kubrick's approach.

Not to mention that the ending feels a bit derivative of 2001's conclusion.

In any event, we're just arguing about degrees. I love A.I. It just happens that I don't love it as much as I do these ten films (and maybe a handful more).

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Good list there and some other movies that would make it to the list from my side

1) Ghost World

2) Tailor of Panama

3) Spirited Away

4) Mullholland Drive


Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Also the Korean rom com My Sassy Girl.

And in fact i would add Buffalo Soldiers to the list too.


Tony Dayoub said...


I just want to point out that I did put Mulholland Drive on the list. There's no capsule review, but I linked to an earlier review of mine.