Otherworldly

Common Year 2001 exploded with uncommon cinema

2. Two-way tie! Although the fine films Simon Magus/Simon Mágus are both date-stamped 1999, they finally debuted in the United States in 2001. The former's an English production by neophyte Ben Hopkins, featuring a superb Noah Taylor as the deranged mystic Simon (based on Jesus's 13th disciple) struggling for balance in his rustic village amid bewildered Jews and Christians, plus the devil (Ian Holm, the year's most charismatic actor) and an elitist poet (Rutger Hauer in fine form). Only its contrived conclusion keeps this richly moody gem from the top spot. The other Simon is a Hungarian production set in modern France, with Péter Andorai starring as the titular magician who travels to Paris to solve a murder but ends up competing with his old archnemesis, Péter (Péter Halasz). Director Ildikó Enyedi loads her film with subtle verve, and her leads -- including the lovely Julie Delarme -- make much of this elegant tale. Both films also feature terrific soundtracks, the former featuring a somber score by Deborah Mollison, the latter spanning from Bartók to Massive Attack.

1. Three-way tie! OK, so I dig English classics (even when they're lensed in Prague or New Zealand). Insanely undermarketed this year was Pandaemonium by Julien Temple (The Filth and the Fury), which chronicles the exploits of 19th-century poets William Wordsworth (John Hannah) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Linus Roache). A darkly fascinating study of inspiration, insurrection, addiction, and exploitation, this lush film has as much to do with today's pop stars as with the dusty old visionaries who gave us "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" and "Kubla Khan." From the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie), Temple and his sublime cast transport us through perilous friendship and haunting prescience.

Meanwhile, in and around Camelot (by way of Czechoslovakia), The Mists of Avalon proves that a grand film needn't be judged by the size of its screen. As cheap, muddy video stampedes our cinemas, this four-hour TNT miniseries from Uli Edel (Christiane F.) commands cinematic appraisal. A sensuous adaptation of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley's modern classic, Mists explores the women of the King Arthur myths, including witchy Viviane (Anjelica Huston), daring Morgaine (Julianna Margulies), and nasty Morgause (Joan Allen). Beltane rites, brutal fights, and men in tights -- there's something for everyone.

And then there's the little matter of this humble sleeper called The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Director Peter Jackson is docked several points for casting the irritating Elijah Wood as Frodo and the distracting Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, but almost all the other elements shoot this epic Tolkien adaptation right back to my triad at the top. Already, the project's controversies are making themselves known: the Lords of Cha-Ching at New Line hyping their mega-budget when in fact New Zealand taxpayers fronted a huge chunk of the tab. The means may be quite dubious, but the results are up on the screen, and you just can't argue with that. It makes the whole ugly industry seem almost worthwhile.

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