Otherworldly

Common Year 2001 exploded with uncommon cinema

Generally, in the realm of motion pictures, producers are evil, actors are pathetic, screenwriters are delusional, agents are bottom-feeders, and true directors scarcely exist. Contrary to the glitzy stories the mainstream media continually jam down your throat, making movies is quite often an ugly, unpleasant business, based on the ultimate goal of separating you from your hard-earned. If the corporate tie-ins aren't shoving you toward the box office, the moronic payola "critics" are, and even if a movie tanks (or stanks), you're being trained to own it, own it, own iton DVD. In this distasteful environment, the discerning consumer scarcely stands a chance.

But, whoa. What's this? As far as cinema is concerned, did we just have... a good year? Why, it sure looks like it -- quite possibly a great year. If you can get past the junk -- with titles not unlike Drek, Drivel, Monsters Stink, Ocean's Elegy, and Don't Lay a Turd (tagline: "I'll never smell...") -- there was much to rock and revel to in 2001. Come, let us survey the field of recent cinematic endeavor.

Last winter, in an unusual move, Hollywood forewent its usual bevy of babes long enough to sell us two portly old actors waddling through dire circumstances. With Sean Penn's The Pledge and Ridley Scott's Hannibal, we got Jack Nicholson (doing his crude Christian Slater imitation) and Anthony Hopkins (punching the "aplomb" button) representing two sides of murderous evil and AARP eligibility. Both films are gloriously atmospheric and a tad boring and end on nasty downers, but at least we learned that Benicio Del Toro has a talent for Muppet voices and Ray Liotta has brains. Well, had brains, anyway, but post-sauté, he got himself wedged into the cleavage of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in the ironically flat Heartbreakers.

Speaking of which: Attention, Mr. Hackman, please take a year off to refresh yourself! Heartbreakers was one of five feature outings for our friend Gene this year, revealing -- along with The Mexican (clunky), Behind Enemy Lines (pointless), The Royal Tenenbaums (floundering), and Heist (utterly lousy) -- that the septuagenarian thesp works in exactly two modes: pugnacious jerk and sappy jerk. Spewing Heist's ultratrite dialogue by director David Mamet (who also trited up Hannibal), Hackman actually makes one pine for the year's (shudder) superior caper movies, such as Frank Oz's The Score and Barry Levinson's Bandits. Really, did we do something wrong? Is this stuff a punishment?

But I mentioned a good year, right? With a few exceptions (we'll get to them), it was mostly uphill from this fodder. The ever-dependable Johnny Depp came through twice for us -- oddly, both times in praise of narcotics. Adding glamorous sleaze to Ted Demme's American coke epic, Blow, Depp traded on every '70s hairstyle in the book yet avoided upstaging adventurous costars Penélope Cruz, Paul Reubens, and Franka Potente (the Run Lola Run star who reteamed with Tom Tykwer for the less-than-dazzling The Princess and the Warrior). Depp also played with laudanum while sniffing out Ian Holm in Albert and Allen Hughes's wicked adaptation of Alan Moore's dense Jack the Ripper comic, From Hell.

There was also a lot of impressive material out there having to do with the shocking thesis that alienated people tend to feel alienated. In Charlotte Gray, Cate Blanchett (a.k.a. the female Gene Hackman) takes her stab at the ultimate Outsider Chick. She's eclipsed, however, by Thora Birch in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World and Leelee Sobieski in Christine Lahti's My First Mister, who hit their miserable notes with rare precision, even if their overwrought performances aren't much fun to behold. Essentially dismal and hopeful sides of the same archetype (arty girl who hates everyone), the films gave us memorable work from Steve Buscemi and Albert Brooks, who stride the volatile middle ground between boyfriend and patriarch.

Actually, a dearth of dependable fathers informed a great many movies this year, ranging from ambitious indie trash such as Cory McAbee's The American Astronaut to schmaltzy Hollywood fare such as Irwin Winkler's Life as a House and Scott Hicks's Hearts in Atlantis. Confused, disturbed young men roamed the cinema, as usual, from John Singleton's touching Baby Boy to Eric Bana's grisly, engrossing portrayal of Mark "Chopper" Read in Andrew Dominik's Chopper to Guy Pierce (all teeth and torso) in Christopher Nolan's mildly diverting gimmick flick Memento to Jake Gyllenhaal striding the beautiful nightmare realm of Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. (The latter is one of three films this year -- including Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast and Mia Trachinger's Bunny -- to feature a huge, anthropomorphized rabbit, but that's another essay.) Even Ali fits this mold, although only its first, Sam Cooke-tinged segment really flies, and the producers missed a golden opportunity to cast superior actor Jeffrey Wright in the lead.

To stave off the misery of isolation, the cinema turned to romance, and, happily, a lot of it worked. English comedian Ben Elton transformed his book Inconceivable into Maybe Baby, a smart comedy involving Joely Richardson and Hugh Laurie as a yuppie couple desperately trying to get pregnant. Freaky Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet made the dream girl flesh -- thanks to saucer-eyed minx Audrey Tautou -- in his wantonly flashy Amélie, and Finn Aku Louhimies's supremely sexy Restless depicted yet another disoriented young fellow, who -- like his Icelandic counterpart in the delightfully charming 101 Reykjavik -- learns to get it on (life, that is). Sure, we had to deal with slop like Kate & Leopold (Want chivalry, girls? Try being pleasant), but when a pic like Monster's Ball overcomes its dreary racist clichés (and yet more pathetic fathering) with hot love via Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, there must be hope.

Ghost stories were also in no short supply in 2001, including both effects-laden emptiness such as Thirteen Ghosts and extremely spooky nerve-janglers, including Brad Anderson's excellent Session 9. In one of the year's weirdest simultaneous collusions and severings, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise got spooky in The Others and Vanilla Sky, respectively, with the Great Red Hope's former flame producing Alejandro Amenábar's misty English spookfest while starring in Cameron Crowe's odd but engaging remake of Amenábar's Abre los Ojos. While plenty of movies were still bent exclusively on kicking ass -- Swordfish, The Fast and the Furious, the reprehensibly vulgar Black Hawk Down (a.k.a. Blacks Shot Down), etc. -- popular cinema revealed a distinct turn toward spectral encounters.

And, last, let us not forget the many movies featuring people being chased by digital stuff that isn't actually there. These films tend to take an unfair beating by stodgy practitioners of this trade, but fun's fun, and this year, we were afforded awesome kicks along with Brandon Fraser in The Mummy Returns and Henry Selick's way-underrated Monkeybone (Tim who?), plus some guy with big boobs running around shooting stuff in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the amusing Jurassic Park III, and the striking Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, wherein actors finally became unnecessary.

Was it a great year? Heck, when the list of runners-up includes terrific must-sees such as The Dish, A Beautiful Mind, In the Bedroom, Last Orders, Last Resort, Our Song, Mulholland Drive, Chain Camera, Rush Hour 2, Snide and Prejudice, Training Day, and Iron Monkey, the question answers itself. Now here's la crème de la crème.


10. Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back: Those who have evolved beyond copycat pretense will recognize this as the year's funniest movie. In addition to barking 2001's best line ("What the fuck is the Internet?"), Jason Mewes -- a.k.a. Jay -- stands as cinema's rawest nerve since Brando was a boy. Everyone catches shrapnel as director Kevin Smith -- a.k.a. Silent Bob -- deftly detonates his beloved Askewniverse. (But, dudes, you would have ranked higher if you'd sent the posters as promised.)

9. Atlantis: The Lost Empire: Yes, a rollicking Disney cartoon devoid of crap and full of wonder. So what if the polychromatic cast smells like marketing statistics and Leonard Nimoy can barely croak his lines as the King of Atlantis? Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) outperform all expectations, trotting out their Jules Verne trappings to support a tale about ancient beauty, modern exploitation, and an archaeologist caught between.

8. The Charcoal People: Got slavery? This engrossing film from Oscar-winning documentarian Nigel Noble reveals everything you don't want to know about iron sourcing in the Brazilian Amazon. Essentially, lacking other occupations, local tribes have taken to tearing down their forests, burning the wood in huge smelting ovens to produce pig iron, and destroying their bodies, communities, and environment in the process. The director's matter-of-fact approach will have you thinking twice about your sporty SUV.

7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Yea, and as I walk through the valley of critical hostility, I shall have no fear. Sure, this is a big, honking product of the AOL Time Warner machine, but it's also a luminous, boldly faithful adaptation of a wonderful story. In the lead, Daniel Radcliffe holds his own while ensconced in much magic, as Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman turn in stellar supporting performances. Anyone with a modicum of imagination will feel right at home at Hogwarts.

6. Vengo: Not unlike the impressive import Behind the Sun, this passionate effort from Tony Gatlif (Latcho Drom) derives its drive from a familial blood feud, but the incredible Andalusian Gypsy music adds a powerful dimension. Flamenco dancer Antonio Canales fights for his business and family while musicians Tomatito, Sheikh Ahmad Al Tuni, and La Caita burst into plangent, raging song, nearly prompting one to distribute lozenges. When they sing, "I come from nowhere... I have no homeland," anyone can relate.

5. The Shipping News: Lasse Hallström drags Kevin Spacey to the harsh coast of Newfoundland and finally makes a man of him. Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx, this seemingly icy tale warms up via crackling performances from Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Scott Glenn, and Cate Blanchett (who steps in briefly as the ho to end all hos). Stark, tender, and funny, the movie toes the line of sentiment without becoming sickening -- a daring feat. Now, Mr. Hallström, it's time to deliver your balls-out thriller.

4. Waking Life: A director must be sparking if you can close your eyes and still be transported by his film. Case in point: this eclectic experiment from Slacker director Richard Linklater, which offers the extraordinary sounds of Austin-based string quartet Tosca as it floats among dreamers, beautiful and otherwise, who add their unique philosophy to this state-of-the-union address. Connoisseurs of visual stimuli will appreciate that it's also animated in all kinds of weird ways.

3. Moulin Rouge: It's loud, garish, divisive, and delightful, this big pop circus. Baz Luhrmann's indisputably unique and confident vision lights up the screen as Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor defy the odds (and the hecklers) to deliver a romance so exaggerated that it becomes real. Jim Broadbent is an awesome impresario, and songs such as "The Children of the Revolution" and "El Tango de Roxanne" prove irresistible.

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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