In time, 2001 might well be remembered as the year of the overhyped and undercooked, the year storybook wizards cast spells to eradicate critical good judgment, the year from which there was so much detritus to choose that much of the good stuff makes a best-of list only by default. It was the year that proved synthespians could star in hollow sci-fi-action junk as easily as their flesh-and-blood counterparts; it was the year Steven Spielberg played Stanley Kubrick and rendered gigolo Jude as lifeless as, well, Stanley Kubrick. Some insist it was the Year of Nicole Kidman, which it was if you didn't mind her, ahem, "singing" and "coughing" in the dazzling (and, ultimately, dazzlingly vapid) Moulin Rouge and "acting" in The Others, which wasn't half as terrifying as How High or Freddy Got Fingered.
It's almost easier to pick the year's worst than its finest. Leading the pack is I Am Sam, in which Sean Penn does his Rain Man dance for Oscar only to watch it horribly misfire, followed closely by Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Nic Cage, who, given recent choices, might be mentally challenged), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Kevin Smith proves you can make a movie with your head up your ass), The Center of the World and Intimacy (highbrow porn, which is so beside the point), Hannibal (or, Ridley Scott's Glad He Ate Her), The Mexican (Brad + Julia - George = oh, God, no), Novocaine (and what ever became of Steve Martin, anyway?), Waking Life (not stoned enough to care, dude), Mulholland Drive (a movie better when it was a failed TV pilot) and Vanilla Sky (did I say that out loud)?
Fine, that's a bit too much hyperbole; the bad always outweighs the good in an industry that abhors its audience by giving it what it only thinks it wants. Yes, we desire more Chris Kattan and Tom Green. Can't live without more laughless movie parodies. Will cease to exist unless Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider or David Spade make a movie a year. Studio bosses and their brainless minions might as well spit in our eyes. (No, wait, they did. Or didn't you see America's Sweethearts?)
And on that note:
In the Bedroom and A Beautiful Mind will linger long after the expiration date stamped on so much Hollywood and indie "outsider" product offered up this year. They're touched by magic, much more so than those two movies about stones and rings. Same goes for Monsters, Inc., which has made nary a Top 10 list and finds in its rightful place Shrek, which is as empty as the head of Kevin Spacey, who once more loses cred and goodwill with K-PAX and The Shipping News, two films that so want to be liked you can't help but loathe them.
There were some intriguing contenders for this list, among them In the Mood for Love (how could something so Wong be so right?), The Devil's Backbone (spooky, at least to the art-house set), The Royal Tenenbaums (better on second viewing, though not worth a third), Panic (the best Sopranos episode ever), Sexy Beast (nononononono, yesyesyesyesyes), Ghost World (not as good as the comic book), Gosford Park (Altman's best in years, for what that's worth), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (a touching toy story undone by its finale, when the batteries ran down), The Million Dollar Hotel (loathed for all the wrong reasons), The Business of Strangers (buy Stockard in Channing), even the terribly flawed Black Hawk Down, which is the best sort of war movie -- overwrought but ashamed of its thrills, pro-heroics but anti-war -- undone, finally, by its hysterical anti-Clinton politics and the uncomfortable sight of watching a few dozen good ol' boys mowing down a few hundred black men without thought or consequence. (The film breaks your heart by playing up the deaths of 19 soldiers; it breaks your spirit by playing down the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Somalis.)
But even The Good Stuff was too much like Ali (the movie, not the man), which floats like a butterfly only to sink like a BB. We expect too much, we get too little. Sounds like business as usual. What follows is, of course, in alphabetical order -- though A Beautiful Mind would top the list, regardless.
A Beautiful Mind: The biopic Ali should have been -- a "true story" reverie never caught flat on its feet. Don't know when Ron Howard learned to direct, but this adaptation of Sylvia Nasar's biography of John Forbes Nash Jr. is wrenching but never strained, poetic but never sentimental. Trapped inside the broken mind of the mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in 1994, we're never sure what's real or imagined, and when the truth's revealed, it's devastating. Too bad Russell Crowe won the Oscar when he didn't deserve it.
Chopper: Former music-vid director Andrew Dominik makes his feature-length debut with a movie about a violent, self-righteous criminal whose published (tall) tales may or may not be the stuff of self-made myth. Eric Bana plays Mark "Chopper" Read as likable rogue, and the movie never judges; we've plenty of room to do that ourselves in a film that eschews narrative for vignettes woven together with blood and bullets and the occasional knife to the ear.
Hybrid: One Man's Passion for Corn: Monteith McCollum's documentary about his grandfather Milford Beeghly's obsession with crossbreeding corn makes all other docs look flat and dull; it's the David Lynch film of the year, at least better than the real thing's willfully odd offering. McCollum's six-years-in-the-baking film, shot on 16mm black-and-white stock with old footage of his grandpa spliced in, is short on narrative but long on the beautiful and bizarre -- so much so, either you love this movie, which presents corn as a living entity, or you despise it for being like nothing you've ever seen. Does make it hard to take a bite, though -- all that talk of "ripened ovaries" and incest. Yuck . . . and, oddly, yum.
In the Bedroom: First-timer Todd Field sticks close to Andre Dubus' short story "Killings," and fills in the blanks with Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and a whole lot of overwhelming grief that sticks with you days later. Spacek gives one of those performances people always talk about but rarely deliver; she says everything with her silence and red-rimmed eyes that evoke tangible pain. Wilkinson is a portrait of sedate, sad rage; his actions are unexpected, but explicable nonetheless. And this contains the second great Nick Stahl performance of the year, after his turn as the Bully who bites it.
Memento: Probably the best oddball offering since Being John Malkovich, a promise yet to be fulfilled two years later by most films. Chris Nolan's bass-ackwards tale of murder, betrayal, madness and memory loss is beguiling and hysterical, a tattooed love letter to film noir; even the actors couldn't make heads or tails of it upon first viewing, though they insist it stuck close to the script, go figure. On second and third (and 11th) viewings, it holds up, precisely because it never feels the need to explain everything. Okay, anything. Cameron Crowe, we're looking at you, pal.
Monsters, Inc.: To those who insist Shrek is the better animated movie, give it five years, then go back and see how vapid and slight it is -- and ugly, to boot, like something trimmed out of a PlayStation game. (Just see how funny that Matrix gag plays, or that Smash Mouth song.) This Pixar offering, with John Goodman as the cuddliest furball this side of Ron Jeremy, and Billy Crystal as one of my Jewish uncles, is timeless, richly rendered and deeply felt -- a lush fairy tale, without need of being fractured.
No Man's Land: Danis Tanovic's debut is the year's best (war) film, combining the dark laughs of a M*A*S*H with the chilly thrills of a Lifeboat with the guilty pangs of a Three Kings. Two Bosnian soldiers and their Serbian counterpart are caught between enemy lines (speaking of which, Owen Wilson oughta be ashamed) but never resolve their differences; an American director would have had them meeting in the middle for a cathartic hug. Funny and bleak 'til its sobering finale, which catches in your throat -- the chuckle that turns to a sob.
Ocean's Eleven: The snobs sneer at its star power; the cynics, its sheer, giddy fun. It's as though there's some kind of resentment against Steven Soderbergh for not making a "serious statement" when he just wants to round up the boys (Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Cheadle, Garcia . . . and Roberts) for a slick night out of gins and grins. (And these are the same naysayers who loathe Traffic, so go figure.) Also, bonus points for hiring Elliott Gould (underused since the '70s, when he had less body hair), Carl Reiner (shades of Your Show of Shows) and Bernie Mac, who talks the way Clooney looks and acts -- smooooove.
The Pledge: Sean Penn directs Jack Nicholson as an obsessed cop who gives in to his demons -- which may or may not exist, far as anyone else can tell. For a moment, all of this seems too familiar -- the retired cop who refuses to acknowledge he is past his prime and becomes determined to solve a closed case. But there's no glib resolution, no easy answer. We wonder whether Jack is motivated or mad; his brain spins with images and utterances laid out along the way like clues, if indeed there is a murderer still on the loose. And it's not hard to see why actors love working with Penn, even in the smallest roles; he lets them speak monologues even when they're saying nothing at all.
Startup.com: A film of its time, for all times: Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim document the rise and fall of a friendship and a dot-com, well before their tale was oft-told in headlines. You feel like hell when Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman go bust, along with their govWorks.com site, but they have it coming; the duo never understand having a great idea doesn't count for shit when you can't make it work, and they never do -- at least, until it's too late.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.