The Intellectuals and The Romantics: Beautiful Minds of 2001
By Collin Souter
Posted 12/30/01 23:32:14
Please, let us not dwell on the shortcomings in cinematic entertainment of this past year. We have so many other things to look back on in anger, horror and disdain, that complaining about a year in movies seems futile at best. I prefer to praise this year’s small crop of gems for truly uplifting the spirit when we needed it most. True, a 10-worst list could conceivably be written using the September crop of films alone, but in the months that followed, the studios put their true masterworks prominently on display.
The first 8 months of 2001 showcased a shallow and soulless lineup of films aimed at the lowest common denominator. My feelings throughout this first part of the year often resembled that of Haley Joel Osment’s Mecha character in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence:” I saw the technology moving at a rapid pace (“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”), but where was the love? I liked the ridiculous escapism (“The Mummy Returns,” “The Score,” “The Fast and the Furious”), but where was the enchantment? I liked the pretty pictures (“Moulin Rouge,” “Final Fantasy,” “Planet of the Apes”), but, as Iggy Pop asked this year, where was the soul? Is this a game?
Despite a few gems, which will be discussed later, this year in films seemed lost and vapid. The tragedies of September 11th kept people out of the theaters for a few weeks, but Hollywood didn’t seem to have anything to offer in the ways of comfort anyway. It just made their shallow efforts (“Glitter,” “Rock Star,” “Hardball”) seem all the more pointless. Who could even think about movies at a time like that? I certainly couldn’t.
Okay, so I dwelled when I said I wouldn’t. Critics have always been looked at as chronic complainers in wool sweaters. But critics like to think of themselves as cheerleaders for great art. Most find joy in championing great works of art, that tangible work of (near) genius that makes the job worthwhile.
In spite of this year being worse than the last, there nevertheless exists a recurring theme amongst this year’s best: Intelligence and romance. While many films on here have been known to confound and confuse people, many others enchanted and moved us without us even having to ask who/what/where/when/why/how. The best films have our hearts and our minds working as one to arrive at a state of excitement and/or euphoria. In the spirit of John Nash, the subject of one of my favorite films of the year, I present this list. As Nash said, “What truly is logic? Who decides reason? …It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found.”
1.THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS I almost hate to revert back to this, but in the wake of September 11th, everyone looked at life a little differently. People called their loved-ones and long-lost loved-ones a little more often. Couples got married. Husbands and wives conceived children. Family members buried the hatchet. At the same time, everyone felt a determination to go on with their lives as they had been doing on September 10th. Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” celebrates these virtues with such originality and heart, just thinking about it makes me want to call my entire family to take them to the movies.
A movie about, and made by, geniuses. From the moment Anderson’s family comedy lifts off with a rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” “Tenenbaums” achieved that high I remember feeling over a year ago when William Miller looked at his new record collection in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” And for an hour and 45 minutes, I never came down.
“Tenenbaums” should jam up voter’s ballots come Oscar time. The whole cast could take over the show, and should. Gene Hackman gave his most memorable performance in decades as the horrendously flawed, yet somehow well meaning, Royal Tenenbaum. And Owen Wilson wrote himself the funniest character of this or any year that you must see to appreciate. An exhilarating breath of fresh air that seamlessly celebrates eccentricity without over-reaching for a laugh. A heart-breaking wonder that earns our tears without the use of a grandiose string section or a false declaration of the heart. This movie, in spite of its outlandishness, felt more real and relevant than any film this year. (Now in theaters)
2.GHOST WORLD A movie I can relate to in so many ways, and it just gets better and better with each viewing. I initially gave it a 3-and-a-half star review after my first viewing. I felt that Scarlett Johansson’s character needed a bit more fleshing out. Upon further viewing, I noticed that writer/director Terry Zwiegoff said it all with Thora Birch’s one line, “You’re the one trying to live out this seventh grade fantasy about getting our own apartment.” This movie tells the story of two outsiders trying to find a way in without stooping to normalcy. One character drifts out of the movie continuing the search, the other, Johansson, has given up without even realizing it.
Zwiegoff filled this movie with the same truth and humor felt in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and it gives me hope that movies about real life situations can feel so close to home while still surprising the hell out of me. Of the three principal characters, I’m not sure which one I can relate to the most. And I hated to see it end. (Available on video February 5, 2002)
3.VANILLA SKY Perhaps the most frustrating film of the year. A film I didn’t like when I first saw. A film many people did not like, with whom I could not argue. A film I could not recommend to anyone without a huge asterisks stating, “It’s good if you see it twice.” Yet, here it sits at # 3 on my Top 10. Why? Because no other movie stayed with me after the fact quite as long as this one did.
Cameron Crowe’s unexpectedly haunting vision had most people scratching their heads. I’ve seen it three times now and I no longer feel I have to try and figure it out. Now, I can just sit back and admire the skill with which Crowe tackles every scene. His musical choices for the bedroom scene toward the end is pure genius. Although he has been around for a while consistently doing fine work, he has taken a leap of faith with this project, opening our eyes to a new vision we never knew he had in him. There’s just not enough one can say about it. (Now in theaters. The original “Open Your Eyes” is on video)
4.AMELIE A movie in love with the simpler pleasures of life made by a man in love with the possibilities of cinema. Without question the happiest movie of the year, thanks in part to the endearing performance from newcomer Audrey Taotou as the title character, a woman who yearns to help those around her find happiness while she herself feels compelled to stay lonely. Jean-Pierre Juenet’s big, vibrant film has all his signature trademarks. In other words, it’s the best feast-for-the-eyes all year.
But it also has a soul and wisdom about it. It would be too easy to mistake it as an exercise in Juenet-isms. Unlike his fantasies “Delicatessen” and “The City Of Lost Children”—which dazzled many, but left many others cold and distant—“Amelie” lets the viewer in on every joke and nothing has been left unanswered. It has a rapturous central character that commands our attention, supporting characters who never wear out their welcome and a heart as big as the Eiffel Tower. But it’s also a Juenet film through and through. Relentlessly imaginative and joyous. (Now in theaters. This will win many Best Foreign Language Film Awards.)
5.THE OTHERS Finally, a movie to add to the short list of finely crafted, beautifully acted and intricately told horror films. Watching Alejandro Amenabar’s haunted house thriller, I felt as though I had stepped back in time to witness a classic in the making. Not a single drop of blood, no mutilations and nothing flashy. Just great storytelling from a guy who studied the masters. It all feels traditional without feeling cliché. It eared every one of its scares and I think the story structure (what a great set-up!) should be taught in screenwriting classes.
Kudos also go to Tom Cruise, who had the foresight to produce this unconventionally intelligent thriller (as well as producing and starring in “Vanilla Sky,” which had originally been made by Amenabar under the title “Open Your Eyes”) and Cruise’s ex, Nicole Kidman, for anchoring the film with elegance and grace. Creepy, surprising and gorgeous. I’ll definitely be re-visiting this atmospheric wonder every year around October. (Expect a theatrical re-release come Oscar time.)
6.INNOCENCE I saw this movie well over a year ago at the Chicago International Film Festival, but I carried the memory of it with me all year long. A movie that got turned down by many independent studios (including Miramax, makers of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin") for being too sentimental, Paul Cox’s “Innocence” told the story of a man and a woman in the twilight of their lives who have been given another chance to re-live a great romance that had bloomed between them back in their youth.
Those who have dismissed the film as too sentimental have missed the point completely. The movie deals with a romantic spirit that guides us, a spirit that has nothing to do with age, appearance or time. It has everything to do with how we act when the spirit moves us. And in this movie, the actions speak louder than the few words that are actually spoken. Sentimental, yes, but also extremely soulful. (Not on video or in theaters)
7. MEMENTO The first great film of the year told its story backwards so as to put us in the mind of a man with short-term memory loss. And the result worked perfectly. It had everyone arguing on the way home from the theaters debating over what they think actually happened. Even with the advantage of a DVD release, I’m sure people will still be arguing. Nothing wrong with that at all. Repeat after me, people: THINKING IS GOOD!
Every bit as confounding and stimulating as “Vanilla Sky,” this film noir also had a soft spot. Guy Pierce’s performance showed multiple layers beneath his frustrating “condition.” Not only does writer/director Christopher Nolan put us in the mind of a chronic amnesiac, but also a flawed soul who can’t remember or comprehend the empty virtues of revenge killing. Ingenious. (Now on video)
8.DONNIE DARKO This year’s “The Butcher Boy.” This year’s “Jesus’ Son.” This is the one that got away. This movie went virtually un-noticed last fall, thanks to a lackluster ad campaign and a rush by its studio to cash in on its Halloween themes (The movie was release a week before Halloween). I myself saw it on a fluke. I probably would have let it slip by me as well. Thank God I didn’t.
It tells the story of a high school kid who receives visits from a man in a demented rabbit costume who prophesizes the end of the world. A stunning cross between “Harvey,” “12 Monkeys,” “The Ice Storm” and John Hughes. Drew Barrymore has a small role, but an even bigger one as producer. Maybe she has great instincts after all. Unlike any other movie I’ve seen this year. It appears to be popping up on other film critic organization’s 10 Best lists and award ballots, so who knows? Maybe the studio will take a second look and re-release it. Bold, mind-bending, thought-provoking and also very funny. By all means, seek this one out. (Coming to video March 12)
9.A BEAUTIFUL MIND An unexpected triumph from Ron Howard. I dreaded this movie prior to its arrival. Hokey title. December release. Math. Russell Crowe (whom I’m sick of). The poster had me thinking it might be a “Finding Dead Poets in a Good Will Hunting Forrester Society”-type movie. I couldn’t be more wrong. I praise those critics out there who wrote their reviews without giving away the central plot twist. (Shame on you, Ebert!)
And, hey, Russell Crowe might actually deserve the Oscar this year (unlike last year) as the brilliant John Nash. Jennifer Connelly shows once again that she has come a long way from staring blankly into camera lenses while trying to act in abandoned department stores. And Ed Harris…Give him the statue, already! Though far from my pick as best of the year, I am putting my money on this title to take home the Best Picture Oscar this coming March. Bet on it. (Now in theaters)
10.THE ROAD HOME Zhang Yimou’s vivid meditation on first love comes to life surrounded by picture-perfect country vistas. A widow wants to take her husband’s dead body up the long and winding road where they first met decades ago when he came to her town impersonating a schoolteacher. Like Yimou’s “Not One Less” (also released this year), this movie also stresses the importance of education.
No other movie this year captured the wonders of Mother Nature the way this movie did. And the great Zhang Ziyi shows that she has many qualities as an actress without having to kick some ass in order to demonstrate them (not that I mind watching her kick ass, of course). She can be just as sentimental and endearing as a mischievous brunette waif living in Paris. A truly wonderful romantic film. (Now on video)
Oh, and these too…
11.HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Many claimed that this rock musical didn’t live up to the expectations of it being the next “Rocky Horror” (in terms of audience phenomenon). My girlfriend will tell you differently, as she became a regular attendee at the Century Cinema in Chicago. Believe me, the audience had a script. A terrific musical, alternately hilarious, sad and joyous. The bombastic and empty “Moulin Rouge” professed to be about “above all things, LOVE!” “Hedwig,” however, actually has something to say on the subject. (Now on video)
12.THE CIRCLE Three Iranian films came out this year, but I only saw this one. Apparently, it’s the new international film movement. This movie depicts a day in the life of Iranian women and the hardships they must endure in order to achieve safety. If any movie out there can make one appreciate being an American, this one can. (Now on video)
13. IN THE BEDROOM There seems to be another film movement going on right now in the states, that of the real-life depiction of Americans in small communities. As did last year’s “You Can Count On Me,” this drama has the viewer feeling as though they are eavesdropping on real people’s problems. This movie tells the story of a couple who must cope with the senseless killing of their son. It also happens to be a brilliant dissection of vigilantism. (Now in theaters)
14.STARTUP.COM A great fly-on-the-wall documentary about two best friends who start their own dot-com at the height of the Internet boom, only to see it dwindle within months of its launch. A significant comment on Generation X greed as well as a compelling test of true friendship. (Now on video)
15.MONSTERS INC. The best animated film of the year in what has to be the most disappointing year for animation in a long, long time. Of course, the best comes from Pixar. “Monsters Inc.” drags a little in the middle, but who can deny the genius behind the warehouse chase scene near the end? And who out there didn’t feel a lump in their throat at the final frame? Great fun, but let’s hope we don’t have to get all the way to # 15 next year. (Now in theaters)
16.SHREK The other terrific animated film this year. A hilarious slap in Disney’s face, which had nothing to with which to fight back, except for the mediocre “Atlantis.” The huge laughs and wonderful voice work by the entire cast more than made up for the annoyingly hip soundtrack. (Although hearing John Cale’s cover of “Hallelujah” made a nice, unexpected arrival.) (Now on video)
17.SPY KIDS Again, a movie I dreaded and had near the bottom of my must-see list, just slightly above “Head Over Heels.” Now, I have its sequel near the top of my can’t-wait list. A wonderfully inventive bit of childhood escapism with a perfectly delivered message on the importance of family.
18.HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE Yeah, okay, so I have this on here instead of “Lord of the Rings.” Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “Lord of the Rings.” I just don’t think of it as the second coming of Christ, as everyone else does. Plus, I’ve read all the Harry Potter books and I think Columbus and his team did a splendid job re-creating J.K. Rolwing’s world. The same could be said for “Rings,” but in the end, this one felt more whole and more entertaining. I am fully aware of how very much ALONE I am on this one. Having Ebert and Roeper in my corner doesn't count for much these days. (Now in theaters)
19.JOY RIDE Speaking of entertaining! This mindless mix of “Breakdown,” “The Hitcher,” and “Duel” had me on the edge of my seat, which is all it wanted to do. For pure, unadulterated popcorn fun, “Joy Ride” lives up to its title. Steve Zahn may not be so over-rated after all. (Coming to video March 12)
20.WAKING LIFE Richard Linklater’s experimental, animated talkie may not be edge-of-your-seat entertainment, but it does provoke thought throughout its running time, while also offering dazzling animation. Far more interesting than its previous incarnation “Slacker,” but I missed out on Linklater’s other feature released this year, “Tape.” (Now in theaters)
TOP 5 WORST (Only 5 because “This is supposed to be a HAPPY occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who…”)
1.3000 MILES TO GRACELAND I can’t believe I actually looked forward to this movie prior to its release. A slithering, unwatchable, misogynistic mass of garbage that even the dumbest 4-year old can improve upon. A movie about a bunch of Elvis impersonators robbing a Vegas casino made by a guy who clearly gets inspiration from sitting in his parents’ basement playing PlayStation. I don’t think Quentin Tarantino realizes the damage he has done.
2.A KNIGHT’S TALE The only thing that separates this from “3000 Miles To Graceland” would be its lack of misogyny. Other than that, they’re pretty much equal. This movie had me sinking into my seat, holding my hands over my eyes in embarrassment. A truly God-awful musical/jousting film (huh?) that, unlike “The Pirate Movie,” won’t even make the grade as a camp classic. Watch an Ed Wood movie instead.
3.DRIVEN Sylvester Stallone’s pet project. I have a rock that makes a better pet than this. A bunch of idiots race cars and rescue each other. The end. This movie can take home the Worst Editing Razzie (if such a thing existed). Produced by the same idiot responsible for “Battlefield Earth” and “3000 Miles To Graceland.” Somebody, please, put this guy in a racecar, put the car in a plane, fly as high as you can in the sky, put the car in overdrive and kindly disregard the parachute.
4.PEARL HARBOR Yeah, great attack sequence. WHO CARES!?! Of course, the attack sequence looked great. This movie cost over $130 million, and I’m pretty sure they spent $120 million on said attack sequence. Michael Bay openly admitted to taking a page from the “Titanic” book of filmmaking. I’m pretty sure he cut up all the words from that page and re-pasted them “Amelie”-style until he had nothing but incomprehensive sentences. Let us pray for the non-existence of a director who believes it would be cool to see the September 11th attacks from the airplane’s point of view.
5.SNATCH Can you say “HACK?” Who is this Guy Ritchie? What has he done besides put up with Madonna? Or does she put up with him? If this guy has a good movie in him, has anyone seen it? What am I missing here? Must just be the Madonna thing.
If I Ran The Oscars…Golden Globes…National Board of Review…Richard Roeper’s psyche…Jeffrey Lyons’ testosterone levels…
Best Actor(Comedy): Gene Hackman for “The Royal Tenenbaums”
Best Actor (Drama): Denzel Washington for “Training Day”
Best Actress (Comedy): Audrey Tautou for “Amelie”
Best Actress (Drama): Nicole Kidman for “The Others’
Best Supporting Actor: Steve Buscemi for “Ghost World”
Best Supporting Actress: Cameron Diaz for “Vanilla Sky”
Best Director: Wes Anderson for “The Royal Tenenbaums”
Best Original Screenplay: “The Royal Tenenbaums”
Best Adapted Screenplay: “Ghost World”
Best Cinematography: “Amelie”
Best Visual Effects: “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”
Best Ensemble: “The Royal Tenenbaums”
Best Make-up: “Planet of the Apes”
Best Art Direction: “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”
Best Sound: “Amelie”
Best Score: “Amelie”
Best Soundtrack: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
Best Mix Tape: “Vanilla Sky”
Best Song: “Vanilla Sky”
SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS:
BEST RE-RELEASE: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail 26th Anniversary” Anytime someone re-releases a film for the soul purpose of making fun of pompous and pointless re-releases, it wins. See last year’s winner, “Blood Simple.”
WORST EXCUSE FOR NOT MAKING “BUCKAROO BANZAI VS. THE WORLD CRIME LEAGUE,” VOL. XVI: “Rush Hour 2” and “Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles”
THE “I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT DON KNOTTS” AWARD: Jeff Goldblum for “Cats and Dogs”
WORST HALLOWEEN MASK: Johnny Depp as old-man George Jung in “Blow.”
BEST “I’M IN LOVE” MOMENT: Zhang Ziyi kicking Chris Tucker’s ass in “Rush Hour 2”
“MOST GRACEFUL EXIT” AWARD: Zhang Ziyi’s suicide bombing in “Rush Hour 2.”
NOMINEES FOR THE “WHO KNEW THEY HAD IT IN THEM?” AWARD:
Cameron Crowe’s surprisingly nightmarish “Vanilla Sky”
Ron Howard’s unexpectedly beautiful “A Beautiful Mind”
Drew Barrymore for producing the woefully underrated “Donnie Darko”
Robert Rodriguez’s return-to-form with the delightful “Spy Kids”
Rip Torn for “Freddy Got Fingered”
WINNER OF THIS YEAR’S FREE TRI-POD: Jessie Nelson, director of “I Am Sam.”
WINNER OF THE “DUDE, ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT YOUR NAME ABOVE THE TITLE?” AWARD: John Carpenter for “John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars.”
WINNER OF THIS YEAR’S “DUNE” LANGUAGE-DECODER AWARD: Vin Diesel and several other cast members for their inaudible English in “The Fast and the Furious.”
WINNERS OF THIS YEAR’S KEVIN COSTNER ACCENT AWARD: The entire cast of “Enemy At The Gates” for not even trying German or Russian accents.
WINNER OF THE FREE ELLEN BURSTYN SHOCK THERAPY KIT: That stuttering little prick from “Pearl Harbor.”
REASONS TO LOOK FORWARD TO 2002: “Spider Man,” “Minority Report,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and the re-release of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”
REASONS TO DREAD 2002: A movie starring Britney Spears. ‘Nuff said.