Friday, April 23, 2010

Year in Review: 2001

2001 was a good year for movies. There are easily another 9 or 10 films that I have filtered throughout this list at various times over the years, as I can never quite decide on a number 10 position. Having said that, the number 1 film has never changed. I thought at the time that it was the best film ever by one of my favorite filmmakers, and nearly a decade later, I still feel that way.

10. Gosford Park (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is a English, country house murder mystery as only he could make it. Instead of starting out the movie with the murder, it doesn’t happen until about half way through the film. By then, Altman has allowed us to get to know everyone at this stately English house in the 1930s. Like Upstairs/Downstairs, Altman splits the focus of the movie between the rich owners and guests, and the servants, who have lives and secrets that their employers can only guess at – that is, if they cared enough to even try. The murder victim (Michael Gambon) is a bully and a womanizer that almost no one – either upstairs or down – likes in the least, not even his wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) seems to care when he is murdered. The film is full of wonderful performances – most notably by Oscar nominees Maggie Smith, who is a hoot as an old woman guest who is long past the point of caring what anyone thinks of her, and Helen Mirren as a servant with dark secrets. Our conduit into this world is Kelly McDonald, as Smith’s new girl, who is completely confused by everything she sees. But the entire cast – Clive Owen, Eileen Atkins, Ryan Phillipe, Bob Balaban, Emily Watson, Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam and Alan Bates – are all terrific. Altman went to another country, but kept his trademark style intact – and one of his best late period films.

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)
The first part of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy is truly blockbuster filmmaking at its finest. Jackson’s scope is huge, and he paints on an equally large canvas. The special effects, the cinematography, art direction and every other technical aspect of the film is perfect. Yet the film never compromises its story or characters for the sake of the technical aspects – we are not involved with the film because of its technical prowess, but because the film is so intimate in its character details. Yes, the action sequences are thrilling, the special effects groundbreaking, and the whole movie is a technical marvel – but it is the characters that make this movie so special. Jackson was just getting warmed up with this film – I think part II is even better.

8. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff)
Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World is based on a comic book, but you would never know it. It has nothing to do with superheroes, but is instead a keenly observed character study. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson play two teenage girls, just out of high school who are disenfranchised with their school and their peers. Then Birch meets Steve Buscemi – a much older, obsessive collector of records, and the two start a relationship, that means more to him than it does to her. The acting in the movie is great – Buscemi in particular is brilliant, not playing his usual hyper active criminal, but rather a regular guy who has nothing in his life. Zwigoff, making his feature debut after making the great documentary Crumb, has crafted a wonderful movie about being a teenager – and about being an adult.

7. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai)
Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love is one of the most beautiful films you will ever see. Set in 1962 Hong Kong, the film is a relatively simple story of a journalist (Tony Leung) and a secretary (Maggie Cheung) who live in the same building as each other. Both have spouses who work a lot, and they often find themselves alone in their rooms. The movie is made up of their chance encounters with each other – in the building, at the restaurant, etc. The two come to the conclusion that their spouses are having an affair with each other, and they decide to act out their spouses meetings. Their relationship remains platonic, but there is something deeply troubling about them – Leung has a sympathetic face that helps to mask his dark side. This is a gorgeous film, utterly entrancing, and one that haunts you long after it is over.

6. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott)
Black Hawk Down is the best film Ridley Scott has made this decade – and the best film of his career since Alien and Blade Runner years ago. Black Hawk Down is an almost unbearably intense film about a helicopter that crashes carrying American soldiers in Rwanda, and the rebel forces who descend on them as they are trapped in hostile territory for hours. Cries of racism were way off the mark – true, the “bad guys” are all black, and seen mainly as a blur in the film, but that’s the way these men experienced it on the ground. The performances are all fine, but Scott is the real star of the show, keeping the films energy up, and ratcheting up the suspense is scene after scene until the film becomes almost impossible to watch, but is equally impossible to look away from.

5. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen)
The Coens second film on this list is this wonderful, comedic film noir with Billy Bob Thornton’s best performance at its core. Thornton plays a barber who is so quiet that no one ever quite notices when he is around. He narrates his story in classic film noir style, and we learn about his wife’s (Frances McDormand, brilliant as always) infidelity with her boss (James Gandolfini), while at the same time he is approached by a sleazy man (Jon Polito) asking for an investment in a new idea called “dry cleaning”. Thornton decides to blackmail Gandolfini for the money, thus setting off a sequence of events, where the entire weight of the world comes crashing down on Thornton. The film is a classic firm noir story, with twists that only the Coen brothers could have thrown in (the constant talk of UFOs for example). Brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a throwback to the type of film Hollywood doesn’t seem to know how to make anymore.

4. A.I. (Steven Spielberg)
I know Spielberg caught a lot of slack from critics for taking over one of Stanley Kubrick’s dream projects, but in my mind, A.I. is an almost perfect blend of the two radically different filmmakers. To those who say that Spielberg screwed up by giving the film a happy ending, all I can say is that if you call a movie which ends with the extinction of the human race a happy ending, then be my guest. This is Spielberg at his darkest – from the family who abandons David (Haley Joel Osment), to the Flesh Fair, to Gigolo Joe, to William Hurt as the icy, cruel inventor (which is right out of Kubrick by the way – watch the scene where he reaches for the naked woman’s breasts), this was the start of what in my mind has been the most fascinating segment of Spileberg’s career (at least until the latest Indy movie that is). A brilliantly well made film. I doubt Kubrick could have done any better.

3. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson’s best film – more mature than Rushmore, and more refined than what came after – this tale of the dysfunctional, brilliant Tenenbaum clan is Anderson’s best, because although it remains firmly in his comfort zone, it is also the film where he challenged himself the most. His large cast of eccentric loonies is led by Gene Hackman, in what is probably going to be the last great performance of his career, since he seems to have retired, as the father of three genius kids who has never been there for them. He reenters their lives as adults, and causes nothing but trouble. Anderson’s film is a colorful menagerie, a mixture of hilarious comedy made up of awkward moments, and real life drama that rings true. This is the movie where Anderson became a truly great filmmaker.

2. In the Bedroom (Todd Field)
Todd Field’s In the Bedroom announced him as a major talent as a director. The film is a perfect adaptation of the Andre Dubos novel about a middle aged couple (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) whose life and marriage falls apart after the murder of their son, prompting Wilkinson to take matters into his own hands. Field’s film is a tightly wound thriller and a shattering family drama all at the same time. Field’s film slowly gets under our skin, and then involves us in the ever tightening noose of the plot. Tom Wilkinson’s performance here made him a star – a subtle, powerful performance of a grieving father, and the film offered the best role that Sissy Spacek had in years, and reestablished Marisa Tomei as an actress to watch for. One of the best debut films of the decade.

1.Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive has the feeling of a dream that by the end has turned into a nightmare. I do believe the much discussed theory that the first two-thirds of the film is really the dream life that Diane (Naomi Watts) has constructed for herself. In that film, we see Watts as the innocent and bright eyed Betty, who meets the beautiful Rita (Laura Elena Harring) who has amnesia and the two go on a sort of Nancy Drew like quest to find out what happened to her. The last third is her grim reality where she has failed both personally and professionally, and the woman she is in love with (Harring) now treats her with cold, cruel distance, driving her towards insanity, murder and suicide. Yet, I don’t necessarily think that it is necessary to explain every loose end in the film, or even the overall meaning of it. Lynch has crafted his best, most complete movie and was able to maintain his dreamlike atmosphere for almost his film. Lynch has always been interested in dreams, and his films have often played like them (most notably Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway), but he has never seemed to have as much control of his film as he does here. The film is a nasty little examination of Hollywood, how some people make it, and some get chewed up and spit out by it – but that every sexy allure never wears off. This is Lynch’s masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: Bully (Larry Clark), Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe), The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro), Monster's Ball (Marc Forster), Training Day (Antoine Fuqua), Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer), amores perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu), Amelie (Jean Pierre Jeunet), Waking Life (Richard Linklater), Memento (Christopher Nolan), Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly), The Tailor of Panama (John Boorman), Blow (Ted Demme), Lantana (Ray Lawrence), Tape (Richard Linklater), Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrman), Audition (Takahasi Miike), The Pledge (Sean Penn).

Notable Films Missed: In Praise of Love (Jean Luc Godard).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard)
A Beautiful Mind if the most frustrating type of Oscar winning movie to me. Yes, there are films that are much worse than this one that have won the award – it is actually a decent little film – but at least in some of those cases, I understand why people loved them so much. A Beautiful Mind is such a blah movie, one that you like while you’re watching it, and then instantly forget about, than I wonder how it could have won. At the time, I was rooting for Gosford Park – even though I preferred two of the other nominees – because I really wanted Altman to finally win the Oscar he so richly deserved for his career. Had they went with him and his film, it would have been a great moment. Since they didn’t, A Beautiful Mind becomes one of those films that is only watched now by completists like me who need to see every Oscar winner in history.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Denzel Washington, Training Day
Denzel Washington delivers a towering, powerful performance as a cop corrupt to the core in Training Day. It is the type of larger than life villain role that often wins Oscar – but most often in the supporting, not lead category. I am a little disappointed that the film isn’t as good as Washington is in it, but that’s a small complaint. I do think that the best performance of the year was by Tom Wilkinson in In the Bedroom – which is the complete opposite performance of this, as it is layered and subtle, where Washington is loud and bombastic, and I do think that the missed one of the very best performances of Gene Hackman’s career in not nominating him – but those are small complaints. Even if Washington (and to a lesser extent Ethan Hawke) are the only reasons to watch Training Day – he is a hell of a good reason.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball
There are those actresses that you never really expect to have a great performance in them, and then they blow you away with a role. Halle Berry is like that in Monster’s Ball, delivering an emotionally powerful performance as a woman whose husband, and the father of her child, gets executed, and then becomes involved, unknowingly, with the prison guard who helped execute him. It is a powerful performance – and emotionally draining, and brave performance by an actress who has pretty much spent her career trading on her good looks (perhaps Things We Lost in the Fire could be considered another brave performance, but they are few and far between in her career). I think it was obvious that Naomi Watts gave the truly best performance of the year in this category in Mulholland Drive, and out of the nominees, I probably would have favored Spacek, but this is a wonderful performance.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Jim Broadbent, Iris
I’m not quite sure how Jim Broadbent pulled this victory off. The movie itself is a standard issue biopic, about the poet Iris Murdoch, which also garnered Oscar nominations for Judi Dench and Kate Winslet playing the young and old versions of the poet. Broadbent is quite good as her ever loyal husband who stands by his wife when she gets alzheimers and slowly slips into oblivion, and he is a fine character actor who probably does deserve an Oscar. Personally, I thought the Winslet part of the movie was vastly superior, to the tearjerker tactics employed in the Broadbent/Dench section – and even that wasn’t great. When you consider they nominated Ben Kingsley’s hellfire reining turn in Sexy Beast and for some reason completely overlooked Steve Busecemi’s work in Ghost World, which is my mind deserved to win, you have to wonder how Broadbent pulled this one off.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind
Jennifer Connelly is one of my favorite actresses, so I have no problem with her winning an Oscar – especially only one year after she SHOULD have won for Requiem for a Dream. But her performance in A Beautiful Mind is rather bland and forgettable – much like the movie itself. She had the standard issue Academy award role – the long suffering wife of the much more interesting central character. She’s fine in the movie – she does precisely what is required of her – but considering how many great performances she has given in her career (Requiem for a Dream, Little Children, Dark City, House of Sand and Fog) it’s a little troubling that this is the only movie she has ever been recognized for. Considering they had great work for Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and Marisa Tomei (who would have been my choice) nominated, I can’t help but feel that Connelly shouldn’t have won this.

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