2001's Top Eleven Films

How ironic is it that in one of the most eventful years in recent history, the year in film was most noticeable for what didn't happen? A year ago industry execs feared for seemingly inevitable writers and actors strikes, but their respective unions settled before any walkout. More importantly, many industry insiders and journalists alike predicted that the tragic events of September 11 would alter America's appetite for violent films and Hollywood's desire to produce them. I suppose the jury is still out, but so far little has changed. One of the first hits after 9/11 was the extremely violent Training Day. Some terrorist-themed films were postponed but virtually all have been rescheduled. One of them, Collateral Damage, recently opened No. 1 at the box office.

(Hey Adam, isn't this supposed to be your "Best Of" column? Perk up a little.) All right. While no film captured public attention like Saving Private Ryan or American Beauty, there were no shortage of standouts. Here are just a few on my "Honorable Mention" List:

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
A Beautiful Mind
Black Hawk Down
The Caveman's Valentine
The Dish
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
Monster's Ball
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

Of my year's favorites, a couple dazzled with technique and color. My #1 film enthralled audiences with its innovative storytelling. But most of my picks impressed me by their emphasis on character. These films were directed with little flourish, but with a willingness to let talented actors act, and to relate the story that way.

As you no doubt noticed from the title, this year's list is a little different. I struggled narrowing down my list to ten. So in true Washington fashion, I solved the problem by avoiding it. As a tribute to Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, I offer my best eleven films of 2001:

11. Bread and Roses (dir. Ken Loach) - Unflinchingly political yet thematically complex, Loach shows a side of Los Angeles far removed from Hollywood's glitz and glamour. Loach is much more interested in Mexican immigrants and their struggles. He takes the time to establish the main characters particularly Maya and Rosa, two sisters who work as janitors in a fancy high-rise office building. Loach then gradually moves into the primary conflict -- the janitors' fight for fair wages and improved working conditions. In lesser hands, Bread and Roses could have resorted to blatant manipulation, pulling on the heartstrings and trying to force you to feel "inspired" by the janitor's struggle. Thankfully Loach avoids these impulses by focusing on character and performances, particularly Pilar Padilla as Maya at Elpidia Carrillo as Rosa. These actresses shine throughout the film, especially in a key confrontation scene that initially is about betrayal but grows into something more. Bread and Roses avoids the simplified good vs. evil trap of many labor themed films. It's not that simple in real life, and often workers have to make the toughest of choices. Loach's documentary style adds to this realism, giving you the feeling that you're eavesdropping on these people's lives. If nothing else, Bread and Roses will cause you to think about the people that clean your office and collect your trash.

10. Ghost World (dir. Terry Zwigoff) - We've seen the disaffected youth in films many times before, but not quite this funny or touching. Zwigoff and co-writer Daniel Clowes, adapting Clowes's comic book series, sets us in the world of the "uncool" (as Lester Bangs from Almost Famous might describe it). Misfit Enid (Thora Birch) has contempt for much of the world around her, and we tag along as she uses her wit to tear apart that which she disdains. She takes interest in geeky loner Seymour, 20 years her senior, initially because "he's the opposite of everything I hate." A less ambitious film would have settled for this setup and become a wacky teenage romp. But Zwigoff goes for more by examining Enid's inability to adapt to her changing world and exploring her connection with Seymour. Birch shines in her many acerbic moments, but also lets you see Enid's emptiness. As Seymour, Steve Buscemi has simply never been better. He's played oddballs before but he tones down the sarcasm to allow his character's loneliness, vulnerability, and kindness shine through.

9. Lantana (dir. Ray Lawrence) - Lantana has the feel of film noir. Lawrence tells the tale in darkness and shadow and gives the whole film a foreboding atmosphere. It even includes a mysterious death. But it's really an ensemble piece about four couples and the barriers in their relationships. Communication and adultery are part of the problem, but the primary barrier is a lack of trust. Lantana slowly lets you see how the relationships unravel as fear and suspicions grow. A stellar cast carries this film because so much of what is conveyed comes from the characters' expressions rather than their dialogue or their actions. Anthony La Paglia especially stands out as a man at war with himself. Lawrence deftly weaves the interconnecting stories together making the most of his actors.

8. Together (dir. Lukas Moodysson) - Together is another ensemble piece with interconnecting stories, although it's tone could not be more different than Lantana. Set in 1975 Sweden, Together revolves around several twentysomething idealists living on a commune. Their socialist ideals are already crumbling when one of their members brings in his older sister and her two children. She reluctantly moves in to escape her alcoholic ill-tempered husband. Although dealing with serious subjects, Together is a sweet and endearing comedy that finds humor in the characters' struggles and the values clash between the traditional culture and the "counterculture." Together has fun with the hypocrisy on both sides of the cultural divide, but also has some poignant moments as the characters try to grow and overcome their loneliness and insecurities. Strong acting throughout including three very talented child actors. Kudos to FilmFest DC for picking Together as it's closing film for 2001. Unfortunately, the film had a limited U.S. distribution run outside the festival circuit, but I hope it get's a second life on video.

7. The Pledge (dir. Sean Penn) - The Pledge features some key elements of a standard thriller: a killer on the loose, a determined cop in hot pursuit. But these elements disguise how the film works primarily as a character study that's much more about the cop than the killer. Jerry Black is a good cop and a decent man but has no family and few friends. After his retirement from the police force he has nothing and so his hunt for the killer fills a huge void. Even when he later has the opportunity for a better life, he just can't let go. Penn takes his time telling the story to let you see how a dedicated police officer slowly loses himself to his obsession. Jack Nicholson casts aside his usual quirks as he throws himself into the lead role. His talents and the brilliant script make Black a compelling and heartbreaking character. The Pledge is really a modern-day Greek tragedy, with Nicholson as the doomed hero who cannot overcome his demons.

6. In the Bedroom (dir. Todd Field) - The most critical event in Field's debut effort, a brutal murder, happens offscreen. That's because In the Bedroom focuses on the ramifications of the killing, especially the way it impacts the victims' parents, played by the marvelous Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. The story gradually draws out how their loss brings up feelings and issues that the couple repressed over many years. Wilkinson and Spacek let you see how the tragic loss of their son affects their characters differently. Like the cast of Lantana, they both convey much through glances and expressions, letting you see their inner pain and turmoil. Field gives the actors space to work, going with long takes and cutting infrequently. He also makes use of the beautiful Maine setting, painting it as a contrasting backdrop to the couple's despair. You would never believe this is Field's first film. It's safe to say he has a bright future, as actors will want to work with him after seeing In the Bedroom.

5. Moulin Rouge (dir. Baz Luhrmann) - I've cited other films on this list for subtlety and restraint but neither term applies to Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann splashes music, dancing and color at a blistering pace, and somehow pulls it off. Perhaps that's because there is such joy in the storytelling and the performances. Luhrmann ostensibly sets Moulin Rouge in 1900 France, but it really exists in a fantasy world. Moulin Rouge blends old-fashioned Hollywood musicals with the Jerome Robbins 1960s musicals and modern music videos. Character depth is not the film's strong point, but the actors make up for this flaw with their sheer earnestness, particularly Ewan McGregor as a lovestruck penniless playwright. Nicole Kidman sparkles with smoldering sensuality as the object of McGregor's affections. Their love affair although melodramatic, is always convincing. Moulin Rouge is the musical for people who don't like musicals.

4. No Man's Land (dir. Danis Tanovic)-- A biting, darkly comic view of the absurdities of modern war, No Man's Land is much closer to M*A*S*H than Saving Private Ryan. The title describes a trench in between the warring sides in the former Yugoslavia. A grizzled Croat relief worker and a green Serb soldier find themselves stuck in the trench. To further complicate matters, a fellow relief worker, thought to be dead, is instead lying on top of a booby trap. If he moves, he and the others in the trench will die. Tanovic uses a minimalist approach for most of the film relying on the interplay between the relief worker and the soldier as they try to both survive and gain advantage over the other. With the trench situation established, Tanovic broadens his scope to include the U.N. and the international media. The laughs grow as the tight situation becomes a huge spectacle. Tanovic, who also wrote the screenplay, refuses to sweeten any of the characters. While other films have war bringing out the best in people, Tanovic shows how it can also bring out hatred, selfishness, and hypocrisy. He evokes both humor and tragedy from deftly illustrating how in modern war the perception can overwhelm the reality.

3. Amélie (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet) - The cynic in me keeps shouting that I should hate this film. Amélie overwhelms you with sweetness from the vibrant colors, endearing story, and the warmth of Amélie herself. Amélie is a kind-hearted Parisian girl who tries to fix the lives of those around her while struggling to find romance in her own life. Perhaps the reason I ignored my inner cynic was that the film never lets its good intentions overwhelm its intelligence. Jeunet keeps the film moving quickly, skillfully shifting through short scenes with numerous characters, but always keeping the focus on Amélie. He then gradually moves the film to a very tender love story between Amélie and a shy loner played by Matthieu Kassovitz. In the title role, Audrey Tatou has you in the palm of hand from the moment she appears on screen. She totally inhabits Amélie, radiating youthful kindness and vulnerability. Amélie has the best of the wit and whimsy we often associate with French cinema, and is a crowd-pleaser in the finest sense of the term.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (dir. Wes Anderson) - "Family is not a word; it's a sentence." So reads the tag line from The Royal Tenenbaums, a hilarious look at a unique, gifted, but dysfunctional family. The Tenenbaums once were child prodigies, but grew up to lead wholly unsatisfying lives. They all move back into the childhood home with their devoted mother, as their rakish father Royal Tenenbaum suddenly reappears. Royal had left the family years earlier, and not all of his offspring are happy to see him return. Royal is a horrible father, both irresponsible and hurtful. But in a strange way, he's exactly what the family needs. You see how the Royal's failings affected each of the children differently. Anderson paints a picture, giving the main characters their own quirks and backgrounds. He eschews closeups, preferring to always give you a sense of the characters' environments, which are filled with small details. He also picked a superb cast including Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover and Luke and Owen Wilson. But this is Gene Hackman's film, as his Royal Tenenbaum is the motor that drives the story. He brings energy, earnestness, and likability to a character in many ways despicable but trying to make things right. This is one of the best performances in Hackman's storied career.

1. Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan) - A story told backwards? A lead character with no memory? Sounds like a gimmick. Well, it could have been, but somehow Nolan (who also co-wrote Memento) makes it work. Memento is a tight, compelling film that grabs you right away and never lets go. Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man trying to find the man who attacked him and killed his wife. The attack robbed Leonard of his short-term memory, making him dependent on notes and pictures in his quest to hunt down the killer. Leonard can't be sure of anything, especially not the people around him. Memento is a brilliantly crafted story, with a structure that slowly fills in details and provides points of reference. The film moves forwards as the story moves backwards. Part of the thrill is how you and Leonard both start off in the dark, but you can gradually piece things together, while Leonard remains stuck. Pearce turns in an intense, edgy but sympathetic performance, with strong supporting work from Carrie Anne-Moss as a mysterious femme fatale and Joe Pantoliano as a sleazy cop. Memento engages you at every level, and makes you think in order to keep up. You need to see Memento twice, but it's worth it.

Adam Spector
February 19, 2002

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