In looking over what I consider to be the best movies of 2001, I find it difficult to find a common thread that holds them together, a consistent theme or formal element that I can point to and say — yes, there, that was 2001. If pressed, I might say that to some degree or another they each comment on film history’s age-old obsession, the blurring between illusion and reality. An inventory of: dreams, hyper-real animations, artificial intelligence, theatrics old and new, and more dreams. But that would be too easy.
I’ve cheated a bit, weighing in with more than my usual five current releases and five rep screenings. There were enough good movies this year, or rather, enough points of access to what is good in movies that I felt it worth bending my own self-imposed “rules.” Also, perhaps more than ever, the context within which I watched these films greatly influenced my reaction to them, for better or worse.
1. Yi Yi (Yang, 2000)
2. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001) and Waking Life (Linklater, 2001) (tie)
I had low expectations going in to Lynch’s latest and was more than a little put-off by the endless queue coiling from floor to floor, past Victoria’s Secret and Bally’s Total Fitness, at the new Landmark Century Theaters née mall. Little did I know what was in store. While I can’t say I understand exactly what is going on in MD, I can with a fair degree of certainty tell you that it is stunning to watch and captures a sense of Los Angeles that just seems right. This time out, Lynch manages to combine his trademark atmospherics and oddities with enough structure (including two compelling lead performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) to hold one’s interest in solving his infinite puzzles. Think Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Lynch’s own Twin Peaks universe rolled up into one.
I’ve seen Waking Life twice — the first time at a special festival screening in October at the Music Box with director Richard Linklater in attendance. I was the one sitting up front and to the right, next to the nervous guy who looked like the lead actor and Linklater regular, Wiley Wiggens. I think I enjoyed the discussion following the screening as much as if not more than the movie itself; Linklater was everything you would imagine him to be — smart, funny, unassuming, inquisitive, sincere, occasionally absent, and, well, real. I also imagine another reason I found this screening to be so profound was due to the then shifted world view in the air following the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. I couldn’t not think of the movie in relation to what I witnessed that day and what had been discussed and shared among family, friends, and colleagues during the weeks following. My second viewing, in a New York multiplex, lacked some of the initial energy and excitement of the first. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it might have been due in part to the fact that right then, in New York, people didn’t seem to need a movie to think about the kinds of ideas Waking Life explores. All the same, the film’s technical achievements alone make it the most inventive commercial film I’ve seen in some time. While some have suggested this merely masks a bland, even non-existent narrative, I found the essayistic construction to be a perfect counterpoint to the animated visualizations. It worked for me.
3. Amélie (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) (Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
Like Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994), Amélie is a movie about chance that leaves nothing to chance. What gets the story going, the roll of a ball across a floor and the treasure it reveals, while seeming haphazard and random, of course is far from it. And so it is also with the opening sequence of Gump, as we watch the whims of a feather floating to finally come to rest at our lead character’s feet, a box of chocolates carefully tucked at his side. The worlds that are created in each, both perhaps impossible to conceive without the help of computer generated imaging, are clearly guilty of a fair degree of manipulation; and it is on these grounds that it seems Amelie is most often dismissed. Her postcard Paris is suspiciously tidy, its streets a bit too scrubbed.
In years to come I might be a little embarrassed that I found such delight in the Amélie Poulain phenomenon. The first time I saw it, again at a sold out Music Box during the same festival weekend in October, I stood in the back of the theater for about 110 of the entire 122 minute run-time (I was a bit late). Keeping bathroom-goers up-to-date on the film’s goings-on during their absence added a memorable and complementary absurdity to the experience. People will likely remember the heroine’s big eyes, the whimsical feel-good story, the caricatured neighborhood ensemble, and the heart-warming message that goodness prevails and life has a funny way of working itself out. On the other hand, I hope not to forget the inventories of everyday rituals and likes (told with childlike velocity), the careful, even tedious attention to detail in Amélie’s elaborate (and at times problematic) stratagems, and even the rituals and rhythms internal to the film (Amélie’s rock throwing, daily stops at the produce stand, days at the café, her father’s hesitant mailbox visits, Nino’s obsessive collection of discarded coin-op instant photos, Collignon’s annual Renoir, the list goes on). It is as if Jeunet is at once saying these characters are stuck in the same rut day in and day out and need the likes of an Amélie to wake them up to the world around them, to a past and future not yet discovered, but in the same breath suggesting that such an awakening may only be understood and realized in these very same terms.
4. Va Savoir (Rivette, 2001) and Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001) (tie)
This movie, the title of which might be translated best as “Go Figure,” possesses an equivalent disposition: spontaneous, irreverent, light-hearted, foolish, and elusive. Yet, where it lacks the mystery and ineffable spark of previous Rivette efforts such as Haut Bas Fragile (1995), Va Savoir manages to achieve a certain maturity underscored by self-awareness and acceptance.
In this corner: a group of friends who hated this movie so much they couldn’t even finish watching the DVD. In the other: colleagues from work who reveled in its flamboyant visualizations, inventiveness and over-the-top numbers, and I almost forgot to mention, abundance of fishnet stockings and leggy show girls. My own mid-August viewing with SG in a dilapidated suburban Chicago theater amid a sparse crowd of seniors fell somewhere in between. Luhrmann should either be congratulated or slapped for the dizzying speed at which he moves us through his fin de siècle music box. Around and around, in and out, and in every other direction we go. Sheer spectacle is all there is, as it was then and forever more.
5. Artificial Intelligence: AI (Spielberg, 2001) and Shrek (Adamson, Jenson, et al., 2001) (tie)
Kubrick! Spielberg! The Blue Fairy! Teddy! Kubrick! Spielberg! By turns, intolerable and inspired, AI is another one of those movies that suffers from its own ambitions. Still, past the sentimentality, the (purposefully?) terrible performances (Haley Joel Osment not among them), and the misanthropy, lies a dark examination of the complexities and sometime contradictions of what we might consider technological and socio-economic “progress,” prosperity, personal fulfillment, compassion, and will. It is this last human trait that I found most horrific and interesting in the film. A machine never quits. Never. By way of comparison, I was reminded of the gradual descent into oblivion described in Auster’s City of Glass, where a first step outside one’s doorway leads to another, and then another, until full stop, maybe. Nothing but a cryptic map left behind, a notebook, a mere trace.
The result of hundreds of processor years, millions of polygons, and a world-class team of programmers, animators, and designers, Shrek proved to be one of the most technically innovative films of the year, and one of the most clever.
Honorable Mention: Ghost World (Zwigoff, 2001)
I have to include this film if only for the fact that I recommended it to a dear friend — someone who has always impressed me with her open-mindedness with regard to movies — who, when I recently inquired what she thought of it, told me that it is without a doubt the worst movie she’s ever seen. I can’t say that my reaction to Ghost World is nearly as strong, one way or the other, but I did find it enjoyable. While true in its way and brutally funny at times, I wish it had some of the quick-change whimsy of the main character Enid to counter-balance its cool cynicism. Wasted energy perhaps, but energy all the same.
Best Repertory (in no particular order):
- Band of Outsiders (Godard, 1964)
- Weekend (Godard, 1967)
- Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959)
- A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, 1991)
- Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Kieslowski, 1994)