Top Ten of 2001
In the Bedroom. First-time director Todd Field turns a dark tale by the late short-story master Andre Dubus into a precocious film masterpiece about murder, grief and repressed marital rage set in quiet Camden, Maine. Tom Wilkinson and likely Oscar nominee Sissy Spacek star as the highly civilized parents of a college student (Nick Stahl) whose summer affair with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) ends in his murder, propelling the parents into a scheme of vengeance that disguises an ulterior motive: the bitter couple's desperate desire to survive each other. An actor and photographer with an uncanny eye, Field is a merciless chronicler of telling details, and his vision of the violence submerged in small-town life is thoroughly chilling.
The Deep End. Gifted Tilda Swinton is the centerpiece of Scott McGehee and David Siegel's superior neo-noir thriller about a housewife who discovers the body of her eldest son's lowlife lover on the beach of her Lake Tahoe property. The filmmakers play off the self-sacrificing mother's undeniable urge to set things right for her family against her strange attraction to a melancholy blackmailer (Goran Visnjic), setting a dangerous mood that carries their drama to dizzy heights of suspense. Adapted from The Blank Wall, a little-known 1947 novel by all-but-forgotten Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, this portrait of a mother's will -- and her weakness -- makes for high-octane noir.
Mulholland Drive. David Lynch cultists, rejoice. Here's the old Twin Peaks weirdness in spades, on the big screen and properly furnished with midgets. When the dazed victim of a car wreck wanders into a strange house, Lynch sets loose a series of undefinable mysteries and horrors that radiate a very high spook quotient and the director's usual scent of surreal humor. Throw in a dumb blonde, a dumber cop and half a dozen red herrings, and the recipe for dreamy intrigue is complete. It's hard to believe this long-delayed project started as a TV pilot. What could the network suits have been thinking?
Shrek. The "hero" of DreamWorks' tart and subversive animated fairy tale is an ornery, basically unlikable green ogre who speaks with a Scottish burr (credit Mike Myers), eats rats and sets out to rescue a princess because it will bring him material gain. No saccharine denouements for this spiky misanthrope: Instead, he lays gleeful siege to his Disney antecedents, including Pinocchio, Cinderella and the rest of the crew. The animation is beautifully drawn, and the dark wit of the proceedings is enough to please the most sophisticated audiences, let alone children with the age-old yearning to get a little bit scared.
Memento. The young British writer-director Christopher Nolan means to yank our chains, and he does so brilliantly in this exceedingly dark, strangely haunted comedy about a former insurance investigator named Leonard (Guy Pearce) who's lost his short-term memory. The poor guy's trying to solve the apparent murder of his wife, despite the evil intentions of some devious "friends" (Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano) and the fact that he can't remember what happened five minutes ago, much less get a grip on his consciousness. As if this weren't enough fun, the malicious Nolan tells the entire story backward, as if to test the limits of our perception.
Apocalypse Now Redux. The torturous Vietnam epic that once drove Francis Ford Coppola to the brink of madness may be 22 years old, but 2001's major re-edit (accomplished by Coppola and Walter Murch) serves to deepen and clarify the original film's ideas about war, the demons of conscience and what Joseph Conrad called "the horror." Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz now emerges into daylight to mock Martin Sheen, those frightened Playboy bunnies inhabit a heartbreaking new scene in a wrecked helicopter, and the ghost of T.S. Eliot speaks more ill than ever of his ruined century. For Coppola, this must be closure; for us, it's fresh revelation.
From Hell. That Allen and Albert Hughes, makers of 1993's bleak ghetto classic Menace II Society, should find themselves in Victorian London, on the trail of Jack the Ripper, is not so odd. In their view, the Ripper signals the origin of a breed of egocentric evil and emotion-free ultraviolence that will come to infest all big cities everywhere in future decades. Johnny Depp's absinthe-swilling, opium-smoking police detective prowls the dank, dark cobblestones with spooky intensity and manages to solve the case; he, too, foreshadows the mood and manner of the coming twentieth century.
Fat Girl. A dozen Hollywood moviemakers have built careers exploiting the insecurities of teenagers. France's Catherine Breillat goes much further, taking a merciless look at adolescent trauma and the ruthlessness of carnal gamesmanship in the harrowing tale of two sisters wrestling with their emerging sexuality while on vacation at the seashore. The shapely, pretty girl (Roxane Mesquida) gets the boy, while her doughy, dejected younger sister (Anaïs Reboux) gets nothing. But there are no winners on this psychosexual battlefield, and in the end, we are stunned by violence. Here are the cruel facts of life, unsugared.
Amélie. Like Jane Austen's famous meddler, Emma, the heroine of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's bracing comedy is a doe-eyed crusader who resolves to emancipate her friends and acquaintances -- and all of Paris, if she can. It's a beguiling quest filled with sensory overload, some spirited intellectual gymnastics and an introduction to an intriguing new actress named Audrey Tatou. In the end, Amélie, who's both an artist and an angel in her way, even manages to find love for herself. From the co-director of the cult favorite Delicatessen.
The Man Who Wasn¹t There. Ethan and Joel Coen's new excursion into film noir is lightened by the brothers' irrepressible urge to wise off and their underlying postmodern view. The requisite 1940s anti-hero, a placid, small-town barber played by a perfectly deadpan Billy Bob Thornton, gets entangled with blackmail, murder and a wonderfully sleazy lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), but the Coens' surreal comic tilt keeps us on the verge of a laugh. Roger Deakins's gorgeously textured black-and-white cinematography gives the most beautiful look of the year to a pulp-fiction fantasy that's great, dark fun.
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