Time to set the time machine to 2001, a year that like many others had a great deal of great films to offer. There’s a nice mix to be had with this list, I think. Sure, it leans slightly towards comedy as my lists tend do – although there’s nothing here that i’d classify strictly as a laugh-out-loud type of movie – but there is some international variety. USA, France, Spain and Norway are all represented in one way or another.
I don’t normally do honorable mentions for these lists, but I do need to give a shout-out to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The trilogy as a whole is a remarkably ambitious cinematic accomplishment which does such a great job of bringing the world of the novels to life. Both The Two Towers and The Return of the King barely missed out on spots on their respective year lists. The Fellowship of the Ring – my personal favorite of the three – was sitting at #9 on this list at first draft. Then along came a movie I hadn’t seen before (#7), and Fellowship got bumped down. And then I realized a teriffic film I thought belonged to 2000 was actually released in 2001 (#2), and just like that, Fellowship dropped off. So an honorable mention goes out to that film and, by extension, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
On to the list proper. As always, this is 2001 as listed on IMDB to avoid confusion with international release dates.
10 – HUMAN NATURE (Michel Gondry)
“Remember: when in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do.”
The most overlooked of the films written by Charlie Kaufman, Human Nature is a movie of many questions about – of course – human nature. What’s fun is the strange ways in which it goes about asking them. The central characters are a scientist (Tim Robbins) trying to teach mice to have a formal dinner, a man (Rhys Ifans) who grew up in the wilderness thinking himself to be an ape, and a woman (Patricia Arquette) who voluntarily abandoned civilization as an adult due to feeling out of place because of her thick body hair. This story proves to be a good fit for Michel Gondry, here making his feature film debut and immediately establishing his unique style – how many directors would go with a sudden Disney-esque song number in a film like this? Human Nature is both funny and thought-provoking, and it deserves more attention than it tends to get.
9 – A KNIGHT’S TALE (Brian Helgeland)
“Now that I got their attention, you go and win their hearts.”
Wikipedia describes this as an action-adventure film. This is false. A Knight’s Tale is very much a sports movie, with all the familiar story elements and tropes associated with the genre. It just so happens to take place in medieval times, with the sport in question being jousting. What makes the film stand out even more is the anachronistic music. Here we have a dance scene in at the royal court set to David Bowie’s “Golden Years”, and joust audiences clapping along to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Heath Ledger makes for an effective protagonist, Shannyn Sossamon is as radiant as ever as his love interest, and Paul Bettany and Alan Tyduk as comedic sidekicks take turns to steal the movie. Often hilarious, always feel-good. A Knight’s Tale never fails to put a smile on my face.
8 – WIT (Mike Nichols)
“I don’t mean to complain, but I am becoming very sick. Very sick. Ultimately sick, as it were.”
Wit is based on a stage play, and it shows. There’s a lot of dialogue throughout, and even more monologues, delivered straight to the camera by the cancer-stricken protagonist. But that’s fine. When you have a script as powerful as this one and Emma Thompson in the lead putting in perhaps her best work on screen, it’s probably best to just give the two entities as much time and space as possible. If the recent 50/50 wasn’t enough cancer film to satisfy you, you would do well to check this one out. It’s a heart-wrencher, and an intellectually stimulating one to boot.
7 – IN THE BEDROOM (Todd Field)
“You’re bitter, Ruth. And you can point your finger all you want at me, but you better take a damn good look at yourself first.”
In a film full of emotional impact, perhaps the most effective parts come in the early goings as we’re introduced to the characters, inhabitants of a coastal town in Maine. I didn’t see anything really extraordinary about this as I watched it for the first time, but when the central tragedy of the story strikes, it hits like a wrecking ball. “This isn’t right! This isn’t how it’s supposed to be! Why did this have to happen!?” The characters had been built up so well that I realized I had begun to really care about them. The film doesn’t end there, though. The events that come after are masterfully handled as well, showing how people react to and deal with life when it takes unexpected turns. And let’s not forget the great performances here, with veteran actors Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek as the stand-outs.
6 – ELLING (Petter Næss)
“Yes, we! Kjell Bjarne and I are going to Oslo of course.”
As a Swede, I’m culturally obliged to make fun of Norwegians at every opportunity. Elling thus presents a problem: How can I make fun of people who make movies as great as this one? Elling follows two unlikely friends (Per Christian Ellefsen and Sven Nordin), both with their fair share of mental hang-ups and neuroses, as they try to reintegrate themselves into society. A film full of heart and genuine laughs.
5 – VANILLA SKY (Cameron Crowe)
“Holy God. This is going to change my life in a zillion different ways. I must be nuts.”
I’ve already detailed my complicated relationship with this remake of Alejandro Amenábar‘s Open Your Eyes. Considering how close Cameron Crowe sticks to the great original here, it’s hard not to see Vanilla Sky as an unnecessary movie. But “unnecessary” does not mean “bad”. The story still makes for an intriguing mystery, there’s plenty of atmosphere to take in, and the acting is top-notch. The supporting players in particular shine bright; Penelope Cruz, Jason Lee and Cameron Diaz all turn in performances as good as anything else I’ve seen from them. In fact, when judging a film for what it is, Vanilla Sky might well be my favorite remake of all time.
4 – THE OTHERS (Alejandro Amenábar)
“The only thing that moves here is the light, but it changes everything.”
And while Crowe was busy remaking Amenábar’s previous movie, Amenábar himself was making this gem of a film. If you watch horror for the big jump scares, this isn’t the movie for you. The Others is all about atmosphere, telling a story of a mother and her two kids living in a mansion that appears to be haunted. Question marks pop up everywhere alongside clues and red herrings, and everything is drenched in darkness. But while darkness can be scary, it also serves as a zone of safety here since the children are allergic to light. It makes for an interesting contrast, and a psychological horror movie that doesn’t feel quite like any other.
3 – DONNIE DARKO (Richard Kelly)
“It was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons, now in his fifteenth year crystallized with the pain of puberty.”
As a time travel movie, Donnie Darko doesn’t fully work. The mechanics involved are insufficiently explained – at least in the theatrical cut – which makes it hard to make sense of things. However, when viewed as a meditation on the torturous reality of being a teenager and feeling lost and confused, it brings forth unexpected qualities. The titular Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts getting apocalyptic visions involving a monstrous bunny and, as though in a trance, he sets out to save the world through radical means. We’re with him every step of the way, and as the movie progresses we’re treated to superb atmosphere, a dark sense of humor and a haunting soundtrack. Richard Kelly set the bar high in his directorial debut, and hasn’t quite reached the same level again.
2 – GHOST WORLD (Terry Zwigoff)
“Well, maybe I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests.”
Let’s stick with the theme of being a teenager for a bit longer, yes? This film gives us one of the most memorable teens of the millenium in Thora Birch‘s Enid. Fully convinced that most people are mindless sheep and morons, she spends most of her time with her best friend Rebecca (a pre-fame Scarlett Johansson), making snarky comments about the idiocy that surrounds them. But throughout the film there’s a definite sense of life having to move on. The girls have graduated high school and make tentative plans for the future, but the future is a scary place. As annoyed as Enid is with everything in her life, she doesn’t want to grow up. Instead she clings to the past, starting to hang out with a melancholic middle-aged record collector (Steve Buscemi in the performance of his career). Ghost World offers a lot of food for thoughts, along with a wonderfully quirky and black sense of humor. If there is a better film based on a comic book out there than this one, I haven’t seen it.
1 – AMÉLIE (LE FABULEUX DESTIN D’AMÉLIE POULAIN, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
“Any normal girl would call the number, meet him, return the album and see if her dream is viable. It’s called a reality check. The last thing Amélie wants.”
If Amélie had merely been a movie about a young woman concocting secret plans to bring joy to people’s lives, it would have still been a really good one. There is so much charm and warmth present throughout for it to work that way. What makes it special, what makes it wonderful, what makes it fantastic, however, is the painful loneliness and isolation present within the titular heroine. Having grown up without any friends and with emotionally distant parents, Amélie (Audrey Tautou) longs for love in her life. Her scheming and strategizing is her way to reach out to a world of happiness while still keeping her fragile self out of harm’s way. Jean-Pierre Jeunet masterfully balances the light with the dark, making us smile at the clever games Amélie plays, and breaking our hearts when she hits roadblocks on the journey to her own bliss. I revisited this film just a few days ago to make sure that it was really as excellent as I remembered it being. Turns out it was even better. This one is a must-see.