In the rich tradition of movie lovers everywhere, I offer my own choices (entirely subjective but naturally of impeccable taste!) for the top 10 movies released last year. It was anything but a great cinematic year overall, and none of these are without flaw, but they’re all at least worth remembering. So, in no particular order of priority other than alphabetical...


 

A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE –

Against all odds, the late Stanley Kubrick’s cynical vision is enhanced by Steven Spielberg’s sense of scope more than it’s diminished by Spielberg’s middlebrow sentimentality. The impact is also greatly enhanced by Haley Joel Osment’s performance–mesmerizing by any standard, even without giving him bonus points for his age. Overall, this picture offers some of the most thought-provoking science fiction on screen in years, with unsparing visions of the future we may be building as we dehumanize ourselves even as we humanize our artifacts. True, there are some plot glitches, but not nearly as many as has been claimed by some critics; the difficulty there may be one of expectations. Hollywood’s version of science fiction seldom requires any facility at looking beyond the surface of a story. This film does, and comes closer to doing justice to the sophisticated tropes of the best prose SF.

ANNIVERSARY PARTY –

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, and their inimitable group of friends and acquaintances have created the most authentically human "behind-the-scenes Hollywood" story I’ve seen in years. One can’t help but wonder, as I’m sure they intended, just how thin the veneer of fiction really is. Rather than a by-now-typical expose of studio backstabbing or art-vs.-commerce conflicts, Leigh and Cumming focus on the interactions and introspections (or lack thereof) of people immersed (for better or worse) in the industry. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates are fascinatingly sincere as, essentially, themselves, and Chicago’s own John C. Reilly delivers his best work since Magnolia as a disillusioned director. A party is obviously a convenient device for bringing emotional issues to the surface, but the results never seem contrived or predictable.

THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS –

As others have noted, this is certainly a feminist response to 1997’s In the Company of Men; writer/director Patrick Stettner sets up an intriguing dialectic with Neil LaBute’s critically acclaimed exercise in misanthropy by viewing psychological game-playing through different gender filters. This picture also stands on its own merits, however, as a genuinely suspenseful and entertaining work. Julia Stiles is a bit out of her depth as a discontented office peon, and the supposed twist ending is telegraphed in advance, but Stockard Channing is superb (as ever) as a rising corporate executive at the center of unpredictable events. The balance she strikes between anxiety and rigid self-control keeps things gripping even when the story stumbles.

GHOST WORLD –

One would be tempted to describe this movie as in a class by itself, except that My First Mister attempted to tackle similar themes later in the year – but where the later film wasted the talents of Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski by meandering into bland movie-of-the-week territory, Ghost World is relentlessly true to its material. Daniel Clowes’ iconoclastic comic-book reality is translated into a terrific (and starkly unglamorous) mise-en-scene, capturing the aggressively alienating aspects of suburbanized America, and Thora Birch brings his disaffected teen protagonist convincingly to life (I was tempted to write vividly, but that would be misrepresenting the character). However, the film’s greatest strength is the middle-aged male counterpoint character created by director and co-writer Terry Zwigoff, as embodied in a typical fully realized performance from Steve Buscemi. The story’s ambiguous ending is a stumbling block, however; some insist that it works, but no one can seem to articulate how or why, and I maintain that the film suffers for it.

GOSFORD PARK –

Robert Altman has redeemed himself for the atrocity that was 2000’s Dr. T and the Women. This recreation of upper-crust 1930s England feels uncannily authentic (although not necessarily realistic, a subtle distinction). The sense of place and period is impeccable, the class consciousness is palpable, and the entire project is suffused (but never heavy-handedly) with the cultural irony of people who elevate trivia to supreme importance while simultaneously treating genuine life-changing events as sordidly trivial. Even the "mystery" plot, while undeniably secondary, is never shortchanged. Altman’s trademark overlapping and interweaving dialogue is minimized here, aiding comprehension of the conversations amongst the huge (and hugely talented) cast–although the thick accents do sometimes counteract that advantage. Altman also, not for the first time, works in sly commentary on the superficiality of Hollywood and the transience of fame, via co-writer Bob Balaban’s role as a distracted movie producer and Jeremy Northam’s wonderfully self-aware turn as the now long-forgotten ’30s matinee idol Ivor Novello (the only "real" character of the bunch). I confess I’ve never seen Jean Renoir’s 1939 Rules of the Game, to which this has been repeatedly compared, but I just may hunt it down.

IN THE BEDROOM –

Totally convincing acting all around (from Marisa Tomei, Sissy Spacek, and especially Tom Wilkinson), as New Englanders facing difficult but deeply affecting circumstances. To say more would be to give away too much to anyone who hasn’t seen it. What makes this a real standout is nevertheless not the story itself, but the beautiful way the filmmakers adapt what is obviously a very internalized, introspective short story to the screen without losing any of its depth and without resorting to leaden expository dialogue. Nuance is a characteristic sadly lacking from too many contemporary films. This serves as a reminder of what it can accomplish.

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING –

Peter Jackson serves up grand adventure the way it should be done, the way Hollywood’s reputation –and its publicity machine–always promise but so seldom deliver. The result is vividly cinematic yet sincerely faithful to the original book; Jackson and company take full advantage of Tolkein’s fantastic (in every sense) imagination, while wisely eschewing most of his less-than-elegant dialogue. The landscapes and imagery are genuinely breathtaking, with special effects that create a sense of awe but remain always in service to the story, never overwhelming it. Nor is the acting lost behind the makeup: Ian McKellen’s performance as the wizard Gandalf has been justly acclaimed, but notice should also be given to Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan as "secondary" hobbits (companions of Elijah Wood’s Frodo); they add a touch of levity to the predominantly somber mood just when necessary. It’s a rare delight when a Big Movie not only lives up to expectations but exceeds them. I’ll be standing in line to see Part Two next December.

MEMENTO –

Utterly unique, compulsively watchable, genuinely suspenseful, and just plain absorbing, Memento immediately left me wanting to see it again. I was severely skeptical about the concept of telling a mystery story backwards in time while still maintaining any sense of suspense, but it works. The intricate plot dances on the fence between confusion and intrigue, but never topples. Guy Pearce (the amnesiac protagonist), if he hasn’t quite broken through to "stardom" yet, remains an actor to watch (just as everyone said of him after L.A. Confidential)… and the presence of two cast members from The Matrix, in totally different roles, adds interest to the picture on a meta-narrative level.

PANIC –

I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to just about any film with William H. Macy in it, and this one actually has a story that lives up to his talent. Heaven only knows why it was given such a stealth release: the ways of film executives are as beyond the ken of ordinary mortals as they are beyond the reach of any rational sense of aesthetics, it would seem. Casting him as Donald Sutherland’s son may seem an odd choice, but Sutherland is wonderfully overbearing and creepy as a professional assassin intent on preserving the family business–and Macy’s quiet but tense efforts to reconcile the distorted ethos of the characters’ world makes for gripping viewing.

STARTUP.COM –

(Yes, dammit, it’s a documentary, but I feel no compunction to stay within the arbitrary constraint of "fictional" films. This is my list, so it’s on here.) Sometimes life really is stranger than fiction, and this is definitely one of those cases. If you’ve wondered what the insanity of the dot.com boom was like from the inside, without all the insulating layers of media hype… well, you can’t exactly say that this film offers a representative portrait, as any other company would surely have been just as strange in different ways, but the filmmakers did capture more than they set out to: not only the heady rise of an ambitious young company, but its decline and fall as well. From the outside, Kaleil Tuzman and Tom Herman’s corporate partnership ("govWorks.com") can arguably be seen as doomed from the beginning, even aside from the forces of the larger economy; Tuzman in particular seems to embody all the worst traits of stereotypical businessmen, young or old, and the personality clashes that arise have the aura of inevitability. Yet somehow he also embodies the curious sense of drive and charisma that keeps American capitalism going, despite all the forces of chaos that are captured so well in this film.


 

Let me toss in some honorable mentions, just because I can...

If this seems like a pretty robust list, and you’re inclined to wonder why I complained at the outset about 2001’s offerings, remember that these films stand out as memorable only against a severely handicapped field of competition. There was a moment there a couple of years ago when it seemed like serious studio dollars were finally starting to flow to people with some distinctive vision and artistic integrity, but now it seems almost all the decent work is once more flying under the industry radar. Only three of the movies I describe above were "major" releases, and several barely got released at all. Meanwhile the year offered plenty of disappointments that ranged from excruciating to, at best, moderately entertaining: From Hell, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Swordfish, The Others, Shrek, Harry Potter, A Beautiful Mind (although Russell Crowe once again rose above the mediocre material), The Man Who Wasn’t There, and many more… and keep in mind that I avoided most of the material I knew in advance I wouldn’t like (e.g., Pearl Harbor, Moulin Rouge, Planet of the Apes, Shallow Hal, Black Hawk Down, The Shipping News, I Am Sam, The Wedding Planner, Scary Movie 2, and far too many others to name as the list slides down toward the reportedly unprecedented ignominy of Freddy Got Fingered). There were too many weeks without anything even potentially worth seeing, and far too many talented people going to waste in uninspired and forgettable films. Where things go from here is anybody’s guess.

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