I normally start my year-in-review column with a series of disclaimers, noting, for instance, that many of the films that open in New York and Los Angeles in December in order to qualify for Academy Award nominations don't open in New Orleans until January and February. Examples in 2001 were Robert Zemeckis' Castaway, a superb picture with a shipwrecked Tom Hanks facing existential reflection about dealing with life's inherent unfairness; Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, a complicated thriller about the federal government's incessant and hopeless war on drugs; and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee's instant martial arts classic about two warriors trying to retrieve a stolen sword. These are powerful candidates for a year-end honors list, but I'm choosing to leave them off as technically out of date.
Moreover, the necessary deadlines of a weekly publication mean that I am always writing before even those Christmas openings we get have appeared, further distorting what might be a more accurate annual summary were it written, say, in March. Those qualifications abide this year as ever. In addition, for the first time since Gambit began regular weekly publication in February of 1981, I have not been solely responsible for its film criticism. When I came to write this particular column in the past, I sat down to do so having seen all (or almost all) the films that had opened in our city the previous 12 months. That's not true this year. Among the significant films I did not see and review this last year were Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, Scott McGehee and David Siegel's The Deep End, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. So I cannot say whether I would have singled them out for special attention or not. In short, what follows does not and cannot pretend to be a comprehensive judgment about the year's best movies, but is, rather, a reflection on the films I saw. That said, I offer you a good list, with a dozen and more films worth seeking out as they become available on video.
Among the candidates that fell just short of my Top 10 were Amores Perros, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's triptych about Mexican families suffering from spiritual emptiness; The Center of the World, Wayne Wang's doomed romance urging self-regard as a requisite element in the recipe for love; Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer's contest of wills between a former criminal trying to live the good life on the proceeds of his ill-gotten gains and his boss' determination to drag him back into a life of crime; Baby Boy, John Singleton's brave and compelling, almost prophetic (in the Biblical sense) condemnation of infidelity and prideful defense of promiscuity in contemporary black culture; The Vertical Ray of the Sun, Tran Anh Hung's portrait of three contemporary Hanoi sisters; and Novocaine, David Atkins' black comedy about a successful dentist who throws away the good life when he falls for a drug addict.
Taking into consideration the qualifications noted above, my favorite 10 movies of 2001 were: 10. Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, a mixture of El Norte and Norma Rae, about mostly Hispanic immigrants laboring for minimum wage as janitors amid the glitter of incredibly prosperous Los Angeles; 9. The Tailor of Panama, John Boorman's delightful adaptation of the John Le Carre novel about a renegade British spy brewing up a batch of trouble in Central America; 8. The Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, an homage to film noir as a small-town barber blackmails his wife's lover and pitches himself into an avalanche of deception, suicide and murder; 7. Thirteen Days, Roger Donaldson's thriller about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which illustrates the thousands of ways in which the tiniest of human miscommunications could yet render eternal oblivion; 6. Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel's biography of a homosexual Cuban writer which provides a withering look at the inevitable need of the totalitarian regime to crush the artist; 5. The Widow of Saint-Pierre, Patrice Leconte's visually gorgeous, relentless and heartbreaking study of capital punishment; 4. Memento, Christopher Nolan's notably complicated thriller in reverse about a man with no short-term memory investigating the rape and murder of his wife; 3. Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff's terrific comedy about a disaffected teenager who becomes fascinated with a lonely older man; 2. Malena, Giuseppe Tornatore's visually arresting, thematically challenging, emotionally devastating story about a young soldier's wife who is tormented by the people of a small town for the sin of being beautiful; and last and by far the best, 1. Divided We Fall, Jan Hrebejk's War II drama about a Catholic Czech family who provide sanctuary for a Jewish concentration-camp escapee which develops bracing themes about human community and religious miracle.