As it is just about every year, it would be easy and convenient to rake Hollywood over the coals for its persistent lack of original fare. After all, we are inundated with big-budgeted, special effects-driven junk ad nauseum, usually in the form of remakes or sequels. Originality is definitely not ruling the day.
Even in the face of more and more crap, 2001 will go down as the year when independent filmmaking (or independently spirited films) made a modest comeback. While the year seemed like an endless string of brain-teasers, the two best movies of the year, Christopher Nolan's Memento and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (a comeback within a comeback), were meditations on our state of mind. If we didn't get them right away, we spent virtually the rest of the year trying to. Whether trying to figure out the killer of Guy Pearce's wife before he can (and while watching in reverse order) in Memento, or watching Mulholland's Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring trying to figure out who they were, Nolan and Lynch proved that ultimately, we are who we want us to be. All involved deserve Oscar nods.
That's what makes movies great. They resonate. If the primary goal of a film is to take us somewhere unexpected for two hours, the great ones leave us there for a little longer than we'd expected or even wanted. The films you'll see on my Top 10 list are ones that stayed in my head days, even weeks afterward. It's no small coincidence that of those 10, all but one (Ghost World) were directed and at least partially written by the same person.
The musical attempted a comeback of small proportions as well, and with decidedly mixed results. While Baz Luhrmann's audacious Moulin Rouge was a misfire, John Cameron Mitchell's cinematic adaptation of his off-Broadway smash Hedwig and the Angry Inch was feisty, defiant and delectably small -- and provided the best original rock 'n' roll musical soundtrack ever. Both films played with pop-culture conventions, but Hedwig had more wit and, surprisingly, more heart.
Speaking of wit, Wes Anderson's (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) ensemble broken-family comedy The Royal Tennenbaums opened just in time to make the list. Anderson may be the best young director in the business, and Tennenbaums shows him growing and extending himself as he adds even bigger names (Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow) to his stable of actors who are dying to work with him. (If Hackman, who also starred this year in Heist, Heartbreakers and Behind Enemy Lines, doesn't get an Oscar nod for something, there is no God.)
The Royal Tennenbaums may well be the best American-made comedy of the year, but that's not saying much especially when considering the two best comedies of the year were Lukas Moodysson's Together (Sweden) and Lone Scherfig's Dogma 95 romantic comedy Italian for Beginners (Denmark). In Together's case, Moodysson deftly showed the importance of community over communalism in this gentle satire of the hippie culture of the late '60s and early '70s. Italian for Beginners showed that the disturbingly earnest (and sometimes pretentious) Dogma 95 movement can be sticky sweet in its look at lonely singles looking for love in an Italian class in suburban Copenhagen. Rare is the movie where you're cheering for just about every character to hook up.
Both films, by the way, were shown at October's New Orleans Film Festival, which had its best offering in years. Add to that list Patrick Stettner's The Business of Strangers. In a year almost devoid of films with quality roles for women, Stockard Channing delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as an embittered corporate shark who meets her spiritual match in snotty Julia Stiles.
Ghosts haunted us in 2001, but never better in Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (another mind-blower, come to think of it), with Nicole Kidman turning in an Oscar-worthy performance of a mother protecting her children in a haunted mansion. The ghostland that is suburbia received more than the usual ironic tweak in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, in which friends Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson find themselves drifting apart after high school.
And finally, there was Dominik Mol's excellent Hitchcock homage With a Friend Like Harry ..., about a mysterious man (Sergi Lopez) who ingratiates himself into the life of a former high school classmate (Laurent Lucas) and his family and turns his world upside down all in the name of making it right.
And so, my top 10: 1. Memento; 2. Mulholland Drive; 3. With a Friend Like Harry ...; 4. Together; 5. Hedwig and the Angry Inch; 6. The Royal Tenebaums; 7. Italian for Beginners; 8. The Others; 9. Ghost World; 10. The Business of Strangers.
Honorable mention: Amores Perros, Amalie, Apocalypse Now Redux, In the Mood for Love, Lumumba, Moulin Rouge, Ocean's Eleven.