A Good Year for the Grosses
2001's Best Films
by Eddie Cockrell,  4 January 2002

Preliminary figures place the US box office take for 2001 at $8.35 billion, a full nine per cent above 2000ís record-setting mark of $7.7 billion. At this writing no less than five titles have broken the $200 million mark in individual domestic gross (Harry Potter and the Sorcererís Stone, Shrek, Monsters, Inc., Rush Hour 2 and The Mummy Returns), but, tellingly, theyíre all either franchise sequels or franchise establishers.

So why is everyone complaining that it was such a bad year at the movies? Well, for one thing, itís still not clear just how many people actually bought tickets (the numberís sure to be up over 2000, but may not best 1998ís record of 1.48 billion ducats moved). Also, many of the titles showing up on criticsí end-of-year tallies are independent and/or foreign, with few -- if any -- of the aforementioned top five grossers putting in an appearance (itís too early to tell exactly how much Lord of the Rings will make). Plus, most of the really popular movies had mid- to late-year openings, creating a true paucity of stick-to-your-ribs titles from January to May. Finally, the Oscar race is shaping up to be a free-for-all, with speculation veering wildly from the pseudo-edgy (A Beautiful Mind) to the animated (Shrek again); things are so wide open that two prominent critics at a major newsmagazine cited Baz Luhrmannís Moulin Rouge for end-of-year-honors -- one placed it among the yearís best, the other deemed it the worst. "The Case of the Cuckoo Kudos," Varietyís dubbed it, and that just about sums it up.

It is perhaps in that spirit that the following bakerís dozen of distinctive films is offered. In a year where grosses are healthy and the debate is spirited, everybody wins -- even the critics.

Memento
Director: Christopher Nolan, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

The little orphan indie that could, director Christopher Nolanís Memento owned cocktail-party conversation in the early part of the year on its way to nearly $30 million in ticket sales -- a remarkable tally for a film nobody wanted to distribute. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, whose bizarre case of memory loss dooms him to question the people and events around him in an endless loop of suspicion and uncertainty. Yet itís the structure of the film that both confounds and delights audiences willing to play the game, as the movie unfolds in a backwards narrative arc that never loses its way. Also worth seeking out is Nolanís low-budget debut feature Following (now out in a fine Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment DVD edition), a virtual sketchbook for Mementoís time-shifting plot. Next up for the currently hot director is a remake of Erik Skjoldbjśrgís moody 1997 existential Norwegian thriller Insomnia, to star Al Pacino and Hillary Swank. 


Divided We Fall
Director: Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic
review by Eddie Cockrell

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In the waning days of World War II, infertile couple Josef and Marie ČŪěek (Boleslav PolŪvka, Anna äiökovŠ) risk their lives to hide young Jewish prison camp escapee David (Csongor Kassai) in their storeroom -- right under the noses of the Nazis occupying their small Czech town and pre-war pal and current collaborator Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Duöek). When Marie rejects Horstís advances and he begins to suspect Davidís presence, the spurned would-be lover decides to get even by moving an emotionally shattered German officer into their flat, only to be told that against all odds Marie is pregnant. Based on a true story, Divided We Fall (the original Czech titles means something along the lines of "we must all help each other") is not only a masterfully balanced mixture of black comedy and life-and-death drama (a hallmark of the newly-invigorated Czech cinema), but a bravura  showcase for Polivka, who gives a tour-de-force performance as the comically combustible but forlornly dignified Josef. Director Jan Hřebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovskż have followed up their 1960s-set comedy-drama Cozy Dens (PelŪsky) with a memorable, emotionally draining film that was a hit at home and one of the Best Foreign Film Final Five in the 73rd Oscar sweepstakes.


Ali
Director: Michael Mann, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

The rap against Michael Mannís biopic charting one tumultuous decade (roughly 1963-1974) in the life of boxer Muhammad Ali is that itís cold and distant, never really getting inside the mind of the blustery, immensely talented fighter. Well, anyone who could claim that kind of intimate access to one of the eraís most manipulative and straight-talking celebrities would be a liar, which is part of the point. Employing the same hyperreal veracity he brought to the acclaimed -- and Oscar-nominated -- The Outsider, Mann harnesses the extraordinary lead performance of Will Smith to tell a story of individuality in an age of hot-button civil rights issues and the saga of one manís fight for respect in a milieu where men are treated like meat. Note the letter-perfect, real-time recreations of a number of pivotal bouts; the first Liston fightís leisurely, deliberate pacing is a tip-off to Mannís deliberate approach (thereís apparently so much unused footage that a few television trailers for the movie are composed primarily of unused sequences). And the much-maligned original score, by Dead Can Danceís Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, is a terrific evocation of the propulsive soul music of the decade. Close on the heels of his turn as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Michael Bayís punishingly heavy-handed Pearl Harbor, Jon Voigt is nothing less than spectacular as Aliís genial nemesis and staunch supporter, broadcaster Howard Cosell. 


In the Bedroom
Director: Todd Field, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

In a waterfront town in Maine, Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek) look on as their only son Frank (Nick Stahl) is involved in a tragedy through his relationship with older woman Natalie (Marisa Tomei). Making his directorial debut, director Todd Field presents a lacerating, agonizing portrait of a family on the skids, victims of cruel fate and their own agendas of frustration and loss. While established vet Spacek is attracting all the heat for her performance, the true star of In the Bedroom and the foundation upon which the entire film is built is Wilkinsonís Matt, the vehicle by which revenge is delivered. The English-born actor starred in the ensemble of the populist hit The Full Monty, but little of his subsequent work has hinted at the depth and skill of the grief-stricken Matt. Hereís a question to ponder: how can In the Bedroom be a kudos magnet, when the not dissimilar and equally powerful The Pledge -- directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson -- founders in relative oblivion? Itís the fickle nature of the box office, one supposes, tempered with the sheer joy of discovering a mature, thoughtful, provocative drama amidst the end-of-year commercial fireworks. 


Black Hawk Down
Director: Ridley Scott, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

As this is written Somalia is creeping back into the news as a potential haven for al-Qaeda forces, imbuing busy director Ridley Scottís Black Hawk Down (his third film in roughly eighteen months, following Gladiator and Hannibal) with a fresh urgency over and above the visceral narrative. An earthy yet ambivalent telling of the disastrous 1993 mission by American forces to extract a local warlord from downtown Mogadishu in the middle of the afternoon, the film is so ambivalent in presentation that hawks will be pumped by the show of military force, while doves will flinch at the human miscalculation and cruel fate that resulted in the deaths of some eighteen American servicemen. By any reading, Black Hawk Down is powerful, superbly crafted stuff, the first really important film from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and a movie that has all the earmarks of being in the right place at the right time. 


Donnie Darko
Director: Richard Kelly, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

One way to look at the 2001ís bounty is that it was such a good year for adventurous, risk-taking independents that among the very best of them got lost in the shuffle. Certainly thatís the case with the spooky and intermittently terrifying Donnie Darko, the noteworthy debut of talented writer-director Richard Kelly. In 1988 Virginia, the title character (played to spooky perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal) is haunted by bizarre hallucinations while dealing with his semi-functional family and the usual complement of flaky friends and nemeses. The special effects are unexpectedly elaborate for such a fiercely independent work, and feature such startling images as the engine of a jetliner crashing through the roof of a suburban house and a six-foot rabbit with what looks like a bugís mask that only our hero can see (itís Harvey gone amuck). Itís oddball worldview massaged by a superb pop-Goth score and just-right stunt casting (co-producer Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze and Noah Wyle pop up in supporting roles), Donnie Darko is among the yearís most audacious, confident movies.


The Man Who Wasn't There
Director: Joel Coen
review by Eddie Cockrell

What would a top ten list be without a movie by the Coen brothers? This yearís entry from the duo is the lovingly-constructed and stunningly-photographed tribute to films noir of the 1940s and 1950s, The Man Who Wasnít There. In the midst of a remarkable string of focused, weighty work, Billy Bob Thornton stars as small-town California barber Ed Crane, who breaks out of his self-imposed rut of silent observation by murdering the big-shot department store owner (James Ganolfini) whose having an affair with employee Doris (Frances McDormand) -- Edís flighty wife. Stylish and assured, the film lingers lovingly on the clothes and sets, but never loses sight of the intricate human games that give the genre its attractive urgency. With its deadpan narration and respectful treatment, The Man Who Wasnít There does for film noir what 2000ís O Brother Where Art Thou? did for the rural south. 


Va Savoir
Director: Jacques Rivette, France
review by Eddie Cockrell

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The literal translation of the title of Jacques Rivetteís latest feature is "Who knows?," and the question can be taken many ways in the context of the film. Six characters somehow involved in the production of a Pirandello play become intertwined with one another, led by the gamine-like Jeanne Balibar (currently an immensely popular actress on the French scene) as a thespian returning to the stage after some time off. One of the founding fathers of the French New Wave, Rivette is now seventy-three, but doesnít seem to have lost one iota of his wit or energy. His films are full of serenely confident men and women torn between duty and impulse, yet ultimately finding immense satisfaction in both. Moviegoers captivated by the deliberate yet rewarding Va Savoir are directed to selected previous works available in the United States, including Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Joan the Maid (1993) and Up/Down/Fragile (1999); you wonít be disappointed.


Startup.com
Director: Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

The ad campaign for Startup.com features the outline of two very small people rolling an immense black rock, or dot, up a steep incline. As this is the perfect graphic for the so-called "Dot-Com Fever" of the last millenniumís cusp, so too this exquisitely timed documentary is the no-holds-barred story of one such failed virtual business. Childhood friends Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman had a good idea for a utilitarian website, govWorks.com, but when they became overnight internet millionaires the money and fame went to their head and destroyed their business -- and their friendship. So much of documentary filmmaking is being at the right place at the right time, which is what makes Startup.com such a remarkable chronicle of an American era as embarrassingly profligate and irresponsible in hindsight as, say, Studio 54 was in the 1980s.


Ocean's Eleven
Director: Steven Soderbergh
review by Eddie Cockrell

For pure, what-the-hell genre pleasure, larded over with thick helping of contemporary Hollywood star wattage, it was tough to beat Steven Soderberghís glossy and seductively stylish remake of the Rat-Pack heist movie, Oceanís Eleven. Ostensibly an updating of that not-very-good caper film, this Oceanís Eleven plays more like a successful blend of Soderberghís incredibly nimble directorial style (heís his own cameraman, which helps) and star and chief instigator George Clooneyís own raffish image (they first collaborated on the equally stylish Out of Sight). With Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in tow, Clooney organizes a group of professional miscreants to knock over a seemingly impregnable casino vault owned by ruthless, fish-eyed owner Andy Garcia, wisecracking all the way. Vets Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould are terrific in support, though Julia Robertsí part seems a bit underwritten for her characterís importance to what plot there is. After a reportedly low-key chamber drama with Roberts (the title keeps changing), Soderbergh next plans to remake Andrei Tarkovskyís influential science fiction epic Solaris -- marking yet another chapter in contemporary Hollywoodís most dazzling and ingratiating career turnaround.


The King is Alive
Director: Kristian Levring, Denmark
review by Eddie Cockrell

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Stranded at an abandoned German mine in the middle of a vast and barren African desert, eleven bus passengers subsist on alcohol and tinned carrots while awaiting rescue. When former actor Henry (David Bradley) comes up with the odd notion of performing Shakespeareís King Lear from texts he scribbles on rolls of paper, the endeavor serves to heighten the already volatile emotional and sexual tensions amongst the group members. Two marriages, those of Ray and Liz (Bruce Davison, Janet McTeer) and Paul and Amanda (Chris Walker, Lia Williams) begin to unravel, while the self-serving liaison of Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Charles (David Calder) results in tragedy. The fourth official Dogme 95 production following The Celebration, The Idiots and Mifune (and the last by one of the movementís original founders to see release), The King is Alive is at once the most challenging and rewarding of the cycle to date: director Kristian Levringís confident, almost thriller-like approach is complemented by a fatalistic elusiveness, best summed up by Henry, who predicts "some fantastic striptease act of basic human needsÖ is man no more than this?" Next up in the American marketplace for the Dogme franchise is Lone Scherfigís delightful Italian for Beginners (see "The Best Movies You Havenít Seen Yet," below), the first Dogme comedy. 


Mulholland Drive
Director: David Lynch, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

The year was so good that this failed pilot for David Lynchís follow-up to the small-screen Twin Peaks, revamped and intercut with nearly an hour of newly-shot footage, captured the imagination of critics nationwide, a cadre of moviegoers perhaps so hungry for something determinedly elusive that the praise for this virtually un-followable movie approaches the hysterical. No matter: like Blue Velvet before it, the muddy narrative virtues and character idiosyncracies of Mulholland Drive become, over time, strengths, not weaknesses, woven together with sinister seductiveness by Lynchís menacing yet almost childlike vision. If itís a clearly-defined story you want, look elsewhere, but for doom and foreboding in the land where movies are made, Mulholland Drive is the address to find.


Series 7: The Contenders
Director: Daniel Minahan, USA
review by Eddie Cockrell

Every list needs a guilty pleasure, and this one has Daniel Minahanís supercharged, immensely funny spoof of reality television, Series 7: The Contenders. In an average-looking Connecticut suburb (actually a blending of two existing towns), a randomly selected group of average citizens gun each other down for cash and prizes -- not to mention the privilege of surviving until the next round (Series 8?). The spark of genius behind the film is Minahanís determination to play it completely straight, and the casting of TV vets in the supporting roles (save Brooke Smith as the determined, pregnant current champ, just about everyoneís got at least one credit on an episode of "Law and Order"). The results are dazzling, with future generations guaranteed to do a double-take when they rent a DVD and wonder how they could have missed the initial broadcast. Possessed of both sheer storytelling chutzpah and a real understanding of TVís most basic manipulative instincts, Series 7 is a love-it-or-leave it satire that beats the boob tube at itís own game. For similar fare set in another genre, try Wet Hot American Summer, but avoid Scary Movie 2 and Not Another Teen Movie -- or at least approach them with extreme caution. 


Films that could just as well have made the list, finished as a strong also-ran or were just plain fun include 

All are now or will shortly be available on DVD and/or home video, and each is worth a look.


The Worst of 2001 


The Most Overrated Film of the Year


The Best Movies You Havenít Seen Yet

Some of these films have American distributors and are in the release pipeline, others are still having their ad campaigns formulated, and at least five havenít even been bought yet. These titles are worth seeking out at any cost.

 

 

 


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