A Year in the Dark 

Is it possible that 2001 was actually a good year for movies?

Otherworldly

Common Year 2001 exploded with uncommon cinema.
By Gregory Weinkauf

Generally, in the realm of motion pictures, producers are evil, actors are pathetic, screenwriters are delusional, agents are bottom-feeders, and true directors scarcely exist. Contrary to the glitzy stories the mainstream media continually jam down your throat, making movies is quite often an ugly, unpleasant business, based on the ultimate goal of separating you from your hard-earned. If the corporate tie-ins aren't shoving you toward the box office, the moronic payola "critics" are, and even if a movie tanks (or stanks), you're being trained to own it, own it, own it on DVD. In this distasteful environment, the discerning consumer scarcely stands a chance.

But, whoa. What's this? As far as cinema is concerned, did we just have ... a good year? Why, it sure looks like it -- quite possibly a great year. If you can get past the junk -- with titles not unlike Drek, Drivel, Monsters Stink, Ocean's Elegy, and Don't Lay a Turd (tagline: "I'll never smell...") -- there was much to rock and revel to in 2001. Come, let us survey the field of recent cinematic endeavor.

Last winter, in an unusual move, Hollywood forewent its usual bevy of babes long enough to sell us two portly old actors waddling through dire circumstances. With Sean Penn's The Pledge and Ridley Scott's Hannibal, we got Jack Nicholson (doing his crude Christian Slater imitation) and Anthony Hopkins (punching the "aplomb" button) representing two sides of murderous evil and AARP eligibility. Both films are gloriously atmospheric, a tad boring, and end on nasty downers, but at least we learned that Benicio Del Toro has a talent for Muppet voices and Ray Liotta has brains. Well, had brains, anyway, but post-sauté he got himself wedged into the cleavage of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in the ironically flat Heartbreakers.

Speaking of which: Attention, Mr. Hackman, please take a year off to refresh yourself! Heartbreakers was one of five feature outings for our friend Gene this year, revealing -- along with The Mexican (clunky), Behind Enemy Lines (pointless), The Royal Tenenbaums (floundering), and Heist (utterly lousy) -- that the septuagenarian thesp works in exactly two modes: pugnacious jerk and sappy jerk. Spewing Heist's ultra-trite dialogue by director David Mamet (who also trited up Hannibal), Gene actually makes one pine for the year's (shudder) superior caper movies, such as Frank Oz's The Score and Barry Levinson's Bandits. Really, did we do something wrong? Is this stuff a punishment?

But I mentioned a good year, right? With a few exceptions (we'll get to them), it was mostly uphill from this fodder. The ever-dependable Johnny Depp came through twice for us -- oddly, both times in praise of narcotics. Adding glamorous sleaze to Ted Demme's American coke epic, Blow, Depp traded on every '70s hairstyle in the book, yet still avoided upstaging adventurous costars Penélope Cruz, Paul Reubens, and Franka Potente (the Run Lola Run star who reteamed with Tom Tykwer for the less-than-dazzling The Princess and the Warrior). Depp also played with laudanum while sniffing out Ian Holm in Albert and Allen Hughes' wicked adaptation of Alan Moore's dense Jack the Ripper comic, From Hell.

There was also a lot of impressive material out there having to do with the shocking thesis that alienated people tend to feel alienated. In Charlotte Gray, Cate Blanchett (aka the female Gene Hackman) takes her stab at the ultimate Outsider Chick. She's eclipsed, however, by Thora Birch in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World and Leelee Sobieski in Christine Lahti's My First Mister, who hit their miserable notes with rare precision, even if their overwrought performances aren't much fun to behold. Essentially dismal and hopeful sides of the same archetype (arty girl who hates everyone), the films gave us memorable work from Steve Buscemi and Albert Brooks, who stride the volatile middle ground between boyfriend and patriarch.

Actually, a dearth of dependable fathers informed a great many movies this year, ranging from ambitious indie trash such as Cory McAbee's The American Astronaut to schmaltzy Hollywood fare such as Irwin Winkler's Life as a House and Scott Hicks' Hearts in Atlantis. Confused, disturbed young men roamed the cinema, as usual, from John Singleton's touching Baby Boy to Eric Bana's grisly, engrossing portrayal of Mark "Chopper" Read in Andrew Dominik's Chopper to Guy Pierce (all teeth and torso) in Christopher Nolan's mildly diverting gimmick flick Memento to Jake Gyllenhaal striding the beautiful nightmare realm of Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. (The latter is one of three films this year -- including Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast and Mia Trachinger's Bunny -- to feature a huge, anthropomorphized rabbit, but that's another essay.) Even Ali fits this mold, although only its first, Sam Cooke-tinged segment really flies, and the producers missed a golden opportunity to cast superior actor Jeffrey Wright in the lead.

To stave off the misery of isolation, the cinema turned to romance, and, happily, a lot of it worked. English comedian Ben Elton transformed his book Inconceivable into Maybe Baby, a smart comedy involving Joely Richardson and Hugh Laurie as a yuppie couple desperately trying to get pregnant. Freaky Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet made the dream girl flesh -- thanks to saucer-eyed minx Audrey Tautou -- in his wantonly flashy Amélie, and Finn Aku Louhimies' supremely sexy Restless depicted yet another disoriented young fellow, who -- like his Icelandic counterpart in the delightfully charming 101 Reykjavik -- learns to get it on (life, that is). Sure, we had to deal with slop like Kate & Leopold (Want chivalry, girls? Try being pleasant), but when a pic like Monster's Ball overcomes its dreary racist clichés (and yet more pathetic fathering) with hot love via Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, there must be hope.

Ghost stories were also in no short supply in 2001, including both effects-laden emptiness such as Thirteen Ghosts and extremely spooky nerve-janglers, including Brad Anderson's excellent Session 9. In one of the year's weirdest simultaneous collusions and severings, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise got spooky in The Others and Vanilla Sky, respectively, with the Great Red Hope's former flame producing Alejandro Amenábar's misty English spook-fest while starring in Cameron Crowe's odd but engaging remake of Amenábar's Abre los Ojos. While there were still plenty of movies bent exclusively on kicking ass -- Swordfish, The Fast and the Furious, the reprehensibly vulgar Black Hawk Down (aka Blacks Shot Down), etc. -- popular cinema revealed a distinct turn toward spectral encounters.

And, lastly, let us not forget the many movies featuring people being chased by digital stuff that isn't actually there. These films tend to take an unfair beating by stodgy practitioners of this trade, but fun's fun, and this year we were afforded awesome kicks along with Brandon Fraser in The Mummy Returns and Henry Selick's way-underrated Monkeybone (Tim who?), plus some guy with big boobs running around shooting stuff in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the amusing Jurassic Park III, and the striking Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, wherein actors finally became unnecessary.

Was it a great year? Heck, when the list of runners-up includes terrific must-sees such as The Dish, A Beautiful Mind, In the Bedroom, Last Orders, Last Resort, Our Song, Mulholland Drive, Chain Camera, Rush Hour 2, Snide and Prejudice, Training Day, and Iron Monkey, the question answers itself. Now here's la crème de la crème.

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