January 31, 2002
BY ADAM KEMPENAAR
1. Mullholland Drive
David Lynch's most alluring film since Blue Velvet takes familiar Lynchian conventions - doppelgangers, naive protagonists playing detective, and, naturally, a mysterious midget - and plops them into the twisted underbelly of Tinseltown. Thorougly mesmerizing, if not always comprehensible, this surrealist satire of the Hollywood dream-turned-nightmare is driven by Naomi Watts, whose schizo performance as the perky, aspiring actress Betty Elms ranks as the best of the year. Where does the road lead? Just buckle-up and go along for the ride.
Like Mulholland Drive, this mind-bender about a man (Guy Pearce) out to avenge his wife's murder despite being unable to form any new memories leaves you with more questions than answers. But whereas Lynch brazenly revels in keeping us from "solving" his mystery, Christopher Nolan compels us to try to do exactly that. The film's ingenious backwards structure puts us inside the main character's head, forcing us with each new scene to start putting the puzzle pieces together whether we want to or not.
3. In the Bedroom
A haunting, graceful debut from actor-turned-director Todd Field, In the Bedroom peels away the layers of guilt, frustration, and anger that surface when a middle-aged New England couple (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) try to move on after a tragic loss. Field's careful eye complements Robert Festinger's measured screenplay, in which every scene has its own dramatic arc, and no word or phrase seems meaningless. Spacek and Marisa Tomei are both superb, but it's Wilkinson (The Full Monty) who does the heaviest emotional lifting.
4. A Beautiful Mind
"It's a story about the mystery of the human mind, in three acts: genius, madness, reawakening," explained Sylvia Nasar in the prologue to her biography of John Forbes Nash, although it just as eloquently describes the film upon which it is based. Russell Crowe triumphs in this moving true story -- if not to the letter -- of the mathematical genius and lifelong schizophrenic, never reducing his character's illness to mere eccentricity. Remember the name Paul Bettany, who almost steals the whole show in a brief but memorable turn as Nash's witty, rabble-rousing Princeton roommate.
5. Black Hawk Down
Also inspired by a true story, Black Hawk Down is the unsettling account of a botched 1993 U.S. mission in Mogadishu that left 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somali soldiers dead. Director Ridley Scott captures the chaos and complexity of the biggest U.S. firefight since Vietnam without relying on macho war-movie clichés. Based on Mark Bowden's 1999 book, the film respects us enough to show us that there are no easy explanations for how such a seemingly well-planned, well-intentioned mission could spiral so out of control.
6. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson's (Rushmore) quirky, ensemble comedy about a troubled family of geniuses proves that what makes him so vital as a filmmaker isn't his laconic dialogue, offbeat characters, or deliberately stilted compositions -- it's the way he squeezes genuine pathos out of comic farce without one canceling out the other. In a movie loaded with talented young actors, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson, veteran Gene Hackman reigns supreme as the patriarch of this dysfunctional bunch.
7. Ghost World
Imagine Holden Caulfield if he were a product of the MTV generation -- and a girl. Terry Zwigoff's dark comedy about a semi-nihilistic 18-year-old trying to find her way in a world overrun by strip malls and superficiality is anchored by Thora Birch's (American Beauty) mature performance. Steve Buscemi is perfect as a pathetic but endearing record collector who connects with Enid and gives her someone to love -- or, at least, not hate so much.
8. Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch)
Set in the bustling streets of Mexico City, this intense, three-part story shows how a disparate group of people -- all of whom happen to own dogs -- intersect after a violent car crash. Dubbed the "Mexican Quentin Tarantino" because of his kinetic style, Alejandro González Iñárritu snares us from the opening scene and only slightly loosens his grip as the story unfolds. It's a fierce cautionary tale that illustrates how every choice we make, every action we take, has consequences.
9. Waking Life
Richard Linklater could arguably be called the Seinfeld of cinema. Much like his debut, Slacker, Waking Life is about nothing -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The movie follows a young man (Wiley Wiggins) through a series of philosophical discussions about the differences between dream-life and reality. Most of these talkie vignettes are thought-provoking, but it's the film's innovative, ethereal visual style that makes it so fascinating to watch. Linklater shot in live-action digital video, edited it, then brought in 30 computer-animators to enhance it.
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring
How important is picking the right director when bringing an immensely popular fantasy book to the big screen? Contrast Peter Jackson's imaginative, visually stunning J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation with Chris Columbus's by-the-book (pun intended) version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Has Jackson given us, as some of have claimed, the new Star Wars? Hey, let's not get crazy here; but don't be surprised when you catch me in line to see the next installment.
Honorable Mention: Amelie, Baby Boy, The Deep End, Gosford Park, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Lantana, Moulin Rouge, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Others, The Pledge, Training Day
Top Five Worst Movies of 2001
1. Shallow Hal
The only thing offensive about the latest Farrelly brothers' opus is how sanctimoniously smug it is. Despite respectable performances by Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow, it somehow manages to be just as patronizing as [insert sappy Robin William's movie here] but with fewer laughs.
2. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
So this is what 11 screenwriters and $80 million will get you? -- sterile direction, a mind-numbing story, soap-opera dialogue, and lousy acting.
3. How High
Chronic-ally bad. Redman and Method Man make Cheech and Chong look like Chaplin and Keaton.
Might be Ivan Reitman's most embarrassing film -- which is saying a lot when you consider that he also directed Father's Day, Junior, and Six Days, Seven Nights.
5. Corky Romano/Down to Earth/Joe Dirt (tie)
Saturday Night Live curse? What curse?