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JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 2001 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)


THE TEN BEST FILMS
OF 2001

2001 was not the most incredible year for films, but there were a few that did stand tall. For the first time in a number of years, the choice for the best film of the year was not immediately apparent to me. I had to think through a small group of films for over a month, to finally realize that Todd Field's incredible directorial debut, In The Bedroom, was the year's best film. If there was a common theme to the films I admired the most in 2001, it would be that they were films of honest realism. Realism not in the sense of true stories, but realism in their portrayals of the human condition. Half the films on my list for 2001 were in this category, from the silences between characters in In The Bedroom, to the common day dialogues between characters in the offbeat Ghost World, to the incredibly moving romance of desperation in Monster's Ball, to the haunting true story of lost teens in today's society in Bully, and to the epic drama of a man who achieved brilliance while all the while suffering with schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind. The other half of my ten best this year mostly represent bold, epic filmmaking ... whether on the level of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece to a new classic adventure on screen, or a director boldly taking over another director's story to make something truly unique. Whether it was a legendary director boldly presenting a tragic yet heroic war film from just the recent past, or the boldness to take animation into a new realm, creating a fantasy making fun of fantasy animation, as we all laughed over and over again. And then there was one independent film which simply blew us away, forcing us to rethink the way we watch movies. In Memento and others on my list, we also met some incredibly fascinating characters, lived their lives in some truly unique ways (especially the way Christopher Nolan and Ron Howard told their stories to make us actually experience the same things that are happening in the minds of their characters). Characters were so deeply and richly drawn this year, that I remember the characters more often than the stories they found themselves in. Some of these ten film experiences in 2001 haunted me with images I can't forget, some inspired me to new heights of human capability, some outright entertained me, and a couple made me simply marvel with awe ... the best of what films can do.


1. IN THE BEDROOM

Like my best film of the year two years ago, American Beauty, a first time director delivered an absolute masterpiece of a film experience, in another film where the story of the characters drives the plot instead of the plot driving them. And it's even more true in this haunting film. Todd Field, who played the piano player in Eyes Wide Shut, directs this quiet yet tense drama filled with absolutely incredible performances. Field does so many revolutionary things in the way he presents his story, and it contributes to an experience which leaves you drained not from the tension of an action scene, but the tension of silences between loved ones, and the building tension of retribution and anger.

Field starts off very interestingly by making you feel that you're about to watch a film centered on the love affair between a younger man and an older woman. Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl play the happily in love couple. Tomei's character is in the process of getting divorced from a violent man who still has too much violence pent up in him. You can sense the violence as the tension builds, and all of a sudden, the film shifts, as it becomes the story of the young man's parents, and their struggle to survive the unspeakable tragedy they must endure. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are absolutely flawless in their performances as Nick Stahl's parents, and Field lets the drama of what would truly happen to these characters happen. Field takes chances which pay off beautifully. Just as in real life, dramatic moments between people in the film are interrupted by the mundane of life. When Tom Wilkinson goes to the store where Marisa Tomei works for the first time, their dramatic exchange is interrupted by a customer, and Field doesn't cut away, but lets us see the reality of that situation. He does the same thing when Wilkinson and Spacek engage in their most dramatic discussion in the film, as they are interrupted by a young girl selling door to door. Field allows his characters to breathe and act truly human, and that makes the film grow with such quiet tension, that it's a truly remarkable achievement. The more these characters stay quiet and reserved from each other, the more the dramatic tension builds, where even the mundane of mowing the lawn and the quiet of regular daily routines becomes dramatic. By the end, you really feel that you have endured what these characters have endured, and I was left with the feeling that we had another film classic on our hands, where we had a clear example of why films are so much better when the characters drive the story, instead of the other way around.

Each character in this absorbing film is fully realized. These characters hide so much, and it is truly powerful when they finally break down and say what they feel. Marisa Tomei gives one of her greatest performances as the woman who feels so responsible for the tragedy that happens to Wilkinson's and Spacek's son, and her story is just as moving and tragic, especially when she finally gets up the courage to approach Sissy Spacek, to only get slapped in the face, a truly surprising moment. Sissy Spacek proves once again why she is still a wonderful actress of such depth. William Mapother seethes evil in his stunning performance, and Tom Wilkinson is absolutely convincing as the father and husband struggling with not only the tragedy of their son's death, but also the tragedy of his marriage falling apart. Todd Field proves that there is indeed drama to be found in the extraordinary lives of ordinary human beings, and In The Bedroom is a film which leaves its influence on you from the moment you see it, and it clearly deserves the title of the year's best film.



2. A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

When Stanley Kubrick died, I figured one of the exciting projects he was developing would die with him ... the story of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But thankfully, Kubrick had consulted with Steven Spielberg about the film, and Spielberg made it a priority to make the film. What Spielberg ended up creating is nothing short of yet another masterpiece, one sadly ignored by most audiences, critics, and award organizations. Spielberg stepped to yet another level in his maturity as a director, this time melding his own style with the style of another pure genius, Stanley Kubrick. I was just in awe of this film from almost start to finish. Spielberg wrote the screenplay adaptation for the film, the first time he's done that since Close Encounters. The film is a thoughtful and sometimes frightening look at our possible future, where robots become so advanced to ultimately seem entirely human. A.I. tells the fascinating story of a visionary scientist, played by William Hurt, who feels that robots are ready for the next step in their evolution. "Meccas", as they are called, have been around for many years now, but none have the ability to actually love. Hurt makes it his mission to create one, and comes up with David, played brilliantly by Haley Joel Osment. Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor play the parents of a young boy who is in a coma, and they volunteer to be the first parents for this first David prototype, as they activate David to love. We see how the mother and the robot begin bonding, and yet we also see the inherent problems in trying to replace a real child with a robot child. Soon, when the mecca is causing too much trouble, the mother must leave David out in the woods, in a heartwrenching scene. From there, the film takes a different turn, as David emerges into the world of the meccas, all attempting to find his mother. He meets another mecca, played brilliantly by Jude Law, and Spielberg steps more into Kubrick land with the stunning art direction of a future world. The ending is purely spectacular, and fully in step with Kubrick's style. The audience is left to decide what has happened, as David travels to a New York almost completely immersed under water. He becomes stranded underwater for thousands of years, until finally, much more evolved meccas (apparently having taken over Earth), find him through an excavation and grant him his final wish.

It's a film of incredible scope and magnitude, with questions and ponderings on the future which are truly fascinating. Haley Joel Osment does not hit one false note, as he is completely believable as a robot. Some criticized the ambiguous nature of the ending, but this is what made 2001: A Space Odyssey so brilliant ... an ending which was open to interpretation. A typical Spielberg story of a robot yearning to be a real human is set against a more Kubrickian version of the future, and the style meshes together brilliantly. I still would have been fascinated to see how Kubrick would have made this film, but Spielberg proves to me at least that he is still one of our most gifted film directors. The film is filled with many provocative ideas, and Spielberg should be given credit for still managing to distance himself from what could have been a much warmer film. This is still a very cold, more detached kind of film that Spielberg has presented, and when Spielberg goes against his typical style, he always comes up with a masterpiece. The technical achievements of visual effects, art direction, cinematography, sound, and more cannot be overstated. This is the finest technical moviemaking on display all year.



3. A BEAUTIFUL MIND

This was one of two magnificent films this year where the director managed to actually make us experience what is going on in the main character's mind. We experience the world just as they are, and both succeeded admirably. Ron Howard did a masterful job of presenting a true story about a mathematician who suffered from schizophrenia, and actually made it an engaging, epic human drama. Russell Crowe gives yet another Oscar caliber performance as John Forbes Nash, Jr., proving once again that he is becoming one of our most versatile and accomplished actors. He clearly deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar for the second year in a row (he should have won it for The Insider the year before instead of Gladiator last year). Crowe completely disappears into this role, and the cast and Ron Howard take what could have been a very boring subject matter into a powerful and absorbing film experience. The film is vast in its scope, covering Nash's life from his days at a student who never attends classes searching for his original idea, all the way through his battle and ultimate triumph over schizophrenia, and his more recent victory being awarded the Nobel Prize. More than almost any other film about a mental illness, Ron Howard was able to clearly let us experience what schizophrenia is like, as we begin by experiencing the visions of his life and the people that Nash has, to the point where we even doubt if they are real or not when Nash begins treatment. Jennifer Connelly is also proving to be a versatile actress of some depth, playing the long suffering but valiant Alicia, Nash's wife, who in the film stands by him all the way through. Nash's journey is an incredibly emotional one, especially as Nash tries to fight the illness himself, without medication. One of the most powerful lines in the film is when Nash attempts to argue that he can work through the schizophrenia if he just applies his mind, but he is told that the problem is IN his mind. Very few films have the power to bring me to tears, but when Nash returns to the campus where he was once a student, and is told he is being considered for the Nobel Prize, the emotion of this journey of this man's life simply overtook me. So, sure, it's the type of movie simply tailor made for Academy Awards, but Ron Howard and all the cast involved earn all of them they may win for managing to not only present the story of one man's incredible life, but allowing the audience to take that journey through the mind of Nash himself. So not only does Russell Crowe deserve another Oscar, it's time for Ron Howard to finally claim his.



4. MONSTER'S BALL

This is the film I simply cannot get out of my mind. Like In The Bedroom, Monster's Ball is another film of enormous power that allows its characters to tell the story. And the two main characters in this film are so richly drawn and performed, and their love story is so incredibly moving. The film's story takes place in the early 90's. Billy Bob Thornton plays a Death Row guard who comes from a racist family, who sends a black man (played by Sean Combs) to his death in the electric chair. The condemned man's long suffering wife is played by Halle Berry, in what is the best performance by an actress given all year. The two meet by chance one night, and it's amazing to watch how deliberately and cautiously that the film allows their relationship to form. The two don't even know their mutual connection through the executed man until much later on. You actually believe that these two desperate individuals are slowly falling in love, but it's because of their loneliness, their mutual sadness, their desperation to have found each other. Director Marc Forster avoids all of the cliches that a less accomplished film could take with this kind of story. It's absolutely brilliant how Forster avoids making this a story about interracial relationships, allowing Billy Bob Thornton to slowly let go of his racist upbringing. The film is ultimately about two lonely, desperate people who find each other and stick with each other because they need each other, they have to have each other, so while not completely love in its most basic definition, it's a sad kind of desperation that brings these people together. The film is unfliching, raw, disturbing, and ultimately incredibly subtle in how it handles its story, giving all of its characters room to actually live. The themes of abuse are all through this film, Thornton's character having been abused, and Berry abusing her overweight son in some of the most disturbing scenes in the film. By the end, I was still so moved by Halle Berry's amazing performance and her character, one of the most fully realized female characters on screen in quite some time. If there's one Oscar winner I'm pushing for the most this year, it's for Halle Berry to deservedly take the Best Actress Oscar. What an accomplishment. The film's ending is honest, true, and realistic ... a triumph of screenwriting, directing, and acting.



5. BLACK HAWK DOWN

Three years ago, Steven Spielberg redefined the war film, and forever set a new standard for how to portray the reality of the brutality of war on film. Ridley Scott, one of our most accomplished and stylistic film directors, takes that same kind of style and sustains it over an entire film. Black Hawk Down is an unflinching, brutal, and powerful portrait of modern warfare, coming at a time when American forces find themselves embroiled in combat again across the globe. Ridley Scott has already proven what a masterful epic director he can be in his past films, and he takes the impossible task of presenting a chaotic true war story in a manner where we can actually follow what is going on, and feel like we're actually there, experiencing the carnage as it occurs. This film chronicles the true story of what happened in 1993, when U.S. forces were attempting to go in to Somalia to quickly capture a Somali warlord who was withholding food from millions of Somalis. Scott sets the stage brilliantly with a powerful opening credits sequence which explains the historical context for why America was there and how the situation was unfolding in Somalia. Once one of the Black Hawk helicopters goes down, the film never lets up in portraying what became the longest sustained military engagement since the Vietnam War at that time, which resulted in the deaths of 18 American soldiers and the horrifying portrait of Somalis dragging the corpse of a soldier through the streets of Mogadishu, the image we all remember from that conflict. Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, and the rest of the cast all give solid performances. Even though the film does not have time to develop these characters in depth, the film is ultimately about the battle, and it was wise to keep its focus there. It's not a typical war film by any means, and by that, it transcends its genre. It's a technically accomplished film, portraying a powerful war story which doesn't present its take on the battle one way or the other, except to simply say that war is hell. Will we ever have a day where war will no longer exist? Of course, watching the movie through the eyes of the war on terrorism may have affected me even more, but either way, this is a powerful testament to the spirit of American fighting men that is clearly needed at a time like this.



6. MEMENTO

The most interesting and boldest film experiment of the year had to Christopher Nolan's Memento. It's the brilliant type of film that requires the viewer to participate fully. The story involves a man played by Guy Pearce, who is trying to unravel a mystery. The thing is though that he has no short term memory, so he always forgets things only moments after they happen. To maintain his memories, he has to rely on Poloroid photographs, notes to himself, and even notes written on his body. He has to piece everything together from these notes, as he cannot rely on his memory. But Nolan does something incredibly brilliant and revolutionary ... to allow us to fully understand what it's like for the main character to have no long term memory, he presents the story in reverse. The film begins with Guy Pearce shooting a man, and we move backward through the story trying to make sense of everything just as the main character is. It's a style that takes a lot of getting used to, and typically requires multiple viewings. But the design is genius and effective ... it forces us to remember things in a much different way, remembering a future event to understand its context when we see the past event which comes after it in the film! It's a jigsaw puzzle which is so brilliantly executed, a film experiment that succeeds admirably. Like Mike Figgis did last year with Time Code, Christopher Nolan is interested in redefining how we watch a movie, and I hope we see more such experiments in the future.



7. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

Director Peter Jackson deserves a lot of credit ... he was bold enough to step into the directors chair to film J.R.R. Tolkien's massive story of The Lord of the Rings, film a trilogy of films all at once, and then succeed with both die hard fans of the original story, and people who hadn't even read Lord of the Rings. We'll be getting two more films in the trilogy in the next two years, and hopefully they will match the stunning and enjoyable adventure which Jackson has delivered with the first part. Three hours in length, it's a sprawling and visually exciting epic telling the legendary story of Frodo and the ones who join him in his quest he didn't ask for to not let the minions of evil find the mysterious, all powerful ring he now finds himself in possession of. Ian McKellen plays the wizard Gandalf, in an incredible performance. I was also impressed with the performances of Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood. If this film had come out in my youth, I would no doubt be incredibly fascinated with the adventure, and even much older now, this film reminded me how magical and fun the movies can be. Jackson is able to completely immerse us in this other time and place, and even manages to make this first installment a solid film on its own, not just a cliffhanger into the next film. Today's advances in visual effects have finally made it possible to present the stunning imagery from Tolkien's masterpiece. I must admit that I was never an ardent follower of the Lord of the Rings story, and I think some of the people trumpeting this film as the year's best film are the ardent fans who've waited for this film for many years. It's an accomplished achievement and thrilling adventure, but not quite the best film of the year. I will say that I now have much more anticipation for the next film than I most likely did to see this first film.



8. GHOST WORLD

This was another delightful film achievement from 2001 which was a completely character driven film. This film is almost without plot, but it remains utterly fascinating and enjoyable. Certainly much lighter in tone than some of the others on my list, director Terry Zwigoff presented a realistic and honest film about some offbeat, regular people simply trying to live their lives. Thora Birch, one of our most brilliant teen actresses, takes the lead in this film, as Enid, a lost 18-year-old who is trying to find her way. She doesn't want to admit sometimes to her eccentricities and loneliness, so she calls up a personal ad, to revel in the pathetic life of someone else. She ends up seeing the pain caused by this fake call, and begins a strange relationship with the man. Steve Buscemi gives one of his greatest performances as a pathetic loner in his 40's, whose only real happiness in life seems to come from his passionate collecting of old 78rpm records. Seeing the relationship between these two unfold is humorous, uplifting, and completely believable. On a much lighter and different level, these two are somewhat like Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, clinging to each other because in a way, they need each other for no other reason than that you sense there is no one else in this world who would be with either one of them. The dialogue is rich and well written, and the two lead performances incredibly accomplished, playing two characters of such depth and richness ... not richness of wealth, but richness of human reality.



9. SHREK

2001 was another winning year for animation, and the best of them came from Dreamworks. Shrek, which also ended up becoming one of the most successful films at the boxoffice, was a true delight for children and their parents alike. It was again one of those animated films that can appeal to all ages. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and John Lithgow all provided their voice talents to this beautifully computer animated fairy tale that turns traditional fairy tales on their head. The film makes several obvious funny jabs at Disney fairy tales, even having fairy tale creatures like Pinocchio and the Seven Dwarfs being locked up by the king at the film's beginning. Myer's Shrek is an ogre, not your typical animated fairy tale hero. When the fairy tale creatures invade his swamp, he begins a "quest" along with his new-found donkey friend (voiced hilariously by Eddie Murphy), which leads him to the unconventional Princess and the even more unconventional evil king. While the film takes jabs at all the conventions of fairy tale animation, it manages to still have a heart, telling a story about acceptance and image that resonates with children and adults alike. The advances in computer animation continue to amaze me, with not only this film, but also the enjoyable Monsters, Inc.. Shrek is unlike any other fairy tale hero, as he doesn't set out to be a hero, or to get the girl, he simply wants his swamp back so he can live his life. But by the end, he DOES get the girl, becomes a hero, and has changed somewhat. Sounds like a traditional fairy tale, but Shrek is anything but traditional.



10. BULLY

One of the most disturbing films of the year had to Larry Clark's sobering and brutal true story of lost teenagers, Bully. The fact that this is a true story makes the impact even more powerful. Larry Clark has once again captured the anguish and lost feelings of certain teenagers in today's society. In this film, Brad Renfro plays Marty, who becomes tired of the constant abuse he receives from his friend Bobby, played by Nick Stahl (poor Nick Stahl had to die twice on screen this year!) At the prodding of his girlfriend Lisa (played brilliantly and coldly by Rachel Miner), he becomes convinced it would be cool to kill him. It's sobering to see these teens, and how they don't think about the implications of what they're doing. It's scary to think that some of today's teenagers have been so overprivileged and provided for that they now are bored and looking to do something rebellious, to the point where the consequences of murder don't even factor into their minds. Soon, the group is plotting with some others, including a semi-professional hitman, and they begin slowly formulating a plan for how to kill Bobby. The coldness and calculation with which they plan this murder is as brutal to watch as is the actual murder. Of course things don't go as cleanly as planned, and all begins to fall apart, ultimately resulting in jail for all of them, and the death penalty in one case. It's amazing to see how these teens think that there's nothing wrong with what they're doing, as they spend most of their days having sex and doing drugs. Murder seems to be just an extension of their sex and drug lives. Larry Clark spares nothing in his brilliant film, where even the continued footage of these kids having sex and the nudity become sad in a way. The teens in the cast all give flawless performances, particularly Rachel Miner, as one of the saddest young teens I've ever seen on film. Clark's film was a sobering wake up call to parents raising teens now or in the future ... something must be done so that these teens don't feel so lost or alone. The big question is though, can anything be done?


DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR - BEST INDEPENDENT FEATURE FILM:
THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT

What can you say about a musical/western/science fiction/comedy like The American Astronaut? How can you not admire a film which contains a character named Bodysuit, a dance contest, two thugs who sing in a restroom (Hey Boy!), the worship of a Boy Who Saw Woman's Breast, and a song about the woman whose vagina was made of glass??? Actor/Director/Screenwriter/Musician Cory McAbee is the brilliant mind from which all this sprung, creating an absolutely enjoyable and thoroughly original film classic. McAbee directs himself in the title role of the American Astronaut, Samuel Curtis. He's an interplanetary trader who travels a bizarre solar system, unaware that his old friend Professor Hess is trying to kill him. Hess is a wonderfully original villain, who wipes out everyone around him who means nothing to him, while seemingly never wanting to kill the person he is pursuing the most. Along on this journey, McAbee stages some outrageous set pieces, continuing to surprise with each new sequence. You keep wondering, who could have come up with all this? McAbee films the story in black and white, and he also is able to use minimal settings on a lower budget, as we are convinced that Samuel Curtis is indeed in some strange rustic universe. His spaceship doesn't even look like a spaceship, but we don't care. From the beginnings of the journey when we think Curtis is about to be captured by two henchman who instead do a musical number in the restroom (!), to the dance contest in which Curtis participates in, to the musical number of McAbee performing the aforementioned song about a glass vagina, this film is one genuine burst of originality after another. McAbee is also a wonderful musician and composer of the songs for this most different of musicals, including a song about silver miners and their history of one day humping each other to one day achieving a superior intellect. Watch out for the space punies though! Wearing so many hats for this film, McAbee clearly is the driving force behind this film, but he's joined by a superb supporting cast of wonderful individuals who make this whole crazy, bizarre world seem believable. While most people said that Moulin Rouge redefined the genre of the musical this year, I would say this one takes it in even more interesting directions. This film is a must see, and get the soundtrack too for just as much enjoyment.


DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR - BEST INDEPENDENT SHORT FILM:
BREATHS

Amy Ellison's short film was produced out of the Florida Film School, and was a very effective short fiction story about a young woman's struggle to fit in at school. Her handicap is that her mother requires her to always carry her inhaler to school (she has asthma). Everytime this young woman has tried to make a friend, once the inhaler comes out, they usually run. She finally does encounter another girl who doesn't seem to mind her eccentricities, and the two form a relationship. Ellison does a very good job of telling a very emotional yet funny story over the length of a short film. She manages to have us laughing and feeling sorry for this character at the same time. Wonderful work.


Honorable Mentions
In Order of Where They Would Fall Next

MOULIN ROUGE
THE MAJESTIC
OCEAN'S 11
VANILLA SKY
MULHOLLAND DRIVE
THE OTHERS
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY
THE SCORE
K-PAX
MONSTERS, INC.
ANGEL EYES
AMELIE