20/20 Hindsight: The Best Movies of 2001

2001 was a hard year; no doubt about it.  But, as ever, at least we had the movies to keep as limping forward to the end-of-the-year finish line.  The world that was might have been coming down around us, whose aftershocks would continue to be felt well into the present day, but the silver screen provided us with some desperate reprieve from the real-world horrors unfolding around us.  From vibrant new voices to the measured hands of old masters, from the fruits of an increasingly global movie industry to the unlikeliest of experimental art, there was always something to take our mind off the nascent 21st century unfolding day by day.

10. The Happiness of the Katakuris

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, The Happiness of the Katakuris might just be the strangest movie I’ve ever seen.  Coming from the singularly bizarre mind of Japanese mainstay Takashi Miike, it was aptly advertised as “The Sound of Music meets the Dawn of the Dead.”  Part animated, part live-action — part comedy, part horror, part musical — this generic catch-all is the oddest assortment of disparate moviemaking elements, and yet everything slips so seamlessly together that its apparent strangeness soon just seems like just another day in the life of this soon-to-be highway-adjacent family.  Weird, wonderful and thoroughly distinct, it’s the kind of movie that you have to see to ever believe at all.

9. Donnie Darko

I’m tempted to say that this puzzling indie sci-fi drama’s reputation has ballooned to such monolithic levels of pop cultural iconography that, like Clerks (1994), Ghost in the Shell (1995) or The Matrix (1999), it might be easy for incoming movie fans to wonder what the big deal was with this movie in the first place.  It looks, sounds and feels like half a dozen other, in many ways better sci-fi movies.  The Harvey (1950)-esque Black Bunny is weird, the ending borders on obtuse and everything plays out in such a way that it’s easy to miss the point of it all by the end.  But like those aforementioned movies, its bones have been so thoroughly picked over by the trend-chasing Hollywood studios that what should be a standout in its genre is merely the forerunner of a whole slew of angsty, hyper-technical, intentionally obtuse sci-fi flicks.  And yet it occupies a certain sweet spot that its cinematic descendants inherently lack: it’s more accessible than Primer (2004), carries more narrative weight than Looper (2012) and is overall more entertaining than Predestination (2014), making it the ideal gateway into independent genre films of the last two decades.

8. Amelie

Normally, Amelie‘s just not the kind of movie that would warrant a second look from me.  Like pretty much every movie Wes Anderson ever made, it has a certain sort of dollhouse charm that I can rarely bring myself to care about: sugary pastel compositions, storybook logic-driven narratives and insufferably quirky characters that simply don’t act in accordance to what actual people do.  And yet, I find myself constantly drawn back to Amelie for skillfully handling this laundry list of quirky narrative choices and transforming what should be an insufferably saccharine story into something delicate and beautiful.

7. Pulse

When people think of J-Horror, more often than not they think of the big crossover hits that struck it big with Americans starting in the late 90s.  They think of movies like Ringu (1998) and The Grudge (2004).  Rarely do they think of this shockingly thoughtful meditation on death in the 21st century — of the intersection of technology and matters of the soul, and what effect either might have on the other.  Although it too was remade into a garish, Americanized film that somehow entirely missed the point of the original movie, it stands as a virtual unknown quantity among even the most diehard horror fans (many of which seem perfectly eager to forget everything Hollywood did to the genre between Hellraiser (1987) and Let the Right One In (2008).  And more’s the shame, for this really is one of the best movies of its kind out there and deserves as robust of a reception as either the horror or the general moviegoing public can manage.

6. The Devil’s Backbone

Guillermo del Toro is unquestionable one of the great cinematic artisans of our time.  His artisanally crafted films look and feel like custom-built masterpieces: intricately detailed, exquisitely crafted and singularly made.  His work treads the often overlooked line between fantasy and horror, finding beauty in ghouls and the terror in magical creatures.  And for what it’s worth, The Devil’s Backbone is the best movie he ever made.  Although shortsighted cineastes might be quick to dismiss it as an early draft of his better-received Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), it’s merely an adjacent work that fulfills a complimentary, if entirely separate, need.

5. Spirited Away

For Miyazaki fans, the hard decision of his best feature always seems to come down to Princess Mononoke (1997) or Spirited Away.  While my heart will always be with the former, I cannot deny the cinematic power and breathtaking beauty of the latter: maybe not his best film, but certainly his most polished.  The attention to detail, vivacity of movement and inventive worldbuilding that Miyazaki is able to do here is nothing short of astounding, making full use of his celluloid canvas to show off the full range of his talents.  And in a career that spans as many decades and masterpieces as his, the fact that this is even debated as one of his best movies (and is certainly not THE definitive one) is an astounding testament to his abilities as a filmmaker.

4. Memento

When all is said and done, Following (1998) is a good, but not great, film.  It is an ambitious little work that clearly was made with more passion than expertise and more gumption than know how.  With his next film, however, Christopher Nolan proved that he was a sterling young talent to watch out for — one not constrained by the conventionality of narrative and filmic forms.  Rather than telling this twisting tale of a vengeful widower trying to solve the murder of his wife in a straightforward manner, he does so by directly imitating the short-term memory loss than confounds his protagonist at every turn: placing us directly into his shoes and fractured understanding of the duplicitous world around him.  We experience the movie much as its central figure does: in fragmented parts, with neither a beginning nor end, and fully unaware of the conniving going on around him, in the peripherals of his memories.  It’s a magnificent experience, and is so tightly written and directed that it only improves with age and multiple viewings.

3. Monsoon Wedding

I’ll admit that I know desperately little about the Indian film market.  Sure, I understand the base mechanics of it, but I couldn’t point to a any great Bollywood movies out of sheer ignorance for what they are.  What I have seen, though unquestionable masterpieces in their own right, are hardly representative of the more idiosyncratic industry at large.  What I’ve seen has been older, European in style and made with the intention of reaching an international audience.  I couldn’t’ tell you what the average Indian watches, let alone my thoughts on the content itself.  Although certainly still falling into the trap of European-by-training and Western-by-export, Monsoon Wedding seems like a sort of compromise between those kinds of movies and the ones that I have yet to see: a bombastic, colorful, rapturous family drama surrounding a contentious wedding that just so happens to appeal to a more Western audience.  The fact that it is so phenomenally written and directed certainly helps too.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Everybody who’s “into movies” — or at least more into them than the average person — seems to have a story about why: why movies and not board games or painting miniatures.  And though I’ve always loved the electric glow of my late-night TV, my story really begins in 2001 with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I was, and largely still am, completely blown away by the epic scale and meticulous detail of it all: the sprawling cast, the seismic storytelling, the fuzzy little Hobbit feet, all of it.  It single-handed led me to obsess over that year’s Oscar Ceremony.  Especially in light of the quite frankly god-awful Hobbit movies, these movies (and in particular the best-of first entry) stand resoundly above the would-be pretenders to its fantastical throne.

1. Mulholland Drive

I can’t begin to explain to you what happened by the end of this movie: not really.  It’s not that I have some high-minded concerns about spoiling it nor that the movie goes completely off the deep end in its final act (although both, to greater or less degree, does happen).  No, like Mother! (2017), it defies our conventional understanding of linear narratives.  It’s a story that is ultimately felt more than it is understood, because while the comings and goings of the characters into any semblance of plot utterly escapes us, the emotional arc that they go through in those final, livelong moments is intensely real and, honestly, the only logical conclusion that they could have come to… whatever that even means in this context.

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