“2001: Everybody Had a Hard Year…”
by Scott Mantz

I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s Eve, but when a close buddy of mine invited me over to celebrate the festivities with some close friends, I decided to go. When the moment of truth finally came, we all gathered around the tube to watch Dick Clark’s annual bash live from Times Square (actually, since I live in LA, this “live” event was tape-delayed). The clock struck midnight, and as we all screamed “Happy New Year” and gave each other best wishes, my buddy summed up the passing of 2001 with two choice words: good riddance.

After what happened back in September, he speaks the truth, and to quote John Lennon from an old Beatles tune, it’s safe to say that “everybody had a hard year.” Hopefully, 2002 will be much better for all of us, and now that 2001 is officially history, we can look back on what many industry pundits would argue was a dreadful year for Hollywood movies. Actually, they say that almost every year, at least up until December, which is when the studios roll out the big Oscar-contenders. The problem is, even they weren’t so hot, and as a result, the upcoming Oscar race looks like it’s going to be a wide open one.

Despite the fact that 2001 boasted some of the biggest opening weekends of all time–with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” setting the record with $90.3 million in its first three days–it also boasted some of the biggest disappointments. Among the films that looked great, but failed to deliver the goods: “Pearl Harbor,” “Planet of the Apes,” and “Ali.” It hardly mattered though, as box office receipts topped the $8 billion mark for the first time in history.

For a while, I didn’t think that I would be able to come up with a list of great movies–let alone 10 of them–but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were some needles to be found in the cinematic haystack. But let me be perfectly clear. The list that follows may not represent the best movies of 2001, but they certainly were my favorite.

1) “In The Bedroom” – Talk about drama, director Todd Field’s first film is a hypnotic masterpiece of observed grief. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek give Oscar-caliber performances as a Maine couple struggling to come to terms with a terrible tragedy. If actions speak louder than words, then Wilkinson and Spacek are internally screaming as they effortlessly convey complete devastation, utter rage, and helpless defeat. Not one moment of this riveting, outstanding film rings false or contrived, and the unpredictable, powerful conclusion will surely haunt you for days.

2) “Memento” – The first time I saw director Christopher Nolan’s murder-mystery-in-reverse, I was totally confused. The second time I saw it (the very next day), I got it. All of it. Conventional storytelling is thrown out the window as Guy Pearce plays…well, a guy with a debilitating short-term memory disorder who struggles to solve his wife’s murder. But here’s the catch: The beginning of the film is really the end of the story, and the end of the film is really the beginning of the story, yet the movie still feels like it’s moving from beginning to end. Confused? Then what are you waiting for? Watch the movie right now, and take advantage of the DVD format by playing the film in reverse. That way, the mystery will unfold from beginning to end. Still confused? Thought so.

3) “Apocalypse Now Redux” – OK, I know it originally came out back in 1979, but so what? Thanks to an additional 53 minutes of previously unseen footage, “the horror, the horror” is better than ever. Like the fine wine he makes on the side, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece gets better with age, and the restored material makes it feel like an entirely new cinematic experience. Ironically, even with all the extra footage–including a powerfully political scene at a ghostly French plantation–the film actually moves along at a quicker pace. One look at “Apocalypse Now Redux,” and you’ll wonder why they don’t make movies like this anymore.

4) “Black Hawk Down” – Fortunately, they do make movies like this, and after visionary films like “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and last year’s Best Picture-winner “Gladiator,” director Ridley Scott is in top form with what just may be his crowning achievement. Based on a botched attempt to kidnap corrupt Somalian officials in October 1993, Scott puts moviegoers directly in the line of fire, as injured, exhausted, and ill-prepared US soldiers fight for their lives against thousands of heavily armed fanatical rebels. Graphic, relentless, and unforgiving, the film is as much a tribute to the heroes who put their lives on the line as it is a realistic recreation of the hell they must endure.

5) “Shrek” – Wow, what a treat! Sharp, witty, and inspiring, the fairy tale genre got turned on its proverbial ear with an instant classic that appealed to kids as well as adults. Score one for DreamWorks head honcho–and “Shrek” producer–Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave his crotchety old boss at Disney some stiff competition in the computer-animated field. Great voiceovers from Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, and Eddie Murphy ensured plenty of green for the big green ogre and also ensured that a splendid time was guaranteed for all.

6) “Startup.com” – It could easily have been called “The Rise and Fall of the Dot-com Empire.” The real focus here was not on the somehow perfect timing of the storyline (which coincided with the dot-com bust), but on the strong characterization and connection between two very ambitious–and very different—buddies who tried to cash in on the American Dream. The real casualty here? Their friendship. The result is a documentary that’s more engaging than a feature film, and to anyone who’s ever had their rags-to-riches dreams come crashing down in the wasteland of cyberspace, this one’s for you.

7) “Sexy Beast” – The concept of a gangster “trying to get out, but they keep pulling him back in” has been done before, but not like this. Ray Winstone’s wiseguy is retired and living the good life, but his past comes back to haunt him when a psychopathic, demented, and hysterical Ben Kingsley calls upon his services for one more job. Despite his background as a music video director, Jonathan Glazer crafted a symbolic, hypnotic, and ultra-intense slow-burner that kept you on the edge of your seat until its gripping finale that had to be seen to be believed.

8) “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” – Provocative, haunting, sublime, and easily the most misunderstood movie of the year, but that’s what happens when Steven Spielberg takes on Stanley Kubrick. “A.I.” was a fractured science fiction fairy tale in every sense of the word, but the schizophrenic blend of two completely different visions polarized critics and didn’t compute with moviegoers. The ending may have been a little too far out (and for the record, the beings who revived Haley Joel Osment were advanced machines–not aliens), but if you really went with it, it stayed with you for days. The hush-hush marketing campaign may have backfired, but “A.I.” will surely stand the test of time and eventually be appreciated for what it is: Spielbrick’s masterpiece.

9) “The Others” – What’s Hollywood’s most powerful marketing tool? Positive word of mouth. That was certainly the case when Nicole Kidman’s haunted house thriller came out of nowhere, and thanks to moody direction, genuine suspense, and one of the best surprise endings since “The Sixth Sense,” it caught on and made close to $100 million. Kidman is simply riveting as the lonely, over-protective mother living in a big old spooky house at the twilight of World War II. Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar’s first English language film was the summer’s biggest and best surprise, and it ironically came out just a few months before Cameron Crowe’s remake of his 1997 film “Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes),” which was eventually retitled…

10) “Vanilla Sky” – Hot on the heels of cerebral films like “Mulholland Drive” and “Donnie Darko” comes this mind trip from…Tom Cruise? Apparently, mainstream moviegoers didn’t want to see Cruise in such a twisted, challenging film where he spends half his time deformed. That’s too bad, because considering that Cruise plays such an exaggerated version of just about every cocky, arrogant character he’s ever played, he’s perfect for the role. It’s also what makes his complete physical and emotional transformation all the more remarkable. This dream vs. reality puzzle may have made for a cinematic experience that you either love or hate, but I guess that’s why they made “Chocolat” and “Vanilla.”

Though they didn’t make the list, I also liked “The Pledge,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “With a Friend Like Harry,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Hannibal,” “Spy Kids,” “The Dish,” “The Score,” “Ghost World,” “Training Day,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Shallow Hal,” “Mulholland Dr.,” “The Princess and the Warrior,” “Monster’s Ball,” “Amelie,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.” Here are some other fun tidbits on the year that was…

Best ending: “The Others”
Worst ending: “Planet of the Apes”
Good, but not the greatest: “Ali”
Should have been a hit, but wasn’t: “Josie and the Pussycats”
Shouldn’t have been a hit, but was: almost every summer blockbuster
Biggest bomb: “Town & Country” (cost: $80 million, gross: $6.7 million)
Biggest bomb, part II: “Monkeybone” (cost: $75 million, gross: $5.4 million)
Don’t quit your day job: Mariah Carey (“Glitter”)
Quit your day job: Sean Combs (“Made,” “Monster’s Ball”)
Get a day job: Tom Green (“Freddy Got Fingered”)
Most in need of a rewrite: “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”
Most in need of a script: “Jurassic Park III”
Most in need of a bath: Viggo Mortensen (“The Lord of the Rings”)
Most in need of a vacation: Billy Bob Thornton (“Bandits,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Monster’s Ball,” “Waking Up in Reno”).
Most in need of a vacation, part II: Cate Blanchett (“Bandits,” “Charlotte Gray,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Shipping News”)
Most aptly titled: “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”
What’s the worst that could happen? a sequel
Movie that everyone loved, but I only liked: “The Royal Tenenbaums”
Movie that I loved, but everyone else hated: “Vanilla Sky”
Biggest disappointment: “Pearl Harbor” (from producer Jerry Bruckheimer)
Biggest redemption: “Black Hawk Down” (from producer Jerry Bruckheimer)
Biggest Oscar-wannabe: Jim Carrey (“The Majestic”)
Most deserving of an Oscar: Tom Wilkinson (“In The Bedroom”)
Most overused plot device: The Last Big Score (“Sexy Beast,” “Heist,” “The Score,” “Bandits,” “Ocean’s Eleven”)
Most overused gimmick: A-list celebrities in fat suits (Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shallow Hal,” Julia Roberts in “America’s Sweethearts”)
Most grown up: Kirsten Dunst (“crazy/beautiful”)
Most in need to grow up: Freddie Prinze Jr. (“Summer Catch”)
Most in need to throw up: Tom Green (“Freddy Got Fingered”)
Best collaboration: Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence”)
Worst collaboration: “Cats & Dogs”
Most in need of a collaboration: John Travolta and Quentin Tarantino
Strangest drive: “Mulholland Dr.”
Scariest drive: “Joy Ride”
Sexiest drive: “The Fast and the Furious”
Silliest drive: “Rat Race”
Stupidest drive: “Driven”
Most in need to hit the road: Martin Lawrence (“What’s the Worst That Could Happen?,” “Black Knight”)
Best thighs: Reese Witherspoon (“Legally Blonde”)
Best eyes: Anne Hathaway (“The Princess Diaries”)
Best eye: Mike Wazowski (“Monsters, Inc.”)
What blew: “Blow”
Ooh la-la!: “Amelie”
Elvish: Special language used in “The Lord of the Rings”
Elvis: The King
Best sex scene: Naomi Watts and Laura Harring (“Mulholland Drive”)
Worst sex scene: Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas (“Original Sin”)
Game over: “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”
Party pooper: “The Anniversary Party”
Best case for reissuing movies with additional footage: “Apocalypse Now Redux”
Worst case for reissuing movies with additional footage: “Spy Kids: Special Edition”
Movies you don’t want to confuse: “The Wedding Planner” and “The Wedding Singer”
Movies you don’t want to confuse, part II: “Spy Kids” and “Spy Game”
Movies you REALLY don’t want to confuse: “Monsters, Inc.” and “Monster’s Ball”
Biggest missed opportunity: seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” on an IMAX screen in the year 2001

As for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” what can I say, the film just didn’t speak to me. Now admittedly, up until November, I didn’t know the difference between a Hobbit and a Muggle, but despite some absolutely incredible visual effects, I found this three “Ring” circus to be redundant and totally devoid of humor and emotion. And don’t even get me started on “Harry Potter.”

As we look forward to 2002, it’s looking good. OK, so that’s what we said about last year, but it’s hard not to get excited with summer titles like “Spider-Man,” “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” “Signs” (from M. Night Shyamalan), and “Men in Black II.” Then again, there’s also “Scooby-Doo” with Freddie Prinze Jr. (Scooby-Don’t!)

As far as 2001 is concerned, those aforementioned industry pundits argued that the inferior movies were as a result of weak scripts being rushed into production to beat the impending actor’s and writer’s strikes (which never happened). Since movies are hard enough to make under normal circumstances, they argued that quality suffered from the hurried circumstances. Well, that doesn’t quite ring true, because most of the movies that were rushed into production back then won’t see the light of day until sometime in 2002.

If that’s the case, then be afraid. Be very afraid.