If 2000 was the Year of the Bad Movie — and believe me, it was — 2001 was the Year of the Mediocre Movie.
Some were flat-out bad, of course (see separate list). But the more prevalant trend was to be mediocre, to start with good potential, and then blow it. Movies like “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “The Mummy Returns,” “Rush Hour 2,” “Hannibal” — all films with good pedigrees and a lot of money behind them, but with lackluster scripts, direction and/or acting.
We had to look outside of Hollywood for our great movies, and outside-of-Hollywood answered the call. Among the 10 films I consider to be the best of the year, four were from the Sundance Film Festival (Nos. 1, 6, 8, 9), one was foreign (No. 10), one was from a Spanish director making his English-language debut (No. 4), and two were filmed Down Under (Nos. 2, 3). Only two on my list (Nos. 5, 7) can be considered “Hollywood movies.”
Among the movies that rose above the sludge, here are the best. Your rebuttals are welcome.
1. “Memento” I saw this in early January at a pre-Sundance screening and was immediately taken with it. All year, I waited for something to come along that was more tightly written, intriguing, intelligent, thought-provoking and exciting. But nothing came.
This psychological thriller about a man with no short-term memory who is searching for his wife’s killer is told in reverse order, which makes us almost as disoriented as the protagonist. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a film, but the pieces are all there, and putting them together is supremely satisfying.
On top of that, it introduces some unsettling ideas about how we deal with unpleasant realities. Repeat viewings reveal no flaws in the film’s structure. If anything, you understand it better the more times you see it. If you think there’s a hole in the plot, watch it again, and you’re bound to discover a line or reference you missed that explains the perceived flaw. It’s a brilliantly entertaining film.
2. “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” Was there a more highly anticipated film this year? Maybe, with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” And every place that film failed — poor adaptation, bad pacing, no heart, etc. — “Fellowship” succeeded. Three hours never flew by faster, and with more heart-wrenching emotion and heart-stopping action, than with this film.
3. “Moulin Rouge” An old-style movie musical, but on crack. The story was the basic stuff of melodramatic romances, but the vocal performances (who knew Ewan MacGregor could sing so well?) and Baz Luhrmann’s dizzying directorial style elevated this to new heights of comedy and tragedy.
4. “The Others” Before 2001, I paid little attention to Nicole Kidman. Now, with this and “Moulin Rouge,” she’s got two spots on the list. Her performance in “The Others,” as a widowed mother tormented by other-worldly visitors, should get her an Oscar nomination. The movie itself was a classic example of how to scare people: You don’t have a guy with a knife jump out at the audience; you make the audience THINK a guy with a knife is going to jump out at them. Giddy, eerie atmosphere at its best.
5. “Monsters, Inc.” The folks from Pixar (“Toy Story”) proved that painstaking effort and a whimsical mind are the best tools a filmmaker can have, in this story about why monsters hide in our closets to scare us, and why they’re just as afraid of us as we are of them. Hilarious and heartwarming.
6. “Series 7” A scathing parody of American pop culture, “Series 7” takes “reality TV” to extremes with a show in which strangers have to kill each other. Detail-perfect and morbidly funny.
7. “The Royal Tenenbaums” From writer/director Wes Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson — the duo behind “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” — comes this subtle comedy in which every character is quietly, inobtrusively insane. Full of bemused goofiness and wonderfully silly dialogue, with a layer of family values underneath. Way underneath.
8. “L.I.E.” Unsettling but admirably discreet, this Sundance entry is about childhood lost and the heartbreaking pathos that comes from adolescents being left to become adults on their own. The central character is a 15-year-old boy who is targeted by a pedophile, but the movie is more about loss of innocence than pedophilia specifically. Some of the best acting of the year, and a cathartic experience overall, even if it does make you wince now and then.
9. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” 2001, the year of the movie musical? John Cameron Mitchell’s off-Broadway camp smash about a rock singer who had a botched sex-change operation translated well to the big screen. The songs are great, the dialogue is witty, and the style is edgy and smart. And is it kinda sweet, too? Yeah, it is.
10. “Amores Perros” A plot-driven movie full of ironic twists and painful discoveries; everyone’s plans go awry here. It is often cynical, but it has warmth for its characters — who are, after all, only human.
The Worst Movies of 2001
There was a lot of competition, but here are the worst movies of 2001:
1. “Freddy Got Fingered” I’m tired of people trying to say this movie’s awfulness was the result of careful calculation and planning — that it was bad on purpose. This movie was awful because its star, Tom Green, didn’t realize his improvised MTV shtick wouldn’t work when it’s not improvised anymore. Never mind that it’s offensive and crass — its being punishingly unfunny is what ruined this one. Literally the worst movie I have ever seen.
2. “Black Knight” More self-indulgent, let-the-star-do-whatever-he-wants, we-don’t-need-a-script garbage, this time with Martin Lawrence — was he EVER funny? — as a guy transported back to the Middle Ages. Plenty of humor available with that premise, right? Yeah, probably. Too bad nobody wrote it, or got an actor with comic ability to perform it.
3. “Head over Heels” What would a year’s-worst list be without Freddie Prinze Jr.? And guess what: He’s not even the worst actor in the cast. (There are supermodels present, too.) Don’t miss the hilarious Freddie-has-diarrhea scene! It has forever stained my soul.
4. “On the Line” What? You mean the guy from ‘N Sync can’t act after all? And the script is stupid? And the movie doesn’t make any sense? And it flopped at the box office? How can this be happening?!
5. “Hardball” Keanu Reeves plays a bad guy who turns good when he’s forced to coach an inner-city Little League team. Then, to make sure we’re crying, one of the kids gets killed. Emotional manipulation at its lowest.