In the year just ended, an actor's strike was averted, a big green ogre ruled the box office, Julia Roberts proved the Oscars' only sure thing, Tom and Nicole split up (suggesting that maybe the lack of heat generated in Eyes Wide Shut wasn't all Kubrick's fault) and Pearl Harbor lived down to expectations (while Lord of the Rings soared above same).
Oh yeah, and a raft of good movies were released; picking the 10 best of 2001 proved far more difficult than picking the 10 best of 2000. Let's hope it gets even tougher next year. Here's one man's opinion on the best films of the year, listed in no order but alphabetical.
A Beautiful Mind: Director Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe do some of their best work to date in this film based loosely on the life of Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash Jr. Part thriller, part love story, all compelling, this look into the troubled mind of a genius whose demons prove more than almost anyone can bear is the year's best mainstream-Hollywood movie. Those unfamiliar with Nash's story will spend the entire movie being caught unawares; those who know it will spend their time anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. Great supporting work from Ed Harris and (especially) Jennifer Connelly.
The Dish: A group of Aussies finds itself unexpectedly thrust into the space race when NASA chooses the town's giant radio telescope to help broadcast TV pictures from the Apollo 11 moon landing. The film's gentle humor, highlighted by a quietly commanding performance from Ed Neill as the scientist in charge, makes it fun; its flawless evocation of the spirit of Apollo - a time when the world focused on the greatest adventure of all time, as three men prepared to walk on a barren landscape millions of miles from home - makes it indispensable for moviegoers of a certain age.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Director/writer/star John Cameron Mitchell's transsexual rock odyssey, so hot on the New York stage, loses none of its power (or outrageousness) in the transition to film. Hedwig, the victim of a botched sex-change operation, channels her outrage into a collection of searing, soaring rock ballads, then watches as a former lover and protege steals her glory. Dynamic music from Stephen Trask combines with Mitchell's never-quite-under-control performance to revisit the overwrought glory days of glam-rock - a time when excess was thought of as a good thing. See this, and remember why.
Last Resort: Pawel Pawlikowski's heartbreaking romance between a Russian immigrant and a British arcade worker features strong, unforced performances from Dina Korzun and Paddy Considine, as lost souls who realize the happiness they deserve can simply never be, and a mixture of hope and resignation that should ring true for viewers who've ever found themselves in a mess not of their own making.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: As a true believer in the power and glory of J.R.R. Tolkien's celebrated trilogy, I approached Peter Jackson's film adaptation with considerable trepidation. Oh, that all my fears should prove so baseless. The story's magic and majesty remain intact, yet Jackson never forgets that this is a tale of ordinary people (OK, ordinary hobbits) forced into doing extraordinary things. And Ian McKellen's Gandalf is about as perfect a match of actor and role as I've ever seen.
Moulin Rouge: No one makes films like Baz Luhrmann, whose hyperkinetic visuals pulse with more life than most ecosystems. In this first musical that truly looks as though it belongs in the 21st century, Nicole Kidman is the courtesan all Paris is in love with, Ewan McGregor the naive playwright who alone wins her heart. The soundtrack, which reimagines rock and show tunes in ways their composers never dreamed, is a landmark in itself, featuring addictive versions of the Police's "Roxanne" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Mulholland Drive: TV's loss is the movies' gain. David Lynch originally imagined this hallucinogenic look at the underpinnings of the Hollywood dream factory as an ABC mini-series. But the small screen could never have held this version of Lynch's fevered imagination (just as the big screen could never do right by Twin Peaks, Lynch's previous masterpiece). The real and imaginary get thrown into a blender, and what comes out is a mix that defies categorization but sure is intoxicating. Featuring a wonderful performance from Naomi Watts, as one of two would-be actresses who may or may not be involved in a murder scheme.
Startup.com: Man, they couldn't make this stuff up. This documentary from veteran filmmaker Chris Hegedus and newcomer Jehane Noujaim (which debuted locally at May's third annual Maryland Film Festival) watches as two college roommates make a few million by starting a dot-com business, then lose it all. The back-room machinations, the friendly and unfriendly rivalries, the egos that never cease expanding, the relationships that bend but somehow never break: Startup.com may not only have been the most honest film of 2001, it may also have been the most frightening.
Thirteen Days: This film, about how the Kennedys and their cronies averted disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was not so much about JFK and his New Frontier as about leadership, and how badly we as a country need it (a message given even greater resonance in the aftermath of Sept. 11). Director Roger Donaldson's frills-free style lets the events of that nearly calamitous period generate their own chills. And Bruce Greenwood's lack of an Oscar nomination for his turn as the president was 2001's greatest cinematic injustice.
Traffic: Director Steven Soderbergh richly deserved his Best Director Oscar for this distressingly clear-eyed look at the mess that is our co-called "war on drugs." Using different shooting styles for each story thread, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan tell the intertwining stories of a newly named drug czar and his addict daughter, a Mexican cop bravely trying to do the right thing and a pregnant socialite struggling with the realization that her family's wealth came from the drug trade. The film doesn't pretend to have any answers, but it raises a disturbing number of questions.
Bubbling under, five films that just missed making the cut: Amores Perros (a Mexican Pulp Fiction, only better); In the Bedroom (tragedies don't always bring people together); The Closet (sexual confusion, played for laughs); Joy Ride (a white-knuckle cautionary tale about CBs and truckers without a sense of humor); Shrek (all hail the anti-Disney).