A Top 10 Odyssey

Looking back (and backward), 2001 had a few worthy mementos

Had anyone asked me back in September how 2001 was looking, I would have been tempted to rate it as even worse than the dismal 2000 (which suffered further from proximity to the wondrous 1999). But my assessment shifted during the final quarter of the year--half because of some fine late entries, half because of some catching up and even some re-evaluation. What I now see is a year with a few great films, a very large number of pretty good films and only a smattering of the truly wretched and/or offensive.

In other words, no cause to break out the champagne or the prussic acid.

As usual, for my Top 10, I'm using Academy rules: Films must have played for at least a week in Los Angeles, beginning no later than December 31.

Tat's all, folks: Guy Pierce pieces together the clues in Chris Nolan's beguiling Memento.
Tat's all, folks: Guy Pierce pieces together the clues in Chris Nolan's beguiling Memento.

1. Memento Christopher Nolan's sophomore feature more than fulfills the considerable promise of his low-budget 1999 Following. Certainly no other 2001 movie absorbed as much of my mental energy (in an entirely enjoyable way). While it is not above criticism, the two major charges critics used to dismiss it were both, frankly, pig-ignorant: No, the film's bizarre chronology isn't an arbitrary gimmick, but is the only way to convey the hero's point of view; and--even if the story, when rearranged in chronological order, isn't very interesting (and I think that it is as interesting as, say, Betrayal or The Killing, to name two other great films told out of order)--so what? It's a bit like saying, "Well, Blazing Saddles isn't a very interesting story if you remove the clutter of all the jokes." I wrote about 8,000 words analyzing Memento for Salon.com, and I could have written three times as much.

2. Mulholland Drive The one film that had a shot at displacing Memento on my list had many of the same great qualities: a bravely unusual structure (which may have been mandated by the project's weird history, but that's irrelevant to an appreciation of the end product), a multilayered puzzle and exquisite execution. Indeed, David Lynch's latest also has higher highs than any isolated moments in Memento: the audition, the Club Silencio, the sex scenes. Naomi Watts' performance was simply amazing. In many ways it was a warmer version of the director's earlier Lost Highway.

3. Amlie Jean-Pierre Jeunet's earlier French films, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, were completely sui generis, stylistically startling and hilarious in an uncomfortable way. His latest may represent a shift to the more conventional, at least in subject matter, but the style remains as ever. In fact, it is the tension between his hep, hyped-up style and the conventional romantic sentimentality of the story that makes it so interesting. And Audrey Tautou is great.

4. Shrek Simply the funniest thing I saw all year, with Eddie Murphy the standout in an altogether perfect voice cast.

5. Audition Unbelievably prolific director Takashi Miike is overly obsessed with pushing our buttons and grossing us out. But because this 1999 film is way more controlled than the other Miike titles I've been able to track down, it is also his best. The excesses here don't seem as gratuitous. The film totally freaked me out, and even the marginally squeamish should stay away.

6. In the Mood for Love Wong Kar-wai's latest may strike some as intolerably slow, but Wong works turf that is off the standard maps of cinema and creates moods that are altogether unique.

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring OK, I probably enjoyed the Harry Potter film more, but it didn't have an ounce of risk in it. (Still, for Chris Columbus to be turning out competent hack work is definitely a big step up.) Here, Peter Jackson, an infinitely superior filmmaker, takes on an even more daunting project and brings more inspiration to it than Columbus could ever aspire to, while still satisfying the most fanatical Tolkien fan.

8. The Fighter I usually fudge my list by segregating documentaries, but Amir Bar-Lev's chronicle of two utterly engaging alte kackers revisiting the sites of their Holocaust experiences was moving in ways that one would not have predicted. Other first-rate documentaries were Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I and George Butler's The Endurance.

9. Gosford Park It took me two viewings to completely warm to Robert Altman's skewed take on Agatha Christie-style mysteries, but with a cast that includes half the greatest living British actors, there is even more to look at here than two viewings would allow.

10. Sexy Beast The plot of Jonathan Glazer's debut feature may be standard-issue heist material, but Ben Kingsley's performance was so transcendent it almost obliterated brilliant work from Ray Winstone and Ian McShane.

Special citations:

Eyes Wide Shut Award for Films That Will Take Me More Time to Decide About Most of my friends completely loathed A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, finding it structurally awkward and disgustingly mawkish. I'm not sure I think it's good, but it's so ambitious I still haven't been able to assimilate it fully. To those complainers, however, I suggest the following experiment: Pretend Stanley Kubrick had directed it himself and had turned out, frame for frame, exactly the same film. Once you put aside your Steven Spielberg baggage, does the structure look inept? Or daringly original? Does the ending appear sappy? Or actually bittersweet? Maybe even just bitter? Look at it the way you might look at 2001 (the space odyssey, not the year). Interesting, huh?

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