This was the first year I was in film school, and the first time I saw nearly enough films in any given year to feel qualified to weigh in. I was a teenager at the time, so maybe my taste wasn’t quite so refined — but hey, it was a lot more refined than most 18-year-olds, I’d wager.
These lists are a time capsule. Some of these films have aged better than others. Others that I’ve seen since — Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, Sexy Beast, to name a few — might have been in contention, but aren’t found here. Because you can’t see everything.
A caveat: I didn’t do any write-ups then, so these are my current thoughts about these films. Some of these movies I love even more now than I did then; others I’d probably happily leave off this list were I to go back and start over. But you can’t do that, because it defeats the whole purpose of encapsulating your favorites in a Top Ten!
(For other Top Tens from other years, click here.)
While not technically Christopher Nolan’s first film, Memento is the film that put him on the mainstream map. Nolan is still best known for his Batman films, but the unique vision he put forth in Memento paved the way for bigger original films like Inception and Interstellar, which are notable because hardly anyone gets to make big budget original stories anymore.
In Memento, we have a story that is nothing new — a man trying to hunt down the man who wrong his wife. The twist, of course, is that this man has anterograde amnesia, so he forgets everything he does and everything that happens, making him vulnerable to certain predators. Taking place in alternating scenes of chronological and reverse-chronological order, one in color and one in black-and-white, Memento is a post-Pulp Fiction pushing of the limits of narrative storytelling, one that — like Pulp Fiction — has prompted plenty of copycats in the years since.
Wes Anderson has been assembling casts of weirdo “families” (biological or otherwise) since 2001, many times using the same actors. (I know Bottle Rocket and Rushmore did this to an extent earlier, but I’d say it was The Royal Tenenbaums that really cemented the full Wes Anderson formula.) I am sometimes charmed by Anderson’s sensibilities, and sometimes not. Occasionally, I get a sense of quirk overload, to the extent that I’ve had to skip a few of his films.
It helped that back in 2001, we hadn’t really seen this sort of thing before. Gene Hackman is a hoot as the gruff patriarch of a fractured family whose only method of getting back in his loved ones’ good graces is to pretend that he’s dying. Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, and Bill Murray are basically an immaculate lineup for Anderson (the dour, secretly smoking Margo is Paltrow’s best-ever performance). Like all of Anderson’s films, there’s an underlying sadness beneath the mega-stylized surface, but in this one, it feels earned.
My second film about memory loss on this list. I suppose it’s fitting that the 2001 film I’ve forgotten almost entirely happens to be about Alzheimer’s. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the film — I liked it enough to rank it among my favorites of the year, of course, and it was nominated for three Oscars, all for its performances. Not too shabby.
Jim Broadbent won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, even though I’d say his role is more of a lead (as you’ll see in my acting awards below). No matter. As Bayley, the mild-mannered hubby of the titular Iris, played to perfection as usual by Dame Judi Dench, Broadbent is heartbreaking. Broadbent is the kind of stalwart character actor who isn’t often recognized by the Academy, or at least rarely wins against more formidable (and famous) opponents. For this role, he was up against Ben Kinglsey, Ian McKellan, Ethan Hawke, and Jon Voight, all of whom are more recognizable to audiences. And Iris also has a supporting turn from Kate Winslet, which is never a bad thing.
Dench and Winslet have had plenty of other memorable roles, and Broadbent has proven his worth in many roles since, but it’s nice that this movie earned him his due… even if I’m feeling a bit Iris-like, in that I remember very little about the story of the film itself…
Of all my 2001 favorites, this is the one I’ve re-watched the most, and it only gets better with age. Following their high school graduation, BFFs Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) hang out and fill their last summer of freedom in that idle, aimless manner you can only get away with as a teenager. Their primary preoccupation becomes with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonesome sad sack, whom they prank by setting him up on a fake date. Then Enid starts to feel sorry for Seymour and begins spending time with him, and the longer she’s around Seymour, the more she realizes they have in common. Being a snarky outsider is fine and dandy in high school, but that’s the sort of attitude that could see Enid growing up to be as lonely as Seymour.
Adapted from a comic book, Terry Zwigoff’s offbeat comedy is plenty clever and contains a number of indelible comic moments, but like The Royal Tenenbaums, the comedy bubbles up in a sea of melancholy and human truth. The relationships between these characters are flawless and fascinating — Enid and Rebecca, as their friendship falls apart post-high school, as teen friendships tend to do, and Enid and Seymour, whose relationship is tender with some underlying romantic tension that’s never as creepy as it easily could be. Ghost World captures the tender age between childhood and adulthood perfectly, with a level of stark, sobering truth that’s rare in a “teen movie.” (This is one of those only in the most technical sense.) It’s one of the best comedies of the past 15 years… or maybe ever.
This film is a lot less kinky than it sounds. In fact, it’s not kinky at all! The titular bedroom shenanigans refer primarily to grief, loss, estrangement, and other such unsexy things.
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are Matt and Ruth Fowler, living an idyllic life in Maine with their son Frank (Nick Stahl)… until he begins dating an older woman, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), who has two children and a hot-headed ex husband. That ex ends up killing their son in a domestic dispute, and because there are no witnesses, he ends up going free. Matt and Ruth cope in different ways, the absence of Frank palpable between them. Eventually, Matt comes to believe that the only way they can move on is to take eye-for-an-eye vengeance, leading to a tense finale.
In The Bedroom was the first official Sundance selection nominated for Best Picture, and certainly not the last. A number of independent films with similar stories and moods have been released in the years since, but In The Bedroom remains one of the most sparsely elegant of all, powered by powerhouse performances from Spacek and Wilkinson. The fact that it lost Best Picture to the lighter-weight A Beautiful Mind is a predictable shame in the Academy Awards record books, but this one holds up far better.
This might be one of Steven Spielberg’s more divisive movies — in more ways than one. In it, you can feel Spielberg’s sentimental instincts grappling to stay buoyant while tangling with Stanley Kubrick’s more nihilistic worldview.
It is the story of David, an artificial intelligence in the form of a sweet-faced boy. (You didn’t get more sweet-faced in 2001 than Haley Joel Osment, hot off his iconic turn in 1999’s The Sixth Sense.) David is programmed to love his adoptive family, but these humans, of course, are not programmed to love him back. When their own child awakens from a coma, their fear of David’s synthetic origins overwhelms the complex feelings they’ve grown for him, and he is abandoned. That’s where the family drama ends, and an entirely different sort of adventure begins.
Based on the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” A.I. is like a fairy tale, but not the sweet Disney-fied rewrites we remember. We’re talking original Brothers Grimm style stuff. Its depiction of the future is both awesome and hellish, and absolutely one of my favorite cinematic imaginings of the future. And how can you not love a story about a lost little boy and his talking teddy bear that has them meet up with a gigolo for the rest of their adventures? Though there are blatant echoes of Pinocchio in the text, A.I. also feels like a fucked up version of The Wizard Of Oz, as a child meets up with an array of unusual friends on his quest toward the big city.
It comes as no shocker that Jude Law makes a pitch perfect male prostitute, because in 2001, who didn’t want to sleep with him? But this is also one of his best and unheralded performances. The whole movie, in fact, is underrated despite coming from one of the highest profile filmmakers out there — it earned only two Oscar nods in a year where more people were focused on the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings movies. (Though as you can tell by these ranking, I find Spielberg’s vision of A.I. a lot more compelling.)
It may take a few viewings to fully appreciate the brilliant and beautiful strangeness of this story, but it ranks amongst Spielberg’s best work. Even coming from such a blockbuster auteur, it’s one of the most creative and memorable pieces of cinema from this era, and I’m not alone in holding it in even higher esteem now than I did upon its release in the summer of 2001.
4. MONSTER’S BALL
There’s a lot of misery going on in Monster’s Ball. Hank is a son of a bitch whose wife killed herself, and early in the story, his son kills himself, too. Then there’s Leticia, whose husband is executed on death row early in the film, and whose son is later killed in a car accident. But hey, at least there’s ice cream!
Yes, this film lays on the “chocolate versus vanilla” symbolism thicker than hot fudge, because Hank is white and Leticia is blank, and Hank is also pretty much a racist. It’s basically tragedy porn, and is mostly notable for winning Halle Berry her Oscar for Best Actress, which was also the first (and, to date, only) Best Actress Oscar to go to a black actress. Unfortunately, Berry’s career since 2001 has been, shall we say, less than optimal, with duds like Gothika and Catwoman following her win and somewhat sullying her appeal. She hasn’t been great in a great movie since. Director Marc Forster’s career has been spotty, too.
But Berry is really good in Monster’s Ball, and despite its retroactive inclusion under the Lee Daniels Meloadrama Umbrella, it’s not a bad film, if a tad overcooked. Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, and even Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs turn out fine performances. This isn’t a film from 2001 I’ve revisited often (I may be a masochist when it comes to bleak movies, but I’m not that much of a masochist), but it’s not a cinematic blight, either, even though Monster’s Ball doesn’t have the greatest of reputations anymore. (Funny how consensus on certain films just sours sometimes, largely when its key players turn out subpar work in subsequent ventures.)
3. BLACK HAWK DOWN
We’ve seen a lot of movies that resemble Black Hawk Down since 2001, but they may never have been made if Black Hawk Down didn’t get there first. Ridley Scott was hot off the Best Picture-winning Gladiator, with the hot lineup of Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Orlando Bloom, and Eric Bana, amongst others. (You remember when Josh Hartnett was a thing, don’t you?)
Black Hawk Down was the most intense war film since Saving Private Ryan, set in a much more recent era (Somalia, 1993). Up until this year’s The Martian, it was probably also the best regarded film by Ridley Scott post-Gladiator, as his output has been hit or miss otherwise. (A Good Year, Kingdom Of Heaven, Body Of Lies, Prometheus, Robin Hood, Exodus: Gods And Kings, American Gangster, The Counselor… definitely a mixed bag.) Hans Zimmer pulled out a pretty fantastic score, and the film won two out of the four Oscars it was nominated for. Black Hawk Down also feels like a necessary precursor to films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper that depict more recent war zones than the usual WWII varietal.
2. GOSFORD PARK
Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Gosford Park. The cast features more or less every British thespian who was noteworthy in 2001 (many who would become even more noteworthy later), including Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Emily Watson, Clive Owen, Charles Dance… I’m getting tired of listing them, but there are lots more. Enough to compete with Hogwarts. Also… Ryan Phillippe!
Gosford Park is like an Agatha Christie novel come to life, paired with Christopher Guest-ian humor. (Or maybe that’s just the presence of Bob Balaban leading me to think so.) Directed by the legendary Robert Altman, this takes the auteur’s trademark comfort with colossal casts and loose narrative and puts it to work, in the pitch perfect setting of a posh English manor, where there’s been — dun dun dun — a murder!
The story is a classic “upstairs downstairs” type, where we see things unfold both with the upper crust and the servants. The film is wryly funny and the mystery is satisfying, and — no surprise here — the cast is superb all around. I haven’t seen Gosford Park in a while, but I should correct that. It’s Altman at his best (or close to it, at least).
1. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
This was the film that started it all, for better or worse. It’s actually rather unfortunate that Peter Jackson went on to direct his bloated Hobbit trilogy — which (to be fair) I haven’t seen — because the original trilogy was held in such high regard by both audiences and critics, back in the day. The third installment managed to sweep the Oscars in 2004.
These films still have their place in the hearts of many fans (and I suppose the Hobbit films do too, of a much smaller group), but since 2001 we’ve seen a lot of imitators — not so much in terms of fantasy stories, but definitely in terms of spectacle. Few of these are anywhere as good as Fellowship Of The Ring.
Give Jackson his due for adapting a difficult book series into something that fans old and new cherished, something of high enough quality to be nominated for Best Picture all three times, and utilizing such magnificent actors in these iconic roles. There is so much to praise in these movies, and yet… and yet… I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for them now, because I’m exhausted by what they left in their wake. (Sorry, Mr. Jackson. )
Sissy Spacek, In The Bedroom
Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball
Judi Dench, Iris
Jennifer Connolly, A Beautiful Mind
Thora Birch, Ghost World
Jim Broadbent, Iris
Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums
Tom Wilkinson, In The Bedroom
Billy Bob Thornton, Monster’s Ball
Denzel Washington, Training Day
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Marisa Tomei, In The Bedroom
Maggie Smith, Gosford Park
Kate Winslet, Iris
Gwyneth Paltrow, The Royal Tenenbaums
Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Steve Buscemi, Ghost World
Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast
Jude Law, A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Ian McKellen, The Fellowship Of The Ring
Peter Boyle, Monster’s Ball
The Royal Tenenbaums
In The Bedroom
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Black Hawk Down