Monday, January 28, 2002

The Ten Best Films of 2001 I Saw in General Release

Submitted by Mark R. Leeper

Every year I dread making out my list of the top ten films of the previous year. It seems like it should be an easy matter to choose since I rate most of the films I see. Except for ratings ties for the last few places, the ratings should actually choose most of the films. The truth is that my list is usually a bit of an embarrassment. You would expect that there would be some obscure films on the list.

The truth is I see mostly just the films that have made it to central New Jersey and what I see at film festivals. I do see some very good films at the festivals, but people do not want to read recommendations for films they never hear of and will have little chance to see. If such a film gets a release, I will treat it as if I had just seen it. As remarkable as it was that I had a +4 film on my list this year - I very rarely use the +4 rating because so few films are that good - even it was not the best film of this year. The Grey Zone was in my opinion the better film but may not get much of a release.

So there are better films that I have seen but which are not generally available. And there have been better films that are generally available but which I have not seen. That compromises this list somewhat. The films are listed best first. So much for suspense. Each one has the ranking and what I would rate the film on the 0 to 10 and the -4 to +4 scale.

My major hobbies include travel and film. Both can take me to places I have not been to before in different ways. Sadly, the films that do that are films that may have been popular, but perhaps not much public respect. But what impresses me the most about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (#1, 10, +4) is the effort that was required to bring it to the screen. Tolkien's Middle Earth has been portrayed on the screen before and those representations only go to show how hard it is to do it well. This I did think was done well and in a visualization that repeatedly created a sense of awe. Peter Jackson has created the definitive visualization of a modern classic story.

Memento (#2, 9, +3) is a clever and intelligent idea for a film. In telling its narrative in reverse order, it is a film in which we all know how the story ends, but the mystery is how it began and really who is who. The reverse structure also gives the viewer a simulation of the actual mental dysfunction, a form of amnesia, the character is suffering. This is a film that some viewers have found very taxing, and perhaps it should be seen more than once, but it is probably the most original film of 2001.

A Beautiful Mind did not get released in my area until 2002, but it makes an interesting companion piece to 2001's The Luzhin Defence (#3, 9, +3). Both films are about geniuses who are social misfits and gives the audience a window into how these people think as well as the price each pays for his genius. John Turturro stars as Alexandre Luzhin, a chess grand master who is nearly an idiot savant. In this adaptation of a story by Vladimir Nabokov the strange Luzhin falls in love at an important chess match. John Turturro stars as the brilliant but extremely eccentric chess master.

If Memento was disorienting in its story told backward-style, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (#4, 9 +3) disoriented the viewer by telling its story in three parts of very different styles. In a sense this is a sort of dual of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. That film suggested that we would be able to create feeling beings, but their life span would not be long enough for their purposes. Its replicants are haunted by how short and transitory life is. The film planned by Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg looks at a created human with a life span far longer than his purpose. Programmed to love and be loved by one human, the robot goes on living pointlessly, his whole reason for living taken away. Some almost magical future intelligence gives him one last contact with his purpose in life and the film asks us, "Is he better or worse for it?" Is it like giving a reformed alcoholic one last drink? Many did not like the sentimentality of the last part of the film, but I found the film to be rich in ideas throughout.

Several times now I have included on my top ten list films that have been made for cable. I have never seen that with anybody else's published top ten list. I do not know if other reviewers just do not consider them to be good enough or do not consider them at all. In any case, this year no less a critic than Roger Ebert and I both agree Wit (#5, 8, low +3) is among the best of the year. The film has Emma Thompson as a professor of 17th century poetry who is dying of cancer. It is based on Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning play. With wit and intelligence she tells us about the dying experience. This is an extremely moving film.

There was a time when the best art films were horror films. German expressionism gave us The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, M, The Golem, Waxworks, and Metropolis. Their legacy gave us films like Dracula, The Black Cat, and The Bride of Frankenstein. But since that time few horror films have had substantial merit. The films produced by Val Lewton and some made by David Cronenberg and perhaps one or two films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers were interesting artistically. The best modern director of artistic horror films is Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. This year he followed up Cronos and Mimic with The Devil's Backbone (#6, 8, high +2) which combines generally non-horror sub-genre of the boys school story with a story featuring a ghost and a stalking villain. As always, del Toro's visual compositions are absolutely beautiful. In the final analysis this is more of a murder film than a ghost story, but it nonetheless is hypnotically told. Del Toro actually has done (three times out of three) what Romero, Craven, and Carpenter should be doing.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (#7, 8, high +2) is faithful to the book and at the same time entertaining, not an easy balance. Like The Lord of the Rings it is a marvelous visualization of the book. There is some violence that may bother some parents, but kids are turning out in legions to see the film. And for many this will be one of the tamer films they are going to see. If the film limits the imagination they need in reading the modern classic Potter series, it will show them how it is done and open their imaginations when reading other books. Most of the weaknesses in the film, things like plot improbabilities, I found track back to the book.

Two good crime stories come next on my list. The Man Who Wasn't There (#8, 8, high +2) is a crisp black-and-white murder tale with a twisted plot that becomes clear in the end. The story is about a personal failure, a second chair barber in a tiny barbershop. When Ed enters a room with three other people in it, he makes it approximately three people in the room. In desperation to change his condition he tries blackmail and that makes things start to happen. The stark black and white images actually are the result of filming in color and then making black and white prints from that. Heist (#9, 8, high +2), written and directed by David Mamet, boasts two very clever robberies and a fairly good story of a brilliant criminal in the process of retiring. The script is not perfect, but is intriguing and has fewer holes than Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. David Mamet's dialog may not be realistic, but it is artistic, like Shakespeare's was.

Then there's Shrek (#10, 8, high +2). What can I say? It has great animation and I laugh every time I see it. Robin Williams's genie in Aladdin leaves me cold. Rosie O'Donnell's Terk in Tarzan went all the way to irritating. Eddie Murphy's donkey in Shrek cracks me up every time. The film stands as a story on its own, but it is also a merciless rank-out of every Disney convention in reach.

© 2002 Mark R. Leeper

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