What book, painting or TV series was more pertinent to the world of the new millennium than the 1999 picture Three Kings? That wised-up Gulf War adventure dramatized the dire consequences of America's failure to support Iraqi dissidents and topple Saddam Hussein - and did so with a blend of stirring heroism and stinging humor.
Although news coverage of the Robert Reid shoe-bomb case jolted many readers with revelations of the radical fundamentalist infiltration of English mosques, they came as no surprise to those who saw My Son the Fanatic, a 1997 British movie released in the United States in 1999. The story of a Pakistani cab driver whose son turns to extreme Islamic orthodoxy treated issues of misogyny and anti-Western ideology without preaching, and within a full portrait of a family in transition. But the movie played in Baltimore only at the Maryland Film Festival. It never received a proper theatrical opening.
Because of current events as much as current releases, 2001 continued to prove movies' potential for expanding viewers' awareness and consciousness.
It was generally a dismal year for new movies, but a score or more did deliver enlightenment or entertainment. The problem was finding them at a time in movie history when pictures are given a mere week or two to make their money and run. In the national press, it's become common to bewail the calamity of big studios hogging thousands of screens with disappointing blockbusters: Jurassic Park III one week, Planet of the Apes the next.
Cheating the audience
In cities like Baltimore, where art and independent films often open without any advertising, in theaters that decide on a Monday what will play the coming Friday, critical favorites don't even have the opportunity to build an audience.
(Several films on these 2001 lists, in fact, were released in and won awards for 2000. They are included here because they opened in Baltimore in 2001.)
A gimmick movie like Memento or a film with a chic title and showy performance like Sexy Beast may stand a chance. But what of an audacious picture like The Claim - The Mayor of Casterbridge redone as a Western, a film that captures the bloody greed and bloody glory of the pioneers with unforgettable images like a blazing horse galloping through a mountainous expanse, and a great gazebo-like house being hauled across an ice-pack as a gift? It received extravagant coverage in national media outlets like Ebert and Roeper and the Sunday New York Times, but it was delayed repeatedly for Baltimore. Since the studio neglected to inform anyone that the picture was put off for another couple of weeks, The Sun reviewed The Claim on a day it was nowhere to be seen.
The now-defunct Shooting Gallery film series (best known for the British neo-noir Croupier) had a critical and popular success last season with The Day I Became a Woman, a movie that treated the plight of Iranian women through powerful metaphor. But like the rest of the Shooting Gallery presentations in Baltimore, it played at a chain theater not associated with foreign films, and was barely supported with advertising. I received a half-dozen voice-mail messages from readers who wondered where they could find it.
Timing, presentation, showmanship - all these factors can affect how a movie is perceived aesthetically. Henry Bromell's Panic took so long to move from production into theaters that some reviewers depicted it as a rip-off of The Sopranos, when it was actually conceived simultaneously with (and independent of) The Sopranos. And would it have the same impact if it received a full-tilt premiere today? Part of the wicked fun of the film was its straight-faced parody of the Greatest Generation mythology and how it threatened to emasculate the baby boomers. Now boomers feel they've found their own greatness.
A lot of the vitality of a movie year depends on films that may not have the originality or heft to make a top-10 list, but have enough juice and gumption to keep your love for movies percolating. A low-down satire of reality TV like Series 7 (with its sensational performance by Brooke Smith), a knockabout road comedy like Bandits, a sleek farce like The Closet, a cockeyed espionage caper like Tailor of Panama, an offbeat youth movie like Ghost World - films like these can keep you connected to the surprise and visceral pleasures of movies even if their ingredients don't come together completely.
But the idea of a varied moviegoing menu appears to have evaporated, and what's taken its place is a variety of niches - not just "arthouse" and "multiplex" but "cult" and "foreign" and "indie." And denizens of one territory rarely veer onto another's turf. A fan of a soft little movie like, say, The Dish, who ventures into the cold, flawed, but intelligent and groundbreaking Fat Girl, will go into shock. And I don't mean to defend only confrontational cinema. I've spent just as much time arguing over more accessible and emotional movies like Himalaya, a voluptuous horse opera with yaks, and Enemy at the Gates and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, World War II films with roots in history and legendry, and Innocence, a late-life romance that actually justifies the term "love story."
Unity has become our current cultural keynote. Too often in movies, unity comes from a rote response to hype and a dismissal of anything unconventional or challenging.
The top 10
Still, to me, the greatest thrill remains a large and heterogeneous audience coming together at a movie that wins a big emotional response imaginatively and honestly - which happened this year at The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first on my 10-best list.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It's the blockbuster that demonstrates size of heart does matter. It doesn't just make adults feel like kids again - it makes kids feel like adults. And it proves that flights of imagination can speak to us as directly as topical melodramas. When Frodo bemoans being thrust into apocalyptic times, Gandalf says: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
2. Into the Arms of Strangers. This lucid documentary set in and around the Holocaust, about the transport of Jewish children from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland to England, is wrenching both as a depiction of disrupted families and as a study of tenuous new bonds forged from necessity.
3. Waking Life. This sublime animated feature has some of the playfulness about the meaning of life that many enjoyed in My Dinner With Andre, but it also has a rococo visual style that can lift even earthbound skeptics into a state of dreamy ecstasy.
4. Lumumba. A dimly-remembered name from decades-old headlines comes to life as a towering figure of revolutionary Africa. And this tale of the rise and fall of the first prime minister of the free Congo turns out to be as swift and vivid as Z or The Battle of Algiers.
5. The Circle. A question asked by one of the Justice Department's recent detainees - "Who is this Kafka I keep hearing about?" - could have been asked by any of the female characters in this potent Iranian social tragedy, whose heroines try to secure some comfort and peace in an Islamic-fundamentalist society determined to find them guilty of something.
6. Our Song. Three high school girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, drift together and apart, find and lose ambitions, and with lyric emotion make their song our song, too - that some day, "we'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun" and our heads will be "much lighter."
7. Ali. An edgy collage of the boxer's life and career in the pivotal years between 1964 and 1974. It's an indelible portrait of a fighter molding his own common clay - the irrepressible showman Cassius Clay - into the more substantial and enigmatic figure of the international people's champ, Muhammad Ali.
8. Mulholland Drive. David Lynch's funky phantasmagoria throws a floodlight on all-American dreams of Hollywood love, power and stardom - and showcases an amazing actress named Naomi Watts, who, in 2001's best performance, starts out as an engaging ingenue and reveals herself to be a female Proteus.
9. Monsters, Inc. In a rich year for youthful fantasy (Spy Kids, Shrek, the underrated Atlantis), Pixar's latest computer-animated feature, set in the alternate universe of Monstropolis, takes the prize. It generates laughs and kicks the old-fashioned way - meshing surprising personalities with inventive pratfalls timed to its own peculiar stopwatch.
10. Amores Perros. This view of canine and human life in all strata of Mexico City has a fierce narrative energy and a quality of pitiless tenderness. As the late Pauline Kael noted of Umberto D, "someone has said that this picture goes a long way toward making us aware of what it is to be a man - and also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog."