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Cinema 2001 

The best and worst of a turbulent year

Call them the bastard children of John Malkovich. It's not unusual to occasionally stumble across a movie that likes to think outside the box, but over the past few years, one of the most influential has arguably been 1999's Being John Malkovich, which rode an overwhelming number of superlative reviews to decent box office, some major Oscar nominations, and, in some cases, a reawakening to the oft-forgotten fact that films don't need to be compartmentalized into tidy little affairs that run a straight line from A to B.

If there's one positive thing to say about the 2001 movie year, it's that, in the manner of Being John Malkovich, an unusually large number of high-profile releases dared to shake up the cinematic status quo by pushing all sorts of envelopes, and in some instances even shredding them. Indeed, roughly a third of the pictures in my Top 20 managed to delight countless film fans with their brazenness and annoy just as many with their refusal to provide a smooth moviegoing ride. Movies like Memento, Vanilla Sky and Mulholland Drive dared to throw the rulebook regarding narrative streamlining right out the window, while pictures such as Amelie and Moulin Rouge revelled in their makers' abilities to tinker with the technical aspects of the medium (perhaps it's no coincidence that the hallucinatory drink absinthe prominently figured in the plots of two of the year's pictures -- Moulin Rouge and From Hell -- since it often seemed like most directors were bombed out of their gourds while orchestrating many of these head-turning films).

This influx of cutting edge entertainment was a boon, given that other aspects of the movie year were less enthralling. The early months of 2001 saw a glut of vulgar comedies seemingly aimed at folks who couldn't spell "wit" if you spotted them the "w" and "t," while the summer season -- often a period of exceptional popcorn pictures -- failed to deliver the goods, instead serving up movies of such low standing (e.g., Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Swordfish, Evolution) that even turning off the brain couldn't prevent some rot from infiltrating that precious gray matter.

If you've noticed that I haven't mentioned how the September 11 tragedy affected cinema, that's because it really hasn't... yet. Sure, some release dates were changed here and there, and in an absurd implementation of Orwellian logic, the World Trade Center was digitally removed from a handful of new releases. But it won't be for another year or two that we'll see whether the event has truly changed what types of films will be produced (jingoistic titles, less violent features, more humanistic dramas, etc.).

In the meantime, here's a look at what the past movie year did have to offer. True, there's nothing on the level of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey -- you know, the one that optimistically suggested humankind would have fully penetrated outer space by now -- but there are still a handful of titles worthy of time capsule inclusion.

THE 10 BEST

1. MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan). The best picture of 2001. Like Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep -- a movie so confusing that even Raymond Chandler (who wrote the original novel) couldn't figure it all out -- this audacious neo-film noir about an amnesiac (Guy Pearce in a well-tuned performance) searching for his wife's killer is so mesmerizing, you'll gladly see it again and again just to keep rearranging all the pieces and making them fit in any number of ways.

2. THE OTHERS (Alejandro Amenabar). Superior to The Sixth Sense in every facet, this late-summer sleeper not only justifies the promise of writer-director Amenabar's earlier Spanish-language films but immediately vaults itself into the lofty company of such enduring ghost stories as The Innocents, The Uninvited and The Haunting.

3. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (John Cameron Mitchell). On an emotional level, the most affecting movie of the year is this brilliantly staged, scored and performed rock odyssey about a transsexual drag queen from Germany who's obsessed with issues of self-worth and self-identity. In this difficult role, show co-creator John Cameron Mitchell delivers the performance of the year.

4. AMELIE (Jean-Pierre Jeunet). It's been a decent year for film Francophiles, what with the releases of (among others) With a Friend Like Harry. . . and The Closet. But nothing from that Gallic country could touch Jeunet's intoxicating (and highly imaginative) romantic comedy about a puckish pixie (adorable Audrey Tatou) who seeks to improve the lives of those around her.

5. MONSTER'S BALL (Marc Forster). The anti-Amelie, this startling downer (albeit with fleeting rays of hope) ventures into Affliction territory with its hard-hitting tale about a gruff prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and his relationships with his bigoted father (Peter Boyle), his confused son (Heath Ledger), and a struggling waitress (Halle Berry) he meets right after overseeing her husband's execution. Look for this to open in Charlotte some time over the next few weeks.

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