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The 10 Best Films Of 2001

The 10 Best Films Of 2001

With 2015 upon us, we figured it was a good time to look back on the movies the millennium has brought us. And so we’ve dug into the archives and are re-running our Best of the 2000s pieces, from way back in 2009 when the Playlist was a little Blogspot site held together with tape and string. Each list runs down the top 10 films of each year (it’s also very possible that, half-a-decade on, we’d put them in a different order and even change some of the list, but we wanted to preserve the original pieces untouched as far as possible).Check out 2000 right here, and today we continue with 2001. The original piece follows below, and thanks to staffers past and present who contributed.

What was the state of cinema in 2001? Oscar-wise, the Academy Awards made some bold nominations, but of course awarded the safer “Gladiator” in favor of Steven Soderbergh‘s far superior “Traffic.” Still, Soderbergh did pull off the feat of being nominated twice in the same directorial category for his drug trade drama and “Erin Brockovich” (he would win for “Traffic” and Julia Roberts would take Best Actress for ‘Brockovich’). At Cannes, Michael Haneke‘s devastating “The Piano Teacher” would dominate (Best Actress, Actor and the runner-up prize), but the Palme d’Or would elude him (Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room” took the top award that year). Globally, George W. Bush took office at the start of the year, followed not long after by 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror, but those affects on cinema would obviously not be felt immediately. Perhaps the coolest cultural moment all year? In January, a black monolith measuring approximately 9 feet tall appeared in Seattle, Washington’s Magnuson Park, placed by an anonymous artist in reference to Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

10. “The Devil’s Backbone”
While Guillermo del Toro won over the hearts and minds of audiences and critics with his similarly themed and styled “Pan’s Labyrinth” (both fantastical films with political overtones), it was this Pedro Almodovar-produced Spanish-language ghost story that cemented him as a filmmaker of unbridled imagination and thoughtfulness. Set at a boys’ halfway house during the Spanish Civil War and with an unexploded bomb in the courtyard serving as a reminder of the peril they all face, del Toro crafts a tender melodrama about the ghosts (literal, historical, and emotional) that torment us all. Though some of the visual effects lack sophistication in retrospect, the sentiment is just as clear and rich as ever.

9. “No Man’s Land”
This 2001 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film is a pitch-black ironic tragicomedy set during the 1993 Bosnian war regarding opposing wounded soldiers (Serbian and Bosnian) stuck in a trench between enemy lines, immobilized on a spring loaded bouncing mine. Serious stuff, but director Danis Tanovic uses the dilemma to scathingly illustrate the utter absurdities of war (bureaucratic or otherwise) and the squabbling among different players descending on the scene, among them journalists who attempt to exploit the situation for their own gain, which in turn draws the U.N., which begets its own kind of red tape. While the soldiers find common ground, the film concludes with stark bleakness (though there’s nothing ambiguous about the outcome), leaving the viewer despairing, despite the demonstration of brotherhood among enemies.

8. “Memento
Credit goes to Christopher Nolan‘s second film (which premiered at Venice and was released in the UK and elsewhere in 2000 but didn’t reach U.S. shores until 2001) for keeping us interested even once its mystery has been unraveled. Guy Pearce’s everyman panic grounds his haunted and afflicted vigilantism in a reality that Wally Pfister’s sun-soaked cinematography helps illuminate, one of shoddy, paint-worn backroom dealings, dank hotel rooms and hopeless dead-end diners. Using the plot device of anterograde amnesia, Shelby (Pearce) is forced to constantly re-imagine the events around him every fifteen minutes when his memory vanishes. The film uses an ingenious backwards narrative that carefully places clues at the right spots to allow for the viewer to participate in solving what we know is essentially an unsolvable mystery: a man out for revenge against the person who killed his wife, leaving him dazed, confused, and… well, he’s got this condition, see?

7. “Fat Girl”
Provocateur Catherine Breillat certainly has a lot to say about female sexuality, but fans of her work would agree her most abrasive, confrontational film is this tale of two sisters, one a sexually active nymphette awash in thoughts of true romance, the other her far more cynical and more rotund sibling. As the older seductress pines for her much-older male paramour, the younger can only think in inflexible terms, knowing that the end of adolescence means the beginning of loneliness. “Fat Girl” traces the connection between the emotional disassociation of youth and the loveless call of passionless, selfish sex, creating a lacerating tale of the truth behind our darkest sexual thoughts. It’s as if Breillat is saying “come to my film for the cheap thrills, but I will scar you beyond belief.”

6. “Sexy Beast”
Before his directorial debut, Jonathan Glazer was only known for some ghostly music videos (Radiohead, Massive Attack, Blur) and staggeringly inventive commercials (Levi’s, Guinness, Nike), but that would all change with his gangster-trying-to-go-straight tale “Sexy Beast,” a picture that ironically (and perhaps wisely) would mostly let the visual flair take a backseat in favor of performance, sweltering mood and well, Ben Kingsley. While Ray Winstone is superb as Gal, the gone-lazy-and-fat ex-criminal trying to retire in his posh Spanish villa, it is Kingsley as the perennially apoplectic, raving lunatic former partner who is sent to fetch his colleague, a frightening force of nature (earning an Oscar nomination for his turn). The tense, tightly wound drama is also supremely buttressed by UNKLE‘s claustrophobically throbbing electro score and the appearance by Ian McShane as a chilling crime boss.

5. “Amélie”
Launching the international acting career of Audrey Tautou and vaulting cult director Jean-Pierre Jeunet into A-list status, “Amelie” was the rare foreign film sensation that both packed theaters and pleased critics. Premiering in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2001 and released in theaters just a few months later, the film harkened back to a more blissfully uninformed time that seemed lost forever in the smoke and fire of the next fall morning. The whimsical, sweet tooth of a story about a charmingly naive and innocent girl who quietly tries to help those around her and stumbles into love was the perfect dose of escapism the world needed. The fact that it’s an enchanting film, with a wondrous sense of comic timing, lovely set decoration and seared with earnest, unaffected hope and optimism, is why it continues to endure.

4. “The Werckmeister Harmonies”
Comprised of only 39 shots, many of them in colossally-long 11 minute takes, Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr‘s enigmatic masterwork about a strange circus sideshow —which includes a giant whale and a mysterious and unnatural ideologue named “The Prince”— that produces social unrest, fear and ultimately panic in a decaying provincial town, is beautifully grim and unforgettable (and also a challenging film for those that can’t go the distance with the slow-burning pace and bombed-out atmosphere). A young man (Lars Rudolph) hopelessly tries to assuage the restless town’s tensions, but the moral consequences of the fait accompli self-implosion climaxes with one of the most heart-stirring sequences ever put on film (and corresponds sublimely with Mihály Vig‘s dolorous score). Tarr once joked that the 11-minute reel was Kodak’s implicit form of censorship —either way, you can blame his mesmerizing and hypnotically graceful films (and sustaining sequences) for all of Gus Van Sant‘s experimental work of the decade; the director named him as a key influence on “Gerry.”

3. “The Piano Teacher”
Leave it to implacable fear monger Michael Haneke to deliver one of the decade’s most scorching portraits of human suffering and emotional incarceration, one bordering on a psychic breakdown. Known for his psychologically disturbing works, the misanthropic filmmaker renders yet another austere tale about a submissive piano teacher (a spectacularly emotionally ravaged Isabelle Huppert) who is systematically damaged by her malevolent mother. Her humanity practically buried under years of mental abuse, Huppert’s character only reprieve with respect to feeling something is ventilated by cruelty to her students or brutal moments of self-inflicted genital mutilation (“Antichrist” has nothing on this). Things get even worse (if you can even imagine) when she becomes obsessed with one of her 17-year-old students. Abhorrent yet fascinating, the picture is like a blunt-instrument striking the head, a film we carefully admire from afar but never want to be forced to watch again.

2. “Mulholland Drive
David Lynch’s puzzle box narrative seems to be about a hopeful Hollywood newcomer (Naomi Watts) who stumbles wide-eyed into a haunting mystery to which there are no coherent answers. But the hallucinatory nature of the story gives way to a deeper plumbing of the dreamscape —Lynch invites the viewer farther down the rabbit hole than previously thought possible. In the end, the fable, originally created as an ABC pilot, diverges into two distinctly different narratives, one real and one imagined, but not always in that order. Keep a scorecard handy for Lynch’s scariest film yet.

1. “The Man Who Wasn’t There”
The Coen Brothers‘ achingly beautiful neo-noir (filmed in velvety black-and-white) was the polar opposite of their previous film, the jubilant “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Dour, smoky, and draped in period atmosphere (it takes place in the late 1940s), this tale of a barber (Billy Bob Thornton) becoming embroiled in a convoluted scheme involving murder, blackmail, UFOs and the burgeoning technology of dry cleaning is one of the Brothers’ most inscrutable, underrated, and deeply felt films. It’s a movie whose characters are hollow (hollowed out by suburbia and by World War II), and the visual texture enriched by those long, inky shadows, echo this marvelously. It’s a movie whose gorgeous starkness haunts you long after you finish watching.

Honorable Mention:
Perhaps what many will see as a glaring oversight is Wes Anderson‘s “The Royal Tenenbaums” which was a bone of contention amongst some of the staff, but the prevailing Playlist wisdom is that this film isn’t the masterpiece many think it is and suffers from too much caricature (one-note performances, costumes and an ungainly slathering of music) that was enough to keep it off this list. To be clear, it does have some heart and is very watchable. Other pictures that didn’t quite make the cut were Baz Luhrmann‘s gaudy yet entertaining musical, “Moulin Rouge,” Alejandro Amenábar‘s spellbinding ghost story “The Others,” starring a strong performance by Nicole Kidman (when you look at the decade as a whole you realize she’s been in several great films), Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s psychological-j-horror film, “Kairo” and Todd Field‘s harrowing family drama, “In The Bedroom.”

If you’re wondering where films like “Ali,” “Donnie Darko,” “Black Hawk Down” or “Vanilla Sky” well, they were discussed but didn’t make the cut. Thoughts? Your 2001 picks?

— Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Astrud Sands, Gabe Toro,

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