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Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

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Movie Essentials: “Eyes Wide Shut”

Being the last film of the great Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut” often gets a bad reputation for not being as strong as Kubrick’s other works, but doing that severely looks down upon a great film.

While not as revolutionary as “2001: A Space Odyssey” or as iconic as “The Shining”, “Eyes Wide Shut” is a brilliant examination into sexual dominance and subconscious lust.

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The film starts off with Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), going to a party hosted by the wealthy Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). A suave, mature gentlemen dances with Alice while two beautiful women flirt with Bill. Once they get home, Alice questions Bill about his intentions with those women, wondering if he had intercourse with them. Bill tells her that he wouldn’t because he loves her, but Alice reveals that she almost cheated on him even though it would have meant throwing their lives away.

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Bill’s eyes are closed to the undercurrents of the world around him, even from within his own family. He has societal shields set up that blind him to the ravenous sexual longings in others, shields such as congenial societal discourse and proper presentation. As he journeys forth from this discussion with Alice, he begins to see his blinders lessen in the dead of night.

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His anger and obsession with this vision of his wife and another man drives him to try infidelity himself. From the grieving daughter of his dead patient to a hooker he meets on the streets to the underage daughter of a costume shop owner, Bill finds the shady desire that lingers in a world he doesn’t understand. This is all culminated when he tricks his way into a nighttime sexcapade party where everyone is wearing a mask and the password is the not-so-subtle word “fidelio.”

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The masks represent the true selves of the participants, expressionless and ornery. Their actual physical faces are just facades that they use in public, facades that Bill has used to blind himself to the truth of the world around him; that subliminal desires drive us. This is also represented by the pale blue light lurking behind the characters in multiple scenes, beneath the surface but always present.

The entire party is presented as almost a dream, blurring the line between reality and surrealism. As the film continues, the viewer wonders exactly what is real: the dream or reality? The blending of both gives the viewer a portrayal of the psyche.

Kubrick is a master of crafting the subconscious into his films. The latent raw sexuality presented in “Eyes Wide Shut” is his reflection of the desires, grotesque or not, of the psyche inherent in us.

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At the film’s conclusion, Bill’s only salvation from his journey is his belief in marriage and the bond that holds him to his wife; not just sex but love and commitment as well. He can not unsee the desires that drive the world that he was blinded to, but he can maintain a sense of identity against those primal instincts and that identity is typified by being a husband. Whether or not he saves his marriage is unknown, but is left for the viewer to interpret.

The film is hypnotic in its ability to draw the viewer into its central mystery of possible murder, but it’s the peeling back of our “humanity” that sticks with the viewer. The delving into our inner psychosis is something that perhaps no filmmaker has done better than Kubrick and it makes everyone of his films memorable.

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 1

It was my brother’s 25th birthday last month and that got me thinking about the past quarter-century of moviemaking. When thinking about this list, I was surprised by an apparent lack of surefire classics comparative to other decades which may speak to Hollywood playing it far too safe recently, but I still had to make several painful cuts (sorry “Shawshank” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”). And there are still some very, very good movies here.  So without further ado, here are my top 25 films of the past 25 years (1992-2017).

25. Under the Skin (2014)

    A haunting look into the human experience, “Under the Skin” burrows into your psyche, making you wonder about the nature of existence. Jonathan Glazer’s film takes you into the mind of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) with no concept of human interaction and makes you experience life as if you were witnessing it for the first time, something not easy to do. It is truly surreal, beautiful and grotesque all at the same time.

24. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

    Any number of Charlie Kauffman’s scripted-films could be on this list (“Adaptation”, “Being John Malkovich”), but I’ve decided to go with the film that most remember him for. Focusing on a guy (Jim Carrey) and a girl (Kate Winslet) after a rough breakup, they each undergo an experimental procedure to remove their memories of each other, but each memory needs to be individually extracted, and we watch their history in reverse order, seeing their evolution. A deeper project that explores the nature of love and memory and all the pain and joy that it brings, “Eternal Sunshine” perfectly balances the weird, the sweet and the comical into one film.

23. Fight Club (1999)

    “Fight Club” may be the signature anarchist film. Infused with creativity, the film, even twenty years after its release, is still a jaw-dropping experience of sheer ingenuity. It tells the story of the Narrator (Edward Norton) who meets a strange man selling soap named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Stuck at a dead-end job and working for corporate America, the Narrator needs to break out and with Tyler, they create Fight Club, a group that revels in simply beating each other night after night. But the club grows and grows, becoming something else entirely and something very wrong begins to affect the Narrator. Creating an avalanche of pop culture references and helping give rise to 1990s counterculture, the film is glossy and fun with an edge that burns in just the right way.

22. Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94)

Perhaps the most “classical” of any of the films on this list, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s three films (Blue, White and Red) illuminate the different themes of French nationalism: liberty, equality and fraternity. Whether it is the story of a wife who must come to grips with the death of her husband and daughter in a car accident, a man who is divorced because he can not consummate his marriage or the relationship between two people who have nothing in common, the threads of connection between all three stories elevates them to a richer meaner. They are a moving canvass of life.

21. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Despite being nearly non-stop action, “Mad Max: Fury Road” manages to imbue themes of environmentalism, loyalty, purpose and feminism into its narrative. With the world having fallen apart, Max (Tom Hardy) is alone, but finds himself abducted by a clan of biker gang thugs who take him a sprawling community dependent on a tyrant named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When Joe’s concubines are abducted by one of his subordinates, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Max finds himself entangled in a predicament that appeals to his sense of honor.  “Fury Road” is one of the greatest action movies ever made, a sprawling, thrilling chase through hell and perhaps a telling cautionary tale of our future.

20. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

A harrowing story of dedication, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” tells the story of two college roommates, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu), in Romania who arrange to have an illegal abortion. Directed by Cristian Mungiu, the film is told in near real-time and in gripping detail. It is a treasure of suspense brimming with real-world issues.

19. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The foremost signature event of the 21st century are the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not far behind that is the death of the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Told in gripping detail through the eyes of fictional CIA operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film is a timecapsule of the post-9/11 mentality and all the history involved with that period. The range and scope of the film is breathtaking and the conclusion told in real-time brings the history straight to us.

18. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The last film of the great Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut” is an eerie look into raw sexuality and the bonds of marriage. Even so-so Kubrick towers above the work of many other filmmakers, and the director’s swan song film is still a treasure that leaves open so many interpretations. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman) are sexually enticed by different people at a party in New York City. The episode leads to an admission by Alice that women are not as faithful to men as Bill would believe and the situation escalates as Bill is drawn into a world of sexual conquest, uninhibited desires and danger. It finds a way to dig under your skin in a way that is so purely Kubrick.

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Part 3