Tom Jolliffe ventures back 20 years to 2001 and offers up 10 essential films from that year…
It’s a little bit frightening but 20 years ago we had become well ensconced in the 21st century. The first apocalypse had been averted and we were slowly ambling toward 2012 hoping the Mayans were wrong (spoiler alert, we’re still here). 20 years ago I was starting college. I’d already been well worn into the working life by that point too. Cinema was, as it always had been (and still is) a welcome escape from 9-5’s, studies and all else. The year itself in film is a mixed bag. If you look back at the general output it’s a year that both marked a distinctly bleh output that was in keeping with the end of last century and the early parts of this one as far as studio cinema. Yet, 2001 certainly had a number of standout films, some of which would break ground and some which still adorn collections of cult enthusiasts.
So let’s take a look back at some of the best. Here are 10 essentials from 2001…
There aren’t many films quite this wonderfully charming. Amelie captured audiences across the world in 2001. It was hugely successful outside of France. Audrey Tatou became a household name destined for Hollywood (and her relatively indifferent and underwhelming stint there after wasn’t befitting her undoubted talent and presence). Jean-Pierre Jeunet had built up no shortage of acclaim in his native France but was largely unknown in America outside of the disappointing Alien: Resurrection. So much visual whimsy, pathos, comedy and charm. Amelie still remains a stunning and endearing film.
Brotherhood of The Wolf
Staying in France. This had a big impact on me. I sought the film predominantly because of the reconnection of Christophe Gans and his Crying Freeman star, Mark Dacascos. Like Amelie this one would do very well internationally across the following year. This visually resplendent genre mash blended martial arts action, period drama, gothic horror, fantasy and creature feature. In many ways the formula was ahead of its time. Another 10-15 years later and it would have been even more successful. Still, it did very well and it holds up very well thanks to Gans’ style, a stellar cast (including Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel) and exceptional design across the board. It’s also shot beautifully by the now Academy award nominated cinematographer Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water, John Wick 2+3). Dacascos steals the film with ethereal magnetism and physical dynamism. It was the first film not in the English language which I travelled to the big screen to see (and also marked the farthest I’d ventured out to see a film full-stop given it wasn’t showing locally to me).
David Lynch’s eponymous mystery film dazzled and enamoured audiences as much as it left them scratching their head. Like much of Lynch at his best though, it enthralled to a point it demanded (and secured) repeat viewings. It also brought with it a reputation that preceded it thanks to some steamy scenes shared between a then unknown Naomi Watts and co-star Laura Harring. In time it’s been considered a masterpiece, regularly finding itself in top 100 lists. My own initial reaction to the film was one of confounded indifference. It wasn’t that I was unready for Lynch. I loved Blue Velvet and I dug Lost Highway. I just couldn’t get into this one. In subsequent viewings it has repeatedly grown on me though, and will undoubtedly continue to, the more I see it. Watts was clearly a star in waiting among a well travelled cast. Oddly, Harring despite an enigmatic and sultry presence that felt very bygone Hollywood, disappeared quickly. Within a couple of years she was in a bottom of the barrel addition to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s CV, Derailed.
A film that launched the careers of Antoine Fuqua (director) and David Ayer (writer). It was a star studded crime thriller that pitted Denzel Washington as an antagonistic and morally corrupt cop increasingly against his new, by the book partner, played by Ethan Hawke. Add in a stellar support cast and a relentless pace in this first day on the job juggernaut and it probably exceeded some of the more generic aspects thanks to Fuqua’s control and the two leads. Denzel is utterly imperious here. Hawke is superb too, in his more restrained role. Do they elevate it? Absolutely, but this is still a great film and it’s still gripping. Washington won an Oscar and Hawke received a nomination.
Almost the epitome of the cult classic. Donnie Darko was a relatively small film, that gained more traction when Drew Barrymore came on board to co-star and produce. Richard Kelly’s elaborate, intricately thought out, and (to many) baffling end of days sci-fi dramedy might not have expected quite the response it got, but Darko was huge for a good decade after its release, with repeated showings at indie cinemas and curated seasons. Audiences had already shown a willingness to delve beyond the surface of films and grow into their own cult factions. We saw it with The Matrix fans, delving into the nuggets of philosophy, mythology, biblical reference and more. In Darko it was the philosophy of time travel as laid out in the film (and clarified somewhat in the directors cut). The film toys with fractures in time, space and reality, with a character prone to paranoid schizophrenia (which questions the nature of reality throughout). Stylistically it’s very much of its time, with a soundtrack that was very nostalgic, even then. Surreal, engaging and still bewitching, Donnie Darko is probably most bewildering as far as Kelly, whose subsequent films were almost aggressively disappointing (not least Southland Tales, which had a lot of hype prior to release). A young breakout director with such a distinct film promised a new career to follow the likes of Lynch and Cronenberg, but he disappeared soon after 2009’s The Box.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring
At 2001, many had often wondered just whether there would be a big screen adaptation of Tolkien’s tales in Middle-earth. The scale and budgets required as well as the elaborate fantasy within the books made this an intimidating prospect. Peter Jackson took on the mantle and went straight to The Lord of the Rings (he’d later of course adapt The Hobbit). Fellowship of the Ring, knocked it out the park. It did so with assurance that a three hour part one, with no end, would still be accepted by a willing audience. It was a huge hit and not only that, but Jackson’s adaptation gave cinema a three year event. It made the festive season cinema visit a genuine attraction and because the first film was so good, the second and then third parts thus became absolutely essential. There hasn’t been as great a continuing ‘event’ since. Likewise, for myself and many, Lord of the Rings as told by Jackson, was as enthralling and magical as cinema had been in a long time (especially as I was an adult by the release of Fellowship). I’ve rarely felt that sense of spine tingling childlike immersion since the trilogy. It’s great across the board and the inherent silliness of Orcs, Elves, Dwarves and Wizards is anchored by sincere and gripping performances from a magnificent cast and stunning visuals.
The Devil’s Backbone
Prior to becoming a household name, Guillermo del Toro had gained a reputation in Mexico as a horror specialist thanks to Cronos and this film. His experience in Hollywood as a director began with Mimic, which showed promise as a visual stylist without offering the kind of attention his talent would later receive. He went home to make a Mexican/Spanish co-production, The Devil’s Backbone which was a dark, visually engaging fantasy horror offering all the style we’ve come to expect from del Toro. It’s a brilliant film, a pleasing return to form (at the time) and ultimately paved the way for more successful work in Hollywood with Blade 2 the following year, and then Hellboy. It was all working toward his masterwork, Pan’s Labyrinth where visuals, story and characters all found the perfect balance. Del Toro then found Oscar glory with The Shape of Water.
In a year which featured Shrek and Monsters Inc, it was a Japanese animated film which really dazzled audiences. To some, Studio Ghibli wasn’t a new phenomenon, but by the time Spirited Away travelled the world, it was huge. Hayao Miyazaki’s film offers the perfect introduction to Ghibli, not least because it’s probably the best of the bunch. Stunning animation, a beautiful score from Joe Hisaishi and the kind of imagination and visual wonder rarely seen, made Spirited Away an instant classic. No matter your age, there’s just something completely wondrous about this film.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson was the film buff’s hip secret in 2001. It was that knowledge among a select community that there existed this distinct voice in comedy, with a very definite visual style. The Royal Tenenbaums would be the first film to let the secret out among wider audiences in a film that either hit the mark with the general populous, or left them scratching their head. It’s everything we now come to expect from Anderson as far as the subtle complexities and the surreal and deft comical touches. The cast is great but most particularly pleasing was seeing a return to form for Gene Hackman and an excursion away from playing authoritative military figures or support turns in so-so late 90’s thrillers. It also represented something of a swansong, with Hackman only starring in three films after, before seemingly retiring in 2004.
Part of a new wave of Japanese horror films which really blew up in the late 90’s (most notably with Ring), Pulse marked a continuation of these chilling and grim ghost stories. Like Ring, it has a side focus on technology linked with the spiritual world/afterlife. Given it focuses on the internet and not VHS, it has dated somewhat better as far as the tech side. Whilst it’s not as impactful as Ring was, Kiyoshi Kurosawa firmly established himself as a distinct voice in Japanese horror (this is excellent, but 1997’s, Cure is better). The output of horror in American cinema in 2001 was largely middle of the road, with The Others being a high point. Better things were still coming from world cinema, not least the aforementioned del Toro film and in this case, Pulse.
What’s your favourite film from 2001? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth. Join me next time to venture back another decade to 1991…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.