Out With a Bang: Spacey, Crowe, Carrey

It’s all over but the Band-Aids. In this final column of the year, here’s a roundup of the movies competing for box-office glory during the remaining days of 2001.

For beautifully made literature on film, you can’t beat the careful, page-turning skill with which the fine director Lasse ( The Cider House Rules ) Hallström has turned E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Shipping News , into a movie that engrosses, hypnotizes and clings to the memory long after the final frame. Kevin Spacey is back at the top of his game as a disillusioned, grief-stricken burned-out case: a dull ink-setter in upstate New York, devastated by the death of his unfaithful wife (a great trashy performance by that lovely chameleon, Cate Blanchett) in a car accident with another man, who moves his troubled daughter and crusty, odd, no-nonsense aunt (Judi Dench) to the bleak, snowy wastes of his ancestral home in Newfoundland to seek a fresh start.

Landing a lowly job as a reporter covering the shipping news for the local newspaper, he begins to slowly matriculate in a town forgotten by time, where the people are descendants of thieves and fishermen and pirates. Rape, incest, two near-death boating accidents and other rich plot trajectories open his eyes and heart to the point where he does eventually recharge his batteries, finding love with a single mother who runs a day-care center (the radiant Julianne Moore), unlocking the mysteries of the past, and finding hope for the future through the help of a marvelously assembled cast of strange, eccentric, time-weathered village characters.

Director Hallström misses nothing in the careful development of time and place. Wind-swept locations in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia; majestic cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, who shot The Cider House Rules ; a distinguished script by Robert Nelson Jacobs, who wrote Chocolat ; and heartbreaking performances by an exemplary cast-all inform a movie that warms the cockles like an electric blanket.

A Beautiful Mind is the harrowing true story of John Nash, the brilliant mathematician whose revolutionary theory of economics won the Nobel Prize in 1994, after he’d already spent most of his adult life in mental hospitals. Russell Crowe plays the eccentric and controversial genius from his graduate-school days at Princeton-when the signs of his illness were already showing (staring glassily into space, unable to focus; rarely attending class; exhibiting bizarre antisocial behavior)-right up to the present, when he’s still considered the most beloved nut case on the Princeton faculty.

After his career was jump-started by his advanced theory of dynamics, he became a valuable problem solver for the Defense Department and a natural code breaker for the Pentagon. As his job grew more dangerous, so did his paranoia. Convinced that he was a spy caught up in a Russian conspiracy and pursued by killers waving top-secret classified espionage documents, Nash’s hallucinations, fantasies and paranoia led him right into a straitjacket.

Cleverly and sensitively directed by Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind is more than a case study. Up to the point where Nash lands in the competent hands of a humane psychiatrist (Christopher Plummer) who correctly diagnoses his schizophrenia, we never know more than Mr. Crowe does at any given moment. This gives the film a sense of such immediacy that Nash’s subterranean nightmare takes on the gripping elements of a psychological thriller. But it’s Russell Crowe, a gladiator in button-down shirts, whose intensity, decency and strength transforms the delusions of uncontrollable madness into the triumph of a beautiful mind.

Charlotte Gray provides a second welcome visit from versatile Cate Blanchett in yet another disguise-as a naïve but adventurous girl during World War II who gets the kind of grim education in human suffering that they don’t tell you about in the recruiting posters. Inspired by the war effort and fluent in French, Ms. Gray joins British intelligence and parachutes into occupied France as a secret agent under an assumed identity to search for her missing lover (an R.A.F. pilot believed to have been shot down by the Germans), falls in love with a French resistance fighter (Billy Crudup) while trying to save the lives of two Jewish children condemned to the gas chambers, and narrowly escapes death at the hands of the Nazis. That’s a lot of danger and courage for one blue-eyed blonde to muster in one film, but Ms. Blanchett succeeds convincingly, displaying a lot of conflicting emotion along the way, with all of her juices flowing.

While telling a ripping good story, Charlotte Gray also touches on the London blitz, the chilling anti-Semitism in the evil Vichy government of the 1940′s, and the sorrowful tragedies that forever changed the lives of innocent people throughout Europe. Breathtakingly photographed (almost every scene is suitable for framing) and painstakingly directed by Australian Wunderkind Gillian ( My Brilliant Career ) Armstrong, this is what they used to call a real “movie movie.”

I must be losing it: I have never been a Jim Carrey fan, but the attractive, sensible, polished and foam-waxed all-American matinee idol who emerges from The Majestic is the surprise of the year. Playing a screenwriter who, after battling the ignorance, confusion and stupidity of Hollywood studio thinking for years, finds himself on the verge of a career-making breakthrough only to be targeted for destruction in the McCarthy witch hunts in 1951, Mr. Carrey gets the best role of his own career-and plays it with tenderness, valor, bravery and deeply moving conviction. I find him positively captivating.

Mr. Carrey’s character, Peter Appleton, is a man with taste and intelligence, which makes him suspect in an industry that manipulates talent and labels human life with a negotiable price tag. Worse still, he’s a liberal who innocently attended a Communist cell meeting when he was attending college on the G.I. Bill because it was a swell place to pick up girls. Before he has a chance to defend himself, his convertible smashes through a guard rail, and Peter falls off a bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway and then washes up in a beach town where the local townspeople mistake him for a missing war hero. Before his amnesia wears off, he finds a new family, reopens a shuttered movie house called the Majestic, revitalizes the drab lives of the town’s citizens, and falls in love with a beautiful lawyer who renews his faith in patriotism while searching for any little thing that will jog his memory. When the House Un-American Activities Committee finally exposes him, the moment of truth arrives. Faced with lying or going to jail, Peter finds his heart where he least expects it, and in the film’s biggest scene gives a speech before Congress that teaches everyone a lesson in democracy they’ll never forget.

Frank Darabont, director of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption , is a man with a healthy respect for the disappearing art of telling a great story in a time-honored, well-structured narrative style. With its principles, values, point of view and flag-waving portrait of postwar American small-town life, The Majestic is a movie that would make Frank Capra beam. This is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a new spin.

Ridley Scott’s noisy, pointless war epic Black Hawk Down is an interminable mural of killing, famine, bleeding and devastation that tries to outdo Saving Private Ryan without the creative genius or historic magnitude that made that film an instant classic. Based on a massacre during the war in Somalia in which a troop of U.S. soldiers and two crashed helicopter crews fought for survival while trapped behind enemy lines for 15 hours and surrounded by armies of hostile savages, the film examines the grit and heroism of boys waiting to be rescued after an idiotic military blunder. Where is the glory in all this? Somalia in 1993 was not World War II, and the lives the Pentagon sacrificed there were a dishonorable waste bordering perilously close to shame. Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore and Sam Shepard are some of the actors lost in the carnage and gore. They are fine, but so what? Limbs explode, guts spill and blood splatters in an endurance test that is numbing, but nothing new. In war, there are a thousand ways to die. Ridley Scott deserves no medals for forcing us to suffer through every single one.

Monster’s Ball is a catalog of human misery that even the laceratingly honest, warts-and-all sweat of Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton can’t save from contrived incredulity. Luscious Halle, stripped of all glamour and working hard for respect as a dramatic actress, plays a tragic unfortunate whose obese child is killed by a hit-and-run driver after her cop-killer husband, played by Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, is fried in the electric chair. Versatile Billy Bob is the redneck cop who pulls the switch, after which his own son (Heath Ledger) blows his brains out with a shotgun. Destitute and desperate, the mother sleeps with the cop without knowing who he is, and they move in together while all of Louisiana looks the other way. Everyone ends up drowning in a ton of Tide. From closeups of an execution in meticulous detail (shaving the calves, tightening every screw and strap) to unbridled nudity and shockingly brutal racist dialogue, there’s no relief in sight from the mounting depression. The acting is superior, but I didn’t believe a minute of Monster’s Ball . It’s a sour little soaper that ends 2001 on a downbeat note of suicidal despair.

See you next year.

The Ten Best Films of 2001

1. In the Bedroom 2. The Deep End 3. L.I.E. 4. The Shipping News 5. Iris 6. Gosford Park 7. A.I. 8. A Beautiful Mind 9. The Pledge 10. No Man’s Land

The Ten Worst Films of 2001

1. Vanilla Sky 2. Mulholland Drive 3. Town & Country 4. Moulin Rouge! 5. Shallow Hal 6. Swordfish 7. Pearl Harbor 8. Memento 9. The Mexican 10. Snatch