I have been contributing in print to a yearly film canon since 1958, and my research extends back to 1915, leading me to the conclusion that bad movies outnumber good movies by a ridiculously wide and constant margin, which is the way of all the arts.
Fortunately, we tend to forget all the bad movies of the past as the years go by, with the result that we tend to remember the past as a continuous golden age, unlike the dispiriting present. Instead of generating a theory of progress for the medium, the movie scene substitutes a theory of regress. My own theory is that the past was not all that good, and the present is not all that bad. But the one thing that has changed is that everyone’s become a critic, and it’s harder for us supposed professionals in the field to impose our tastes on the Internet masses.
Another change from the past is the disappearance of the studio system, with its pejoratively regarded code name: Hollywood. The so-called majors, each with a distinctive logo, are now almost entirely distributors rather than producers. The MGM lion can roar all it wants, but there’s no distinctive studio style to go with the roar, as there was in the 30′s and 40′s. As a New Yorker, I can avail myself of all the independent American films from the Sundance Film Festival, all the films from the Anglophone periphery of Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Canada, and the foreign-language subtitled films from the four corners of the earth. And if all these alternatives to Hollywood don’t keep me busy enough, the development of VHS-video, laser-disc and DVD technology enables me to turn to the movie classics of the past for aesthetic nourishment.
So I’ve never had it so good, movie-wise.
Of course, I haven’t forgotten 9/11–but it so happens I kept going to the movies while my family was on relief during the Great Depression, and after Pearl Harbor, and while I was in the Army during the Korean War, and I am certainly not going to stop now that I’m actually making a living out of my lifelong vice of sneaking off to the movies when I should’ve been working, studying and reading.
Ever since the malignantly motivated events of Sept. 11 were supposed to have changed our lives forever, we comparatively parochial commentators on the movies have been asked where Hollywood should go from here. Sylvester Stallone has already threatened to unleash Rambo in the narrowing (as I write) search for Osama bin Laden and his evil henchmen. Karl Rove was dispatched weeks ago by the Bush administration to secure the film industry’s cooperation in the war against terrorism.
But it’s not clear what Hollywood can do beyond outlawing plane hijackings and crashes and fireballs as box-office spectacles. In any event, every movie shown by the end of 2001 was conceived and executed before 9/11. One or two movies have already tagged the Muslims as villains, but, ironically, it may be harder to make Muslims the bad guys after 9/11 than it was before. From the White House on down, word has gone out that the Muslims in our midst are not to be treated as harshly as the Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Back then, Jap-bashing was not limited to certified bigots; even our liberal President got into the act. One may wonder if the conservative President now in office is thinking of Muslim Americans as much as he is salivating over all the oil in Saudi Arabia. Japan didn’t have any oil of its own. That’s why it bombed Pearl Harbor: to get a free hand with the oil riches in Southeast Asia, especially in the British and Dutch East Indies.
One trend in recent pre-9/11 American adventure movies has been the complete demystification of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. as stuffy, clumsy organizations blocking the efforts of the individualistic action heroes at every turn, sometimes with criminals and traitors inside the organization. I hope we aren’t going back to the days when J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. was considered a model of probity and efficiency while it was wire-tapping Martin Luther King. With an Attorney General straight out of the Inquisition, this is no time for movies to become conformist in the name of patriotism. What we don’t need right now is excessive flag-waving on the screen.
Anyway, movies have long since yielded their relevance in current events to television, especially the breaking-news-crawly CNN, which seems actually to dictate our foreign policy. So as I wish my readers a Happy New Year, I remain confident that enough good movies will come from somewhere, with or without subtitles, to make for lively conversations among us–not just to escape reality, but to discern more deeply the dramatic spectacles of human and social behavior illuminated on the screen. My own biases remain in the realm of narrative live-action cinematography, but that has always covered an enormous amount of territory.
So without any further ado, here are the movies and performers that impressed me in 2001:
Best English-Language Films
2. Gosford Park
4. Mulholland Drive
5. A Beautiful Mind
7. The Man Who Wasn’t There
9. The Golden Bowl
10. Bridget Jones’s Diary
Films Other People Liked But I Didn’t
2. Monster’s Ball
3. In the Bedroom
4. The Deep End
5. Moulin Rouge
7. Ghost World
9. The Others
10. The Royal Tenenbaums
Best Foreign-Language Films
1. The Road Home
2. The Devil’s Backbone
3. With a Friend Like Harry
4. The Town Is Quiet
5. Va Savoir
6. The Taste of Others
8. The Day I Became a Woman
9. Amores Perros
10. The Circle
Runners-up: Fat Girl ; The Closet ; Divided We Fall ; Kandahar ; Under the Sand .
Best Nonfiction Films
1. My Voyage to Italy
2. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
3. The Turandot Project
4. The Gleaners & I
5. Go Tigers!
Best Animation Feature
1. Robert Altman, Gosford Park
2. Zhang Yimou, The Road Home
3. Paul Cox, Innocence
4. David Lynch, Mulholland Drive
5. Jacques Rivette, Va Savoir
6. Richard Eyre, Iris
7. The Coen Brothers, The Man Who Wasn’t There
8. James Ivory, The Golden Bowl
9. Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind
10. Ray Lawrence, Lantana
Best Lead Actress
1. Stockard Channing, The Business of Strangers
2. Julia Blake, Innocence
3. Judi Dench, Iris
4. Kerry Armstrong, Lantana
5. Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand
6. Ariane Ascaride, The Town Is Quiet
7. Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive
8. Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones’s Diary
9. Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde
10. Cate Blanchett, Bandits
Best Lead Actor
1. Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
2. Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn’t There ; Bandits
3. Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom
4. Anthony LaPaglia, Lantana
5. Charles Tingwell, Innocence
6. Jeremy Northam, The Golden Bowl ; Gosford Park
7. Daniel Auteuil, The Widow of St. Pierre ; The Closet
8. Geoffrey Rush, Lantana ; The Tailor of Panama
9. Colin Firth, Bridget Jones’s Diary
10. John Cusack, Serendipity
Best Supporting Actress
1. Frances O’Connor, A.I. ; About Adam
2. Kate Winslet, Iris
3. Julia Stiles, The Business of Strangers
4. Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky
5. Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind
6. Maggie Smith, Gosford Park
7. Emily Watson, Gosford Park
8. Helen Mirren, Gosford Park
9. Eileen Atkins, Gosford Park
10. Kelly Macdonald, Gosford Park
Best Supporting Actor
1. Jude Law, A.I.
2. Steve Buscemi, Ghost World
3. Tony Shalhoub, The Man Who Wasn’t There
4. Jeremy Piven, Serendipity
5. Ed Harris, A Beautiful Mind
6. Jim Broadbent, Iris ; Moulin Rouge
7. Hugh Bonneville, Iris
8. Alan Bates, Gosford Park
9. Derek Jacobi, Gosford Park
10. Richard E. Grant, Gosford Park
So what about the two franchise films that have made all the money? I must shamefully confess that mine is the kind of sensibility that is more deeply stirred by a few seconds of Laura Linney’s posing nude in Rob Morrow’s Maze than in the hours and hours of boyhood romance in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings . It’s not a question of good and bad: Maze is not all that good, and the two box-office gold mines are not all that bad. But I reserve the sovereign right to pretend that Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings never happened, even if I’ve seen them all the way through to their maddeningly inconclusive endings. And no, I haven’t read the respective books in question, and I don’t intend to. So there with my “Bah, humbug!” to grown-ups who blather on about the little child in us all. There was never a little child in me, even when I was a little child. Perhaps that is my curse.
And now into the New Year of an already old millennium.