2001 was the only year I ever went to the Cannes Film Festival, and looking over the year’s most significant movies I can see what an influence the experience had on my list-making – including the top slot. Almost a decade later, Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir does not seem to have established itself as a towering work in the director’s career, nor did it make a huge impact on Best of the Oughts surveys. But seeing it at Cannes (not at the press screening but at its regular public bow, with Rivette in attendance) it looked like a breathless, suspended, wise masterpiece, made with no strain showing whatsoever.
My 2001 accounting has many examples of the kind of international arthouse director who dominated the big film festivals at that exact moment, including some titles I saw first at Cannes. Ah, who could forget crowding into a small theater lobby (not one of the festival’s official showcases, but just a multiplex used for the many market screenings that happen during Cannes) and throwing shoulders and hips to hold your place in the grim jostle to make sure you got into a screening of…the new Jean-Luc Godard movie? Wow, this thing must have box-office smash written all over it, right? I liked Éloge de l’amour pretty well, as it turned out, and it held up again a year later, when it finally came to open in the U.S.
Godard takes a swipe at Steven Spielberg in that movie, but Spielberg got the best of him this year. I saw A.I. twice in the same week, and it remains a evocative experience, with the ghost of Stanley Kubrick’s original plan for the project still in evidence; the eerie performances by Haley Joel Osment and a phlegmatic teddy bear contribute to the effect. And David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive turned out to be a double-dipper for me as well: when I watched it at a regular press screening early in the year I thought it was not-quite-digestible Lynch; then seeing it again in an empty house on a dark night later in the year, it scared the bejeezus out of me. It’s an open system (in a way Lost Highway, for instance, is closed), a mystery that sends its tentacles out in a thousand directions. Yet somehow it is utterly lucid.
It was a year for complicated, elliptical, ambitious pictures, so let me explain a couple of exceptions to that rule. Lagaan and Ghosts of Mars both transport the viewer into something close to the original building blocks of film language, with glorious results. Lagaan is a near-four-hour Bollywood picture that might have been made by someone who had only recently absorbed the basic storytelling tenets of D.W. Griffith. It is about cricket, a sport that, as an American, I know absolutely nothing about. But watch this movie and you will be stomping your feet in fervor, because during its final hour nothing else in the world will matter to you except the defeat of the rotten British cricketeers by the plucky Indian upstarts. On some level – not an exclusive level, but an important one – movies were made to do this.
Ghosts of Mars is just a John Carpenter B-movie, but I admire it for exactly that – for the getting right of certain fundamentals, executed with grace under budgetary pressure. But what has Carpenter been doing since making it?
On with it. The ten or so best movies of 2001:
1. Va Savoir (Jacques Rivette)
2. A.I. (Steven Spielberg)
3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
4. The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer)
5. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat)
6. Time Out (Laurent Cantet)
7. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker)
8. Late Marriage (Dover Koshashivili)
9. Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter)
10. Éloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard), La cienaga (Lucretia Martel), What Time Is It There? (Ming-Liang Tsai)
Obviously the #10 spot stands for that raft of international arthouse titles, but one could also make the case for Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (Isabelle Huppert putting other actors of her generation on notice), Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day, Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, and Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips was a beautiful piece that kicked off the excellent decade he had. Also in that category, it was a slightly off year for Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millennium Mambo) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), though both movies have interest.
My list at the time had The Tailor of Panama, directed by John Boorman from the le Carré novel, which I still think is terrific even if it stumbles in its final reels. A couple of overlooked comedies I liked a lot were Jesse Peretz’s The Chateau (with hilarious turns by future Apatow players Paul Rudd and Romany Malco) and Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, which works nicely on its own peculiar terms.
I never quite warmed up to Gosford Park or The Royal Tenenbaums, even though they contain many nice things, and someday I will watch The Man Who Wasn’t There again, a film that missed traction the first time around. There was a lot of love for Y Tu Mama Tambien at the time, another movie I don’t esteem as much as the general consensus.
Credit is due to Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects, a pair that rhyme in my memory, and good times were had by Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing. Crazier outliers include Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love and Billy Morrisette’s Scotland PA, both cockeyed literary efforts. And the year is not complete (although the year in question was probably 2004, when it was generally reviewed, but IMDb has it as a 2001 minting) without The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, Larry Blamire’s send-up of a certain kind of Fifties monster movie – the kind of thing that people tend to get completely wrong, but this movie gets completely right.