What were the best films of 2011? Nobody knows. All the best-of lists critics put out at the end of the year are total bullshit. Why? Because they don’t have enough perspective. Perspective takes time.
So here, with a decade’s worth of hindsight, are the best films of 2001.
10. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
You would expect a Kubrick-Spielberg collaboration to feel odd because the two filmmakers have such different artistic sensibilities. Well, not surprisingly, A.I. feels at times deeply unsatisfying and somehow incomplete, but it’s also weirdly and undeniably compelling. The narrative is disjointed and the film never seems to settle into a consistent tone. It’s a film about loss and grief and the terrible price of emotional bonds, also: a talking teddy bear. The film wouldn’t work at all without Haley Joel Osment. Look at the scene where the mother activates his emotional bond with her: watch as Osment’s face very subtly and very beautifully become fully human; it’s dazzlingly great acting.
9. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The film that dares to ask the question: “How did some slip of a girly boy from communist East Berlin become the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you?” A transgendered East German rock star searches for true love and contemplates Plato’s Symposium. The movie really is as strange as that sounds. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, and by the end strangely moving. John Cameron Mitchell wrote, directed, and stars; he’s a true auteur, and his performance, honed in the off-Broadway musical, is simply mesmerizing. The songs are definitely second-rate, but the film’s unique and idiosyncratic vision holds it all together.
8. Monsters, Inc.
This is a second-tier Pixar effort, which is to say only moderately brilliant. The film has lots of clever ideas and develops them all beautifully. The story construction here, as always with Pixar, is a marvel to behold. And the final action set-piece, involving a chase through the door warehouse, is more inventive and engaging than just about any Hollywood chase has been in decades. Also, the film proves that John Goodman literally has more acting talent in his vocal chords than most actors have in their whole body.
7. The Devil’s Backbone
A ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, this film serves as a kind of companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro has a gift for using fantasy to get at the truth. Here the gothic plot elements help intensify the emotional and thematic resonance of the story. The child actors give uniformly strong performances. And the convoluted plot moves to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
6. Gosford Park
We meet lots of servants and guests attending a weekend party at the titular manor house in 1930s England. All of them mumble their overlapping dialogue at each other, and at first, nothing much actually happens. It feels, in short, like the kind of plotless self indulgence typical of Robert Altman. But by the time the host is murdered, the plot kicks in, you begin to understand what everyone is saying (and who the hell they are), and you realize you’re watching a deftly observed character study and a scathing examination of the ironies of the British class system. Everyone in the cast gives a career-best performance, and in a film that includes Eileen Atkins, Stephen Fry, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, and Clive Owen, that’s saying something.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums
When Wes Anderson’s quirkiness misfires, it feels cloying and obnoxious—as anyone who’s suffered through The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited well knows. But when it hits just right—as it does here or in Rushmore—it’s transcendentally charming. With a cast of brilliant, fascinating characters played by a group of brilliant, fascinating actors, the film tells the story of a dysfunctional family of geniuses trying desperately to escape the influence of their father: Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman in one of his funniest and most touching performances). The film has the kind of density and richness one expects from a novel, and it builds beautifully to some complex, hard-earned, and bitter-sweet epiphanies.
3. Ocean’s Eleven
According to C. S. Lewis, “an exquisitely made divertissement is a very much more respectable thing than some of the ‘philosophies of life’ which are foisted upon the great poets. For one thing, it is a good deal harder to make.” Ocean’s Eleven is an exquisitely made divertissement indeed. A remake of a third-rate Vegas heist flick, it’s a perfectly made soufflé of a film: pure, unadulterated entertainment, without a trace of significance to spoil the delight. The film’s success depends entirely on the charm of its cast and the skill of its director. Fortunately, the cast includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. And the director is Steven Soderbergh. The film is the work of a master craftsman at the peak of his powers. Every moment feels like effortless, giddy fun. (And if you think getting this kind of light-but-engaging tone just right is easy, look at what a god-awful mess Ocean’s Twelve was.)
2. Black Hawk Down
Ridley Scott’s films always look amazing. Unfortunately, because he often seems more interested in visual artistry than in plot or character, sometimes looking good is all Ridley Scott’s films do. But when he uses his gift for crafting images to tell a great story, no one can deliver a more powerful moviegoing experience. Well, Black Hawk Down is a great story. And although the Battle of Mogadishu it portrays is a cautionary tale on many levels, the film never pushes any message; it just clearly and powerfully presents what happened. Of course, Scott presents what happened in some truly stunning and indelible images of men at war. The combat scenes here owe an obvious debt to Spielberg’s work in Saving Private Ryan; Scott’s battle footage is just as gritty, savage, and viscerally engaging as Spielberg’s but with a richer, more deeply saturated color palette. The result is a brutally objective vision of war that manages somehow to be simultaneously exhilarating and tragic.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was ten. I’ve read it many times since and even taught college classes on it; it’s my favorite novel by a long shot. When I heard that Peter Jackson intended to have scenes where characters spoke in Elvish (both Quenya and Sindarin!) with English subtitles, I knew they’d found a director who truly got the material. But I still thought there was no more chance of making a critically and financially successful film adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings than of making such an adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses or Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Boy was I wrong. The movie succeeds in every way a movie can. The script is deeply respectful to the source but willing to cut, rearrange, and change things from literature into cinema. The production design is astonishingly detailed and immersive; it truly feels like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The casting is simply miraculous; every actor is totally committed and totally right for the part. And the effects set a whole new standard for world-building in modern cinema. But what the film gets right that makes it a classic is the emotional heart of the story. If you don’t care about hobbits, wizards, dwarves, and elves, none of the spectacle matters. But by the film’s climax, those hobbits will have you in tears. (And there are two extraordinary sequels to follow.)
The Most Overrated Film of 2001
0. In the Bedroom
This film is exactly why you should wait at least a decade to make your top ten list. Critics went apeshit for this turgid, pretentious snooze fest, comparing first-time director Todd Field to Bergman, Ozu, and Kubrick. So, when was the last time you heard a critic mention In the Bedroom or a filmmaker cite it as an influence? Right. The story is about a couple who murder the man who killed their son, certainly a potentially compelling plot. But you never care that the son is dead. It takes forever to get to the revenge. And when the revenge murder finally comes, it’s as slow and boring as the rest of the film. The movie has neither the depth of a genuine character drama nor the urgency of a solid genre film. Its only good moment, at least its only memorable one, is when Sissy Spacek slaps Marisa Tomei. A decade after all the hype, Time has graciously consigned In the Bedroom to the ash heap of history, where it belongs.