best film: Mulholland Drive from David Lynch

Mullholland Drive is the Hollywood nightmare– just like Blue Velvet is for the suburbs fifteen years prior. It is abstract and mesmerizing. It’ is a wholly unique world filled with small town naiveté (Naomi Watts, in a brilliant star making turn) and dark forces (not just the man behind the dumpster but the people pulling the strings in the industry as well).

A masterful dissolve here from Lynch. If film history is about the dichotomy of reality (realism) and escapism or expressionism, this entry serves as one of the greatest examples the art form has produced of the latter—it is cinematic world making at its finest.

 

most underrated:   By and large the TSPDT consensus has done a great job on 2001. Nine of the ten best films of the year have found their way onto the TSPDT list. With one outlier, it makes this category easy for 2001. I had to triple check, but, indeed,  Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is still not in the TSPDT consensus top 1000. Altman is the king of the ensemble film. He takes this outstanding cast, an Oscar-winning screenplay, and oscillates (in Altman fashion) between the two worlds (the social elite and the help below in this case) wonderfully with his trademark eavesdropping zooms and overlapping dialogue. He takes Agatha Christie and makes it an Altman film- and one of the best of them.

 

most overrated:   La Ciénaga, the debut from Lucrecia Martel lands at seven (7) of 2001 on the TSPDT consensus list and that’s at least ten slots too high. Still, it is a very strong debut from Lucrecia Martel—the title literally translates to “the swamp” and the opening pool set piece one of the film’s highlights. Martel starts off with these drunk upper/middle-class laying around by an unclean (very green swamp-like) pool. Mercedes Moran plays Tali, and Graciela Borges (really the center of the film) plays Mecha and they are sisters living in provincial Argentina. Mecha and her husband are in this sort of inebriated, apathetic malaise that hovers around and infects everyone in and around their house (which 75% of the film takes place). What results is an atmosphere of racism (against local Indian people- including those working in the home) and indifference that allows for hazardous behavior from their children. The boys run around scrapped in the woods with rifles. The older kids dabble in incest- they are all physically battered and bruised and there is no supervision. Dogs are constantly barking, the place is close to squalor, the phone is frequently ringing with nobody answering. Martel is a realist. This is observational, the frame is often purposefully obstructed, characters are not really introduced and they do not have motivations. There is no musical score, great beauty in the film (ok, the opening- shown below- is beautiful), or really any discernible stylistic pattern. Everything (like Mecha’s life) is in casual disarray. There is a real consistency in the mise-en-scene (while not being too concerned about a conventional narrative- which is fine)- not as much as her follow up film The Holy Girl (2004) but still- lots of people laying around in the frame.  A person is lying on a bed (usually drunk or hungover) in almost every scene. There is a little of La Dolce Vita with the newscast sighting of the Madonna. Martel bounces off this as part of the formal structure at least four times. Lack of bathing, heavy makeup, disheveled—insulting their housekeepers— dogs running around lawlessly—sunglasses, hangovers and bad skin—young girls with a ton of makeup. With the ladder accident climax Martel flickers to a montage of empty rooms as a nice touch

The film ends with the next generation repeating the mistakes of previous one (the older generation from the exceptional opening here) – makes for a great visual bookend with the two young sisters laying by the pool.

 

gems I want to spotlight:   Joy Ride is great fun– certainly worthy of seeking out if you have not had a chance to catch it. Also, there’s no room for it below in the top 10 of the year but Waking Life from Richard Linklater would easily land in many a years’ top 10 (when that year is a little less robust than 2001) and it is a spiritual sequel to his debut Slacker. Ultimately though, it is time to pay attention to what Michael Haneke is doing with The Piano Teacher (do not be thrown off by the yawn of a film title) if you haven’t already by now in 2001.

Richard Linklater’s Waking Life– a spiritual sequel to Slacker.

between Waking Life, Millennium Actress, and Spirited Away– 2001 is one of the strongest years in animation history.

 

  • The Piano Teacher is clearly one of Haneke’s best works and Isabelle Huppert’s finest performance. It is an unflinching portrait of a complex, icy woman.
  • It is an intellectual work- there is a sort of a Freudian reading of it—Huppert sleeps with her mother and later, in a tough scene, jumps her sexually
  • There is high level Schumann vs. Schubert discussion that could easily be a funny intellectual joke in a Woody Allen movie
  • Reoccurring overhead shot of hands playing the piano
  • It would make for a nice dual feature pairing with Elle– Huppert’s character and the sexual issues
  • Haneke, wisely, spends a lot of time holding the frame (past the point of comfort for most viewers- precisely the point) on Huppert’s stare

Haneke, like many of his works, is incredibly brutal here- he means to flatten us.

  • Twin obsessions of music and sex— repression, self-mutilation
  • Exacting and rigid
  • Huppert’s character is clearly cracking up and getting worse
  • here’s no musical score to the film—actually I don’t think any of Haneke’s films have a score
  • It is about power and control for Huppert’s character- there is a very long domineering scene in the bathroom that is tough—it is a painful watch
  • This singular character study by Haneke is like a PT Anderson’s 2002-2012 work without the visual flair (I think Haneke would be proud of that, but artistically it just puts it a notch below)
  • It is an isolated, elitist world—Huppert’s character is in prison (many scenes show he captured)—she sneaks off to a porno rental store—her worlds are colliding here as she is less and less able to control herself.
  • She cannot love– “you’re sick” he says of her. The scene is devastating. Huppert’s eyes during that scene is extremely powerful acting.
  • Huppert’s character also tortures a student of hers- but you could read it as she is trying to prevent the student from having her awful life

The finale is perfect- we have the self-abuse scene and then the gorgeous exterior concert hall which could substituted as a big beautiful prison—it actually mirrors (or vice versa as this is earlier of course) the school ending in Cache 

 

 

trends and notables:

  • It is yet another remarkable year for cinema.  The top ten below is impeccable. The silent masterpieces in the 1920s, The Golden Hollywood Era in the 1930s/1940s, international cinema peak in the late 1950s and 1960s and the New Hollywood/Movie Brats era in the 1970s are all fabulous periods—and I am not arguing 1999-01 is necessarily superior—but it is not worse.
  • David Lynch’s legacy was secure before Mulholland Drive, but this film does put him in another class or echelon in the archives.
  • If David Lynch is not the story for cinephiles for 2001, Peter Jackson’s smash adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings may be. The Lord of the Rings is clearly a massive event, a box office juggernaut, and work of ambitious cinematic art and this is just the first of three consecutive years where Jackson’s masterpiece awes audiences and critics alike. The other big box office story is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Peter Jackson’s magnum opus adaptation of Tolkien is one the seminal works of the 21st century

forget “pop-art” as a backhanded compliment. LOTR hits the heights of any cinematic art- popular or not. An Oscar production design nomination here but loss initially to Moulin Rouge– what a great year for that category in 2001. The first shot of Gollum’s cave with Jackson’s spotlight on him (above).

There is so much to praise- Jackson is both faithful to Tolkien and clearly stimulated by it. There’s an attention to every detail- from the performances, costumes, to the visual world-building.

  • 2001 gave us very solid films from the old guard (like Spielberg and Altman) and big masterpiece breakthroughs from young visual-heavy auteurs like Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson.

What is Spielberg’s most beautiful film? A.I. Artificial Intelligence is as good a candidate as any actually.

The director of E.T. actually channels Blade Runner here in this jaw-dropping cinematic painting

The opulence of mise-en-scene (décor, set design and costume) is usually the first thing praised for admirers of Baz Luhrmann, but the editing here in Moulin Rouge! is amongst the best of the year and decade. The montage work in the opening, the climax, and “Roxanne” number are all standouts but every segment is inspired. He built this film in the editing room and I haven’t even mentioned the breakneck pace yet (which, no doubt, was too much for the critics when it first came out (66 on metacritic) set by that editing. It is an entirely different film if it is not told in 1.5X speed. A comparison there is 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

It is Wes Anderson’s first real attempt at a diorama (NYC apartment here) and then he would move on a boat (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), train (The Darjeeling Limited), and  hotel (The Grand Budapest).

The Nico “These Days” slow-motion of Paltrow getting off the bus with the reverse to Luke Wilson in close-up is a work of art- a transcendent scene— the only one that rivals it for the film’s best is the Elliott Smith montage editing of Luke Wilson character’s suicide attempt (above). A staggeringly beautiful scene

Kurosawa-level blocking on display throughout even if you omit the costume and decor. And the drama hits on the level of many films that Wes is not usually given credit for. This is an exaggerated world and these are exaggerated characters of course but when Stiller’s character tells Hackman’s character-  “I’ve had a rough year, Dad” – it is quite devastating.

At three films in now Wes has fashioned a unique cinematic work like Lynch, Tarantino, Malick, Scorsese, Bresson, Tarkovsky—easily parodied and identified– a singular artist.

 

  • Michael Haneke directs films in the top 10 of the year in back to back years now in 2000 and 2001 (in the 21st century when auteurs are much less prolific than they used to be) amongst wildly stiff competition as noted above.

He does not quite make the cut below for the actors category but it is worth noting again the run Russell Crowe is on going from 1997-2001 with L.A. Confidential (1997), The Insider (1999), Gladiator (2000), and now A Beautiful Mind (2001). A Great deep focus shot here from Ron Howard with director of photography Roger Deakins.

  • It is a big year of first archiveable films for actors.  How about these names from 2001?- Heath Ledger (stealing scenes in Monster’s Ball), Scarlett Johansson (duel films here: The Man Who Wasn’t There and Ghost World), and Tom Hardy (blink and you miss him in Black Hawk Down) all start their brilliant careers this year.

an inspired composition from Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven

Y tu mamá también is Cuaron’s fourth film- with this in 2001 with The Devil’s Backbone from Guillermo del Toro, and Amores Perros (2000) we have the Nuevo Cine Mexicano in full bloom here and it has lasted until least 2018. This is Cuaron’s greatest film to date in 2001 and a masterpiece.  It marks a visual departure of sorts for Cuaron- it is more naturalistic in the set design and lighting (frankly the entire mise-en-scene)—it is not loaded in a sea of green. It packs a formal wallop though- it is meticulously set forth. Cuaron uses have long takes (largely handheld) and most feature tracking shots- then the audio drops off and the film goes mute-  Cuaron then uses a voice-over comment on the background of the sociopolitical content surrounding that area or the character motivations, side stories- really well done and a dogmatic aesthetic choice that carried on throughout.

The high point climactic shot here- a long take which follows her to the jukebox, then her dancing with the camera and looking at the camera- masterful.

 

best performance male: There are six actors that stand above the rest in 2001. Gene Hackman gets the first mention for his work as the titular Royal in Wes Anderson’s greatest film. This largely marks the end of Gene Hackman’s marvelous career on screen- and this performance makes his Mount Rushmore (and gives him a big bravura comedy to boot– diversifying his resume as well). Ian McKellen is the best of the LOTR ensemble (in the first film at least) as Gandalf and young Jake Gyllenhaal becomes a name in Donnie DarkoDiego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal have to get some love for Y tu mamá también. This is a great stretch of time for Bernal especially in the early 2000s. Ewan McGregor and veteran actor Jim Broadbent are also mandatory additions for Moulin Rouge!

Jake Gyllenhaal at just 21 years of age in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

 

best performance female:  Yet again like in the year 2000 it is a much stronger year here than on the male side. In fact, a case could be made that there are as many as four performers whose achievement surpasses any from the category above. Chief amongst them, and the number one here in 2001, is Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. This performance from Watts has everything. Her character goes through a massive change (really morphs into a doppelganger) and her audition scene is the greatest acting on display in 2001. Isabelle Huppert gives one of the best performances of the year and decade (like Watts) in The Piano Teacher. It is the best performance in a Haneke film- period. Audrey Tatou would be the easy winner in most years (and the category above) for her work in Amelie.  Watts’ pal and fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman lands the fourth slot for Moulin Rouge!Gwyneth Paltrow pulls off the Wes Anderson comic deadpan and slides into the fifth slot while leaving room for Helen Mirren as the final mention in this category for 2001. Gosford Park is an ensemble film, but Altman gives Mirren one big scene to sort of set her above the other, great actors and performances in the film.

Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! Like her costar Ewan McGregor, her musical talents impress as much as her acting. Even with Baz’s wild montage compiling and rich, colorful production design– he still has plenty of time for close-ups to accentuate his actors performances. This is Kidman’s third mention in the last six years in this category.

It is impossible to picture Amelie without Tatou’s charm. Cinema has not seen anything like Tatou since Audrey Hepburn.

 

 

top 10

  1. Mulholland Drive
  2. The Royal Tenenbaums
  3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  4. Y tu mamá también
  5. Moulin Rouge!
  6. Gosford Park
  7. A. I. Artificial Intelligence
  8. The Piano Teacher
  9. Spirited Away
  10. Amelie

 

Miyazaki (this from Spirited Away) is a world creator- filled with color and imagination—draws such beautiful skylines, nature, grass and flowers

Miyazaki, if he hadn’t already, firmly cements himself as a master of surrealism—as far as cinema is concerned- along the likes of Luis Bunuel, David Lynch-

Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky is a wild ride and inspired remake (1997’s Open Your Eyes). Come for the unsurprisingly brilliant Cameron Crowe soundtrack– but stay for some of the visuals (like the sky here).

The Man Who Wasn’t There is not the Coen’s best work, but stands as further evidence to their astonishing depth of filmography. Certainly, it is fully a Coen brothers film- but also pays tribute to noirs, old Hollywood, James M. Cain pulp novels—with the story narrative, voice over, black and white photography. Roger Deakins work with the black and white photography is often breathtaking- and it is the Coens first foray into black and white.

The film is a meditation on fate. This obsession started with their debut Blood Simple, but clearly plays a major part of Fargo, No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski and the devastating final scene of a young Bob Dylan in Inside Llewyn Davis.

He would soon surpass it, but 2001 and The Devil’s Backbone marks the best film yet at this point in his career from Guillermo del Toro

Millennium Actress from Satoshi Kon is exceedingly worthy of praise and study and not simply for the mind expanding mental gymnastics required to stay up with the various scenarios and narrative slivers . It is auteur drive animation- and that is pretty rare. Satoshi Kon has a narrative and visual style as unique as (but surely very different) Hayao Miyazaki—surrealism, reflexivity, narrative ambition and dexterity. The mise-en-scene is beautiful but the editing may be the greatest stylistic feature of the film beyond the narrative mastery—not only is the film weaved together in an inventive way, the transitions are truly brilliant- the graphic matches are aplenty including one particularly beautiful one of a long highway transitioning into a hallway in a hospital.

the romance genre may be different, but the trademark look and cinematic style from Amelie is something Jean-Pierre Jeunet had been doing the entire decade of the 1990s

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Beautiful Mind- Howard R
A.I. Artificial Intelligence- Spielberg MS
Ali – M. Mann R
Amelie- Jeunet MS
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner – Kunuk R
Black Hawk Down- R. Scott R
Donnie Darko- Kelly HR/MS
Frailty- Paxton R
Ghost World- Zwigoff R
Gosford Park- Altman MS
I Am Sam- Nelson R
I’m Going Home- de Oliveira R
In the Bedroom- Fields HR
Iris- Eyre R
Joy Ride- Dahl R
La Ciénaga– Martel R
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India – Gowariker R
Lantana- Lawrence R
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring– Jackson MP
Lovely and Amazing- Holofcener R
Millennium Mambo – Hsiao-Hsien Hou R/HR
Millennium Actress – Kon HR/MS
Monsoon Wedding – Nair R
Monster’s Ball- Forster R
Monsters, Inc. – Docter,  Silverman, Unkrich R
Moulin Rouge! – Luhrmann MP
Mulholland Drive- Lynch MP
No Man’s Land-Tanović R
Ocean’s Eleven – Soderbergh R
Read My Lips- Audiard R
Spirited Away – Miyazaki MS
The Devil’s Backbone- del Toro HR
The Lady and the Duke – Rohmer R
The Man Who Wasn’t There – Coen HR
The Others – Amenábar R
The Piano Teacher – Haneke MS
The Pledge- S. Penn R
The Royal Tenenbaums – W. Anderson MP
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing- Sprecher R
Training Day – Fuqua R
Under the Skin of the City – Banietemad
Vanilla Sky- Crowe R/HR
Waking Life- Linklater HR
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge– Imamura HR
What Time Is It There? – Ming-liang Tsai HR/MS
Who knows- Rivette
Y tu mamá también – Cuaron MP

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives