Twenty years ago today, I was a nearsighted 12-year-old sixth-grader with an overbite, the IM handle “InlineDrummer23,” and a tendency to pretend I was too cool to like the pop music I listened to incessantly in private. My movie-viewing habits were mostly Star Wars and James Bond-centric, with the occasional dash of classic and contemporary Oscar-bait (passed down from my decidedly centrist-cinematic-taste-having family). R-rated films we’re off the table (by mandate), as was anything horror (by consequence of my being very afraid of almost everything).
If you had tried to tell me then that I was living through one of the greatest years in film history, I likely would have said “what does that mean, and who are you, and please stop bothering me while I’m trying to rip bad quality MP3s of Blink-182 albums my mom won’t let me buy off Limewire.”
But despite my lack of awareness and general confusion at the time, you would have been right. Though not heralded so often as its higher-profile counterparts like ‘07 or ‘75 or ‘99, 2001 marks a lynchpin moment in the history of modern cinema; a year that at once provided the archetypical blueprint for the coming IP-issance and showcased a handful of the essential auteurs of cinema at the apex of their powers. By the close of 2001, I had only seen one of the films on the list below—in the 20 years since, four of the top five have made my All-Time Top 111 list.
As we approach the final weeks of 2021, it seemed as good a time as any to look back at five favorites celebrating the tail end of their 20th anniversaries. As always, these rankings are 1) entirely subjective and based more on personal aesthetic preference than analytical fact, and 2) things I will argue about as if they are etched in stone and any disagreement is a denial of reality, so send those @s my way!
5. Training Day (dir. Antoine Fuqua)
By 2001, the “Very Bad (But Complicated!) Men” resurgence was already well underway, with The Sopranos cementing itself as an all-time classic in its third season. But Washington’s Oscar-winning turn as Alonzo in Antoine Fuqua’s all-in-one-day cop drama quickly established itself as the cinematic apex of that archetype that would go on to define the aughts–a powerhouse flurry of menace and bombast and charisma and “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” that never fails to sucker punch you every time you return to it.
Beyond the Denzel-of-it-all, what anchors the continued relevance of Training Day is its pragmatic take on law enforcement. It’s a film about police that doesn’t glorify policing, even in the case of its protagonist—an essential shift from the “cops are the good guys except when they’re dirty” paradigm that has long pervaded cinematic culture. Policing is violence afforded a legal justification, and Fuqua and writer David Ayer seem to understand the way that dirties even the cleanest of cops.
Though Fuqua and Ayer’s subsequent filmographies have not lived up to the promise of Training Day, their one collaboration rises into the upper echelons of 2001 rankings as not so much a prescient film, but a film more willing to display reality than many of its contemporaries.
Unlike many of my closest film-fanatic friends, I would not describe myself as in the pocket of Big Wes Anderson™. I’ve been late (or never arrived) to the party on a number of his essential texts, and all too often find myself alienated by instances when his meticulous stylization feels divorced from (or disinterested in) the emotional center of his stories.
The Royal Tenenbaums, however, is the ideal Anderson film—a form-fit marriage of heart and design. From its gorgeous staging, to its twee-cousin-of-Scorsese-esque needle drop mastery, to its airtight script, Anderson’s third feature skewers New York City affluence without ever losing sight of the humanity of its cast.
Here, every ludicrous plot device feels anchored to a sort of elevated truth (Chas’s track-suited compulsions tethered to his grieving process, Margot’s bathtub-bound smoke sessions distilling the isolation of a depressive episode into a simple, hilariously comprehensible plot device), and each performance wire-walks fluidly between the comedic and the traumatic. Paltrow especially dazzles in that regard, oscillating between the two with barely perceptible, yet visceral impactful shifts in her delivery.
If they hadn’t killed the dog, it would likely be higher on the list (and may very well continue to climb before our next retrospective). For now, it has a deadlocked hold on number four.
3. Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
The movie on this list I most wish I had seen when it was first released. So much of my appreciation of animated films (specifically of the Pixar variety, well documented in the annals of MMH) stems from the fact that I’m able to have two relationships with them at once, straddling between my contemporary analytical appreciation of their craft and my nostalgia for the prefrontal-lobe-less adoration I felt to them as a child.
Hayao Miyazaki’s masterwork is perhaps the film best suited to that kind of two-handed connection, an absolute wonder of world-building and expansive mythology, told through the lens of a remarkably grounded child. It’s funny, it’s profound, it’s dreamlike, it’s terrifying, and though I’m jealous of those who’ve had a longer relationship with it, even on first watch it feels as though you’ve already seen it hundreds of times.
Spirited Away’s standing as the first (and only) non-English-language hand-drawn film to win Best Animated Feature is as much a testament to its transcendence as it is to the Academy’s long-standing narrowmindedness, but its widespread celebration was essential to the expansion of awareness from western audiences to Japanese animation (and cinema writ large). For that alone, it’s an essential member of the 2001 cinematic canon.
2. Ocean’s Eleven (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
In 2001, a friend of a friend of the family with industry ties lent us his VHS screener of Ocean’s Eleven and to my knowledge, it still has not been returned to him. Until recently the top-dog on the 2001 pile, Soderbergh’s remake of the rat-pack classic is the epitome of comfort food—a low stakes, quote-per-second, movie star showcase that hasn’t aged a day in the 20 years since its release.
It’s a perfect caper film that never loses sight of the forest for the trees, milking every scene for all the wit and charisma it’s worth. Soderbergh’s impeccable script and stylish direction never stop moving as they drop narrative breadcrumbs in between quips about divorce and Utah and Topher Grace being a shit poker player.
Pitt and Roberts are at peak charm, Clooney delivers his third-best performance to date (shouts to 1a and 1b, Michael Clayton and Out of Sight), and Damon steals the show with his might-be-in-over-his-head turn as Linus Caldwell. But for me, the beating heart of Ocean’s has always been brilliantly disgruntled Saul, portrayed by the late Carl Reiner. His passing, and that of Bernie Mac a few years previous, only add another layer of emotional resonance to a film I already feel more connected to than almost any other. Every time I return to it, it’s a joy to spend time with them again.
1. In The Mood For Love (dir. Wong Kar-wai)
This is not the first time I’ve written about In The Mood For Love for MMH, nor will it likely be the last. Each time I return to it, I find myself fixating on new details. On my most recent viewing, it was the inscription that comes just before the final chapter of the film: “That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.”
There’s a profound sadness to that quote, and to the film at large–but it, like its narrators, is unreliable, and dishonest even to itself. What Director Wong’s film captures (and what the unparalleled performances of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung bring to life) is the melancholic impossibility of releasing the past, even when it is no longer tangible.
A discrepancy in the translation of the film’s final inscription pulls us further into the murkiness of that dichotomy. The translation included in the subtitled version is:
He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane. The past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
While the literal translation* reads:
Those vanished years, as if through a piece of dust-laden glass, can be seen, cannot be grasped. He has always been thinking about everything in the past. If he can burst through that piece of dust-laden glass, he will walk back into those long-vanished years.
In one, the past is the past, consigned to hazy remembrance; in the other, an improbable hope for return.
In The Mood For Love dances between this pragmatic longing and irrational dreaming with masterful restraint, forcing us to revisit it over and over in order to uncover the full picture. It’s a genuinely perfect film, not just my favorite of 2001 but of all time, and one which I look forward to celebrating for many anniversaries to come.
One Sentence Apiece For The Honorable Mentions
Impossible to talk about a year this stacked without mentioning a few of the canonically great movies on the outside of the top-five looking in:
- Mullholland Drive (dir. David Lynch): One of the all-time great three-performances-in-one from Naomi Watts, and the single scariest scene in the history of cinema.
- Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson): Easy to take for granted 20 years later due to its ubiquity, but an absolute jaw-dropper to consider on its own terms, and a foundational text explaining the IP … to come.
- Josie and the Pussycats: The single greatest satirical takedown of the music industry, and easily a top-five-dead-or-alive written-for-the-movie pop soundtrack.
- The Man Who Wasn’t There (dir: Joel Coen): Just an insane year for Billy Bob Thorton.
- Werkmeister Harmonies (dir. Bela Tarr, Ágnest Hranitzsky): The ratio of “greatest shots in cinematic history that are from Werkmeister Harmonies” to “actual shots in Werkmeister Harmonies” is higher than it has any right to be.
Looking for more reasons to yell at Nate? Swing by his Letterboxd for his complete 2001 Rankings, as well as many more year-in-review lists.