Pop goes the art film

Fabulous Frodo aside, disturbing art films ("Mulholland Drive," "Amores Perros," "Sexy Beast") dominated this splendid year for movies.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 31, 2001 8:29PM (EST)

I'm already on record as saying this was a great year for art movies. In fact it was the year when a long-brewing process came to obvious fruition: art film has been reinvented as a genre whose roots lie in pop -- in thrillers, comic books, 1980s teen cinema and rock 'n' roll -- rather than in the great works of classical or modern drama. That said, for 10-1/2 months of the year it was another awful year for Hollywood (and I'm not even talking about September). The summer's only positive surprise was "Shrek," which might have told anybody who was actually paying attention that the fantasy genre was to provide mainstream cinema's short-term salvation.

As I see it, there were at least a half dozen truly strange and visionary works in mainstream release this year that rivaled anything shown outside the festival circuit over the previous decade. There was stuff nobody could have expected, like great movies from Mexico and Australia, or a film about London mobsters that was closer to Harold Pinter than East End Tarantino. Even if the tremendous success of "The Lord of the Rings" was predictable given the talent involved, the film is undeniably a bizarre occurrence -- a megabudget fairytale made in New Zealand by the director of "Meet the Feebles." Name a year since, I don't know, 1969, that outdoes this one.

As always, there were things I didn't see that might have made the list, like "Ali" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Waking Life." Of course, I didn't see "A Knight's Tale" or Mariah Carey in "Glitter" either, and I'm sort of sorry about that, but for different reasons. I also wanted to include "The Fast & the Furious" on my list, just to piss people off who take this sort of thing too seriously. (Besides, it rocked.) Sharp-eyed readers will notice that "In the Bedroom" didn't make the cut either, although it's clearly a worthy and serious film. Maybe that was the problem; I'm eager to see every movie on this list again, but by the end of Todd Field's impressive debut, all that excellent acting and this-is-how-we-live-now PBS slowness kind of wore me out. The best movies this year were packed with beautiful images, industrial-strength weirdness and sudden, searing insights; dreary realism need not apply.

1. "Amores Perros" Three savage and tragic tales of life in Mexico City, connected by a horrible car accident and a vicious but loyal dog named Cofi, himself a tragic hero of sorts. The simulated dogfighting drove some norteamericanos from their seats, but the bravura filmmaking and startling emotional command of first-time director Alejandro González Iñárritu enthralled those who stayed. All right, it's a little long; the whole kidnapping plot could be cut by two-thirds. Still, this is a brilliant, heartbreaking work by any standard and the most impressive debut film since at least "Reservoir Dogs."

2. "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" Considering degree of difficulty and scope of achievement, it's tough to deny the top spot to the first installment of Peter Jackson's epic. I'm not crazy about that expositional scene right up top, where the Dark Lord Sauron himself (who never personally appears in J.R.R. Tolkien's book) shows up on the battlefield looking like a Gothic cathedral with legs. But Jackson and his collaborators are so fully in command, at an aesthetic and narrative level -- and their departures from Tolkien's sacred writ are so thoroughly based on a desire for coherent drama -- that after a certain point I just stopped caviling and gave in to this overwhelming, visionary work. Full marks to the marvelous special effects, which never get in the way, and to Cate Blanchett as the Elvish sorceress Galadriel, Sean Bean as the conflicted human Boromir, and brooding Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn. Ian McKellen is of course the heart and soul of the whole thing; Elijah Wood, as hobbit hero Frodo, is like a beautiful apple that begins to wither on the tree while you're watching. A fabulous accomplishment.

3. "Mulholland Drive" Yeah, I mean, I guess so. This one I definitely need to see again. Part of me suspects it's just lesbian porn plus pretentious pseudo-symbolist claptrap (not that there's anything wrong with that, exactly). But this is certainly David Lynch's return to glory, combining the paranoid style of "Lost Highway" with a semi-comprehensible dream-state narrative that suggests early "Twin Peaks." Literal-minded interpretations are missing the point, I suspect; like all of Lynch's best work, "Mulholland Drive" is a devout aesthetic game, part comedy and part terror, obsessive but never cynical.

4. "Donnie Darko" This oddly satisfying blend of '80s teen romance, hallucinogenic art film and suburban-madness drama didn't find much of an audience, but you shouldn't miss it. First-time writer-director Richard Kelly may be 26, but the brashness of his technique is balanced by a truly adult tenderness toward his characters, not just the disintegrating titular teen (Jake Gyllenhaal) but also his mom, wonderfully played by Mary McDonnell. Add a sinister 6-foot rabbit, a time-travel plot involving the end of the world, and songs by Tears for Fears and Joy Division. The sum of this equation is occasionally messy, often brilliant and strikingly original throughout.

5. "Lantana" This Aussie thriller's got a secret, and the secret is that it isn't really a thriller at all, but a sharply observed, compassionate drama of love and marriage dressed up in neo-noir drag. Cinema Down Under has seemed moribund (or anyway invisible) since the days when Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir first got the world's attention, but unknown director Ray Lawrence delivers a muted, painstakingly crafted masterwork here. Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey (as an American therapist) are among the group of contemporary Sydney-ites caught in a complex tangle of lies and infidelities that leads to one of them disappearing. Technically adroit and expertly written by Andrew Bovell (from his play), "Lantana" is among other things an erotic celebration of middle-aged women; Kerry Armstrong and Rachael Blake virtually steal the show as the wife and lover, respectively, of LaPaglia's tormented cop character.

6. "In the Mood for Love" Yes, Wong Kar-wai's elegant period romance set in early-'60s Hong Kong came out this year (although some festival-goers saw it in 2000). Tender and supernally beautiful, with measured performances by Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung as neighbors who discover their respective spouses are having an affair. Despite the irrelevant arty conclusion, a haunting mood piece that will stand up to long-term DVD viewing.

7. "Ghost World" Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi's not-quite romance is one of the greatest, saddest tales of misfit hipsterdom ever told. Daniel Clowes' graphic novel about two teenage girls (Birch and Scarlett Johansson) facing the netherworld between high school and real life has become an acrid, probing satire with a heart of gold, thanks to director Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb"). Very funny, remarkably alive with the giddy realness of youth (considering it was made by two middle-aged guys) and ultimately heartbreaking.

8. "Sexy Beast" A sun-drenched, eccentric yarn of debauched London gangsters on the Costa del Sol, "Sexy Beast" always threatens to be overrun by director Jonathan Glazer's bodacious technique. Ultimately though, it's Ray Winstone as the retired, slightly befuddled thug Gal, along with Ben Kingsley as the short-tempered sneering villain sent to drag him back to England, who grab the spotlight. Love conquers all in a riveting climax. But what the hell does the title mean?

9. "Training Day" If you want to see Denzel Washington, arguably America's greatest screen actor at the moment, at his finest, skip the tedious and bewildering plot of "The Hurricane." Instead, catch Washington's Othello-Godzilla-Machiavelli turn in this gripping L.A. cop actioner from director Antoine Fuqua. As a veteran street narc breaking in a green partner (Ethan Hawke, a limited actor well cast here), Washington is a Zen master of duplicity, scams, schemes and double-dealing. He is also, just possibly -- neither we nor Hawke can be sure -- what he says he is, a dispenser of genuine justice. Washington should get an Oscar but probably won't; Fuqua provides a welcome injection of juice and complexity for the tired action genre.

10. "The Others" and "Moulin Rouge" (tie)

Nicole Kidman: weird, frosty personality and (all together now) the best actress mainstream film has to offer. Alejandro Amenábar's "The Others" was an ingenious return to the traditions of supernatural film anchored in atmosphere and character rather than special effects. Kidman's repressed and sinister mom should merit at least an Oscar nod, but then the same could be said for her ice-queen performance at the center of Baz Luhrmann's demented and deeply flawed musical, "Moulin Rouge." Both films are worth seeing on their own terms, but Kidman makes them special (indeed, "The Others" wouldn't exist without her). Perhaps with Tom Cruise out of the picture Kidman has decided to embrace her persona as the most carnivorous movie star since Joan Crawford, if not Marlene Dietrich.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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