The best movies of 2001

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Clockwise from top left: Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, A.I., Ali, Audition, Mulholland Drive, Amores Perros, Moulin Rogue, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Monsters Inc.
Clockwise from top left: Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, A.I., Ali, Audition, Mulholland Drive, Amores Perros, Moulin Rogue, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Monsters Inc.

Have the Oscars ever gotten it more wrong than they did in March of 2002, when Tom Hanks handed Best Picture to the treacly, forgettable biopic A Beautiful Mind? Okay, surely they have—the Academy has been making boneheaded calls for just shy of a century. But it’s still difficult to think of many Oscar-night moments as deflating as Ron Howard’s victory over not just four worthier opponents but every superior film his wasn’t competing against. Because 2001 was more than a great year for movies. It was an all-timer, perhaps even filthier with masterpieces than the fabled 1999.

2001 gave us powerhouse studio movies—a pageant of hobbits, monsters, sad robots, and all-star heists, all classing up the multiplex. Musicals got thrillingly, eccentrically modern. Horror experienced a miniature renaissance. Major works arrived from Mexico, Japan, France, Hong Kong, and so many other points on the world-cinema map. The triumphs came in all shapes and sizes, genres and languages. One even came from (gasp) TV.

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We considered going to 50 this year. That’s how deep the pool of superlative films released two decades ago runs. What, no Donnie Darko? No Black Hawk Down? No Zoolander? Consider them honorable mentions; each would have made a better Best Picture, too. As usual, we stuck to movies released in America during the calendar year in question, which is why you won’t find Spirited Away or Y Tu Mamá También on the list (look for them next year, when we cite our favorites of 2002), and also why you will find Memento and In The Mood For Love there, despite earlier festival debuts.

Keep reading for The A.V. Club’s list of the 25 best movies of 2001, as chosen by a dozen of our regular contributors. Don’t agree with our picks? Hey, that’s okay, it was a treasure trove of riches in 2001—there were so many good movies that you could make a very solid list of the ones that didn’t make the cut. Happy with how we voted? Beautiful minds think alike.

25. Code Unknown

25. Code Unknown

The audience is the enemy in the profoundly scathing provocations of Michael Haneke. But at least once, Austria’s premier Funny Gamesman channeled his penchant to antagonize into something more confounding than cruel—a pointedly cryptic puzzle-box of intertwined Parisian lives. Beginning with a public confrontation that has increasingly devastating consequences for the strangers involved, Code Unknown unfolds as a mysterious jumble of vignettes, presented out of order, elliptically sequenced. It’s an unlikely cousin to the we-are-all-connected ensemble pieces of the filmmaker represented two spaces down on this very list, except that Haneke is less interested in what unites us than what divides us—failures of communication, disparities in privilege. The fragmentary nature of the movie offers its own reward for connoisseurs of confusion, a bounty of tantalizing obfuscation and cognitive dissonance. What’s more, it speaks to a larger theme no less relevant in our deceptively “connected” present: society itself getting lost in translation. [A.A. Dowd]

24. Cure

24. Cure

Formally ingenious and narratively subversive, Cure proves that even a genre as tired as the serial-killer movie can be elevated by a filmmaker of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s confidence. The Pulse director eschews whodunit convention by introducing numerous murderers, all with one thing in common: They’ve crossed paths with Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), an eerily calm amnesiac with strong powers of suggestion. Though detective Takabe (Kōji Yakusho) and his psychiatrist partner (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) catch up with Mamiya quickly, what follows is a skin-crawling portrait of psychological decay that borrows from David Fincher’s Seven and anticipates his later Zodiac. Kurosawa’s greatest gambit is never cuing viewers to look for any particular locus of danger within his frame. Instead, he fills each shot with vague anxiety and dread, and then just holds on it. Everything remains slightly “off” even when nothing abnormal occurs. Until it does, of course. [Vikram Murthi]

23. Amores Perros

23. ​​Amores Perros

Reinvigorating Mexican cinema at the start of the millennium, this grisly triptych of blood on the pavement, human (and canine) suffering, and primal desires launched the career of Alejandro González Iñárritu. Traversing the socioeconomic strata of Mexico City, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s intricate plot tragically connects the parallel plights of a Spanish model recovering from a car crash, a homeless hitman missing his daughter, and a reckless romantic played by a young Gael García Bernal, in his first film role. Flaunting a memorable soundtrack that reflects the evolution of rock music in the country at the time, Amores Perros remains the Oscar-winning director’s most visceral work to date—a real gut punch of a debut. [Carlos Aguilar]

22. Moulin Rouge!

22. Moulin Rouge!

Baz Luhrmann’s Hollywood-via-France-via-Australia revival of the movie musical arrived just in time for the 21st century—and yet maybe still a couple of decades too early, judging from some of the contemporaneous reactions. Those complaints, about the freneticism of a musical where the director cuts too fast to see the dancing and—prepare the fainting couch—sometimes mixes and matches bits of different anachronistic pop songs, now feel key to the movie’s legacy, reflecting Luhrmann’s willingness to actually grapple with the music-video revolution and push the film musical form forward. He’s applying the same modernism that enthralls penniless writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) and talented/doomed courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) in 1900 Paris. The movie’s love story is old-fashioned melodrama, but Luhrmann’s telling transcends cornball declarations (sometimes cribbed from Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, and Elton John, among others), capturing the moment where pop schmaltz spins out into lovestruck delirium. Luhrmann’s decision to hire actors instead of singers pays off brilliantly with shining-star work from McGregor and Kidman—and an unforgettable rendition of “Like A Virgin” performed by Jim Broadbent. [Jesse Hassenger]

21. The Others

21. The Others

Speaking of Nicole Kidman, she’s resplendent by candlelight, choking back gasps of terror, in this classically eerie outlier from an era when mainstream horror was otherwise operating in the metatextual shadow of Scream. Making his English-language debut, writer-director Alejandro Amenábar scored an unexpected hit by sticking a game movie star and a couple of pale children into a foggy haunted house in post-WWII Europe. There’s an evergreen elegance to Amenábar’s craftsmanship that suggests The Others could have been released in any era and still connected with audiences. Credit Kidman’s timeless screen presence, too; rarely has it served such a well-engineered story, springing an effortless (and classy) trap of fright. [Jason Shawhan]

20. Hedwig And The Angry Inch

​​20. Hedwig And The Angry Inch

Few phrases are as cringe-worthy as “rock musical,” but John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of his enduring stage musical has the swagger to pull that dubious genre off. The filmmaker reprises the starring role of a punk-rock singer whose attempt to emigrate from East Germany leads to a botched gender-reassignment operation, heartache, and an American concert tour shadowing the former lover who stole their songs. Light years ahead of its time in its treatment of gender and the power of drag, Hedwig is an agonizing love story, lent profound weight by the fall of The Berlin Wall. It’s also delightful, thanks to bawdy cabaret-style humor and Stephen Trask’s original songs, which are every bit as audacious as the title character. [Leila Latif]

19. Amélie

19. ​​Amélie

The untimely death of Princess Diana prompts Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) to secretly soothe the woes of her Montmartre neighbors in French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s modern classic of magical sincerity. An idealized iteration of Paris, tinged with whimsy and nostalgia by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, hosts the expressively enchanting Tautou and a supporting cast of decidedly eccentric characters. Leaving behind the dystopian darkness of his earlier sci-fi work, Jeunet unabashedly embraces romance born of kismet; to the tune of Yann Tiersen’s exquisite accordion-and-piano score, he glides down picture-perfect streets, introducing us to a traveling garden gnome, priceless childhood knickknacks, raspberries stuck to young fingers, and all the other other minutia that render existence precious. [Carlos Aguilar]

18. Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

18. Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

The first installment in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was no sure thing. Pre-production took years, the budget kept growing, roles were recast. And a certain question hovered like a Nazgûl: Could director Peter Jackson please both fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s decades-old fantasy classic and casual moviegoers unacquainted with the series’ dense mythology? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes, thanks to a magical blend of technical mastery behind the camera and finely calibrated performances in front of it. (Sweaty Viggo Mortensen was a lure in and of himself.) Sweeping viewers fully into Middle Earth via a groundbreaking combination of digital and practical effects, Fellowship Of The Ring was a box-office smash that scored a whopping 13 Oscar nominations. Perhaps what resonated most then, in the aftermath of national tragedy, was the film’s epic encouragement to resist evil when goodness feels impossible. It resonates still. [Roxana Hadadi]

17. Ali

17. Ali

Michael Mann didn’t go the usual biopic route with his film about Muhammad Ali. Forgoing the full life story, Mann covers only the most turbulent decade in the boxer’s iconic career, tracing a path from unstoppable champion to controversial pariah to comeback king. As the titular titan, Will Smith delivers an uncanny, ferocious performance that earned him his first Oscar nomination. (He might have won, too, were it not for the fact that he was competing against Denzel Washington in Training Day.) And Smith is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that includes Jamie Foxx as longtime corner man Drew “Bundini” Brown, Jeffrey Wright as resident Ali photographer Howard Bingham, and Jon Voight as Ali’s broadcast sparring partner, Howard Cosell. Mann, of course, has built many dramas around complicated, conflicted men. Even without the usual crime-movie trappings, Ali fits that tradition like a tightly wrapped boxing glove. [Craig D. Lindsey]

16. Fat Girl

16. ​​Fat Girl

Scowling tween Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), whose desires outpace her desirability, rejects the world before it can reject her. Projecting a cynicism that masks a naïveté, she watches as her big sister (Roxane Mesquida) resists and then acquiesces to the coercions of a twentysomething sleaze they meet on a family holiday; the younger girl’s oft-rolled eyes fill with tears during the painful non-seduction happening in long takes feet from her bed. Catherine Breillat’s drama of unruly hormones catalogues all the bafflement and terror of adult sexuality as glimpsed from a juvenile vantage, and in its disturbing conclusion, locates the limit of Anaïs’ jaded outlook. Denying her own wants cannot insulate her from a society that will prey on them anyway; her indifference is really just defensive rationalization, adolescence in its purest form. [Charles Bramesco]

15. The Devil’s Backbone

​​15. The Devil’s Backbone

Guillermo del Toro’s heroes are often creatures who go bump in the night: vampires, demons, fishmen who know how to smash. But the heart and humanity he weaves through these stories transform them into more than just painstakingly assembled curios. In Francoist time period and prepubescent protagonist, The Devil’s Backbone anticipates Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s no rough draft of that later, more acclaimed fantasy. While following the alliances and antagonisms of children in an orphanage in rural Spain, Del Toro builds a duality of dread and whimsy through a cache of hidden gold, a bomb embedded in a courtyard, and the scampering and whispering shadows of the night. With tenderness and spookiness, The Devil’s Backbone reminds us that our regrets haunt us more than any specter. That’s a cistern this genre filmmaker has drawn from again and again. [Roxana Hadadi]

14. Ocean’s Eleven

14. Ocean’s Eleven

In 2001, having George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts in one movie was a huge deal. Which is to say, Ocean’s Eleven comes loaded with enough star power to light up the Vegas strip. That’s consistent with the Rat Pack vehicle stylishly remade here by master technician Steven Soderbergh, who treats this slick ensemble comedy about an ex-con, his ex-wife, and a $160-million casino heist with the light touch that the material demands. Ocean’s Eleven is a sleight-of-hand trick, distracting the audience with ridiculously good-looking people exchanging witty barbs while it winds up a series of traps behind the scenes. These all spring, one by one, in the larceny sequence that dominates the back half of this dazzling specimen of top-notch Hollywood craft. And if the details of the crew’s caper don’t all add up? Hey, look over there—it’s Matt Damon and Don Cheadle! [Katie Rife]

13. Sexy Beast

13. Sexy Beast

For his debut feature, music-video/commercial director Jonathan Glazer (Under The Skin) basically remade Jacques Deray’s The Swimming Pool, just with aging, British gangsters instead of the smoking-hot French. Ray Winstone is a former mobster living a sunny, peaceful existence in Spain with his wife and friends. Unfortunately, his Eden is invaded by a serpent: ex-associate and Cockney sociopath Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), who shows up to rope him into doing One More Job, absolutely refusing to take no for an answer. (Hilarious and terrifying, Kingsley got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing someone so unhinged, the mere mention of his name paralyzes everyone with fear.) While most of the Brit crime stories of the era were mere exercises in style over substance (where you at, Snatch?), Sexy Beast finds something deeper under all the profanity and violence: a surreal meditation on how difficult it can be for career criminals to go legit. You never know when beasts like Logan will pop in to ruin your retirement. [Craig D. Lindsey]

12. Wet Hot American Summer

12. Wet Hot American Summer

While being one of the funniest movies ever made certainly doesn’t hurt (just ask the legions of obsessives bursting into giggles every time they hear a clay pot shatter), part of this beloved cult object’s appeal comes from its merging of the joke-a-second Zucker-Abrams-Zucker method with a Gen X sensibility. And that’s not just in the tone-perfect skewering of ’80s-era “the summer everything changed” pop culture, but in Wet Hot’s DIY spirit, too: There’s a slacker charm to the image of David Wain, his buddies from sketch institution The State, and an expertly curated guest list (including pre-fame Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Amy Poehler) scraping together a couple million to take over a campground and make their small, strange, brilliantly idiotic movie. When is it appropriate to drop a quote into casual conversation? Anytime. Dinner. Literally, anytime. [Charles Bramesco]

11. Monsters Inc.

​​11. Monsters Inc.

Pixar’s fourth feature was a huge technological leap forward, with each hair on Sulley’s giant blue body beautifully distinct. Set in a factory where monsters use interdimensional doors to scare screams out of children that in turn power their city, Monsters Inc. showcases the best of the animation studio’s high concepts without the heavy-handed emotional manipulation of some of its lesser efforts. Over 92 kinetically paced minutes, the film seamlessly collides farce, suspense, a critique of capitalism, buddy comedy, and the pure love that forms between a toddler and her “kitty.” There’s also “Put That Thing Back Where You Found It Or So Help Me: The Musical,” possibly the most gloriously stupid mid-credits sequence of all time. [Leila Latif]

10. Werckmeister Harmonies

10. Werckmeister Harmonies

Sátántangó gets the love and the essays, but nothing encompasses the strengths of Hungarian master filmmaker Béla Tarr like Werckmeister Harmonies. Eschewing the forward-and-back structure of its seven-and-a-half hour predecessor, Werckmeister lays out its organizing principle of concentric circles with a haunting opening scene of bar patrons tipsily recreating the orbits of the solar system. Central to the film and its unnamed location are a mysterious circus with a preserved whale and a ranting demagogue sowing the seeds of chaos and unease. Working with co-director and spouse Ágnes Hranitzky, alongside composer Mihály Vig (whose cues are among the greatest in 21st-century film music), Tarr creates an entire sociopolitical history in just 39 shots. The result is a work of intense and sustained black-and-white majesty, impossible to forget. [Jason Shawhan]

9. Gosford Park

9. Gosford Park

Toward the end of his life, Hollywood maverick Robert Altman scored one of his biggest hits with an old-fashioned British murder-mystery set at a sprawling rural estate in the 1930s. Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Emily Watson, and Ryan Phillippe are but a few of the actors assembled to play an assortment of opinionated aristocrats and exhausted servants, some of whom are hiding scandalous secrets. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for Gosford Park and later converted its basic premise into Downton Abbey, which goes granular on the film’s portrait of a slowly dying European class system. The film is more dialogue- and plot-driven than most Altman classics, but still has his drifting camera, his overlapping conversations, and his career-long emphasis on the small graceful gestures and petty gripes that make human behavior so fascinating. [Noel Murray]

8. A.I. Artificial Intelligence

8. A.I. Artificial Intelligence

The strange lineage of A.I. immediately guaranteed it a place in film history, whether as footnote, curiosity, or, of late, well-appreciated masterpiece. A longtime fascination of Stanley Kubrick became a different sort of passion project for Steven Spielberg, who took his first solo screenwriting credit since Close Encounters to realize his late friend’s notion of adapting the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” The episodic saga of robot boy David (Haley Joel Osment), his fractured family, and his quest to become a real boy looks stereotypically Spielbergian on its surface, but plumbs unsettling depths almost immediately (and, eventually, literally), exploring the limits of mankind’s ability to engineer love—and, ultimately, to save itself, whether from rising tides or eventual replacement. Looking closer at its technical virtuosity, deceptive darkness, and perfect ending that’s often misinterpreted as one step too far, A.I. looks less like a weird outlier and more like it could actually be Spielberg’s ultimate achievement. [Jesse Hassenger]

7. The Man Who Wasn’t There

7. The Man Who Wasn’t There

Fargo reflects Joel and Ethan Coen’s Minnesota upbringing, and A Serious Man explores their Jewish heritage, but it’s this deliberately mannered black-and-white film noir homage, ironically, that may be their most deeply personal work. As barber-turned-blackmailer Ed Crane, Billy Bob Thornton embodies the lightly sardonic stoicism typical of the genre, speaking almost exclusively in bone-dry voiceover narration; his most frequent gesture is a barely visible nod of resigned affirmation. One might conclude that such a phlegmatic man doesn’t truly care about much of anything, just as some folks believed, back in 2001, that two wiseacres making elaborate, knowing riffs on everything from Hammett to screwball were working overtime to disguise their work’s essential soullessness. Dead wrong in both cases, and The Man Who Wasn’t There—which is at heart a love story, its passion buried so deep as to be almost undetectable—demonstrates with monochromatic clarity just how deceptive a surface can be. [Mike D’Angelo]

6. Audition

6. Audition

The unforgettable power of Audition hinges partially on the element of surprise. So let’s tread lightly through the twists and turns of this sweet, gentle romantic comedy about a lonely widower (Ryo Ishibashi) who gets a new shot at love. Superhumanly prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike has made dozens of movies in the years since, but has he ever locked into a scenario as whimsically inspired as staging auditions for a fake TV show in order to find the woman of your dreams? It’s with the delicacy of countryman Kore-eda Hirokazu and the crowd-pleasing instincts of a Hollywood hitmaker that Miike engineers the meet-cute between his leading man and the demure, slightly mysterious ingénue (Eihi Shiina) who pricks his healing heart like a skilled acupuncturist. Their courtship is so swoon-worthy that it’s easy to overlook that it’s built on a scheme. Don’t lots of rom-coms step out on a limb of high-wire deception, with characters who put the wrong foot forward? Incidentally, if you’re new to Audition, skip the trailer above: It goes deeper deeper deeper into the film’s unpredictable plot than it should. [A.A. Dowd]

5. Memento

​​5. Memento

Hard to believe now, but the film that put Christopher Nolan on the map struggled so hard to find a U.S. distributor that Newmarket, the production company, eventually gave up and just released Memento itself. Few in the industry believed that such a brain-scrambling narrative—its offbeat detective story largely told backward, so as to place viewers in the same constantly befuddled position as protagonist Leonard Shelby, who can’t retain short-term memories—could find a sizable audience, even by indie-film standards. Two decades and multiple brainy blockbusters later, that seems impossibly naïve. Still, the key was Nolan’s ability to infuse his puzzle-box structure with both genuine feeling and a keen understanding of human nature. “Don’t believe his lies,” reads the notation Leonard makes on one of the many Polaroid photos he carries to orient himself. The genius of Memento is that it’s sneakily about the many lies we tell ourselves. [Mike D’Angelo]

4. The Royal Tenenbaums

4. The Royal Tenenbaums

After making the small, quirky comedies Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Wes Anderson and his writing partner, Owen Wilson, went big for movie number three, assembling a star-studded ensemble to tell the story of a family of once-famous New Yorkers barely coping with loss, loneliness, disappointment, and depression. Influenced in part by J.D. Salinger’s interconnected sagas about crumbling upper-crust clans, The Royal Tenenbaums builds off the theatricality of Rushmore, featuring characters who look and act like living cartoons, wearing the same clothes repeatedly and clinging to a few simple obsessions. This is the mode Anderson has stayed in ever since, crafting meticulously detailed environments populated by fussy eccentrics, while simultaneously tapping into the deep well of emotion beneath the ornate surfaces. It’s an effective aesthetic, but it’ll never feel as surprising and new as it did with this beautifully melancholy vision. [Noel Murray]

3. Ghost World

3. Ghost World

One year before Spider-Man kicked off the superhero craze that’s dominated multiplexes these past two decades, a modest comic book adaptation presented an alternate path for American movies. Terry Zwigoff’s comedy, adapted from Daniel Clowes’ comic, doesn’t feature caped crusaders but rather two recent high-school graduates, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), whose sarcastic patois and inchoate cynicism have bonded them together against the rabble. Ghost World chronicles the girls’ platonic breakup after Enid befriends middle-aged loner Seymour (Steve Buscemi), with Zwigoff capturing their inevitable rift in potently unsentimental terms. The film endures because of its unapologetic celebration of the idiosyncratic. From Enid dancing to “Jaan Pehechan Ho” over the opening credits to the hyper-specific décor of the local porn shop to everyone’s eclectic wardrobes, Ghost World believes deeply in going against the grain even while knowing how far that attitude gets you. Contemporary cinema should take the hint. [Vikram Murthi]

2. In The Mood For Love

2. In The Mood For Love

Perhaps the ultimate distillation of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s obsession with time, memory, doomed relationships, and moody colored lighting, In The Mood For Love is also one of the most romantic movies ever made. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung star as next-door neighbors alone in the crowd of Hong Kong circa 1962, an impressionistic nighttime world of paper lanterns, elaborate wallpaper, and the clicking of high heels on stone staircases. This is a film about unfulfilled longing, stretching that breathless moment between the acknowledgement of mutual attraction and lips touching for the first time into a lifetime of exquisite suffering. Adultery, propriety, loss, and regret all factor into the story, but at its core In The Mood For Love is an attempt to bottle a memory, as well as a bittersweet admission of how impossible it actually is to do that. [Katie Rife]

1. Mulholland Drive

1. Mulholland Drive

Does it say something about the ongoing blurring of lines between television and cinema that what may be the most acclaimed movie of the new millennium began life in one medium before settling in the other? Between finishing his seminal primetime soap opera on the big screen and restarting it on the small one with a third season some (including its maker) insisted was really an 18-hour movie, David Lynch transformed a failed TV pilot into a haunting highpoint of his increasingly avant-garde career: a daydream of Hollywood aspiration that curdles, in its harrowing final act, into a nightmare of rock-bottom desperation. Fans and critics have spent two decades poring over the secrets and ambiguities of Mulholland Drive, cracking open that mystery box just like wannabe starlet Betty (Naomi Watts) and her raven-haired, femme-fatale companion, Rita (Laura Harring). Yet one need not “solve” Lynch’s bewitching noir reverie to get lost, again and again, in its dark corners: the radiance and despair of Watts’ starmaking performance; the ravenous romantic-erotic intensity of its centerpiece sex scene; a slow wander behind a diner that qualifies as one of the most blood-curdling scenes ever committed to celluloid. In the end, it’s still possible to wonder where Lynch would have taken Mulholland Drive if it got ordered to series, but much less possible to imagine a version of it that would imprint itself as eternally on the mass cinephile subconscious, like an unshakeable dream built from memories of Tinseltown classics and also the sobering knowledge of what showbiz does to so many pulled into its gaping, hungry maw. [A.A. Dowd]