If you asked me my top 10 list from 2000 or 1999, I doubt I could tell you more than two or three entries. It would take too much head-scratching; I'm better at remembering moments of empathy and tenderness, or movies that celebrate simple or extravagant beauty. So here are not 10 but 11 films that gave me such moments in 2001.
Terry Zwigoff and Dan Clowes' Ghost World is the anti-teen movie, a brilliant singularity that travels in its coming-of-age particulars from hilarious, sardonic observation to acute melancholy. Two precocious, sarcastic, foul-mouthed friends, Enid (disdainful, baby-faced Thora Birch) and Rebecca (impossibly throaty-voiced Scarlet Johannsson), whose ways will soon part, plan how to waste the coming months before adulthood beckons. Zwigoff and Clowes manage an unlikely feat of literary ventriloquism, pouring their own concerns about the corruption of our modern culture into a story about the frustrations of two still-unfinished young girls. Intense, poignant and droll, Birch's fearless performance, filled with priceless glowers, is nothing shy of exquisite. Slowly, the story becomes more about this sass-lass's baby steps toward maturity, neglecting Rebecca, and developing her improbable friendship with middle-aged record collector Seymour (a restrained and touching Steve Buscemi), who to Enid's young eyes seems almost so uncool he's cool. How does a free and vivid and unfinished soul survive and persist, asks Ghost World, in our Starbucks-Kinko's-7-Eleven world? Ghost World's answer? By following your own instincts.
Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love is a dazzling, haunting romantic masterpiece of shorthand, manners and longing (and costume design). Set in early-1960s Hong Kong, it's a smoldering eavesdrop on two neighbors, a man (Tony Leung) and a woman (Maggie Cheung) who discover that their respective mates (never seen) are having an affair. They grow closer. Wong is coy about how close -- a romance may or may not occur. Do we worry? No. Leung and Cheung have silken presence, and the use of music makes for a swoony dream.
In the Bedroom, Todd Field's directorial debut, questions the rash act, the steadfast moment, the act of retribution that can change the course of your life in a single deadly instant. The less you know, the more shattering the story: let us just say that the earliest scenes suggest Maine in summer as a paradise of ordinariness, capturing the romance of college-bound Frank (Nick Stahl) and thirtysomething Natalie (Marisa Tomei). Things happen, choices are made, and alongside Tomei, Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, as Frank's parents, Field excels at what can only be called eloquent silence: instants that allow you to read their emotional history without going through motions that are merely illustrative.
If John Hughes were so bold as to make Magnolia, after reading a lot of Philip K. Dick while tripping, the result wouldn't be one-tenth as good as Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, a bold 1988-set teen satire that offers up the dissonant spectacle of 28 days in the life of your essential suburban paranoid-schizophrenic teen (Jake Gyllenhaal). Kelly's ambitious, insolent script prompts laughs, but his gorgeously complicated family fantasy has more on its mind.
Lukas Moodyson's Together is another kettle of dysfunction, a sweet satire of communal life in 1970s Sweden, a rare sort of masterpiece, sending up sex, politics and sexual politics with uncommon grace and tenderness.
A nastier family portrait is Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, a sleek, imperturbable nightmare of sister-envy. A potent shocker, it reveals Breillat as an emerging master of psychological drama, with a sense of pain, of portent and how sexuality is constructed through fantasy, desire and anger.
A simmering summer week in Sydney, Australia, is the setting of Ray Lawrence's theatrical but brilliantly acted and paced Lantana, as several couples in their 40s and 50s overlap, unable to burst from the constraints of bonds they do not fully understand, from family, colleagues, lovers. Anthony LaPaglia is remarkable as the lead, a 40-year-old cop who cannot loose his emotions except in the most self-destructive ways. (Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey are among the others who shine in Lantana.)
Other dysfunctions run through David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, boasting the year's most stunning performance, by Naomi Watts, as an impossibly perky young blonde actress who's just arrived in dreamtown L.A. from Deep River, Ontario, with dark undercurrents of her own. You could write pages about this movie, its effortless elegance, its comic complications and it'd add up to about as much as what's on screen: a description of cool mystery and bottomless confusion.
While some have called Lynch's film a triumph of style over sense, such critics should look also to Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, a depiction of the 1993 storming of Mogadishu, Somalia, which shines by descending into sheerest formalism: after 10 minutes of setup, we witness a two-hour firefight, with hot surfaces as coolly composed as the under-appreciated iciness of the corn-and-beef hash that was Hannibal.
Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is a restless, decidedly 21st century combustion of production, design and wall-to-wall music. It's an absinthe-drenched re-imagining of pop opera and the American musical comedy, with each and every scene a full-throated shouting down of any notion of understatement.
In contrast, there's the oblique elegance of Barbet Schroeder's possibly great Our Lady of the Assassins, a tale of impossible love against the backdrop of teenage contract killers in Medellin, Colombia. It's one of the great portraits of how the writer talks, lives and invents the greatness of their romantic others. They write, therefore we are.