This year has brought a lot of retrospectives on the movies from 1999, which are now twenty years old, as well as reflection on the year 1999 itself. Many have marked 1999 as a standard bearer for great cinema. A short survey of the movies released that year – The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, All About My Mother, Toy Story 2 – immediately justifies its reputation. As much as it’s been fun to think about and revisit these modern classics, I’ve had an equally good time trying to figure out what other years come up when trying to challenge ’99 as the “best movie year ever.” For a long time, conventional wisdom agreed on 1939 (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), but can you really get a sense for the greatness of a year you didn’t live through? Many years from the seventies, often regarded as one of the best decades for American cinema, are often brought up as candidates. And I’ve seen quite a few people refer to 2007 as a stand-out (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac). All of these strike me as perfectly fine choices, but I would like to make an argument for a year that I’ve seen very few people cite among the best. I’m talking, of course, about the year 2001.
I suspect one of the reasons people stray away from 2001 as a great year for film – at least for Americans – is 9/11, and the shadow cast on American history by this tragedy. But while the effect 9/11 had on culture was huge, its effect on the movies of 2001 is minimal. This makes absolute sense when you consider how long it takes for a movie to get made – the time from writing the script to locking the final edit usually takes years – so the movies of 2001 offer no reaction to the tragedy. The likeliest effect of 9/11 in the cinema of this year was on the box office. Many have argued that the commercial failure of Zoolander had to do with it opening a few weeks after the attacks (“America wasn’t ready to laugh again”). On the other hand, you have those who claim that the “sacrifice for the greater good” narrative of The Lord of the Rings mirrored the national mood and helped make it a huge hit that holiday season. Claims of this sort are hard to prove, and honestly, not that interesting. What I see in the cinema of 2001, is not a reaction to tragic events, but a survey of the preoccupations that were about to be expanded, pushed aside, or inflated in the aftermath of 9/11.
A second reason why 2001 hasn’t received the praise it deserves probably has to do with the fact that some of its best movies were either dismissed or misunderstood at the time of their release. David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., which is now considered one of the very best films of the 21st century, received positive reviews from critics, but was simply too weird to catch on with audiences. To this day, its reputation outside of cinephile circles is that of a nonsensical film. What’s more, some critics at the time of its release regarded it as an imperfect attempt on Lynch’s part to salvage a failed television pilot by turning it into a movie (can you imagine such a thing in 2019, when movie directors are running from theaters to online streaming?). Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence was, at the time, controversial for putting too happy an ending to what was once supposed to be a Stanley Kubrick production, never mind the fact that said ending is incredibly dark if you actually think about the implications. Now, there are many who – like me – regard A.I. as one of Spielberg’s highest achievements. Meanwhile, in the world of comedy Wet Hot American Summer was critically panned before becoming perhaps the most influential comedy of the century, and Josie and the Pussycats was dismissed as a commercial cash-grab when it is actually a critique of consumerism posing as a product of said culture.
The great movies of 2001 weren’t all flops, however. Many of the biggest hits of the year stand out as shining examples of a king of filmmaking that is rarely supported by the big studios. For a little bit of context, consider the fact that there wasn’t a single superhero movie released that year, and The Fast and the Furious was a small scale Point Break rip-off instead of a CGI flying car extravaganza. While there was lots of trash at the multiplex (Pearl Harbor, Planet of the Apes), some of the hits of the year include: Legally Blonde, a female-fronted comedy with an star-making lead performance; the aforementioned The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, an enormous epic which seems positively restrained and personal compared to the unrestrained blockbusters that debuted in its wake; Moulin Rouge!, one of the most stylistically audacious movies ever released by a major studio and the unlikely resuscitator of the Hollywood musical; and Ocean’s Eleven, the Platonic ideal of a Hollywood movie that’s as slick and well crafted as its cast is magnetic.
Outside of the big Hollywood titles, 2001 was full of gems. This was the year of Memento, the indie breakout that would start Christopher Nolan’s trajectory toward the top of the filmmaking heap. On the other end of the spectrum, the incredibly weird Donnie Darko presaged a career that never quite materialized for Richard Kelly. At the same time, Wes Anderson solidified his unique aesthetic with The Royal Tenenbaums, and John Cameron Mitchell put a period on a decade of queer cinema with one of my personal favorites, the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Outside of American cinema, the gems are there no matter how you define a “2001 movie.” If you go by international debut dates you have Alfonso Cuarón sexually frank coming-of-age Y Tú Mamá También, Mira Nair’s delightful family saga Monsoon Wedding, and Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. If you only count movies that opened in the U.S. then you have Lucrecia Martel’s fantastic debut La Ciénaga, Béla Tarr’s monumental Werckmeister Harmonies, and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, the movie that most consistently battles Mulholland Dr. for title of “best of the century.”
I must recognize one big shortcoming of 2001 as a film year: the lack of diversity both in front and behind the camera, especially when it comes to American films. It is a symptom of its time, no doubt, and it’s not like 1939 and 1999 fare much better on the diversity front, but that doesn’t mean that makes it any less frustrating. Still, I will submit 2001 as a great year for cinema, because there is something special about a year that features work as exciting as the many movies cited above. That’s also considering the fact that we haven’t even mentioned Monsters, Inc. or The Man Who Wasn’t There or The Others or Amélie or Gosford Park or Ichi the Killer or The Devil’s Backbone or Sexy Beast or Ghost World or Ali… The list goes on.
Conrado Falco is a New York-based playwright who loves movies. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNewYork).