2001 Movies: This week Ken Walczak takes on the films of 2001. But is How High really worthy of an honorable mention?

BY KEN WALCZAK

By all rights, 2001 should have been the year of Stanley Kubrick. In a perfectly-scripted world, the year would have begun with the hearts and lips of devoted Kubrick fans still buzzing from the sublime sublimation of Eyes Wide Shut (2000). Having basked in the fullness of the great director’s last epic, adoring throngs could then have swarmed into theatres to rediscover 2001: A Space Odyssey in all 70 millimeters of its reprinted glory. By summer, Kubrick’s abandoned robot-project A.I. could have proved a fitting finale to an innovative career, by once again bridging the gaps between art-house and multiplex, the head and the heart — yea verily, even the living and the dead.

But of course life has a pesky way of enforcing its taste for entropy on us all, and big-name movie directors are no exception. So Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t so great, and people weren’t really talking about it much past the turn of the millennium. For its part, A.I. failed to bridge many gaps, least of all the one separating moviegoers’ hands from their wallets — a fatal flaw for any summer flick bearing the name “Spielberg.” And, most tragically of all, the release of 2001’s new print was delayed so many times you’d think it was a Neptunes CD. (If, like me, you still long for the Year of Kubrick that might have been, you can catch 2001 at the Coolidge Corner now.) All the same, there is no reason to fret about the Year In Film. The negative vibe — complaints about Pearl Harbor’s failure as a blockbuster, moans that Harry Potter was aimed too much at the kiddies — pervading a lot of critics’ year-end lists needs, frankly, to stop. Because 2001 was a great year for movies here in the U.S. of A. Here are just a few reasons, presented in no particular order (and Casey Kasem be damned):

The Royal Tenenbaums. Few film critics in 2001 were more perceptive than the cardboard sign at the gargantuan Loews on Boston Common, which proclaimed Wes Anderson already a “Master Director” at age 31. Life among the Tenenbaums is by turns heart-wrenching and hilarious, and all the inside jokes are superb. Claustrophobic in a good way — if it were any longer and in England, Tenenbaums would be Anderson’s Barry Lyndon. Gene Hackman’s performance is mesmerizing, steadily reeling you in over two-thirds of the movie, then leaving you the final third to stare in wonderment. Worthy of the highest possible praise, namely that it might just be a better film than Rushmore.

In the Mood for Love. Even more claustrophobic, and at least as wonderful. This is a movie to make you believe in the power of sexual tension on a screen — it must make Crouching Tiger and Eyes Wide Shut mad with envy. Director Wong-Kar Wai either has a phenomenal eye for detail, or he’s surrounded by people who do: You can fall in love with the movie purely for Maggie Cheung’s dresses or the spartan red credits sequences.

Mulholland Drive. Any year with a new David Lynch film is a good year for American cinema. In 2001, America’s finest living director turned a failed television pilot into a big-screen gem. The plot-puzzle is ultimately not as satisfying as Lost Highway (i.e., the pieces all eventually fall into place), but this movie just looks a lot nicer. Peter Deming’s cinematography may be the only thing in the movie that outshines Naomi Watts’s performance, and a healthy dollop of lesbian sex doesn’t hurt anything.

Donnie Darko. A major studio’s marketing nightmare, this film sits so firmly on the art/commerce fence that it’s had to settled for backhanded praise: “the most original picture no one saw this year.” (Salon.com) But like any fence-sitting masterpiece, it’s both accomplished and exceptionally entertaining. First-time director Richard Kelly has stumbled upon a simple, yet highly potent recipe: mix equal parts paranoid schizophrenia, terrifying bunny rabbits and Drew Barrymore as high-school English teacher (as in “Hot For …”). Add several cups Tears for Fears, one dash Echo & the Bunnymen (get it?). Stir vigorously. Savor.

Memento. A solid thriller that deserves every word of the hype it’s gotten, even if many painted it more like a parlor trick than the multi-layered reflection on memory that it is. Gimmicks for their own sake never work (See, among many others, Time Code); this movie does. As should have been evident from his first film (Following), Christopher Nolan is a man gloriously obsessed with the human mind and the human condition. His disjointed narrative stems from a broad, meticulous faith in the story he’s telling, and not from any need to be flashy. Solid work, and grounds for excitement about his future.

Nor was 2001 a year of five revelations atop a cinematic dungheap. Many other, very fine films played on American screens last year — From Hell, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Wet Hot American Summer come immediately to mind. I also stand behind the best film of 2001’s holiday season, How High. This thing has a bravura performance from Lark Voorhies (“Saved By the Bell”) and a script blissfully willing to bulldoze continuity, credibility, coherence — really anything that might get in the way of a punch line. Worth the price of admission for the assistant pimp character alone. Yeah, you heard me right — assistant pimp.

Correction: my last column erroneously referred to a Daft Punk song as “preppy.” This was an error. The text should have read “peppy” — the song is uptempo, not dressed in Izod.

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