The Rise of the Franchise, A Grumpy Green Ogre and Yellow Budgie-Smugglers: 2001 in Retrospect
1999 is often regarded as one of the best years for movies, with Fight Club and American Beauty serving as generational closing statements for the 20th century. The final scene of David Fincher's pop-anarchic hit eerily presaged the bright autumn morning of 9th September 2001, when terrorists hijacked three passenger jets and changed the world forever.
Before that apocalyptic moment, the new century was sleepily finding its feet and searching for an identity amid the post-millennial hangover. Movie-wise, we often think of the pre-Marvel days as a time free from multiplex-munching cinematic universes, yet the box office Top 10 of 2001 was crammed with either new franchises or existing IPs. Dominating the bunch were three fantasy adaptations - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, and Shrek.
Grossing over $300 million worldwide, Chris Columbus's sturdy take on J.K. Rowling's best-selling novel was a runaway success. With imaginative world-building, cracking special effects and a spirited cast, the film accompanied the boy wizard on his first term at Hogwarts, and introduced us to a fresh-faced Daniel Radcliffe, Emily Watson, and Rupert Grint.
Seven more instalments followed, completing the saga and expanding the Who's-Who of mostly British actors, plus a spin-off prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, starring Stephen Hawking impersonator Eddie Redmayne.
Meanwhile, Kiwi director Peter Jackson, who had introduced the world to Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, hit the big time with a stunning first instalment of J.R..R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy novel. It matched epic sweep with robust story-telling and state-of-the-art effects and felt like a game-changing moment for blockbuster cinema. After the debacle of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I a few years earlier, it also gave us Gollum, arguably the first fully realised CG character in a live-action movie.
The final chapter in 2003, The Return of the King, would provide a coronation for Jackson's monumental achievement, sweeping 11 Oscars including Best Picture. The director followed up with a dark and dreary mega-budget remake of King Kong and the success of the series spawned a padded-out prequel trilogy based on Tolkien's slender earlier novel, The Hobbit.
Dreamworks' Shrek was an unexpected hit, introducing us to a grumpy green ogre voiced by Mike Myers doing his favourite Scottish accent. It was an irreverent blast of fart jokes, incongruous needle-drops and smart-alec pop culture references. The formula was reproduced ad infinitum by three sequels, a spin-off (Puss in Boots), and many other inferior Shrek wannabes.
Just behind Shrek as the year's third most profitable movie was Monsters Inc., Pixar's playful and funny CG romp. Other franchises took most of the top spots in the box office Top 10, including Rush Hour 2, The Mummy Returns, Spielberg-free Jurassic Park 3, and Anthony Hopkins as everyone's favourite erudite cannibal in Ridley Scott's ludicrous Hannibal. Just outside the Top 10 came The Fast and the Furious, a car-racing action movie that would lead to another mega-franchise with eight sequels and two more in the works.
The year's Top 10 was rounded out by Michael Bay's misguided Pearl Harbour and Tim Burton's unintentional groaner-fest remake of Planet of the Apes.
The new century saw Hollywood's big guns and recently crowned Oscar-winners trying to consolidate their stardom, with varying degrees of success. Russell Crowe, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor with his magnetic performance in Gladiator, gained another nomination for A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard's solid biopic of mathematician John Nash.
Before some peculiar outbursts and becoming an outspoken advocate for Scientology, Tom Cruise could do no wrong by the end of the 1990s. He picked up Oscar nominations for Jerry Maguire and Magnolia, starred in Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and reprised his role as Ethan Hunt in the second outing of the everlasting Mission Impossible franchise. 2001 saw him move into the next phase of his career with Cameron Crowe's beguilingly strange Vanilla Sky, where he became romantically involved with co-star Penelope Cruz.
Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away, released in late 2000 but still posting at number 15 in the year’s box office, gave Tom Hanks another Oscar nomination for playing opposite a volleyball named Wilson. Training Day saw Denzel Washington receive his only Lead Actor Oscar to date, while Michael Mann's biopic Ali provided a first Best Actor nomination for Will Smith in one of his earlier "serious roles".
Kevin Spacey, who won a second Oscar for his role in American Beauty, struggled to find parts suitable for his particular acting style. He starred in two flops in 2001 - The Shipping News, a deathly dull adaptation of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel, and K-Pax, where he played a psychiatric patient who believes he's an alien.
Before his lively role as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp also struggled to find himself after bursting onto the scene in the 90s. He starred in Blow, Ted Demme's uneven Goodfellas-lite, and From Hell, a turgid adaptation of the celebrated graphic novel. Nicolas Cage’s outrageously bad Italian accent was the only thing memorable in Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
For the old guard, Sean Penn's unflinching mystery drama The Pledge gave Jack Nicholson his last great film role, while Robert De Niro continued his slide into irrelevance with chaotic crime thriller 15 Minutes and The Score, a mildly diverting heist caper alongside Edward Norton and Marlon Brando. Robert Redford starred with his natural successor, Brad Pitt, in Spy Games.
Pitt, who made a striking breakthrough a decade earlier in Thelma and Louise, had a mixed year. A popular leading man who often does his best work in supporting roles, 2001 saw him do both. He created a memorable impression as George Clooney's perpetually snacking sidekick in Ocean's Eleven, and played the romantic lead opposite Julia Roberts in the forgettable romantic adventure The Mexican.
2001 also saw Heath Ledger build on his breakthrough in 10 Things I Hate About You with a star-making turn in A Knight's Tale and an eye-catching supporting role in Monster's Ball. Just seven years later he would be dead at the age of 28 and receive a posthumous Oscar for his iconic performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight.
Fellow Aussie Cate Blanchett also had a good year, fleshing out her growing CV with roles in The Shipping News, Bandits, Charlotte Gray and a striking appearance as Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring. Angelina Jolie was on her way to becoming a huge star after her earlier Oscar success in Girl, Interrupted, appearing in the first episode of her ill-fated Lara Croft franchise.
Elsewhere, Reese Witherspoon had a likeable hit with Legally Blonde, as did Sandra Bullock with Miss Congeniality and Jennifer Lopez with The Wedding Planner. Halle Berry notoriously went topless in Swordfish and put in an Oscar-winning performance in Monster's Ball.
On the other side of the pond, Bridget Jones's Diary was a massive success for Richard Curtis, providing a signature role for Renee Zellwegger, who put on a believable British accent and received an Oscar nomination for her efforts. Billy Elliot, on a tiny budget of $5 million, also received a US release in 2001 and became an unlikely worldwide success.
Also going stateside was Guy Ritchie's shaggy-dog crime comedy Snatch, while Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast treated us to Ben Kingsley as Cockney nutjob Don Logan and the unforgettable sight of Ray Winstone in a very tight pair of yellow budgie-smugglers.
World cinema increasingly crossed over into the mainstream, paving the way for Bong Joon-ho's Oscar triumph with Parasite. Ang Lee's sumptuous, poignant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was going strong at the box office in 2001 and received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, as well as taking home the gong for Best Foreign-Language Film.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet introduced the world to Amelie in his quirky romantic comedy and US audiences got their first look at another romance of a far more unrequited kind in Wong-kar Wai's swooning In the Mood for Love.
Latin American filmmakers were big on the scene with Alejandro Amenábar scoring a spooky hit with The Others and Guillermo del Toro providing more chills with The Devil's Backbone.
2001 welcomed the arrival of Christopher Nolan, a major new talent who would go on to become one of the biggest and most influential filmmakers of the next two decades. After his micro-budget feature debut Following, the modest yet ground-breaking neo-noir Memento introduced us to a preoccupation that he would explore to varying degrees of success in blockbusters like Inception and Tenet: tinkering with time.
Wes Anderson gave us The Royal Tenenbaums, one of his funniest and most emotionally engaging films, largely thanks to a generous performance from Gene Hackman in one of his last significant roles. The Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? made good box office after a late 2000 release, while The Man Who Wasn't There proved a little too obtuse for many audiences.
M Night Shyamalan followed up his hugely successful debut, The Sixth Sense, with another twisty hit, Unbreakable, thus dooming himself as the "twist-ending guy", which straight-jacketed the next two decades of his career with ever-diminishing returns.
Baz Luhrmann provided another riot of colour and music with Moulin Rouge! while Steven Spielberg divided audiences and critics with AI: Artificial Intelligence, an ambitious sci-fi adventure originally intended as a Stanley Kubrick project. Nowadays it looks increasingly like a flawed masterpiece.
Elsewhere, David Lynch delighted in baffling audiences with the highly-regarded Mulholland Drive, while Darren Aronofsky also messed with people's heads in Requiem for a Dream, his intense, harrowing look at drug addiction.
Indie and Cult Favourites
Donnie Darko became one of the cult films of the 21st century, a dark, labyrinthine, sci-fi head trip that gave a star-making turn to Jake Gyllenhaal. Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous didn't do well at the box office but became a perennial favourite with fans, as did John Cameron Mitchell's inventive punk rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Terry Zwigoff delivered the acerbic yet soulful coming-of-age black comedy Ghost World, while David Wain's Wet Hot American Summer was despised by critics but became a cult favourite, introducing future star Bradley Cooper.
Overall, 2001 was a pretty good time for movie goers. Here is my Top 10 for the year:
10. Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
9. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
8. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
7. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
6. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)
5. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
4. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
3. The Pledge (Sean Penn, 2001)
2. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Let us know your picks for the year!