Film Review of 2001

The last word in films of the books
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The Independent Culture

This was the year film took on the big hitters of fiction. Bridget Jones's Diary and Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone offered the magic of romance and the romance of magic: bedknobs or broomsticks. Both were great crowd-pleasers, anthologies of favourite scenes and jokes; the Sorting Hat became as much of an icon as Bridget's big knickers.

However, that each also brought a ready-made fan club and a tip-top cast is not always a box-office guarantee. Results for the first part of The Lord of the Rings are not yet in, but the crowds that flocked to BJ and HP stayed away from Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which had some stinking reviews. The absurd "Mediterranean" accents aside, it was inoffensive; by no means the worst literary adaptation of the year. That honour went to Miramax's sickly Chocolat, a Ferrero-Rocher of a movie that was definitely not spoiling us.

The other Harrises, Thomas and Robert, had bestsellers transferred to screen, respectively Hannibal and Enigma, which proved solid but rather savourless fare. Anthony Hopkins softened the feral Dr Lecter into an avuncular, almost Jeevesian gent, and his cosying up to Clarice killed the tension The Silence of the Lambs expertly engineered.

The British film industry looked as much of a chimera as ever. The year kicked off hearteningly with two stylish debuts. Jonathan Glazer's thriller Sexy Beast tweaked the heist tradition in one startling underwater sequence – burly men in Speedo trunks drilling through the wall of a Turkish bath to flood the bank vault next door – while Ben Kingsley almost blew a fuse as the psychotic enforcer.

Glazer will be one to watch, as will Jamie Thraves, whose feline drama The Low Down doesn't appear to be about anything much yet gradually rouses itself to a compelling study in personal disaffection. Thraves frames his leads, Kate Ashfield and Aidan Gillen, with an artist's eye. Ashfield, a lively, often inspired performer, also starred in another twentysomething drama, Late Night Shopping, which was all the things The Low Down was not: smug, posturing, incredible and abysmally acted. Unfortunately, there were plenty more where that came from, most of them Lottery-funded comedies that mistook facetiousness for wit – Beautiful Creatures, Dead Babies, Born Romantic, High Heels and Low Lifes, The Parole Officer, The Martins, Peaches. Just writing down those titles induced some queasy flashbacks.

The movies I enjoyed most this year arrived from abroad, and didn't get the audiences they deserved. From France came several on a similar theme – the precariousness of modern marriage. Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le chocolat starred the remarkable Isabelle Huppert as a cool domestic monster who's kept her family in thrall by spiking the bedtime cocoa. Marion Vernoux's charming Rien à faire looked at the effect of unemployment on marriage – a friendship stumbles into adultery largely because each partner has days of nothing to do. More risque was Virginie Wagon's Le secret, in which a woman recovers her sense of self through a passionate affair but sabotages a perfectly good marriage in the process. Most disturbing was François Ozon's Under The Sand, a beautifully grave examination of bereavement in which a woman (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to meet the truth about her husband's disappearance. It plays more as ghost story than love story, and its ending is a haunting miniature of ambiguity.

Mexico offered Amores perros, a startling dramatic triptych about love and dogs. First-time director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu opens with a bang – literally, a violent car-crash in downtown Mexico City – and proceeds to investigate the various lives snarled up in the wreckage. The glimpses into the city's illegal backstreet dogfights are horrific, though perhaps no more so than the price of survival their owners are willing to pay. Inarritu's feeling for his deeply flawed characters played havoc with one's sympathies.

From Australia came the modest yet delightful The Dish, a Capra-esque comedy about a team of scientists in the backwater of Parkes, NSW, preparing a back-up satellite to beam pictures of the 1969 moonwalk around the globe. Rob Sitch slyly catches something of the Australian character – innocence, chippiness, resolve – as Sam Neill and his crew stumble towards glory.

Hollywood in 2001 was a dreadful disappointment, the summer blockbusters (Pearl Harbor, Lara Croft, Planet of the Apes) being some of the worst ever. But there were glints of gold amid the dross. The best American film I saw was You Can Count On Me, Kenneth Lonergan's finely observed portrait of a sister and brother uneasily reuniting in the small upstate town where they were orphaned. Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo played this duet of baffled affection with a humility and restraint that brought tears to my eyes. I loved Almost Famous for its jukebox medley of Seventies rock, The Pledge for Sean Penn's direction and Jack Nicholson's mighty performance, and high-school comedy Get Over It for Martin Short's hilarious turn as a drama teacher with ambitions way beyond his talent.

But if there was one film that made the whole year worthwhile, it has to be Together, Lukas Moodysson's unimprovable comedy about a mid-Seventies hippie commune in Stockholm. With a sharp but forgiving eye, the film conducts us through a household of misfits where idealism has hatched varying states of fervour and foolishness; in a generational twist, children in owlish spectacles look and sigh at the mess their elders are making. The clothes are terrible, the food worse, yet somewhere amid the chaos Moodysson locates a spirit of togetherness that prompts us, unexpectedly, to admiration. In the season of peace and goodwill, this is the movie to see.