A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.
As this is podcaster Gerry’s own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. In this article, he talks about his favourite films from the year we were supposed to have a Space Odyssey, 2001.
5. Donnie Darko
I’m going to make an admission before we get started. This one made the list to annoy James, because he hates it and was disgusted that I didn’t like Amelie enough to include it on here (spoiler alert). On this last point by the way, I intend to watch it again as it’s a number of years since I watched it as a teenager and I suspect I might think differently on it now.
Anyhoo, the film that launched Jake Gylenhaal’s career is a moody 80s teenage tale about a young lad who imagines (or does he?) a 6 foot bunny rabbit called Frank, which adds to his already complicated life. Donnie, you see, is already seeing a psychiatrist and struggles to get on with his family, as well as struggling (like we all did) to get things moving with fellow oddball Gretchen who he has somehow managed to date. Richard Kelly explores time travel and mental illness with this cult classic debut, whose success he has never managed to match since either as a writer or director. This is the part where James rants about how deliberately indie this film is but it’s a bit more thoughtful than most teen films and, as a young teen, really hit a chord with me. It straddles genres and tones but somehow makes it work in my eyes – plus it has a deliciously creepy turn from Patrick Swayze. Captures the 80s vibe brilliantly as well as the stifling nature of suburban life which makes it a winner already but the outstanding soundtrack rounds things off nicely.
4. The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)
Guillermo Del Toro’s chilling ghost story is apparently inspired by his own experiences of his uncle’s reincarnation as a ghost. How true this is remains to be proven, but it is certainly filled with a sense of history and realism that adds to the thrills. A dream combination for me in terms of cast (Marisa Paredes, one of Spain’s finest actresses of all time) and crew (Del Toro directing, the Almodóvar brothers producing), this film has all the makings of a classic on paper. It duly delivers. Spine-chillingly brilliant, it tells the story of 12 year old Carlos as he settles into a remote orphanage in the closing stages of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces are closing in on them although the only signs of this are an undetonated bomb sticking out of the ground and Carlos’ being there at all – his father died in the conflict – as the film eschews portrayal of the conflict itself, instead using it as a backdrop, a pervasive feeling of dread and impending doom that permeates every scene.
Podcast regulars will know of my passion for this period in history (the subject of my Masters), this director and particularly his film Pan’s Labyrinth, which Del Toro describes as the ‘sister’ to this film, the ‘brother’ in the sibling relationship. Indeed, this is an exploration of a young boy’s grappling with how horrendous the real world is in much the same way as Pan’s explores a young girl’s struggles in this regard. To the filmmakers’ credit, the ghost story is often rather secondary to the very human drama and this is most certainly a far cry from the average Hollywood horror. Utterly tremendous. So tremendous in fact that just writing this article has made me decide to watch it again tonight.
Russell Crowe was number one in my last list and he is outstanding again here as John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician whose brilliant intellect is unfortunately coupled with rather fragile mental health. Beginning with Nash enrolling at Princeton as an implausibly old-looking student and following his life and career, this is more than a simple biopic. Ron Howard manages to craft an engaging and exciting drama to go alongside excellent examinations of the characters and mental illness in general, as John’s grip on reality becomes less and less firm. There is a sense of genuine care and affection for the material throughout and the cast, including excellent performances from Ed Harris and Paul Bettany, keep the film grounded and engaging. Crowe is absolutely outstanding though and his keenly observed depiction of John Nash, who he met during filming, is consistently wonderful. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that the film was shot sequentially, so Crowe could maintain a sense of steady decline and progress further and further into Nash’s mental illness.
This film speaks to something in me that I can’t quite put my finger on, with Crowe’s emotional turmoil and despair often really affecting me (something films don’t do all that much to me to be honest – I’m half dead inside when it comes to celluloid). The recurring theme of love is dealt with in an even-handed way, building to a deeply emotional ending. A thoughtful exploration of mental illness from a big Hollywood director with a big Hollywood star (who the year before was iconic as Gladiator Maximus, let’s not forget) – who’dathunkit? Yes I know that lots of unsavoury elements of Nash’s life were left out (including homosexual affairs, which were left out to avoid mistaken connections between homosexuality and schizophrenia) but this remains an outstanding film. Even Roger Ebert says so.
I didn’t get round to watching Monsters Inc until a few years ago, largely because I was at that stage where you feel too old to watch kids films and can’t appreciate them in the same way you do as an adult. What an error. The story of Mike and Sully, two monsters whose job is to scare children to generate power, and Boo – a child who wanders back into Monstropolis, where the monsters are in fact terrified of her thanks to their fear of being contaminated by a child. Pete Docter, the bizarre-looking genius who would later direct Up and write Wall-E, stepped up to directing this having written the first two Toy Story films. He got it bang on.
Visually stunning and setting new standards in animation (frames with Sulley in took around 12 hours to render due to his 2.3 million individually animated strands of hair), Monsters Inc is also brilliantly written. The most outstanding feature however is the voice talent. Unusually, John Goodman and Billy Crystal recorded together, as did Steve Buscemi and Frank Oz – see what I mean about voice talent? Crystal, as an aside, lobbied for this part after turning down a part in Toy Story, calling it the biggest regret of his career. Equally fascinating and reflective of the dedication to innovation at Pixar, the actress who played Boo was so authentically young that she would wander around rather than stand at a mic and perform her lines. Pixar simply followed her around with a microphone as she played, giving her speech a joyfully authentic feeling.
That joy and enthusiasm for childhood, evident in all Pixar’s films, saturates every frame of this. We’ve come to expect the attention to detail and cool trivia (numerous Toy Story references feature, as does Nemo two years before that film was finished. Oh and the pizza planet truck is in the shot of the trailer at the end, the same trailer from A Bug’s Life. METAOVERLOAD) but this really confirmed that outside of Toy Story, Pixar still had a genuine talent for identifying what it feels like to be a kid and to depict that in such a way that the viewer can’t help but be drawn into a world of nostalgia and happiness. I am massively excited about the sequel currently in development and yet simultaneously terrified it will be shit.
You knew this was coming. Don’t act like you didn’t. Peter Jackson’s epic saga kicked off with this and it was so outstanding, so visually lush, so joyously nerdish and cherishing of the source material, and so dramatically powerful that it seemed a certainty to clean up at the Oscars. As it was, despite thirteen nominations, LOTR won only (ONLY) four in technical categories, losing out to A Beautiful Mind for Best Picture and Best Director. That said, I prefer this film because despite its length, I feel it offers the most immersive cinematic experience since Star Wars. Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood weren’t big names beforehand but they certainly were after this, along with most of the cast. Ian McKellen is positively iconic as Gandalf and even Orlando Bloom manages to not be annoying for one of only two times in his film career (the other being Kingdom of Heaven). I’m reviewing this as if it’s the entire series because it is the basis for the two even better films that come after it and, despite being the ‘worst’ of the trilogy, was still the best film of the year.
I know a lot of people find it too long or boring or nerdy or whatever but frankly, I don’t care. This is an epic journey in the same tradition that stretches back through human history, a thoroughly British tale about fantastical worlds that is still universal (and helped boost New Zealand’s profile and economy considerably) thanks to its deeply human core. I have my reservations about The Hobbit but there is no doubting that this film is the beginning of a trilogy which sets the benchmark for epic drama. Plus, had this not been made in this way, would we have Game of Thrones on TV in a grand scale? I think not. And Game of Thrones is fucking awesome. So there.