2001: A Movie Odyssey

The year showed that films can teach and thrill -- if we're given the chance to see them.


January 06, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

What book, painting or TV series was more pertinent to the world of the new millennium than the 1999 picture Three Kings? That wised-up Gulf War adventure dramatized the dire consequences of America's failure to support Iraqi dissidents and topple Saddam Hussein -- and did so with a blend of stirring heroism and stinging humor.

Although news coverage of the Robert Reid shoe-bomb case jolted many readers with revelations of the radical fundamentalist infiltration of English mosques, they came as no surprise to those who saw My Son the Fanatic, a 1997 British movie released in the United States in 1999. The story of a Pakistani cab driver whose son turns to extreme Islamic orthodoxy treated issues of misogyny and anti-Western ideology without preaching, and within a full portrait of a family in transition. But the movie played in Baltimore only at the Maryland Film Festival. It never received a proper theatrical opening.

Because of current events as much as current releases, 2001 continued to prove movies' potential for expanding viewers' awareness and consciousness.

It was generally a dismal year for new movies, but a score or more did deliver enlightenment or entertainment. The problem was finding them at a time in movie history when pictures are given a mere week or two to make their money and run. In the national press, it's become common to bewail the calamity of big studios hogging thousands of screens with disappointing blockbusters: Jurassic Park III one week, Planet of the Apes the next.

Cheating the audience

In cities like Baltimore, where art and independent films often open without any advertising, in theaters that decide on a Monday what will play the coming Friday, critical favorites don't even have the opportunity to build an audience.

(Several films on these 2001 lists, in fact, were released in and won awards for 2000. They are included here because they didn't open in Baltimore until 2001.)

A gimmick movie like Memento or a film with a chic title and showy performance like Sexy Beast may stand a chance. But what of an audacious picture like The Claim -- The Mayor of Casterbridge redone as a Western, a film that captures the bloody greed and bloody glory of the pioneers with unforgettable images like a blazing horse galloping through a mountainous expanse, and a great gazebo-like house being hauled across an ice-pack as a gift? It received extravagant coverage in national media outlets like Ebert and Roeper and the Sunday New York Times, but it was delayed repeatedly for Baltimore. Since the studio neglected to inform anyone that the picture was put off for another couple of weeks, The Sun reviewed The Claim on a day it was nowhere to be seen.

The now-defunct Shooting Gallery film series (best known for the British neo-noir Croupier) had a critical and popular success last season with The Day I Became a Woman, which treated the plight of Iranian women through powerful metaphor. But like the rest of the Shooting Gallery presentations in Baltimore, it played at a chain theater not associated with foreign films, and was barely supported with advertising.

Timing, presentation, showmanship -- all these factors can affect how a movie is perceived aesthetically. Henry Bromell's Panic took so long to move from production into theaters that some reviewers depicted it as a rip-off of The Sopranos, when it was actually conceived simultaneously with (and independent of) The Sopranos. And would it have the same impact if it received a full-tilt premiere today? Part of the wicked fun of the film was its straight-faced parody of the Greatest Generation mythology and how it threatened to emasculate the baby boomers. Now boomers feel they've found their own greatness.

A lot of the vitality of a movie year depends on films that may not have the originality or heft to make a top-10 list, but have enough juice and gumption to keep your love for movies percolating. A low-down satire of reality TV like Series 7 (with its sensational performance by Brooke Smith), a knockabout road comedy like Bandits, a sleek farce like The Closet, a cockeyed espionage caper like Tailor of Panama, an offbeat youth movie like Ghost World -- films like these can keep you connected to the surprise and visceral pleasures of movies even if their ingredients don't come together completely.

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