2001
TOP TEN
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MOVIES

Well, as any right thinking person can tell you, 2001 bit the proverbial big one as ruthless studio terrorists continued to poison our multiplexes with deadly crap as part of their fiendish plan to destroy our great nation, one crappy Nicolas Cage movie at a time.

And so it is your patriotic duty as Americans to immediately go watch all of the following movies on my top ten list (and passionately hunt down and ignore the traitors in my "year's worst" category)!

Good luck, and God bless.

1.  The Royal Tennenbaums:
It only took 52 weeks, but 2001 finally yielded a movie I flat-out loved.  By turns wistful, cynical, romantic, suicidally gloomy and insanely optimistic, The Royal Tennenbaums (about a burned-out family of geniuses in a dream-world New York) is everything I could possibly ask for in a movie:  career-topping performances from everyone involved, whip-smart writing, gorgeous visuals, fearlessly eccentric style and Gwyneth Paltrow French-kissing a naked chick.  Rapture!  (And don't even get me started on the painting in Owen Wilson's apartment...that one prop all by itself made me laugh harder than 90% of the comedies I saw this year.)

2.  GHOST WORLD

While The Royal Tennenbaums is an ecstatic vision of life as I'd like it to be, Ghost World is a dead-on portrayal of life as I know it.  Recent high school grads Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson slouch through a dystopic Los Angeles, floating on attitude to keep from drowning in a world of suck...add cranky Steve Buscemi and you've got a near-perfect black comedy about alienation and the slow death of individualism in America.

3. KARAOKE FEVER

Yes, I know, a feature-length documentary about karaoke in Southern California sounds about as appealing as...well, Duets.  But trust me, the characters and melodrama are just as heart-tugging and hilarious (and the cut-throat competition just as ruthless and gripping) as a full season of your favorite reality show.  (Me, I was rooting for Ariana, the hottest sword-wielding, opera-trained Goth chick in the world.)

4.  MULHOLLAND DRIVE

David Lynch's phantasmagoria would have had a much greater impact on me in theaters if I hadn't previously seen a videotape of the shelved ABC pilot that inspired it.  Not that it wasn't great the second time around...the new material turned a fascinating dream-noir mystery into a deliciously bitter slap at Hollywood...but I couldn't stop thinking about all those lost hours of brilliance Lynch would have provided if thick-skulled t.v. execs hadn't strangled his project in the crib (a scarier, gloomier reality than anything in the film's nightmare world).

5.  HANNIBAL

I'm always willing to champion an entertaining mainstream film on my year-end list...especially one this completely, unapologetically twisted.  From Gary Oldman's hideous make-up to Ray Liotta's brain-sack, Hannibal was a friggin' hoot from start to finish, with a resolution to its Beauty and the Beast love story as moving as any fairy tale.

6.  WAKING LIFE

I didn't expect Waking Life to end up on my top ten...it was fairly uneven, with a lot of pretentious speechifyin' and not enough humor...but it's haunted me ever since, in ways I can't fully explain.  A series of random conversations about the meaning of life and death (and all the dreams in between), the animation is captivating and the voices seep into your brain like those mysterious adult conversations you overheard from your bedroom when your parents thought you were sleeping.

7.  WAYDOWNTOWN

A neatly self-contained film about office drones living and working in the corporate anthill of Calgary, a city connected by walkways and tunnels where there's no reason to ever go outside into the natural world.  Funny and surreal, WayDownTown is a clockwork gizmo of a movie about the deranging effects of sterile predictability...the kind of fresh, light-on-its-feet indie I used to see in "art house" theaters all the time before "independent" films became so dependent on Hollywood.

8.  OCEAN'S 11

In the steel-cage 2001 "caper" movie smackdown, Ocean's 11 kicks the sorry butts of Heist and The Score all over town.  In fact, it wipes the floor with just about every other big studio E-ticket ride released this year simply because Steven Soderbergh knows how to direct a movie where you can tell the characters apart, the plot makes sense, the action is exciting, the suspense is suspenseful and the jokes are funny.  Sure, it's like praising a chef for knowing how to boil water...but, sadly, Soderbergh's one of the few directors left in Hollywood who still knows (or cares) how to light a burner anymore.

9.  THE PLEDGE

I originally forgot this movie even came out in 2001...but looking at the other contenders for the Top 10 list (Shrek, say, or The Fast and the Furious, or Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings), I can only say those films were all designed as entertainments, and they all did a fine job...whereas The Pledge reached for a more complicated goal and succeeded beautifully.  The chilling story of a retired cop driven to solve the murder of a child is unsparing in a way that most "serious" Oscar-bait films can't handle:  things won't necessarily turn out alright in the end, lessons won't necessarily be learned, sacrifice won't necessarily be rewarded, etc.  And, since I knew director Sean Penn wouldn't shy away from awful things happening to good people, it achieved a level of suspense and dread unlike anything I've seen in quite a while.

10.  BRIDGET JONES' DIARY

This year, there were two really good comedies about blondes who show up at the wrong kind of party wearing bunny ears, and God knows I love Reese Witherspoon, but Bridget Jones' Diary edges out Legally Blonde by a whisker simply because it was a hair less formulaic, it was a little warmer and relatable and, quite frankly, because I'd probably stand a better chance with flawed, boozy Bridget than perky, perfect Elle Woods.  (And I'm much more likely to watch either of these breezy rom-coms again than some of their close competitors in the Honorable Mention category).

HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order)

Legally Blonde, The Fast and the Furious, Shrek, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, A Beautiful Mind, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Time and Tide, Donnie Darko, Rat Race, Wet Hot American Summer, Center of the World, The Shipping News, Startup.com, Made, Snatch, Sexy Beast, Memento

WILD CARDS:  I didn't get to see Black Hawk Down or Training Day before deciding my top-10, but it sounds like either or both could've made it into the List or the Honorable Mentions.  I didn't see Ali either, but somehow I suspect it wouldn't have had too big an impact on my secret voting ballot.

MOST UNDERRATED:  FREDDY GOT FINGERED

I'm not saying F-Got-F was a good film, exactly...but it certainly didn't deserve the universal loathing it generated among critics.  I mean, I laughed a few times, I saw Rip Torn's naked ass, and it was definitely the product of some kind of vision...as opposed to something like, say, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which I wouldn't watch if you cooked me dinner first.

MOST OVERRATED:  MEMENTO

Yes, yes, I know...it was great!  I really enjoyed it!  It was smart and unique in a year of unmitigated crap...but, jeez, you'd think it was Citizen Kane the way critics go on about it.  Memento has a really great gimmick (I wish I'd thought of it!), but beyond that, honestly, it's a little light in the loafers...

...and, c'mon, the story wasn't THAT hard to follow, even backwards!  (And neither was the plot of Mulholland Drive, for that matter...apparently, American critics are just getting dumber.)

WORST MOVIE I SAW:  THE MEXICAN

Many bad movies are dull, annoying and profoundly unentertaining, but the truly heinous ones go that extra mile into the realm of the downright philsophically offensive.  I'm not exactly a P.C. kind of guy, but this was easily the most racist mainstream flick I've seen since The Phantom Menace...and that's not even the worst part.  What the hell were big shots like Julia, Brad and Tony Soprano doing in this crap?  These people make zillions of dollars!  They can make or break a project...and they chose to do THIS?  It's not even a near miss, but awful in every way.  It's like a surgeon missing your brain tumor entirely and removing your foot.

WORST MOVIE I DIDN'T SEE:  THAT DAVID ARQUETTE THING WITH THE DOG

I simply can't imagine a worse cinematic experience than sitting through Run Spot Run (or whatever the hell it was called).  Even the two-minute ads on t.v. were too much.  That old Jim Belushi movie (K-9?) was the previous low point in the unholy genre of man/dog buddy flicks...now, only Carrot Top could possibly drop the bar any lower.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:  DONNIE DARKO

A lot of movies I saw this year were disappointing because I thought they'd be good and they weren't...but I hardly knew anything about Mr. Darko when I sat down to watch his antics.  As the movie went on, I thought, "My God!  This is the best movie of the year!"  And then, suddenly, it wasn't.  All the American Beauty meets Twin Peaks narrative style and mystery ultimately led to a big wet squish of an ending, which somehow let all the air out of the story.  Still, a film very much worth checking out (especially if you go in with low expectations!).

MUCH BETTER THAN IT HAD TO BE:  RAT RACE

And speaking of low expectations, I went to Rat Race because I had a couple of hours to kill and there was absolutely nothing else I wanted to see.  The first twenty minutes or so, where the movie introduces all the Rat Racers in a Vegas casino, was deadly dull.  But then, John Cleese flashes an insane mouthful of teeth and fires a starter's pistol...and suddenly the story kicks into overdrive, working so hard to entertain me with its ridiculous sight gags and characters that I eventually gave in, laughing all the way to the end credits.  (Also, the Suits should really put Amy Smart in more movies...she's purty.)

MOST DISTURBING:  A.I.

Holy crap.

I was gonna say "Why didn't George Lucas or SOMEONE go up to Spielberg after the first screening and say, 'Uh, dude...I don't think you oughta show that last half hour to ANYONE else, ever again...in fact, I think you should burn the negative and QUICKLY get your ass to therapy," but then I realized everybody was probably just too embarrassed to do anything but say, "Oh, um....good job, Steve" and hurry quickly out of the theater.

COMEDY PHRASE OF THE YEAR:  "Candy Cane..."

BOOKS
(in no particular order)

Fear & Loathing in America (by Hunter S. Thompson) -
The private letters of the globe-trotting gonzo journalist show that it sucks to be a freelance writer in any era (and also that it's important to have a nice home base to retreat to when everything goes to shit).  Wise words indeed.

Preacher:  Alamo (by Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon and John McCrea) - The incredibly satisfying conclusion to an incredibly satisfying series of profane graphic novels.

American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand (by James Ellroy) - Thanks to Mr. Sprague for hooking me on these hard-boiled secret histories of our evil recent past.  I can't wait for the inevitable Nixon book!

The Running Mate (by Joe Klein) - An insider novel that answers the question:  Why are there so few good people in politics?

Me Talk Pretty One Day (by David Sedaris) - Anyone who's read a David Sedaris book doesn't need me to explain why he's so great.  And if you haven't read a David Sedaris book...well, what the heck are you waiting for?

Big Dreams Little Man (by Steve Lewis) An excellent work-in-progress by the esteemed Mr. Lewis.  Watch for it!

T.V.
(in no particular order)

9/11 tragedy coverage:  History unfolding before our eyes, and vapid reporters forcibly transforming into actual journalists.  Good Lord.  Switching to BBC right after the terrorist attack and seeing dozens of world leaders expressing their outrage was truly moving and inspiring - and the show biz aftermath (Letterman, Leno, the fundraiser, etc.) was pretty wild, too.

South Park:  Trey and Matt continue to be the most reliably dead-on satirists on t.v., and their bin-Laden episode was classic.

Survivor:  The Outback showed the addictive nature of the original series wasn't just a fluke...and the African edition kicks the Outback's butt all over town.  Damn you, Evil Mark Burnett!!!

Sopranos:  Another great season of Badda-Bing!

6 Feet Under:  It didn't hook me right away, but once it did I realized this is one of the best written/acted shows on television.

24:  A gimmicky show that lives up to its hype (and what a great gimmick!).  I can't wait for the "Kiefer takes a long nap" episode.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer:  The t.v. equivalent of crack - that musical episode was a pure rush of bliss (although I'm a little embarrassed to admit my addiction in polite company).

The West Wing:  My parents got me watching...and damned if it doesn't deserve all those Emmys!

Undeclared:  A great, soon-to-be-cancelled show by the creators of the great, cancelled Freaks & Geeks.

That 70s Show:  The fact that I haven't watched a single episode this season doesn't mean I wasn't totally swept up in the Eric/Donna break-up storyline last season...are they back together yet?

Emeril:  Not the sitcom, but the cooking show.  What is it about this man that I find so soothing?  The t.v. equivalent of Prozac.

Honorable mention:  Malcolm in the Middle, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Amazing Race, The Cannonball Run

THEATER
(in no particular order)

The Full Monty (NY):  Well, I may never get to see The Producers, but I can't imagine there's another musical on Broadway that's as much fun as this superior, Americanized reworking of the slight, overrated British indie hit.

The League of Gentlemen (London):  I never really got into this British comedy troupe's t.v. programme, but their live show was heee-sterical.

Shockheaded Peter (London):  If Tom Waits ever created a show for kids, it might look something like this.

Twelfth Night (on the Boston Common):  A production of one of Shakespeare's comedies that was actually funny for once!

Noises Off (RI):  A really good time, and good timing like you read about.

Chicago (London):  Good, isn't it?  Grand, isn't it?

MUSIC

As always, I'm completely out of it
music-wise this year, but...

Best Video (Tie):  Those Lady Marmalade girls were so entertaining I actually learned to love Christina Aguilera, and almost nothing this year brought me as much pure joy as Christopher Walken dancing through that Fatboy Slim video.

Songs of the Year:  Rebekah Del Rio's "Llorando (Crying)" from the Mulholland Drive soundtrack is one for the ages, as well as that weird Indian number from the beginning of Ghost World ("Jaan Pehechaan Ho" by Mohammed Rafi, apparently).  Personally, I can't stop singing that damn catchy "Whatever, Whenever" by Shakira, or "Hey Baby" by No Doubt, and my favorite new discovery of the year is "Anywhere With You" by eighties one-hit wonder Rubber Rodeo.  (Naturally, I'm too embarrassed to admit I ran out and bought the Duets soundtrack after hearing Huey and Gwyneth's irresistible rendition of "Cruising" on the radio...oops!  Did I type that aloud?)

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR (in no particular order):

MINK CAR (They Might Be Giants) - Enjoyable from start to finish, like most TMBG product, if you like that sort of thing.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (Soundtrack) - More moody goodness from Mr. Badalementi (and friends).

SPANKER MADNESS (The Asylum Street Spankers) - A whole album about substance abuse (including the new classic anthem "Beer") from Austin's bastard child of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Psychoneurotic Squeeb Band.  (And speaking of Squeebs...)

THE BOX SET (The Psychoneurotic Squeeb Band) - I think the comprehensive retrospective was actually released in 2000, but I'm givin' it props here anyway.  More talent in their little pinkies than all them boy bands and matchbox twenty put together...and twice as sexy!

O, BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (Soundtrack) and DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN (Soundtrack) - Old timey music from the movie and a live concert of music from the movie...play that fiddle, boys!

WORST ALBUM OF THE YEAR:  LIFE ON A STRING (Laurie Anderson) - Apparently, Lou Reed just sucked the life (and musicality) right out of her.
 
 

OKAY, 2002...
MORE ENTERTAINMENT, PLEASE!
 

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