Why 2001 was the best year in film history

All week long our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century.  Click here for a complete list of our essays.

“Mulholland Drive.” “Donnie Darko.” “Spirited Away.” “Ghost World.” “The Royal Tenenbaums.” “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” “Wet Hot American Summer.” “Pulse.” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

If you're not stunned by the sheer variety of greatness in the above list of films, you probably won't be on board with my argument for 2001 as the greatest year in movie history. And if you're puzzled by the exclusion of “A Beautiful Mind,” then you might as well stop reading now.

“A Beautiful Mind,” of course, won Best Picture at the Oscars the following year, an honor that felt undeserved at the time and positively baffles in hindsight. The Ron Howard-directed drama was an ephemeral triumph, the kind of middle-of-the-road Hollywood weeper that wins accolades for its comforting familiarity and dissipates in the public imagination not long after the red carpets of awards season are all rolled up and stored away. It is the very antithesis of what made 2001 such an enduringly great year in film.

Fittingly, several of 2001's best movies represent a triumph over the very system that birthed and subsequently allowed a trifle like “A Beautiful Mind” to flourish. It was a year that saw a number of visionaries, after being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine, rebound with wildly original and personal films: Guillermo del Toro, who followed up the commercially unsuccessful, studio-tinkered creature feature “Mimic” with the melancholy, deeply-felt wartime ghost story “The Devil's Backbone”; Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who followed up the critically-lambasted (albeit visually stunning) “Alien: Resurrection” with the fanciful, sardonic rom-com “Amelie”; and Alfonso Cuaron, who followed up the great nothing of his “Great Expectations” adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow with the narratively audacious and unexpectedly moving road trip movie “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

Even an old pro like Steven Spielberg released perhaps his most artistically daring film, the Stanley Kubrick-conceptualized “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” In the immediate wake of the noble but decidedly more traditional historical efforts “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan,” its boldness felt even more jarring; not surprising, then, that “A.I.” has arguably become the most heavily-debated title in Spielberg's directorial canon.

Additionally, 2001 saw the narrative feature debuts of several astonishing talents: Richard Kelly with “Donnie Darko,” one of the most transcendently strange and beautiful cult films released in the last 20 years; John Cameron Mitchell with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a grand, outrageous and deeply felt rock opera based on his own musical;  Terry Zwigoff with “Ghost World,” a hilarious, sharply observed and quietly moving adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic book; and Todd Field with “In the Bedroom,” an urgent, suffocatingly dark portrait of grief.

As an avowed horror fan, I would be remiss not to mention that the year also gave us a quintet of fantastic fright films from around the globe: Alejandro Amenábar's elegant, slow-burning supernatural thriller “The Others”; Del Toro's “The Devil's Backbone”; Brad Anderson's deeply disturbing asylum-set chiller “Session 9”; Lynch's “Mulholland Drive”; and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's “Kairo” (“Pulse”), which — despite being released in an era of floppy disks and dial-up internet connections — anticipated the frightening isolation of the digital age better than any other film I can think of.

Is there an overarching theme here? Millenial angst, perhaps? 9/11 hadn't happened yet, at least not when any of these films were shot. Given the diversity of the visions represented, it's hard to pin down any comprehensive thesis — let's not forget that 2001 also saw the debuts of such light-hearted classics as Disney/Pixar's “Monsters, Inc.” and David Wain and Michael Showalter's quirky, hilarious cult sensation “Wet Hot American Summer.”

At the end of the day, I keep coming back to “Mullholland Drive,” a film widely pegged as Lynch's crowning achievement that currently occupies the #28 spot on Sight & Sound's critics' poll of the greatest films of all time — a rare feat for a title released in the 21st century (the only other such film to rank in the Top 100 is Wong Kar Wai's” 2000 drama “In the Mood for Love”). That beautiful, enigmatic puzzle box of a movie is as difficult to sum up and as impossible forget as the year itself.

Other pieces in this series:

1973 by Brian Formo

1974 by Daniel Fienberg

1977 by Louis Virtel

1980 by Richard Rushfield

1982 by Alan Sepinwall

1988 by Drew McWeeny

1995 by Jane Hu

1998 by Michael Oates Palmer

1999 by Kris Tapley

2001 by Chris Eggertsen

2012 by Zara Lisbon