Often, when we recall the greatest films of all time, it is rare that modern classics are ever really considered. Instead, we turn to the older masterpieces such as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 mystery noir Vertigo, Orson Welles’ 1941 picture Citizen Kane and Fritz Lang’s 1927 superior silent film Metropolis. Though of course with modern masters, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, as well as newcomers Lynne Ramsay and Denis Villeneuve proving their worth in the contemporary field, 21st-century cinema should certainly be considered in the running.
Bringing a renewed focus on the technology of the silver screen, alongside an infatuation with our ever media-orientated world, the world of cinema in 2001 was extroverted, striking and quite extraordinary. Including the inception of goliath Hollywood blockbuster’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Dreamworks’ Shrek, the first steps into the new millennium also saw fascinating reflections on an ever-changing adolescent population, influenced by a dynamic, vibrant zeitgeist.
Seeing some of the very finest works from filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Jan Svankmajer, Peter Jackson, David Lynch and Jonathan Glazer, 2001 was a particularly outstanding year for filmmaking.
Let’s take you through the very best of the year…
The 20 best films of 2001:
20. In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001)
An actor first, and director second, Todd Field is better known for roles in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Woody Allen’s Radio Days, though his 2001 film In the Bedroom would prove to be one the year’s best.
A quietly heart-wrenching portrayal of grief, Field’s film follows a couple in New England whose college-aged son begins to date an older woman with two small children and a hostile ex-husband. The devastating crime drama would be nominated for an Academy Award in Best Picture, alongside a flurry of acting nominations including for Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. Discussing the films’ measured tense pace, director Todd Field notes: “It was either going to work or it wasn’t. But it had to work that way. Because any other way would have been wrong for this story. And I had no choice. The story dictated how the execution was going to be”.
19. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
Whether the reality of the representation may or not be true, Amélie would become the quintessential film of French cinema ever since its inception at the turn of the century, eliciting the idea of Paris as the true city of whimsical love.
The quirky French fairy tale follows Amélie (Amélie Poulain), an innocent girl living in Paris who discovers a time capsule containing the memories of a young boy’s life. Deciding to deliver it to the now grown-up recipient, she discovers pleasure in helping those around her whilst simultaneously helping her own personal situation. Highly influential, Amélie became a landmark of French cinema as one of their most successful international exports, being nominated for five Academy Awards.
18. The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
The pivotal critical and commercial success for director Guillermo del Toro came in 2001 with his dramatic horror The Devil’s Backbone, which was really more of an allegorical tale of childhood development.
Writing the first draft of the film prior to his debut Cronos, the film’s initial iteration was “very different” according to del Toro, focusing not on a child’s ghost, but a “Christ with three arms”. Elegant and genuinely creepy, The Devil’s Backbone follows a 12-year-old boy who is sent to an ominous orphanage following the death of his father in the Spanish Civil War where he becomes haunted by the ghost of another child. Backed with proper emotional weight to reinforce its horror elements, del Toro’s third film remains one of his greatest.
17. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 2001)
The ever-eclectic Coen Brothers branched out in 2001 with their black and white noir crime film The Man Who Wasn’t There, a largely underappreciated effort from the iconic duo that illustrates their dynamism and ambition for unique projects.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini, the story followed a barber who blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, only for the plan to go horribly wrong. In keeping with the Coen’s interest in botched crime stories, harking back to Fargo, and preceding Burn After Reading, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a thrilling, elegant and beautifully shot noir story that recalls Hollywood’s golden age.
16. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
Richard Linklater’s Waking Life may not be the director’s greatest foray into storytelling, though it is certainly his mightiest achievement in technical ability, creating a dreamlike, trippy animation that’s aesthetic alone makes it an outstanding film.
Entirely rotoscoped, Linklater’s Waking Life takes on an unstable life of its own as it shuffles and shakes around its imagined landscape, displaying a volatile chimaera of shapes and colours. “I think to make a realistic film about an unreality the film had to be a realistic unreality,” the director noted about his film which quite simply follows a man flowing through a dream discussing the meaning of life with various figures. Demonstrating the leap in technical ability, Waking Life is a landmark in the history of animation.
15. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
An iconic piece of early 21st-century filmmaking that well-illustrates the cultural mood and sentiment of an imminent millennial generation, Donnie Darko is an angsty coming-of-age tale fuelled by some ingenious sci-fi elements.
Setting out to write something “ambitious, personal, and nostalgic” about the 1980s, director Richard Kelly created a story following a troubled teenager who narrowly escapes a bizarre accident before being plagued by visions of a man in a large rabbit suit. Aiming to ‘push the envelope by combining science fiction with a coming-of-age tale, Kelly summarised the film’s script by calling it, “an amusing and poignant recollection of suburban America in the Reagan era”. Surprising then how pertinent its mood remains.
14. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
Throughout the 1990s French director, Michael Haneke helped to revolutionise independent cinema, bringing a new post-modern perspective on media violence in films such as Benny’s Video and Funny Games, and in 2001 created the powerful psychosexual drama, The Piano Teacher.
Based on the novel of the same name by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, Haneke’s film follows a young man who romantically pursues his masochistic piano teacher and is wildly provocative in its attitude towards such themes. Winning the Grand Prix at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the two main leads Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel winning best actress and best actor, The Piano Teacher was a monument of arthouse filmmaking upon its release.
13. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
With one of the most eclectically creative filmographies in the industry, director Terry Zwigoff is yet to make a bad film, having directed the masterful documentary Crumb, the raunchy Christmas cracker Bad Santa, as well as the sweet coming of age comedy Ghost World.
Based on the 1993-1997 comic book of the same name by Daniel Clowes, with a screenplay co-written by Clowes and Zwigoff, Ghost World follows the lives of two young best friends, Rebecca and Enid (Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch), who face a rift in their relationship after Enid vows to help an older man find love. The result is a loveable coming-of-age story that follows two tangible young characters as they cling onto their youth and sense of humour in the face of imminent adulthood.
12. Little Otik (Jan Svankmajer, 2001)
The genius of Czechoslovakian animator Jan Svankmajer cannot be overstated, bringing to life his own idiosyncratic take on the world with short masterpieces such as 1993s Food, as well as feature-length satirical deconstructions of modern life, like 2001s Little Otik.
Written, produced and directed by Svankmajer, Little Otik is the bizarre tale of a childless couple who pass off a stop-motion tree stump as their baby, though as the root grows and demands food, things get out of hand. The thrill of Svankmajer’s film is in its unique imagination and ingenious animation used to tell its eccentric tale. Alongside such classics as Alice, the original Alice in Wonderland, and Conspirators of Pleasure, Little Otik remains at the very heart of his witty filmography.
11. Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, 2001)
Swedish visionary, Roy Andersson, brought Songs from the Second Floor, the first film in his ‘living’ trilogy, to Cannes in 2000 before putting it on general release in the USA and UK in 2001.
A poetic tale of loneliness and the existential search for meaning, it is arguably the best film in the trilogy which includes, You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Inspired by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, Andersson’s film is a tableau of human existence, weaving through individuals in the city searching for communication, compassion and connection.
10. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
One of the most eclectic and eccentric stories of Wes Anderson’s filmography, The Royal Tenenbaums features an iconic collected soundtrack and formidable ensemble cast, including Bill Murray, Gene Hackman and Danny Glover.
Only Anderson’s third film, The Royal Tenenbaums follows a dysfunctional family reluctantly gathering under their old home for various different reasons. Equally funny and genuinely heartfelt, Anderson’s film is one of the sweetest and most tender in his filmography, diving deep into the darkest parts of human nature revealing both its existential horrors as well as its most innocent joys.
9. Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
The third feature film from the influential filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who would later become better known for 2006s Children of Men and 2013s Gravity, Y Tu Mamá También is a raunchy coming-of-age tale like no other that opened the door to Mexican cinematic identity.
Telling the story of two teenage boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) who take a road trip with a woman (Maribel Verdú) in her late twenties, a love triangle quickly forms, forcing the two best friends to question their relationship. Here Cuarón reimagines the classic American road movie, and attributes Mexican iconography, taking into account the geography, politics, people and culture of the country in the making of his compelling tale that elicits heart-aching nostalgia.
8. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Contextualising the struggle of LGBTQ rights within a historical text whilst simultaneously forging a unique creative path of its own, John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of his own stage musical is a classic piece of modern cinema.
The powerful musical follows Hedwig Robinson (John Cameron Mitchell), a genderqueer East German rock singer who falls in love with a younger man, the beautiful and stylish Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) only for him to steal her music. Formed by Cameron Mitchell as an exploration of his own feelings of sexuality, the writer and director creates a truly touching story that radiates love and individualism, later commenting that “Labels should be about freedom as opposed to tying people to another set of rules”, a fact that deeply resonates in popular culture.
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
Kickstarting what would become the most iconic fantasy franchise, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a template not only to how any wondrous world should be explored but also to how every blockbuster film should be produced.
The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in the trilogy, follows Frodo, a life-wary Hobbit from a charming village named the shire, who becomes embroiled in a plot to destroy the powerful ‘One Ring’ and save the land of Middle-earth in the process. Masterfully captured by Peter Jackson, the journey of Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Legolas and co. is a totally captivating one, accompanied by a stirring soundtrack and groundbreaking practical effects. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards in total, including Best Picture, it would win technical categories, Best Cinematography, Makeup and Score.
6. Amores Perros (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2001)
Launching director Alejandro G. Iñárritu into international prominence, Amores Perros, his debut film, would establish the filmmaker’s fondness for dark, dramatically authentic stories, shot with imaginative proficiency.
The tale follows a horrific car accident and three involving characters, each one dealing with loss, regret and the harsh realities of everyday life. Nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards, Amores Perros deals with Mexican crime, violence and contemporary inequality, becoming the first instalment in González Iñárritu’s “Trilogy of Death”, succeeded by 21 Grams and Babel. The director’s debut film would facilitate a bright 21st century for Iñárritu, going on to make Best Picture winner Birdman in 2014, followed by The Revenant the following year.
5. Millennium Mambo (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, 2001)
Nominated for the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival, Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Taiwanese romantic drama is a sensual, tender time capsule to an innocent time at the turn of the new millennium.
Ethereal and dreamlike, Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s film follows Vicky (Shu Qi), a beautiful young woman who recalls her romances with both Hao Hao (Chun-hao Tuan) and Jack (Jack Kao) in the nightclubs of Taipei. Not necessarily an autobiographical project, director Hsiao-Hsien Hou uncovers the anxieties of a young urban generation, he describes as “their cycle and rhythm of “birth, age, illness and death”.
4. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2001)
The remarkable feature film debut from British director Jonathan Glazer, Sexy Beast is a classic of the crime genre, featuring a captivating, reflective performance from Ray Winstone and a mesmerising portrayal of a crime lord from Ben Kingsley.
A post-modern retrospective on the genre of crime cinema, Glazer’s film is a compact thriller following a retired safecracker, Gal (Ray Winstone) called to complete ‘one last job’ from the brutal gangster Don (Ben Kingsley). For a debut feature, Glazer’s film is quite extraordinary, injected full of raging testosterone and style, producer Jeremy Thomas noted in the early days of the film, “It was very stimulating having a first time talent… The dialogue as you see in this film is exceptional. I had never read a script like it, and I thought, this has got to be made”.
3. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Perhaps the most iconic film from Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away, from legendary director Hayao Miyazaki is a fantastical fable rich with subtext about environmentalism, and the hardships of coming-of-age.
It is one of Ghibli’s most striking and visually terrifying films, following a 10-year-old girl who wanders into a world of gods, witches and spirits during her family’s move into the suburbs. Presenting broad, intricate questions that are unusual, though certainly welcome, to see in a children’s film, Miyazaki notes how the films fantastical elements relate to the real world, stating, “I like the idea that we should all treasure everything because spirits might exist there, and we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything”.
2. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
It’s not often that we’re graced with a feature film from the experimental visionary David Lynch, with Mulholland Drive being only one of two films released in the 21st century by the director, though it happens that his 2001 film is among his very best works.
Leading us into his Hollywood dreamworld, Lynch’s film follows a woman (Laura Harring) dazed and confused from a recent car accident who teams up with her friend and hopeful actress (Naomi Watts) to search for clues as to the nature of the crash. Described as “a love story in the city of dreams”, Mulholland Drive is a culmination of all of Lynch’s greatest assets, creating an absorbing, intricate mystery within the depths of Hollywood’s underbelly. Speaking of the film’s initial script, Lynch states, “One night, I sat down, the ideas came in, and it was a most beautiful experience. Everything was seen from a different angle”.
1. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, 2001)
The seventh film from iconic arthouse director Béla Tarr, following his atmospheric epic Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies is a genius piece of cinema that seems to access a new stream of consciousness and take you to another planet.
Eliciting such magical beauty thanks to its captivating soundtrack and flowing cinematography, Tarr’s film follows a young man who witnesses an escalation of violence in his hometown following the arrival of a strange circus attraction. An allegory for post-World War II Eastern Europe, the film melancholically deconstructs the political systems, ethics and morals of a small town in existential panic. Including one of cinema’s most mesmerising opening sequences, Tarr’s film makes a case for one of the 21st century’s greatest films, let alone the 2001s.