New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: 20 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE: The 10 Best Films of 2001

Image: lifeatthemovies.com

In an annual series, Every Movie Has a Lesson is going to look back twenty years to revisit, relearn, and reexamine a year of cinema history to share favorites, lists, and experiences from the films of that year. When measuring back as far as twenty years or more, I feel like “favorites” that have stood the test of time have aged to become some level of “best.” I feel like a bunch of those populate my reflective look back at the best of 2001.


As we talked about two years ago, 1999 always gets proclaimed as one of the best years in cinema history. Personally, I think 2000 was just fine as following act. Y2K didn’t destroy our existence, but 2001 counts as a doozy of a year for a different reason. Anyone over the age of 25 remembers where they were September 11th that year. Those tragic events derailed a year of cinema and left a wake that changed viewpoints, storylines, and history forever. Still, 2001 had its stellar movies to celebrate.

As with every year, I need to offer a personal level of clarification when I build and justify lists like the one you’re going to read below for 2001. That challenge is that there can often be a distinct difference between a movie that is considered one of the “best,” respected and revered on technical and artistic levels, and something held dear as a personal and subjective “favorite.” I find myself torn between “bests” and “favorites” all the time, every year present or past, when creating any “10 Best” list as a credentialed film critic. Call it an occupational hazard.

NOTE: Poster images from IMP Awards


The 10 Best Movies of 2001

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1. Memento

2. Black Hawk Down

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

4. Ocean’s Eleven

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

6. Bridget Jones’s Diary

7. Monsters, Inc. 

8. Vanilla Sky

9. From Hell

10. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

My time as “At the Movies with Don” for The Observer student newspaper at (the now closed) Saint Joseph’s College ended with my graduation in May of 2001. I didn’t get to make a Top 10 list that year on paper. If I did it would look similar to this one twenty years later. Without a doubt, my top three would not have changed a bit.

Christopher Nolan’s Memento blew me away then and it still does now. That old Special Edition DVD where there’s an Easter egg of watching it chronological order remains a silly prized possession of mine to this day. Ridley Scott is a legendary filmmaker with a resume of greats a mile long, including Gladiator the year before 2001. That said, I think the white-knuckle Black Hawk Down is the best thing he’s ever made. I know it will be wild to some that those two movies put Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings opening chapter third, but that’s how good I think Memento and Black Hawk Down are.

After those top three, the wiggle room began when applying two decades of (so-called) maturity to my head and my heart. Ocean’s Eleven is one of the most clever movies you’ll find. It’s the kind of flick that sucks me in if it’s on TV. Much like The Fellowship of the Ring, the first Harry Potter movie is a classic and deserves that kind of placement. After that Top 5 are a pair of easy entertainers with the cheeky Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pixar’s adorable Monsters, Inc.

The final three spots in the Top 10 offer more hearty challenges. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky is polarizing and captivating at the same time. I wish Tom Cruise took more chances like that today. I think From Hell by the Hughes brothers is one of the ballsiest and best graphic novel-based movies. Not enough people talk about that one or give it credit. The tenth and final spot goes to movie that jaded me when I first saw it. Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a movie I didn’t “get” in 2001. Its intrigue has only grown for me and I’m happy to put it in the Top 10.


THE NEXT 10

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11. Enemy at the Gates

12. The Fast and the Furious

13. A Knight’s Tale

14. Someone Like You

15. Spy Game

16. Training Day

17. I Am Sam

18. A Beautiful Mind

19. The Majestic

20. Legally Blonde

As far as the next ten go, the personal favorites go deep. I love grand suspense of Enemy at the Gates with Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes even if it amplifies history into a Hollywood shootist duel. It just missed the top 10 for me. The Fast and the Furious has lost some luster for me with the excessiveness it has grown into, but that first spin is still a blast. A Knight’s Tale still holds up as a big-time crowd pleaser with a ton of heart. I think Someone Like You is one of the smarter rom-coms for its era with charm to spare.

From there, things get dramatic. I enjoy the peril and polish of Spy Game, buoyed by Robert Redford next to Brad Pitt. Denzel Washington deserved every bit of that Oscar for his ferocious performance in Training Day. I know Tropic Thunder would go on to say that you never go full retard, but I Am Sam is a tear-jerking crusher I cannot deny.

The one that has sunk the most for me since 2001 is the Best Picture-winning A Beautiful Mind. It’s a fine film and deserved its praise, but its effect has lessened for me. Next to last, I will not hide my apologist love for Jim Carrey’s The Majestic. I’ve defended it for years. I love its old-fashioned quaintness and long for those kind of sappy movies today. Legally Blonde rounds out the list because Reese Witherspoon is damn awesome.

I’m sorry. Were you looking for Mulholland Drive? Yeah, you won’t find here. Stay tuned for the “Best of the Rest” article for 2001 that will soon follow.

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