Copyright 2001 www.variety.com

[ December 28th 2001 ]

It may come as something of a surprise to learn that the UK box office revenue for the first ten months of 2001 was pounds 569million, a rise of six per cent on last year. And that's before you add in the phenomenal takings of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

A surprise because it's hard to remember a year so filled with mediocre movies. And yet even Pearl Harbor, almost universally disdained by the critics, raked in over pounds 12million, a major UK hit in anyone's book. In fact while almost all the summer blockbusters stiffed big time in the quality stakes the likes of Planet of the Apes, Tomb Raider, The Mummy Returns and Jurassic Park III all pulled in the punters to the tune of several million cash register rings each.

It was a sign that mediocrity was going to set the tone when the first new No1 at the UK box was Tom Hanks' yawn-inducing Cast Away, a film that soared to pounds 11million in a month, to be knocked off the top spot at the start of February by Mel Gibson's lame battle of the sexes comedy What Women Want. And so it went.

It is, of course, in their very nature for the big blockbusters to put special effects above character and story, but this year's bunch were more than usually devoid of brain cells. Woman with big breasts shoots a lot of things and does acrobatics seemed to be sufficient a pitch to get Tomb Raider made, while it was clear that Tim Burton had checked in his individuality at the gate when he turned up for work on his Planet of the Apes remake, sorry, re-imagining. Pearl Harbor fancied itself a Gone With The Wind for the 21st century, but the only wind in evidence was the flatulence of its script and the bizarre notion that Ben Affleck was a leading man.

Amazingly then it was a film by Dominic Sena, the man who made the dismal Gone In 60 Seconds, and starring John Travolta whose career had been reduced to a laughing stock by Battlefield Earth, which would provide the only genuinely exciting and intelligent action movie of the year in Swordfish.

A film with such an awesome explosion they showed it twice. Mind you, the fact it co-starred Australian hunk de jour Hugh Jackman, the thinking woman's Mel Gibson, might have helped considerably. Likewise, pure-bred B movie maybe, but The Fast and the Furious left its overblown, over-budget rivals choking on its exhaust fumes.

Most nearly everything that had been eagerly anticipated - Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Hannibal, Final Fantasy, Pay It Forward (an early sign of Kevin Spacey fatigue), A Knight's Tale - failed to live up to expectations to bigger or lesser extent. Yet ironically, after all the reservations over American Renee Zellweger taking the title role, Bridget Jones's Diary proved enormously enjoyable and was one of the year's biggest UK box office hit to the tune of over pounds 41million.

The Lord of the Rings aside, the only other film to actually warrant its box office takings was Shrek, the wickedly funny spoof of fairy tales and (especially) Disney that set a new benchmark for CGI animation and provided Eddie Murphy with his funniest performance in years. Other comedies - teen/rom or otherwise - generally spluttered and gagged their way through laughter-free running times.

American Pie 2, Christopher Guests's dog show spoof Best in Show (aka This Is Spinal Yap), the criminally overlooked Josie and the Pussycats (the best pop music film in years) and Broken Hearts Club proved honourable exceptions, but otherwise just cast your mind back to Dude Where's My Car, The Animal, Say It Isn't So, Scary Movie 2 (so awful it kept Glitter from being the worst film of the year), The Wedding Planner and High Heels and Low Lifes and you'll be hard pushed to edge the chuckle count into double figures. Combined!

The British Film Industry? Don't ask. It took the year off. The Martins, Very Annie-Mary, Shiner, Another Life, The Parole Officer, Peaches, The Criminal! Thank the lord for Late Night Shopping. Dizzyingly brash and consistently overflowing with imagination, Moulin Rouge waved the flag for lavish big budget flamboyance, reinvented the screen musical and served reminder just which half of the Cruise/Kidman split holds the talentcards

But, such notable wildcards aside, as ever it was the small scale American independents, the modest budgeted dramas and foreign films (at least those not busy passing of real sex as art) that provided the most rewarding viewing for those who didn't just want to see things go bang or breasts jiggling.

There was more tension in scenes of men in rooms talking in 13 Days, the film of the Cuban Missile Crisis, than a dozen action spectaculars; A.I. Artificial Intelligence got a cold critical reception but will still be provoking thought in a decade's time. Steven Soderbergh's Traffic deservedly wowed the Oscars, not least for the audacity of having its entire opening chapter in Spanish.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved that subtitles don't have to mean the commercial kiss of death, a fact re-emphasised by the likes of Amelie, Asoka, Amores Perros, A One and a Two (the best foreign movie of the year), Brotherhood of the Wolf (The Matrix meets Hound of the Baskervilles in 18th century France) and Audition.

David Mamet's State and Main served one of the sharpest satires on Hollywood and some of the year's funniest lines while both Ghost World and werewolf movie Ginger Snaps pinned adolescent alienation and hormonal confusions with unerring precision, the former providing career best performances from Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi.

It's a role of honour that also includes such golden nuggets as cult in the making Hedwig and the Angry Inch, What's Cooking, The Man Who Wasn't There, Tigerland, The Others, You Can Count On Me, George Washington, The Last Resort and Almost Famous.

I loved them all. But for me, bleak and devastating though it may have been, the film of the year, featuring Jack Nicholson's best performance in two decades, is Sean Penn's The Pledge. It's movies like this that make you realise just how potent the emotional power of cinema can be.

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