Last year I ran a couple of features on movies and albums that were ready to be designated as “classic”. They were meant to be a fun look back on previous years and which pop culture artifacts from them will be remembered down the line. I had plenty of trouble determining which ones should be considered classic and how to categorize them. After all, what does “classic” even mean?
I settled on something approximating art’s ability to last beyond its time. If a movie or album is truly classic, it’s remembered. It might not be remembered for its quality, per se, but even a movie of average quality can resonate with the culture. This is why a movie like Bring It On made it on last year’s list.
I think I included too many movies and albums last year. It was hard to leave things out. But if I look back on the lists for each year (1995 for albums, 2000 for movies), it’s clear to me some don’t belong. Pollock isn’t really a classic movie, regardless of how good Ed Harris is in the lead role. And Exit Planet Dust isn’t a classic album, no matter how well-respected the Chemical Brothers are now.
Last year’s posts were too long, and there were too many categories. This year, for 2001’s movies, I’m splitting the feature into two posts: one today for straight up classics, and one next week for the movies that have become cult classics. In next week’s post, I’ll also include my personal favorites that were left off both lists.
The Classic Movies
Why it’s a classic: France’s Amélie is one of the most beloved foreign-language movies to ever be released in the States. Monetarily, it’s the 6th-most, behind only the likes of Crouching Tiger, Life Is Beautiful, and Pan’s Labyrinth. It was well-reviewed at the time, though the general population enjoyed it more than critics did. And it was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film, which it ended up losing to Bosnia’s No Man’s Land (which I’ll cover in next week’s post).
My take: I like Amélie fine enough, but its joy, which is supposed to be infectious, didn’t infect me. There’s a lot happening onscreen, but not much going on behind it.
Why it’s a classic: A Beautiful Mind won the 2002 Best Picture Oscar and was the highest-grossing non-franchise, non-Michael-Bay movie of the year. Critics widely praised it, though mostly for Crowe’s lead performance as the mathematician, John Nash. Coupled with Gladiator the year before, it’s remembered as perhaps the peak of Russell Crowe’s illustrious career (and the peak of Jennifer Connelly’s sadly less illustrious career, though she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Nash’s wife, Alicia).
My take: The best thing in A Beautiful Mind is Crowe’s performance, though that shouldn’t be a discredit to the movie around it. Crowe gives one of my favorite movie performances, so it’s no small thing that he’s the best thing in the movie- it’s a great movie.
Why it’s a classic: Gosford Park has been somewhat forgotten in the popular estimation, but it will live on as a classic due to its extremely strong critical support and the fact that it was a movie made by the great, ensemble-loving Robert Altman. Sort of a take on the classic “Upstairs/Downstairs” model, its all-star cast (including Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Helen Mirren) took the movie to 7 Oscar nominations, including Picture, Director, and a win for Original Screenplay (by Julian Fellowes, incidentally, the creator of Downton Abbey).
My take: I enjoyed Gosford Park, but not nearly as much as the critics seemed to. Especially when considered next to Altman’s ‘70s classics, Gosford Park seems more like a curiosity rather than one of his greats.
Why it’s a classic: In the Mood for Love barely made a dent in the box office, either domestic or worldwide, and yet it is widely praised as the best movie made by its director, Wong Kar-Wai. He is among the most respected filmmakers in his native China, and this little movie about unfulfilled love between two people whose spouses cheated on them is a big reason why.
My take: Its story is as insular as this year’s Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom, but its beautiful cinematography lends the movie a far more epic romance befitting a classic. I only saw it once a few years ago, but the memory of the way the camera moves across the interactions between the characters has lingered.
Why it’s a classic: Lagaan was a huge hit in its native India, and while the movie did not achieve big box office success here in the States, it is the one movie out of Bollywood that seems to have resonated in America over time. At the time, critics gushed over the movie’s lush visuals and well-told narrative about an Indian village challenged to a cricket game by the English officers in charge of their town as a means to avoid paying an exorbitant tax. Lagaan was expected to act as a gateway to America for Bollywood, and while that hasn’t exactly panned out, the movie itself has lasted.
My take: Sports-movie clichés abound in Lagaan’s screenplay, but they seem to spring up naturally and joyfully rather than out of contrivance. You can try to resist the swell of emotion that comes along with such a stirring underdog narrative, but I won’t.
Why it’s a classic: Legally Blonde was not a hit with critics, but who cares? It was a huge hit, and unlike many similarly successful comedies that come and go, this one made its lead actress into a star. Reese Witherspoon had achieved mild celebrity with Cruel Intentions and Election, but Legally Blonde rocketed her into full-fledged stardom. For that alone, Legally Blonde deserves classic status.
My take: Witherspoon is superbly funny, and while the rest of the movie around her isn’t perfect, it’s clever enough. Without a star as magnanimous with her gifts as Witherspoon, the movie might be cloying, but with her it’s an invigorating piece of comedy.
Why it’s a classic: The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring shouldn’t have worked. Fantasy movies had rarely been big box office or critical successes, and Peter Jackson’s biggest credit previously had been the 1996 horror comedy The Frighteners, which grossed $16 million. Yet Fellowship debuted to critical raves, ended up being 2001’s 2nd-highest grosser only behind the first Harry Potter movie, and was nominated for 13 Oscars, including Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.
My take: Fellowship is my favorite of the trilogy, which means it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a classic, and it’s mind-blowing that it’s been in my life for 15 years now.
Why it’s a classic: Memento gets a lot of attention today as a cult classic, but it’s hard to classify it that way considering how critically acclaimed it was and that it was very successful at the art house box office. Also, it was nominated for 2 Oscars, 1 for Best Adapted Screenplay, 1 for Film Editing. Sorry, you don’t get “cult” status if you were nominated for Oscars.
My take: Christopher Nolan’s movies are puzzles boxes in which he reveals bit by bit what’s at the heart of the story he’s telling. This movie is where that attribute of his really solidified, and it lives up to its reputation.
Why it’s a classic: Monsters, Inc. was the 4th in a long line of great Pixar movies. That alone qualifies it for this list, but Monsters was also a monster hit with audiences and critics. Pixar held it in high enough esteem to give it a sequel 12 years late, an honor that the studio had previously only bestowed on its crown jewel, Toy Story.
My take: How do you compare the Pixar movies to each other? Pixar has achieved quality so many times for such a long time, it’s easy to forget that Monsters, Inc. had one of the most original ideas in the company’s history and that they pulled it off so impressively.
Why it’s a classic: Moulin Rouge! was my go-to movie as a teenager to lend weight to my adolescent heartache. Because of this, I assumed that the movie was probably critically derided and only sort of a niche hit. You can imagine my surprise when I found that it was actually nominated for 8 Oscars, including Picture, Actress, and Cinematography. Turns out it resonated with more than just high school theater geeks.
My take: I appreciate it now even more than I did then, even as I relate to it less and less. The love story between Satine and Christian is over the top, for sure, but it’s meant to be, and the artfulness of all the over-the-topness grows more apparent to me with every viewing.
Why it’s a classic: Mulholland Drive is a David Lynch movie, which generally means that critics gush over it and audiences ignore it. And that was pretty much the case with Mulholland; critics did gush over it, and it barely made a dent in the box office. But Lynch somehow got a Best Director nomination from the Academy for this, and over time movie lovers have gradually come to include it in conversations about his best movies.
My take: I’ve only seen it once, which probably isn’t the best experience level with this movie to make a sure judgment about it. But I was underwhelmed by the overall effect of Mulholland, though I appreciated individual scenes and its dreamlike atmosphere.
Why it’s a classic: Ocean’s Eleven was a star-studded affair that very easily could have been insufferable but for its director, Steven Soderbergh. A Top 10 finish for 2001 at the box office wasn’t surprising, and neither was the enthusiastic response from critics, seeing as Soderbergh had built good will the year before with both Traffic and Erin Brockovich, though Ocean’s didn’t enjoy those two’s Oscar success. What has been surprising is how much its reputation has grown over the years from being one of Soderbergh’s trifles (albeit an expensive one) to being one of his very best films.
My take: I love this movie more every time I watch it. The cast is reliably great, but Soderbergh’s touch is lighter than any of his other directorial efforts, and Ocean’s is far better for it.
Why it’s a classic: The Royal Tenenbaums received moderate praise from both audiences and critics. It’s actually far better appreciated now than it was in 2001, spoken of in the same hushed tones by Wes Anderson purists as Rushmore. So why doesn’t it get cult status? A pesky Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (which is actually the 1 nomination responsible for making Owen Wilson an Oscar nominee).
My take: Tenenbaums was my first Anderson movie, and I’ve since come to really enjoy his style. No Anderson movie can be truly bad, since he has such a fastidious directorial style, but this one didn’t resonate with me.
Why it’s a classic: Shrek, like so many other enormously popular movies, has been tainted since its release by decreasingly necessary sequels. But it was enormously popular, with both audiences and critics, and it remains a clever, oddly affecting movie, despite the sequels devolving into pop-culture-referencing garbage. It also boasts not only a Best Animated Feature win (it defeated Monsters, Inc. and, um, Jimmy Neutron) at that year’s Oscars but a nomination for Adapted Screenplay, which was no small feat for a cartoon.
My take: It’s still great. Even if it doesn’t offer the narrative satisfaction of Pixar’s best, it has memorable characters and several scenes that belong among animation history’s most classic.
Why it’s a classic: Training Day, on the surface, would appear not to belong on this list. It was financially successful, especially for a non-blockbuster crime drama, but not overly so, and critics certainly didn’t champion it. But Denzel Washington’s performance is such a tour-de-force- a term that I hate, because it is so overused in movie reviews, but there’s no other word for what Denzel does in this movie- that the movie as a whole has thrived in retrospective reputation.
My take: Its reputation is probably about right: average movie surrounding a titanic performance. Ethan Hawke was nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar as the good cop to Denzel’s bad, but Denzel’s Oscar-winning turn is literally the only reason to see the movie.
That’s it for 2001’s classic movies. Check back in a week for 2001’s cult classics.