By all accounts, the year 2000 was one of the most dismal movie years in recent memory. Was 2001 any better?
By some measures, yes. There were more worthwhile films this year than last, and more films that were at least arguably great, and worth arguing over. For moviegoing parents and children, 2001 definitely offered more than 2000 in the way of decent family entertainment, and even modest entertainments tended to be at least as good as or better than last year’s. Most notably of all, the year’s best picture easily eclipses the best picture of 2000.
That said, 2001 was still a pretty lackluster year for film. All spring and all summer, only a tiny handful of worthwhile flicks stood out in a vast wasteland of dreck. The summer’s big special-effects extravaganza, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, was big on effects and short on absolutely everything else, including excitement, humor, charm, characterization, and narrative logic. The annual Disney animated release, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, continued the studio’s dismal slide into modest entertainment values and increasingly glaring New-Age rot. Then the end of the year came with such an onslaught of new releases that it hardly seemed possible to do them all justice. And, unfortunately, Hollywood continued to reap the rewards of its bad behavior with ever-higher box-office returns.
But there were positive signs as well. Perhaps the most
hopeful trend was the substantial improvement in family
entertainment. Last year, other than the delightful Chicken Run (and maybe
Rugrats in Paris),
This past year, by contrast, had a number of bright spots for families, most notably Spy Kids, Monsters, Inc., and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Even Cats and Dogs was better than most of last year’s family-oriented fare; and older children and their parents enjoyed the whimsical if sometimes tasteless humor of Shrek. Finally, despite the controversy, Harry Potter fans found much to enjoy in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (a movie that’s at least preferrable to the previous fall-release smash hit, The Grinch, with its joyless reinterpretation of Christmas).
Some other signs of the times:
The most interesting films of 2001 were more daring, provocative, and challenging than their counterparts from 2000. A year ago, critical top-ten lists included such films as Almost Famous, Traffic, The Cell, Gladiator, Wonder Boys, and The Contender, as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, my choice for that year’s best film.
This year, films like Moulin Rouge!, Memento, and A. I. Artificial Intelligence provoked fierce debate, some dismissing them as failures and others hailing them as masterpieces. (For the record, I was one who thought Moulin Rouge! a failure, but I’d rather see it again than, for example, last year’s well-made but conventional Traffic.) No fewer than three animated films crop on critical fave lists this year: Monsters, Inc., Shrek, and indie favorite Waking Life. Other highly praised films include A Beautiful Mind, In the Bedroom, Black Hawk Down, and, of course, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Following the precedent from 2000, the Decent Films Guide will name the year’s top films in the categories of Art, Religion, and Values (see the full reviews for ratings information, including appropriate-age guidance).
The book repeatedly voted greatest of the 20th century has become the greatest film of the 21st. This first installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy towers over the year’s releases like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf standing among a throng of hobbits.
Far from a mere sword-and-sorcery film, The Fellowship of the Ring is (like Tolkien’s original tale) a work of epic Western fairy-tale mythopoeia — the first truly successful film of that kind. The historic significance of Jackson’s achievement can scarcely be overstated. However highly anyone thinks of Memento or Moulin Rouge! or Mulholland Drive, there have been other accomplished noir puzzle movies, other lavishly overproduced musicals, other dreamlike, hard-to-classify thrillers. The Fellowship of the Ring is unprecedented. Before it lies only a dismal string of adequate to awful "fantasy" films (Legend, Willow, Dragonslayer, etc.) — that, and the sci‑fi fairy-tale world of Star Wars.
In 2000 the year’s best film (Crouching Tiger) came from the East, with roots in martial-arts mysticism and Taoism, though mitigated by a sort of gently romantic humanism and an emphasis on love over Eastern enlightenment. In 2001, the film of the year comes from the writings of a deeply committed Catholic Christian who described what he had written as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work."
It may seem paradoxical that The Fellowship of the Ring, which contains virtually no explicitly religious elements, should be the film most evocative of religious truth. But the religious significance of Tolkien’s story, though not explicit, is fundamental to its meaning; and the film’s story is fundamentally Tolkien’s story. The religious significance intended by Tolkien begins to be seen in this film, and will continue to be developed in the subsequent films.
Jackson strikes the right note from the first words of the opening voiceover, which echo the elegiac sense of loss and tragedy so characteristic of Tolkien’s work with its profound awareness of the fallenness of the world. In the One Ring, Jackson powerfully realizes Tolkien’s theme of the seductive power of evil, and in the evil creatures — the Orcs, made in mockery of the Elves; the Uruk-Hai, bred from orcs; and Gollum, a withered hobbit — we see that evil is always a distortion or perversion of good, as demons are fallen angels. In the hobbits, moreover, we see Tolkien’s theme of strength in powerlessness and smallness and humility.
Most of all, in the three central heroes, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn, we start to see dim reflections of the mystery of Christ. All three begin to undergo (or should undergo in a future film) a sort of redemptive self-sacrifice or "death" and subsequent rebirth; and together they suggest in a remote way the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. (Frodo has the priestly role, bearing a burden of evil on behalf of the whole world, walking a via dolorosa like Christ carrying his cross. Gandalf, the prophet who reveals hidden knowledge and teaches the others the way, has the most strikingly Christlike story-arc of all. And Aragorn, the crownless destined to be king, will go on in a future film to brave the Paths of the Dead offering peace to spirits in prison, anticipating in a way the harrowing of hell.)
Other religious elements, not all of which are taken from the book, can also be seen in the film. One character offers an intercessory prayer to save another. In another scene, a character who has succumbed to temptation is partially redeemed by heroic self-sacrifice — but even more by making confession to another character, who offers forgiveness and blessing in a gesture that "almost looks like a pre-Christian sign of the cross," as Joseph Pearce recently commented to columnist Terry Mattingly.
Other than The Fellowship of the Ring, it was a dismal year for religion in movies — far worse than 2000, which gave us both The Miracle Maker, a remarkable small-screen retelling of the gospel story, and Return to Me, with its an appealing context of folksy Catholic faith and culture.
In 2001, movies like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Atlantis: The Lost Empire were rife with New-Age mysticism, while the Planet of the Apes remake perpetuated the association of religion with intolerant oppression. Shrek gave us yet another contemptible clergyman presiding at a mockery of a wedding, while Ridley Scott’s Hannibal cast its anti-hero in a bizarrely Christological light. And the Fundamentalist picture house Cloud Ten continued its series of lame apocalyptic films with Apocalypse IV: Judgement.
The Lord of the Rings is such a moral work that it would easily be possible to allow The Fellowship of the Ring to sweep this third category as well as the first two. With respect to values in the broader sense, though, a more modest movie deserves acknowledgment for its romantic and even heroic view of family, marriage, and parenthood.
Spy Kids is not a movie that will crop up on many critics’ year-end lists. Although visually inventive and wittily imaginative, it’s not a standout spectacle like Harry Potter or The Fellowship of the Ring, nor an animated visual marvel like Monsters, Inc. or Shrek.
But no movie this year, family-oriented or otherwise, has a more affectionate take on marriage and family life. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino star as exotic James-Bond style rival spies who abandon their opposing loyalties and their glamorous careers in order to "embark on the most dangerous mission they have ever faced: raising a family." Their children, Carmen and Juni, can’t believe their parents ever lived such thrilling lives: "My parents can’t be spies! They’re not cool enough!" Carmen shrieks. But Spy Kids knows that parents can be a lot cooler than their kids suspect, and that keeping a family together is an adventure to match the life of any old superspy.
Carmen and Juni are the most recognizably human movie siblings in recent memory: Not wisecracking miniature adults or excessively cute moppets, they bicker and badger one another constantly, but the bond of affection beneath it all is unmistakeable.
As an additional added bonus, Spy Kids even suggests that TV shows that kids like and parents hate may be evil and out to wreck your family. Now, there’s a redeeming message for you.
While there aren’t many films this year which inspire me to hand out bonus awards, Monsters, Inc. is an outstanding exception. More than just the year’s best family film, Pixar’s latest instant classic is one of the most delightful films of the year in any genre. Consistently charming, constantly inventive, and hilariously funny, Monsters, Inc. outdoes itself in one of the most thrilling and visionary sequences in animation history: the climactic closet-door conveyor chase scene. Shrek’s hyped-up "I’m a Believer" finale seems flat and phony compared to the unforced tenderness of the last moment of Monsters, Inc. Shrek is a movie to enjoy; Monsters, Inc. is one to savor.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.