Lone Gunmen

2001 saw the beginnings of a new type of otherworldly cinema, as much the progeny of gaming, comics, and fantasy/sci-fi series as older cinematic models like Ray Harryhausen or Star Wars, in which the elaboration of complex explorable environments takes an aesthetic front seat to all else. Lord of the Ringsand Harry Potterwere the big-ticket items in this new form, but the maligned PLANET OF THE APESand FINAL FANTASYproved far more creative and inventive and beautifully idiosyncratic in their world-building. Most critics missed the point of these films. But they seemed part of a natural, long-desired progression toward the total movie, or at least the next-gen step in that direction. —Ed Halter

Whereas any romantic comedy (or romantic relationship) depends at least a little on natural chemistry, HAPPY ACCIDENTS is more about the considerable effort required to stretch it across time and space. In fact, the word fate—the genre's convenient excuse for contrivance—is never once mentioned. Rob Nelson

Sharing more than a few traits with its diffident, passive, terminally conflicted protagonist, Jamie Thraves's THE LOW DOWN was perhaps destined to be overlooked. Here was a document of going-on-30 inertia that moved the template beyond the Gen-whatever postures of irony and anti-irony—and into an immobilizing vortex of self-consciousness. Jarvis Cocker has written songs about the same subject; on-screen this translated as a film about nothing and everything. With modest bemusement and uncanny specificity, The Low Downcaptured the queasy sensation of being reduced to a spectator of your own hazy life. Dennis Lim

It's a sign of how far we've gotten from the post-punk anarchism of Repo Manthat people didn't get BUBBLE BOY's satire on social prophylaxis. Director Blair Hayes's derisive energy and left-field humor seemed more pertinent than the sour middle-American put-downs in Hedwig and the Angry Inchor Waking Life's Philosophy 101 lectures. Coming from the same wild-card division of Disney that sponsors Wes Anderson, Hayes seems a pure comic spirit, with no agenda other than spotlighting the eccentricities in our culture and enjoying them. His impudence also got poetic: Jimmy, in his bubble suit, bounces across the desert with a vulture flapping in pursuit—an image as timeless as Chaplin's entrance followed by a bear in The Gold Rush. When making new friends at a rock concert, Jimmy's held aloft—like a beach ball. There's no happier image of camaraderie. —Armond White

Bahman Farmanara's SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINEhas the overstuffed quality of a movie made after decades of being shut out from filmmaking opportunities in Iran. Staging his own life as a mixed-genre circus in a manner superficially recalling 8 1/2 or Stardust Memories, Farmanara has created a kind of open-ended film notebook that can switch easily from the driest humor to the most painful unease, and that in the process takes us within the internal exile of an Iranian intellectual and artistic elite rarely depicted by Farmanara's colleagues. —Geoffrey O'Brien

TRAINING DAY, a quasi-Shakespearean monster movie ("King Kong! Ain't got nothin'! On me!") that contains Denzel Washington's best and trickiest performance, is also a clever subversion of the Matrixracial paradigm, in which the cool black guy with awesome shades and awesome drugs serves as hipster spirit-guide to the white acolyte and the audience. —Andrew O'Hehir

Unfairly maligned as the Rock's debut vehicle, THE MUMMY RETURNS is in fact a model of generous entertainment—an exemplar of CGI-fortified filmmaking that trumps any Indiana Jones sequel. Antic with asps and ammunition, crammed with battle scenes of marvelous density, the movie maintains a handmade Saturday-serial charm, thanks to writer-director Stephen Sommers's playful Egyptology and a cast that's always on the same page, led by Brendan Fraser's ironic meathead. —Ed Park

It is daunting to defend a low-tech heavy-metal zombie alien action thriller set on Mars, toplined by the actress best known for being naked throughout Speciesand a rap star whose most animated demeanor could charitably be described as phlegmatic. But god, I love JOHN CARPENTER'S GHOSTS OF MARS. Its exteriors are laughably cheap miniatures, and the situation never rises above pulp; yet there is more lucid storytelling here than in almost any other Hollywood picture of the year. The structure is complex—a dreamy overlapping of flashbacks within flashbacks—and the movie posits cool political underpinnings (Mars is run as a matriarchy, and the entire ghost thing is about colonialism and its consequences) without getting strident about it. Natasha Henstridge anchors the high-octane craziness with a calm intelligence so laid-back you might not notice—and most people didn't—how good she is. The dialogue is often berserk ("If we blow up the nuclear power station, what would happen? I mean, there'd be a huge explosion, right?"), but Carpenter means it, in a non-campy way. Robert Horton

Let the truth finally ring out about my beloved JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS: No one was getting had here, except those who sourly convinced themselves out of rock-and-roll fun. Outrageously bold product placements, so troubling to self-appointed protectors of innocent consumer-viewers—including a Target-logoed private jet and, unforgettably, a golden-arched shower stall courtesy of McDonald's—actually accumulated into a savage indictment of the commodification of passion and punk alike. —Joshua Rothkopf

"MILKY WAY" (THE VOLKSWAGEN COMMERCIAL WITH THE NICK DRAKE SONG) That's not a movie, it's a commercial, blah blah blah. Desecration of Nick Drake's grave, blah blah blah. In a year where many of the hypercoolest directors made car ads, mostly for BMW, it seems reasonable to include such work in the cinema scope. I think whoever sold the rights to the song is an asshole. And I have no interest in being a corporate apologist—don't buy Volkswagens, they suck anyway. But in the meantime, this is a brilliant minuscule flick: from the majestic opening shot (tracking vertically along a nighttime river, all abstracted glimmers in the dark, until the flying camera intersects a car crossing a bridge and suddenly the story turns left along the horizontal), to the German-expressionist way all the riders' faces are lit, to the astounding compression of the narrative (which is, in the end, what commercials are best at; they're like labs where theories of narratology get tested and refined). Most of us, we never got invited to those cool parties in the woods; to drive away without ever walking in seems like self-involved apathy. But it also requires a kind of insight about where the action is, a knowledge no kids that age ever had. It is a story about prodigal, melancholy, and finally impossible knowledge—a romantic fantasy of wisdom, compressed into a minimal, expressionistic space. Which, magic of magics, is exactly what Nick Drake and "Pink Moon" have going for them. What's staggering about this movie isn't how poorly matched the crass commercial and the holy song are, but how perfectly. —Jane Dark

As with 1988's The Vanishing, evil in WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY remains fundamentally inscrutable. (Nor do we ever know if its writer-hero has any genuine talent worth nurturing.) Instead of the same tired psychological answers in our serial killer and slasher flicks, there aren't any pat explanations for deviancy. Harry expertly binds its antagonists, and audience, with ambiguous guilt and complicity. We morbidly root for Harry, curious to see if his murderous, can-do spirit of problem-solving will work according to plan. The self-satisfied little smirk the writer finally wears in his new luxury SUV is the perfect note of punctuation to a film that remains, in the very best sense, a mystery. Brian Miller

A formal exercise as displaced and astute as its protagonist (a yakuza exiled to L.A.), Takeshi Kitano's BROTHERwears its lousiness with pride. It's totally negative, and it has no justification, unless a glance at Peckinpah at his most dire justifies something. This is genre cinema at its most wan and bitter, with a complete contempt for America, and as mirthless a parody of the "buddy movie" (lowest of film genres?) as Clint Eastwood's The Rookie(10th best film of 1990). And yet it's sad. —Chris Fujiwara

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