Updated on August 27 at 5:44 p.m. ET
The year 2001 was a pivotal one for Hollywood. The indie wave of the ’90s was still cresting, but an era of franchises and unending sequels and reboots was on the horizon. Some of the hits of 20 years ago (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Fast and the Furious) have footprints that extend into the present day. It’s hard to imagine other daring work (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Vanilla Sky) making as big of an impression now.
Film critics love to celebrate 1999, when American independent cinema was thriving and filmmakers like David Fincher and the Coen brothers became celebrated auteurs. I’d posit that 2001 is almost as good, while being a little heavier on the blockbuster front. Exciting new directors (though frustratingly almost always male), such as Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson, emerged into the mainstream, while established heavyweights such as John Singleton and Baz Luhrmann did career-best work that’s stood the test of time.
The year was also sprinkled with warning signs for Hollywood’s more narratively homogenous future. The biggest hits were open-ended fantasy epics destined for sequels, and animated films pitched at the broadest audience possible. (The most crucial pillar of the industry’s blockbuster obsession—superhero movies—didn’t really take off until the first Spider-Man, in 2002.) But in Hollywood, the most fertile moments always have red flags, because it’s a world that survives by driving the hottest trends into the ground.
Over the next month, I’ll discuss some of the best films of 20 years ago. We’ve broken the candidates into four broad categories: art-house films, dramas, comedies, and franchise hits. And you, Atlantic readers, will vote for one movie from each section to (hopefully) watch along with us week by week.
Week 1: Mullholland Dr.
This week’s winner is David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., which beat out Sexy Beast, Monsoon Wedding, and Amélie in the art-house category.
Mulholland Dr. began as a pilot episode for ABC, which was hoping to recapture the magic of Lynch’s prime-time hit, Twin Peaks, a decade prior. The Hollywood-set murder mystery Lynch presented to the network—the tale of an aspiring starlet (Naomi Watts) and her amnesiac friend (Laura Harring), who appears in her apartment with a strange blue key—was baffling, oblique, and oddly paced.
After ABC rejected it, Lynch reshot footage and added in the movie’s final, haunting act. The film remains his magnum opus, a perfect distillation of his most lasting fascinations: pulpy tales of women in trouble, frightening dream logic, and the wrenching pain that comes when love and artistic passion crash up against cruel reality.
Mulholland Dr. remains one of the most compelling, terrifying theater experiences of my life. While there is logic to be found in its strange, bifurcated plot, I find myself revisiting the film over and over again for its singular scenes: the introduction of “The Cowboy,” the monster looming behind the diner, the emotional labyrinth of Club Silencio. I’ve been pondering the meaning of those set pieces ever since my first viewing 20 years ago.
Week 2: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
This week’s winner is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (streaming on HBO Max and available to rent elsewhere), which beat out Ocean’s Eleven, The Fast and the Furious, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the franchise category.
I grouped these movies together as a reminder that these titles have been lingering in the cultural ether for two decades; The Fast and the Furious produced nine sequels, Ocean’s Eleven was given sequels and eventually rebooted with an all-female cast, and the worlds of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are still being mined for new material. One might not remember that Jackson’s film was a risky proposition at the time—despite the enduring fame of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book series, a three-part adaptation of Lord of the Rings was perceived as a financial folly by every major studio, before eventually finding support at the upstart company New Line Cinema.
I still think Fellowship of the Ring is the best of Jackson’s trilogy, and so much of its success rides on its incredible opening act. The film begins with an epic prologue that briskly lays out the complex history of Tolkien’s legendarium, and then switches to the pastoral beauty of Hobbiton, using its New Zealand setting to convey an innocent haven in need of protection. Jackson’s greatest challenge was to get audiences unfamiliar with the books up to speed on their massive lore, and then root them in the more personal stakes of Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood).I love the scale of Fellowship of the Ring—its battle scenes are perfectly staged, its swooping shots of Middle-earth’s rugged mountains and deep caves are awe-inspiring even on a small screen. But the film’s charming practicality attests to Jackson’s history as a purveyor of cheaper genre movies such as Dead Alive and The Frighteners. Fellowship of the Ring has a heavier reliance on makeup and smaller stunt work than the later, more CGI-laden Lord of the Rings sequels. Here, the director can convey so much fear and wonder with just a shot of black-robed men galloping down a country road. This film launched a multibillion-dollar franchise, and encouraged studios to take bigger risks on more niche properties (including comic books), but some of its best tricks are its simplest ones.
Week 3: Memento
This week’s winner is Christopher Nolan’s Memento (streaming on Hoopla and Kanopy and available to rent elsewhere), which beat out Training Day, Donnie Darko, and The Royal Tenenbaums in the drama category.
Memento is only Nolan’s second film, and not as successful as his later epics such as Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and his three Batman movies. You might be forgiven for thinking of it as one of his lesser works, a small-scale start to a behemoth career. But Memento is one of his finest efforts, a brilliant film that reveals new layers on every rewatch thanks to its puzzle-box plot structure.
It’s best known as the movie that goes backwards, but Nolan’s screenplay (based on a short story by his brother Jonathan) is actually more ingenious than that. In the film, two plotlines about the amnesiac Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) trying to find his wife’s killer run in parallel, one story spooling forward and the other in reverse, until they meet in the middle. Nolan is less interested in the murder mystery than in the way that Leonard’s condition has bound him to a helpless life in which every friendship is laden with mistrust and he’ll never know if he really achieved justice.
Pearce’s performance, and standout supporting acting from Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, helps Memento transcend its gimmick. I spent my first viewing in 2001 trying to understand the maze Nolan was guiding me through, but when I rewatch it now, I always find further depth. It makes the film more repeatedly rewarding than other twist-centric hits of the era such as The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense.
Week 4: Wet Hot American Summer
This week’s winner is David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer (available to buy on DirecTV and AppleTV+), which beat out Moulin Rouge, Shrek, and Bridget Jones’s Diary in the comedy category.
Before Old School or Anchorman or Dodgeball or any of the other super-quotable college-kid comedies of the 2000s, there was Wet Hot, an instant cult classic that flopped at the box office but became the stuff of legend thanks to its stacked cast and anarchic sensibility. Set on the last day of summer camp in 1981, the film has a fairly loose plot structure that allows for silly sketches that spoof 1980s teen comedies. But really, it’s just an opportunity for actors such as Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, and Bradley Cooper to goof off in all kinds of surreal scenarios.
Much of the film’s cast is made up of the comedy troupe The State, a staple of ’90s cable TV, but future stars like Cooper—who had never been in a movie before—and Rudd make it such a great pop-culture curio. The script, by Wain and Michael Showalter (who stars as the gangly counselor Coop), is so loaded with jokes that you could spend an entire late-night drinking session with your friends yelling them back and forth at one another. That depth of humor, and that innate rewatchability, turned Wet Hot American Summer into the kind of movie you bring to a friend’s house, a true word-of-mouth hit that also helped set the chaotic comedic tone of the decade going forward.