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By James Arnold

Movies Offered Comfort in Hard 2001


Ocean's Eleven
Movies in 2001
The Education of Max Bickford

Ocean's Eleven

OCEAN'S ELEVEN (A-3, PG-13): Good-looking, charismatic crooks (including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon) plot to heist the $150 million take from three Las Vegas casinos owned by ruthless Andy Garcia on the night of a heavyweight title fight. Makes it hard to know who the bad guys are.

This remake of the 1960 Rat Pack yawner by A-list 21st-century talent, including current Oscar-owning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), is spectacular to look at and fun as a preposterous fantasy. Vegas has transformed itself in 40 years, visually, socially and culturally: The movie reflects real progress (from ugly to sane) in race relations and offers a lovely backlit moment when the characters admire the Bellagio's fountains dancing at night to the music of Debussy.

But mostly it looks like every other computer-trick-driven action flick. Unlike The Sopranos, which also charms us with low-lifes, Ocean's fails to move or connect with anything identifiably human.

Clooney's characters are always just out of jail (Out of Sight, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Another unpromising trend is that caper films now violate the genre rules and seem to show the crooks getting away with it. O.K. for adults.

Movies in 2001

MOVIES IN 2001 had a huge box-office year, especially in the last quarter. Terrorism and the economic slump influenced people to stay close to home and seek comfort in less expensive entertainment. In addition, there was an unusual flood of popular flicks.

Parents got a break with such family-friendly hits as Shrek, Monsters, Inc. and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Shrek was also probably the year's best-reviewed film, indicating (with Monsters and Richard Linklater's Waking Life) that a new era of quality animated features has arrived.

On the less-than-immortal side, The Princess Diaries also grossed over $108 million, which hasn't been scored by a live-action G-rated movie in a while. In addition, several big moneymakers were strictly escapist, such as the Planet of the Apes remake, Rush Hour 2, Jurassic Park III.

We can hope that the future is not mortgaged to these sequel franchises, some of which are trash-beyond-belief, like American Pie 2. But a large chunk of this profit-driven industry is headed that way, even with quality products such as Harry Potter and the adult-oriented The Lord of the Rings series.

That leaves room for special films aimed at a more selective audience, including adult Catholics, who hope that serious (or funny) movies can still be made that deal with contemporary insights into eternal human issues. There were a few superb ones early in 2001 (Traffic and You Can Count on Me), but—until the still undigested slew of Oscar hopefuls late in December—not much in the second half.

The Best: These nine (in the order in which I saw them) were the best re-viewed here since last February (and are all highly recommended for video rental): Cast Away (A-3, PG-13), Traffic (A-4, R), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (A-3, PG-13), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (A-2, PG-13), You Can Count on Me (A-4, R), Moulin Rouge (A-3, PG-13), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (A-2, PG-13), Legally Blonde (A-2, PG-13) and The Man Who Wasn't There (A-4, R).

The Sigmund Freud Traveling Trophy (for trying but not quite understanding women): What Women Want.

Best Cinematic Use of an Object: "Wilson," the volleyball humanized by the stranded hero (Cast Away) as a silent companion.

Doting Grandpa Award (for best A-2 movie not previously praised): A Knight's Tale.

A Good Year for Rotten Teenagers: Traffic, What Women Want, Life As a House.

Favorite Female Actors (not Oscar winners): Zhang Ziyi, as the quicksilvery swordswoman and problem politician's daughter (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon); Mika Boorem, as the kidnapped child who refuses to be a victim (Along Came a Spider) as well as the "special" Carol, the first love whose kiss is "the one by which all others will be judged" (Hearts in Atlantis); Reese Witherspoon, as the sorority queen who escapes to law school (Legally Blonde); Laura Linney as the steadfast churchgoing sister (You Can Count on Me) helping a loved but troubled brother.

Favorite Male Actors (not Oscar winners): Topher Grace, as the arrogantly cool, drug-addicted Seth, every parent's worst nightmare of their teenage daughter's boyfriend (Traffic); Tim Blake Nelson as the goofiest of the trio of escaped cons (O Brother, Where Art Thou?); Paul Brittany's funny and charismatic Chaucer (Knight's Tale); Jude Law, both the heroic Russian marksman (Enemy at the Gates) and the kind robot (A.I.).

God's Footprint Award (to the film with a memorable moment of grace) is not easy this year. How about the poetic justice of the KKK's burning cross falling on a villain at a key moment (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)? No? Then maybe the last sequence (A.I.) when David finds his mother. Not that either? Certainly not when the loopy lovers finally locate each other (Serendipity)? Well, in Cast Away there are those angel wings, but even better, the strong message about time—that we can't count on having all of it that we want or need.

Best Use of Music (and especially old-timey gospel songs): O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which also became a best-selling album. Also special was the folk music in Songcatcher.

Memorable Moments: The balletic swordfights in the treetops (Crouching Tiger) and the dance over the rooftops of Paris (Moulin Rouge); the sniper-vs.-sniper shootout in the rubble of Stalingrad (Enemy at the Gates); Tom Hanks extracting his own tooth (Cast Away); Vanessa Redgrave's grandmotherly telling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale about the angel and the good child who died (The Pledge); Johnny Depp (as the repentant criminal hero) recording an anguished final message from prison to his dying father (Blow); the Flesh Fair sequence (A.I.), which pretty much defines the worst human attitudes toward those considered subhuman.

The Different Drummer Award (for most dubious gimmick for attracting attention): telling the detective story backward (Memento). This is the only movie in which Polaroid snapshots get dimmer.

The Mortuary Association Prize (for best death scene): Chow Yun-Fat dies in the arms of Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger), saying (among many other things), "I have always loved you....Because of you, I will never be a lonely spirit."

Unlikeliest New Movie Sport: jousting (Knight's Tale). If you've seen one knight being knocked off his horse, you've seen them all.

Lines to Remember: "Being a woman is not as easy as it looks." (What Women Want)

"I want to believe [in God] because it's true, not because it makes people feel good...." (You Can Count on Me)

"Sorry, I don't remember you....Nothing personal." (Memory-deprived hero of Memento)

"I don't talk much, just cut hair." (The Man Who Wasn't There)

"I didn't even know the Japanese were sore at us." (An American, after the attack in Pearl Harbor, with eerie echoes in 2001)

"If Brooke Shields and Groucho Marx had a child, it would have your eyebrows." (The Princess Diaries)

Among Especially Gifted Contributors to Film Culture Who Died in 2001: producer-director Stanley Kramer (High Noon, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World); producer Howard Koch (Becket); directors of westerns Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy; directors Michael Ritchie (The Candidate) and Herbert Ross (The Turning Point); writer-actor Jason Miller (Father Karras in The Exorcist). Actors who died include Ray Walston (the devil in Damn Yankees), one-time international stars Jean Pierre Aumont and Francisco Rabal. Actors Jack Lemmon and Anthony Quinn were hall of famers. Kim Stanley, Dorothy McGuire, Jane Greer and Ann Sothern were from the Golden Age. Composer Jay Livingston (Tammy, Silver Bells, Mona Lisa) was from the days when songs were actually written for movies. Opinionated critic Pauline Kael, once famously fired from McCall's for panning The Sound of Music, was notable for her praise of Catholic directors such as Altman, Coppola and Scorsese. We'll miss cameraman John Alonzo (Sounder, Norma Rae, Chinatown), and cartoon creators Bill Hanna (Tom and Jerry) and Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace).

The Education of Max Bickford

THE EDUCATION OF MAX BICKFORD (CBS, Sundays) has the challenge of following 60 Minutes, in the spot where the long-running hit Murder, She Wrote once aired. It's just as comfortable in its way, with Richard Dreyfuss as Max, a feisty but likable professor of American culture at an elite women's college. The bright, ironic Dreyfuss tries to understand and explain life amid bright, idealistic women.

This is the first TV series for the 50ish Dreyfuss, a baby boomer who starred in many of his generation's signature movies (including Jaws and Close Encounters). The academic climate is realistic: Max is a reluctant department head and has to deal with all the trivia of administration as well as teaching and counseling. The show plunges easily into the funny and dramatic aspects of papers, committees, evaluations, neurotic profs, hero-idolizing students.

Basically, Max is an aging boomer facing common problems. He's a widower with an edgy, talented daughter who sings with a rock band and a young son he has to console. In an early episode, his son studies for bar mitzvah while Max comes to an openness that may be the beginning of faith.

Max's old flame and former student (Marcia Gay Harden) has come in from Harvard to take a chair (and some of the popularity he had coveted). Another prof, a one-time pal (Helen Shaver), has had a sex-change operation. This rather sensational plot element is treated with some wryness and raised eyebrows, but impressive dignity.

The campus locales (including Brooklyn) add a glow of beauty and authenticity. The script provides the delightful Dreyfuss plenty of good-natured lectures ("I don't know anything....I know less today than I did yesterday"), as well as self-deprecating voiceover observations from a novel he's writing. So far, a series of mostly happy surprises; for older children and adults.


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