Best to Worst: The Summer Blockbusters of 2001
Some retrospective snap judgments on the movies playing multiplexes 20 summers ago
Best to Worst is an ongoing series of narrowly focused, from-the-gut rankings of various film and film-adjacent subjects. It is written with a tip of the hat to music critic Alfred Soto’s great Humanizing the Vacuum blog, a gold mine of extremely specific ranked lists. I am taking requests.
I have two strong memories tied to the summer of 2001:
1) I spent much of the summer in bittersweet preparation to leave Madison, WI — my home since moving there for grad school in the fall of 1995 — for Chicago, where I still live today. (Though, twenty years later, I’m not sure I’d call myself a Chicagoan. I think you have to be born here to qualify.)
2) The summer movies sucked. It was one dud after another. After each new indignity I kept thinking, “Well, that was bad. But at least we still have Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes to look forward to.” Twist ending: That was awful too.
Looking at this list, I can’t say I have strong positive feelings for any films beyond the first few. There just wasn’t a lot to like in in most multiplexes in the summer of 2001. At the same time, at least it had an element of unpredictability. Sure, there were sequels aplenty (and films that would lead to sequels down the line) but also some attempts to try new things.
A quick qualifier: There's a handful of summer 2001 releases I have not seen.
The Animal: A film from a moment when Rob Schneider starred in wide release films. Also the first, and I think only, film to co-star a Survivor contestant.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Osmosis Jones: I thought the Farrellys were on to something for awhile there, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch this one.
Bubble Boy: Actually, I think I eventually saw much of this on cable. In light of Okja and The Sack Lunch Bunch, this looks like less of an outlier in Jake Gyllenhaal’s career than it used to.
1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
A masterpiece that looks better with every passing year. I had to sit with the ensign a bit to realize that, however. Yes, it seems sentimental and Spielberg was often accused of indulging sentiment (sometimes accurately). But it’s also the story of the last vestige of humanity, a machine, choosing to spend his last moments of consciousness spending a perfect day with the “mother” who never really loved him, or at least never loved him like she did in that moment of wish fulfillment. Spielberg would have trouble with endings in the years to come, sure, but this is one of his best.
2. Moulin Rouge!
Sometimes annoying, mostly enthralling, ultimately pretty great.
3. Jurassic Park III
A perfectly solid sequel I recall mostly for being the last movie I saw in Madison. I watched it at the now-defunct Eastgate Cinemas multiplex where I saw many films, often after having to track down a surly employee because something was wrong with the projection. One time, however, I couldn’t tear myself away to find someone to lower the house lights because I liked the movie too much. That movie: Pitch Black.
4. Legally Blonde
I thought this was fine at the time but it looks even better now. We really took our likable comedies with charismatic stars for granted, didn’t we?
5. The Fast and the Furious
I believe I wrote something in my ‘01 review of this about how thrilling it was to see real automotive stunt work after so much CGI nonsense like Gone in 60 Seconds. Twenty years later, this unexpectedly long-lived franchise headed into space.
5. Princess Diaries
See Legally Blonde above.
6. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
A mostly dull Disney film that I barely remember beyond the nice production design (in part the work of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola). It’s also the last film on this list I wouldn’t mind rewatching.
7. Ghosts of Mars
Except maybe this John Carpenter movie. It’s one of his worst, to be clear, but it’s still unmistakably a John Carpenter film. At the time, we didn’t know it was the end of something. We just took for granted we’d keep getting them. (There was one more to come, The Ward, but it feels like a postscript to the rest of his career.)
8. Pearl Harbor
Come to think of it, I’d maybe consider rewatching Pearl Harbor, too. Maybe. I gained a bit more appreciation for Michael Bay when I revisited The Rock, which at the time I thought was just an unwatchable, chaotic mess. Perhaps it’s just in comparison to Bay knock-offs (and, for that matter, later Bay) but it now plays like a very watchable chaotic mess to my eyes. Pearl Harbor, I don’t know. Bay was going for something, clearly, but I remember it as a huge headache as an action film and a barrel of clichés as a war movie. I’m not in a hurry to find out if I was right or wrong, however.
9. Rush Hour 2
10. Dr. Dolittle 2
11. American Pie 2
These were all, if I recall correctly, mostly serviceable sequels. I liked Albert Brooks as a sensitive tiger in Dr. Doolittle 2. (I think he was in that one.)
12. Planet of the Apes
This was released at the height of my appreciation for both Burton and the old Planet of the Apes films. I was the target audience for this movie, and I really didn’t care for it.
Ugh. No. Next.
14. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
In which actors from Wales, England, California, and Spain play Greeks, Italians, and Germans in a film that kind of sort of suggests that commies might be as bad as Nazis when Axis forces occupy an edenic Greek island during World War II. I have more thoughts on this movie, and you’ll be able to read them when my book Age of Cage comes out in March. (Plug. Sorry.)
15. What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
I’ve tossed around the idea of writing a piece about the many different ways Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books have been adapted over the years and might get around to it one of these days. (Maybe for The Reveal?) Otherwise, I can’t imagine revisiting this comedy starring Martin Lawrence, Danny DeVito, and John Leguizamo.
The answer to the question: “What if Ghostbusters but starring David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, and Seann William Scott and bad?”
17. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
18. Scary Movie 2
I never liked this series, which never passed up a change for a cheap joke and had little to offer beyond cheap jokes. I saw every entry, though, and I think I like this one least of all. I recall watching a scene with David Cross and Chris Elliott thinking, “I find these people funny in almost any context, but this is awful.” Fun (?) fact: Marlon Brando worked on the film in the role played by James Woods but fell ill. What might have been…
19. Summer Catch
The summer closed out with a baseball comedy released at the tail end of America’s love affair with Freddie Prinze Jr. Honestly, though, I’d probably watch this a second time for its time-capsule qualities before revisiting Evolution or some of the other films on this list.
Unrankable: Pootie Tang
I’ve seen this movie go from being a punchline to heralded as an example of director Louis CK’s brilliance, after his ascent, and then back to unmentionable (also because of its director). I remember it being baffling but kind of funny.
So much unmemorable pap, but I will *never* forget my reaction to the end of Rat Race, which relies on the audience having a very different reaction than I to the words "it's Smashmouth!!!"
SCARY MOVIE 2 is the first movie I ever walked out of! (Alas, I had to walk back in after ten or fifteen minutes because I was with family and had no way home.)