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2001: The Winners (And a Few Losers)

No one ever accused New York's critics of having trouble expressing their feelings. Herewith, a spirited summary of the best (and, in one case, worst) offerings of the year.

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Waking Life: Richard Linklater turned collegial musing into art.  

Movies
PETER RAINER

  • Amores Perros This powerful epic by the prodigious young Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu marks the arrival of a vibrant talent. Lurid and raw, the Mexico City of this film won't be found in travel brochures.

  • The Circle Jafar Panahi's fervid drama about oppressed women in Iran is a poetic political indictment of a repressive society -- which may explain why it's been banned in Iran.

  • The Gleaners and I Agnès Varda's documentary about a French subculture of foragers is just as much about her catch-all, intuitive approach to filmmaking -- and life.

  • Gosford Park Robert Altman's best movie in years, a period murder-mystery set at an English estate, is satisfying as a whodunit but also as a whydunit that features a dream cast that includes Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, and Alan Bates.

  • In the Bedroom Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play parents coping with the murder of their son in this nuanced and deeply moving directorial debut from Todd Field, who has a rare gift: He knows as much about life as he does about the camera.

  • Our Lady of the Assassins Barbet Schroeder's trancelike movie, in which a writer returns to his surreally violent hometown of Medellín, Colombia, in order to extinguish himself, is perhaps his best work ever.

  • Sexy Beast The finest nasty movie from England in years (and they know how to do nasty over there). The thugs in this movie really sound like thugs -- not some screenwriter's idea of how thugs sound. Ray Winstone is excellent as a retired crook baking his poundage in the Spanish sun; Ben Kingsley, as his former accomplice, is a cross between Iago and the Terminator.

  • Shrek Not just a terrific piece of computer animation but wised-up, laugh-out-loud funny, too. You may end up liking it even more than your kids do.

  • The Tailor of Panama John Boorman's adaptation of the John Le Carré political thriller is a dizzy mix of tones: a sort of slapstick Graham Greene. As the motor-mouthed, duplicitous tailor, Geoffrey Rush has never been better, which is saying something.

  • Waking Life Richard Linklater's film about a young dreamer and his linked, dream-time experiences was first shot in digital video and then "painted over" by computer artists; the result is amazingly fluid, sometimes even transcendent. Linklater has a great feeling not only for philosophical banter but also the amiable bull behind it.

Theater
JOHN SIMON

Best

  • The Credeaux Canvas About art, its practitioners, purchasers, and parasites; and about the heart, its convolutions, connivances, and convulsions. It is even inexpensive to put on. So only the total blindness and deafness of producers can explain why Keith Bunin's perceptive, witty, bittersweet play did not transfer.

  • Elaine Stritch: At Liberty Stritch is only one woman, but what she did or didn't do -- her triumphs and bloopers -- seems to cover 50 years of our theatrical history. She is by turns rib-tickling, gut-splitting, and heart-wrenching.

  • Lobby Hero Even second-best Kenneth Lonergan has all of Neil Simon's wit along with a surer sense of construction, a finer ear for how we talk now, and an unsentimental but compassionate feel for confused but endearing bumblers.

  • The Spitfire Grill Here, alas, the reviewers were at fault for not spotting, under some minor imperfections, an intimate musical whose heart and ear were very much in the right place. Simplifying the movie on which it was based, this tale about second chances and overcoming small-town prejudice would have been a genuine crowd-pleaser.

  • The Syringa Tree A one-woman show whose author-performer, Pamela Gien, managed to encapsulate a world: the grim history of apartheid as seen through the eyes of a bright little white girl growing into a brilliant young woman.

Worst
  • Chuckmeesery You can count on Charles L. Mee for pretentious, hollow, kinky leachings off Greek drama or second-childhood pornography in his pseudo-trilogy First Love, True Love, and Big Love.

  • Harold Pinter retrospective H.P. is not only a phony in himself but also the cause of phoniness in his epigones. Clever productions and good acting, imported from England, should not disguise Pinter's emptiness, mean-spiritedness, and tiresome repetitiveness.

  • The Play About the Baby There is a good Albee, but this was by Edward's worthless twin, with nothing up his sleeve except obfuscatory arrogance. It is all meaningless attitudinizing; not only were there no new clothes, there wasn't even an emperor.

  • Thou Shalt Not Zola's novel -- material unfit for a musical -- brought out the worst in everyone involved: The oppressive claustrophobia of the tale was not so much conveyed as imposed on the viewer.

  • Topdog/Underdog Two gifted actors (Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright) do not a winner make. Suzan-Lori Parks's play about two brothers and three-card monte was itself a con game.


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