The Best Movies of 2001 that Let Us Be a Bit Quirky
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The Best Movies Of 2001: The Year That Rekindled Our Sense of Wonder

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BY September 13, 2021

2001 was a strange time for movies. One day, we were all watching movies as a country that wasn’t actively engaged in a war for the first time in a long time. And then, one morning…we were. For years to come, “post-9/11” started preceding conversations about music, tv, news, and comics. But the industry that saw this precursor the most? Film. We started watching every movie as “post-9/11” movies. But for many, movies weren’t just a way to escape. It was a community to find support in. And one film, in particular, would rekindle our sense of, let’s just say, fellowship. So, here are the best movies of 2001, in a vague order.

The 2001 Movies that Featured the Best Underestimated Beauties and Beasts

We all love underdog stories, but these two movies aren’t quite that. The characters were always capable; it’s just that no one realized how capable they were. Other characters dismissed them as cruel, dumb, oafish, lazy, or clueless, whether that’s because of the heart or the brains. At the same time, these two characters could not be more different from each other. So, here are two of the best 2001 movies that made us cheer for the misunderstood underdogs:

Legally Blonde (MGM)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: MGM)

Real men admit that they love movies made for a female-centric audience. Devil Wears Prada, LoveActually, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Clueless among them. But one of the best movies of 2001 sits close to the top of that list. Legally Blonde isn’t an underdog story, even it does feature a tiny dog. Elle Woods starts as the typical dumb blonde character, but we find out that she never really had the opportunity to stretch her intelligence. Instead, she was filling the role of “soon to be politician’s arm candy wife.”

Even she didn’t know how smart she was until she got into law school and found something that engaged her hidden genius. Don’t let the pink jackets and blonde-in-blonde highlights fool you – Elle Wood turned out to be a brilliant lawyer. So much so that she got two sequels and a Broadway musical. And considering that the setup is perfect for a twist on a law drama, how isn’t there a TV show yet? Reese, you own HBO, right? Make it happen!

Shrek (Dreamworks Animation)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: Dreamworks Animation)

From a petite blonde to a giant ogre. Shrek is another character that society is so convinced he’s one thing that even he believes it at first. But the big mean Ogre turned out to be a big softie. His quest for Princess Fiona forced him to team up with a character that would break the shell around his heart. No, not Fiona. Donkey! Donkey and Shrek is the real emotional relationship of the entire Shrek franchise. Without Donkey’s influence, Shrek would have never even tried to win over Fiona.

Shrek was also the first 3D-animated movie that Pixar didn’t make. In fact, by April 2001, there were still less than ten 3D animated movies. It was also the first film to win Best Animated Movie at the Oscars. That’s right, there wasn’t an animation category until 2001. And though Pixar would dominate the category for the next several years, Shrek set the bar so high, only a loveable Ogre could reach it.

It Would Be a Crime to Miss These Best Movies of 2001

Crime movies have had their ups and downs, but we generally get a few good ones at once. In 2001, we got two of the best crime movies. One, a twist on Film Noir, and the other, a heist movie that redefined the genre.

Mulholland Drive (Canal+)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: Canal+)

Since his first cult hit movie, Eraserhead, David Lynch’s name became synonymous with what we would one day shorten to “WTF?!” But in a good way.  Mulholland Drive is a Neo-Noir that’s decidedly more “neo” than “noir.” One of the most interesting aspects of Lynch’s movie is that there’s no male lead. We don’t have a Robert Mitchum or a Humphrey Bogart. Instead, we get a career-defining performance from Naomi Watts and an enchanting Laura Harring. It’s a wonderful trade-up from the standard hardboiled hero. It’s like we got Ingrid Bergman and Laura Bacall headlining a movie together, no – ahem – private dicks (old-timey talk for “detective”) in sight. Somehow, it only got one Oscar nomination, but Best Director is no small nomination.

Ocean’s Eleven (Warner Bros)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: Warner Bros)

From one of the best and darkest movies of 2001 to one of the best and brightest of 2001. To make up for the lack of men in Mulholland Drive, Steven Soderbergh cast twelve dudes and Julia Roberts. Kidding, of course. Ocean’s Eleven is a remarkable remake of a Frank Sinatra classic. Actually, the 1960 film was itself an adaptation of a story by legendary sci-fi writer George Clayton Johnson. Casinos in the 1960s  had security, sure, but they didn’t have “vault underground with lasers” security. The updated remake is one part Sinatra, one part Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974 original), and one part Mission: Impossible (they even hang from zip cords for a bit).

The movie also transitioned George Clooney from redeeming himself for Batman & Robin to full-blown Hollywood royalty. And it’s still one of the best heist movies ever made. However, I’d love to see how the Ocean’s crew handles the heist today, with facial recognition technology and other advancements.

2001 Was One of the Best Years For Animated Movies

For animation, 2001 was a tipping point. Toy Story 1 and 2 proved that 3D animation worked for a narrative, and then Shrek pushed the envelope even more. Even animated films that weren’t good still had importance. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a terrible movie but had amazing visuals. We also started demanding more from animated movies. If Atlantis: The Lost Empire came out in 1999 or 2000, it would have been regarded as a masterpiece that didn’t age well. Instead, it was regarded, at the time, as mediocre, but when viewers went back to it, saw that it was much better than they remembered it to be. There was just too much to compete with, including what many still consider the best animated film ever made.

Spirited Away (Studio Ghibli)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: Studio Ghibli)

Hayao Miyazaki is probably the most beloved animated movie director of all time. In fact, there aren’t really any other animated movie directors who reached the stardom and popularity of Miyazaki. While he was a household name in Japan for decades, his global status started with Spirited Away. Though Spirited Away debuted in Japan in 2001, which is why it is one of our best movies of 2001, it came to America in 2002. That almost didn’t happen. The former head of Disney animation, the now-shunned John Lasseter, convinced Disney to buy the North American rights. One best animated picture (2003 while Shrek was 2002), and Miyazaki is now an 80-year-old animation rock star. And he’s one of the last to hold onto 2D animation, so he’s also still kicking it old school. Legend.

Monsters, Inc. (Disney/Pixar)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: Pixar Studios)

Pixar had two Toy Story movies under their belt, but they only had three movies so far. A Bug’s Life was also a big success, but they went back to the Toy Story well pretty quickly. If they were going to solidify their standing as the premier 3D animation studio (and later the animation studio period), they needed a new original hit. Well, they went overtime with Monsters, Inc. John Goodman and Billy Crystal gave voice performances so lively that they made Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear seem plastic and Tom Hanks’s Woody feel…wooden. Those two eventually got a chance to master chemistry in one of the darkest movies of the early 2000s – Toy Story 3.

The animation? Amazing (still is). The story? Wonderful. Boo? Adorable. Rewatchable? Several hundred times over. In fact, though it eventually landed the not-as-good prequel Monsters University, Pixar premiered a new Disney+ series Monsters at Work, which takes place immediately after Monsters, Inc. Unfortunately, the follow-ups to the original never quite realized the same magic the way Tory Story kept finding ways to build upon the original. However, Monsters, Inc, along with Spirited Away and Shrek, aren’t just some of the best animated movies of 2001, but the best movies of all time in general.

The Best Movies of 2001 that Let Us Be a Bit Quirky

Two of the most delightful movies of 2001 gave us the best reasons to embrace our own eccentricities and peculiarities. One was a whimsical musical about a “woman of the night” dying from tuberculosis. The other was a comedy about a dysfunctional family trying to reconcile as the father is dying from stomach cancer. Sounds like some great fun, right? Let me explain…

Moulin Rouge! (20th Century Fox)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: The Studio Formerly Known as Twentieth Century Fox)

Musicals had their heyday decades ago, but every so often, a musical, on stage or film, invades the zeitgeist. One minute we’re all going about our business, and the next, everyone’s singing “Giuchie, Giuchie, ya ya dada.” That’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it? This is one of the few (maybe only, not counting Disney) times a movie musical was later adapted for the stage, instead of the other way around. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor’s tragic love story is so iconic that people remember the characters more than the actors who played them (that’s a sign of good acting).

It’s a musical that will make you smile and cry and smile again. It also launched a generation of people misattributing “Nature Boy” as a David Bowie song when Nat King Cole originally performed it. Just remember, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” And if you forget, just find a woman who was a teenager in 2001, and she probably has it tattooed somewhere on her body.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Touchstone Pictures)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: Touchstone Pictures)

When it comes to quirky comedies, nobody does it better than Wes Anderson. Though his first film, Bottle Rocket, didn’t make much money, critics loved it. It was Rushmore that proved a weird comedy could also make a bunch of money. But Royal Tenenbaums brought Anderson from obscure director to upcoming director, to Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director (well, later on for that). He didn’t win. But moving on…

Tenenbaums is a masterful comedy portraying a dysfunctional family as lovable for their dysfunctions instead of in spite of them. The ensemble is still one of the most impressive we’ve ever seen. In fact, after Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s films became known for two things: hyper symmetry and big, amazing casts. After seven Oscar nominations, he hasn’t won yet. But there is The French Dispatch coming out later this year. Maybe that will be the one!

The Best Movie of 2001 had Everything We Needed Exactly When We Needed It

A few movies define a generation: Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Gigli (I didn’t say for good reasons). But there are even fewer that change filmmaking and culture itself. Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars before it was Episode IV or A New Hope. Likewise, the best film of 2001, above all other movies, also changed everything. And as stated earlier, it brought people together at a time we needed it most.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema)

Best Movies of 2001, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Spirited Away, Monsters Inc, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (Image: New Line Cinema)

A live-action adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy couldn’t be made. In film and literature communities, that was just a fact. But then this overweight, unkempt, b-movie horror director decided that he was going to do it. Sure, he had one indie film success, Heavenly Creatures, that earned him his first Oscar nomination. However, Peter Jackson was mostly known as the dude who made schlock horror like Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive. His first commercial movie, the Michael J Fox horror comedy The Frighteners, tanked at the box office, and everyone almost immediately forgot about it. So, this was his resume before pitching a multi-film, massive production.

And someone, somehow, said, “Okay, he seems like the right guy.” Of course, on paper, he wasn’t. But the results clearly show that Jackson might have been the only person capable of directing Lord of the Rings. His method of filming multiple movies at once became a standard practice, quickly utilized later for The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean movies. And, surprising many, was how Quinten Tarantino made the hit Kill Bill duology.

Nothing in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring felt like it came from the Meet the Feebles director. The scope, the look, the tone…all of it was beautiful and magical. The cast was perfect. Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Viggo Mortenson, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee all gave iconic performances.  And the cherry top? Howard Shore’s unapologetically massive score, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since John Williams’s Star Wars movies. Oh, we had bombastic, epic scores over the years. But when those trumpets go off when the Fellowship reaches the peak of the hill between two stones? Bone-rattlingly awesome.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Revolutionized Filmmaking

And it would do it two more times. But that first film, to paraphrase Galadriel, the movie was “a light to us in a dark place, when all other lights went out.”

But the best movies of 2001, whether you agree with this clearly perfect list or if you have other favorites from that year, are the ones that kept us together as a community. The Man Who Wasn’t There, Donnie Darko, Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, Black Hawk Dawn, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone…okay, I’m not too fond of that last one, but it did bring people together to talk about something they love. Every year has its best movies, but 2001 showed that film provides the best community.

What were your favorite films that came out in 2001? Tell us below!

(Featured Image: New Line Cinema)


Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.

Legally BlondeMonsters Inc.Moulin Rouge!Mulholland DriveOcean's 11shrekSpirited AwayThe Lord of the RingsThe Royal Tenenbaums

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