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The year in film

Hollywood's fantasy factory out of touch with today's harsh realities

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An irony of 2001 is that the events of Sept. 11 offered the harshest possible lesson in reality, just when filmmakers were proving more adept than ever at fantasy. Part of the potential of cinema is to conjure imaginary creations before our eyes, but too much fantasy can make our motion pictures seem overly divorced from the real world.

Fantasy doesn't just mean material inspired by fairy tales or myths, although three of the year's most popular and talked about films -- Shrek, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring -- were exactly that. Fantasy also manifests itself in technological advances that are always improving visual and makeup effects, making even lousy films like Planet of the Apes or The Mummy Returns feasts to the eyes.

The fantasies of 2001 weren't just escapist adventures, though. The fanciful version of Paris in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie doesn't quite match the real one, but it belongs on the same globe as the quirky, fictitious Manhattan of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.

Other films this year exist in worlds of pure cinema, referencing other movies more than people or places in the real world. Such celluloid homages include the Coen Brother's film noir meditation The Man Who Wasn't There, Steven Soderbergh's retro heist picture Ocean's Eleven and Baz Luhrmann's revisionist musical Moulin Rouge.

Also this year, David Lynch and Richard Linklater took audacious looks at the logic of dreams and their relation to consciousness in Mulholland Drive and the animated Waking Life, respectively. And then there were those films that deliberately confounded audiences' expectations of what's real and what's illusion -- with Vanilla Sky and A Beautiful Mind being two of the most recent examples.

Without the resources of Hollywood films, independent films proved more likely to turn to the real world out of necessity this year. Some of the most acclaimed and best-acted films of 2001 included In the Bedroom, Todd Field's examination of grief among Maine WASPs; Ghost World, a comic look at alienation in the midst of consumer culture; and Monster's Ball, an unlikely love story against a backdrop of Southern racism and the death penalty (due for release in Atlanta in early 2002).

While 2001 brought many genuine marvels to the movie screens, overall real-world concerns were neglected. Films as willing to address hot-button issues as last year's drug-war drama Traffic are never particularly common or popular, and two of this year's sharp satires -- Series 7's treatment of reality TV and The Tailor of Panama's consideration of third-world espionage -- went largely ignored.

Michael Mann's Muhammad Ali biopic is a notable exception, placing "The Greatest's" life in context of the religious and racial turmoil of the 1960s and '70s. And the documentary Startup.com offered an apt case study of the Internet boom and bust -- material you think would be ripe for the big screen, but has gone untouched by Hollywood.

There's nothing innately wrong with building castles in the air, and the film industry's new ones are more elaborate and convincing than ever. But when Hollywood product reaches more people worldwide than ever before, it has a greater responsibility to speak to and for a greater range of audiences. The events of Sept. 11 remind us that sometimes filmmakers should hold up to the public an actual mirror, and not an enchanted looking glass.

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