Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
dir. Peter Jackson
Now playing

The Royal Tenenbaums
dir. Wes Anderson
Opens Fri Dec 28

A lot of movies came out this year. But it's difficult to imagine that 2001 was ever leading up to anything but the only two real event movies of the season: Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring. Although the hype jets may have been more steadily fixed elsewhere, the follow-up to Rushmore and the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy masterwork are far more central to the collective cinematic nervous system.

It's true that, on the face of it, you couldn't ask for two more disparate forms of storytelling than Jackson's epic megalodrama and Anderson's dainty modernism. But underneath the coats of genre and stylization, the motors that drive these films are essentially the same: They're both fantasies striving to portray a world that already exists, however arcanely, in the collective imagination--two worlds begging to be given form.

The iconography of The Royal Tenenbaums is equal-parts synthesis and invention, a kind of Upper West Side of the mind in which J.D. Salinger, Orson Welles, and The Rolling Stones each take their place in an imaginary landscape full of rusty cabs, block-print hardcover book jackets, and the lost art of falconry.

The Tenenbaums themselves are a distillation of the ways in which outsiders view the lives of the privileged, a potent combination of envy and contempt, effortlessness and incompetence. Their patriarch, Royal (played with masterful insouciance by Gene Hackman), is a curmudgeon for the ages, blind to his own selfishness. But he's also, crucially, an outsider, having left the nest many years ago to pursue a life of hedonism. The film turns on his cockeyed desire to re-ignite the hearth, and to recapture a union that only ever existed in the eyes of people pressed against the glass, looking in. The famous family--three genius kids in varying stages of neurotic collapse (Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow) and a wife he never divorced (Anjelica Huston)--aren't quite as eager to forget the past, or forego the resentments that have made them what they are. Rather than let Royal back inside, they cling to the thwarted honor of their neuroses. In their world, the only currency is belonging, and the only power lies in withholding.

Because its source novel was written, The Fellowship of the Ring has a lot more imagination to surmount than Tenenbaums, which invents an imagination for us. Any film that tries to put faces and places to names like Bilbo and Frodo, Gandalf and Elrond, or Sauron and Mordor, begins with the challenge of not violating the preconceived images of the reader. Director Peter Jackson's adaptation is stunning not because it tries to duplicate the novel in three dimensions, but because it resounds as an evocation of it, hairy feet and all. Within that, however, Jackson imbues his Middle Earth with a kind of realism, a working model of the place with principles and consequences (Gandalf bumps his head on the Hobbit hole ceiling, for example) that allow the characters to follow their perilous quest with credibility.

Living up to the legend of Lord of the Rings requires more than CGI orcs and a faithful translation of Elvish, however. Letting the adventure unfold--hobbits on the run from the riders, Gandalf's confrontation with Saruman, the impossible battle in Moria's mines--is only part of the task (one Jackson pulls off heroically). Truly capturing the spirit of the trilogy demands a sacrifice few epic films are allowed to make: no resolution. Fellowship ends in anticlimax, leaving the viewer to decide whether the quest is worth continuing. Without the anti-climactic ending, it's just another pseudo-Odyssey, replete with monsters and morals. But by refusing to force a catharsis, by letting the Hobbits waddle off into the ether alone and vulnerable, Jackson pays respect to the legend even as he creates it, allowing the imaginary world to live and breathe for us when the film is over. Which is all we're asking for, really.