.The Best Films of 2002

Cinema in 2002 counterbalanced a treacherous world.

In order to distill the essence of a year in cinema, one must first appraise the year itself. In a word, 2002 was about strife. Fortunately, on the big screen, 2002 was also a year of bravado and surprise. Squishy Robin Williams and squeaky Tom Hanks finally played heavies! A mousy Greek girl named Nia Vardalos plied her wedding wit for a megahit! Octogenarian Christopher Lee topped the bill in two global sensations! Britney Spears and Eminem didn’t embarrass themselves (much)! Denzel directed, Jack got passionate, and the standards of the animated feature, biopic, and documentary hit unprecedented highs! From the parking lot outward, things often got pretty ugly, but inside together, in the communal darkness before the Great Flickering, 2002 was a year to celebrate. Folks, we scored.

While Americans practiced their sacred “S” rituals (shopping, SUV-ing, Starbucks-ing, and shooting each other), international cinema peaked all around the globe. From just a little to the south, Mexican films showed up rough-and-ready. Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También took teen angst to a whole new level of frankness while Carlos Carrera’s controversial El Crimen del Padre Amaro — a routinely executed but thought-provoking drama — guaranteed itself omission from Catholic best-of-year lists. (Coincidenciamente, or not, both films starred Latin heartthrob Gael García Bernal). Meanwhile, Guadalajara golden boy Guillermo del Toro made his way over to Prague (aka Hollywood East) to direct Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson in Blade II, a badass superhero in a rare superior sequel.

International affairs continued under the auspices of Australian director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm), whose Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American proved a potent doubleheader. While the former was somewhat obvious — white people (Kenneth Branagh) are bad while aboriginal people (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan) are good — this true tale of three young girls’ perilous walk home across the outback is a must-see for its compassionate view of hurtful history. (“Those fucking Australians!” shouted one furious codger at my screening, perhaps assuming we were at the Crocodile Hunter movie.) Strictly as a film, American is even more impressive, a richly satisfying adaptation of Graham Greene’s tale of international meddling in Saigon. And if you craved even more stark views on US-Vietnam interaction, Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s documentary, Daughter from Danang, hit some moving notes about the aftermath of 1975’s Operation Babylift with regard to Americanized Heidi Bub (born Mai Thi Hiep) and her Vietnamese mother, Mai Thi Kim.

Here on the home front, documentaries got wild in 2002, most notably Stacy Peralta’s rip-snorting, insightful Dogtown and Z-Boys and Doug Pray’s Scratch — ironically both art-house releases about dual vanguards of pop culture. With its smartly edited blend of archive footage, interviews, and endlessly mesmerizing surf and skateboard stunts, Dogtown ensured that one would never look at American youth — or an empty pool — in the same way again. Scratch, on the other hand, made adrenalized music less a backdrop than a way of life, following turntable DJs Q-Bert, Shadow, and Swamp — as well as pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Herbie Hancock — around on their audio adventures. Two docs to push your envelope, yo.

Hollywood also made lots of movies in 2002. They do all right promoting their own, but there were some fine products worth mentioning, from Sam Raimi’s smart and long-awaited adaptation of Spider-Man to an astute directorial debut from George Clooney in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (about that Gong Show guy). Clooney — practically the king of Tinseltown at present — passed a superb year, also cajoling us to feel his heartbreak in Stephen Soderbergh’s Solaris and to bum around Cleveland in his witty, enjoyable coproduction of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Welcome to Collinwood.

Of course, as yammering into a cell phone with pants falling down and miles of thong hanging out became the new standard of feminine power, 2002 cinema made way for another wave of kick-ass chicks, featured in Blue Crush and Resident Evil (both with Michelle Rodriguez), The Powerpuff Girls Movie, and Die Another Day (featuring the chops of Oscar-fortified Halle Berry). Meanwhile, the mellower ladies took to the likes of impressive fare like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mostly Martha.

Indeed, 2002 cinema offered countless alternatives to the horrors of CNN. Certainly, there were puzzlements (why was Signs so lamebrain? Why was Chicago shot in Toronto?), but we also got our giggles (Kung Pow! Enter the Fist: “If you’ve got an ass, I’ll kick it!”) said our woeful goodbyes (Richard Harris closed out an amazing career with the new Harry Potter and the gutsy My Kingdom), and welcomed new helmers (Jacques Thelemaque with The Dogwalker, Heathers-scribe Daniel Waters with Happy Campers). We also revisited classics (Metropolis, Lawrence of Arabia) and I was even lucky enough to help host the American premiere — twenty years late — of Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible — a New York- and Down Under-based superhero musical adventure comedy guaranteed to make you feel a lot less strife and a lot more life. Which is the whole point of cinema, eh?

My Favorite Year
Critic beholds screen; sees miracles.
By Gregory Weinkauf
Now there’s an arbitrary number for a best-of list. Kinda limiting. What about eleven, twelve, and thirteen? Didn’t they matter? Completely in the interest of self-indulgently trumpeting la crème de la crème of 2002 cinema — without throwing down a laundry list — here’s my traditionally unorthodox tip-top lineup, sorted mainly into thoughtfully thematic double- (and, er, multiple-) features, wrapping with a great big capper. At the movies as in life, we’ve just completed an astonishing cycle around the sun. Dig, if you will …

10. Holy Matrimony! As people get obscenely romantically disappointed and eviscerate each other and feel all love is lost and that load of hooey, you just gotta groove to these bravura ethnic nuptial pictures. This year Monsoon Wedding and My Big Fat Greek Wedding gleefully stood on ceremony. Written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed with consummate flair by Mira Nair (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love; good one, check it out), Monsoon curries favor by exploring arranged marriage, family issues, and Texans. Greek, meanwhile, earned cineastes’ scorn by pushing itself as an “indie” film — absurd! — but if you’re not jollified by Joel Zwick’s bubbly direction of Nia Vardalos’ fantasy (soon to be a TV series), I’ve got some Windex to spray on your wounded heart.

9. The Horror! Traditional frights (bogeys) meet the fears of reality (or something remarkably close to it). In the former category, Gore Verbinski’s chilling remake of Japanese neo-spooker The Ring (adapted by Ehren Kruger) put out some primo abstract creepiness, hampered only by slight lapses into ludicrousness and David Dorfman as a Haley Joel Osment wannabe. Grounded in recent history, Paul Greengrass’ gritty, documentary-like Bloody Sunday — a reenactment of the massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972 — proves scariest of all, as thousands of English soldiers open fire and ignite the powder keg of the Troubles we can all find disturbingly familiar.

8. Froggie Follies! Those French! Talk about a cinematic nation! Yet oddly, one of their best films this year — the resignation gem I’m Going Home — was directed by Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira, and the 93-year-old’s eye for life’s vital if tiny details is up to snuff. Offering even more swank for your franc are François Ozon’s delightfully cheeky murder musical, 8 Women, Roman Coppola’s sleekly spacey CQ (part of which takes place in Italy, but that’s basically the same as France from here), and Michael Haneke’s trés sexy The Piano Teacher. Merveilleux!

7. Well, Pierce My Brosnan! Remington Steele finally gets a tidy category all to himself. I’ve heard people mocking Evelyn at the multiplex (presumably without having seen it), but Bruce Beresford’s smart direction of Brosnan’s melancholic mick (and the glowing presence of Julianna Margulies) transforms Paul Pender’s deceptively simple save-the-kids-from-the-church romp into something akin to Celtic Capra. As for Die Another Day, it’s the man’s best Bond, and Lee Tamahori makes it rock, right down to a Clash nugget serving as antidote to the stupid Madonna title song.

6. Yuk-yuk-yuck! Comedy is not pretty. Get a load of Edward Norton in a fuchsia rhino suit (his most daring work this year) singing “My Stepdad’s Not Mean (He’s Just Adjusting)” in Danny DeVito’s poison show-biz valentine Death to Smoochy, which transcends mere idiocy (thanks also to authentically obscene turns from Catherine Keener and Robin Williams). Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze up their self-reflexive ante in Adaptation with Nicolas Cage hitting the horror of wannabe-writer nebbish-hood squarely on its itchy, bald head (that moment with Meryl Streep in the elevator made me howl). Meanwhile, Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder’s ultra-dry Pumpkin is not literally about show-biz, but it is about loving someone who is retarded, which is almost the same thing.

5. Animazing! Daveigh Chase struck gold this year, staring as the voice lead in both Lilo & Stitch and the American dub of Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi). Her sweet but smart tone adds gravity to the two spectacular movies, which couldn’t be more different. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders’ Lilo is a modern classic for Disney, a fantastic tale of aliens (and Elvis) invading Hawaii, but moreover a gentle appraisal of busted-up families, cynical children, and a little girl who’ll cast nasty spells if provoked. Spirited Away, from Japanese animation auteur Hayao Miyazaki, did not enthrall me quite as much as his previous global hit, Princess Mononoke, but I must say his latest is a work of powerful magic, richer and more compelling the more one considers it. Plus I just like those murmuring green heads — they remind me of some of my friends.

4. Adult Entertainment! Oh, you know you want it. Cinema for grownups, that is. This triumvirate of tantalizing treats and tortures includes Julie Taymor’s utterly glorious Frida, George Hickenlooper’s brilliantly discomforting The Man from Elysian Fields, and Paul Schrader’s down and not-particularly-dirty Auto Focus. Sex-obsessed and/or sex-possessed, these equally astounding portraits of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek; give her the gold!), fictional but oh-so-real unemployed writer Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia), and sex-addict Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) offer some of the year’s top performances in the trickiest emotional circumstances. Miss not one of them.

3. Myth! Oh, Myth! Wherein I tug my lapel outward, revealing my official geek badge. Step back a little and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are essentially the same thing: second installments in enormously overwrought (and overmarketed) studio juggernauts filled with eye-popping effects and lightly sketched characters. Get into them, though — as most of Earth knows — and you’ve got the potential for endless wonders: big stories, archetypal energies, magic, metaphors and, most important, worlds much less nauseating than the mall where you’re watching these things.

2. Important But Not Boring! Somehow writer-director Menno Meyjes took the concept of Hitler as human being (teetering on the brink, natch) and made it work. The fabulous Noah Taylor (Vanilla Sky) plays the young Führer and John Cusack plays the eponymous Jewish art dealer who gives the disturbed painter and propagandist a shot in Max. Totally compelling. Include here also Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, the strongest shot of post-9/11 New York we’ve seen so far, and — although Barry Pepper’s tantrums come across as a joke — David Benioff’s tale of compassion and retribution gets to the heart of our nation’s pain — and hope.

You already know that Bowling for Columbine is a triumph and all that — but really, it’s one of the most stirring documentaries ever made, with big hammy Michael Moore finally growing up and compelling us to love and loathe our gun-crazy country, but above all to look at it. (I posit that things’ll return to normal if Brian “Marilyn Manson” Warner just bags his Alice Cooper recycling and just gets a job at Dick Clark’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Cafe.)

1. Ain’t That America! It’s easy to rave with the Britishisms in 24-Hour Party People or sit socially conscious before Rabbit-Proof Fence, but something from this particular continent called out in 2002, and it was literally awesome. Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt tore into the staid heart of Middle America and let us have a good long laugh (and weep) over it, and Jack Nicholson delivered — after Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining — one of the three top performances of his career.

Equally impressive this year were two native films, both beautiful, funny, harrowing, and exciting. Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), from Canada, held me totally compelled as an Inuit legend unfolded across the tundra and an indigenous cinema strode boldly forward. Sharing its zenith, Skins by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) showed us “the other American heroes” on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a humble film, simple in execution, but greatly absorbing, especially for the unforgettable presence of Graham Greene as the dispirited Mogie Yellow Lodge, fighting to hold on to any shred of his people’s heritage while parading around in his favorite Madonna T-shirt. All three of these films enthusiastically hold up to North America their scintillating mirrors. By all means, take a look.

Far from Happy
The year’s best featured plenty of Sad White Guys.
By Robert Wilonsky
In all, a far better year than any in recent memory, so much so it feels impolite and irresponsible to choose a mere ten best among the annum’s offerings. This list remained in flux till the last possible moment; five seconds ago it featured, among others, Signs, Full Frontal, Human Nature, Comedian, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and Road to Perdition, most of which were so slighted at the box office and on other year-end lists they might as well have never been released at all. Just try finding a Human Nature DVD at your local Blockbuster or Borders; one vid clerk, covered in Cheetos and juice, thought I was referring to the Michael Jackson song, not the only truly beguiling Charlie Kaufman-written film released this year.

Last year, it was easy to bog down a list with novelty picks, goofy Steven Soderbergh spectacular-spectaculars, and little-seen documentaries about corn fetishists. This list at least feels more hefty and substantive, like a compendium of work made by craftsmen and caregivers who brought to the multiplexes more heart and soul than in years past. A colleague suggests the list below is a collection of movies about (and, in Bowling for Columbine‘s case, by) unhappy people — unhappy men, actually, even in films dominated by sad women (Far from Heaven, Sunshine State) and chicks in comas (Talk to Her). It’s quite the valid point; come to think of it, this has been the Year of the Miserable White Guy, if you take into account Beck’s heartbreaking masterpiece Sea Change and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’d also insist this is a list dominated by films about real people, or at least recognizable archetypes; even Solaris, set in dizzying regions of outer space, aches with the identifiable pain of loss, guilt, and regret. That’s what the fourteen people who saw it and loved it thought, anyway; count me among their tiny, silent ranks.

For proof the major Hollywood studios have lost their way, look no further than the boxed sets Sony and Warner Bros. sent to Academy Award voters and film critics, begging them to consider their product come award time. Sony’s collection included DVDs of xXx, Stuart Little 2, Spider-Man, Panic Room, and MIIB: Men in Black 2; Warners’ contained Blood Work, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, White Oleander, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In all, a particularly dreary and expensive lot not worth the plastic it’s imprinted on. Most stunningly, Universal’s been sending out screeners of About a Boy (and, by the way, thanks!) and The Emperor’s Club, the latter a most revolting bit of Oscar stink-bait, while keeping to itself The Truth About Charlie and The Bourne Identity, two awfully fun movies that were every bit as entertaining as Steven Spielberg’s chase-film twofer of Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can. Maybe Uni figured everyone would mistake them for the same movie; even now I forget which starred Matt Damon. Both, right? No? Huh.

There’s barely the blockbuster here, and even the films on this list funded by major studios have that indie vibe: They play small and feel big, like home movies blown up for the giant screen. Let’s not pretend these lists are compiled using any professional criteria — cinematography or score or, say, attention to detail in the manufacturing of sets. (If that were the case, Gangs of New York would rank high on my best, not most-disappointing, list. Speaking of which, how the hell does the Hollywood Foreign Press justify its Cameron Diaz nod as best supporting actress for the Golden Globes? Oh, yeah — them foreigners donna speaka no English, right, which explains just about everything.) No one loves a movie simply because of its technique — well, unless you’re talking Adaptation, which is nothing but and topping crits’ lists nonetheless, a sure sign they ain’t selling Zig-Zags for cigarette tobacco in New Yawk City.

It’s about the people, people; you gotta care just a little if you’re going to like a lot, which is why I can’t go for no CG Gollums or pre-pub wizards when there are plenty of frustrated-disenchanted-brokenhearted folks from which to choose this year. Yes, yes, whatever — Two Towers is a remarkable bit of filmmaking, majestic and sweeping and blahblahblah. But give me humans over hobbits any three hours of the day. And take this list for what it is: the beginning of a discussion, hardly the end of one.

1. 25th Hour. Or, a tale of one city: Small-time Manhattan drug-dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) spends his final day of freedom making peace with his pops (Brian Cox), his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), and his old pals from high school (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper). But Spike Lee, at his most restrained and reflective, finds in David Benioff’s screenplay — based on the author’s 2001 novel — more than just the story of a guy about to do time for the crime; he uses it to tell the story of New York City in the ashen days after September 11 by pointing the camera at hastily erected FDNY memorials and Ground Zero itself, seen during a prolonged and painful scene that takes place in an apartment overlooking what used to be the World Trade Center. The Last Temptation of Christ-like ending is wrenching, but no more than the moments when Monty realizes he had everything and watched it crumble, like the city itself.

2. Bowling for Columbine.Those who’d insist this isn’t the doc of the year don’t know or don’t care; it’s not just about gun violence but the cycle of violence itself, from poverty to pain and back again, over and over and over. Michael Moore gets in Michael Moore’s way too often, and not just because he’s a big fella, but the man gives a shit, and that’s all that counts. When he and two Columbine High survivors shame Kmart into giving up ammo sales, you cry and cheer; too bad it took a stunt to force the company, bankrupt in more ways than one, to do the right thing. And it’s quite possible Chuck Heston got Alzheimer’s because God thinks he’s a mean ol’ fuck.

3. About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson hops in the Winnebago and takes a trip to, ya know, himself; the journey’s ugly and without meaningful discoveries, only the revelation that a man doesn’t define himself at life’s end by what he did, but what he didn’t do. Nicholson, a mess of sagging flesh and overgrown ear hair, gives the performance of a lifetime by becoming so small he disappears on the big screen. And Kathy Bates gets naked, which gets her an Oscar nod and gives us the creeps.

4. Punch-Drunk Love. At long last Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios lives up to its name, and what does he get for his troubles? Bupkus, which is a friggin’ shame, since Adam Sandler’s gonna figure his audience doesn’t want to see him all sad and serious and shit and take that as permission to go ahead with that Little Nicky sequel.

5. Far from Heaven. Doug Sirk would have been proud … or mighty weirded out by the sight of Dennis Quaid making out with another man. A friend insists, by way of compliment, this is a laugh-out-loud comedy, and he’s right, of course; it’s so over-the-top it’s a bottom. Still, the loneliness is overwhelming, and Julianne Moore never, for a second, acts like she’s in on the joke.

6. Chicago. So good you’ll swear Richard Gere can sing and dance, which he can’t; so good you and your mama will love it with equal ferocity. The best musical since Cabaret, which figures since they were written by the same fellers; or, could be the best musical since All that Jazz, which figures since it’s all that Fosse, just more of it.

7. Solaris. Steven Soderbergh’s other great movie of the year, just not the one that features a Hitler who wants to “take a swim in Lake Me.” Instead, George Clooney is lost in space and still managing to hook up with a hot piece, which is what makes him a god and the rest of us idle worshippers. And, if nothing else, you and your date can argue about when he died — at the beginning of the movie or at the end. Like I spoiled anything; you’ll never see it.

8. Talk to Her. Easily the best movie Pedro Almodóvar’s ever made, if only because he’s not trying so hard to be so willfully nutso; it’s a quiet, haunting, beautiful movie about despair and longing, and it also happens to feature the most surreal rape scene ever, “set” as a silent film scene in which a tiny man walks into a giant pussy. You know, when you read that, it’s gonna sound willfully nutso.

9. Sunshine State. Easily the best movie John Sayles ever made, because he finally figured out how to talk and point a camera at the same time. This movie about race, class, and real estate is more poignant than it has any right to be, and not just because Edie Falco is ten times the actress, well, most everyone else is right about now.

10. About a Boy. Chris and Paul Weitz prove themselves more than bakers of juvenile Pie with a touching, funny story about a man who acts the badly drawn boy till he takes on someone else’s lonely kid and, yes, grows up. Too bad Hugh Grant spoils the estimable goodwill by ending the year giving Two Weeks’ Notice.

Old News
Reissues dominated, but an international crop of films yielded some good harvest.
By Andy Klein
It’s never a good sign when somewhere in the vicinity of half of my most memorable moviegoing experiences in a given year come from reissues of films at least three decades old. But there it is: in my memory banks, 2002 may well be remembered as the year of the revelatory, vastly expanded (but still incomplete) version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Add to that Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968), Umberto D. (Vittorio de Sica, 1952), and the umpteenth (but always welcome) rerelease of The Seven Samurai (1955).

Yeah, unfair, I know … expecting this year’s films to stack up against a selection of the greatest movies ever made. Yet the last time I felt this way was over a decade ago, when The Manchurian Candidate returned to theaters after a 25-year hiatus. It’s dispiriting. I still keep waiting for another year as amazing as 1999 — Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, Lovers of the Arctic Circle — a lineup that is increasingly looking like a fluke.

Before we get to the Greatest Hits roundup, let’s mention a few categories that stand by themselves:

It was in fact a very good year for documentaries. There were theatrical runs of two first-rate music films: Scratch, Doug Pray’s look at hip-hop and turntable masters; and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman’s tribute to the largely unsung studio cats who created what may well be the largest and most enduring body of pop music ever to emerge from one studio. In addition to Chris Smith’s Home Movie and Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s Daughter from Danang, there was also the as-yet-undistributed Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz’s dazzler about eight contestants in the National Spelling Bee — as suspenseful and engaging a movie as any this year.

The Hong Kong-to-Hollywood expatriate movement had its worst year yet. The massive commercial flop Windtalkers was John Woo’s most disappointing film since his Taiwanese quickies in the early ’80s. The often-brilliant Ronny Yu directed the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Formula 51, an entertaining, over-the-top bit of fluff that sank like a stone. Cory Yuen’s English-language action film The Transporter had its moments, but it wasn’t as good as his other 2002 effort, the Chinese-language So Close, which didn’t make it into theaters.

Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Jet Li were all missing in action. At least the latter was off making Hero under director Zhang Yimou — due out in 2003 — which could be worth the wait if Miramax doesn’t butcher it to “fit” the American audience that the company seems to regard as so benighted.

Let’s not even talk about Jackie Chan’s The Tuxedo, okay?

Okay. There were some terrific films, and several of them came out of Hollywood, even. Below are the ten that either gave me the most pleasure or left me the most moved.

The usual cautions: this list was compiled using Academy qualifying rules — that is, films had to have run for at least a week in New York or Los Angeles, with their opening day falling during the calendar year. (Which is why Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies isn’t on the list.) As always, I had a different list yesterday and will have yet another tomorrow; outside of the top few spots, the order is highly mutable, depending on mood.

1. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain). Almodóvar’s tale of two men and the comatose women they love is, in tone and structure, immediately identifiable as something only the Spanish bad boy could have come up with. It is the most extraordinary manifestation yet of what makes him utterly singular: no one can blend melodrama and heightened emotion with laugh-out-loud wackiness the way he does. A contemporary gloss on Sleeping Beauty, it feels like an adult fairy tale, with an indefinable sense of the magic that both wondrously and hideously lurks beneath everyday reality.

2. Brotherhood of the Wolf (Christophe Gans, France). Laugh if you want, but, if French director and noted Hong Kong film fan Gans had set out to make a film designed purely to please me, he couldn’t have done better. Hong Kong action blended with witty dialogue and gorgeous cinematography, this is clearly the greatest horror/action/kung-fu French period drama ever made.

3. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, USA). At first glance, it might seem that the reunion of Being John Malkovich‘s director with screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman, with an assist from his “brother” Donald) is too clever for its own good. It’s certainly the most self-reflexive movie ever made and flirts with the precious. But it’s so brilliantly worked out and so much pure fun that it’s hard to resist.

4. Lilo & Stitch (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, USA) The most entertaining animated feature to come out of Disney proper — that is, not from Pixar-by-way-of-Disney — in years.

5. Merci pour le chocolat (Claude Chabrol, France). This 2000 thriller from French master Claude Chabrol — which showed up in the United States two years late — is a masterpiece of nuance and characterization, marred only by one inexplicable, distracting blunder at the end. Isabelle Huppert gives one of the strongest performances of a generally remarkable career.

6. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA). Paul Thomas Anderson takes off on Adam Sandler’s screen persona, showing us how unfunny — in fact, how very scary and disturbing — Sandler’s typical geek characters would be, if you remove them from the realm of broad comedy. Beneath its apparently happy ending, Punch-Drunk Love is truly unsettling — a strange and amazing piece of work.

7. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA). This story of different kinds of forbidden isn’t simply an homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the ’50s. It recreates them, utterly without snickering irony, while anachronistic flourishes give the drama an extra charge.

8. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, India). The Oscar rules are so insane that I’m ignoring them for this one. It would qualify if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film last year; if it had merely been entered but not nominated, it would qualify for all the other awards this year. In effect, it’s penalized for having gotten a nomination. (I couldn’t make this stuff up.) Certainly the best four-hour musical about cricket you’ll ever see.

9. One-Hour Photo (Mark Romanek, USA). Robin Williams really is creepy as all get-out in this perfectly controlled thriller — which is maybe too finicky in its attention to design. Still, it’s a winner.

10. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, UK-France-Germany-Poland-Netherlands). A great director mutes his usual trademarks to deal with the Holocaust (which, of course, he experienced firsthand). This is a film more to admire than enjoy: it’s grueling, appropriately enough, but not the kind of thing you want to watch over and over.

Bubbling under the top ten: Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, USA), The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada), Wasabi (Gérard Krawczyk, France-Japan), Sex and Lucía (Julio Medem, Spain), Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, Japan-France), Happy Times (Zhang Yimou, China), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, Australia), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, USA-New Zealand), Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, UK), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, USA), and The Happiness of the Katakuris and City of Lost Souls (both Takashi Miike, Japan).

Other films that I’m glad I saw and may even revisit: What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-Liang, France-Taiwan), Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, USA-Mexico), The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer, France), Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, USA), Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, USA), I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal-France), How I Killed My Father (Anne Fontaine, France-Spain), Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, USA), and Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Robert Rodriguez, USA).

Final copout: Every year there’s a film that I can’t quite make up my mind about. This year, it’s the much-lauded About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, USA). Jack Nicholson is great in it, and Payne — channeling Sinclair Lewis, the Coen brothers, and Elaine May — seems to be trying to find some dignity in pedestrian lives. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that his contempt for all his characters, Schmidt included, outweighs his compassion.

Art and Soul
From our innermost insecurities to the wildest flights of fantasy, 2002 stimulated both heart and head.
By Luke Y. Thompson
There were lots of good movies this year, but few great ones that I came out of thinking that one couldn’t have asked for more. I resolved to see as many as possible way back in January, and did okay; there are still one or two I missed, and while Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights probably would not have been a best-of-year contender anyway, there are others I regret not catching, notably The Fast Runner and Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio (the latter not my fault — Miramax wimped out of screening it). I saw a helluva lot, though — consider that I suffer through the likes of Snow Dogs to be your comprehensive critic — and found so many small highlights that before I get to my ten best, on which I didn’t cheat this year as I’ve been known to do in the past, I hereby present some of those things that made 2002 a good year for film:

Split the Vote and Just Missed My List: Phillip Noyce, for Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American (who remembered that “the Tom Clancy movie guy” had this much talent?)

Might Have Made My Top Ten if They’d Trimmed About Twenty Minutes from the Second Half: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Might Have Made My Top Ten if I’d Understood What the Point of Having Two Unrelated Segments Was: Storytelling.

Best Special Effects: Salma Hayek’s naked breasts in Frida.

Best Documentaries Not to Feature Johnny Knoxville: Bowling for Columbine and Home Movie.

Best Fake Documentary: 24-Hour Party People.

Best Potential Superstar-Making Performance: Male — Adrien Brody in The Pianist; Female — Edie Falco in Sunshine State.

Best Deconstruction of Established Persona (tie): Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and Hugh Grant in About a Boy.

Best Video Game Adaptation Ever: Resident Evil.

Best Performance by a “Synthespian” (tie):Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Britney Spears in Crossroads.

Best Foreign Film Trend: Latin movies with explicit sex scenes that also manage to pass for “high art” (Y Tu Mamá También, Sex and Lucía, Pantaleon y las Visitadoras).

Best Memento Rip-Off (tie): The Salton Sea and the short film “Mementoke.”

Best Movie About a Stolen Bike Since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure: Beijing Bicycle.

Best Rerelease: Master of the Flying Guillotine (DVD commentary track by our own Andy Klein!)

Best Brainless Multiplex Fare Not on My List That You’re Actually Likely to Have Seen: MIIB: Men in Black II, Panic Room, Scooby-Doo, 8 Mile, Signs.

Best Movie for the Adolescent Boy in All of Us: The Scorpion King.

I Can’t Believe People Loved These Movies: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Far From Heaven, Drumline, Road to Perdition, Stuart Little 2, Femme Fatale, Unfaithful.

Best of the Fests: Some of the year’s best were not formally released this year, so they don’t really count as top ten picks, but here’s a heads-up so you can keep an eye out:

Dark Water, from original Ring director Hideo Nakata, scared me more than anything I’ve seen since I was a child and more susceptible to such things. Chances are it’ll be remade by DreamWorks before you ever see it here, but if you’ve got a hankering to be cowed into never looking at leaks in the ceiling the same way again, seek it out.

May, soon to be released by Lion’s Gate, is ostensibly a horror movie; that I found it more funny and touching may be disturbing in itself. An acerbic look at the shallowness of the dating scene and the trauma it inflicts on a lonely soul who’s never taken seriously until she gruesomely forces everyone to pay attention, the movie should be a major calling card for star Angela Bettis (NBC’s Carrie), finally shining after years in minor parts.

OT: Our Town looks as low-budget as they come, but its triumphant true story of a South Central LA high school production of Thornton Wilder’s play was as tense and beautiful as any drama to unfold on our screens. Distribution is likely forthcoming, so maybe you’ll get to see it next year.

And now the best, from bottom to top, all of which seem to feature heroes and heroines either mildly insecure or outright self-loathing. Better call my shrink.

10. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I know what you’re going to say, and I can’t entirely disagree with any of the major criticisms leveled against Mr. Lucas’ opus. Nonetheless, I also can’t dispute the fact that the last thirty minutes or so are some of the greatest ever committed to celluloid (or not, since many “prints” never touched the stuff and remained pixels). From arena battle to Clone War to Yoda whaling on Christopher Lee, this was sheer spectacle as only the movies can deliver, and I’ll stack it up against the battle of Helm’s Deep any day.

9. 25th Hour. Spike Lee tends to do better when using someone else’s script, and together with David Benioff he’s created his finest film yet, a meditation on macho bullshit, denial, redemption, and wrong paths that extends — allegorically and obviously — to the state of the nation post-9/11.

8. Das Experiment. Moritz Bleibtreu looks like Freddie Prinze Jr., which is off-putting, but unlike Mr. Michelle Gellar, he can act. A tense thriller about societal roles and their relationship to brutality, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s powerful feature debut makes a useful statement in the era of reality TV and PATRIOT Acts, and has earned its director a possible slot at making Blade III.

7. Scarlet Diva. Everyone I know who owns a camcorder has made a self-confessional, semiautobiographical piece of videotaped wankery, but Asia Argento does it better than all of them. Maybe her fame gives her more resources, or maybe she’s just more shameless, but this self-portrait looks a lot like art.

6. Spider-Man. The best live-action, cinematic, superhero comic-book adaptation ever. Organic webshooters aside, it’s nice to see that faithfulness to source material can work. Pay attention, DC Comics.

5. One-Hour Photo. Robin Williams was born to play creepy, and writer-director Mark Romanek finally expanded upon this potential. Critics unfairly bashed the ending — there’s more ambiguity to it than initially meets the eye. Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek’s eerie, moody score was outstanding.

4. jackass: the movie. Don’t fight it. Laugh out loud — it’s okay. Its creators may have intended it as a trivial goof, and its producers were looking for franchise dollars, but what actually resulted, and the fact that it screened nationwide, was the biggest act of cinematic subversion this year. More disgusting than Pink Flamingoes, and director Jeff Tremaine is much handier with a camera than John Waters. Lars von Trier should be ashamed — he’s been out-Dogme’d by Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville.

3. Lovely and Amazing. As acerbic a look at the LA woman as May, Lovely and Amazing also has heart, as it takes a light-yet-unflinchingly unsentimental look at female body image and self-loathing through three different generations. Catherine Keener finally gets a lead role worthy of her talents, and newcomer Raven Goodwin is accurately described by the film’s title.

2. About Schmidt. This one’s probably going to be on everyone else’s list too, so let’s just say it’ll finally let the world know that not all country people in America have Southern accents.

1. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi). If it were live-action, there’d be no doubt; still, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy is the best movie of the year. Unencumbered by Hollywood notions of three-act structure or simplistic good and evil, the episodic saga of a young girl trapped in a bath-house for earth spirits has the magic of the best children’s literature. A vast imagination combines with an eagle eye for character detail, and the result is a family movie truly fun for all (well, maybe not quite all — the Christian Web site Movieguide called the film abhorrent for promoting animistic spirits). Cheers to Disney for doing a careful dub, and releasing the subtitled version simultaneously; jeers to Disney for not opening the film wider and promoting it more heavily — virtually everyone I recommended the flick to claimed they never heard of it.

Back to the Future
Most of this year’s best won’t be seen until next.
By Jean Oppenheimer
Four of the top ten films I saw this year don’t actually open in the United States until 2003, but they played at various film festivals during the year. By listing them here I not only alert readers to films they should watch out for in ’03, but I also make a pointed statement about the poor quality of outstanding films in 2002. Good ones, yes. Outstanding ones, no.

1. City of God. This brilliant, brutal film — the Brazilian entry for the Best Foreign-Language film Oscar — charts how the drug trade came to the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the period from the 1960s to the 1990s. Directed by Fernando Mereilles, with a predominantly nonprofessional cast. Cinematography by César Charlone. Extremely violent, so be prepared.

2. Russian Ark. A dreamlike journey through three centuries of Russian history, shot in a single, unbroken 87-minute Steadicam shot which covers more than a mile inside St. Petersburg’s magnificent Hermitage Museum, the former Winter Palace of the Tsars. Directed by Alexander Sokulov, with groundbreaking cinematography by German cameraman Tilman Büttner.

3. Sweet Sixteen. British filmmaker Ken Loach’s best film ever, about a boy who dreams of a family life he never had — and the hard life lessons he learns trying to create it.

4. Divine Intervention. A potent black comedy from Palestinian writer-director-actor Elia Suleiman.

5. Road to Perdition. A riveting mix of pulp and myth. The only film actually released in 2002 about which I am passionate.

6. Bowling for Columbine. Yes, it’s one-sided, but director Michael Moore doesn’t put words in anybody’s mouth; he lets people hang themselves. Should be mandatory viewing for every person in the United States over the age of fourteen.

7. Talk to Her. The latest from Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. As good as his early work is, his films keep getting richer. A wizard as a writer-director, Almodóvar comes up with the most outlandish plots and makes our hearts overflow with both joy and sorrow.

8. Gangs of New York. Flawed but still noteworthy. Daniel Day-Lewis is his usual mesmerizing self.

9. Italian for Beginners. From Denmark — an accessible Dogme film!

10. Lilo & Stitch. What the hell; it made me laugh.

Old Masters and Young Guns
Filmmaking in 2002 wasn’t just for the boys.
By David Ehrenstein
The ten best pictures of 2002:

1. I’m Going Home. The most beautiful film ever made about aging by the world’s oldest working filmmaker, the 94-year-old Manoel de Oliveira.

2. Far From Heaven. Todd Haynes’ Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama about race and gayness in the 1950s is more timely than ever, thanks to Trent Lott.

3. Y Tu Mamá También. The only truly serious film yet made about teenage male sexuality, directed with uncanny insight and exceptional vigor by Alfonso Cuarón.

4. The Cockettes. David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary about the legendary San Francisco troupe of gay hippie acid freaks is the Rosetta Stone of the 1960s.

5. Gerry. Gus Van Sant’s existential road movie might best be described as the Samuel Beckett version of Dude, Where’s My Car?

6. The Lady and the Duke. With a brilliant performance by Lucy Russell, this tale of a British aristocrat during the French Revolution shot on digital video by the 82-year-old film master Eric Rohmer proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

7. The Fluffer. While Lorenz Hart said “unrequited love’s a bore,” there’s nothing boring about Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s tragicomic deconstruction of the world of gay porn.

8. The Quiet American. After several years of bland American blockbusters, Phillip Noyce returns to real filmmaking with this adaptation of Graham Greene’s prescient novel of Vietnam just prior to the American occupation, with great performances by Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser.

9. Showboy. Christian Taylor starred, cowrote, and codirected (with Lindy Heymann) this delightful mockumentary about his desire to become a Las Vegas chorus boy.

10. Chicago. “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?” Quite well, thanks to the expert way director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon have adapted the Kander & Ebb-Bob Fosse musical with Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere.

Fear Factor
But just think, no one hates TV more than Trent Lott.
By Robert Wilonsky
The biggest event to happen to television this year took place at the multiplex this summer: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a one-woman show that has blossomed into a one-woman franchise. This spring, CBS-TV will debut My Big Fat Greek Life as a mid-season replacement, featuring the entire cast of the movie save John Corbett — and good luck distinguishing it from the other loud and wack-cum-wacky family sitcoms currently airing on CBS, home to Ray Romano and Kevin James and Mike O’Malley and, soon, Cheech Marin, all lightly shaded variations on the TV-pop archetype as old as the medium itself. Even before Nia Vardalos’ surprise-hit film was released in April, CBS-TV had filmed a pilot called My Big Fat Greek Family, but it was scrapped once the movie became a $200 million hit and Vardalos became a wielder of estimable power. According to The Los Angeles Times last week, the writer-actor demanded a few changes, none of which are likely to make the thing actually good. But still.

The film, or what felt like a film you might find on old yogurt, was little more than an overblown, undercooked pilot; not since Birth of a Nation have so many stereotypes skittered across the big screen. But playing broad means attracting a broad audience. Apparently nothing goes over better than a Jewish woman screaming at the top of her enormous lungs in a Greek accent to Middle American audiences who can’t tell the difference anyway. Which is why CBS can’t wait to get hold of My Big Fat Greek Paycheck; everybody loves Nia, especially the frau who likes her television safe, predictable, and prechewed. There’s about as much risk attached to this series as there is bottled water, sex with yourself, and John Ritter.

But the networks long ago gave up trying to break new ground when there are plenty of sitcom cemeteries still to be plundered. Look only at what the Big Four and Tiny Two offered up this season: dozens of series about cops and docs and loutish dads living with hot moms and cutesy-smarty-pants kids imbued with the dim intellect of a roomful of Ivy League-trained sitcom writers raised on Roseanne and St. Elsewhere reruns. It’s tough to stomach the realization that the history books might one day acknowledge Jim Belushi as the most successful boy in that family. There were a handful of notable newcomers: NBC’s Boomtown, a show you can tell is really good by the scant number of viewers it’s attracting; Fox’s loopy Firefly, which is currently on hiatus and unlikely to return despite Joss Whedon’s name-brand value; and USA’s Monk, this millennium’s Columbo injected with neurosis and OCD (and ABC, which airs the show in reruns).

But more than anything, this was the season of the give-up, when networks offered pale shadows instead of substance. David E. Kelley had only himself to blame when Fox axed his girls club two episodes in; how couldn’t he have known three Ally McBeals would prove far more odious than one? NBC’s sticking with its must-avoid-TV brand by closing out Thursday night’s sitcom lineup with Good Morning, Miami, brought to you by the people responsible for Will & Grace, which is one gay joke away from having no jokes at all. (Cue new Will & Grace regular Harry Connick Jr.: If they ask me, I could write a book about the ways that show sucks.)

It figures the wondrous Bonnie Hunt’s finally enjoying success with her new ABC series; of all the shows she’s done, Life with Bonnie is easily the most mediocre. Someone insisted last week that Still Standing, starring The Full Monty‘s Mark Addy, isn’t so bad; wouldn’t know, as anything starring Jami Gertz and created by the writers of Yes, Dear isn’t allowed in the house. At least NBC’s offing Providence — it had better, damn it. It’s high time Fox likewise put an eraser to The Simpsons — the only people who find it funny work for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Entertainment Weekly, both of which are to journalism what cotton candy is to food. Other series in need of euthanasia: Friends, ER, every series named Law & Order that’s not Law & Order, CSI but not CSI: Miami (no particular reason), King of Queens, Frasier … and did I say ER?

And, please, stop fooling yourself: There is nothing pleasurable about such “guilty pleasures” as ABC’s The Bachelor, CBS’s Survivor franchise, NBC’s Fear Factor, and Fox’s American Idol. (There’s something terribly wrong when a network makes a household name out of Kelly Clarkson, this week’s Debbie Boone, but buries Andy Richter and Bernie Mac in horrific time slots; Fox is the only network that’s ashamed of its quality shows.) These reality programs are little more than safe havens for the gluttonous, dull-witted, and subliterate (and, okay, beautiful people); watching them you can literally feel your soul shrink, your life force disappear, your brain melt, your heart stop. We’re not far from a show in which people will be paid to scarf down their own body parts under orders from host Butch Patrick, fresh from his appearance on E!’s Star Dates. Speaking of which, the first week of the new year, Fox will debut Joe Millionaire, in which dozens of greedy whores (did I just say that out loud?) vie for the attention of a broke-ass jackass pretending to be worth millions. As it turns out, everyone’s willing to be disgraced for a little face time. If you watch Joe Millionaire, you not only deserve the television you get, but the stroke you’re about to suffer.

Television has no shame at any hour: This was the year Katie Couric and Today woke up extra early to play hardball with their competitors in order to land an exclusive interview with Jacqueline Marris and Tamara Brooks, the two California girls kidnapped and assaulted in June who went on TV not 24 hours after their rescue to share their story. It was the year ABC threatened to dump Nightline and replace it with The Late Show with David Letterman, whose audience is more likely to buy cars and movie tickets and beer than Ted Koppel’s. (Blessedly, Letterman was savvy and sensitive enough not to push Koppel from his slot; given his past behavior, Jay Leno probably would have shoved Ted down a flight of stairs, hairpiece-first.) It was the year NBC gave Carson Daly his own late-night talk show, which is like giving an infant a chemistry set. It was the year Connie Chung and Phil Donahue returned to television and discovered audiences hadn’t returned to them. It was the year Bill O’Reilly proved they did save Hitler’s brain, and it was the year Barbara and Diane duked it out to interview Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Osbourne, and Whitney Houston, the very brand of banal celebrity we were supposed to stop giving a damn about after September 11. And I’m pretty sure CNN is still replaying footage of Michael Jackson dangling his son from a hotel-room balcony.

It’s appalling, but not at all shocking, that most year-in-TV pieces appearing in Your Local Daily Newspaper have cited as their Top and/or Most Important TV Moment of 2002 The Osbournes and The Anna Nicole Show, both of which star “people” who clearly aren’t speaking in their native tongues. (Is “asshole” a language?) Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t even worth labeling a has-been by the time the geniuses at E! wrangled the drug-damaged plus-plus-plus-sized ex-Guess! model, yet the freak show gets major play in the midway nonetheless. As for Ozzy, the success of the MTV show about his pitiable life and pitiful family does indeed prove he’s made a pact with the devil, whose name apparently rhymes with “Sharon Osbourne.” Oh, and that constant beep-beep-beep you’re hearing isn’t the sound of curse words being edited out; it’s the sound Anna Nicole makes when she backs up.

Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s documentary 9/11, about the terror attacks on the World Trade Center, was the only bit of reality television that mattered in 2002. It made tangible those stories you heard about from a distance; it put you inside the belly of the beast, a place of business rendered towering inferno in a matter of moments. A story originally about the life of a young firefighter in an instant became the tale of a nation, and it rendered everything else on television this season a moot point (or, in Anna Nicole’s case, a moo point).

Cable rendered the networks positively obsolete, stealing away viewers at an astonishing rate; stats released this year revealed more than half the people with their sets on from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. were looking off-network for their diversions. Tony Soprano and Larry David (two men who know a thing or two about losing their heads) provided the year’s best prime-time punch, Michael Keaton’s career was recovered from the lost-and-found on HBO’s Live from Baghdad, Jon Stewart was referring to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer as a “douche bag” on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, lost gems such as Larry Gelbart’s United States and Robert Altman’s Gun were being rediscovered on the Trio network, South Park was dropping bombs over Baghdad, The Proud Family and Kim Possible were impossible to stop watching on the Disney Channel, VH1 was reminding a generation why I Love the ’80s, and Trent Lott was lynching himself on C-SPAN. Who says there’s nothing on?

“There’s plenty of room for good stuff — especially on cable, where there are hundreds of specialized stations willing to run the gamut from brilliance to abject crap,” says Robert Smigel, the voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who pooped all over Moby and got crapped on by Eminem at the MTV Music Video Awards last August. “But the networks seem to be retreating from even attempting the ‘great/risky’ stuff. I sense a move back toward traditional sitcoms and drama, amid a growing rationalization that ‘this is what people turn to us for.’ The thinking is, the specialized channels are for the specialized tastes; our job more than ever is to find the middle ground that pleases the masses. It’s a shame.

“In general, it’s true that there are a lot of cool shows that won’t work on a network and belong on Trio or Animal Planet or whatever, but for every thirty of those there’s always one that can succeed [on a major network] with a little trust and nurturing. I hope it’s still possible for a show like Seinfeld to get a real shot on a network. I hope they don’t forget that the biggest hits are often the product of the biggest risks. And if they do forget, I hope I can always afford digital cable.”

Yeah, yeah. For him to poop on.


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