Moriarty's Favorite Films Of 2002!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
It’s that time of year.
The time of year when everybody who even remotely deals with reviewing films for the public grabs a soapbox, jumps up on it, and starts declaring what the best of this and the best of that and the worst of this or that was. It’s that time of the year when we are innundated with lists, endless lists, and even more seemingly endless awards.
So far be it from me to be any different, right?
As best I can figure, I saw 112 films worth contemplating this year. I also count 92 films I missed for one reason or another. I’ve decided to offer a full list of qualifying films I saw and a full list of films I missed (e-mail me if you care) because this was a strange year for me. This was the first year I can remember where I was genuinely so busy that I simply missed films I wanted to see. There are films I feel like I missed out on, discussions with friends that I didn’t have because of my work load. One of the reasons I’m not more upset about it is because so many of the experiences I did have were great ones, and the bad ones just added the flavor that makes 2002 a keeper.
This, then, is not definitive. It’s not even close. This is simply assorted nonsense that dissects, bisects, examines, and explores the movies I saw, an effort to give the year a context. This is just a look back, by me, at the year 2002, and the highs and lows that I take away from it. Don’t sweat me on the math of each list, because I cheat like a mutha. If you want a list of the ten “best” films released this year, I suggest you wait a decade, since at the end of the year, it’s all hysteria and panic, anyway, no matter who you talk to, and the only way to really know what the best films this year are is to see what stands up to the test of time.
So... without further ado...
TEN GREAT FILMS YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T SEE (in ascending order of preference)
This is not the main list. This is a warm up. These movies didn’t make the main list (although there might be a few on there that have had limited exposures of their own), but they deserved to be seen. They offered something that made the year memorable, real voices that should be heard. If you saw any or all of these films, then consider yourself fortunate, and count yourself as a real film lover, someone who is dedicated to seeking out the experiences worth having each year. I’m sure you’ll agree that these were some of 2002’s gems:
Maybe I’m cheating, putting two films in this last slot, but these two documentaries, both about musicians and the music business, are equally illuminating, but of totally different corners of the difficult and even deadly music world, and I can’t help but see them as mirrors of one another. Nick Broomfield, an even more reckless provocateur than Michael Moore, takes on Suge Knight and the mystery surrounding the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Biggie” Smalls. Broomfield isn’t afraid to point fingers and name names, and the release of his film was met head-on with an LA TIMES article that implicated a totally different culprit, a magnificent piece of spin that reads like science fiction after seeing how persuasive an argument Broomfield mounts. GIGANTIC is a success story by comparison, a portrait of a partnership that has survived the ups and downs of being working artists on the fringe of mainstream acceptance. They Might Be Giants are presented in all their majestic monotony, the antithesis of the way bands are typically hyped by MTV or ROLLING STONE. They’re professional, friendly, and above all else, businessmen. The triumph of the film is seeing how they’ve always managed to reach out and find an audience, and how as the way people listen to music changes, the band does to. A survivor’s story like this is the perfect antitode to the acid pessimism of Broomfield’s work, and taken together, they’re a potent slice of reality.
Don Coscarelli and Joe R. Lansdale are the sick, silly minds responsible for this deep-fried monster movie featuring excellent work by fanboy fave Bruce Campbell and a surprisingly affecting appearance by Ossie Davis.
When you try to describe the plot to someone, they look at you like you’re farting the National Anthem, and for good reason. An elderly Elvis Presley, who didn’t die thanks to a late career PRINCE AND THE PAUPER-style switch of lifestyles with his best impersonator, is serving out his last days in a miserable Texas retirement home, where he’s friends with an elderly black man who believes he is JFK, the victim of extensive plastic surgery after a failed assassination attempt. Together, they have to stop a mummy that is killing the other residents of the home. Coscarelli doesn’t go for the easy joke, and he seems to have been given a real kick in the seat as a filmmaker by the Lansdale source material. He invests these characters with a peculiar dignity, and the actors give it all they’ve got. This is shameless fun, the kind of film I’d have to call a guilty pleasure if it wasn’t so damn good.
8. DIAMOND MEN
I saw Dan Cohen’s film when I was in Champaign-Urbana for Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, and it’s one of those low-key charmers that just sticks with you. Robert Forster hasn’t always been given the best material since JACKIE BROWN, but this is a role that makes the most of his particular charisma. Donnie Wahlberg is a surprise in the picture, genuine in the way he seems to get better the more time he spends with Forster. Even Bess Armstrong has a chance to shine in a way that she’s almost never done before. Cohen’s script is along the lines of a Mamet con game, but there’s a much warmer heart than there would be in a Mamet film. It’s well-plotted, and more than anything, there’s a sense that Cohen meant it. His father and his grandfather both worked as travelling diamond salesmen, and there’s an authenticity to the film that makes you forgive any minor bumps in the road. Whenever it finally hits video, this is one you owe it to yourself to track down, a guaranteed smile.
I could have included BELOW in this list, too, I suppose, since it suffered the same indifferent release as Kurt Wimmer’s futuristic actioner, but in the end, BELOW didn’t stick with me the way EQUILIBRIUM did.
Until I can get my MATRIX fix this summer, Wimmer’s film is more than fine. That’s not to say it’s a total lift. At least not from any single source. Instead, he’s taken a series of influences and whipped them into a groovy, fast-moving, high-octane action film on a budget, and more than anything, it’s the impact of the big moments that left an impression on me. I’m always a cheap customer when it comes to well-choreographed action with just enough of an excuse for a plot, and this film delivers on all fronts. Christian Bale proves here beyond a shadow of a doubt that he should be the next major actor slapped into spandex in service of the BATMAN or SUPERMAN franchises, although a truly enterprising writer/director would craft an original for him. Maybe Wimmer will get another shot soon, and maybe next time he’ll be with a studio that has the balls to release his film properly.
This one’s already playing on IFC or Sundance Channel (I forget where I stumbled across it the other day), and I find that anytime I’m just skipping channels and see this, I’ll stop. I think it’s an absorbing picture, reminiscent of early Errol Morris work, that doesn’t condescend to its subjects in order to make its points. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk when you’re making a film about religious fundamentalists and media propaganda, but George Ratliff does a great job of staying out of the movie. Instead, the creators of a religious haunted house are analyzed in microscopic detail, and the particular fervor of their beliefs ends up being quite affecting, even if you don’t agree with a word of it, or with their tactics. A great documentary is a window into someone else’s world, and this film is definitely a great documentary.
Here’s a pair of films that feel like documentaries, but aren’t. In one case, it’s intentional, a sly goof on the form that allows first-time director Neil Burger to build a convincingly creepy conspiracy film around a character of his own creation, and in the other case, it’s because everyone and everything we’re looking at is authentic, something we’ve never seen on film before. In both cases, the films are unforgettable.
Raymond J. Barry is the whole show in INTERVIEW. If he wasn’t the remarkable character actor he is, I wouldn’t still be talking about this one at this point in the year. Barry’s one of those character actors you’ve seen in a dozen different roles at least, but this feels like a role he owns completely. There’s something so corrosive, so bitter about the way he plays it that you believe he’s capable of anything, including the murder of a President. Writer/director Burger taps the potent mythology around the JFK conspiracy to craft something that feels true.
Inuit mythology is brought to vivid life in this film that feels like a transmission from another planet. It’s hard to accurately dissect the performances in this film, since the culture being portrayed is so different from ours in almost every way. It’s the similarities that begin to show up that make this such an electric viewing experience. Director Zacharias Kunuk is all but invisible, his touch feather light with the material, and the film takes on a more hyperreal quality because of it. If not for the almost mythical elements to the story, one could believe that this happened, that it’s happening right now, and that it will always happen this way, no matter what culture.
Yes, I hosted screenings of all three of these films, and in a way, that’s why they were chosen for this top slot, but that’s sort of stating things backwards. It’s just as easy to say that I hosted screenings of these movies because I knew they would be hard sells, and I believe in the merits of each.
NIGHT AT THE GOLDEN EAGLE is the single skankiest film I saw this year, grimy and unpleasant and so dirty you feel like you should wash your hands repeatedly during the thing. That’s the point, though. Adam Rifkin, fascinated by one of the darkest little corners of Los Angeles, managed to invest our sympathies into a group of hapless losers floundering towards some sort of grace, and in the process, he gave great roles to complete unknowns and made expert use of familiar faces. This is not an easy trip, but it’s one worth making.
The same could be said of Roger Avery’s RULES OF ATTRACTION, a blistering adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’s novel, and a more successful film than the overrated, underbaked AMERICAN PSYCHO. Unlike Mary Herron, Avery didn’t feel the need to tone down the worldview of the book to make it more palatable. If anything, Avery drives home the disconnected apathy of the book by giving flesh to these characters. It’s one thing to read about Sean Bateman’s behavior; it’s something else entirely to see it play out in front of you. James Van Der Beek redeems himself for every single half-witted episode of DAWSON’S CREEK with his performance here, but it’s Shannon Sossamon who is the revelation. It’s been obvious that she was lovely from her first moment onscreen, but until this, I hadn’t seen a hint of the actress she seems to be evolving into. Add daring, fearless work by Ian Somerhalder and Kip Purdue, and you have the year’s best youth cast in the most unjustly maligned film this fall.
And then there’s SALTON SEA. I would love this film ferociously if only for the fact that Val Kilmer seems to be alive for the first time in years here, fully engaged by what he’s got to do. Ironic, since his character has withdrawn from life and become a mask, a mere shell, following the murder of his wife by corrupt police officers. The crime story here takes various twists and turns, some more clever than others, but it’s the cast and the sure hand of DJ Caruso that makes this one matter.
HONORABLE MENTION (in ascending order of preference)
If this were my top ten list, I’d still say it had been a damn fine year of film. The films on this list include foreign, domestic, independent, and studio movies, and I love the fact that there were so many different experiences to have at the theater this year if one went looking. One of the most enjoyable things is how some of these filmmakers are people who I’ve never really cared for in the past, and who have established themselves as really vital this year, while people I’ve really enjoyed in the past failed to make a mark with their most recent work. Just goes to show... you have to take it film by film, because everyone is capable of surprising you.
This is one of those films that makes me proud to be a lifelong horror film fan. Sure, the majority of what gets released as part of that genre is garbage, but on those occasions that a filmmaker really takes full advantage of the metaphorical potential of horror, we get movies like this one about a girl who is simply unable to connect with the people around her, and who reaches out in the only broken, stunted way she knows how. Angela Bettis is bliss in the lead role, and Jeremy Sisto and Anna Ferris lend nice support as two of her objects of desire. Lucky McKee has a promising career ahead of himself as long as he manages to avoid the trap of becoming another whipping boy for Dimension, a place where talented genre filmmakers evidently go to die. Let’s hope Lions Gate proves that they’re more adventurous when they roll this one staring this March in New York and Los Angeles. Learn from those test markets, Mr. Ortenberg, and handle this with care. After all, if you’ve seen the film, you know what happens to anyone who screws with MAY’s affections.
9. NINE QUEENS
Faibian Bielinsky makes one of the year’s strongest debuts as a director with this elaborate con game that manages to out-Mamet Mamet and actually say something profound about Argentina, the film’s country of origin.
I love movies about deception when they’re done well. They’re enormous fun to watch with an audience as people try to guess which way the film is headed, and Bielinsky manages to confound every guess you might have about the eventual outcome of things thanks to the fact that he’s got more on his mind than he initially lets on. I watched this for the first time on Christmas Eve in a house full of Argentinians, and not only did they enjoy the narrative’s twists and turns, they also flipped out at each location they recognized. Their mood of celebration grew somber, though, as the real agenda of the film was revealed. Without ruining the film’s next to last great twist, let’s just say that anyone who followed the news about Argentina’s tortured economy this year will be able to guess who’s really getting screwed by the time the credits roll, and just who the bad guy of the piece ultimately turns out to be.
I didn’t see this one until it made its debut on DVD, and I’m kicking myself now. Roman Coppola’s film is such a smart, informed love letter to movies that it demands a bigscreen viewing. MGM/UA may have packed the DVD with extras, but the picture quality of the transfer is horrific, which is twice as painful once you realize just how subtle and witty the cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman is. Growing up around the film industry has informed this and given Coppola’s script a gentle, effortless depth that raises the question, “Can a film that is primarily about the process of making films and that is cobbled together from the evident influences of other films ever manage to stand as an original?” The answer, based on this film’s almost overwhelming charm, is a resounding “Yes.”
7. ABOUT A BOY
Who knew the Weitz brothers had it in them? ABOUT A BOY is such a quiet, simple leap forward that I had to see it twice before I believed what I was seeing. Maybe seeing it near my birthday this year (my 32nd... dear god...) had something to do with the way I reacted to it. Maybe it’s the fact that Nick Hornby is a keen observer of men, especially young men who are making an uneasy transition into the responsibilities of adulthood.
Whatever the case, this definitely goes on the “credits” column for Hugh Grant, who delivers career best work here as Will, one of the two boys the title refers to. He’s not the Hollywood version of self-centered, ripe for a change at the slightest nudge of conscience. Instead, he’s a genuine selfish prick, and at best, he makes baby steps towards being a better man by the end of the film. What Hornby realizes, and what screenwriter Peter Hedges understood, is that it’s not the end results that matter. It’s the decision to change. It’s the willingness to change. Once you reach that, the rest is a process that may never fully end. Nicholas Hoult deserves some sort of special award for wearing the most unfortunate haircut in film history, and special mention must be made of how bold it was to not turn the film into a romance between Marcus’s mother and Will. It’s a film that confounds expectation, and that delivers genuine delight.
6. FAR FROM HEAVEN
Forget the Douglas Sirk references. If I read one more critic try to tell me that this film is good because of some relationship to Douglas Sirk, I’m going to scream. Who cares? I mean, I get it. The lush photography by Ed Lachman, the magnificent score by Elmer Bernstein (one of his very finest), the impeccable sense of color and composition and the restraint... all of it is present in ILLUSION OF LIFE or ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, but if all this film accomplished was a recreation of another director’s style, it wouldn’t be worth discussion.
Instead, it’s the way Todd Haynes uses this artificial world to communicate truth that makes FAR FROM HEAVEN such a grand emotional sucker punch. Haynes has always been fond of rigid formalism that disguises emotional abandon, even from his first film, the illegal and impossible to see SUPERSTAR. This time out, he was blessed with Julianne Moore, who he worked so well with on SAFE, and who seems to have decided that this year, she was going to take all the limits off of how far she was willing to push herself. There’s an optimism, an unextinguishable spirit, that makes her glow in this film, and somehow, Haynes and his cast transform melodrama into essential text, and an homage into something that stands resolutely on its own.
Boy, this one surprises me. UNFAITHFUL is, in many ways, the film that Adrian Lyne tried to make with FATAL ATTRACTION. Satan’s Minion Joe Farrell and his Instrument of Evil, NRG, took care of that, though, when test screenings led Paramount to force Lyne to cut the balls of his movie, turning an attack on infidelity into a stupid slasher film that seems to say “It’s okay to have an affair as long as you and your wife kill the crazy bitch when it’s over.”
Here, Lyne and his screenwriters (Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr., working from a French film by the brilliant Claude Chabrol) have switched the genders up and backed off the sensational aspects of this kind of story. Instead, they’ve made a film about choices, and about how single moments can change our lives. Diane Lane’s never been given a role like this, and she makes the most of it. I’ve harbored a crush on her since I was 12 years old and saw THE OUTSIDERS, but this is one of the first times she’s ever been allowed to play a fully-written human being. You hate her for what she does in this film, but you can’t help understanding her as well. It’s daring work, and this also marked Gere’s trifecta for the year (MOTHMAN PROPHECIES and CHICAGO serving as fascinating bookends). He’s great, and he has one of the best moments in the movie. Oliver Martinez plays a believable object of lust, and his arrogance is both hilarious (watch him smell his fingers in the restaurant) and infuriating (his scene with Gere). This is sophisticated adult entertainment that forces you to react, and that never offers up an easy out or a simple answer. It’s the best work of Adrian Lyne’s career, and an indication that he may still be growing as a filmmaker, something that’s always wonderful to watch happen.
Philip Noyce is another one of those guys who has been languishing in commercial hell for a while, only to come on strong with not one but two personal films in a year. RABBIT-PROOF FENCE is a nice small film with some very natural work by child actors, but it’s no WALKABOUT. No worries, though. Noyce made his classic this year, too.
Graham Greene would seem to be difficult to adapt to film because of how internal and personal much of the material is, but that’s not the case when a filmmaker really understands what they’re doing. Neil Jordan nailed it with his criminally overlooked END OF THE AFFAIR, and so does Noyce with this film, adapted with grace by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan. Michael Caine is the broken heart of Britain watching its empire slip away, and he manages to make his May-December romance with Phuong (played with reserve and poise by newcomer Do Thi Hai Yen) poignant and moving instead of creepy, as so many of them are on film. Brendan Fraser proves again that given the right material, he’s capable of great things, and the cinematography by Christopher Doyle (one of the best in the business) transports us to a Vietnam I never knew existed. This isn’t an easy political message to swallow this year, but that’s what makes it so incredibly important. Quick... someone screen this for Bush and let’s see if any part of this film’s enormous heart and soul can influence him towards sanity while there’s still a chance to avoid a simple repeat of history.
Awesome. Ass-kicking. Compact and explosive. Joe Carnahan’s second film is the kind upon which entire careers are built, and if there’s any justice in this world, Ray Liotta and Jason Patric will ride a wave of goodwill from this for years to come. They’re both as good as any actor in any film this year as they dance around a confusing, grimy little mystery, and the real trick of the thing is that the mystery isn’t important at all. What matters most in this film is the way Patric fumbles for redemption and the way Liotta tries to deliver salvation. These two broken souls just keep butting heads over the course of the film until there’s nothing left to do but explode in an operatic ending that puts NARC on the short list of great police procedurals. Cliff Martinez is rapidly becoming one of the best film composers in the business, and the support he and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy give to Carnahan is immeasurable. This may be a small film, but it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any “big” movie this year.
2. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
I know people who hate Michael Moore, and I know people who love him. Me, I fall somewhere in the middle. I think he’s a very smart guy who can be his own worst enemy. There are moments in his films that I think every man, woman, and child in this country should see, and there are sequences that almost embarrass me, they’re so miscalculated. That’s part of the charm of his movies, though, and it seems appropriate when you see an image like Moore walking off the estate of Charlton Heston near the film’s end, this big shambling wreck of a guy.
What I found most remarkable about BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE was that the film isn’t the anti-gun screed so many people had told me to expect. I don’t think the film is anti-gun at all. After all, Moore uses the Canadians as one of his major focuses of study in the film, and the gun ownership rates in that country are incredible. Instead, Moore suggests that America’s apparent problem with rage is more a result of our culture of fear, especially as encouraged by our news media. It’s a bold, intuitive leap, and it’s still not the only answer Moore offers. It’s just a possibility he raises, and the more he explores the idea, the more rational and obvious it seems. For a film to offer images of such stark horror and such simple humor over the course of a mere hour and a half is pretty amazing, and no matter what you think of Moore’s film in the end, it’s a safe bet you won’t forget it.
1. THE HOURS
I had to chew on this one for a few days before I decided what I thought of it. Easily one of the most rigorously intellectual mainstream films of the year, THE HOURS surprised me by also being one of the most sensual. There is a tactile quality to this film that seduced me, and I could just sit and soak up the lush cinematography of Seamus McGarvey or bask in the score by Philip Glass that practically hypnotizes as the film unfolds, but there’s so much more to it than that. Yes, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep do great, difficult work as women all dealing with notions of happiness and unhappiness, but Ed Harris is the one who really knocked me out in his supporting role. His physical transformation is shocking at first sight, but it’s his trademark willingness to expose himself emotionally that makes it stick.
What David Hare seems to be saying with his adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is that we can drive ourselves crazy by holding a certain picture of happiness or satisfaction in our heads and comparing everything else in our lives to that picture. Yes, it’s good to contemplate what we want, but at what point do we begin to miss the things that we already have? This is not a film that offers up its meanings on a plate, and there’s a lot to digest on first viewing. But like a great novel, this is a film that will reward viewers who are willing to dig deeper, and it’s a helluva nice next step in Stephen Daldry’s directorial career.
MY TEN FAVORITES OF 2002 (in ascending order of preference)
And now, the cream of the crop. These ten films all felt essential to me as I moved through the past year. Each of them means something different and personal to me, and I want to thank everyone involved with them. The harder I work on projects of my own, the more grateful I am each time I see something that transports me or moves me, and the more precious I consider these small wonders. When I think of 2002, these are the movies that defined it for me. Oh... and I know I cheated like a sunuvabitch on my number one slot. Sue me. This isn’t rocket science. It’s emotional response, and rules seem a little silly.
It’s very simple. Either you feel the films that Paul Thomas Anderson makes, or you don’t. I can’t explain to you what it is that draws me into this enchanting, sweetly surreal little movie, and I can’t expect you to have the same reaction I did. I will say that keeping his film to a brief 94 minutes seems to have liberated him. As much as I love MAGNOLIA, it’s a hard film to rewatch casually. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, on the other hand, is a confection, a beautiful, lyrical little mediation on anger and love and the fragility of connection, and Adam Sandler is every bit Emily Watson’s equal in it. Packed to the edges of the frame with supporting characters worth spending more time with, PTA seems to have finally learned the value of leaving his audience wanting more.
9. 25TH HOUR
Wow. Who woke Spike Lee up?
I can’t imagine anyone seriously levelling the charge at Lee after this movie that he is a hateful filmmaker, something which has haunted even his best efforts in the past. Maybe it was September 11th that changed him, or maybe it just clarified things for him. Whatever the case, the shadow of that event hangs over this entire film, and Spike seems to take energy from it. There’s a moment in the middle of this film where Monty (Ed Norton) sees “fuck you” written on a bathroom mirror, sparking off an extended monologue that seems at first glance to be another of Spike’s rants about the different racial groups in New York. What’s great about this film can be summed up in that moment, though, because Spike isn’t just trotting out an old trick. Instead, Monty is ranting at himself, lashing out at everyone who gets to stay in New York while he prepares to face seven years in prison. He’s actually saying “Fuck me for having to leave all of this behind.” In the same way, Lee uses visual tricks we’ve grown familiar with to new and more powerful effect here. Some credit has to go to screenwriter David Benioff, working from his own novel. He’s given Spike a simple character piece to bring to life as Monty spends his last day of freedom trying to make some peace with his best friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both great), his girlfriend Naturelle (the lovely Rosario Dawson), and his father, played with quiet power by Brian Cox. Ultimately, the film seems to be about survival in the face of adversity, so it’s really no wonder Spike embraced it and turned in one of his very best films. And if you make it through the emotional powerhouse ending of the picture unmoved, then I’d advise you to get your black little Grinch heart checked. You may already be dead.
Walt Disney Feature Animation isn’t fooling anybody. Anyone, even the most casual of fan, can tell you that they’ve been locked into rigid formulas since THE LITTLE MERMAID put the company back on track in 1988. Any attempts to stray from those formulas tended to lead to diminshing returns.
I mean, let’s be honest. Pixar has been more regular about producing great films, and the arrival of a new Disney film is no longer the event it was when, say, THE LION KING first arrived. As a result, it’s sort of a miracle that something like LILO & STITCH even exists. What makes this work where something like TREASURE PLANET fails is that LILO & STITCH is full to the brim with love of its characters. Because Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders love their entire cast of oddballs, so do we. Design is a key part of what makes this so immediately embraceable, too. Stitch is one of the great Disney characters, visually speaking, and Lilo seems to be straight out of the work of Bill Watterson, a sort of little-girl answer to Calvin. Yes, the film hammers home its theme of “ohana” a little hard, but it also delivers with big laughs and an earned emotional punch. No matter how mercilessly Disney exploits these characters in vile direct-to-video sequels in the future, at least they made this big-hearted gem to kick it all off.
Miyazaki is one of film’s purest poets, and his latest effort is an incandescent fairy tale, a thing of wonder and beauty. Analyzing it... trying to dissect it intellectually... is a mistake. This is a film to feel, a film to simply let wash over you. It is also one of the great examples of imagination given shape and form, and will no doubt be enjoyed by future generations as one more magnificent effort from the master of anime.
The fact that this is the second best screenplay written by Charlie Kaufman this year would depress me if I hadn’t hated HUMAN NATURE. This guy’s got a scary amount of talent, and when he’s paired with the right filmmaker, the results are magical. I love Sam Rockwell as Chuck Barris, and I’m surprised by how much I liked the work by Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts. If there’s anyone who deserves a clap on the back for making this work, it’s George Clooney, who proves to be a gifted and intuitive filmmaker his first time at bat. Here’s hoping he makes more trips behind the camera soon.
Pure joy. A wicked cynical heart may make CHICAGO dance, but there’s no denying the dazzling spectacle that Rob Marshall and Bill Condon have summoned in honor of the late Bob Fosse. My first viewing of this will remain one of my very favorite memories from this year, and I recommend seeing it with as big an audience as possible. When someone mentions a “crowd-pleaser,” it’s a film like this that they’re talking about.
Effortless, like a French New Wave classic, loaded with meaning and utterly without guile at the same time, Alfonso Cuaron’s defining film is one of those effortless classics that lingers. Maribel Verdu is the year’s most appealing and heartbreaking heroine, and she’s going to be utterly forgotten by the Academy. These movies only work if we all fall in love with this type of character. Think of Jennifer O’Neill in SUMMER OF ’42. Verdu is a lovely woman, but what makes her beautiful is the grace with which she both accepts and spurns the advances of these two fumbling boys. She takes them a step closer to manhood, and she challenges them. She’s not afraid of anything because she knows she has no future. How she has been overlooked by everyone is beyond me, and if the acting branch of the Academy had one ounce of self-respect, they’d nominate her luminous work. I salute the film, and Alfonso Cuaron deserves special mention this year for capturing such mercurial magic on film with such an accurate and impassioned eye.
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are one of the great teams in film right now, and adding Jack Nicholson to the mix raised their game substantially. “Dear Ndgugu” is one of the most memorable lines of dialogue this year, and the way Warren Schmidt lays himself bare in these letters that have no chance of being understood feels like one long dark cruel joke until the last scene, when a single ray of light becomes the year’s most devastating punchline.
Spielberg has never been this light on his feet. He’s tapdancing as he makes this one, and the film manages to balance a heartfelt melancholy with a sense of playful malice, a combination that turns Frank Abagnale, Jr. into one of the year’s best characters. Leo Di Caprio is perfectly cast in the lead because he has learned the secret of great acting: generosity. Di Caprio wisely defers to Tom Hanks, who is flat out hilarious as Joe Friday-serious FBI agent Hanratty, a fraud specialist who finds himself drawn to this daring thief he’s chasing. Di Caprio also plays second-fiddle to Christopher Walken, the very definition of charisma, even in mid-collapse, as Frank Sr. His scenes give the film a soul, and John Williams, doing some of his best work in years, gives it a pulse. Minor gripes aside, this is a master commercial filmmaker at the top of his form, and it’s nearly pure joy.
Life is, simply put, the process of people telling stories to each other. The way we learn, the way we socialize, the way we define ourselves, is through the telling of stories, the passing of experience from one person to the next. This year, three films were made which seemed to celebrate the integral nature of storytelling to our very existence, and no one of these masterpieces eclipsed the other. Instead, they each stand alone, perfect examples of what this media is capable of at this particular moment in time, each as cutting edge and as bold as they are classically styled and traditional. These three stories not only entertain and illuminate, they also manage to transform. You are a different and more interesting person for having taken these trips with these filmmakers.
People who complain about the way Peter Jackson is telling J.R.R. Tolkien’s remarkable LORD OF THE RINGS epic are missing the point. No two people tell a story the same way. If I asked someone to tell me about Jackson’s film, it would be filtered through them, and what they’d describe to me would be their version of Peter’s film, just as his films are his version of the books, which one could argue is simply Tolkien’s version of the books left behind by Bilbo and Frodo. Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth as a real place and time and these films as historical epics is truly innovative, and it’s the thing that makes them feel brand new after decades of film fantasy. Digital effects are one of the tools he brings to the table, sure, but that’s not why he’s pulled off something that stymied other filmmakers for decades. I think it’s more due to the clarity with which Peter imagines this place. He’s managed to infect a whole team of lunatics with his vision, and it takes that almost evangelical zeal to work on a film for the better part of a decade. People misunderstood something I said in my initial review, so let me clarify it here... I see this as an essential film for viewing right now, as we stand on the brink of not one but two wars on foreign soil. We hold the Ring in our hand, and we have the ability to use it to terrible destructive ends. Our leaders are sorely tempted right now, and for reasons that are, at best, questionable. I am horrified at how little we seem to have learned from history, and how ready we are to plunge headlong into the madness of war once more.
That’s why a film like THE PIANIST feels so urgent, so essential. I’ve had people complain to me, “Oh, it’s just another film about the Holocaust,” but they’re missing the point. The reason Roman Polanski’s haunting testament is so important is because it is a true story of how one person survived that unfathomable event. Every survivor’s story is true, because when these things happen again (and I say when, not if, because I am afraid we do not learn from the past), we will once again be forced to turn to each other for help. Polanski’s film shows that there were good Jews and bad Jews, good Poles and bad Poles, and good Germans and bad Germans, and that it is the actions of individuals that allow Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrian Brody in the performance of a lifetime) to make it through the horror of WWII Poland alive. This is an enormously human film, vital and alive, simple in style but cutting edge in its clarity of vision.
Deciding how to tell a story is even more important than deciding which story to tell, which is why ADAPTATION seems to be the film that binds every other picture on this list together. Charlie Kaufman’s blindingly brilliant screenplay was brought to effortless life by Spike Jonze, and Nicolas Cage has never done better work than he does here as both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. This film can be read in a number of different ways, and one of the things that has most amazed me is how violently some people have rejected the film’s last third. I continue to marvel at the impact the film had on me, and I find myself aching to see it again now that I’ve made my way through everything else I wanted to see before writing this list. In the end, that’s the most basic criteria I use to determine where to place something on this list, and ADAPTATION deserves to share this number one spot with THE TWO TOWERS and THE PIANIST because of the enormous resonance they all have, and because I know these are classics, films I will revisit for the rest of my life.
FILMS I SIMPLY LIKED BUT HAD NO PLACE FOR ON ANY SORT OF FORMAL LIST:
JACKASS: THE MOVIE, BLADE 2, ONE HOUR PHOTO, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, ROAD TO PERDITION, TALK TO HER, AUTO FOCUS, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, FRIDA, IGBY GOES DOWN, SEX & LUCIA, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, LOVELY & AMAZING, SPIDER-MAN, SECRETARY, BELOW, 8 MILE, FRAILTY, LATE MARRIAGE, MAX, STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES, THE RING, SPIDER, and SUNSHINE STATE.
FILMS I DESPERATELY WISH I COULD SAY I LIKED, BUT ULTIMATELY HAVE TOO MANY PROBLEMS WITH:
SIGNS, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and MINORITY REPORT
THE 20 HOURS I WANT BACK (in order of agony)
As I’ve explained before, I don’t do a “worst of” list, since I hope I avoided a lot of films that might genuinely claim that title. Besides, one man’s bread and butter is another man’s shit on toast, so instead of me saying these are the worst films I saw this year, I’ll say that these are the movies that made me desperately wish I was doing something else... anything else... the entire time I was watching them. If I could add these to the “Missed” list and trade ten titles, I would.
Someone saw the original Japanese RING and PULSE and decided to try and rip them off. Too bad that someone didn’t know the first fucking thing about horror. Or acting. Or which way to point the camera while shooting. Miserable and loathesome would be too kind.
2. LOVE LIZA
Evidently intense grief turns you into a mongoloid. Who knew? This is one of those films that exists only to showcase a performance, and since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s working from a script by his brother and he’s being directed by another actor, there’s really no chance he’s going to even approximate subtle. This was about 90 minutes long, but felt like nine hours. I can’t imagine a more self-indulgent performance piece, and if I ever encounter one, I may not survive.
Dear Santa. Please bring Andrew Niccol a good idea this year. Something that isn’t smarmy and self-satisfied and hermetically sealed, please, like this catastrophe. Al Pacino looks lost here, and even the presence of my beloved Catherine Keener can’t save this one from collapsing under the weight of its own pretension. I promise, I’ll leave out the good milk and cookies, and I’ll even remember not to light a fire this year. Just please don’t make me sit through another one of these.
4. TIE: HALLOWEEN RESURRECTION and THEY
Someone stop Dimension before they kill again.
5. TWO WEEKS NOTICE
Someone needs to sit Sandra Bullock down and explain to her that Marc Lawrence may be a nice guy and fun to hang around with, but he obviously hates her very much. How else can you explain the triple crown of FORCES OF NATURE, MISS CONGENIALITY, and TWO WEEKS NOTICE? Now that he’s directing his own abominations, Lawrence appears to be poised to make shitty Bullock movies for the rest of his life. And if I get dragged to another one, I’m gonna have to throw him a beating.
6. THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS
Pointless animated fantasies and a coming of age story that goes nowhere and relies on one of the stupidest plot devices of the year make Peter Care’s directorial debut one of the most unpleasant chores of the year. Took me three tries to make it all the way through. I’m sorry I bothered.
7. SCOOBY DOO
This is a given. Don’t argue with me.
8. JOHN Q
This year’s I AM SAM. You can almost hear the executives on this one congratulating themselves on cobbling together one of the most pedestrian and condescending polemics possible, something that undermines the actual horror of the modern HMO system. It’s been a long time since DOG DAY AFTERNOON was made, and people still keep trying to rip it off. Remember... you gave Denzel an Oscar last year. Try watching this one without regretting it just a little.
9. TIE: PANIC ROOM and STORYTELLING
Two talented filmmakers. Two lifeless, shitty films. Todd Solondz and David Fincher both need to learn some new tricks right freakin’ now.
Evidently honor is defined as the killing of brown people in this film that has no idea what the hell it’s trying to say. I know Harvey Scissorhands mangled Shakur Kapur’s original cut, but I have no idea how this witless, although pretty, mess could have been improved by more running time.
Best Film I Saw For The First Time That Isn’t A 2002 Film
TWO WOMEN (Iran)
Best Comic Book Movie
Funniest Line Of The Year
”Is Butterbean okay?”
Best STAR WARS Film Of The Year
THE TWO TOWERS
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
Best James Bond Film
THE BOURNE IDENTITY
Best Terrible Film That Really Wasn’t
DEATH TO SMOOCHY
Best Hip-Hop Culture Film
BIGGIE & TUPAC
Film I’m Happiest I Managed Not To See
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING
MAID IN MANHATTAN
THE PERFORMANCES OF 2002
Films are collaborations, but the very nature of performance is such that people can distinguish themselves, and this is the list of people who made me sit up and take notice, who created indelible impressions and gave life to characters I feel privileged to have met this year:
Hugh Grant, ABOUT A BOY
Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates, ABOUT SCHMIDT
Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Nicholas Cage, ADAPTATION
Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe, AUTO FOCUS
Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis, BUBBA HO-TEP
Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
Sam Rockwell, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
Jeremy Davies, Jason Schwartzmann, and Angela Lindvall, CQ
Robert Forster, DIAMOND MEN
Eminem, 8 MILE
Christian Bale, EQUILIBRIUM
Julianne Moore, FAR FROM HEAVEN
Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Broadbent, GANGS OF NEW YORK
Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Ed Harris, THE HOURS
Sid Haig, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES
Raymond J. Barry, INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASSIN
Robert Evans, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE
Andy Serkis and WETA, LOTR: THE TWO TOWERS
Emily Mortimer, LOVELY & AMAZING
Noah Taylor, MAX
Angela Bettis, MAY
Jason Patric and Ray Liotta, NARC
Christopher Plummer, Tom Courtenay, Jim Broadbent, and Nathan Lane, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY
Anne Magnuson, NIGHT AT THE GOLDEN EAGLE
Robin Williams, ONE HOUR PHOTO
Adrien Brody, THE PIANIST
Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE
Michael Caine, THE QUIET AMERICAN
Paul Newman and Jude Law, ROAD TO PERDITION
James Van Der Beek and Ian Somerhalder, RULES OF ATTRACTION
Val Kilmer and Vincent D’Onofrio, THE SALTON SEA
Maggie Gyllenhaal, SECRETARY
Joaquin Phoenix, SIGNS
Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe, SPIDER-MAN
Frank Oz and ILM, STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES
Edie Falco, SUNSHINE STATE
Ed Norton, 25TH HOUR
Diane Lane, UNFAITHFUL
Maribel Verdu, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN
And so 2002 comes to a close, and 2003 is underway. I’ve already seen one truly amazing film this year, and I’ll be back with my review of CITY OF GOD in the next few days. I’m also on my way to Atlanta on Thursday for a peek at something really promising and strange and bold, and I’ll be back to share the details of that trip with you next week. Until then...