It’s pathetic – I know. This list is three months late and still not as complete as it should be. I have no excuse, but I’m hoping that it’s still “better late than never.” This was a very good year for “good” stuff, and an average year for “great” stuff. But thank goodness for the “good” because everything else in 2002 was just kind of weak (politics, economy, the stock market). So without wasting another second, here it is …
Is the greater tragedy that so much money is spent on so much expensive, mindless Hollywood drivel (insert 80% of Hollywood films released last year), or that so many wonderful little films never really get the chance to find an audience? This year was filled with many excellent films, provided you caught them before, poof, they were gone. Thank God for Netflix and TiVo – you still have a chance to catch the wind.
1) The Pianist – Dir. Roman Polanski
(Adrian Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay)
A truly “great” film must contain at least one exceptional performance. The director must skillfully ease this role into a story that both entertains as a “movie” and also engages either emotionally or intellectually. Adrian Brody delivers an incredibly confident and powerful performance that is, in some ways, similar to the one Tom Hanks gave in “Castaway” but feels so much deeper and soulful. He fills the screen for almost every second with his distant gaze, wasting away before your eyes. The difference is that “The Pianist” manages to tell one of the 20th century’s most difficult stories, the Holocaust, without asking us for pity or guilty reflection. The Holocaust is instead a war, like many wars, filled with victims – some of which manage to survive because of a combination of desire and luck. Polanski would know, he was one of them, and treats the matter with a kind of controlled detachment that allows it to soar where so others has lapsed into shameful sentimentality. They simply do not get much better than this.
2) City of God – Dir. Fernando Meirelles (Leandro da Hora, Alexandre Rodrigues)
You would be hard pressed to find a better gangster film than “City of God.” This is the epic tale of a crew of young thugs living in the slummy outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, in movie that feels like a fusion of “The Warriors,” “Scarface” and “The Inkwell.” There is a decent amount of violence from beginning to end, but somehow there is a nonchalance that mixes in with the colorful sights and sounds of 60’s and 70’s Brazil seem to quell the intensity, keeping the whole film kind of oddly lighthearted. At its core “City of God” is really just a coming-of-age tale about a bunch of kids seizing the best opportunity that seems available: becoming drug-dealing hoodlums. But seen through the eyes of the only sympathetic character in the movie, the whole film feels like less a gratuitous shoot ‘em up, than it is a retro look at the universality of the urban experience.
3) Talk To Her – Dir. Pedro Almodovar (Rosario Flores, Javier Camara)
Ten or so movies into what has become an already iconic career, Pedro Almodovar has finally crafted a film that just sort of gracefully rolls out of the projector, without any of the odd complexity that sometimes weighs on his earlier efforts. The lushness of the photography and choreography allows it to flow like the many dances it that exists within it: ballet, bullfighting, and love and loss. But like most of his films, the strange looking characters caught in the middle of a perversely endearing emotional landscape manage to sweep you away like only a great movie really can.
4) Far From Heaven – Dir. Todd Haynes (Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid)
Like his last highly stylized and impeccably accurate period piece “Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes has taken the schmaltzy datedness of 50’s Hollywood and tossed in a slew of difficult contemporary issues that he bathes in eye watering cinematography. On the surface the film may feel a bit over the top, asking us to take a few unrealistic leaps, but with outstanding performances from Patricia Clarkson, Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid it would be hard to deny the film it anything other than the utmost respect for its ambition and dazzling craft. This is a film that will someday make its way into some cult canon, and one that was sadly overlooked the first time around.
5) Monsoon Wedding – Dir. Mira Nair
(Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Naseeruddin Shah)
Much has and will be said about a certain Greek wedding in 2002, but the India’s “Monsoon” was easily finest wedding oriented I have ever. The film is an unsentimental but affecting look at the idea of love as it relates to class, caste and familial expectation. Director Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala, “Salaam Bombay”) has created a gorgeously photographed story, highlighting an incredible array of magical colors, and focusing on two sets of characters. The primary characters come from an upper middle class background, have never met, but are arranged to be married, while a second storyline tells the story of a remarkable love that occurs between to two lower class characters who fall reluctantly, but magnetically in love. This is a truly original take on an age-old institution, which manages to deftly avoid what is usually a minefield of clichés and over-dramatizations.
6) About A Boy – Dir. Chris and Paul Weisz (Hugh Grant, Toni Collette)
There wasn’t an easier, more purely entertaining movie released in 2002 than the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s delicious third novel. The author’s ability to reach into the essence of a certain kind of contemporary man and extract the essence of the inevitable approach of impending middle age, distilling the root fears to a few simple universal truths, is so supremely translated to film that it leaves few holes to poke. Hugh Grant has never been better than as the hip and single trustafarian living a quiet selfish bachelor until a young fatherless boy enters his life any changes everything. Accompanied by the brilliant original soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy, the film drifts effortlessly along leaving in its wake a minor masterpiece.
7) Read My Lips – Dir. Jacques Audiard
(Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos)
Like last year’s brilliant “With A Friend Like Harry,” my 2002 nominee for the best French Hitchcockian film for best psychological thriller would easily go to “Read My Lips.” The film is both an awkward love story and gritty caper revolving around the relationship between a beautiful deaf office worker and a quiet, unhappy ex-convict whom she hires to help her with menial secretarial tasks. Both characters live in a sad place on the fringes of society, hers relegated by lonely deafness and his by a loveless existence that has driven him to crime. Films like this never quite work in Hollywood, but somehow the French just seem to have the knack.
8) Bowling For Columbine – Dir. Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a knee-jerk liberal who always manages to successfully offend a significant percentage of the Republican audience that accidentally stumbles into his films. But in the same breath, he is also incredibly clever and laudably manipulative in the way that he approaches his subjects and subject matter. America’s gun problem is hardly a laughing matter, nor would you think an interesting point of debate, but Moore is able to craft a real story out of a loose premise. It is rare to find a documentary that manages to tell its story in such a clean narrative fashion, think Errol Morris circa “Thin Blue Line.” But what makes the film even better is that you can see how Moore himself seems initially to be searching the to validate his premise but ultimately finding something different along the way.
9) Personal Velocity – Rebecca Miller (Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk)
Every year one or two gritty little dramas, shot in some innocuous slice of America (“Sling Blade, “Eye of God,” and “Boy’s Don’t Cry”), manage to grab you by the collar and hurl you face first into the lives of somehow wounded people. In this edgy first film debut based on her short stories, Rebecca Miller has juxtaposed three vignettes about women looking for some achievable sense of personal freedom. Each of its stars (Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk) is able to become one of these modern women forced to make peace and regain control of lives which are slowly slipping away. Although hardly a feel good film on the surface, there is a raw power and uplifting undercurrent that subtly bubbles to the surface making the
10) 24 Hour Party People – Dir. Michael Winterbottom
(Steve Coogan, Lennie James, Andy Serkis)
Mostly this film follows the rise and fall of the Manchester music movement, as seen through the strange characters who were part of legendary Hacienda nightclub and Factory Records scene. Bands like New Order, Joy Division and Happy Monday’s rise from this scene, but much of the film focuses on the quirky and fumblingly brilliant entrepreneur Tony Wilson (an odd fusion of Warhol and Austin Powers). For me the film represents the first to really focus on the music and culture to emerge from the punk-new wave movements of the late 70’s and early 80’s – which also happens to be the first truly unique musical movement to that I was able to experience as it was happening. Cleaver dialogue and stylish cinematography make the film downright lovable.
11) About Schmidt – Dir. Alexander Payne
(Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis)
So much hype, so much of it justified. This film is a character study in the way that most novels tend to be. Nicholson is a genius (but we already knew this) this time as a lonely, unfulfilled, recently retired and widowed ex-insurance agent. Much of this film might be misconstrued as “sad,” but the delicate and quirky details of the film make it much more a comedy than the straight drama it could have been: a rehearsal dinner at Tony Roma’s, a son-in-law who sells waterbeds, and general sense of playful exasperation amongst the characters. There is nothing revolutionary going on here, but that is part of what makes it so damn good.
12) Rabbit Proof Fence – Dir. Philip Noyce
(Kenneth Branagh, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury)
In another one of Western culture’s ugly hidden secrets, the Australian government attempted to dilute the blood of the indigenous aborigines by forcibly taking them from their families and placing them in white boarding schools often very far from home. “Rabbit Proof Fence” tells the story of three young girls who are fiercely uprooted and placed in one of these reform schools hundreds of miles away. There is a curious and unsentimental purity that director Philip Noyce is able to capture in three little girls. The arid endless landscape that the children must cross paints the perfect backdrop for another one of Western culture’s shameful experiments, all the while creating a wonderful mirror to reflect in.
13) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – Dir. Peter Jackson
(Viggo Mortenson, Live Tyler, Elijah Wood)
What can you say that hasn’t already been said? Peter Jackson has executed on one of the most ambitious projects in the history of movies and crushed expectations. The middle portion of the trilogy could have easily been merely a showcase for cutting edge special effects, where nothing really happens except flawless computer generation, but instead he has crafted a world where trees walk, talk, and think, where villainous Orcs are born in a brooding subterranean factory, and where an ominous darkness chases the last gasps of lightness without ever having to explain. Don’t mistake this film as anything other than extremely high art, cloaked as it is by brilliant marketing, because there is passion and creativity that ripples throughout each frame, making us long for the next installment well before the final credits role.
Would like have made the top of the list had I seen it … The Hours – Stephen Daldry
And for your consideration …
14) Italian For Beginners – Dir. Lone Scherfig (Anders Berthelsen, Lars Kaalund)
Another superb Dogme 95 slice of bleak Danish slice of life – darkly brilliant!
15) Movern Callar – Dir. Lynne Ramsey (Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott)
The oddly enthralling story about a Scottish woman who flees to Spain after finding her boyfriend dead on Christmas eve with his first novel blinking on a his computer.
16) The Secretary – Dir. Steve Shainberg (Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader)
The odd love affair of between a lonely lawyer and a troubled woman who become involved in a kinky but strangely genuine love affair.
17) The Piano Teacher – Dir. Michael Haneke (Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel)
The disturbing but intensely acted story of a cold, unhappy university music teacher and the student she falls in love with.
18) The Good Girl – Dir. Miguel Arteta (Jennifer Anniston, Jake Gyllenhaal)
A modern day Holden Caulfield falls in love with a bored and emotionally lonely married department store worker in a small podunk town.
19) Adaptation – Dir. Spike Jonze (Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper)
The second great film of the year by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (see Confessions), creatively adapts “The Orchid Thief” and executes brilliantly until the final 20 minutes.
20) Autofocus – Dir. Paul Schrader (Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe)
The incredibly stylized story of ex-Hogan’s Hero star Bob Crane who, not long after the show was canceled, became a sex addict and videographer on a slow spiral downward.
21) Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – Dir. George Clooney (Sam Rockwell, Clooney)
The slickly shot, superbly acted story of game show impresario Chuck Barris who, according to his autobiography was also a CIA hit man. Pure unadulterated entertainment.
22) Gangs of New York – Dir. Martin Scorsese (Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio)
The long-awaited gritty, New York historical epic about the Irish gangs of NYC is both spectacular to watch, but just a little to slow at times to make it a classic.
23) Lovely and Amazing – Dir. Nicole Holofcener (Brenda Blethyn, Catherine Keener)
A sarcastic, often painfully real look at mothers and daughters, as life forces one family together to deal with the consequences of caring about one another.
24) The Last Kiss – Dir. Gabriele Muccino (Marco Cocci, Stefano Accorsi)
A bunch of young 30something Italians (easily the best looking cast of the year) gather for a wedding and find that each one is reluctant to accept impending responsibility.
25) Y’ Tu Mama Tambien – Dir. Alfonso Cauron (Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal)
Really just another coming of age story, but what makes this film so special is the universality of the liberation of teenage excess and oblivion.
26) Dogtown and Z Boys – Dir. Stacey Peralta (narrated by Sean Penn)
The history of the rise of skateboarding in southern California during the draught of the mid 70’s the when the skaters hit the empty swimming pools.