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The Best Films of 2002

Martin Scorsese visited early New York, Paul Thomas Anderson put Adam Sandler in a Jerry Lewis suit, and Eminem returned to his Detroit roots.

The Best Films of 2002

It was a year for looking back. Directors Francois Ozon and Todd Haynes looked to Douglas Sirk for inspiration for 8 Women and Far from Heaven, respectively. Martin Scorsese visited early New York, John Sayles unearthed the ghosts of the Old South, Stephen Daldry hung out with a sapphic Virginia Woolf, Paul Thomas Anderson put Adam Sandler in a Jerry Lewis suit, and Eminem returned to his Detroit roots. France was the “it” locale of the year. While Tsai Ming-liang’s ghosts jumped back and forth between Taipei and Paris (What Time Is It There?), Claire Denis’s vampires stayed put, waiting for their victims to come to them (Trouble Every Day). Jonathan Demme and Brian De Palma took the bait, tapping into their early glory days and making two of the best Hollywood films of the year. David Cronenberg caught memories and echoes of Dead Ringers in his fragile Spider while Roman Polanski negotiated his youth in the Warsaw ghetto via the eyes of The Pianist. Others, though, were looking toward the future. My Big Fat Greek Wedding made more money than Monsoon Wedding which made more money than Late Marriage which featured one of the hottest sex scenes ever put on film. Jack Nicholson, George Clooney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman lost wives and took their pain across the space and time continuum to either offensive or pretentious effect. As far as tales of grief went, the most intimate came from Spike Lee, whose 25th Hour delicately engaged the ghosts of 9/11 during a series of tender blame games. Post-Osama, Michael Moore took our culture of fear to task. Oprah loved his Bowling for Columbine but there’s no word yet from the White House on whether George W. Bush will catch a screening before firing on Iraq. Ed Gonzalez


The Best Films of 2002

1. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes)

Far from Heaven opens with a dissolve between a canvas painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a stylistic flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Like Douglas Sirk before him, Todd Haynes is fascinated with the thin lines that separate the world from an idealized version of reality and the paths of resistance that lie therein. At a local art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). He teaches her to interpret the Picassos and Mirós that hang on the walls and observes how modern art has pared religious art down to simple shapes and colors. Again, Haynes calls attention to the expressive elements at work in this magnificent experiment, the “smoke and mirrors” of the film’s mise-en-scène that demand decodification. Throughout Far from Heaven, Haynes suggests that there is no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others.

2. Spider (David Cronenberg)

The film itself feels as if it’s been woven from the silk of Spider’s (Ralph Fiennes) memories, and as such it threatens to break at any given moment because, despite the rigorousness of its look, the raw material with which it is assembled is devastatingly fragile. Spider’s interaction with the past is an erotic ritual that reveals a Madonna/Whore complex born from the moment when the young Spider saw his doting mother (Miranda Richardson) modeling a blue nightie. The boy’s overwhelming Oedipal tension informs his view of all women and the devastating effects of their sex. Despite the obvious Freudian machinations at work here, Cronenberg slightly reworks the particulars of the Oedipal complex. But for a film so rich in metaphors and allusions to webs, Spider is never suffocated by technique or its formal artifice. Like all great films, Spider demands to be seen again so that its many ambiguities can be fully sorted out.

3. What Time Is It There (Tsai Ming-liang)

The emotionally disconnected characters of Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? wade through their sterile Taipei surroundings hopelessly grasping for a piece of human comfort. After the death of the film’s patriarchal figure (Mio Tien, aesthetically entrapped in the film’s lonely opening scene), his wife (Lu Yi-Ching) and son (Hsiao Kang) become victims of the mundane and the repetitive: she to reincarnation and he to bottles and plastic bags-turned-urine depositories (he’s afraid to go to the bathroom at night for fear of bumping into his father’s spirit). Tsai’s compositional elements owe as much to Ozu and Antonioni as his penchant for silence is indebted to Bresson. A burst of sexual activity simultaneously rocks the lives of the film’s frigid heroes; the irony, though, is that their perceived comfort becomes indistinguishable from the film’s otherwise mundane experiences.

4. Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)

Brian De Palma’s formal obsession with allusions to seeing and sightlessness have forever brought to mind the works of Dario Argento, perhaps the only other living director who can create and sustain the kind of delirious artifice on fierce display in Femme Fatale. While its Cannes Film Festival sequence must count as one of the most impressive set pieces ever orchestrated for the screen, it’s the opening long shot that deserves special mention: Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) watching Double Indemnity on French television, studying Barbara Stanwyck and rewriting herself as a modern femme fatale. Laure packs a gun and a one-liner or two, challenging the way men perceive women and using that perception to consume and spit out her men.

5. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)

In Spirited Away, 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents drive through a remote area of Japan and stumble upon an imaginary world hidden within the walls of an abandoned amusement park. When her gluttonous parents are turned into pigs, the young girl plans their escape from the witchy Yubaba’s health resort with the help of the Haku, a young boy capable of turning into a flying beast. Hayao Miyazaki has a way of losing himself to his imagination, a process that’s often frustrating though never less than exhilarating to behold. Plot here takes a backseat to set pieces that flow into each other, stream-of-conscious-like. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a moment on film this year more textured and exhilarating than Chihiro bathing the Stink God at Yubaba’s resort. Chihiro unearths a River God beneath the Stink and is rewarded for her kind effort; Miyazaki, all the while, subtly illuminates the young girl’s bourgeoning desires.

6. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis)

As elegant and mysterious as Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day demonstrates director’s Claire Denis’s signature obsession with the human body, cultural rifts, and the permissions of sex. Rarely does skin look as beautiful, desirable, even delectable, as it does in one of her mystery worlds, visually rendered by Agnes Godard’s expressionistic brush. The film’s unnerving use of silence, minimal dialogue, and grotesque close-ups all emphasize junkie vampire Coré’s (Béatrice Dalle) insatiable need for blood. Never has the hunger of a vampire felt so alive and so necessary as it does in Denis’s nervy vision of contemporary France.

7. Sunshine State (John Sayles)

William Faulkner’s American pastoral was built on the historical drama that extended over almost a century from the beginning of the Civil War to the time of his death. With Sunshine State, John Sayles continues exactly where Faulkner left off, tackling the institutionalized racism that seethes in the New South, here in the fictional town of Delrona Beach, Florida, a capitalist-wary community trying to reconcile its past and tradition-free present. Save David Gordon Green, no other white male director has paid such close attention to the legacy of slavery in the South Sayles does in Sunshine State.

8. Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili)

Dover Kosashvili’s first feature, Late Marriage so boldly confronts Jewish Orthodox traditions it’s a minor miracle it never becomes glib. At 32 years old, Zaza (Lior Loui Ashkenazi) is still “without full-time pussy”—or so think his parents, Yasha (Moni Moshonov) and Lily (Lili Kosashvili). Zaza is in love with the strong-willed Judith (Roni Elkabetz), a divorcee with a 6-year-old daughter, Madona (Sapir Kugman). Theirs is some of the most lighthearted, organic fucking you’re likely to ever see on the big screen. Judith, though, is less than ideal wife material, not because her “uterus can’t stand Zaza’s sperm” but because she’s four years his senior. Kosashvili never shies away from poking fun at the tyranny of his religion’s traditions though it becomes increasingly difficult to tell when the satire ends and reality begins—like so many great films of its kind, Late Marriage truly resembles the real deal.

9. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze)

The real-life Charlie Kaufman pares The Orchid Thief down to its most important elements and contemplates what would have happened had Susan Orlean and John Laroche become lovers. The wackiness with which Orlean and Laroche chase after the Kaufman brothers invokes subjects revolting against their authors; their actions certainly aren’t too far off from the kind of behavior that drove countless hunters and explorers to their deaths in search of elusive orchids. The film’s Hollywood ending is effective not only because it’s deliriously self-conscious but because it truly feels like a natural extension of everything that transpires prior. Kaufman rightfully believes that these kinds of Hollywood endings have to be earned. Adaptation. makes for a very rocky experience but watching it evolve into something profound, if not entirely complete, is certainly beautiful to behold.

10. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese deliberately and successfully fashions his hyperbolic Gangs of New York as the Holy Bible of the Big Apple (see the rivers of blood and the doors marked with candles). When a mist falls at the end, it’s as if the Holy Ghost has taken charge of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) in order to smite Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the man who killed his father. Gangs of New York has its Jesus, its Mary Magdalene, its Satan, even its own Judas Iscariot. However heavy its metaphor play may be, Gangs of New York is a scary-as-shit collection of ritualistic set pieces. Irish boys fresh off the boat are naturalized by hungry politicians, immediately sent to war against the Southern States, and return to the city in a steady procession of coffins, with Scorsese capturing this stinging conveyor-belt of horror in one brilliant long shot. Rich with history and travesty, the film is as archaic as it is relevant. It could be the stained glass window that hangs from the walls of St. Paul’s Chapel, across the street from where the World Trade Center used to stand.

Honorable Mention

The Truth About Charlie, ’R Xmas, Blade 2, Heaven, Domestic Violence, Spider-Man, Cremaster 3, Minority Report, Time Out, Atanarjuat, I’m Going Home, Unfaithful, Biggie & Tupac, Merci Pour Le Chocolat, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Worst of 2002

Antwone Fisher, Enough, Some Body, Sonny, Dragonfly, Serving Sara, Ghost Ship, About Schmidt, Scooby Doo, and Extreme Ops.


The Best Films of 2002

1. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese)

A movie about history that in turn becomes history. The most unsettling aspect of Martin Scorsese’s definitive masterpiece is not its vision of poverty, violence and turmoil in 1860s Manhattan, or even its chilling assault on the American government for its crimes against the immigrant citizens of our country. Instead it is the understanding that Gangs of New York itself may be the last of its kind: a huge, visionary epic so grand in its construction and so passionate and willful in its imagery that it has no place in today’s marketplace of easily digestible entertainments. Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis lead the way with a pair of remarkable performances, but this is Marty’s show, the culmination of a career and the decisive statement from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. It’s easily one of the best films ever made.

2. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore)

Michael Moore’s tendency to prioritize his individual agitations over whatever cause he’s fighting for makes him one of the more trying, though certainly amusing, liberal drum-beaters with the clout to keep afloat in the entertainment industry. But Bowling for Columbine, a consistently fascinating and emotionally devastating documentary that investigates America’s fascination with (and subservience to) violence and guns, is a landmark—even Moore is consistently overcome by the sadness he unearths in his subjects and the immediacy of his own observations. There are no definitive answers here (only a fool would dare expect them), but the vacuum Moore discovers at the heart of his issue is even scarier than one might imagine at the film’s outset. A film not only of significant intelligence and provocation but of social importance too.

3. Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón)

Part penetrating drama, part randy sex comedy, Alfonso Cuarón’s road trip fantasy Y Tu Mamá También was a blast of sheer liberation the likes of which is rarely, if ever, seen in films from our country. Much was made about the volume of all-clothes-barred sex scenes, but the film isn’t merely an excuse to stage the down-and-dirty escapades of its two horny teenage heroes (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna). Cuarón instead probes into the emotions masked by youthful carnal pursuits of the opposite sex, revealing a lot of bumpy truths in the journey from adolescence to adulthood that films like American Pie wouldn’t know what to do with. The film begins with an infectious jubilance but winds up at a merciless crossroads of confusion and shame.

4. Narc (Joe Carnahan)

A phenomenally confident genre film, Narc instantly recalls (and earns comparisons to) great ‘70s cop thrillers like Serpico and The French Connection. After a long absence from the screen, Jason Patric turns in the best performance of his career as a disgraced detective brought back to solve the murder of an undercover officer. His investigation leads to a partnership with the dead cop’s former cohort (Ray Liotta, doing his most intense and fearsome work since Goodfellas) who may know more about the murder than he’s letting on. Writer-director Joe Carnahan has tremendous flair for staging stark, frighteningly realistic violence, but he often chooses to hang back and let the characters take center stage, turning what could have been a routine action picture into a compelling character drama.

5. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)

United Artists did a major disservice to moviegoers by allowing Mike Leigh’s latest tour de force, a drama set amongst London’s working class, to get lost in the pre-Thanksgiving shuffle. That’s a shame because if All or Nothing doesn’t have the novelty of his previous film Topsy-Turvy, it has ten times the heart and soul. Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville are both tragic and beautiful as a couple forced to confront the marginality of their lives and their relationship with each other, and the film has a plethora of marvelous incidental characters, with Alison Garland and Ruth Sheen standing out as their daughter and neighbor, respectively. Leigh has always been noted for the nakedness of emotional expression found in his films but All or Nothing stands out amongst his other great work for how quiet and affecting it often is.

6. Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg)

It was a banner year for director Steven Spielberg that saw the worst film of his career (Minority Report) and one of the best, this sleek, frothy diversion that reveals itself as a piercing drama about fathers and sons. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as real-life felon Frank Abagnale Jr., a high school kid who slips into a life of white-collar crime after his parents’ marriage disintegrates. It’s a suave, confident performance, and the irony is that Abagnale was a kid who easily passed for an adult while DiCaprio still looks like he’s 28 going on 15. Spielberg has a lot of fun invoking the sunny charm of the 1960s while Frank cavorts from one scam to the next, but Catch Me If You Can has an unmistakable gravity at its center, evoked by the expert performances by Tom Hanks, as an F.B.I. agent assigned to capture Frank, and Christopher Walken, as Frank’s father whose pride won’t allow him to save his own son. It’s easy to see how some could miss the tender conflicts at the film’s center (after all, it is an adventure movie), but to those willing to read between the lines it will be all but unforgettable.

7. The Man From Elysian Fields (George Hickenlooper)

The Man From Elysian Fields remains one of the more engaging and original films of the year, a drama likely to put a smile on your face from start to finish. A struggling novelist, frantically trying to support his family, takes a job moonlighting as a male escort; his first client is the wife of an aging novelist who offers him a chance at untold successes. If at first glance the film looks conventional in its wisdoms, it’s because its excitement lies in the details—the perfection of a fully-realized plot twist or the hidden depths to a stiff-looking character, are where The Man From Elysian Fields makes its true impact. Director George Hickenlooper, a noted documentarian, handles the complex plot with an easy, understated grace, making it all the more juicy to savor, and the fine cast—including a devilish Mick Jagger and a gigantic James Coburn, bidding us a poignant farewell—is consistently unusual and surprising. It’s the kind of film that critics used to champion, but alas, most of my colleagues didn’t bother to seek it out. It’s their loss.

8. Love Liza (Todd Louiso)

An uncompromising original, the kind of austere but inherently sympathetic drama that recalls the great character-driven films of the 1970s. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of his most accomplished and unsympathetic performances as Wilson Joel, a computer programmer whose wife has just committed suicide. The film’s uncomplicated plot deals with whether or not Wilson should open a letter his wife wrote just before her death, yet the film is a fiercely complex examination of grief, one that never opts for the triteness of easy answers. The biggest cause for celebration is that debut director Todd Louiso (who spent five years bringing Love Liza to fruition) doesn’t mock his characters or condescend to his viewers like Alexander Payne does in his rambling, soulless drama About Schmidt; for all of its dark subject matter, it’s a movie that refuses to see the worst in its characters, allowing you to embrace them and the film itself.

9. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsey)

A haunting, elliptical film in which Samantha Morton, who’s emerging as one of the most consistently interesting and risk-taking actresses of her generation, gives us a guided tour of her facial emotions as a young woman who slowly invents a new life for herself after her boyfriend commits suicide on Christmas morning. There isn’t much narrative coherence to cling to in director Lynne Ramsey’s ascetic, barren landscapes, but Morton holds Morvern Callar together like glue, allowing the superb photography by Alwin Kuchler and Ramsey’s deft musical choices to float you away into a hazy dream.

10. Signs (M. Night Shyamalan)

The most satisfying pure Hollywood entertainment of the last few years was also the most assured step forward yet by M. Night Shyamalan, who merged the carefully designed scares of The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable’s dense eye for character drama. Mel Gibson’s portrayal of a disavowed minister who grapples with the reality of an ongoing alien invasion is almost too raw for the movie—it ranks with his most passionate work—but it points to Shyamalan’s welcome prerequisite of complex human dramas within his high-concept stories—a newfangled kind of classicist blockbuster that deftly slips in some ideas that you can take with you on the way out. The prelude to this film is much of Spielberg’s early work, and it’s no surprise that he’s Shyamalan’s hero. With Signs, he beings to earn that comparison.

Honorable Mention

Auto Focus, Changing Lanes, The Grey Zone, Happy Times, Italian for Beginners, K-19: The Widowmaker, Lovely and Amazing, Possession, The Rookie, Russian Ark, and Sunshine State.

Worst of 2002

The Hours, About Schmidt, Antwone Fisher, Minority Report, Femme Fatale, Monsoon Wedding, Moonlight Mile, Spider-Man, Road to Perdition, and Far from Heaven.

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