2002 in Movies

Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine

So, just how good were the movies of 2002? By way of demonstrating, allow me to present, as a prelude to my 10 favorites, a few other lists of 10: My 10-best runners-up, in descending order of preference, are 13 Conversations About One Thing, Spider-Man, Igby Goes Down, Minority Report, 8 Mile, Changing Lanes, Auto Focus, Frailty, Solaris, and Sunshine State, films that in any other year might easily have ranked in the top 10.

The runners-up to those runners-up would be Insomnia, Frida, Kissing Jessica Stein, Reign of Fire, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Red Dragon, Die Another Day, K-19: The Widowmaker, The Bourne Identity, and Stuart Little 2, all sensational entertainments in their own right.

After those titles, you'll find the considerable pleasures of Barbershop, Tuck Everlasting, Jackass the Movie, Notorious C.H.O. , My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Birthday Girl, The Emperor's Club, The Sum of All Fears, Orange County, and Ice Age.

Then there are the flawed-but-still-worthwhile flicks: Undisputed, Murder by Numbers, Simone, The Banger Sisters, High Crimes, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, We Were Soldiers, Tadpole, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Throw in the trashy, embarrassing fun of Queen of the Damned, everything in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones that didn't feature Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman, and my impending top-10 list, and I enjoyed a good-or-better movie experience for every single week of the year; I can't remember the last time I could honestly make that statement. (Well, actually I do. It was 1999. But it feels like it's been forever.)

So even though our cineplexes in 2002 were, as ever, filled with bloated Hollywood overkill, tame and toothless genre pics, and four movies that employed the questionable talents of Adam Sandler, they did provide occasional marvels, the 10 most thrilling of which are recounted here. This is not to say that they've all made an appearance at a theatre near you. My number-one and number-two favorites, as you'll see, have yet to make their Quad Cities debuts - I was fortunate enough to catch them in the Chicago area during Thanksgiving weekend - and hopefully, their inclusion on this roster will encourage viewers to seek them out (and perhaps encourage the good folks at Showcase 53, Nova 6 Cinemas, and the Quad Cities Brew & View to seek out their immediate bookings).

And now, without further ado ...

1) BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE: When I read critiques of Michael Moore's latest documentary that call it "undisciplined" and "all over the place," I want to tear my hair out at the level of incomprehension; anger and outrage are messy emotions, and Moore, angered and outraged at the prevalence of firearms in this country, has, quite fittingly, made a messy movie. It's also an amazing movie, a rare work of cinematic art that makes you an active, rather than passive, viewer; your emotions and biases and knowledge are alive while watching it, and you leave the theatre feeling wired and eager to talk. In Moore's devastatingly funny, mordant, and smart film, he tackles the subject of Why Americans Love Guns So Much from every conceivable level, and his findings range from the hilarious (there's a Michigan bank that will issue you a brand-new piece for opening an account) to the horrifying (Charlton Heston appears at a Colorado NRA rally mere weeks after the Columbine massacre), oftentimes within the same scene. Even if you disagree with Moore's politics, or hate his politics, you need to see Bowling for Columbine for yourself; he's one of the rare documentarians still sparking debate, and given our current political climate, it's a debate that few these days are willing to initiate. Moore has always been fearless; now he's moving towards being peerless.

2) FAR FROM HEAVEN: I'm biased because I love her, but in Todd Haynes' ravishing update of Douglas Sirk's '50s melodramas, Julianne Moore gives the kind of startling, nuanced screen performance you see once or twice a decade, if you're lucky. As a housewife who must endure a closeted, gay husband (a splendid Dennis Quaid), a pernicious best friend (an exquisite Patricia Clarkson), and town derision when her friendship with her black gardener (a moving Dennis Haysbert) is revealed, Moore has never been more luminous or more touching, and that's saying a lot. Moore and the supporting cast could have easily been the whole show, but the film's cinematography and design are simply extraordinary - outside of animation, you've never in your life seen more vivid colors onscreen - and the depth of Haynes' love for and commitment to his material is transcendent; what you assume, at first, will be a jokey homage to early "women's pictures" becomes positively transfixing, emotionally shattering, and all throughout, eerily beautiful. It's, quite literally, a movie unlike any I've ever seen, yet one I want to see over and over again.

3) THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS: We all knew it would be big. We all knew - or at least assumed - it would be terrific. But this big? This terrific? The second installment in Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy would have gotten by on sheer scope - the unimaginably huge battle scenes and production design alone are worth the admission price - but, as with The Fellowship of the Ring, the film's genius is in the breadth of its character detail. Towers was sure to be visually arresting, but we're also given a deepening of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn and Orlando Bloom's Legolas, Elijah Wood's increasingly tormented Frodo, and the sheer wonder behind the conception of Gollum, who could have been a middle-Earth Jar-Jar Binks but is more like a CGI Olivier. Brilliant from start to finish. December 2003 can't come fast enough.

4) Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: On paper, the storyline reads like Stand by Me-meets-Porky's, with subtitles - two horny teenage boys come of age while on a road trip with a beautiful, older woman. Astonishingly, however, Alfonso Cuaron takes this premise and creates the most haunting and beautiful meditation on life and young love the screen has seen in years. Refusing to sentimentalize his characters or their situation, Cuaron lets events unfurl with the messy unpredictability of real life, and in doing so, reveals the devastating profundity of "ordinary" life; you're free to laugh or cry at any time, and both responses feel absolutely deserved. Carrying almost the entire movie on their shoulders, Maribel Verdu, Diego Luna, and Gael Garcia Bernal give performances that couldn't possibly be improved on.

5) THE RULES OF ATTRACTION: I actually saw this one twice in one week, mostly because I didn't fully trust my instincts: Was this adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, filled with yuppie scumbags, soulless druggies, loathsome collegiate lotharios, and unrepentant egomaniacs, really as good as I thought? Nope. It was even better. While not quite as savage as the novel that inspired it, Roger Avary's pitch-black tragicomedy stares directly in the face of '80s hedonism and sees ... nothing; the film is a blistering indictment of the sort of self-centered apathy that Ellis found damnable in that whole decade. Avary's work, though, is anything but apathetic; it's hysterically funny, achingly sad, superbly performed, and full-to-brimming with showstopping visual and aural design. All that, and the best use of George Michael's "Faith" ever committed to celluloid.

6) THE GOOD GIRL: After viewing their sickeningly coy, repellant little indie Chuck & Buck, nothing could have intrigued me less than another collaboration by director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White; what a shock, then, to encounter their latest, a tremendously enjoyable comedy-drama that offered some of 2002's biggest laughs, and some of the year's most inventive plotting. Jennifer Aniston came through with a lovely, fully realized screen performance, and was gracious enough to cede the movie's spotlight to an incredibly colorful supporting cast; Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, John Carroll Lynch, and Deborah Rush were all marvelous, and Tim Blake Nelson and the dry-as-sandpaper Zooey Deschanel gave the high-comic supporting performances of the year. If the Coen brothers ever adapted Larry McMurtry, the results - at their best - would look something like this.

7) GANGS OF NEW YORK: As with The Two Towers, here's a three-hour experience that's almost ridiculously entertaining. Martin Scorsese's epic of gang warfare in 19th Century New York is flawed, to be sure; the story's arc is rather tired, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, despite valiant attempts, don't quite possess the fire you'd hope for. But those limitations are easily outweighed by the film's beyond-astonishing production design, the juicy dialogue, Scorsese's indelible, inspiring technical virtuosity (it's his best work since GoodFellas), the superb Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, and Brendan Gleeson in supporting roles, and best of all, Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis has often been astounding, but the staggering intensity of his work here transcends anything he's done before, even his Christy Brown; it's the male performance of the year. The film itself nearly matches him.

8) THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES: Without question, the 2002 work I most egregiously underrated. When I first saw the film, way back in January, I thought it was remarkably well-crafted but silly; that stupid trailer with the ChapStick punchline probably unduly influenced me. On subsequent viewings, however, I've realized how tantalizingly creepy and confident it actually is. In just under two hours, director Mark Pellington provides as wide a variety of scares as you could possibly want, from goosebump-inducing (that insidious phone call) to yelp-out-loud (Surprise! Debra Messing's in the bed!). Pellington also proves, as with 1999's Arlington Road, wonderfully gifted with actors, as he handles Laura Linney, Will Patton, and Alan Bates expertly and elicits the second-best performance of Richard Gere's career. And as for that killer finale, just try crossing the 74 bridge without thinking about it.

9) UNFAITHFUL: In case you were wondering which film featured Richard Gere's best performance, it's this one; Adrian Lyne's hypnotic domestic-thriller is Hollywood craftsmanship at its most assured and satisfying. As usual, Lyne doesn't skimp on the style and polish, but Unfaithful is far more emotionally overwhelming than we had any right to expect. This is, in part, due to Lyne's electrifying staging of the film's doomed love affair, but mostly it's in his direction of Gere and the riveting Diane Lane, whose torrents of fear, guilt, paranoia, and inevitable exhaustion are palpable. Watching the movie again on DVD, I instantly remembered how good it was, yet I had forgotten how sad it was; Gere and Lane create the movie year's most believable, compassionate marrieds and help make what could have been a sleek genre piece a wrenching, yet incredibly enjoyable, work.

10) SPIRITED AWAY: You had to be quick to catch this one - I think it played a mere 14 times at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas - but I'll bet that not one patron who saw it, adults and kids alike, left disappointed. In the most wildly entertaining animated movie of the year, and the best non-computer-animated feature in nearly a decade, Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki presents his take on an Alice in Wonderland-type fable and unleashes so much visual imagination that viewing it leaves you a little dizzy. The film traces a young girl's journey through a haunted theme park, and it's so touching, so funny, so scary, and so unique that it stands as an instant classic in anime; it's the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, and though critics here adored it, the movie deserved far greater success in America than its limited release allowed.

Magnificent movies all, and before signing off, I'll leave you with one last top-ten list:

The 2002 Movies I Can't Wait to See: About Schmidt, Adaptation, All or Nothing, Antwone Fisher, Catch Me If You Can, Chicago, The Hours, The Pianist, The Quiet American, and Talk to Her. The year might be over, but the movie year, for we Midwesterners, at least, hasn't ended quite yet.

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