I will remember 2002 as a very good year for movies. It was a year in which I found a lot of films that inspired thought, touched emotions, or just gave me a really strong dose of entertainment. A few did all three. The purpose of creating a Ten Best list is really to call a little more attention to the films that achieved something significant; to remind viewers of some excellent pictures they might want to see, or see again. It is a measure of the year's cinematic quality that my rankings are, in some ways, irrelevant. My #10 through #4 choices are all about equal in my mind; any difference in rank is almost random. My picks for #3 and #2 could easily have been candidates for #1 - and they were until one movie ultimately stood slightly higher in my mind. It was impossible for me to select any other title as the year's best.
In addition to the ten listed below, there were plenty of movies that I loved in 2002. And so I take a second to acknowledge the pleasure I derived from seeing Panic Room, Spider-Man, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sidewalks of New York, The Bourne Identity, Lilo & Stitch, Men in Black II, Road to Perdition, Signs, xXx, Blood Work, Simone, Barbershop, Red Dragon, The Ring, The Good Girl, The Devil's Playground, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Secretary, Solaris, 24 Hour Party People, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Hell House, Catch Me If You Can, and The Pianist. Each of these received 3 1/2 stars from me. A number of others received 3 stars, which also constitutes a positive review, but in the interest of time and space, I will remember them quietly.
Any given year also brings some runners-up. Regrettably, a Ten Best list can only contain ten films, which means others narrowly miss inclusion. It is with great regret that this list cannot find room for Bill Paxton's Frailty, one of the creepiest and most disturbing movies I have ever seen. Or Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, which brought back the thrill of my childhood obsession with George Lucas's sci-fi epic. Or Insomnia, Christopher Nolan’s sharp, intelligent thriller. Or 25th Hour - my most painful cut. Director Spike Lee has been making great movies for nearly 15 years now. Too often, his work is underrated. 25th Hour proves it's time to recognize him as one of the great filmmakers in the history of cinema.
These movies brought me a lot of satisfaction and made my job as a critic easier. Any time I can sit in a theater and be dazzled for two hours is time well spent.
10. Chicago - The long-gestating movie version of the popular Broadway musical didn’t disappoint. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Richard Gere appear to be having the time of their lives singing and dancing in one imaginative musical number after another. They’re all good, too. The musical genre was long considered dead but, along with Moulin Rouge, Chicago proves that it is still vital to today’s audiences.
9. About Schmidt - Jack Nicholson brilliantly plays retiree and widower Warren Schmidt, who looks back at his life and decides he has nothing remarkable to show for it. So he hops in his Winnebago and drives cross-country to stop his daughter from making the same mistake by marrying a sleazy waterbed salesman. Writer/director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor are astute observers of human behavior; they aren't afraid to put characters into uncomfortable situations and watch what happens. Their movie understands that there are no simple answers to life's dilemmas. Nevertheless, Schmidt ends up a better man because he learns an important lesson about life: it's all in how you look at it. About Schmidt is a beautiful story.
8. Adaptation - The team behind Being John Malkovich does it again. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman adapts Susan Orlean’s novel “The Orchid Thief” and simultaneously documents the difficulty he had adapting it in the first place. Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman, as well as his twin brother Donald (who doesn’t really exist). Confusing? If so, this probably isn’t the movie for you. Adventurous moviegoers may agree that this Spike Jonze-directed comedy is one of the most original motion pictures you’re likely to ever come across. It’s filled with so many mind-bending suggestions and possibilities that you really need to see it at least twice for everything to sink in. Confession: after I see Adaptation again (and I will see it again), I may regret not putting it higher on my list.
7. Gangs of New York - It took Martin Scorsese over 20 years to bring this historical epic to the big screen, and boy was it worth the wait! This stirring drama about immigrant and nativist gangs fighting for space in 1860's New York City works as both a history lesson and a rousing entertainment. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz star alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives one of the most chilling portrayals of incipient evil ever committed to celluloid. Most of us realize that our ancestors came to America from other countries, but how often to we recognize how hard they had to fight to stay here? Gangs of New York suggests that the desire immigrants had to share in this country's freedom made it impossible for it not to become a melting pot. What a gloriously patriotic sentiment.
6. Far From Heaven - Todd Haynes drew inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk and, in the end, made the kind of topical movie Sirk could only do through symbolism. This examination of racial and sexual intolerance stars Julianne Moore as a housewife who develops a romantic attraction to her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) after discovering her husband (Dennis Quaid) has been exploring his homosexual desires. Shot in the image of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (and acted in an old-fashioned theatrical style), the movie shows us how far we've come in some areas, how little in others. Haynes really took a risk with this material, but it paid off. The style is not just a stunt; it enhances the theme.
5. About a Boy - Nick Hornby's elegantly funny novel was perfectly adapted by, of all people, American Pie directors Chris and Paul Weitz. Hugh Grant stars as a cad who joins a single parent support group to pick up women. The fact that he doesn't really have a child of his own is of no apparent concern to him. One of the group's members (Toni Collette) has a pre-pubescent son who inexplicably latches onto Grant. This one-sided relationship eventually causes the callow bachelor to re-examine his way of life. The plot admittedly sounds kind of cloying, but the beauty of Hornby's book (and the film) is that it makes the scenario feel like a genuine slice of life. It's affecting without being manipulative. Grant deserves an Oscar nomination for his best performance yet.
4. One Hour Photo - I don't think I moved a muscle during Mark Romanek's hypnotic thriller. Robin Williams (in a career highlight) plays a lonely photo clerk who becomes obsessed with a family whose pictures he develops. He forms a bond with them in his mind, then is stunned to discover they don't feel nearly as attached to him as he does to them. Having majored in psychology as a grad student, I can tell you that the film authentically portrays the type of desperation that leads to stalker behavior. Williams is nearly unrecognizable as poor Sy; he never intends to hurt anybody, but the need to keep his illusion intact forces him to take desperate measures. The ending, in which Sy's world unravels as police chase him through a parking garage, still haunts me.
3. Changing Lanes - Road rage has become such a fixture of our society that it's hard to believe no one made a movie about it before. Screenwriter Michael Tolkin crafted a morally complex tale about two hotheaded men (Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck) who have a minor fender-bender, then spend the rest of the day trying to get even with one another. The movie keeps tightening the screws on both characters, showing how outside pressures drive their desire to make somebody somewhere pay for something. The fact that neither one can just let it go is indicative of the need to feel in control that so many people have these days. The entire cast, including supporting actors Sydney Pollack and Amanda Peet, is outstanding, and Jackson gives the year's best performance by an actor.
2. Minority Report - Steven Spielberg is, was, and always shall be "the Man" when it comes to virtuoso filmmaking. He explores issues of personal freedom and civil liberty in this futuristic tale that excited me both viscerally and intellectually. Tom Cruise plays the top cop in a "pre-crime" unit that uses technology to stop murders before they actually take place. When Cruise is accused of being a future killer, he questions whether the system is really as accurate as it is supposed to be. There are plenty of dazzling action scenes in the movie, but it's the ideas that thrilled me the most. Sci-fi is always best when used to tackle societal issues; this is one of best uses of the genre I've ever seen.
And my choice for the Best Film of 2002 is:
1. Bowling For Columbine - No other film in 2002 impacted me as much as Michael Moore's documentary about the gun problem in America. Using the Columbine massacre as a jumping-off point, he looks at the gun control issue from every angle, trying to figure out why gun violence is so prevalent in the United States. Among the memorable moments are: a surprisingly potent discussion with Marilyn Manson, whose music was blamed by some for the Columbine shootings; a segment with the brother of one of the Oklahoma City bombers, during which the man points a loaded gun to his own head; and a dramatic confrontation with NRA president Charleton Heston, where Moore demands to know why he held NRA rallies in several cities immediately following school shootings. The most powerful segment of the movie, though, is a montage of surveillance footage of the mayhem inside Columbine High School during the massacre. I defy anyone to watch this and not well up with tears. Michael Moore has been accused by some of showboating and presenting his ideas through a filter of knee-jerk liberalism. It doesn't matter. He asks all the right questions to get you thinking and debating a vitally important issue. Bowling For Columbine is riveting and challenging - a movie that America desperately needs in these troubled times.
Those are my picks for the year's best. As always, I encourage you to see any of them you may have missed. These are ambitious movies that aim higher than most garden-variety releases. Whether you agree with my opinion of them or not, you have to respect any movie that has the courage to aim high.
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