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2002: A Year In Decline
by Greg Muskewitz

Subsequently, every year at this time, it appears to be the critics’ lamentation on the closing year’s sorrowful, declining state of cinema, all the while wishing for a better year despite their own foggy doubts. It becomes increasingly distressing to even the most jaded of cynics for the impending year to rebound to a more comfortable state of being when each year over the past five (or more) perpetually are a step down. Likewise, it is painful to imagine that the next year can get any worse.

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2002: A Year In Decline
It is painful to imagine that the next year can get any worse.

Subsequently, every year at this time, it appears to be the critics’ lamentation on the closing year’s sorrowful, declining state of cinema, all the while wishing for a better year despite their own foggy doubts. It becomes increasingly distressing to even the most jaded of cynics for the impending year to rebound to a more comfortable state of being when each year over the past five (or more) perpetually are a step down. Likewise, it is painful to imagine that the next year can get any worse.

In my mind, 2003 still holds the initial chasteness that every new year presents when its slate is blank. I have done no looking ahead, worked up any anticipation — mentally or by list — for what 2003 has in store for us. There are a few, however, spillover from this year that technically won’t open in my neck of the woods until after January first, that I know to be quite good. Namely Atom Egoyan’s Ararat and Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American. But that leaves 298 out of an estimated 300 that I stand completely in the dark on. (Television previews for the more mainstream and accessible early fare, i.e. Just Married are an argument for a long hibernation.)

An interesting trend this year, perhaps in some cases only a fluke, are directors with two movies released within 12 months. Within a week of each other, Michael Apted had Enigma and Enough. Kathryn Bigelow made it on a technicality with K-19: The Widowmaker, and a several-years-in-the-can The Weight of Water, sat on by Lions Gate. Scorsese had Gangs of New York and My Voyage to Italy — released in some parts, and not in others, but both of which are distributed by Miramax and were originally scheduled for release last year. (Voyage screened at the 2001 New York Film Festival.) Steven Soderbergh has rightfully dug himself 12-feet under with two massive duds written off as what happens when you can’t control masturbating your over-inflated ego: Full Frontal and Solaris. Spielberg had two full-fledged releases, one at the halfway mark (Minority Report, the superior of his coupling) and one at the year-end mark (Catch Me If You Can). Lastly, at least in some parts, Phillip Noyce qualifies with his Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American, clearly the director with the best dyad. And that says nothing of the actors (Isabelle Huppert, Susan Sarandon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Ludivine Sagnier (!), etc.), writer(s) (Charlie Kaufman), and others, to amass multiple credits to their résumés.

For much of the year, the idea of the Top Ten was a foreign and frightening concept. The dilemma: with what to fill the list! Nothing from early on made much of an impression, maybe outside of a couple of spillover releases. Summer, more or less, came and went. And the fall and winter, with its pumped-up roster of “awards-quality” releases, did little to mollify the panicking critic. (Don’t let me make this sound too dramatic — the level of consciousness at which I acknowledged my neurosis was of a much smaller scale.) The end result being that, compared to 2001, I am less enthusiastic over the collection of my Ten Best for 2002. Not to take the steam away from the select few that made it, but there are three lesser-rated films on this year’s list as opposed to one from last year. (I refuse, because of a difference in the star-rating, to modify to a Top Seven or Top Nine when I can still make a list of the ten best films I saw in a given year. Perhaps when I could only make a Top One would I make specific note for sheer desperation.)

Beginning from the rear-end: For the most part, Steven Spielberg left behind the awestruck nature of a little boy in a big world with his Minority Report. The darker nature of his film, the more adult aspect of it, laced with the top notch science-fiction from Philip K. Dick’s short story, is a thrilling and imaginative film with a sharp-pointed criticism and commentary on the future of law enforcement among other things. Despite its over-extended and predictable ending, Minority Report holds up very well.

German filmmaker Tom Tykwer and his occupation with fate and chance have in the past been a welcome anticipation of mine. (Well, Run Lola Run was a welcome, unexpected surprise, and The Princess and the Warrior was a satisfactory follow-up.) In his quest to explore the same themes in different contexts and forms, it led him to the eloquent script of Heaven by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz (never favorites of mine), split between Italian and English dialogue. As-of-yet resisting the call from Hollywood, Tykwer directs the film with his unique style and captures two wonderful performances from Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi.

Another up-and-comer who I have come to look forward to his films is France’s François Ozon (Under the Sand, Criminal Lovers, Water Drops On Burning Rocks). 8 Women is a giddy, energetic musical murder-mystery that takes a blender to Alain Resnais’ Same Old Song, the 1950s melodramas, and the boardgame Clue. While other critics were pretentiously fawning over Todd Haynes’ Douglas Sirk tribute in Far from Heaven, the same qualities were being paid homage in light parody-style by 8 Women. Although it lacks the dexterity and originality of Same Old Song, it is still able to utilize the concepts in an engaging and highly entertaining way. The ensemble cast is the best of the year (I’m especially thankful for the re-introduction to Ludivine), with wonderful musical numbers and just a very fun pastiche of form and genre.

I can always appreciate the ability of a filmmaker to cause its audience to squirm, not in the same manner as in Solaris or a potty-wiggle, but in the sense of true, undiluted intensity. And Oliver Hirschbiegel is apt at doing so in Das Experiment, which features an extremely compelling and cogent performance from Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run). The initial ties to reality through the set-up of the Stanford Prison experiment provide an excellent springboard for Hirschbiegel to provoke polemic and disturbing reactions from the pressure-cooked viewers.

One of my dilemmas this year was whether or not to include films that I saw in New York, since I spent half of the year there. Since there was only one major consideration, H-Story, which as a co-programmer of the 2003 San Diego International Film Festival, I plan to get (fingers crossed), I decided to hold off. However, I have opted to include the documentary Promises on a technicality, since it was originally scheduled to play for one week, but was pulled at the last moment. Always one to admit my general disinterest in documentaries, I hope this clearly exemplifies how willing I was to eat my hat. A thoroughly insightful and touching film, Promises is the project of an American Jew who goes to war-torn Israel to examine the country’s affairs through the eyes of children— secular Jews, religious Jews, resident Palestinians, and those forced out into the camps. Needless to say, it is quite eye-opening and ever so sincere.

Notwithstanding the release dates, the better of the two Noyce films for me was Rabbit-Proof Fence. Despite criticisms of the film’s black-and-white nature, Noyce directs the film with such emotional tenderness that within its transcendence, it leaps off of the screen to create an impenetrable catharsis. It’s simply heart-wrenching, and although one of the film’s strongest aspects is its connection with the viewer, Noyce’s execution, the sincerity he gets out of the young actresses and Christopher Doyle’s magnificent cinematography, it all bolsters one’s involvement (and position) in the reality of the story’s history.

With the limited release that Spirited Away received from Disney, one might almost think that they were punishing the Japanese animated film for being head and shoulders above their recent crop. The uncontainable imagination and innovation of Hayao Miyazaki explodes onto the screen in this tale of a gamine trapped within a spirit world, or more specifically, at a spirit spa. The traditional hand-drawn animation is dazzling, detailed, rich, limitless. Miyazaki’s meticulous attention to detail, from the patches of grass swayed by the wind, to the enormous size of the proprietor’s nose and her transmogrification into a bird, to incorporating genuine emotion into the drawn characters, are unmistakably of his own creation. And by removing the mythic ambiguities of Princess Mononoke, it allows him more freedom and a wider range of accessibility.

Another terrific ensemble piece this year was Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, which almost didn’t play in San Diego. The film returns to his more frequented territory after an excursion (into self-indulgence) with Topsy-Turvy. Eventually, the excellent supporting cast gives way to a spotlight on the under-appreciated and more than capable Lesley Manville, often one of Leigh’s staple support. Manville’s showcase results in a bounty of empathy for her character (as well as many of the others) because their plights aren’t trivialized, hyperbolized or glamorized. Leigh takes his characters at face value and presents them, diplomatically, as who they are and let them do as they would. The overall objectiveness says far more about the characters than a pointed commentary could.

My first real treat this year was the Chinese film What Time Is It There?. Staggeringly filmed by Benoît Delhomme in austere tradition with little to no camera movements and all in one take, Tsai Ming-liang’s meditation on his staid characters’ preoccupation with time, is again, a wonderful observation of the film’s central characters. Though the humor is derived predominantly from the quirky aspects of the characters’ behavior (for example, urinating in a plastic bag), Ming-liang is not judgmental about them but quick to distinguish them as individuals. Also as an hommage to the French New Wave — noted through the fractured narrative, the reliance on following the characters rather than subduing them in plot, the references to Resnais and Truffaut, the inclusion of clips from the latter’s films, the cameo of Jean-Pierre Léaud, etc. — the film is no doubt an accomplished tribute.

Moving from the French New Wave to the Taiwanese New Wave, Millennium Mambo is the second Chinese film in a row to make my Number One spot. Thoroughly distinct from Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (with the exception of sharing the brilliance of cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bin), Hou Hsiao-hsien definitively sets the level of excellence in filmmaking this year. The most common thread shared between my top three choices this year are the filmmakers’ somewhat pacifistic approach to their storytelling. It is such an easy option to color the viewer’s reaction and impression of the characters in their film without letting one make up their own mind. Hsiao-hsien’s portrait of a young women perpetually caught in an unhealthy relationship isn’t about whether you approval or like what the characters are doing or if you agree with them or not. The focus is more on the storytelling and objective observation; creatively formulated first by a voiceover summary, Hsiao-hsien then paints out the visuals on his cinematic canvas. Whatever one’s position on the film’s content, it is difficult to ignore the style of its presentation. It’s only a shame that Millennium Mambo ran for a total of one showing at the San Diego International Film Festival.

Top Ten
10. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)
9. Heaven (Tom Tykwer)
8. 8 Women (François Ozon)
7. Das Experiment (Oliver Hirschbiegel)
6. Promises (B.Z. Goldberg, Carlos Bolado, Justine Shapiro)
5. Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
3. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)
2. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang)
1. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Salutatorians: Big Bad Love, Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, The Son’s Room, Pumpkin, My Wife Is an Actress, Son of the Bride, Little Otik, Tuck Everlasting, Drumline, Frailty, Happy Times, Mostly Martha, Merci pour le Chocolat and Invincible.

Bottom Ten
10. Amy’s Orgasm (Julie Davis)
9. Swimfan (John Polson)
8. Emperor’s Club (Michael Hoffman)
7. Iris (Richard Eyre)
6. Solaris (Steven Soderbergh)
5. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)
4. Jackass (Jeff Tremaine)
3. Just a Kiss (Fisher Stevens)
2. Swept Away (Guy Ritchie)
1. Kissing Jessica Stein (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld)

The Rest of the Bottom of the Barrel: In Praise of Love, The Time Machine, Welcome to Collinwood, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Abandon.

As for my annual Muskewitz Awards, the nominations are forthcoming.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=653
originally posted: 12/30/02 21:11:22
last updated: 01/01/04 14:21:50
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