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Morality and Self-Loathing: What a Great Year for Cinema - The Best & Worst of 2002
by Erik Childress

I’m surprised, no chalk that – I’m flabbergasted – no, too dumb. Let’s put it straight – I think people are out of their FREAKIN’ minds when I hear them say that 2002 wasn’t a banner year for movies; almost as much as when I heard some say that 2001 wasn’t that bad of a year. Whether the expedience of rushing projects in before the potential writer’s strike (remember that one?) had anything to do with it or not, 2002 produced more quality movies than any period I’ve had since the “/film critic” accompanied my title of “movielover.” Not just quality though. Not just entertainment that came and with after a few weeks on the box office Top 10 and forgotten about until reruns on cable. We’re talking GREAT films here; films that WILL be remembered for years to come, films that will be studied in classrooms beyond the requisite screenwriting and directing courses. This was the hardest time I’ve ever had whittling down a list to 10. But its done. I just wish the year wasn’t. Here’s to 2003.

10. The Rookie – Baseball movies and underdog tales don’t get much better than this. A live-action “G” rated tale from Disney follows familiar territory but spices it up with a real sense of spirit and a marvelous lead performance by Dennis Quaid as the middle-aged high school coach who gets a chance to try out for the majors when he realizes his fastball is better than ever. Takes a few cues from Field of Dreams, but if you’re going to steal, do it from the best. Ample support is offered from the lovely Rachel Griffiths and Brian Cox (what a year for him!) Be on the lookout for the greatest phone conversation of 2002 and try not to well up during it. I am just thinking about it. A beautiful movie.

9. Frailty – This was a great film the first time around. The second gave it new meaning. The third cemented it as one of the year’s best. Bill Paxton (one of my actor heroes) makes a terrific directorial debut in the story of a father in the 70s who tells his two sons that God has chosen him to be a demon hunter on Earth, which doesn’t sit too well with one of them when he begins chopping up people in the shed. Paxton never gets quite the credit he deserves as an actor (A Simple Plan, anyone?) and his lead performance here is as perfect as anyone could have done. Brent Hanley’s intelligent script tackles morality, religious fanaticism and a father’s love so well that any confusion one has identifying this as a straight slasher flick will wash away before you even realize the blood isn’t flying.

8. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – Another actor makes his debut behind the camera and its one of the most sure-handed first efforts I’ve ever seen. George Clooney teams up with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to adapt Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized” autobiography to the big screen. Was Barris really a contract killer for the CIA during his days creating games about dating, newlyweds and gongs? Is this a tale about our culture’s thirst for violent, trashy entertainment (no matter real or not) or a Beautiful Mind-like subtext about a man so full of self-loathing that he had to create a persona he’d be satisfied with if he ever resulted in failure? Either way, it’s a brilliantly entertaining yarn with the great Sam Rockwell busting out as Barris. Clooney is great as Barris’ CIA contact while Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts do honorable turns as just two of the women in his sexed-up life. (Don’t blink or you’ll miss two of the funniest silent cameos EVER.)

7. Insomnia – The movie that proves that Memento wasn’t a fluke and cements director Christopher Nolan as one of the most exciting talents to hit movies in years. Al Pacino gives one of the year’s best performances as a detective so consumed by the pursuit of a murderer in Alaska (where the sun never sets) and an Internal Affairs investigation in LA that he succumbs to the titular affliction, affecting not only his judgment but also his own ethics (past and present). Robin Williams gave the second of his psycho performances in 2002 and he was just warming up. Hilary Swank’s somewhat thankless role takes on greater importance with a second viewing and she makes the most of it. Nolan’s techniques are impeccable and the suspense noose never lets up through the thrilling climax. The best pure thriller of the year.

6. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – You know, whatever. I’ve heard it all before and I refuse to join in on the hipness counterculture that now slams Star Wars for the same flaws that existed in the original trilogy that they hold up like the Holy Grail in Heaven. Shut up and just enjoy the adventure, the universe, the story and Yoda throwing down like the only Jedi Master in a crackhouse with a lighter. (Thank you, Dennis Miller.) I loved every beautiful moment of this latest chapter, admittedly, a marked improvement over The Phantom Menace (which I still enjoyed a great deal as well.) The final 40 minutes I was 8 years old again seeing Return of the Jedi at the giant Woodfield Theatre in Schaumburg, IL. Yes, I’m looking forward to the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings like you can’t imagine. I’m looking forward to Episode III just as much.

5. 25th Hour – I’m not afraid in throwing out how I believe Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is as overrated as they come. If that didn’t exist, the same proclaimers would have no problem labeling this as Lee’s masterpiece. Unquestionably the best Lee “joint” that I’ve seen, this powerful drama about a drug dealer’s final night of freedom before prison weaves the binds of friendship, judgement of others and 9/11 without breaking a sweat. I’ll put the ensemble of Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox (there he is again!) against any in 2002. Norton has a speech that will rock the foundation of any audience, yet still has more room for thoughts of personal responsibility that’s been oh-so-absent from so many of today’s movies, especially Lee’s. Here, he gets it all right.

4. Bowling for Columbine – One of four films I had to re-watch again since any of them could easily have taken a higher spot in the Top 4. Seems rather silly to look for flaws in greatness, but that’s what it came down to determine these rankings. Michael Moore’s scathing, hilarious documentary about gun control and fear in America rattled me in ways I hadn’t felt since seeing JFK for the first time. It’s first hour, complete with footage from the Columbine massacre, interviews with gun-nuts, the role of America’s government dealings leading up to 9/11 PLUS laughs galore leading up to Matt Stone’s BRILLIANT “History of America” cartoon is absolute perfection. Only two missteps on Moore’s as he skillfully conducts his investigation of this mystery part knock back this film a little. One concerns his handling of a schoolteacher breaking down on camera just minutes after criticizing the media for seeking out tragedy and the second concerns his William Hurt/Broadcast News-like handling of showing Charlton Heston a picture. He had the perfect shot and he got greedy. One camera. Think about it. It’s still a virtual masterpiece.

3. Punch-Drunk LoveAdam Sandler in one of the best movies of the year? Surely I must be drunk. Not when its directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), a Sandler fan who managed to take the Sandler character we’ve seen before and actually provide a history. There’s now a reason for him to beat the hell from people; an incredibly lonely novelty salesman who grew up with seven tormenting sisters. That is until love smacks him at first sight with the lovely Emily Watson, who admits to being his exact opposite, but falls for him unconditionally anyway. There hasn’t been as sweet and perfect a romantic comedy like this in a long time. Sweet and perfect in its simplicity and in its quirkiness. There are moments of great discomfort (a 10-minute sequence where Sandler is essentially having a nervous breakdown is one of the year’s great pieces of filmmaking) and moments of great joy (Sandler desperately trying to find Watson’s apartment to have their first kiss). I’ve seen this FIVE times now and each experience becomes more rewarding.

2. Adaptation – No film has better deconstructed the worlds of film and writing than Adaptation did. Starting with the basis of real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his attempts after his first success (Being John Malkovich) to adapt Susan Orlean’s flower novel, “The Orchid Thief” to the screen, this paradoxical comedy about originality, Hollywood, self-confidence (and loathing), love, the written word, life, movies...well, it just can’t be described in mere paragraphs. Be prepared to be let in on the joke with twists and turns that never quite reveal themselves in the way films play with our heads. What’s real? What’s not? Should we even be asking? It plays with Hollywood conventions, makes fun of them and then even uses them to make fun of them some more. Nicolas Cage gives his best (dual) performance in years as Kaufman and his twin brother. Meryl Streep is Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper is nothing short of wonderful as the character in her book. You know who else is in this movie? Brian Cox(!), playing a real-life screenwriting guru who gives one of the classic monologues about writing movies who proves that pretense can just as easily be the sin of the close-minded as well as the educated. Challenging, twisty, funny and, by the end, very moving. Six viewings may not be enough to catch everything in this ingenious script.

1. Minority Report – When I first saw this back in June, I loved every minute of it and STILL didn’t think it would end up as my pick of the best film of the year. Not that any of the other great films I saw on this list after Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic couldn’t aspire to some plateau of genius I had built up in my mind, but when you break it down, no other film in 2002 was as visionary, as challenging, as exciting, as cynical or have as great a script wrapped up into a summer popcorn package that only falls into that category because it was released during the summer. This is a science-fiction masterpiece in any season that deserves to rank amongst the greats for all time. Tom Cruise (so good here) stars as the head of Pre-Crime in 2054 when murder can be stopped before they are committed. When he’s tapped as a future killer, he goes on the run to prove his innocent and discovers the Kafka-like nature of these suspects’ plights. Four virtuoso sequences of action and suspense (one of them a triple threat) involving the introduction of Pre-Crime, magnetic cars, jetpacks, a Lexus factory, mechanical spiders and a mall are more than anyone can hope for in a single production. Scott Frank & Jon Cohen’s incredibly witty adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s original short story only add layers on top of the onion factory alongside great supporting work by Colin Farrell, Max Von Sydow and an extraordinary Samantha Morton. Debate or scoff at the final 20 minutes all you want; it may be darker than you think without the benefit of a Brazil-like stamp of authenticity. Steven Spielberg may not need the credit and approval of film critics and scholars (the audiences are more than enough) but he sure deserves to. Many critics seem afraid of a fanboy-esque label by giving Spielberg his proper due as arguably the greatest living film director. The resume speaks for itself. He works more often than the Scorseses, Coppolas, Altmans as well as the young up-and-comers we love to preach so much about and is always trying something fresh. How many directors LATE in their established career even attempt to pull off both a Minority Report and a Catch Me If You Can in the same year? One. Steven Spielberg.

THE RUNNER-UPS

11. The Grey Zone – While everyone is gushing over Roman Polanski’s slow-moving unemotional (and very pretty looking) holocaust film, The Pianist, seeing that only made me appreciate this overlooked adaptation from Tim Blake Nelson. Centering on the group of Jews who were given special privileges (and an extra four months to live) by calmly getting others to walk into the gas chambers, this gut-wrenching tale asks the question “what would you do?” more intelligently than any other treatment of this subject matter. David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi, Daniel Benzali lead an extraordinary ensemble that also touches on a potential uprising, the miracle and hiding of a young girl to survive the showers without water and how people chose between looking out for themselves and trying to help others.

12. Spirited Away – The best animated film of the year was a kind of grown-up Alice in Wonderland that nevertheless would enchant younger viewers just as much. An abandoned amusement park becomes the gate to the spirit world where a lost young girl learns self-reliance and responsibility amidst an extraordinary group of creatures. Imagination oozes from every inch of the screen.

13. The Ring – The best horror film since The Blair Witch Project was also a clever subtext on the media’s handling of giving a voice to serial killers. Not a gorefest, but an intelligent mystery full of creepiness and shocking sequences leading up to a seat-gripping climax and yet another final moment to test your moral foundations.

14. One Hour PhotoRobin Williams had three psycho performances in 2002 and this was the best. A calmer, gentler psycho to be sure...but when he blows...LOOK OUT! A mild-mannered photo developer becomes obsessed with the idea of the perfect family until he discovers they are anything but perfect. Creepy and, at times, very sad, this was one of Williams’ best roles and he deserves an Oscar nomination for it, if only for the scene in Gary Cole’s office. You’ll know the moment when it comes.

15. Changing Lanes – 2002 was a year full of morality tales. This one opened the same week as Frailty and got most of the attention...and any attention for it is a good thing. This screenplay will no doubt be one to be studied in film schools everywhere eventually. Initially marketed as a revenge thriller, its that and so much more as a conflicted attorney (Ben Affleck) and a reformed alcoholic/estranged father (Samuel L. Jackson) have a battle of manners and ethics in New York over one long day. Jackson & Affleck give career performances and save for a final shot that offers a tiny bit (if unrealistic) bit of hope for a crappy world, this was an extraordinary film.

8 MORE GREAT FILMS

16. Chicago – Foot-tappin’, snap-and-clap worthy musical that’s 10 times the edit-fest that Moulin Rouge was.

17. Roger DodgerIn the Company of Men meets Swingers meets Campbell Scott (in one the year’s best performances) who teaches his 16-year old nephew how to pick up ladies. Full of great, snappy dialogue from debut writer/director Dylan Kidd.

18. The Good Girl – A quirky and sometimes dark examination of lost hope and infidelity in a small town. Don’t let that deter you, it’s also very, very funny. What a year for ensembles (Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tim Blake Nelson, Zooey Deschanel and John C. Reilly, in I think one of his 5 poor bastard husband roles of 2002.)

19. Lovely and Amazing – The best film of the year about women about growing old, looks and the self-conscience perception that others see you through. The cast is uniformly excellent (Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn) and Dermot Mulroney’s monologue to the very vulnerable Emily Mortimer isn’t to be missed.

20. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – Still a great spectacle and a big warmup for The Return of the King in 2003. Great action, Sam’s final two monologues and Gollum! What more can you ask? Maybe dumping the tree people (especially during their interruptions of the final battle) as long as you bring them back for THEIR big battle scene.

21. About a Boy – A wonderful adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel about, well, two boys...one a grown-up played by Hugh Grant as a cad who lives by the mantra that “every man is an island” until he begins to discover that having a few Wilsons hanging around can be just, if not more rewarding.

22. Catch Me If You Can – Steven Spielberg (you may have heard of him) has some straight-up fun with this con man tale that features three top-notch performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken. A lot of fun with some nice father/son flourishes

23. About Schmidt – Save for a sitcomy trip to the in-laws, this incredibly moving yarn about a man coming to grips with the new chapter of his life after retirement features a flawless first hour and a heart-tugger of a final scene. Jack Nicholson...do I even need to say anything? Enjoy the Kathy Bates shtick or just tolerate it, the rest of the stuff is that good.

ONE GOOD SHOT DESERVES ANOTHER – THE WORST FILMS OF 2002

25. Red Dragon – One word: Manhunter. Forget this boring crap. Brett Ratner go the hell away!

24. Igby Goes Down – For those of you that never read The Catcher in the Rye, here’s the movie that proves you should and stop seeing movies like this.

23. Blue Crush – FEMALE EMPOWERMENT!!! Hot chick surfers abuse their maid positions, sleep with NFL players, order room service and then think of consequences later, not to mention encouraging friends to get back on the horse to crack their head open again. GIRL POWER!!!

22. High CrimesAshley Judd. Crime Thriller. Guilty or Not Guilty. You got a 50% chance at the ending. What do you think? Better yet, who cares?

21. Tadpole – THIS was the best that came out of Sundance last year? More proof for my argument that there’s as much crap coming out of the INDIE world as there is from Hollywood.

20. Deuces Wild – I’ve seen the 50s gangs in white T-shirts movies. Call it Tigerbeat’s Gangs of New York.

19. Bad Company – As in “You are in...” if you somehow enjoyed this Chris Rock/Anthony Hopkins action/comedy.

18. The Scorpion King – A prequel to a fun, successful franchise (The Mummy) that acts is if the history of the other films didn’t exist. Horrible!

17. National Lampoon’s Van Wilder – “I am bleeding” is the only line I laughed at in this film filled with giant dog balls and semen-filled pastry direct from the dog balls. I leave it to you to discover why “I am bleeding” is funny.

16. Rollerball – An entire sequence was shot in night vision for no reason. That’s the least of complaints of this remade mess.

15. Swimfan – This movie is called SWIMFAN!!!

14. CrossroadsBritney Spears is in her underwear in the first five minutes and later nearly sleeps with that cool, funny kid from TV’s Ed. The compliments end there.

13. Knockaround Guys – Great cast! BOOOOOOORRRRRIIIIIINNNNNNNGGGGGGG flick!

12. The Sweetest Thing – Screenwriter Nancy Pimental obviously took nothing she learned from South Park into this Cameron Diaz nightmare.

11. Serving Sara – You wasted Bruce Campbell! SHAME ON YOU!!!

THE WORST 10 OF 2002

10. Personal Velocity – The film equivalent of an audiobook. I’ve seen and created wedding videos that use still pictures more creatively. Should have been called “The Cunt Monologues”

9. Enough – A strong woman’s picture as much as The Accused is a strong men’s picture.

8. Swept AwayMadonna gets beat up on an island. OK, maybe it wasn’t so bad. From me to Guy Ritchie: “HAAHAHAHAHAHAHA”

7. Men in Black 2 – This movie made over $180 million. The paying public is owed twice that.

6. The Master of Disguise – It’s 68 minutes long with 12 minutes of outtakes and credits. Another 6 hours still wouldn’t have produced a laugh.

5. Resident EvilPaulI’m not P.T.Anderson needs to be eliminated. He made movies out of video games Mortal Kombat and this. I hear his next project is Pengo.

4. XXX – A friend of mine referred to this as “Triple Ass.” I think that’s more than Vin Diesel says in this film.

3. Extreme Ops – It’s EXTREME MAN!!! 60 minutes of stock snowboarding footage and then 30 minutes of Die Hard. Get drunk and watch it with a bunch of people. It’s a rare experience.

2. Sorority Boys – The movie that made Van Wilder seem witty. Not a shred of humor or talent.

1. Sweet Home Alabama – The most mean-spirited lightweight romantic comedy of the year. Between this and Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon is only influencing the birth of wretched writers and the death of quality cinema. Unfunny stereotypes, a hateful lead character, predictable beyond even the usual romantic comedy. No one is worth rooting for and it still made $125 million. Front and center. I want the names of people who even sorta kinda liked this movie. Lifetime cinema bans all around.

2002 IN REVIEW

****
25th Hour, Adaptation, Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience, Bowling for Columbine, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (20th Anniversary), Frailty, The Grey Zone, Insomnia, Minority Report, Punch-Drunk Love, The Ring, The Rookie, Spirited Away, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

***1/2
About a Boy, About Schmidt, Auto Focus, Blade 2, Bubba Ho-Tep, Catch Me If You Can, Changing Lanes, Chicago, The Count of Monte Cristo, Far From Heaven, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Murder by Numbers, Narc, One Hour Photo, Panic Room, Possession, Roger Dodger, Simone, Spider-Man, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Stolen Summer, The Sum Of All Fears, Windtalkers

***
Austin Powers In Goldmember, Barbershop, Collateral Damage, Comedian, Eight Legged Freaks, Gangs of New York, The Good Girl, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Moonlight Mile, The Mothman Prophecies, Mr. Deeds, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, Secretary, Solaris, Tuck Everlasting, Undercover Brother, Undisputed, Y Tu Mama Tambien

**1/2
Abandon, Big Trouble, Birthday Girl, The Bourne Identity, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Hollywood Ending, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Reign of Fire, Road To Perdition, The Santa Clause 2, Showtime, Trapped, Treasure Planet, The Weight of Water

**
8 Mile, Antwone Fisher, Clockstoppers, Die Another Day, The Emperor's Club, The Four Feathers, Frida, I Spy, John Q, K-19: The Widowmaker, Nicholas Nickleby, Orange County, The Pianist, The Rules of Attraction, Slackers, The Time Machine, The Transporter, The Tuxedo, Unfaithful, We Were Soldiers

*1/2
40 Days and 40 Nights, Analyze That, Bad Company, Below, Blood Work, Blue Car, Blue Crush, Death to Smoochy, Femme Fatale, Hart's War, High Crimes, Igby Goes Down, Impostor, Jason X, The New Guy, Super Troopers, Tadpole, The Truth About Charlie

*
Crossroads, Enough, Knockaround Guys, The Master of Disguise, Men In Black II, National Lampoon's Van Wilder, Rollerball, The Scorpion King, Serving Sara, The Sweetest Thing, Swept Away, Swimfan

½*
Extreme Ops, Resident Evil, XXX

ZERO STARS
Sorority Boys, Sweet Home Alabama


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=660
originally posted: 01/10/03 08:37:04
last updated: 01/01/04 14:15:23
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