Old News

Reissues dominated, but an international crop of films yielded a good harvest

It's never a good sign when somewhere in the vicinity of half of my most memorable moviegoing experiences in a given year come from reissues of films at least three decades old. But there it is: In my memory banks, 2002 may well be remembered as the year of the revelatory, vastly expanded (but still incomplete) version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). Add to that Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968), Umberto D. (Vittorio de Sica, 1952) and the umpteenth (but always welcome) rerelease of The Seven Samurai (1955).

Yeah, unfair, I know...expecting this year's films to stack up against a selection of the greatest movies ever made. Yet the last time I felt this way was more than a decade ago, when The Manchurian Candidate returned to theaters after a 25-year hiatus. It's dispiriting. I keep waiting for another year as amazing as 1999 -- Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, Lovers of the Arctic Circle -- a lineup that is increasingly looking like a fluke.

Before we get to the greatest-hits roundup, let's mention a few categories that stand by themselves:

It was in fact a very good year for documentaries. There were theatrical runs of two first-rate music films: Scratch, Doug Pray's look at hip-hop and turntable masters; and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman's tribute to the largely unsung studio cats who created what may well be the largest and most enduring body of pop music ever to emerge from one studio. In addition to Chris Smith's Home Movie and Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's Daughter from Danang, there was also the as-yet-undistributed Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz's dazzler about eight contestants in the National Spelling Bee -- as suspenseful and engaging a movie as any this year.

The Hong Kong-to-Hollywood expatriate movement had its worst year yet. The massive commercial flop Windtalkers was John Woo's most disappointing film since his Taiwanese quickies in the early '80s. The often brilliant Ronny Yu directed the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Formula 51, an entertaining, over-the-top bit of fluff that sank like a stone. Cory Yuen's English-language action film The Transporter had its moments, but it wasn't as good as his other 2002 effort, the Chinese-language So Close, which didn't make it into theaters.

Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li were all missing in action. At least the latter was off making Hero under director Zhang Yimou -- due out in 2003 -- which could be worth the wait if Miramax doesn't butcher it to "fit" the American audience that the company seems to regard as so benighted.

Let's not even talk about Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo, okay?

Okay. There were some terrific films, and several of them came out of Hollywood, even. Below are the ten that either gave me the most pleasure or left me the most moved.

The usual cautions: This list was compiled using Academy qualifying rules -- that is, films had to have run for at least a week in New York or Los Angeles, with their opening day falling during the calendar year. (Which is why Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies isn't on the list.) As always, I had a different list yesterday and will have yet another tomorrow; outside of the top few spots, the order is highly mutable, depending on mood.

1. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain). Almodóvar's tale of two men and the comatose women they love is, in tone and structure, immediately identifiable as something only the Spanish bad boy could have come up with. It is the most extraordinary manifestation yet of what makes him utterly singular: No one can blend melodrama and heightened emotion with laugh-out-loud wackiness the way he does. A contemporary gloss on Sleeping Beauty, it feels like an adult fairy tale, with an indefinable sense of the magic that both wondrously and hideously lurks beneath everyday reality.

2. Brotherhood of the Wolf (Christophe Gans, France). Laugh if you want, but if French director and noted Hong Kong film fan Christophe Gans had set out to make a film designed purely to please me, he couldn't have done better. Hong Kong action blended with witty dialogue and gorgeous cinematography, this is clearly the greatest horror/action/kung fu French period drama ever made.

3. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, USA). At first glance, it might seem that the reunion of Being John Malkovich's director with screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman, with an assist from his "brother" Donald) is too clever for its own good. It's certainly the most self-reflexive movie ever made and flirts with the precious. But it's so brilliantly worked out and so much pure fun that it's hard to resist.

4. Lilo & Stitch (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, USA). The most entertaining animated feature to come out of Disney proper -- that is, not from Pixar-by-way-of-Disney -- in years.

5. Merci pour le chocolat (Claude Chabrol, France). This 2000 thriller from French master Claude Chabrol -- which showed up in the USA two years late -- is a masterpiece of nuance and characterization, marred only by one inexplicable, distracting blunder at the end. Isabelle Huppert gives one of the strongest performances of a generally remarkable career.

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