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The Year of Living Dangerously

Cinema 2002 counterbalanced a treacherous world

9. Froggie Follies! Those French -- talk about a cinematic nation! Yet oddly, one of their best films this year, the resignation gem I'm Going Home, was directed by Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira, and the 93-year-old's eye for life's vital (if tiny) details is up to snuff. Offering even more swank for your franc are François Ozon's delightfully cheeky murder musical, 8 Women, Roman Coppola's sleekly spacey CQ (part of which takes place in Italy, but that's basically the same as France from here) and Michael Haneke's très sexy The Piano Teacher.

8. Well, Pierce My Brosnan! Remington Steele finally gets a tidy category all to himself. I've heard people mocking Evelyn at the multiplex (presumably without having seen it), but Bruce Beresford's smart direction of Brosnan's melancholic mick (and the glowing presence of Julianna Margulies) transforms Paul Pender's deceptively simple save-the-kids-from-the-church romp into something akin to Celtic Capra. As for Die Another Day, it's the man's best Bond, and Lee Tamahori makes it rock, right down to a Clash nugget serving as antidote to the stupid Madonna title song.

7. Yuk-yuk-yuck! Comedy is not pretty. Get a load of Edward Norton in a fuchsia rhino suit (his most daring work this year) singing "My Stepdad's Not Mean (He's Just Adjusting)" in Danny DeVito's poison showbiz valentine Death to Smoochy, which transcends mere idiocy (thanks also to authentically obscene turns from Catherine Keener and Robin Williams). Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze up their self-reflexive ante in Adaptation with Nicolas Cage hitting the horror of wannabe-writer nebbish-hood squarely on its itchy bald head. Meanwhile, Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder's ultra-dry Pumpkin is not literally about showbiz, but it is about loving someone who is retarded, which is almost the same thing.

With Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore compelled us to loathe and love our gun-crazy country, and catapulted himself to this critic's top ten list.
United Artists
With Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore compelled us to loathe and love our gun-crazy country, and catapulted himself to this critic's top ten list.
The Lord of the Rings has magic, myth and Viggo Mortensen.
Pierre Vinet/New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings has magic, myth and Viggo Mortensen.

6. Animazing! Daveigh Chase (the creepy girl from The Ring) struck gold this year, starring as the voice lead in both Lilo & Stitch and the American dub of Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi). Her sweet but smart tone adds gravity to the two spectacular movies, which couldn't be more different. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders's Lilo is a modern classic for Disney, a fantastic tale of aliens (and Elvis) invading Hawaii, but moreover a gentle appraisal of busted-up families, cynical children and a little girl who'll cast nasty spells if provoked. Spirited Away, from Japanese animation auteur Hayao Miyazaki, did not enthrall me quite as much as his previous global hit, Princess Mononoke, but I must say his latest is a work of powerful magic, richer and more compelling the more one considers it. Plus I just like those murmuring green heads -- they remind me of some of my friends.

5. Adult Entertainment! Oh, you know you want it. Cinema for grown-ups, that is. This triumvirate of tantalizing treats and tortures includes Julie Taymor's utterly glorious Frida, George Hickenlooper's brilliantly discomforting The Man from Elysian Fields and Paul Schrader's down and not-particularly-dirty Auto Focus. Sex-obsessed and/or sex-possessed, these equally astounding portraits of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek; give her the gold!), fictional but oh-so-real unemployed writer Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) and sex addict Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) offer some of the year's top performances in the trickiest emotional circumstances. Miss not one of them.

4. Myth! Oh, Myth! Wherein I tug my lapel outward, revealing my official geek badge. Step back a little and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are essentially the same thing: second installments in enormously overwrought (and overmarketed) studio juggernauts filled with eye-popping effects and lightly sketched characters. Get into them, though -- as most of Earth knows -- and you've got the potential for endless wonders: big stories, archetypal energies, magic, metaphors and, most important, worlds much less nauseating than the mall where you're watching these things.

3. Important But Not Boring! With Max, writer-director Menno Meyjes took the concept of Hitler as human being (teetering on the brink, natch) and made it work. The fabulous Noah Taylor (Vanilla Sky) plays the young führer, and a terrific John Cusack plays the eponymous Jewish art dealer who gives the disturbed painter and propagandist a shot. Totally compelling. Include here also Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, the strongest shot of post-9/11 New York we've seen so far. Although Barry Pepper's tantrums come across as a joke, David Benioff's tale of compassion and retribution gets to the heart of our nation's pain -- and hope. You already know that Bowling for Columbine is a triumph and all that -- but really, it's one of the most stirring documentaries ever made, with big hammy Michael Moore finally growing up and compelling us to love and loathe our gun-crazy country, but above all to look at it. Grounded in recent history, Paul Greengrass's gritty, documentarylike Bloody Sunday -- a reenactment of the massacre in Derry, Ireland, in 1972 -- proves scariest of all, as thousands of English soldiers open fire and ignite the powder keg of Troubles we can all find disturbingly familiar.

2. Ain't That America! Something from this continent called out in 2002, and it was literally awesome. Alexander Payne's About Schmidt tore into the staid heart of Middle America and let us have a good long laugh (and weep) over it, and Jack Nicholson delivered one of the three top performances of his career (with Cuckoo's Nest and The Shining). Equally impressive this year were two native films, both beautiful, funny, harrowing and exciting. Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) held me totally compelled as an Inuit legend unfolded across the Canadian tundra and an indigenous cinema strode boldly forward. Meanwhile, Skins by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals) showed us "the other American heroes" on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It's a humble film, simple in execution, but greatly absorbing, especially for the unforgettable presence of Graham Greene as the dispirited Mogie Yellow Lodge, fighting to hold on to any shred of his people's heritage while parading around in his favorite Madonna T-shirt. All three of these films enthusiastically hold up to North America their scintillating mirrors. By all means, take a look.

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