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The Year of Living Dangerously

Cinema 2002 counterbalanced a treacherous world

In order to distill the essence of a year in cinema, one must first appraise the year itself. In a word, 2002 was about strife. Fortunately, on the big screen, 2002 was a year of bravado and surprise. Squishy Robin Williams and squeaky Tom Hanks finally played heavies! A mousy Greek girl named Nia Vardalos plied her wedding wit for a megahit! Octogenarian Christopher Lee topped the bill in two global sensations! Britney Spears and Eminem didn't embarrass themselves (much)! Denzel directed, Jack got passionate, and the standards of the animated feature, biopic and documentary hit unprecedented highs! From the parking lot outward, things often got pretty ugly, but inside together, in the communal darkness before the Great Flickering, 2002 was a year to celebrate.

International cinema peaked all around the globe. From just a little to the south, Mexican films showed up rough and ready. Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También took teen angst to a whole new level of frankness, while Carlos Carrera's controversial El Crimen del Padre Amaro -- a routinely executed but thought-provoking drama -- guaranteed itself omission from Catholic best-of-year lists (coincidenciamente, or not, both films starred Latin heartthrob Gael García Bernal). Meanwhile, Guadalajara golden boy Guillermo del Toro made his way over to Prague (a.k.a. Hollywood East) to direct Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson in the badass superhero flick Blade II, a rare superior sequel.

International affairs continued under the auspices of Australian director Philip Noyce (Dead Calm), whose Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American proved a potent double header. While the former was somewhat obvious -- white people (Kenneth Branagh) are bad while aboriginal people (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan) are good -- this true tale of three young girls' perilous walk home across the outback is a must-see for its compassionate view of hurtful history. Strictly as a film, American is even more impressive, a richly satisfying adaptation of Graham Greene's tale of international meddling in Saigon. And if you craved even more stark views on U.S.-Vietnam interaction, Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's documentary Daughter from Danang hit some moving notes about the aftermath of 1975's Operation Babylift with regard to Americanized Heidi Bub (Mai Thi Hiep) and her Vietnamese mother, Mai Thi Kim.

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.

Here on the home front, documentaries got wild in 2002, most notably Stacy Peralta's rip-snorting, insightful Dogtown and Z-Boys and Doug Pray's Scratch -- ironically both art-house releases about dual vanguards of pop culture. With its smartly edited blend of archive footage, interviews and endlessly mesmerizing surf and skateboard stunts, Dogtown ensured that one would never look at American youth -- or an empty pool -- in the same way again. Scratch, on the other hand, made adrenalized music less a backdrop than a way of life, following turntable DJs Q-Bert, Shadow and Swamp -- as well as pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Herbie Hancock -- around on their audio adventures.

Hollywood also made lots of movies in 2002. They do all right promoting their own, but there were some fine products worth mentioning, from Sam Raimi's smart and long-awaited adaptation of Spider-Man to an astute directorial debut from George Clooney in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (about that Gong Show guy). Clooney -- practically the king of Tinseltown at present -- had a superb year, also cajoling us to feel his heartbreak in Stephen Soderbergh's Solaris and to bum around Cleveland in his witty, enjoyable co-production of Joe and Anthony Russo's Welcome to Collinwood.

Of course, as yammering into a cell phone with pants falling down and miles of thong hanging out became the new standard of feminine power, 2002 cinema made way for another wave of kick-ass chicks, featured in Blue Crush and Resident Evil (both with Michelle Rodriguez), The Powerpuff Girls Movie and Die Another Day (with the Oscar-fortified Halle Berry). Meanwhile, the mellower ladies took to the likes of impressive fare such as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mostly Martha.

Indeed, 2002 cinema offered countless alternatives to the horrors of CNN. Certainly, there were puzzlements (why was Signs so lamebrained? why was Chicago shot in Toronto?), but we also got our giggles (Kung Pow! Enter the Fist: "If you've got an ass, I'll kick it!"), said our woeful good-byes (Richard Harris closed out an amazing career with the new Harry Potter and the gutsy My Kingdom), revisited classics (Metropolis, Lawrence of Arabia) and welcomed new helmers (Jacques Thelemaque with The Dogwalker; Heathers scribe Daniel Waters with Happy Campers). Overall, it made us feel a lot less strife and a lot more life. Which is the whole point of movies, eh?

Now for the crème de la crème of 2002 cinema, sorted mainly into thoughtfully thematic double (and, er, multiple) features, wrapping up with a singular capper.

The Best of 2002

10. Holy Matrimony! As people get obscenely romantically disappointed and eviscerate each other and feel all love is lost, and that load of hooey, you just gotta groove to these bravura ethnic nuptial pictures. This year Monsoon Wedding and My Big Fat Greek Wedding gleefully stood on ceremony. Written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed with consummate flair by Mira Nair (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love; good one, check it out), Monsoon curries favor by exploring arranged marriage, family issues and Texans. Greek, meanwhile, earned cineastes' scorn by pushing itself as an "indie" film -- absurd! -- but if you're not jollified by Joel Zwick's bubbly direction of Nia Vardalos's fantasy (soon to be a TV series), I've got some Windex to spray on your wounded heart.

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.

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.

1. Girl Crazy! At the very, very last minute, Lynne Ramsay's poetic and emotionally revelatory Morvern Callar (co-scripted by Liana Dognini from the novel by Alan Warner) has swooped in to claim the top spot all for itself! (Although it wouldn't be impossible to cram Miguel Arteta and Mike White's The Good Girl in here, too…) Starring current hipster chick Samantha Morton (the primary "pre-cog" from Minority Report), Ramsay's film has delivered an incredible, impressionistic inner and outer travelogue employing pure cinema -- light, color, sound, feeling and their respective absences -- to explore the perceptions and reactions of a miserable, pathetic girl in soul-sucking times. The film features obvious stylistic lifts from Trainspotting and Breaking the Waves, and closer comparisons include Withnail & Ior Last Tango in Scotland and Spain. But however you look at the project (which is open to interpretation), Ramsay (Ratcatcher) possesses rare and unique vision and has delivered this year's winner.

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