Film Reviews

Art and Soul

There were lots of good movies this year, but few great ones. I resolved to see as many as possible way back in January, and did okay; there are still one or two I missed, and while Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights probably would not have been a best of year contender anyway, there are others I regret not catching, notably The Fast Runner and Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio. I saw a helluva lot, though -- consider that I suffer through the likes of Snow Dogs to be your comprehensive critic -- and found so many small highlights that before I get to my ten best, I hereby present some of those things that made 2002 a good year for film:

Split the Vote and Just Missed My List: Phillip Noyce, for Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American (who remembered that "the Tom Clancy movie guy" had this much talent?)

Might Have Made My Top Ten If It Had 20 Fewer Minutes in the Second Half: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Might Have Made My Top Ten If I'd Understood the Point of Having Two Unrelated Segments: Storytelling.

Best Special Effects: Salma Hayek's naked breasts in Frida.

Best Documentaries Not to Feature Johnny Knoxville: Bowling for Columbine and Home Movie.

Best Fake Documentary: 24-Hour Party People.

Best Potential Superstar-Making Performance: Male -- Adrien Brody in The Pianist; Female -- Edie Falco in Sunshine State.

Best Deconstruction of Established Persona (tie): Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and Hugh Grant in About a Boy.

Best Video Game Adaptation Ever: Resident Evil.

Best Performance by a "Synthespian" (tie): Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Britney Spears in Crossroads.

Best Foreign Film Trend: Latin movies with explicit sex scenes that also manage to pass for "high art" (Y Tu Mamá También, Sex and Lucía, Pantaleon y las Visitadoras).

Best Memento Rip-off (tie): The Salton Sea and the short film "Mementoke."

Best Movie About a Stolen Bike Since Pee-wee's Big Adventure: Beijing Bicycle.

Best Rerelease: Master of the Flying Guillotine. (DVD commentary track by our own Andy Klein!)

Best Brainless Multiplex Fare Not on My List: MIIB: Men in Black II, Panic Room, Scooby-Doo, 8 Mile, Signs.

Best Movie for the Adolescent Boy in All of Us: The Scorpion King.

I Can't Believe People Loved These Movies: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Far from Heaven, Drumline, Road to Perdition, Stuart Little 2, Femme Fatale, Unfaithful.

Best of the Fests: Some of the year's best were not formally released this year, so they don't really count as top ten picks, but here's a heads-up so you can keep an eye out. Dark Water, from original Ring director Hideo Nakata, scared me more than anything I've seen since I was a child and more susceptible to such things; May, soon to be released by Lions Gate, is an acerbic look at the shallowness of the dating scene and the trauma it inflicts on a lonely soul (Angela Bettis) who's never taken seriously until she gruesomely forces everyone to pay attention; OT: Our Town looks as low-budget as they come, but its triumphant true story of a South Central L.A. high school production of Thornton Wilder's play was as tense and beautiful as any drama to unfold on our screens.

And now the best, all of which seem to feature heroes and heroines either mildly insecure or outright self-loathing. Better call my shrink.

1. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi). If it were live-action, there'd be no doubt; still, Hayao Miyazaki's animated fantasy is the best movie of the year. Unencumbered by Hollywood notions of three-act structure or simplistic good and evil, the episodic saga of a young girl trapped in a bath-house for earth spirits has the magic of the best children's literature. A vast imagination combines with an eagle eye for character detail, and the result is a family movie truly fun for all (well, maybe not quite all -- the Christian Web site Movieguide called the film abhorrent for promoting animistic spirits). Cheers to Disney for doing a careful dub, and releasing the subtitled version simultaneously; jeers to Disney for not opening the film wider and promoting it more heavily -- virtually everyone I recommended the flick to claimed they never heard of it.

2. About Schmidt. This one's probably going to be on everyone else's list too, so let's just say it'll finally let the world know that not all country people in America have Southern accents.

3. Lovely and Amazing. As acerbic a look at the L.A. woman as May, Lovely and Amazing also has heart, as it takes a light yet unflinchingly unsentimental look at female body image and self-loathing through three different generations. Catherine Keener finally gets a lead role worthy of her talents, and newcomer Raven Goodwin is accurately described by the film's title.

4. Jackass: The Movie. Don't fight it. Laugh out loud -- it's okay. Its creators may have intended it as a trivial goof, and its producers were looking for franchise dollars, but what actually resulted, and the fact that it screened nationwide, was the biggest act of cinematic subversion this year. More disgusting than Pink Flamingos, and director Jeff Tremaine is much handier with a camera than John Waters. Lars von Trier should be ashamed -- he's been out-Dogme'd by Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville.

5. One Hour Photo. Robin Williams was born to play creepy, and writer-director Mark Romanek finally expanded upon this potential. Critics unfairly bashed the ending -- there's more ambiguity to it than initially meets the eye. Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek's eerie, moody score was outstanding.

6. Spider-Man. The best live-action, cinematic, superhero comic-book adaptation ever. Organic webshooters aside, it's nice to see that faithfulness to source material can work. Pay attention, DC Comics.

7. Scarlet Diva. Everyone I know who owns a camcorder has made a self-confessional, semiautobiographical piece of videotaped wankery, but Asia Argento does it better than all of them. Maybe her fame gives her more resources, or maybe she's just more shameless, but this self-portrait looks a lot like art.

8. Das Experiment. Moritz Bleibtreu looks like Freddie Prinze Jr., which is off-putting, but unlike Mr. Michelle Gellar, he can act. A tense thriller about societal roles and their relationship to brutality, Oliver Hirschbiegel's powerful feature debut makes a useful statement in the era of reality TV and PATRIOT acts, and has earned its director a possible slot at making Blade III.

9. 25th Hour. Spike Lee tends to do better when using someone else's script, and together with David Benioff he's created his finest film yet, a meditation on macho bullshit, denial, redemption and wrong paths that extends -- allegorically and obviously -- to the state of the nation post-9/11.

10. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I know what you're going to say, and I can't entirely disagree with any of the major criticisms leveled against Mr. Lucas's opus. Nonetheless, I also can't dispute the fact that the last 30 minutes or so are some of the greatest ever committed to celluloid (or not, since many "prints" never touched the stuff and remained pixels). From arena battle to Clone War to Yoda whaling on Christopher Lee, this was sheer spectacle as only the movies can deliver, and I'll stack it up against the battle of Helm's Deep any day.

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Luke Y. Thompson