Film Reviews

The Year of Living Dangerously

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.

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.

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Gregory Weinkauf