On paper, 2002's cinematic crop doesn't make a lot of sense: In part, it offered no prevailing trends that would make clear-cut discussion topics, and in part, it presented an abundance of riches. Some of the year's best films featured an unemployed Frenchman, a slowly awakening '50s housewife, questing hobbits, a Japanese cartoon girl lost in a fairy-book wonderland, horny Mexican teens, an aging insurance actuary, and a mustachioed 19th-century xenophobe. None of those characters could share a universe, much less a movie, but individually they helped make 2002 a year in which anyone bemoaning the decline of film simply wasn't paying attention. As a reminder, The Onion A.V. Club presents its second annual Top 10 roundup
1. Y Tu Mamá También
How appropriate, and yet rare, that a film about coming of age would be defined by its capacity for surprise. As two male protagonists of disparate backgrounds prepare to abandon adolescence, a seaward journey with a beautiful woman allows them to discover unexpected possibilities for personal and sexual freedom, as well as the inevitability of disappointment and death. Meanwhile, the film does some uncovering of its own, pausing for details that serve as mere dots on its characters' journey, yet reveal whole worlds. The film itself came as a surprise: Director Alfonso Cuarón's return to Mexico featured a cast of relative unknowns, and couched the spontaneity of improvisation in the skill of a practiced craftsman to thrilling, heartbreaking effect.
2. Far From Heaven
3. The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
4. About Schmidt
5. Time Out
The tale of a man who loses his job—and with it, all ability to direct his life—Laurent Cantet's film converted the remarkable backstory of a famous murder case into the bloodless stuff of everyday tragedy. In the process, he made the best ghost story since The Others, even though Time Out's specter is made of flesh and blood.
6. Spirited Away
8. 25th Hour
9. Talk To Her
10. Femme Fatale
With a little help from overseas financing, Hollywood exile Brian De Palma finally got a chance to evade studio expectations and make the sort of film only he can make: one equally conversant in the languages of cinema and trash fiction. Femme Fatale is bursting with split-screen effects, suspense setpieces, invitations to voyeurism, and pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures; De Palma hasn't been so confidently in his element in years. If a filmmaker can recover his voice simply by moving to France, someone should renew Michael Cimino's passport post-haste.
Viewers would have to look hard for a risk-averse moment in any of these near-misses for the Top 10. There's nothing safe, for example, about constructing a Jacques Tati-like comedy around a revelatory Adam Sandler performance that keeps pushing the film closer to tragedy and psychosis, as Paul Thomas Anderson did with Punch-Drunk Love. Or about Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, a film about mourning, plagiarism, and the music of Can, carried by a daring sense of style and the cryptic expressiveness of Samantha Morton. With 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom made a sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll movie without the moralizing and without ignoring consequences, and did it all with a roller coaster's sense of timing. By contrast, there's not a moment of excess in Steven Soderbergh's version of Solaris, which took the story of a planet that drags inner demons into outer space, and shaved it down to its absolute essence. But the biggest dare of the year still belongs to Martin Scorsese, whose long-awaited Gangs Of New York didn't live up to the near-impossible expectations, but works as a fascinating half-masterpiece anyway.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs Of New York
As fierce as Jack Palance in Shane, and playing a character almost as irredeemable, Day-Lewis makes the "nativist" leader Bill The Butcher alternately fatherly, romantic, hateful, chivalric, and monstrous, as if he knows he's imprinting his character on his city for decades to come.
The story of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane opens with the sitcom actor reveling in wholesomeness. One trip to a strip club later, he's on a road to perdition that will leave him a debased sex addict whose murder must have felt like a bit of a relief. The film doesn't hide director Paul Schrader's Puritan roots, but it has the nausea-inducing power of a sermon that hits close to the mark, or a dirty joke with a ring of truth. Trading on his fading fame, Crane (played, with eerie effectiveness, by Greg Kinnear) sits in a bar beneath a rerun of his show, waiting for that night's conquest to take notice. Is he a vampire, a victim, or just a man letting his soul get eroded by the world? Willem Dafoe plays his bad angel, a videophile sycophant in violent revolt against any suggestion that it's not, as his novelty watch suggests, always "fuck time." When Bob Guccione has nightmares, they look like this.
Directed by Michael Apted, written by Tom Stoppard from a novel by Robert Harris, starring Kate Winslet, produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger, music by John Barry—if pedigrees made a movie, then this self-consciously thoughtful thriller (term loosely applied) about British codebreakers in WWII would be a sure thing instead of the cinematic equivalent of dry toast and weak tea.
Twenty years from now, either this will be wrongheadedly championed as a butchered masterpiece, or "What is Pinocchio?" will be the $1,000 question to the Jeopardy answer "Roberto Benigni's aggressively bizarre, strangely personal, beautifully shot, badly dubbed, thoroughly ill-conceived follow-up to Life Is Beautiful."
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Platinum Series Extended Edition)
Even if the movie weren't great, this four-disc set would still be a fascinating excursion into the world of epic-scale filmmaking. As is, the set includes a longer, better version of The Fellowship Of The Ring, four lively commentary tracks, and a documentary to accompany virtually every stage of the production. Lots of DVDs have a more-is-better approach to extras (anyone up for the two-disc edition of Bounce?), but few implement the quality control that guides the extras found here, which smartly enhance a film already worth revisiting.
This child-in-peril transplant drama in which everyone gets a big speech and the bad guys take it on the chin beats out the Andie MacDowell drinkin'/smokin'/lovin' comedy Crush and the hilarious Crossroads, mainly because everyone involved ought to have known better. There's a great movie to be made about America's lousy health-care system, and the cast of Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, Anne Heche, James Woods, and Ray Liotta could have made one. But if John Q is the alternative to heartless hospitals, audiences are bound to end up cheering for the bad guys.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Sure, 2002 brought about many worse films than this broad, bland, old-fashioned ethnic comedy, but when the next few years are flooded with films that only need laugh tracks to double as sitcoms, look no further for the culprit. Get ready for Yes, Dear: The Motion Picture, coming in 2004.
1. Time Out
2. About Schmidt
3. Spirited Away
4. The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
5. Y Tu Mamá También
6. Gangs Of New York
The ultimate New York story, Gangs Of New York is a brawling, two-fisted pulp epic that pulsates with energy and ambition. Full of unforgettable setpieces and larger-than-life turns from Daniel Day-Lewis, Brendan Gleeson, and Jim Broadbent, Gangs Of New York has its weaknesses, but it also boasts a career's worth of soaring highs. As a love triangle and tale of revenge, it's deeply flawed, but for sheer spectacle, it's a career-capping triumph.
8. 25th Hour
After stumbling with 2000's shrill Bamboozled, Spike Lee made a striking return to form with 25th Hour. A moving, superbly acted character study haunted by the lingering specter of the Sept. 11 attacks, 25th Hour reaches its apex with Edward Norton's blistering "Fuck New York" speech, a stunning scene that could only have come from a director (and dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker) who loves New York as much as his protagonist professes to hate it.
9. Far From Heaven
10. The Kid Stays In The Picture
The feature-film adaptation of producer and former Paramount mogul Robert Evans' cultishly adored autobiography and audiobook, The Kid Stays In The Picture breathed new life into the backstage Hollywood story by sidestepping irony and self-consciousness. The result is a sumptuous storybook of a film, proving that documentaries can be as glossy, escapist, and fun as big-budget popcorn fare.
The past year was great for documentaries, with films as dissimilar as Hell House and The Kid Stays In The Picture finding appreciative audiences. Two other standouts, Bowling For Columbine and Biggie And Tupac, took irreverent looks at American violence. Though neither film's reportage stands up to intense scrutiny, each offers a wildly entertaining, sociologically priceless look at the rough edges of American culture. Late Marriage offered a similarly revelatory look at Israeli social mores, while the witty comedies Roger Dodger and About A Boy each cast never-better leading men (Campbell Scott and Hugh Grant, respectively) as smooth-talking, self-absorbed womanizers who discover the limits of their charm.
Charlie Kaufman had the kind of year most screenwriters can only dream about, but while he received much-deserved kudos for Adaptation, the Michel Gondry-directed Human Nature slipped in and out of theaters to mixed reviews and tiny audiences. A characteristically smart, quirky, offbeat fable about the perils of conformity, Human Nature, like Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, is second-tier Kaufman, but even second-tier Kaufman is something special.
Perhaps the only thing worse than a brittle, overwritten cinematic sitcom is a brittle, overwritten cinematic sitcom with artistic and intellectual pretensions. Last year was filled with tales of dramatic, precocious young men lusting after older women (Igby Goes Down, The Good Girl, Lovely & Amazing), but none were as smug and self-congratulatory as Tadpole, which never tired of reminding audiences what a smart, charming, life-affirming little treasure its overly articulate 16-year-old protagonist was. Perhaps the ugliest film this side of Battlefield Earth, Tadpole feels padded even at 78 minutes.
8 Crazy Nights
After taking a huge step forward with Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler took an even bigger step back with the ugly, laughless, bizarrely misanthropic 8 Crazy Nights, an animated atrocity that makes Little Nicky look like Rules Of The Game. Sandler's menagerie of shrill, insufferable, largely interchangeable voices has never found a more noxious outlet, while the film's indistinct, ugly animation makes Hanna and Barbera look like Disney and Miyazaki.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary
A wickedly funny cross between The Night Porter and Pretty Woman, Secretary re-imagined the Cinderella story as a sadomasochistic dance of attraction and revulsion. Essential to the film's success is the fearless lead performance of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes unhinged geekiness sexy and dominates the screen even when crawling on all fours.
Imagine a '50s theme restaurant where the waiters go around stabbing people to rapturous applause, and you'll have some idea of Deuces Wild's bloody, simpleminded retro idiocy. Weighted down with a landfill's worth of period detail and a body count to rival a small war, the film offered a vision of '50s gang life as authentic as a high-school production of Grease.
Pimping ain't easy, and neither is making films about pimping, if The Mack's DVD edition is to be trusted. The film casts a long shadow over hip-hop and pop culture, but the story behind the scenes—as conveyed in a wonderfully dishy audio commentary and a terrific documentary—is just as riveting as the one on screen. It's a tale of bullying Black Panthers, charismatic mobsters, stoned pimps, and a young, brilliant, coked-up Richard Pryor. Essentially two riveting movies for the price of one, The Mack's DVD is the perfect complement to Isaac Julien's terrific blaxploitation documentary Baadasssss Cinema.
Femme Fatale and The Rules Of Attraction
After an extended sojourn making big-budget studio films, Brian De Palma returned to his artsploitation roots with Femme Fatale, a wonderfully trashy, sexed-up thriller featuring characters who barely function as cartoons, let alone human beings. The Rules Of Attraction followed shamelessly in De Palma's stylistic footsteps, using Bret Easton Ellis' nasty little novel largely as an excuse for an encyclopedia of stylistic tricks. Director Roger Avary even included a direct homage to fellow split-screen enthusiast De Palma in the form of a hilarious cameo from Phantom Of The Paradise star Paul Williams.
Theatrically released cheapie sequels to animated Disney classics
Like a cat covering its feces, Disney used to dump its low-rent sequels to animated classics on home video. That appears to have changed with Peter Pan: Return To Never Land, whose success has likely opened the door for further opportunistic quickie rehashes. Disney lost a bundle on the mega-budget Treasure Planet, so it's depressingly likely that the studio will pull out more low-risk ventures like Never Land in the future.
1. About Schmidt
With his bracingly funny third film, Omaha-born director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election) cements his place as the poet of flyover country, slipping a deeply ambivalent take on the Midwest around the pitfalls of condescension and sentimentality. A delicate balance between humor and pathos, often within the same scene, Payne's high-wire act gets its comic tension from the curdled angst of a retired middle manager who perceives only banality where others find the comforts of home. By seeing it from both perspectives, Payne rescues Middle America from the golden gloss of campaign speeches and car commercials.
2. Time Out
3. Gangs Of New York
4. The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
Now two-thirds into what will almost certainly be the greatest fantasy yet made, director Peter Jackson widens the frame of his unashamedly geeked-out spectacle with the second installment, which continues to carry the burden of expectation with a fleet foot. On a macro scale, The Two Towers mounts a climactic battle sequence worthy of Akira Kurosawa's Ran, orchestrating teeming armies of man and beast out of a seamless blend of digital and flesh. On a micro scale, Tolkien's epic struggle between Good and Evil is embodied by the character of Gollum, a stunning CGI creation whose torments spill out in almost Shakespearean monologues.
5. Y Tu Mamá También
6. What Time Is It There?
7. Devils On The Doorstep
Nearly orphaned by Chinese censors, who buried the film after its enthusiastic reception at Cannes in 2000, Jiang Wen's wicked black comedy finally premiered in the U.S., 20 minutes lighter but no less audacious and powerful. Ripping the scab off an old wound, Jiang addresses the Japanese occupation of China during WWII with renewed indignation and humor, splitting the difference between an Ealing comedy and Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory before shifting into much darker territory.
8. Spirited Away
A crowning achievement for one of the world's most distinctive animators, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away evokes the sweet pleasures of earlier works like Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro without losing the scale or thematic seriousness of his 1997 eco-epic Princess Mononoke. His tale of a little girl lost in the spirit world has the makings of a nightmare, but it moves like a dream, sending her on an abstract adventure of horrors and delights that nearly confounds description, but develops a strange logic all its own. Where most animators are intent on grabbing viewers by the lapels, Miyazaki leads them through beautiful moods and textures that take root in the imagination.
9. Femme Fatale
10. Morvern Callar
Three of 2002's runners-up take place in narrow enclaves of society, and each centers on a tragic hero whose desires are squelched by rigid social codes. In Arnaud Desplechin's riveting Esther Kahn, an alienated Jewish girl in Victorian England leaves her tight-knit family to become an actress, a quest that dovetails with a desperate need to become fully human. Todd Haynes' crystalline melodrama Far From Heaven pays homage to Douglas Sirk's Technicolor weepies from the Eisenhower '50s, but his tender depiction of forbidden passions goes beyond mere mimicry. In Israeli writer-director Dover Koshashvili's bitter comedy Late Marriage, Orthodox tradition brings shame on a smarmy 31-year-old playboy who ducks an arranged marriage by shacking up with an older divorcée and single mother. The sad cannibals in Claire Denis' underrated Trouble Every Day are too small in number to qualify as an enclave, but their consuming passions are both horrific and oddly beautiful. And, in the year's boldest stroke, Spike Lee deepened his soulful drama 25th Hour with post-Sept. 11 images of his native city in mourning.
Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
Though his recent performances have made it difficult to separate Nicholson the actor (The Pledge) from Nicholson the colorful icon (As Good As It Gets), his ego gets swallowed whole by a knit sweater in About Schmidt, and it never makes so much as a cameo appearance along the way. Nicholson has the courage to play a redeemable bastard with a heavy emphasis on the "bastard" part, draining away his star charisma until he's little more than a sad, pitiable lump of a human being. Only then can he absorb some hard-won sympathy.
Roundly dismissed as excessively stilted and distant, Atom Egoyan's Ararat was criticized for its chilly remove from the anguish of his Armenian characters, but, ironically, that removal is key to the film's emotional power. As the Armenian genocide continues to be denied by the Turkish government, its modern descendents grapple with a past that's in danger of receding from view, no matter how desperately they seek to reclaim it. Egoyan's own painful inadequacies are reflected in a film-within-a-film that turns history into flimsy artifice.
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and toplined by three titans of acting, The Hours has been decked out with so much arty prestige that it virtually canonizes itself. The explicitly literary conceit of rhyming Mrs. Dalloway through the stories of women from different generations (including Virginia Woolf herself) might have worked on the page. But on the screen, where such preciousness seems faintly ridiculous, it buckles under the weight of its own self-importance.
How does a snowball become an avalanche? First, begin with the misbegotten idea of a live-action version of a dire Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. Then add director Raja Gosnell, the dude behind Big Momma's House and the Home Alone movie without Macaulay Culkin. Then fill out most of the roles by reuniting the cast of I Know What You Did Last Summer. From there, simply add a creepy-looking CGI dog, Juwanna Mann star Miguel A. Núñez Jr. (a poor man's Orlando Jones), sets that suggest Steven Spielberg's Hook, a snarky postmodern script with a baffling story and dated juvenile lingo ("Let's get jinky wit' it!"), an extended cameo and musical performance by Sugar Ray, and an entire setpiece in which Matthew Lillard and a digitally distended Scooby square off in an impromptu farting-and-belching competition.
Slap Her… She's French
Remember Amanda Latona, the sizzling Orlando pop-punk-rock-country songstress who was Britney Spears meets Shania Twain meets Pink meets anyone else her handlers suggest? No? Well, her would-be hit single "Can't Take It Back" is featured prominently in the would-be hit comedy Slap Her… She's French, but neither enterprise got off the ground. Originally scheduled for late August, the film shed release date after release date in 2002. Fortunately for the producers, jokes about French tarts and Southern hicks never get old. Regrettably, the same can't be said of Latona.
Hot off a winning streak that included Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean's Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh cashed his chips on two wonderfully idiosyncratic projects that brought critics and audiences together in derision. First came the clever digital-video film Full Frontal, a sly parody of the Dogme 95 movement that introduces several layers of "reality," only to pull the rug out from under all of them. Next up was his thoughtful and subtly emotional version of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, which was awarded a CinemaScore of F for not having lightsabers and codpieces. But the films got made, and that was triumph enough.
Crispin Glover in Like Mike and Christopher Walken in The Country Bears
By casting two of cinema's most deranged weirdoes into feature-length commercials for Nike and Disney, respectively, the makers of Like Mike and The Country Bears brought a refreshing jolt of sadism into otherwise bland family entertainment. Glover and Walken feel right at home in the dark worlds of, say, David Lynch or Abel Ferrara, but set them next to orphans and animatronic bears, and they really stir things up. Two scene-of-the-year contenders: Glover torturing Jerry Maguire's Jonathan Lipnicki by putting a lighter under a photo of his long-lost mother, and Walken demolishing one meticulously detailed model of Country Bear Hall after another.
Down By Law
Unavailable in any form for roughly a decade, Jim Jarmusch's gorgeously textured black-and-white comedy would be welcome enough in a bare-bones edition, but the two-disc DVD is set apart by its playful and innovative features. In lieu of a running commentary, Jarmusch muses about various aspects of the production in two audio-only sections, one of which was prompted by questions submitted by fans through the Criterion web site, often out of left field. Other amusing supplements include a series of surprise phone calls to his three leads, and a riotous John Lurie commentary track over a semi-coherent interview he did for French television. If only all special-edition DVDs were so unpretentious.