Posted: 01/15/2003


Films and Life in 2002

by Joe Steiff

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2002. The year AOL, Enron, Worldcom and Arthur Anderson tried to convince us that they are not crooks despite grossly misrepresenting their profits or net worth.
The year that the distinction between public and private spaces disintegrated even further thanks to reality shows and exhibitionists with cell phones. All the world is a stage, it seems.

The year that people like Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston became so confused as to why they’re celebrities that rather than producing any music worth listening to, they “entertained” us with interviews detailing their latest breakdowns. Evidently releasing Mariah from a contract at a cost of millions of dollars wasn’t a clear enough message, so let me spell it out for her: shut up.

Speaking of shutting up, Britney Spears finally gave us—oops, I mean, “took”—a break. Now if only someone would say “enough” to Jennifer Lopez since she can’t seem to.

CNN, in its ever-continuing fall from any sort of journalistic integrity, tired to score points with the skater crowd by inserting words like “wack” in several Headline News broadcasts. Almost more offensive was the introduction of music/entertainment segments that made Headline News virtually indistinguishable from Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. When a news-only network spends more time on broadcasting “live-in-our-studio” music than individual news stories, well, hey, they begin to sound like …

…the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times who, evidently trying to keep up with CNN, both launched tabloids—mini-papers designed for people who don’t like to read or think. Thank god they named them virtually the same thing so people wouldn’t get confused.

As for film, things started out kind of bleak but ended up pretty well with a number of fine films, even if it does seem, at least cinematically, we all want to escape the current world. The 19th Century, the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the future—very few of the best films of 2002 are set in or evoke the present day. And if there are few clear masterpieces, there are a number of films that are good enough that year-end “best of” lists and Oscar voters have plenty to choose from. Meaning everything’s up for grabs.

So here, in my humble opinion, are the films that caught my eye in 2002.

In no particular order, these are the films that seemed to me to be the best this past year. Most are not great films, but they are all worth a look.

By far the best-crafted film of 2002, this will leave you either cold or sobbing. But either way, you have to appreciate just how well made the film is. For once, Todd Haynes’ weaknesses work in tandem with his strengths, and he creates a film that is light years beyond his previous efforts. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Patricia Clarkson all turn in excellent performances, and the film contains moments of quiet eloquence. If you saw this film on late night TV, you would never guess it was a contemporary work until the subject matter and language break through the fa├žade and speak across the decades.

Not a big fan of musicals, I left the theater after this film happier than I can remember leaving any movie in a long time. Suddenly I get why everyone thought Richard Gere was going to be a movie star, not to mention that there are excellent performances from Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah. The film does an excellent job of shifting back and forth between the flashy stage numbers and a grittier reality. Only one of the numbers drags, the one where a number of women explain what led them to murder; everything else perks right along with humor and style and a contemporary relevance I didn’t expect.

A compendium of every event, no matter how small, you’d expect in a holocaust film, Roman Polanski’s latest film manages to never feel cliched (except perhaps when the Russians arrive to liberate Warsaw). Factually based, the film follows a largely passive character (Adrien Brody) trying to stay on the fringes of the Nazi takeover of Poland. An interesting counterpoint to Invincible (also a true story, but one which is filmed more as a fable), The Pianist feels painfully authentic. Even as Brody’s character becomes more and more animal like in his scramble for survival, his humanity is sustained by his passion for music.

Up until its Twilight Zone-type ending, Frailty was probably the creepiest film of the year. Instead, One Hour Photo can lay claim to that title. In a role somewhat similar to the one he plays in Insomnia, Robin Williams brings a deathly calm to his performance here. The production design of this film is astounding, each image and set designed to evoke the rectangular shape of photos. The sterile vaguely modern world of One Hour Photo stands in stark contrast to that other bleak portrait of the retail department store world released this year, The Good Girl. Unfortunately, someone felt the need to have Williams’ character reveal a childhood trauma in order to explain his actions, and this moment keeps the film from being truly astounding.

After A.I., Spielberg returns in 2002 with two films that feel less ponderous. Of course, there’s the breezy and effortless Catch Me If You Can, but I actually prefer Minority Report. The film reads almost as an update of Blade Runner with similar themes of paranoia and a future slipping out of our control; no surprise since both films are based on stories by Philip K. Dick. Despite an ending that feels a little too convenient, letting everyone off the hook, this is the best science fiction film of the year and one of the best in recent memory.

Of the documentaries that made it onto local movie screens this year, films like I am trying to break your heart and Dogtown & Z-Boys, it is Michael Moore’s that brings us one of the year’s most chilling cinematic moments. Midway through Bowling for Columbine, the screen splits into four images, showing footage from various security cameras during the Columbine shootings. Though the film runs out of steam at the end (the final interview with Charlton Heston seems anticlimactic), Moore has created a film that asks us to think and argue and wonder why our society is one of the most violent on the planet.

Yeah, the cynical side of me thinks having Eminem’s character defend a gay guy in the film is an out-and-out strategic ploy to say, “see, I’m not homophobic.” Just like the casting of a little girl for him to interact with is designed to soften his image, to make him more palatable to the mainstream. But even if we accept that the film is part manipulation or rewriting of his reputation, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a one of the better films of 2002, residing comfortably in the shadow of A Star is Born or even Saturday Night Fever. That the film doesn’t embrace the expected Hollywood ending (he doesn’t get the girl, he doesn’t become a big star) makes the character and situations all the more believable. Despite some inconsistencies in some of the characters (such as his mother), this is a film that takes you into a specific world and makes you care about the people who inhabit it.

Spike Lee’s latest benefits from exceptional performances and a story written before 9/11 but filmed to incorporate life after the collapse of the Twin Towers. As such, the opening credits sequence and perhaps the film itself is a blunt love poem to New York City. I can’t decide whether this gives the film more heft than it deserves, and this is the one film I debated the most whether to include among the best of the year. Despite a nearly all-Caucasian cast, 25th Hour contains certain stylistic devices that have become part of Lee’s signature, not the least of which an ethnic rant. Ed Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman are exceptional, but perhaps the most powerful aspect of the film is its closing lament.

Cerebral and faithfully following the design of the novel upon which it’s based, this is one of the more challenging and best acted films of the year. Shifting back and forth in time, and following the lives of three women living in three different eras, the film doesn’t try to fill in all the answers as much as reveal the ways in which one’s life can touch or echo so many others. Like Far From Heaven, this film seems to elicit a love it or hate it response. Either way, it’s ambitious and memorable.

Like some ’70s police drama, Joe Carnahan’s Narc is easily one of the best films of the year. The film’s twists start slow and sort of pile up near the end, but overall, it’s a pretty satisfying story wrapped in a number of stylistic flourishes, including some of the best uses of flashforwards and jumpcuts in recent cinema. Add to this the exceptional performances of both leads, and this is a film that delivers on almost every level.

Now for the films you’ve been led to believe should be on any self-respecting year-end list; while I can’t recommend full price, at least some of these might be worth the cost of a video rental or bargain matinee, if nothing else to see what all the fuss is about:

This year’s attempt at The Royal Tenenbaums, once again we have characters so absurdly flawed, so full of tics, that I just don’t care. Anderson’s real strength is scenes (think of the drug deal gone wrong in Boogie Nights or the “wise up” scene in Magnolia), but they often don’t integrate with the rest of their respective films, making his work feel a bit unglued. Punch Drunk Love has one excruciatingly beautiful scene, a car wreck that captures the breathless quality of time standing still while the world races past, a moment of anticipation, not knowing where you’ll end up. Anderson seems to want to extend that feeling to the entire film, but he can only sustain it in short bursts.

Technically released in 2001, I mention it here because it has shown up in many end of the year film conversations and will be a foreign language entry for the Oscars. Everyone’s darling, this film is basically the plot from any one of a number of bad ’70s TV movies about a tragic dying woman setting out for one last life-affirming experience and seducing a teenager, making him a man. Sure, to update the cliché, she seduces two boys at once. But if you think the kiss between the two boys is daring, you’re about 10 to 15 years behind the times. Imagine this same film made in New York City with a European-American cast. Let’s include a couple of scenes that “pass by” homeless people or violent incidents, but let’s drop the plot line of Bringing Out The Dead ‘cause after all, it’s kind of complex, and let’s substitute it with a dying woman seducing two teenage boys on one last road trip. There, we’ve just made a statement about NYC—profound? I didn’t think so.

Still struggling to come up with a film as strong as The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film is ambitious and would have been on my “best” list except for one rather severe flaw: Mel Gibson cannot act. He truly lives up to my friend Shayna’s belief that Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner are equally talented (and that’s no compliment); hence they’re interchangeable or maybe even one person, Mel Costner. Speaking of which, their other film, Dragonfly, was even worse, but since it didn’t really generate any hype, I’m not including it on this list. Signs does have a lot to recommend it, not the least of which is Joaquin Phoenix and the director in supporting roles. But Mel can only blubber whenever he has to express any emotion other than smirky smugness. Too bad.

I get the joke, I really do. I’m just afraid that the joke is on us—Hollywood has figured out how to make a bad film you can’t criticize for being bad because, get this, it’s supposed to be bad. Watching the movie is a little bit like Orlean’s reaction when she finally sees the ghost orchid first hand. In fact, if the film had stopped at her revelation, it would have been a poetic rumination on desire and the attainment of one’s desire; instead it disintegrates into the worst kind of Hollywood schlock, however deliberately. Come to think of it, Being John Malkovich fell apart in the final act as well.

My hat is off to Nia Vardalos, no, seriously, it is. She did more to comment on the Hollywood system than Kaufman & Jonze ever hoped to do—she made a film that defied all of Hollywood’s common wisdom. And proved that for many, film “escape” doesn’t mean “insert more car crashes,” and that not just hormone-addled, twitchy-fingered game boys buy movie tickets. But the film is mediocre when all is said and done; perhaps it will make a better sitcom. If only a film like Real Women Have Curves can have the same shelf life.

Okay, if you like Jack Nicholson, this film is for you. But for all the “hey, wow, this is so unlike any performance of his before,” it’s basically like every performance of his before. Yeah, maybe the character is different from his usual role, but unfortunately it’s still him acting, so the character doesn’t seem that different. There may be a smart script under here, but the best thing about the film is Kathy Bates with Dermot Mulroney a close second.

Does anyone really care if the next film gets made? Of course, Episode Two’s place in film history is assured simply for technological reasons. The groans of the audience I saw this film with—all Star Wars fans—were only relieved by sporadic laughter anytime anything like an emotion was supposed to be evoked by the actors on the screen, who will hopefully still have careers after Lucas directs them again. May they be rich from this enterprise, because the film is certainly doing nothing for the credibility of their acting talent.


In terms of sound design, musical score and soundtrack, Abandon really stood out to me this year, partly because its sound reminded me all too well of those late nights in the college library. For a kick-ass theme song, 8 Mile’s “Lose Yourself” beats just about everything else this year, but if it’s even nominated for an Oscar, it’ll probably lose to whoever wrote a lame-ass song for some Disney animated feature.

Despite telling us this was going to be so different from the rest—deeper, more emotional, more surprising—Star Trek: Nemesis ended up being not much better than any of the other films in the franchise, but the music was so bombastic that it overpowered everything else.

Besides Adrien Brody’s standout lead in The Pianist, most of the best acting by men this year seems to have been in supporting roles or shared leads. Robin Williams played similar characters in Insomnia and One Hour Photo, acquitting himself nicely in both. Dennis Quaid went from aging boyish jock in The Rookie to repressed suburban businessman in Far From Heaven. Everyone’s been talking about Chris Cooper’s turn in Adaptation, and Tim Roth stole the show in Invincible. But the two actors who really stand out to me are Ray Liotta giving the performance of his career in Narc, and Jeremy Davies’ haunting of Solaris in a small but beautifully rendered role.

Those of you who know me are probably shocked to learn that Henry Rollins did not automatically take this award. But I’m not sure that we can consider Jackass a movie, and if it is, it’s not one that requires acting. Fear not, for 2002 saw more damn-fine men in film than I can remember in years. I reminded myself not to be greedy and to select only one, so the painful process of Elimidate has began. Certainly Jason Statham gives new meaning to the term “lube job.” And I wouldn’t mind stoking a few fires with either Matthew McConaughey or Christian Bale. Maybe even some batting practice with Dennis Quaid? I guess I’ll just have to say “no,” because there’s only one guy who can come on over to my house anytime he wants, and that’s Adriano Giannini.

As with the men this year, the best performances by women were in shared leads or supporting roles. Oh wait, were there any films with a single female lead? Guess that explains it. Anyway, Meryl Streep (Adaptation and The Hours) made me laugh over a phone dial tone and cry over a party. Julianne Moore’s suburban worlds crumbled in Far From Heaven and The Hours, and Samantha Morton brought a fragile humanity to Minority Report. But Nicole Kidman stole my heart as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

I had to rule out Tina Fey despite being smart, funny and beautiful. But she’s on TV, you know, and if I open up the categories to include TV stars, chaos—or at least, much longer lists—will ensue. Since Gillian Anderson didn’t make a film this year, that leaves Beyonce Knowles (Austin Powers In Goldmember) who can be Foxy for me anytime as long as I can be Caesar Oh wait, things didn’t end too well for him, did they? Maybe I should rethink this.

Despite the standard reality show qualifications (“it didn’t really happen that way”), Project Greenlight is a frighteningly accurate case study of the filmmaking process; depressing because most of the people didn’t know enough to be embarrassed by the things they were saying or doing. As for the film they made, Stolen Summer, it’s not nearly as bad as you would expect after watching the series; in fact, it’s a respectable first film.

And speaking of respectable, here are a few other films that may not have ranked among the best on my list, but they were films that I certainly enjoyed as GUILTY PLEASURES and RUNNERS UP to the best of the year:

The first fifteen minutes are awful. The film tries so hard to be quirky that the funeral scene feels forced and absurd. But when the film doesn’t try so hard, there are scenes of heartbreaking beauty and sadness. More of a polished Hollywood approach than last year’s In The Bedroom, this film was one of the most emotionally moving films I saw this year.

Based on a similarly-titled Japanese trilogy, this remake follows its Japanese predecessor closely though it is much more suspenseful than the original. Tightly constructed, the film gives you that final kick after you think everything’s been figured out, making it the best horror film of the year.

Despite a very short final battle, this is one of the more exciting and interesting films made this year. Lots of fun and thrills.

Literary in a different way than The Hours, this low-budget film trades in ironies and small town desperation, serving as a counterpoint to the suburban confinement of Far From Heaven.

Certainly the best animation film of the year, whether you see it in its dubbed or subtitled versions. More imaginative than anything produced here in the US.

This may be a look back at our country’s birth, but it reads as well as an apocalyptic vision of our country’s future as we seem to disintegrate into individual tribes uninterested in participating in an integrated society.

A bit more Hollywood (i.e., a happier ending) than the novel upon which it’s based, this is probably the best comedy of the year, smart and acerbic and thoughtful.

What a difference a year makes; everyone seems more comfortable. Though long, this is significantly better than the first installment.

The best war film of the year. Though it contains fewer haunting moments and images than the first installment, The Two Towers tries to make up for that lack with heroic battles and a memorable computer generated character.

The best child performances of the year, a true story of human endurance and persistence in the face of misguided public policy; an Australian journey that would make an interesting double-feature with Walkabout.

And there you have it. For the first time in several years, I feel like there were more films than I could list. So I’ve had to leave out films like Barbershop and others that were good if not necessarily the best. So get out there, see some movies, check our reviews, disagree with us. But if you’re sharing a movie theater with me, and you’re one of those people who has a cell phone, please be sure to turn it off.

The world may be all a stage, but it’s not always your stage.

Joe Steiff saw an awful lot of movies this year. He’s tired. And 2003 is already under way.

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