Posted: 01/15/2003


The Best and Worst Films of 2002

by Michael S. Julianelle

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The Top Five:
The Pianist
Please let this be the permanent return of Polanski. One of my all-time favorite directors finally gets back to movies that matter with this powerful, small-scale examination of one man’s struggle to survive the horrors of the Holocaust with no list to save him and no art to cling to. This film is filled with the power and pain of the memories of both the piano man Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose book the film is based, and the director himself, who grew up in the Polish ghettos and on the run from Nazis. The cinematography is both bleak and beautiful as Adrian Brody’s natural languidness cloaks the shell of a tenacious man desperate to reclaim his life and his talent from the gaping teeth of destruction and despair.

Punch-Drunk Love
One of the most unique romantic comedies ever made, this is not a chick flick for the Pretty Woman set. This is a melancholy, not-quite-real examination of the beginning of a relationship between the not-quite-normal Barry Egan (Adam Sandler, showing decidedly unexpected reserves of sadness and anger) and the not-quite-normal Lena Leonard (Emily Watson, fine as ever), a woman with quirks and back story of her own, albeit back story that the movie never provides us with. That lack of depth bothered some critics, but for me it wasn’t the characters pasts that interested or affected me, it was their emotions. Through a sublime use of color and music, Paul Thomas Anderson achieves some of the truest expressions of love, pain and anger that I’ve ever seen on film.

Catch Me If You Can
Perhaps the year’s most entertaining movie. I admit, I had no idea how a movie about a teenage imposter who eventually ends up in jail could be uplifting, but it certainly is. Speilberg’s bouncy “little” flick gets helium from its breezy anti-authority slant, its stylish, nostalgic feel, and its impeccable cast. Leo slides effortlessly between tortured young boy and confident, cool-as-ice con man, and his age seems to change to fit the scene. Tom Hanks captures the professional zeal and unsatisfied yearning for a personal connection as the Fed on Leo’s trail, and they are both backed by a different but typically stellar performance from Christopher Walken as his Willy Loman-esque father. I was smiling almost as soon as the titles ran, and I’m smiling as I write this. A great popcorn movie from the Great Popcorn Master.

The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers
More momentum than the first, more action than the first and more Gollum than the first helped make The Two Towers the rare sequel that betters its forebear. It’s still no Star Wars (my generational bias neither here nor there), but Gollum, both as a special effect and as perhaps the most three-dimensional character in the whole series, is a helluva lot cooler than Jar-Jar. The cinematography and landscapes are breathtaking and lend authenticity to an occasional soppy story, but the film’s three simultaneous storylines prove a bit choppy and cause a bottlenecking effect for the last 45 minutes or so. Fortunately, the action is so spectacular that it pummels away any lingering objectives about the plot retreads and ecosystem muppetry.

Gritty, cynical, ambiguous and matter of fact, Narc is one intense cop movie. Nobody’s clean, least of all the camera lens, as Jason Patric and Ray Liotta ignite this relentless slice of the life of a Detroit cop. Liotta is big, burly, mean and as intense as ever; he’s like a bulldog with a huge goatee. Patric once again busts out of his daze and delivers another steely-eyed and conflicted performance that keeps us hopeful he might one day abandon his hit and miss strategy and start a real career. Much like the similarly down’n’dirty cop flick, The French Connection, this is cop drama with no frills. It’s not slick and it’s not new, but it’s all amped up and it doesn’t stop running for 90 minutes. And it’s got an opening scene that left me shaking.

Runners Up—The Next 5:

The 25th Hour
Like most Spike Lee movies, this one goes on for too long and needs to be a bit more focused. A fine, if ordinary turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman could have been trimmed to streamline this meditative look at a drug dealer’s last day before prison. Ed Norton is fantastic, as usual, living inside the skin of Monty, a bright, charismatic criminal who squandered the potential for a good life and now has to life with the regret and anger of bad decisions. An ode to the post-9/11 anger and sadness of NYC, Lee delivers his best film years. Barry Pepper and Rosario Dawson complement Norton nicely and with pop, but the real star here is the mood. All contemplative mistrust and cautious hope, The 25th Hour points the finger at us, not to blame but to encourage.

I wish the last 30 minutes were as engaging, original and fun as the first 90. It went where it had to go, but I wish it would’ve been different. Charlie Kaufman has a gift for taking the truly bizarre and making it manageable, and for taking ideas that are extremely internalized and intangible and shoehorning it into something the audience can watch and relate to. And Spike Jonze, his partner in crime, has the perfect sensibility to help translate all that wackiness into a film. I can’t decide whether the ending was meant to embrace and thereby transcend cliché, or embrace and thereby mock cliché. But after 90 minutes of an inspired and painfully honest look at human insecurity, a writer’s insecurity, and the desire/attempt to improve one’s life, the last 30 minutes were a letdown. Because of the clichés.

The Believer
I saw it over the summer of ‘02, so regardless of when it was “officially” released by Showtime or whatever; it’s a 2002 film for me.

The movie has some problems, some of which stem from an odd subplot involving a girlfriend, and some of which are due to a meager budget, but Ryan Gosling gives one of the year’s top 5 performances and obliterates the screen, even when not speaking. As an intelligent, educated Jew, angry at and confused by a God he feels abandoned humanity, his own self-loathing motivates him to join and lead white power groups. Simultaneously ferocious, articulate, and painfully conflicted, Gosling elevates an intriguing premise and makes The Believer an exceptional first step in a very promising career.

Gangs of New York
Daniel Day-Lewis is King. Somebody stop this guy from taking another break from acting, because he is, quite simply, one of the best actors alive. He hides behind a dripping New York accent, a cartoonish hat and Rollie Finger’s mustache, but he owns the screen every time he’s on it. Unfortunately, as a result, the scenes without him seem a bit static, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character sets out to avenge his father’s death amidst a host of city- and country-wide upheaval. Scorsese crams so much info into the movie, especially the last 45 minutes or so, that it’s very hard to absorb, but it’s all pretty damn fascinating. The opening and closing battles are gory and gorgeously filmed, and like Spike Lee’s the 25th hour, it’s a NYC movie determined to honor and elucidate the significance of what happened on 9/11. Although it doesn’t succeed emotionally the way Lee’s film does, it’s an important movie from an important filmmaker that has more than enough great in its 165 minutes to overcome the bloated and choppy final hour.

Bowling for Columbine
Slanted? Yes. Revealing? No doubt. Manipulative? Come on, it’s Michael Moore. But it’s also both entertaining as hell and scary as shit. Plus, it’s funny. There’s a lot of information in this documentary, and all of it serves to support Moore’s opinions. You’ll get no objectivity here, just an angry, intelligent man who makes a lot of good points and occasionally lets his emotions make bad ones. His assault on a bewildered Charlton Heston is much more discomfiting than funny, and Moore’s in your face interviews can get overwhelming and smug. But there is a lot to discuss in this movie, and it should be discussed. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s as entertaining as a Gatling gun.

Honorable Mention:
Igby Goes Down, 8 Mile, Frailty, Spider-man, Road to Perdition, Minority Report, Far From Heaven, Changing Lanes, Panic Room, Signs, The Bourne Identity.

24 Hour Party People, Chicago, About A Boy, Sunshine State, Solaris, Big Fat and Greek, Auto Focus, Spirited Away, Talk to Her, About Schmidt, Intacto, Harry Potter, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Good Girl, The Hours,


1. Death to Smoochy—yikes. Probably Ed Norton’s worst film. A total disaster. I doubt if even one joke works.

2. Die Another Day—Timothy Dalton’s 007 movies were better. It’s not Brosnan’s fault, but his movies are too glossy and are devoid of the personality that made a new Bond movies an event.

3. XXX

4. The New Guy—rented this one for Eliza Dushku. She delivers. The movie does not. Not even worth it for the girl. Then again, maybe for this girl, it is worth it.

Michael S. Julianelle is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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