Sunday, December 8, 2013


I recall 2002, fairly well. Not the greatest year, we we're riding headlong into war, and the Sixers traded half their roster the year after making it to the Finals, completely screwing up any possible chance of getting the making the NBA Finals for the next decade and a half, at least. Anyway, I remember 2002 being a great year for films, but not for the Oscars, oddly enough. Yeah, "Chicago" was a good film, and so were most of the other Best Picture nominees, (Still have no idea, why they kept putting "Lord of the Rings" up there) but none are ranked in this Top Ten of the year, in fact, "The Pianist" was the only one that broke a Top 20 in hindsight. There were a lot of good and great films,  in fact this is one of the best years for Leading Actor performances of all-time, but I'm not 100% sure what happened here, but thankfully it wasn't egregiously bad choices, maybe it just shows that the movies that have the longest impact, weren't necessarily the ones we looked highly upon in the moment. That can happen. I was thinking about that a bit as I wrote my Top Ten List for 2012 recently, and I slammed the perception of that year being a great year for films, and I wondered a lot about which films were truly gonna be long-lasting and memorable and which ones were just good. The fact is though, 2002 was a damn-near great year. I easily can think about 40 or even 50 movies that easily can be justified being in a Top Ten List of the year, maybe more even, might be more like 65 even, this was a very good year.

Other than that, same stipulations apply, I of course haven't seen every film from 2002, so this list is subject to change, but, this is the first year of the decade that I've seen 100+ films from that year, which I think is a good general standard to make a determination on a year. This was one of the first years where I personally started to really search and dive into cinema myself, and search out many different kinds of films, so overall for me, I look back fondly on 2002. Tough to narrow this year down.

For those who are just catching up on this btw, here's my Top Ten of 2000, and 2001, as I'm going through each year of the last decade, going through the best films of each year:

Now, let's go through, to 2002. Hey, that rhymed. Cool.



Before I begin, I have to make a special mention to Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher", which just missed the cut, on this list, and it was an incredibly tough call; I actually mulled over this one for about four or five hours before writing this, two great films, one spot left, but if I was completely honest, and both were on TV right now, and I had to decide which one I'd watch, it'd be Todd Haynes's "Far From Heaven". I just watched Douglas Sirk's amazing "All That Heaven Allows" which was a direct inspiration on the story of "Far From Heaven", but all of Sirk's work was inspiration for the style of the film. Sirk's movie about 1950s era surburbia were melodramas that tore down the white picket fence, and showed the inner battles of the struggling housewife, but they also heavily symbolic and metaphorical, "Far From Heaven" chose to completely eliminate the symbolism, and essentially make the movie that Sirk probably wished he could've made at the time. Cathy (Julianne Moore) catches her husband (Frank) having an affair with a guy, and while she's shocked, they begin treatments to try and cure him of his homosexuality, but meanwhile, as his secret life is revealed, she struggles raising kids, in a gossipy image-stressed community, while she slowly falls in love with her gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) a widowed African-American, who has a daughter himself. It's a liberal community, in theory anyway, but with a busybody friend like Eleanor Fine (Patricia Clarkson) a scandal like this can destroy anybody. It helps to know the films of Douglas Sirk going in, but you get caught up in the drama and the great filmmaking and acting even without it; I've watched it on TV a few times recently, it's striking how it draws you in. It feels soft-colored and light, and while it does eliminate the symbolism of those films, what is added, is this extra layer underneath, this bubbling tension of prejudice that would eventually, begin breaking a decade later, and you think about that, as the young kids, you know will become hippie teenagers years later, and how this story plays out differently in another era. There's still such depth to this movie. Julianne Moore, got an Oscar nomination, for Best Actress this year, as well as a nomination for "The Hours", which is interesting because in both films, she played '50s housewives going through stressful breakdowns. She played another one a couple years later in "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio"; I'm not sure how this became a typecasting part for her; I still think of her as Amber Waves half the time but this is an underrated film, for incredibly acting. Quaid should've been nominated, it's one of Clarkson's best roles, Haysbert's great in what was the typical Rock Hudson role in these Sirk films...;- this is one of those movies where a single bad acting performance, from even the most minor character, could've ruined this completely. Quietly, this is one of the best acted films of the decade, doesn't get anywhere near the credit for it should get for that.


I'll have to admit that I was a little late coming to "Lovely & Amazing," Nicole Holofcener's breakthrough film, and her best film at that, I only watched it for the first time, within the last couple years, and I now regret not getting to it sooner, 'cause she's an incredible writer/director who's found, what I guess would have to be considered a more female perspective, from what we would normally think of as Woody Allen-type material, considering the ways her films are about the tensions between other people, sexual tensions, class tensions, race tensions, age tensions, even family tensions, and all of that is not only in "Lovely & Amazing" it's done spectacularly well in this film. The movie is about three sisters, all apart of the liberal upper class, struggling with their own identities. Michelle (Catherine Keener) is a frustrated housewife who works at an art that doesn't make money and frustrates her working man husband Bill (Clark Gregg), who eventually gets a job at a photo hut, where her teenage boss Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) occasionally flirts with her. She likes the attention that she hasn't gotten at home, but is troubled not only with having an affair, but with a kid so young. (Interestingly, Gyllenhaal had a similar role in another great 2002 film "The Good Girl" that easily could've made this list) Another sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is an actress who's obsessed with body image, especially after being told she wasn't sexy enough for a part. She starts a relationship with fellow actor Kevin (Dermot Mulroney) and has one of the greatest nude scenes of all time, where she insists that Kevin look over her whole body and criticize her flaws. This is all happening while she works on adopting dogs, to show that she's able to take care of someone other than herself, (And she isn't completely capable of doing that either) this after her mother Jane (Brenda Blythen) adopts a young black child, Annie (Raven Goodwin) who's beginning to ask questions and be caught in that tricky world between being in a family where nobody looks like her, and has no real cultural identification, other than she gets criticized for overeating. All the women have image issues and denials, all of them are smart, and all of them struggle to rationalize their logic with their ever-increasing fears and self-doubts. It's an unusually smart and human films about characters who, in another movie, wouldn't be smart and wouldn't be humanistic at all. In some ways, the key to good writing is smart people making stupid decisions, and this film would make a good blueprint for writers on how to do that. It's also a great film by a female writer about female characters, there's not nearly enough of them.


One of the strangest and most unique people in television history is the subject of one the strangest biopics in recent years. Based on game show tycoons Chuck Barris's (Sam Rockwell in his star-making role) unauthorized autobiography, (The only unauthorized autobiography I've ever heard of) "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", gives us a strangely plausible scenario in which Barris, while creating "The Dating Game", "The Newlywed Game", and hosting "The Gong Show", was also an assassin for the CIA. Well, maybe not, but it says something about him to claim that he was. The film marked George Clooney's directorial debut, who's first two features dealt heavily with the world of television, game shows in particular for Clooney are particularly special, his father used to direct game shows and he has a keen insight into how and if his claims are possible. Clooney also plays a supporting role in the film as Barris's CIA operative, and there's a surprisingly good performance by Drew Barrymore as Barris's girlfriend Penny, one that's probably just as Oscar-worthy as Rockwell's who had been a good character actor previously, most famously in "The Green Mile" beforehand, but this was the performance that showed us he could do anything. The script was by Charlie Kaufman, of "Being John Malkovich" fame, and he had a really good 2002, as you'll more-than-likely see him later on on this list, this was actually as close as he probably came to a straight paid-to-write adaptation, it just so happens to be such a strange story that it fits perfectly in his oeuvre. In many ways Clooney was really lucky with this film. The rights to the book had been bouncing around Hollywood for a decade or so previously, it's perfect combination of material, screenwriter and star for his material and you just don't see that with many first-time directors, even when it's a great actor-turned-director, and frankly the reason the film makes the list is that it's just purely entertaining. It's entertaining as an absurd comedy; it's entertaining as a look at the early days of what-would-become reality television, it's a great story about going inside a man's deep and troubled mind. It's one of those films, you run into when it's on, you find yourself digging more and more into it, and it remains intriguing, because like Barris, it refuses to give us a straight answer as to, what parts are true or not. I should also mention, Julia Roberts, even though, she only about six days of shooting on the set, strangely, this is one of her more intriguing characters and performances, just another one of a lot of good things in the film.


Perhaps the only filmmaker who's stranger than Charlie Kaufman is Julie Taymor and her great biopic "Frida" seems to be a great platform for her to simply experiment with all of her ideas, of course she had a subject that was full of material to springboard them from. Salma Hayek became the first Mexican-born Actress to get a Lead Actress Oscar nomination for her work as legendary painter Frida Kahlo, an unusual and extraordinary life that no traditional biopic would ever be suitable for, and Taymor uses every trick in her repertoire, and along with "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", I think what it shows is that the really good biopics have to be visually interesting, and there's always something to look at on the screen. Not just images that inspire her painting, there's more surrealist pop art stuff that shows the mindset of Frida and not so much the literal happening, like a great depiction of her then more-well-known husband artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) as King Kong, or even the montages of her trips in Paris, and her affairs with the likes of Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky, shown as erotic Daliesque voyages through the mind and body, but the more cinematic images are also incredible to look at. The editing of the bus crash that partially paralyzed Kahlo as a college student, the great dance sequence with Ashely Judd. There is excess and eccentricity in every scene of this film. Hayek, I thought should've won the Oscar for her performance, but Molina's character is just as important, and at the core of the film, is that love story between two people who are constantly struggling to balance their love for each other with their art, they're politics, and they're infidelities. This was another project that took forever to get made, and got passed around from screenwriter to screenwriter, and by some accounts, the final draft of the script was by Edward Norton, who also has a co-starring role in the film, and he's actually known for working on rewrites of many films he's been in, but is never accredited with the work because he's not a member of the WGA. Not to mention Salma Hayek fighting for the role for almost a decade with Madonna of all people, who wanted the role even more than she wanted her role in "Evita". But Kahlo lived a life that few people can really even compare to, and putting all of it into one film might not be possible with any other filmmaker. Taymor, who's biggest claim-to-fame was adapted "The Lion King" on Broadway, is the only person who could've conceived of this film, and made it this way. She didn't just go from highlight-to-highlight showing an extraordinary artistic life, instead, she made an extraordinary film that gave us a feeling of her life and that's why this one holds up better than most.


Just by sheer mentioning of the name Michael Moore, pretty much editorially requires me to label the piece as controversial, which is what I did when the week after the Trayvon Martin shooting, I added "Bowling for Columbine" to my Canon of Film series, and yes indeed, I did get some mixed reactions from people to say the least. I'm sorry, I just realized I got that wrong; it was after the Newton, MA schoolhouse massacre, not the Trayvon Martin shooting. I could've simply deleted that, but after I thought about it, I thought I should point out, that I myself, forgot which recent disturbing gun crime I had posted it in response to. (And it's pretty damn hard to forget about a bunch of kindergartners getting slaughtered) That's one reason, no two, reasons why "Bowling for Columbine", is still Moore's most relevant film even today, but it wouldn't show up on this list, if it wasn't a great film without all that.

Here's the link to my Canon on Film post on "Bowling for Columbine":

On top of "Bowling..." being funny, as well as being this intelligent look and gun control and cun violence. You know, I always considered the appropriate manner in which to look at Michael Moore's work would be to think of his films as though they were persuasive essays. He's an essayist, who's got an agenda, and he's building his case. If it's against Roger Smith or George W. Bush, there's a lot you can use, some criticize, especially with Columbine, the showmanship and the stunts that he's doing, well, that's part of making the larger the point, but the one that makes "Bowling..." for me, to be his very best film, is that, he isn't pointing at anybody in this case. He's still making a persuasive argument, but he doesn't have the easy answer, he can simply point and say, "This is the absolute problem." He's looking, but A. It's a lot more complex problem that that, and frankly, he's more interesting when you know he's looking and can't find a solution. He had a similar feel, to what I think is his most underrated film with "Capitalism: A Love Story" also, where again, the culprit is much more massive and bigger than just one person, but what gets overlooked with "Bowling..." because it's such a hodgepodge of material, is how good the writing is. Among the many Awards the film got, including the Best Documentary Oscar, he won the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay, not Best Documentary Screenplay, they didn't separate documentary writing at that time, he won in competition against some films that I've already discussed on this list, and it really is his most well-written film, and especially in the context of considering it as an essay, this would be a tough essay to write, and he makes a great film out of it, very tough thing to do, and it's more relevant now than it was even then. Startlingly good when you think about it in greater details.


The simple way to describe Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien", is that 2 teenagers boys go on a road trip with an attractive older woman, for, exactly the reasons you would think. That might be very well be true, but, that's barely scratching the surface of this film. I've talked with people I trust who are far more knowledgeable about Mexican history that me, that even the characters names have important historical symbolism, that's a fourth layer to this movie, the first one, is the romantic getaway involving two high school graduate friends Julio and Tenoch (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) one upper class, one middle class, befriend a wife of one of their cousins at a gathering, and offer offhandedly to show her a beautiful and mysterious hidden beach only they know about. After her husband confesses to having an affair, she surprises both of them, by accepting the invitation. The reason for that is better left unsaid, but the second layer is this journey through Mexico, where they run into and pass some of the poorer areas of the country the further south they travel. A narrator who seems to comment outside of the action, makes some selective and intriguing times to make mention of some of the character's random thoughts and memories, as well as informing us, of some of the other character's futures, as Mexico is on a brink of a major political and economic change. This is the third level, where if symbolically, the woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdu) is indeed a representation of Mexico, than the two boys represent the past and the future, colliding in the present. And when I say colliding, I mean all ways including physically. "Y Tu Mama Tambien" originally went out unrated, in order to avoid getting an NC-17 rating for it's numerous sex scenes, although it eventually got cut for an R. I'm still leaving a few important details out, much of which we don't completely learn or get revealed to us until much later in the film anyway. "The title translate to "And Your Mother Too," which is a little awkward, it's actually more of an insult that's slung a few times during the film, as the erotic journey these three characters go through, during that, one last Summer, that of course, changes everything, and that's the broad outline, but more things change forever, than even is apparent, during moments where, you'd think, "Oh, fuck! Everything's gonna change!" moments would. The film, despite not getting a national theatrical release, nor was Mexico's entry in the Foreign Language Oscar category, which went to "The Crime of Padre Amaro" instead (Which is also quite a good film, also starring Bernal) the movie did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and forever linked Bernal and Luna as actors. They've worked together a few times since as well, and solidify Cuaron, along with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro, as this new golden era of Mexican cinema started. It is one of those movies, where the more you know, the better the movie becomes. In some movies, you can just sense that there's more going on, and this is a movie where you can sense it, even as more layers get revealed piece-by-piece. It is weird that a movie, so sensual and visual onscreen, has so much more going on, away from, NC-17 levels visuals and situations, but,- someone once said every sex scene should mean something (Maybe no one said that, but somebody should've said it if they didn't) well, every sex scene in this movie, means something more, from image one.


Probably the film that's jumped the highest from this year since it came out originally is Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away". It was the first Miyazaki film I saw, and while I always admired it, and watched it in awe of some of the incredible painstakingly beautiful animation in the film, I tended to bigger fan of some of his more adventurous, epic films like "Princess Mononoke", but the more I watch "Spirited Away" the more drawn into it I get. And drawn into it, is the right word. By the time Disney distributed "Spirited Away", they had already begun plans to eliminate their hand-drawn department, and they did that briefly shortly after before restarting it. That said, Miyazaki is the indisputable master, or hand-drawn animation, and with "Spirited Away" he probably had more joy in making than any of his other films, as it includes more strange and unusual characters, and I'd argue that it's probably the greatest "Alice in Wonderland" type-story ever adapted to film. The story is about young Chihiro, a little girl of about nine or ten, who's parents get turned into pigs after eating food at this abandoned amusement which turns out to be some kind of bathhouse for ghosts and spirits and other otherworldly creatures. In order to survive, she gets a job from the bathhouse's witch owner Yubaba. Even Miyazaki's worst films are feasts for the eyes, and involve such delicate pacing and beauty. There's always something new on the screen in "Spirited Away", and it powerfully absorbs us into the world, which is the real point of the film. The story is just a way of getting us into his imagination, and what a way it is. The film famously outgrossed "Titanic" to be the biggest box office hit in Japan at the time, and was Japan's entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, and it won the Best Animated Feature Oscar. I find myself growing more and more affection for it everytime I see it. There's many wonderful details and little throwaway pieces of animation, it's striking to see how great all his films are, but "Spirited Away" might be the purely joyful film in his collection. It's pure imagination running wild, and that's really why this one just keeps growing and growing every time. It is remarkable.

3. 25TH HOUR

Somehow, I was way ahead of the time on "25th Hour", and I'm not 100% sure why it took forever for people to come around on this one, but as I pointed out on my Canon of Film entry for "25th Hour", it made more Ten Best of the Decade Lists, than it did, Top Ten of the 2002 lists at the time.

It didn't get a single Oscar nomination, and was basically ignored by all the Awards except for a Golden Globe nomination for the Score. It was the first feature film to be made in New York City, and to take place, after 9/11, and Spike Lee is not shy about pointing it out, with the striking opening credits sequence, showing the beams of light that went up after the attacks at Ground Zero where they Towers used to be. The film is simple enough, it's about Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) a drug dealer who been caught, and it's his final day of freedom, before going upstate to spend seven years in jail. In a way, as is pointed out by some of his friends, he's never coming back, and when he comes out, his life, and him, would have changed forever. Perhaps the genius of the film though is that Spike Lee wisely allows for us to be fully envelope in other character's lives as well. Take the Phil Hoffman character, a teacher who's got a crush on a very precocious student, Mary (Anna Paquin), which leads to one of the greatest of all of Spike Lee scenes, when the two have a very realistic but disturbing interaction when they run into each other at a nightclub. Or the exchanges we have between Hoffman, and the Barry Pepper characters, who's a Wall Street trader who lives in an apartment that overlooks Ground Zero. These two could have their own movie. There's incredible acting in this film. There isn't as much plot, so the actors have to come in really knowing their characters, and by the way of the film, we have an incredible sense of everybody. Spike Lee is one of our absolute greatest filmmakers, and this is one of his very best films, and realize the great screenplay too, by David Benioff, based on his novel; he would go on to write the script for "The Kite Runner" another good film, as well co-create "Game of Thrones". It's a movie of impending dread, in the midst of unending mourn, and how people really deal with it. That's really the overlooked aspect of Spike Lee's films, he makes movies about real people, and how they react, and this is a great film, about that.


When it comes to 2002, I went back-and-forth switching my #1 and #2 choices, dozens of times, and it's the first year in this series where I really did struggle with such a tough choice at top of these lists. This is probably more accurately a 1A and 1B, but my #2 choice, one of Steven Spielberg most underrated masterpieces, "Minority Report". This is the film noir/sci-fi combination that "Blade Runner" always wanted to be. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, it takes place in the near future, and pre-crime has begun being used in the Washington D.C. area, as three sibling precognitive, are used to see future murders take place. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the head detective in the Pre-Crime Division, who soon finds himself on the run, as the Pre-Cogs, foresee him being the next murderer. Spielberg uses all of his tricks here. First of all, it's a great story that gets enhanced by the movie's visual effects, and the film's not overloaded with them as other films were, they're used very specifically, while at other times, and this is what separates Spielberg, he uses classic filmmaking techniques, for the rest of the film. A great two-shot close-up at a critical moment of Cruise and Samantha Morton, who plays Agatha, the pre-cog who's premonitions are sometimes slightly different than the other two. There's multiple great chase sequences and fights sequences, that are absolutely necessary to the plot, and the movie also opens up, not just the possibilities of a post 9/11 world where we can be arrested for crimes we're about to commit, but also takes a real look at the possibilities of that. The options of choice over sudden randomness, are whether one's destiny to do an act, or not. Spielberg even masters the art of product placement, in a way that no other film has. Yeah, he's used it many times before, but have you ever noticed how well it blends into the stories of his films? In "Minority Report" you did. On every level, this really is one of Spielberg's very best films, and really encompasses, practically all that Spielberg is about. It's a film with ideas, it's a classic genre made with classic film techniques, but with the modern technological twist when needed. It's got similar Spielberg themes like family separation, and conflicted heroes, it's asks real questions about our humanity, and it's also just a great popcorn flick. It's gotta a bit of everything, and yet at it's core, a really good story. Underrated acting as well, it's one of Tom Cruise's best roles; great supporting work from Morton as well as Colin Farrell and Max von Sydow. Roger Ebert wrote of the film, "It reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place," and in many ways, that's true, and essentially, that's what makes "Minority Report" so great.


And while, "Minority Report" does remind us what movies are about, the reason I have to rank it number 2, is because the number 1 movie of 2002, takes those aspects of movies we know so well, plays with them, transcends them, and before then, it goes through the rulebook deconstructs and then breaks each rule one-by-one, before starting to follow the rules all over. This was my toughest call yet in the series, but my number one film, is "Adaptation.". Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's pseudo-follow-up to they're first feature, the masterful "Being John Malkovich", (Boy, Kaufman had a good year) "Adaptation." began as an actual adaptation about Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) novel "The Orchid Thief" about John LaRoche (Oscar-winner Chris Cooper), but somehow, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) started writing himself into his own, where he's a writer hired to write the adaptation of the novel, and even wrote in a twin brother Donald (Also Cage) who also got a co-screenwriting credit.... this movie doubles and triple backs within itself, before finally Charlie resorts to going to a seminar from legendary screenwriter coach Robert McKee (Brian Cox, although there really is a Robert McKee) who's helped Donald also become a successful screenwriter by teaching rigorous three-act structure. Not only is this film, probably the best movie ever made about the struggles of screenwriting, it's also funny as Hell, and is led by three truly great performances in Streep, Cooper, and especially Nicolas Cage, who gives arguably the best performance of his incredible career. It also marks the first time that somebody received an Oscar nomination, who didn't exist. I know first-hand just how intricate this movie is; I wrote a 22-page complete film analysis paper that was taught at my local community college on "Adaptation.", that went over every aspect of the film. The use of purple-tinted cinematography from Lance Acord, the use of dream sequence and quick-cutting, the way the film seems to be about every single kind of "Adaptation.", from analyzing, which exact moments did Donald supposedly write.... The deeper you dive into it, the more intricate the film becomes. That said, even without recognizing all of the levels that "Adaptation." works on, it's an entertaining film. A great comedy, a great story in general, with a really good deus ex machima ending.

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