I can't tell whether 2002 seemed like a blah year for movies because I've become too jaded and cynical to care about movies like I used to, or because it really was a blah year for movies. A little of both, I suspect.
Still, looking back, I was surprised by the number of really good filmgoing experiences I'd had over the past twelve months, and narrowing my favorites down to a top ten list was more difficult than I would have thought possible if you'd asked me in, say, November (although it's telling that three of the ten films listed below are documentaries)...
...at any rate, herewith, my picks for the best (and worst) of 2002...
1. OT: OUR TOWN
In the absence of a clear, home-run, no-doubt-about-it grand slam favorite among the major releases of 2002, my number one pick for the year is this documentary I saw at the SXSW film festival in Texas, about a scrappy bunch of teenagers from the grim environs of South Central Los Angeles attempting to reverse the world's (and their own) perceptions of themselves as thugs and losers through creation of their school's first-ever drama club. I've always been a sucker for the transformative powers of artistic endeavor (see Dramarama), but Hollywood usually presents these kinds of stories as bland, cynical, sugar-coated tearjerkers. By contrast, OT takes place in a visceral real world of vivid, spiky characters where the emotional stakes are uncomfortably high, happy endings are rare and the opening night of a high school play generates more suspense (and thrills) than a half dozen Vin Diesel monstrosities.
2. IGBY GOES DOWN
Because rich, neurotic New Yorkers make an inordinate number of films about themselves, I didn't expect much from this latest exploration of sex, drugs and malaise in Manhattan. But writer-director Burr Steers' venomous modern homage to Catcher In The Rye is a pitch-black gem of crack ensemble acting and razor-sharp dialogue, complete with a star-making performance by Kieran Culkin as a tortured, tortuous prep school brat trapped in a Grimms Fairy Tale version of jet set East Coast society and a deeply fractured family best described as the Evil Tennenbaums.
3. GANGS OF NEW YORK
Big, overblown, sloppy, incoherent and saddled with a boring lead performance by Leonardo Di Caprio, Gangs of New York is nevertheless Scorsese's best work in years - the kind of flawed, quixotic masterpiece of mad ambition and quirky brilliance that has gone all but extinct since corporate homogenization quashed the American auteur movement of the 1970s. Like Apocalypse Now, this lovingly-rendered epic of tribal warfare gets away from its director and careens wildly out of control...but unlike most conventional, pedestrian, focus-tested cineplex fodder, the end result is exhilirating.
Production stills of a lusty secretary bent over her boss' desk for a spanking and crawling around on all fours with an envelope clasped in her mouth were enough to get me (very, very quickly) into the nearest theater showing this tale of S, M, B and D between employee and employer in a small, Lynchian law office in Weirdsville, USA. But, prurient interest aside, what really won me over was Maggie Gyllenhaal's luminescent performance and the unexpected sweetness at the heart of this unabashedly romantic tale of love among misfits. That and the handcuffs.
Whereas Moulin Rouge came across like a hopped-up speed freak, pummeling audiences into submission with its lurid desperation to please, Chicagoseeped effortlessly into the pleasure centers of my brain like an all-singing, all-dancing endorphin rush and kept me smiling from beginning to end. Guns, gals, gams...what's not to like? Remarkably, even Richard Gere comes off well (although, as noted by noteable cineaste Scott Von Doviak, Christopher Walken would have been godhead in the razzle-dazzle lawyer role).
6. THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE
Film geek heaven as legendary, megalomaniacal super-producer Robert Evans dishes his way through this tall tale secret history of his own involvement with some of the greatest movies in the history of the Biz (including The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby and, uh, The Two Jakes), complete with blow-by-blow tales of love, scandal, intrigue, murder, devastation and the nicest thing Jack Nicholson ever did for anyone.
7. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
Why the Democrats can't explain important, complex, controversial issues as succinctly and dramatically as some goofball documentarian from poor old Flint, Michigan is a source of constant aggravation to me. Effective (i.e., intentionally manipulative but still more objective than, say, Fox news) propagandist Michael Moore searches for the roots of American gun violence and theorizes it could have more to do with social injustice and political hysteria than crappy Marilyn Manson albums.
8. ABOUT SCHMIDT
A study of failure and loneliness marred somewhat by the inescapable baggage of Jack Nicholson's iconic persona (in the same way it would be difficult to buy, say, Angelina Jolie as a sexually-repressed spinster), About Schmidt functions best as a kind of love story between a retired, rudderless corporate drone and Ndugu, the six-year-old African boy who becomes his unwitting pen pal, sounding board and possible salvation as part of a Save the Children-type charity sponsorship program.
9. SUPER TROOPERS
The first (and one of the only) movies I totally enjoyed from beginning to end this year, and certainly one of the funniest, this sophomore (and sophomoric) effort from the Broken Lizard comedy collective aims low and delivers with this sweet-natured guilty pleasure. Smart enough to play dumb without condescending to its likeable characters (or the audience), Super Troopers also scores points for a genuine moment of greatness, a cops and stoners scene destined for the all-time comedy hall of fame alongside the bean dinner in Blazing Saddles and "Hulk Running" in Albert Brooks' Modern Romance.
10. DIE ANOTHER DAY
Not just the best James Bond picture in years, but also a reminder of how much fun Hollywood blockbusters can be when they're smart, cool and light on their feet. Filled with subtle, witty references to past 007 adventures, Die Another Day also features a refreshingly dark undertone, the series' best evil henchman character in ages, the best Moneypenny scene ever, a wicked pissah ice field car chase (with not one but two fully-loaded, weapon-packed spy cars) and a creepy CGI character that looks unnervingly like Madonna.
About a Boy, Adaptation, Barbershop, Blue Crush, The Cat's Meow, Changing Lanes, CQ, Design, Eight Mile, FUBAR, Gigantic, Home Movie, Jackass, Journeys With George, Minority Report, Storytelling, Swimming, Time Out, The Two Towers
WILD CARD: Based on the preview and what I've heard about it, there's a good chance 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE would've found a spot on my Top 10 list if it had played in Boston longer than it took me to write this sentence.
NOTABLE MOMENTS/PERFORMANCES: The ents and poor, poor Gollum in The Two Towers, that evil-ass little rich kid in Storytelling, Luis Guzman and the "indestructible" toilet plungers in Punch Drunk Love, Maggie Hellcat in Gangs of New York, Eminem in Eight Mile, the oil fight in The Transporter, all of Alan Arkin's conversations in 13 Conversations About One Thing, Jango and li'l Boba (and, of course, Yoda kicking ass) in Attack of the Clones, Al Franken in Harvard Man, smokin' hot Kirsten Dunst in Spiderman, Sarah Vowell in Gigantic, George W. Bush in Journeys With George
MOST OVERRATED: FAR FROM HEAVEN
I mean, okay, it had some gorgeous cinematography and decent performances (and took as strong a stand against racism and homophobia as any three Lifetime original movies), but I'm convinced most critics are only singing hosannas for this one as an excuse to recycle old term papers they wrote about Douglas Sirk back in film school.
WORST MOVIE I SAW: CHERISH
Although Men In Black 2 was equally painful, cynical, boring and pointless (with the exception of one hysterically stupid joke about testicles), Cherish was marginally more depressing for what it said about the current state of "independent" film in these United States. Whereas MIB:2 was the sequel to a big Hollywood money machine (and therefore, I should've known better than to expect anything more than recycled, predigested crap), Cherish was apparently praised by "alternative" critics for nothing more than its pandering "hipness" (despite its blatantly high concept "Please hire me to direct your next Sandra Bullock comedy thriller" premise, by-the-numbers screenplay and bland, incoherent execution). In fact, the only thing "indie" about the production was its ugly cinematography, spotty acting and thoroughly amateurish direction.
Runner Up: Life Or Something Like It, Angelina Jolie's jaw-droppingly inept, fake and utterly wrong-headed attempt at life-affirming "depth," which at least had the decency to be a critical and commercial failure.
WORST MOVIE I DIDN'T SEE: THE MAJESTIC
MOST DISAPPOINTING: ADAPTATION
Great, crazy filmmaking that seriously loses its way in the final lap, leaving the uncomfortable impression that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman really, really didn't understand the point of his screenplay about a screenwriter having trouble understanding the point of his screenplay.
MUCH BETTER THAN IT HAD TO BE: CHANGING LANES
surprisingly heartfelt Ben Affleck (!) vehicle boasting better-than-average
performances and a thoughtful script which rises above its standard Hollywood
premise to ask some philosophical questions about class, race, morality
and the "winner take all" mentality of American life.
(in no particular order)
Live from New York (by Tom Shales & James Andrew Miller) - A fascinating, addictive spoken word history of Saturday Night Live, then and now.
Mystic River (by Dennis Lehane) A gripping page-turner about three old friends and a terrible murder in Boston.
The Salmon of Doubt (by Douglas Adams) - A bittersweet farewell to and from the beloved author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books, who passed away much too soon.
of Laredo (by Larry McMurtry) - Written years ago, I discovered this
gothic tale of the Old West as an audio book while driving cross-country,
and was so taken with McMurtry's incredible storytelling that I immediately
bought the real book to enjoy it once more, this time in print.
(in no particular order)
the Vampire Slayer (especially the musical episode, which hit me like
pure t.v. crack), David Letterman's farewell to Warren Zevon,
For Five, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Curb Your
Enthusiasm, The West Wing, the first half of the first season
of 24, South Park, The Real World: Vegas, Inside
the Actor's Studio and, as always...SURVIVOR!
Album of the Year (even though it came out in 2001): Strange Little Girls by Tori Amos. Runners up: City Sounds by Mary Lou Lord, Gangs of New York soundtrack, Once More With Feeling soundtrack, Lost in Space by Aimee Mann, Tom Waits Hoot at the Hole in the Wall
of the Year: "Lose Yourself" and "Without Me" by Eminem, "Strange
Little Girl" and "Rattlesnakes" by Tori Amos, "Lost Cause" by Beck, "Small
Stakes" by Spoon