More on the 10 Runners-up for Best Movies of 2002

The Sleepy-Time Gal confirmed director Christopher Munch as the most independent and gifted of American filmmakers. A quietly nuanced film about death that’s both honest and poetic, it had one of the year’s best-unsung performances from Jacqueline Bisset, although credit must also go to Munch for giving her such a meaty, complex part. Martha Plimpton, Nick Stahl, Frankie R. Faison and Seymour Cassel (who round out a fine cast. Too bad you couldn’t see this unless you subscribe to the Sundance Channel or live in one of the few cities it briefly played.

13 Conversations About One Thing is the kind of intelligent, unique little independent film you didn’t think could get made anymore in the age of Miramax. This set of interlocking stories about one thing (happiness) plays like an unpretentious, pared down version of Short Cuts or Magnolia with not one moment or frame wasted. Writer/Director Jill Sprecher’s film is based on her own experiences moving to New York City, and to her credit, the stories ring true. The ensemble cast is also one of the year’s strongest, with Clea Duvall (as a woman whose optimism is tested) and Alan Arkin (as a man who finds optimism testing) standouts.

Punch Drunk Love is nearly miraculous: Paul Thomas Anderson stops showing off and guides a brave, disturbing, interesting performance out of… Adam Sandler. His bipolar, pudding obsessed, henpecked warehouse distributor Barry Egan is not only the realest character Sandler’s played, he’s one of the realest male leads in any romantic comedy. And although she’s nearly not given enough to do, Emily Watson is definitely the Shelly Duvall to Sandler’s Robin Williams—refer to the film’s delirious “He Needs Me” montage if you’re lost on that analogy.

The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers forgoes much of the first chapter’s intimacy and character development (but not all of it) in place of more action, more battle sequences, and less Gandalf. But it’s still a shining example of an event movie done right. Nearly every minute of this middle chapter is as riveting as one could hope for a Tolkien adaptation, and the CGI created Gollum is stunning, livelier and more dimensional than the humans (and hobbits) he shares screen space with. Is he this generation’s HAL (from 2001: A Space Odyssey)?

Secretary is a smart, genuinely sexy, and genuinely disturbing film about sadomasochism (and love) in the workplace. It should be less remembered for its spankings and self-mutilation and more for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s amazing and risky breakthrough performance as the titular character. Unlike nearly every other actress of her generation, Gyllenhaal has that rare gift of coming off as believable, vulnerable and as young as she’s supposed to be.

Roy Andersson’s odd, odd Swedish film Songs From The Second Floor is certainly the most original film I saw all year. It has the cleverly skewed humor of Monty Python but at a deadpan pace, where visual gags within the static camera shots often pay off in the most unexpectedly delightful and uproarious ways (never has one gotten such a belly laugh out of a swinging crucifix.) Telling a joke is easy; showing a joke, however, is not, and Andersson’s greatest achievement is he makes you look for the laughs, often quite brilliantly.

Mira Nair’s densely packed Monsoon Wedding was infinitely preferable to that other, more attended Big Fat Greek one. A gorgeous, exuberant tribute to India, Bollywood, families and rituals, Nair’s somewhat lightweight but very likable film comments on the compelling and irritating aspects of all of the above. And to her credit, the end result (which could’ve so easily fallen apart) is rapturous filmmaking.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a documentary about the Chicago-based band Wilco, is, thankfully the antithesis to VH-1’s “Behind The Music”. Focusing on what it means to be a musician and an artist, rather than a star, director Sam Jones has created a fascinating study of how the music industry works today.

The Cat’s Meow is a fitful comeback for Peter Bogdanovich. Even if you don’t believe the assertions he’s making about Hearst and Chaplin, the film is such an enjoyable ride that you’ll have nary a care about historical inaccuracies. Kirsten Dunst makes a fabulous Marion Davies; (it’s too bad more viewers know her from Spider-Man) and Edward Herrmann is a boisterous, frightening, but touchingly humane Hearst.

The European import Tuvalu carries on the torch ignited by Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeuent, with a touch of Canadian surrealist Guy Maddin. This charming, nearly wordless, but not altogether silent film dazzles with its imaginatively tinted black and white cinematography, and features that acrobat of a French actor, Denis Lavant in role that’s perfectly suited for him.

Other 2002 films worth your time and $$$

Some accused Chris Smith of exploiting the quirks of the five unorthodox homeowners in his hour-long documentary, Home Movie. I’ll make the same argument that I made with Smith’s last film, American Movie, and say that Smith really likes and respects his subjects, and the tapestry he weaves between them is remarkable in what it says about self-expression. The Danish import Italian For Beginners was the first Dogme film not to get bogged down in the movement’s constricting stylistic rules and regulations. A lovely, simple tale about how a group of lonely souls come together at a language class, and a shining example of how less is always more. Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher is a far easier film to admire than to embrace, but Isabelle Huppert gives the performance of her life as a deeply, tragically disturbed woman whose morals are far more shocking than her sexual deviancies. Huppert is also great as one of Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, a frothy, fun musical tribute to French actresses past and present. It may not contain an ounce of the depth of Ozon’s last film, the haunting Under The Sand, but its sensory impact lingers long after the final, surprisingly somber scene. The little-seen Swimming suggested that Lauren Ambrose (from Six Feet Under) could be the next Sarah Polley or even Sissy Spacek. She’s wonderful as a townie tomboy coming of age in Myrtle Beach, and Robert J. Siegel’s thoughtful film captures all the beauty and banality of living in a resort town.

About A Boy successfully transcribes most of Nick Hornby’s book to screen, and shows that the Weitz Brothers have potential to become a kinder, gentler Coen Brothers. Hugh Grant almost makes you believe Hornby wrote the lead with him in mind, and Badly Drawn Boy’s lovely score is just icing. The triptych Personal Velocity, adapted by Rebecca Miller from her book of short stories, is wildly inconsistent (in descending order, great Parker Posey, average Fairuza Balk, near-embarrassing Kyra Sedgwick), but Ellen Kuras’ outstanding digital-video cinematography sets a new standard in low budget filmmaking. Japanese auteur Takashii Miike’s The Happiness of The Katikuris daringly combines The Sound of Music, 1980s music video cheese, an all-singing, all dancing episode of The Love Boat, Claymation and possibly the kitchen sink for a ridiculous, uproarious and strangely gratifying extravaganza. Manuel De Olivera’s I’m Going Home may be a little too subtle for its own good, but in his quest to capture the essence and fragility of life, he creates a strong portrait of an aging actor (the impeccable Michel Piccoli) and suggests grace and longing in objects as mundane as a pair of brown shoes. And finally, Nicole Holofcener’s well named Lovely and Amazing succeeded where most chick flicks fail, giving us engagingly flawed characters, believable situations and Raven Goodwin, easily the best new child actress in years.

The year’s best reissue was the restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at the Brattle. Other particularly noteworthy repertory screenings were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia (both in 70MM!) at the Coolidge Corner, Rebels of the Neon God (Tsai Ming-Liang’s first feature) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Cocteau’s Beauty and The Beast and Robert Altman’s hard-to-find California Split at the Brattle, and a screening of Murnau’s Nosferatu, accompanied live by the Alloy Orchestra, at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee.

The best to-be-released-in-2003 film I saw in 2002 (via an advance screening at the Harvard Film Archive) was Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, which shows he’s still bent on reinventing cinema. Overrated films this year included My Big Fat Greek Wedding (commercially) and In Praise of Love and Gangs of New York (critically).