Seven dilemmas...

What do you do when your roommates steal your rum, won’t give you money for the overdue gas and electric bills, never think of purchasing dishwasher detergent, and stink up the refrigerator with rotting kimchee?

What do you do when the bell you press to stop the overcrowded bus doesn’t work, and although you shout out “Next stop, please”, and the driver drives on and on?

What do you do with a Big Brother-like e-mail system that censors unacceptable words of any questionable stripe (including “wiseass”) and strips away all pictures and most attachments?

How does one stomach such nonsense as the idiotic EW.com headline, “What’s the cast of Friends up to this week?” How can one justify the ridiculous amount of moolah each actor makes for each episode, only to make a misguided attempt to earn even more by starring in a poor, poor film where they play little more than an extension of their television counterpart?

How can you comprehend the lowest-common-denominator box office success of “Kangaroo Jack”?

Or Justin whining about Britney while he appears topless, looking like a second string porn star on the cover of "Rolling Stone"?

I won’t, cannot even say anything (kind) about the president.

So, what can you do?

Seven suggestions:

Stop bitching.
Take a walk.
Listen to Alison Moyet’s “Hometime” or Black Box Recorder’s “The Facts of Life”.
Read poetry.
Stop taking all the bad things too seriously and stop harboring all that anger and resentment in your soul.
Turn off the TV unless you’re watching a movie that makes you smile, like “Amelie”.
Show other people that smile.


25th Hour and Frida

It’s inevitable that filmmakers will respond to 9/11 for months, years, even decades to come. A few already have, most notably in the omnibus film 11’09”01, which consists of shorts from 11 different directors (from Mira Nair and Sean Penn to Shohei Imamura and Amos Gitai) that all respond to the attacks and last exactly nine minutes, eleven seconds each. It has not been released in America, and given the current political climate, don’t count on seeing it here anytime soon. It’s a shame, for although we’re still reeling from the repercussions of it all, we need to examine the attacks from all angles.

In Spike Lee’s latest film, 25th Hour, the shadow of 9/11 looms like a ghost that everyone can see and not ignore. Lee addresses it both subtly (a tribute to the fallen towers makes an eerie appearance in the beautifully sustained opening credits) and explicitly (one character’s apartment has an across-the-street view of Ground Zero, and another’s neighborhood bar is decorated with shrines dedicated to firefighters killed in the attack.) Taken from a novel by David Benioff (who also wrote the screenplay), the film intimately follows Monty (a hardly ever better Edward Norton, which is saying a lot). He's a drug dealer facing his last day of freedom before serving a seven-year prison term for possession. Monty spends the day reexamining his past and dreading his future. He suspects his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) may have been the one who ratted on him to the police. He has dinner with his bartender father (Brian Cox). He attends a party with two old, close friends: Jake (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a shy, tortured prep school teacher and Francis (Barry Pepper) a slick, tortured Wall Street hotshot. All of these supporting figures share his dread, and how they variously deal with his upcoming incarceration conveys an honesty that Lee has only sporadically achieved since Do The Right Thing.

This may be the first major fictional film to make a statement on New York City, post 9/11. It’s fitting and effectively wrenching coming from Lee, possibly the most emphatic of New York-based directors next to Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen (whom already made his tribute of sorts to the city at last year’s Oscars). As usual, Lee’s ambitions sometimes threaten to exceed his abilities. His obligatory operatic montage this time around consists of a mirror image of Monty talking back to himself, ranting against everything he hates about New York and eventually the rest of the world. Of course, the segment’s payoff reveals a fair amount of self-loathing at Monty’s core, and although overblown and verging on foolish, it’s also cathartic, and almost necessary.

For Lee, 25th Hour is uncharacteristically moody and restrained, but typically complicated. It ponders the need for redemption when escape is unattainable, but like Bowling For Columbine, it asks important questions that Lee cannot always answer. It’s essentially a film about needing to take responsibility for one’s actions. Whether Lee’s intention was to extend this theme to New York or America in terms of 9/11 is questionable and a little frustrating. But however uneven or occasionally confused, 25th Hour is encouragingly still the work of a maturing, evolving filmmaker.


Frida is a vibrant, energetic, and occasionally slight Miramax-produced biopic of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. In the title role, Salma Hayek is certainly charismatic, likable, and at least better than Madonna could ever be. The film aptly chronicles all of the devastations and triumphs of Kahlo’s rough life (most of it spent disabled from a trolley accident that nearly destroyed her back and legs). Although it abbreviates Kahlo’s bisexuality somewhat, it does include a wonderful, seductive Sapphic dance and a late tryst with a Josephine Baker-esque chanteuse. The focus, however, is mostly on her on again, off again affair, friendship and marriage with fellow painter Diego Rivera (a massive, boisterous yet tender Alfred Molina). Director Julie Taymor infuses the film with some of the same over-the-top, heavily stylized vigor she brought to her first film, the Shakespeare adaptation Titus, and it doesn’t always work as well here. It’s visually spectacular though, bursting with flashy, bold primary colors. Nearly every shot appropriately has a painterly composition and renderings of what inspired Kahlo’s paintings are always executed inventively. Still, it’s sorely lacking the depth, daring, and imagination that a superior biopic like Before Night Falls or Love Is The Devil suggested so effortlessly.


The only sucky thing about 2003 is that the “3” is a glaring reminder that ten years have passed since my high school graduation. Ah, let’s go back a decade to 1993, a truly twisted year that began with the Clinton inauguration and one high school band competition after another, and ended with no employment, commuting to Marquette, and Michael Jackson’s kiddie molestation allegations.

It was the year I discovered “Rubber Soul” and took the last real vacation with my parents to Mackinac Island, Michigan. I worked an exquisitely foul summer job as a busboy at A Buffet Chain Restaurant that Dare Not Speaks Its Name, and faced the first major disappointment of my life in not being allowed to perform in the pit orchestra for the school musical (It seems so lame now, but at the time, it was heart wrenching.) I also attended my first concert, which was, um, the Spin Doctors/Soul Asylum/Screaming Trees show at the Marcus Amphitheatre (yes, for a brief, brief moment, hearing “Two Princes” on the radio did not induce involuntary vomiting.)

Most significantly, I came of age when I was 18. Not sexually (that would take a few more years), but for the first time, I understood how important it was to have friends, and with them, seek out all those joints acceptable for a legal adult not old enough to legally drink. I was pretty miserable most of the time, not all that ready to leave high school or to start college when I hadn’t really considered all my options. But, there were scattered, blissful, shining moments.

Like January 23. On this unexceptionally gray, dreary Saturday, I traveled to UW Green Bay with the Pius XI High School Jazz Ensemble for a band competition. Brother Theodore (fond of the “2 Legit 2 Quit” hand gesture originally popularized by (MC) Hammer) drove us there from Milwaukee on one of Pius’ functional yellow school buses. I remember gazing at the barren Wisconsin wasteland, listening to R.E.M.’s “Automatic For The People”, The B-52’s “Good Stuff”, and Soho’s “Thug” on my Sony cassette walkman. Many underground tunnels interconnect the bulk of UW-Green Bay. Most of the day was spent transporting instruments, speakers, platforms, and music stands through an endless series of interchangeable corridors. This was most disorienting, as we walked for what seemed like an hour without the context of feeling like we were getting anywhere.

We eventually reached the right room and played three songs: “Outback Blues”, “Summer of ‘42”, and “North Shore Morning”. The last was my favorite, a serene latin/fusion number. Unfortunately, as one of the judges pointed out, one of the chords I played was wrong, only by a note or two, but still wrong. Not that our shiny-headed conductor Jim “V” Van Deusen ever pointed this out to me during the thirty or fifty times we rehearsed it. Fortunately, our alto sax player, Dan Byrne, told me he liked my chord, which made me feel swell.

Anyway, after visiting the unfortunately named “Ratskellar” for a late lunch, we found out that we won the competition (albeit, in a tie with another school.) Totally elated, we didn’t have to leave the University with all the loser schools. We stayed for a catered lasagna dinner (in which I gingerly picked my way through all the melted cheese). Then, we were invited to play two songs at the University concert that night, in front of an audience of 4,000. To a high school senior, this was just phenomenal. We warmed up in a dressing room lined with those mirrors that are framed with fancy light bulbs on three sides. I tried in vain to get my guitar in perfect tune and figure out that damn chord. Ten years on, I still remember how nervous we were, and how exhilarated we felt.

After we finished (that chord was still a little off), we took our seats in the auditorium and watched the rest of the concert. The UW Green Bay Jazz Ensemble started off with a song we ourselves had just started to rehearse in class. I don’t remember the title, but it opened with a 16-bar guitar solo played over the rest of the band. The guitarist in the University band played an impressive, intricate, loud guitar-hero solo, and I sat in awe and terror, wondering if I could ever pull off such a feat. (I’d have my chance at a Pius concert seven weeks later, and let’s just say it wasn’t embarrassing.)

Riding back to Pi’High, I swooned at the day’s accomplishments, at last really comprehending what it felt like to score a touchdown or hit a home run. I apologize if this reminiscing is tinged with a little nostalgia, but it really was that special. I eventually figured out that chord—I believe it’s a E-Flat Major-Minor 9th, or some other convoluted but sublime sounding jazz concoction—but I’ve only felt that sense of jubilation and accomplishment a few times since.


Ms. Jones and Me

Don’t know what to think about Norah Jones. Best new artist of 2002? (Better than the wretched Avril Lavinge). More like the best new guilty pleasure of 2002. Her year-old record, Come Away With Me, has just finally topped the Billboard 200, and it’s everywhere—VH-1, your co-worker’s cubicle, your parents' Bose system, probably even your dentist’s office.

I named Come Away With Me as my tenth favorite album of 2002, a decision I immediately felt sheepish about. I’ve purchased a few albums since making the list a month ago, and now I’d boot her out and put in its place either Our Own Little Corner of the World: Music From Gilmore Girls (easily the best television series soundtrack ever, and not just because it has Sam Phillips on it) or Alison Moyet’s magnificent return to form after eight years in limbo, Hometime. I feel justified, because there is nothing truly remarkable, much less groundbreaking about Norah’s album. It’s a pleasant, polished, tasteful and enjoyable set of songs with an inventive interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” and a few lovely, memorable singles (“Don’t Know Why”, “Feeling The Same Way”, and the title track)—no more, no less.

What really drew me to the record is that extraordinary voice, sort of a cross between Rickie Lee Jones and Billie Holiday, but not entirely like either. And, to possess such an instrument at a young age! It’s impressive in the way a 19 year-old Fiona Apple sounded on her debut album, Tidal. Apple’s follow-up release, When The Pawn… was a quantum leap in every possible way and I can only hope that Norah’s inevitable follow-up will have the same effect. It will be difficult; unlike Norah, Fiona didn’t exactly have the pressure to follow up a number-one album.

The backlash against this 23 year-old jazz/pop (emphasis on the latter) thrush and daughter of Ravi Shankar is inevitably building, but what does Ms. Jones deserve less: the backlash or the praise? All the jazz (and rock critic elite) snobs scoff at the designation of Jones as a jazz singer, and that’s understandable—Ella she’s not (nor Cassandra (Wilson) or even Diana (Krall)). The music on Come Away With Me often plays like a stripped-down, synth-less version of what fortifies most dreadful smooth jazz radio station playlists. Yet, the sparse arrangements are suited to Norah’s voice; they work as well for her as prime Joni Mitchell, another singer/songwriter who has always treaded that strange boundary between pop, jazz, and folk. Of course, Norah’s no Joni, either, but remember that Joni’s earliest records were dwarfed by her early 70’s masterpieces.

Maybe such success will break down doors for other, more obscure young female artists who don’t fit the Avril Lavinge/Michelle Branch/Vanessa Carlton mold (formerly the Britney/Christina/Mandy Moore continuum). If not, at least it will be fun to watch Jones’ career from here. Will subsequent albums show artistic growth or register as limp but best-selling variations of the first? Will Come Away With Me prove to be a first-time, of-the-moment fluke, or simply the first in a series of commercial triumphs? Intriguing questions to ask of any young artist capable of thriving commerically like Sheryl Crow, critically like Alison Moyet or withering (in every possible way) like Alanis Morrisette.


The Hours and The Pianist

The book is almost always better than the film. Even the rare, successful, faithful adaptations (The Lord of The Rings, Election) lose something in translation. They get all the characters and plot points correct, and in a few cases, add something unforeseen but enriching to the original material. But, they often fail to express what one can only find in the author’s language and style.

When I first heard that Miramax was adapting The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I felt elation (because it’s one of my favorites) and dread (because they could easily make a travesty of it). In deceptively simple but eloquent language, the book tells intertwining tales of one day in the life of three women. The first, set in contemporary (but pre 9-11) New York, is about Clarissa Vaughn, a middle-aged publisher about to throw a party for her longtime friend Richard, a poet suffering the worst stages of AIDS. The second, set in early 1950s Los Angeles, is about Laura Brown, a pregnant suburban housewife who attempts to make a birthday cake for her husband with her young son. The third, set in England, 1923, is about an actual historical figure, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman). Seeking in vain for solace in a small town, she sets upon writing what will be one of her greatest novels, Mrs. Dalloway.

The beauty of the book is not only in how the three tales eventually come together, but also in all the running motifs and echoes that each tale contains. Cunningham reveals these echoes so subtly and gracefully, that many of them are difficult to pick up on the first reading. As they are gradually revealed and discovered, the effect is often moving and rapturous. But how can one possibly capture the essence of an author’s carefully chosen words on screen? Director Stephen Daldry boldly tries, and although he stays true to Cunningham’s story and characters, the magic seems a little diluted. The echoes seem more obvious than not (especially if you’ve read the book), and some passages of the book that were remarkable for their understated nature seem dreary, heightened and nearly overwrought.

Fortunately, viewed apart from the book, The Hours is in itself a fine, thoughtful film, and unlike Daldry’s first feature, Billy Elliot, it never runs out of steam or risks implausibility. The three leading ladies—Meryl Streep as Clarissa, Julianne Moore as Laura, and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, are all outstanding. Streep steps into the central role of Clarissa with ease and expertise; it’s difficult to imagine any other actress successfully embodying such a conflicted, compelling figure. At first, Moore seems a little too old for her part, as does John C. Reilly as her World War II vet husband. But she’s nearly as good here as she was in Far From Heaven, playing another 1950s suburban matron, albeit one much more aware and haunted by her environment and sense of self. Nearly unrecognizable as Woolf, Kidman has never seemed more real nor more tragic, less a movie star than she’s ever been, but a creation/re-enactment nearly worthy of Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi from Ed Wood.

The supporting actors fare less consistently. Toni Collette is effortlessly marvelous as Laura’s neighbor Kitty, and Alison Janney, all-too-briefly, leaves a firm impression as Clarissa's partner Sally. But Ed Harris is miscast as Richard (too gruff and overdone) and Claire Danes almost phones in her role as Clarissa’s daughter. The Hours is less personal than one would like; it reeks of calculated prestige and developed-for-Oscar-consideration drama and sentimentality. But, it’s far from embarrassing (which can’t be said of last year’s bombed attempt by Miramax to formulate an Oscar-winning literary adaptation—The Shipping News). Its success, however sporadic, lies in the fact that many viewers in the theater still gasped in awe when the mysterious, wonderfully executed link between Clarissa and Laura’s stories was eventually revealed.

The Pianist has been winning awards up the wazoo for Best Picture, from Cannes to the National Society of Film Critics. Roman Polanski’s film is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a talented Jewish pianist in Warsaw who astonishingly managed to avoid being sent to a concentration camp with the rest of his family and survived the decimation of the Warsaw ghetto. As Szpilman, Adrien Brody gives one of those bravura, physically altering performances that often seem overrated for their flashiness and displays of great ACTING! But Brody deserves all of his praise and acclaim. He’s been a stunning, shrewd actor in every film he’s appeared in, and if he lacks Daniel Day-Lewis’ versatility, he also thankfully lacks that actor’s occasionally off-putting, larger-than-life demeanor (see Gangs of New York; wait, don't see it.)

The film is being touted as Polanski’s best in years. It’s not quite a masterwork on the order of Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown, but it does have all the tension and startling twists of those two films, if none of the indelibly dark humor (which would seem a little inappropriate for a film about the holocaust.) As a man who himself survived and escaped the Warsaw ghetto as a child, Polanski is obviously an ideal director for this story. Arguably, no other filmmaker (especially Speilberg) could so convincingly convey the same sense of terror, paranoia and grim despair which accompanies the film’s superior second half, charting Szpilman’s attempt to survive a tragically crumbling world in painstaking, distressing detail.

Sitting through the film is a bit of an endurance test; not nearly on the scale of Szpilman’s, of course, but enough that the abrupt, truncated happy ending seems like a cheat in comparison more than a relief. What of Szpilman’s post-War life, apart from his career as a brilliant musician? What of the demons he must have lived with for 55 years? At least he is not made into a hero, but portrayed as an average (if extraordinarily musically gifted) man who just manages to survive, and find salvation from the unlikeliest source. As a holocaust film, it easily towers over tripe like the awful, overrated Life Is Beautiful, taking the unsentimental high road. And for all its minor faults, The Pianist is often riveting, and unforgettably relentless in its depiction of absolute horror.


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).


Hey, Film Nurds

I decided not to wait for "The Hours" to open in Boston and do my Best of 2002 list. In an ideal world, I'd also have seen "The Pianist", "25th Hour", "Confessions of A Dangerous Mind", "Morvern Callar", "Russian Ark" and "Love Liza" before making this list, but none of 'em (save "The Pianist") have opened here yet. So they may (or may not) turn up on a future list. Let me just say that the best 2001 films that didn't play Boston until 2002 were Gosford Park, Donnie Darko, and Monster's Ball.

Ten Best Films of 2002

1. Y Tu Mama Tambien

Alfonso Cuaron’s exhilarating film is not just a coming of age tale about two horny eighteen year-old boys and the road trip they take with a woman ten years their senior. It’s also a movie about Mexico itself, and all of its classes, colors, landscapes, temperaments, quirks, and textures. The most revealing moments come intermittently, when the camera lingers away from the three main characters to give us a fleeting but important glimpse of what’s going around them, or when the omniscient narrator breaks in and tells us more about the characters, their pasts, their surroundings, their inner-most secrets and desires. On top of that, it’s still a hilarious, positively raunchy, smart and continually surprising coming of age, road trip tale. At one particularly understated but profound moment, the older woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdu), exclaims, “Don’t you just love Mexico, it’s so full of life!” So is the film.

2. Far From Heaven

It would be too easy to recreate the over the top, wedding-cake-fanciful Douglas Sirk-directed melodramas of the 1950’s as a paean to laughable, luxurious kitsch of the era. Fortunately, Todd Haynes aimed for something more than such nostalgia. “Far From Heaven” is undeniably a homage to those films, meticulously crafted with the same care and attention to the minutest detail that nearly rivals the Andersons (both Wes and Paul Thomas). The big difference, of course, is that it explicitly, thrillingly deals with two subjects taboo in Sirk’s day: homosexuality and interracial love. Haynes’ ingeniousness, however, partially lies in how his treatment of such taboos correctly reflects the attitudes and values of its time period. Mostly though, the film works because Haynes is so in love with these characters, and he has an excellent cast (especially Julianne Moore) that understands the film is less about an era and more about forbidden desire, and the inability to overcome it and avoid inevitable heartbreak.

3. About Schmidt

Once again, Alexander Payne captures exactly what it’s like to live in the Midwest. His third film has some of the biting satire and Preston Sturges-like screwiness of his first two movies. In the tradition of Laura Dern (“Citizen Ruth”) and Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon (“Election”), he coaxes a career best performance from Jack Nicholson. With rare restraint and without glamour, Jack plays a recently retired insurance salesman who is at a loss with exactly what he should now do with his unexceptional, wasted life. It’s actually pretty sidesplitting, especially when Schmidt, in a rare, impulsive act, decides to sponsor a third world orphan for less than a dollar and day, and writes him letters (“Dear Ndugu...”) about his miserable life in Omaha. But in a bold move for Payne, it’s often just as melancholy and affecting, especially as it moves towards an unforgettably cathartic final scene.

4. Spirited Away

The best animated feature in well over a decade (not counting “Waking Life”), and it still gets out-grossed (in both meanings of the word) by “Adam Sandler’s 8 Crazy Nights”. Take away the fact that it’s a Japanese film (albeit impeccably dubbed in English) and blame its commercial unavailability on Disney, who lazily distributed it. This latest offering from Hayao Miyazaki is a glorious tribute to “Alice In Wonderland”, “The Wizard of Oz” and (here explains its American box office poison) “Yellow Submarine”, but it’s only superficially like any of those films. The heroine is a ten year-old girl, stuck in the Land of the Spirits, who must save her parents after they’ve been turned into pigs. The breathtaking animation sets a new worldwide standard, but the real achievement of “Spirited Away” is that it tells a compelling story well. It doesn’t condescend to children, it characters do not sentimentally break into song. Instead, it has wit, grace, inventiveness, and a delightful, all ages appeal.

5. What Time Is It There?

For his fifth feature, Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang reprises many of the same actors, characters, settings and motifs of the previous four, but with a confidence that suggests this is what he’s been building towards all along. This time, his alter-ego (Lee Kang-Sheng, again) is a watch salesman, haunted both by his father’s recent death and a female customer who insists on buying his own personal watch before taking a trip to Paris. Cutting between various episodes of her Paris trip and Lee’s unusual activities in Taiwan (he becomes obsessed with setting all clocks to Parisian time), Tsai’s magnificently structured film reveals the echoes and symmetry within the two narratives until, at the end, they unexpectedly, almost magically come together.

6. Chicago

I haven’t had more fun at a movie since I can’t remember when. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about “Chicago”; nor is it as innovative as “Cabaret” or “All That Jazz”. But it’s a solid, exuberantly filmed and well-acted adaptation of Fosse’s original stage production, and it’s the best non-animated movie musical in decades. It’s deliriously drunk on its own outlandish narrative, outrageous but pitch-perfect characters (especially Queen Latifah as a prison matron), and imaginative visual flair (particularly in the lighting and the seamless transitions from external to internal states of mind). And there’s one truly show stopping musical number after another, all done with class and none of “Moulin Rogue’s” train-wreck crassness.

7. Talk To Her

Pedro Almodovar continues to get better as he gets older, and this film makes a wonderful male-centric companion to his last film, 1999’s exquisite “All About My Mother”. More restrained and somber than ever before, his latest is concerned with the strange, wondrous, unclassifiable friendship between two men each looking after women who are in comas. Most of the film is exposition, like a superb novel that takes its time to gradually establish its characters and their history. When it reaches its climax, you really feel the cumulative effect of it all--the passion, the warmth, the gentility, the quirky plot twists and the uproarious film within a film that spoofs and pays loving tribute to both 1920’s silent cinema and 1950’s b-grade horror films.

8. All Or Nothing

Mostly referred to as Mike Leigh’s return to working class kitchen sink drama, this film, criminally buried and ignored by its distributor, is one of Leigh’s finest. It’s as touching as his last film, the Gilbert and Sullivan biopic “Topsy Turvy”, although tonally it’s the inverse opposite. Initially, it’s merely a relentlessly dreary film about three families in a London housing project. Over two hours though, Leigh expertly uncovers a vast assortment of feelings striving beneath the dour veneer, and takes his characters to emotional states and confrontations few directors can honestly touch upon. But Leigh would not achieve the same impact without fine performances from Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville and especially Ruth Sheen as an uncommonly cheerful, but still down-to-earth neighbor.

9. Bowling For Columbine

Almost critic-proof it its politics and the mere fact that it’s saying things that should be said that few others are saying to such a large audience, Michael Moore’s latest autobiographical documentary is not without its faults. But it succeeds not only because it strives to entertain and inform, but also asks really important, provocative questions. What emerges is more than a documentary about America’s obsession with guns, and consequences that occur because of it. The film is a tapestry of American culture and attitudes from the seemingly ephemeral days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal through Columbine and (post) 9/11. Most horror and action films should be so lucky to seem as terrifying as the footage of a now-empty Columbine High School, accompanied by the 911 phone calls from the day of the massacre.

10. Adaptation

Not as satisfying nor as fun as “Being John Malkovich” (or “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), this is nonetheless a conceptually brilliant, wickedly clever, audaciously self-referential film. It subversively blurs the line between fiction and reality more than any other studio film, and it achieves the seemingly impossible task of redeeming Nicolas Cage as an actor, as he gives not one, but two compelling performances. Chris Cooper is sublime as an intelligent but exasperating gardener, and Meryl Streep fits in beautifully as a novelist blissfully unaware how in over her head she’s getting. I still have mixed feelings about the ending and whether it works the way director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman intended, but I predict that this one will only get better with age.

10 Runners-up:

The Sleepy-Time Gal
13 Conversations About One Thing
Punch Drunk Love
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Songs From The Second Floor
Monsoon Wedding
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
The Cat’s Meow

Worst Movie, By Far:
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones
(I’d rather sit through a Jar Jar Binks one man show than have to revisit any of the awful, laughable scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman)

Most Disappointing:
Storytelling, Signs (the ending), The Good Girl (apart from Jennifer Aniston’s performance)

Best Director:
Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven)
Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Pedro Almodovar (Talk To Her), Alexander Payne (About Schmidt), Mike Leigh (All or Nothing)

Best Actor:
Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt)

Nicolas Cage (Adaptation), Timothy Spall (All Or Nothing), Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Hugh Grant (About A Boy)

Best Actress:
Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven)

Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary), Jacqueline Bisset (The Sleepy-Time Gal)

Best Supporting Actor:
Chris Cooper (Adaptation)

Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven), Dennis Haysbert (Far From Heaven), Alan Arkin (13 Conversations About One Thing), Edward Herrmann (The Cat’s Meow)

Best Supporting Actress:
Ruth Sheen (All Or Nothing)

Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven), Kathy Bates (About Schmidt), Clea Duvall (13 Conversations About One Thing), Kirsten Dunst (The Cat’s Meow)

Breakthrough Performances:
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary)
Dennis Haysbert (Far From Heaven)

Breakthrough Performance that should have received a wider audience:
Lauren Ambrose (Swimming)

Best Cinematography:
Edward Lachman (Far From Heaven)

Robert Elswit (Punch Drunk Love), Dion Beebe (Chicago), Benoit Delhomme (What Time Is It There), Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk To Her)

Best Original Screenplay:
Y Tu Mama Tambien
, Far From Heaven, 13 Conversations About One Thing

Best Adapted Screenplay:
About Schmidt
, Adaptation, Personal Velocity