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