The Best Films of 2002 

Cinema in 2002 counterbalanced a treacherous world.

In order to distill the essence of a year in cinema, one must first appraise the year itself. In a word, 2002 was about strife. Fortunately, on the big screen, 2002 was also a year of bravado and surprise. Squishy Robin Williams and squeaky Tom Hanks finally played heavies! A mousy Greek girl named Nia Vardalos plied her wedding wit for a megahit! Octogenarian Christopher Lee topped the bill in two global sensations! Britney Spears and Eminem didn't embarrass themselves (much)! Denzel directed, Jack got passionate, and the standards of the animated feature, biopic, and documentary hit unprecedented highs! From the parking lot outward, things often got pretty ugly, but inside together, in the communal darkness before the Great Flickering, 2002 was a year to celebrate. Folks, we scored.

While Americans practiced their sacred "S" rituals (shopping, SUV-ing, Starbucks-ing, and shooting each other), international cinema peaked all around the globe. From just a little to the south, Mexican films showed up rough-and-ready. Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También took teen angst to a whole new level of frankness while Carlos Carrera's controversial El Crimen del Padre Amaro -- a routinely executed but thought-provoking drama -- guaranteed itself omission from Catholic best-of-year lists. (Coincidenciamente, or not, both films starred Latin heartthrob Gael García Bernal). Meanwhile, Guadalajara golden boy Guillermo del Toro made his way over to Prague (aka Hollywood East) to direct Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson in Blade II, a badass superhero in a rare superior sequel.

International affairs continued under the auspices of Australian director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm), whose Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American proved a potent doubleheader. While the former was somewhat obvious -- white people (Kenneth Branagh) are bad while aboriginal people (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan) are good -- this true tale of three young girls' perilous walk home across the outback is a must-see for its compassionate view of hurtful history. ("Those fucking Australians!" shouted one furious codger at my screening, perhaps assuming we were at the Crocodile Hunter movie.) Strictly as a film, American is even more impressive, a richly satisfying adaptation of Graham Greene's tale of international meddling in Saigon. And if you craved even more stark views on US-Vietnam interaction, Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's documentary, Daughter from Danang, hit some moving notes about the aftermath of 1975's Operation Babylift with regard to Americanized Heidi Bub (born Mai Thi Hiep) and her Vietnamese mother, Mai Thi Kim.

Here on the home front, documentaries got wild in 2002, most notably Stacy Peralta's rip-snorting, insightful Dogtown and Z-Boys and Doug Pray's Scratch -- ironically both art-house releases about dual vanguards of pop culture. With its smartly edited blend of archive footage, interviews, and endlessly mesmerizing surf and skateboard stunts, Dogtown ensured that one would never look at American youth -- or an empty pool -- in the same way again. Scratch, on the other hand, made adrenalized music less a backdrop than a way of life, following turntable DJs Q-Bert, Shadow, and Swamp -- as well as pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Herbie Hancock -- around on their audio adventures. Two docs to push your envelope, yo.

Hollywood also made lots of movies in 2002. They do all right promoting their own, but there were some fine products worth mentioning, from Sam Raimi's smart and long-awaited adaptation of Spider-Man to an astute directorial debut from George Clooney in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (about that Gong Show guy). Clooney -- practically the king of Tinseltown at present -- passed a superb year, also cajoling us to feel his heartbreak in Stephen Soderbergh's Solaris and to bum around Cleveland in his witty, enjoyable coproduction of Joe and Anthony Russo's Welcome to Collinwood.

Of course, as yammering into a cell phone with pants falling down and miles of thong hanging out became the new standard of feminine power, 2002 cinema made way for another wave of kick-ass chicks, featured in Blue Crush and Resident Evil (both with Michelle Rodriguez), The Powerpuff Girls Movie, and Die Another Day (featuring the chops of Oscar-fortified Halle Berry). Meanwhile, the mellower ladies took to the likes of impressive fare like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mostly Martha.

Indeed, 2002 cinema offered countless alternatives to the horrors of CNN. Certainly, there were puzzlements (why was Signs so lamebrain? Why was Chicago shot in Toronto?), but we also got our giggles (Kung Pow! Enter the Fist: "If you've got an ass, I'll kick it!") said our woeful goodbyes (Richard Harris closed out an amazing career with the new Harry Potter and the gutsy My Kingdom), and welcomed new helmers (Jacques Thelemaque with The Dogwalker, Heathers-scribe Daniel Waters with Happy Campers). We also revisited classics (Metropolis, Lawrence of Arabia) and I was even lucky enough to help host the American premiere -- twenty years late -- of Philippe Mora's The Return of Captain Invincible -- a New York- and Down Under-based superhero musical adventure comedy guaranteed to make you feel a lot less strife and a lot more life. Which is the whole point of cinema, eh?

My Favorite Year
Critic beholds screen; sees miracles.
By Gregory Weinkauf
Now there's an arbitrary number for a best-of list. Kinda limiting. What about eleven, twelve, and thirteen? Didn't they matter? Completely in the interest of self-indulgently trumpeting la crème de la crème of 2002 cinema -- without throwing down a laundry list -- here's my traditionally unorthodox tip-top lineup, sorted mainly into thoughtfully thematic double- (and, er, multiple-) features, wrapping with a great big capper. At the movies as in life, we've just completed an astonishing cycle around the sun. Dig, if you will ...

10. Holy Matrimony! As people get obscenely romantically disappointed and eviscerate each other and feel all love is lost and that load of hooey, you just gotta groove to these bravura ethnic nuptial pictures. This year Monsoon Wedding and My Big Fat Greek Wedding gleefully stood on ceremony. Written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed with consummate flair by Mira Nair (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love; good one, check it out), Monsoon curries favor by exploring arranged marriage, family issues, and Texans. Greek, meanwhile, earned cineastes' scorn by pushing itself as an "indie" film -- absurd! -- but if you're not jollified by Joel Zwick's bubbly direction of Nia Vardalos' fantasy (soon to be a TV series), I've got some Windex to spray on your wounded heart.

9. The Horror! Traditional frights (bogeys) meet the fears of reality (or something remarkably close to it). In the former category, Gore Verbinski's chilling remake of Japanese neo-spooker The Ring (adapted by Ehren Kruger) put out some primo abstract creepiness, hampered only by slight lapses into ludicrousness and David Dorfman as a Haley Joel Osment wannabe. Grounded in recent history, Paul Greengrass' gritty, documentary-like Bloody Sunday -- a reenactment of the massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972 -- proves scariest of all, as thousands of English soldiers open fire and ignite the powder keg of the Troubles we can all find disturbingly familiar.

8. Froggie Follies! Those French! Talk about a cinematic nation! Yet oddly, one of their best films this year -- the resignation gem I'm Going Home -- was directed by Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira, and the 93-year-old's eye for life's vital if tiny details is up to snuff. Offering even more swank for your franc are François Ozon's delightfully cheeky murder musical, 8 Women, Roman Coppola's sleekly spacey CQ (part of which takes place in Italy, but that's basically the same as France from here), and Michael Haneke's trés sexy The Piano Teacher. Merveilleux!

7. Well, Pierce My Brosnan! Remington Steele finally gets a tidy category all to himself. I've heard people mocking Evelyn at the multiplex (presumably without having seen it), but Bruce Beresford's smart direction of Brosnan's melancholic mick (and the glowing presence of Julianna Margulies) transforms Paul Pender's deceptively simple save-the-kids-from-the-church romp into something akin to Celtic Capra. As for Die Another Day, it's the man's best Bond, and Lee Tamahori makes it rock, right down to a Clash nugget serving as antidote to the stupid Madonna title song.


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