By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Yeah, I know it's unfair to expect this year's films to stack up against a selection of the greatest movies ever made. Yet the last time I felt this way was more than a decade ago, when The Manchurian Candidate returned to theaters after a 25-year hiatus. It's dispiriting. I keep waiting for another year as amazing as 1999--Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, Lovers of the Arctic Circle--but it's becoming painfully obvious that lineup was merely a fluke.
So before we get to the Greatest Hits roundup, let's mention a few categories that stand by themselves: It was a very good year for documentaries. There were theatrical runs of two first-rate music films: Scratch, Doug Pray's look at hip-hop and turntable masters, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman's tribute to the largely unsung studio cats who created the largest and most enduring body of pop music ever to emerge from one studio. In addition to Chris Smith's Home Movie and Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's Daughter from Danang, there was also the as-yet-undistributed Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz's dazzler about eight contestants in the National Spelling Bee. The latter was as suspenseful and engaging a movie as any in 2002; thankfully, it should get wide release in 2003.
The Hong Kong-to-Hollywood expatriate movement had its worst year yet. The massive commercial flop Windtalkers was John Woo's most disappointing film since his Taiwanese quickies in the early '80s. The often-brilliant Ronny Yu directed the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Formula 51, an entertaining, over-the-top bit of fluff that sank like a stone. Cory Yuen's English-language action film The Transporter had its moments, but it wasn't as good as his other 2002 effort, the Chinese-language So Close, which didn't even make it into theaters. And let's not even talk about Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo, deal?
There were some terrific films, and several of them came out of Hollywood, even. Below are the 10 that either gave me the most pleasure or left me the most moved. The usual cautions apply. This list was compiled using Academy qualifying rules--that is, films had to have run for at least a week in New York or Los Angeles, with their opening day falling during the calendar year. As always, I had a different list yesterday and will have yet another tomorrow; outside of the top few spots, the order is highly mutable, depending on mood.
2. Brotherhood of the Wolf Laugh if you want, but if French director and noted Hong Kong film fan Christophe Gans had set out to make a film designed purely to please me, he couldn't have done better. Hong Kong action blended with witty dialogue and gorgeous cinematography, this is clearly the greatest horror-action-kung-fu French period drama ever made.
3. Adaptation At first glance, it might seem that the reunion of Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze with its screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman, with an assist from his "brother" Donald) is too clever for its own good. It's certainly the most self-reflexive movie ever made and flirts with the precious. But it's so brilliantly worked out and so much pure fun it's hard to resist.
4. Lilo & Stitch The most entertaining animated feature to come out of Disney proper--that is, not from Pixar-by-way-of-Disney--in years.
5. Merci pour le chocolat This 2000 thriller from French master Claude Chabrol--which showed up in the U.S.A. two years late--is a masterpiece of nuance and characterization, marred only by one inexplicable, distracting blunder at the end. Isabelle Huppert gives one of the strongest performances of a generally remarkable career.
6. Punch-Drunk Love Paul Thomas Anderson takes off on Adam Sandler's screen persona, showing us how unfunny--in fact, how very scary and disturbing--Sandler's typical geek characters would be if you removed them from the realm of broad comedy. Beneath its apparently happy ending, Punch-Drunk Love is truly unsettling--a strange and amazing piece of work.
7. Far from Heaven Todd Haynes' story of different kinds of forbidden love isn't simply an homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the '50s. It re-creates them, utterly without snickering irony, while anachronistic flourishes give the drama an extra charge.
8. Lagaan The Oscar rules are so insane I'm ignoring them for this one. It would qualify if it hadn't been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film last year; if it had merely been entered but not nominated, it would qualify for all the other awards this year. In effect, it's penalized for having gotten a nomination. (I couldn't make this stuff up.) Certainly the best four-hour musical about cricket you'll ever see.
9. One Hour Photo Robin Williams really is creepy as all get out in Mark Romanek's perfectly controlled thriller, which is maybe too finicky in its attention to design. Still, it's a winner.
10. The Pianist A great director, Roman Polanski, mutes his usual trademarks to deal with the Holocaust (which, of course, he experienced firsthand). This is a film more to admire than enjoy: It's grueling, appropriately enough, but not the kind of thing you want to watch over and over.
Final cop-out: Every year there's a film that I can't quite make up my mind about. This year, it's the much-lauded About Schmidt, directed by Alexander Payne. Jack Nicholson is great in it, and Payne--channeling Sinclair Lewis, the Coen brothers and Elaine May--seems to be trying to find some dignity in pedestrian lives. Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that his contempt for all his characters, Schmidt included, outweighs his compassion.
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