Friday, January 17, 2003

The Best and Worst Films of 2002

The task of ranking the ten best movies of any year, most will gladly tell you, represents the most difficult challenge in the career of a movie journalist. As faithful messengers of the cinema, we spend 12 months slogging our way through countless major theatrical releases, struggling to uphold a degree of professionalism even during periods of bleak outlook, only to have it all thrown back into our face in the final weeks of the year before we have to start the process all over again.The effort is sheer madness on many levels and utterly tiresome on others, sometimes seeming rather pointless in the grand scheme of things. But then again, how else could us writers bring closure to the past before moving on into another pool of releases?

The end of 2001 was an especially troublesome time to forge a top ten best list because it was one of the most lackluster motion picture years of the recent past. Of my ten best films, only five of the included could truly be called flawless works (and a year later, even that sentiment can be argued). In fact, up until this last September, it didn't appear as if 2002 would see any such improvement over the last year either. These crucial last months, thankfully, broke down the walls of mediocrity and unleashed a flood of brilliance, resulting in not just a vast improvement over the previous year, but probably a better one overall than the last five in general.

Very late releases find themselves among the company of a few earlier ones in this year's final list, but the scales were inarguably tipped in favor of the latter half of the 12-month period overall.


This year's first major surprise remains one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of the new millennium. Bill Paxton's tough, heavy and twisted directorial debut captures a magnificent conceptual weight like a great Stephen King story while it pulls the rug out from underneath us, leaving the eyes disturbed at the mind enthralled for every second leading up to the rousing jolt of a climax. As a filmmaker, Paxton isn't just clever with the camera or the angle, either; he is able to consistently draw very convincing performances from his stars, most notably from Matthew O'Leary and Jerry Sumpter as kids whose age and knowledge of the real world either clouds or reveals the harsh truth about their father's lifestyle. And though the movie's payoff isn't achieved by the means of a very complex foundation, it nonetheless makes a permanent imprint in the mind—enough, apparently, to call it the single greatest movie achievement of 2002.

2 - BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (Les Pacte des Troups)
Trashy, flamboyant, visual and wildly entertaining, this genre-crossing French film has the distinction of being one of the most rousing and gratifying screen adventures we have seen in a long time. More of a technical achievement than a narrative one, however, "Brotherhood of the Wolf" seamlessly weaves cultures, images and ideas together like a tourist collecting only the most valuable souvenirs on an excursion across the globe. That's not to say the script itself lacks any of the essential ingredients; in fact, the movie's plot so energetically utilizes elements of "Sleepy Hollow" and the "Beowulf" story that we nearly forget the sources themselves in the process. Director Christophe Gans admits that his initial attraction to the screenplay was how its characters so effortlessly jumped off the pages; on screen, needless to say, he duplicates that prospect not just with lively visuals, but thoughtful and engrossing plot techniques as well. This is the kind of popcorn entertainment even the great Hollywood blockbuster directors only dream of making.

It would be nearly impossible to imagine a top ten list without the second chapter of the Middle-Earth saga placing somewhere within it. "The Two Towers" follows its predecessor on a remarkably independent note, refusing to be trapped by the "middle chapter" curse that tends to interfere with most planned movie trilogies. Not only is Peter Jackson's work here more involved and demanding than that of "The Fellowship of the Ring," it is also more stylized, structured and complex as well. The movie is even gifted with new characters who manage to hold their own alongside the already-familiar members of the cast. Consider the all-digital creature Gollum, the decaying former host of the one ring who reluctantly agrees to lead its current "masters" into Mordor where it can be destroyed. Here is the single finest and most genuine special effects creation we have ever seen, proving that the digital age need not be plagued forever by things as grotesque as Jar Jar Binks.

The Roman Polanski biopic was an inevitable project for a director who can so closely relate to the source material, but who could have thought his efforts would lead to perhaps the most amazing achievement of his already-brilliant career? "The Pianist" is a tale of tragedy that finds triumph at the end of the long winding path, a moving and unabashed portrait of a Polish Jew who was torn from his family when the Nazis invaded, brushed the face of death on countless occasions, and yet somehow managed to find the strength and courage to keep his pursuit for freedom going. The piano itself, we see, remains his only source of light in the world crumbling about him, and as the title character, Adrian Brody emerges in what is without a doubt the most dimensional, touching and heartbreaking performance of the year. In an age when certain forms of brilliance can be seen coming from a mile away, here is a masterwork that slowly sneaks up on you.

A casual look at any recent weekend box office tally will indicate that this particular feature is still cranking out enough receipts for a top 20 placing, growing ever-so-closer to the $250-million mark in the process. Not bad for a movie that was made with less than $10 million and was tossed into theaters early last summer with minimal promotion! But what exactly keeps the moviegoers attracted enough to endure repeat viewings? Simple: pure comedic delight. When I finally cranked out a review for the film in December, I called it one of the "best grinning movies of our time," and rightfully so. Seldom before has elaborate silliness and gusto been pulled out with such a high pitch of energy, and even fewer times has a film been as funny, as familiar, as charming and as unforgettably delicious in the process as this one is. If you still don't see the answer in front of you, see the movie again.

No one knows what Robin Williams is truly capable of as an actor unless they first see him in Mark Romanek's magnificent "One Hour Photo," a fascinating and thoughtful character study about a photo mat clerk whose knowledge of photography is overridden by his veiled obsession with the family life of one of his customers. Surprising even those of us who found his twisted turn in Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" satisfying, Williams cranks out what may very well be his most award-worthy performance to date here, playing a warped (but sympathetic) man named Sy Parrish who is shaped not by anger or terror, but rather solitude and alienation. Romanek's direction, meanwhile, finds a striking visual balance with Parrish's desolate lifestyle, and the two emerge at the end like Hollywood rejects who have been reborn in a bright flame of passion.

7 - MAX
The characters of first-time director Meyno Meyjes' thoughtful character deconstruction often inform the audience (and each other) that the greatest art is usually the unconventional stuff that dares to challenge everything that came before it. Echoing that idea down to the last drop of sweat, "Max" is a work of great difficulty that dares to venture into territory most people wouldn't even consider approaching. The movie courageously examines the persona of Adolf Hitler, a being who, at one point in time, was merely an eccentric and rambling young man whose well-known descent into anti-Semitism was probably the product of forces completely out of humanity's control. But will people easily accept the theory that the German dictator was once a normal man? Of course not, and "Max" depends on that sentiment to create its own wonderful sense of chaos. The title character, a Jewish art dealer played by John Cusack, is merely a clever ruse to get viewers interested in the subject matter, however; the real star here is Noah Taylor, who undertakes the Hitler role with such fearlessness and enthusiasm that he disappears into the material like a genuine professional.

This second Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman vehicle will have you giggling in your seat from scene one. Nicholas Cage stars as the screenwriter himself, whose perpetual (but seemingly common) periods of self-loathing become further exercised when his superiors demand a screenplay adapting the nonfiction novel "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) into a major motion picture. Further complicating matters, Charlie wants his work to be about flowers—not plots, details or even history recaps, but just about flowers. Creatively inter-cutting this artistic dilemma with another in which Susan herself struggles to produce a coherent manuscript for the novel months before its publish date, "Adaptation" strikes chords of wisdom and invention on every plane it dares to tread, with the orchid itself being the center of all their personal or professionally struggles and triumphs. This brave and engaging movie makes you glad to be a moviegoer in the first place.

Though the several antigun statements in this brutally honest and fearless documentary don't quite translate to the success of the genre's recent best—"Collectors" and "The Endurance," to be specific—its efforts will be studied religiously for as long as the subject matter remains a relevant issue in society. Fearlessly treading ground that so few have been able to do in the wake of the major American catastrophes—not the least of which is the Columbine school shooting, the primary focus of this endeavor—filmmaker Michael Moore holds nothing back in his zealous (and sometimes intense) effort to expose America's unhealthy obsession with violence. A lot of the ideas and/or facts are common knowledge to most, yes, but the movie gains its strength not just from facts; Moore's courageous choreography of the situation gives the material a startling edge, and though some moments are there to simply stroke his ego, they nonetheless intrigue, baffle, anger or provoke the viewers in one way or another. Anyone who walks out of the film without wanting to discuss the issues further is probably lying about even seeing the picture in the first place.

The latest of director P.T. Anderson's southern California-based human vignettes doesn't feel obliged to break down barriers or follow unconventional routes, but that's what makes it work on such a grand level. "Punch-Drunk Love" is as sweet, honest, simple and attractive as the greatest American films ever made, a lovely little endeavor about two simple people who find innocent love amidst a vulgar and harsh society that refuses to embrace them or their simplistic needs. Emily Watson and Adam Sandler (!) are remarkably charming during their brief but passionate romantic interludes, and Anderson's camerawork often frames them in shots that almost seem like they're smiling back at you.

The Runners-Up
In the bracket of achievements that follow the top ten, a total of nine films were worthy enough to be mentioned. They are (alphabetically): Gangs of New York, Martin Scorcese's vibrant period drama that seamlessly uses history and conflict for its compelling look at the dark side of humanity in the 19th century; Igby Goes Down, an ensemble character study without all the glossy trimmings or happy endings you would expect the filmmakers to conform to; Minority Report, Spielberg's adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick short story that literally leaps off the screen with its visuals; Panic Room, a deliciously restless world in which David Fincher traps (and reinvigorates) tricks and gimmicks from the classic Hitchcock thrillers; Red Dragon, the prequel to the Hannibal Lecter story which sees Hopkins' greatest achievement in the now-familiar role; The Ring, a remake of a popular Japanese urban legend film that somehow manages to twist itself along without resorting to formula for its payoff; Signs, M. Nigh Shyamalan's third and finest thriller, an engrossing investigative study of fear and paranoia provoked by an oncoming alien invasion; Simone, a brilliantly witty Hollywood satire that refuses to restrict itself to logic; and Treasure Planet, perhaps the most adventurous of the Disney cartoons in several years.


Now comes the easy half of this laboring annual project! No matter where you went or what you avoided, chances are the 2002 movie season let off some pretty foul fumes on the theater screens. Just as the lion's share of solid work belonged to the second half of the year, the first sixth months seemed more like incessant dumping ground for all the joyless and luckless Hollywood trash, nearly suffocating any hope we might have initially had for a better future. Observe the top ten worst films of the year and find yourself transported back to a moment when even the latest "Star Wars" flick looked more promising...

What can be said about this lame, choppy, grotesque and inept disaster that wasn't said already in the original review from earlier in 2002? Nothing much, other than that it remains the single most putrid and pathetic excuse for entertainment seen this side of "Universal Soldier." "Rollerball" takes the bar of cinematic stupidity down to a step it hasn't even nearly approached since the turn of the millennium, and if the studio thinks that an "unrated" DVD version filling in all those annoying little camera chops and cuts was going to help matters, they were dreadfully mistaken. How can we cut any movie slack when it spends 15 minutes running around in night vision for some unexplained reason, anyway?

2 - FORMULA 51
If there was any movie that actually deserved all sorts of those fore mentioned chops and cuts, it would be this incredibly vulgar and spiteful action comedy starring Samuel L. Jackson, which spends a good chunk of its time running around trying to come up with as many gross-out ploys as it can (minus the accompanying laughs). Skinheads tricked into diarrhea, limeys bashing each other's skulls in with golf clubs, full rooms of people mowed down by hit men, drug ring leaders who explode after ingesting chemicals—the only thing missing from this equation is a handbag for those who have to witness it all unfold.

Adam Sandler hasn't exactly had the best reputation at the cinema over the years, but he seemed to be striving for credibility when he starred in the wonderful "Punch-Drunk Love" just a few months ago. Unfortunately, all hopes for a turnaround were dashed when this mean-spirited and annoying animated comedy galloped into theaters without much warning. In it, Sandler voices three characters—a rebellious adolescent who resembles himself, a basketball coach with two different-sized feet named Whitey, and his bald bucktoothed sister Eleanor.The task of finding out who is the least irksome of these three characters, alas, is like pulling teeth without anesthetic.

What in the world was anyone thinking when they came up with this concept? What could possibly justify a theatrical release for a movie in which losers of every shape and size are thrown at the audience without so much as a hint of regard? "Slackers" is aptly titled because that's exactly what kind of audience it is reaching for—people who are too lazy to care that their senses and intelligence are being incredibly insulted from one sequence to the next. In it, three guys are caught cheating on a test and are blackmailed into setting up a nerd with the local college cutie, but one of them soon realizes he's falling for the targeted babe. This is yet another gross-out comedy that strives to take the genre to lengths it has never gone before, but unlike most other films, this one is crude and obscene simply for the sake of following a popular pattern. Now if that doesn't say "Slacker," then what else does?

A glance at the cast list for this mob-based shoot-em-up will easily imply something promising—what else would you expect from something that features Vin Diesel, Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich?—but that, of course, is the film's most misleading flaw. "Knockaround Guys" is a corpse of an endeavor that literally has to undergo CPR on screen, a slow and shapeless work that lacks any kind of energy whatsoever beyond introducing characters and throwing them into meandering dialogue exchanges and clichéd mob confrontations. It would be easy to say the movie is just plain awful, but that statement would be ignoring the bigger picture: this travesty doesn't even build up enough energy to make us hate it.

Movies about animals—especially those that are unleashed by Disney—seem to have a bad tendency of blurring the lines between plausibility and absurdity, and "Snow Dogs" is the latest in a long line of their child-based live action vehicles that refuses to be charming or respectable for one second. Reflecting the career of its once-reputable star Cuba Gooding, Jr., the movie slogs its way from one scene to the next as if it's all just for the sake of reaching a climax. Nothing ever fits together or even comes off as amusing; the writing is bland, the focus is disjointed, and the dogs themselves look like they've been trapped in the headlights of a speeding car. Too bad we can't say we're surprised, though.

If there's one thing worse than bad movies with bad endings, it's bad movies with multiple bad endings. The character satire "Pumpkin," which stars Christina Ricci as a sorority girl who falls for a mentally-challenged boy she is assigned to coach for the special Olympics, builds an infuriating plot, matches it with sitcom-like characters, and then refuses to resolve the issues even when we're manipulated time and time again into believing everything is at an end. Just when we think a resolution has played out, the film pulls us back down to reality and then throws more stupidity at us, sometimes for very long periods of time. In fact, once the movie actually does conclude, we're still not completely sure.

Almost like the polar opposite of "Adaptation," this immensely dull comedy is about an aspiring writer who, for one reason or another, simply cannot find a path to success with everyone in his family interfering along the way. His solution? Write a story about the losers that keep him down, of course! Colin Hanks, son to Tom, takes on the lead role, while Jack Black, a man who is often seen in these kinds of supporting roles, plays the obnoxious and deadbeat brother who—unlike the movie he's trapped in—might actually have a trick or two up his sleeve.

Jason Lee and Tom Green star as friends who resort to a career of crime in order to pay for a Harvard college fund that one of them promised to their niece when she was a little girl. Any vehicle containing either of these two "actors" is bound to include even more toilet humor than the one before it, and "Stealing Harvard" delivers on that promise. Unfortunately, all of its jokes and sight gags feel like early drafts from better comedies, and none of them really ever inspire a reaction (other than blank stares or frustrated pouts).

As it turns out, the most hilarious movie of the year doesn't even try to be funny. "Ghost Ship," the third from the Dark Castle Entertainment group which insists on remaking all sorts of old 1950s/60s low-budget horror movies makes a fatal error in judgment that even "House on Haunted Hill" and "Thirteen Ghosts" managed to avoid: trying to be taken seriously. Even then, this sea-based scarefest might have had some redeeming qualities if the visuals were somewhat striking to look at, but alas they're not.The movie disappoints even those who were expecting something less than zero.

The Runners-Up
It would be nice to say that Hollywood's garbage chute didn't toss out any more waste in 2002, but that would be an ignorant statement for anyone to make on any given year. In keeping with tradition, the local multiplex also saw itself bombarded with heaps of other stinkers, which include (more than likely among others): Collateral Damage, a badly-realized and offensive action flick about terrorism; The Country Bears, the most unnerving and creepy kids movie to be released since "Jack Frost"; Impostor, a cheesy and thankless science fiction character study that experienced several release delays for a reason; Jason X, the formulaic tenth film about Jason Vorhees that simply refuses to have fun with its futuristic concept; Resident Evil, the latest in a long line of video games turned into brainless and ugly action pictures; Secretary, an offbeat character study that lacks any hint of satisfaction in its S&M-laced atmosphere; Solaris, Steven Soderbergh's joyless and shapeless space epic that asks lots of questions without actually having answers; Tuck Everlasting, another one of these dry and clichéd screen adaptations of famous children's literature; and Unfaithful, a cold and savage relationship drama that was actually much better when it was called "Fatal Attraction."

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