January 3, 2003 The Year in Review: 2002's Best and Worst
Well, another year of movies gone by and another is upon us. Is it just me or is time moving at an alarmingly fast rate these days? In any case, 2002 was, overall, not the banner year that 2001 was. While I technically saw more four-star motion pictures in 2002, they were a notch below the brilliance of my top flicks of 2001. Whereas my top six from last year were so equally stunning that their placement on my "best" list was practically beside the point, there was no question this year about what my #1 pic from this year would be.
One running theme inherent with most of 2002's very best (in comparison to 2001's "Donnie Darko," "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," "Vanilla Sky," "Moulin Rouge," and "Mulholland Drive") were deeply rich character-based stories rather than innovation in storytelling. If 2001 was the year of startling originality, then 2002 was the year of films that plunged straight into the heart of human nature and interaction.
Ultimately, there were also more terrible movies in 2002 than in 2001 (I saw 13 in 2002 that rated one-star or lower, while in 2001 there were just 9). So goes with the unfortunate territory of (mostly) Hollywood filmmaking.
As with 2001's year-end essay, I plan to not only go over my top 10 lists of the best and worst of 2002, but I also want to make a mention of what I think were the best performances turned in this year. Some of the actors have been more widely acclaimed than others, but they are all worthy in my eyes of being acknowledged to some degree at the impending awards season. With that, let's not waste any more time. Here goes...
The Best Performances of 2002 (my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
10.) Slackers - It shouldn't be too hard to make a raucous college comedy that elicits some form of enjoyment, should it? Apparently it is. Utterly abysmal and unfunny from start to finish, lacking even basic narrative cohesion.
9.) Hart's War - Easily the worst war picture of the year. Lifeless and wooden, it is an unanimous failure on all counts that leaves you simply not caring about an important part of history.
8.) Rollerball - Who exactly thought this extreme sports actioner was a good idea? A shameful exercise in laughable dialogue, incoherent storytelling, jarringly choppy editing, and a directing effort from veteran John McTiernan that would lead one to believe he had never picked up a camera prior to shooting.
7.) The Master of Disguise - An embarrassingly bad Dana Carvey comedy, only a human vegetable could have possibly viewed the final cut of this junk and not have had any vocal concerns about the submerged level of quality on display.
6.) Friday After Next - Holds the distinction of being slightly better than its predecessor, "Next Friday," but then, what isn't? A lugubrious, patience-testing, creatively bankrupt slog through vacuous material that wrongfully portrays the African American community as little more than sluts and pimps.
5.) Showtime - The first of two Eddie Murphy comedies (and I use such a term generously) on this list, with another appearing in the "Dishonerable Mentions" section. Get the picture?
4.) Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever - Horrendously amateurish filmmaking that is plainly dull and visually ugly when it isn't incomprehensible, and offensively one-note when it isn't unintentionally humor-filled. What more can you honestly say about a movie with more explosions than any other in memory, yet still manages to be boring? And what can you say about a title that doesn't even make sense?
3.) Extreme Ops - The second film on the list centering on extreme sports (with an asinine terrorist plot thrown in). I've seen zero-budgeted student films in college infinitely more stimulating and innovative than this veritable head-scratcher.
2.) The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course - Don't even get me started. Upon suffering through this 90-minute piece of worthless excrement, I commented that if a worse movie got released in 2002, it would be by sheer accident. Well, an accident occurred only a month later, and it wasn't pretty...
1.) The Adventures of Pluto Nash - It sat on the shelf for over a year. It was vehemently not screened for critics anywhere. It cost an astoundingly pointless $80-million to make. And it couldn't have possibly been worse if director Ron Underwood had been held at gunpoint for the duration of the shoot. If Eddie Murphy were to be sent back in time to 17th-century Salem with the film negatives under one arm, I suspect he would have been labeled a heretic and burned at the stake.
10.) Solaris - The most overlooked and sadly misunderstood film of the year, Steven Soderbergh's deliberately paced rumination on the power of guilt, the value of life, and the undying notion of true love was genuinely heartbreaking and ominously beautiful. In years to come, let's hope it joins Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a science-fiction masterwork notable for having far more on its mind than just space battles and slimy aliens.
9.) The Rules of Attraction - An, at once, cynical, unblinkingly dark, caustically funny, and tragic portrait of a group of lost, disillusioned college youths. Directed by Roger Avary, it is one of the most unconventional and conspicuously creative cinematic treats of the year.
8.) About Schmidt - Jack Nicholson is, in a word, astounding as Warren Schmidt, a recently retired 66-year-old who comes to the frightening realization that his life has been unfulfilling and meaningless. Remarkably directed by Alexander Payne, that a film can be so dark and yet so funny, so poignant and yet so uplifting, is something of a miracle.
7.) Road to Perdition - Following up 1999's best film, "American Beauty," director Sam Mendes returns with this gorgeously rendered, multilayered, and heartfelt character study that is noir filmmaking at its best. Its depiction of a father-son relationship (between Tom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin) is as stirringly true and devastating as any film that has ever been made on the subject.
6.) Spirited Away - Walt Disney Pictures should be ashamed of themselves for taking this Japanese import from anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazakithe most sheerly imaginative and groundbreakingly wondrous animated feature I have ever seenand then treating it like a bastard child by dumping it into a handful of theaters. A 124-minute cavalcade of breathtaking images, colorfully precise animation, well-drawn characters, and an invention in fresh storytelling that has to be seen to be completely understood.
5.) Moonlight Mile - In filming the story of a family torn apart by an unexpected death in the family, director Brad Silberling transcends what could have been a sappy melodrama into a remarkably touching, unsentimental examination of the human condition. From the luminous performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, and lovely newcomer Ellen Pompeo, to its tonally brilliant writing that understatedly mixes humor with tragedy, to the sumptuous period flavor and music of its 1970s setting, to the way it manages to say so much by showing so little, it is an astonishing achievement for all.
4.) The Good Girl - As with "About Schmidt," here is another motion picture about an unhappy person (played by Jennifer Aniston in an eye-openingly virtuoso performancethe best of the year) living in a small town who is at a crossroad in her life. A pointed, touchingly honest, and beautifully crafted character study that achieves the near-impossible under the helm of Miguel Arteta by impenetrably capturing a glimpse of life that not once appears written or manufactured. These are real people, through and through, and they mean even more to the viewer because of it.
3.) Bowling for Columbine - If a more important American motion picture was made this year than revolutionary documentarian Michael Moore's indelible look about gun control in the United States, I didn't see it. Alternately hilarious, tear-inducingly moving, and unrelentingly thought-provoking (often within the same 60 seconds of film), this groundbreaking film should stand as a watermark for how powerful and riveting the documentary medium has the ability to be.
2.) Signs - Easily M. Night Shyamalan's most assured work to date, cementing his place as one of the great new filmmakers working today, he astonishingly takes the very frightening possibility that we are not alone in the universe as a mere jumping-off point to tell a more highly personal story about characters harshly struggling with their faith and beliefs. In doing so, he has constructed a bone-chilling horror film in the classic sense, where the old adage that less is more most satisfyingly applies, and a devastating drama about a family (headed by Mel Gibson) who has quickly begun to deteriorate after being met by tragedy. A masterpiece of human emotions and unyielding terror, it was the best film of 2002 until the very last week of the year.
1.) Adaptation - Written by Charlie Kaufman, here is a literally mindblowing experience in more ways than one, a film so daring, so unpredictable, so unconventionally brilliant, and so purely entertaining that it more than makes up for suffering through the worst movies of the year and restores clear hope in the future of modern filmmaking. In telling the story of Charlie Kaufman's (Nicolas Cage) struggle to adapt a decidedly uncinematic non-fiction book into a movie, as well as the story of real-life journalist Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) research three years earlier into the said book about an orchid thief named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), director Spike Jonze has concocted a one-of-a-kind creation. Twisting and turning, building layer upon layer, time frame upon time frame, and fact within fiction, the film is a richly drawn, unforgettable tapestry about not letting life pass you by. To view "Adaptation" is to live, see, breathe, and feel in an entirely different way than any other motion picture released in 2002 offered.