Another Year, Another World
By Rob Nelson
Not since grade school has your spoiled movie brat of a reviewer seen fewer films than in the 12-month period of 2002. So when I say that it was a great year, I'm not really talking about movies. And yet how else should I summarize the state of the art when such visionary studio films as Solaris, Adaptation, and Punch-Drunk Love--along with modern classics by old New Wave masters Godard (In Praise of Love), Rohmer (The Lady and the Duke), and Chabrol (Merci pour le chocolat)--couldn't even crack my Top 10?
Indeed, though my lifelong addiction to cinema may have been a little underfed in 2002, I feel sated at the end of a year whose best films included an Igloolik, Nunavut-based neophyte's digital-video ice Western (The Fast Runner) as well as solid sophomore efforts by young independent women (Rebecca Miller and Nicole Holofcener) and mid-career masterpieces by a pair of well-connected wise guys (Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma). The spirit of such diversity seems encapsulated in the greatest movie of 2002, about a 10-year-old girl who's whisked to a magical world of floating shadow people, talking frogmen, and one massive Stink-God. No wonder it's called Spirited Away.
Speaking of being transported: That a full 50 percent of my favorites came from outside the U.S. strikes me as fitting in a year when I and almost everyone I know started looking beyond the familiar for inspiration--or a way out of Bush's blockbuster.
1. Spirited Away. The world's greatest living animator, Hayao Miyazaki, draws us into a Japanese fantasia where parents are pigs (literally!) and astonishment reigns supreme. You don't have to be a kid to adore this giddy Alice in Wonderland; if you're not, it'll turn you into one.
2. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat). As elemental as a film can be: Jealousy pits two men against each other; one of them flees naked across an endless landscape of slush and ice. A kind of long-distance runner himself, first-time director Zachariah Kunuk follows in the footsteps of Akira Kurosawa by making a three-hour Western outside the West--not to mention pulling from myths and traditions that stretch much further back than John Ford's. But the (digital video) technology is new, as is the sight of Inuit tribespeople using their own language to tell a distinctly universal story.
3. ABC Africa. Compassionate rather than investigative (but no less political for that), Abbas Kiarostami's digital-video document of Ugandan orphans is a film meant simply to remind us of the power of any individual choice--including the choice to do nothing. Which reminds me: Why hasn't anyone deigned to give it a run in the Twin Cities?
4. Spider. With this ingeniously realized adaptation of the Patrick McGrath novel, the preeminent cinematic renderer of degenerative disease--David Cronenberg, of course--starts with a protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) who's already sick (schizophrenic, in fact). Then the director burrows into his brain and peers through his eyes at a narrative whose discrepancies naturally reflect the man's condition. One can imagine the reviews: too cerebral. (Opens here in March.)
5. Gangs of New York. Using wood and nails rather than digital crayon to construct his city of dreams, Martin Scorsese delivers the Last American Blockbuster of the Real World. Go and pay your respects.
6. Far from Heaven. Writer-director Todd Haynes channels the spirit of '50s melodramatist Douglas Sirk as if conducting a séance, but he also resurrects himself. Like Haynes's Superstar and Safe, Far from Heaven is an exercise in eliciting our sympathy for a dangerously thin character--an exercise that depends on our seeing her slim chance of personal growth as symptomatic of a larger disease.
7. Lovely & Amazing. Likening our culture's obsession with the perfect body to its equally damaging preference for the well-toned narrative, writer-director Nicole Holofcener's proudly misshapen follow-up to Walking and Talking eschews fashionable plot development in favor of the Big Themes. A lot of critics (i.e., a lot of men) condescendingly acknowledged Holofcener's command of what is often regarded as "female intuition"--as if to say that people skills are swell and all, but not seminal nowadays. In other words, it's the year's most tellingly underrated movie.
8. Personal Velocity. The daughter of Arthur Miller can write, yes. But what about her more distinctive contribution to moving pictures? Indeed, Rebecca Miller's three-part study of the Law of Inertia as it applies to women makes the most expressive use of digital video since The Celebration.
9. Femme Fatale. A white-hot maneater (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) catches Double Indemnity on a hotel TV in Cannes and gets ideas in Brian De Palma's disreputable hoot of a feminist film noir. Among countless other things, the titular femme has the year's most quotable dialogue by far. "You don't have to lick my ass," she playfully instructs the homme futile (Antonio Banderas). "Just fuck me."
10. Y Tu Mamá También. Like Spirited Away, this unrated Mexican road movie traffics in the borderline anarchic thrill of kids (and other flaming creatures) acting out. Come to think of it, maybe some smart-aleck movie brat will see fit to throw those two on a late-night double bill--and make a point not to check IDs.