The Year In Film

Spirited Away
Walt Disney Pictures

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.


The Sharper Image
By Terri Sutton

Blame it on bad movies or a short attention span bred by increasingly stupid/tragic world events, but what I remember mostly about Cinema 2002 is short, sharp splinters. I think of the rhapsodic ending of Elling, wherein a social misfit invents a public voice by secretly spreading his poems via food-product labels. I think of the shadow of Austin Powers birthing a shadow Mini-Me. Jude Law's ugly obsessive and Paul Newman's subtler tough in the gassy Road to Perdition. The audiovisual one-two of Punch-Drunk Love's noisily repetitive soundtrack and sterile SoCal spaces. Samantha Morton's apocalyptic eyes in Minority Report, which I recognized as my own: caught in a falsified loop of violent media imagery with ghastly consequences. (No upbeat Spielberg finale in sight--for now.)

Of course, there were whole movies that consumed me in '02. Again, they did so not by distracting me from the world, but by showing it to me clearer and sharper.

1. Y Tu Mamá También. I was already in love with this buddy movie before the third act, in which it exposes buddy movie homoerotica in all its drunken glory. (A guy at the screening actually groaned, "Oh, no!") Director Alfonso Cuarón tracks male sexual adolescence with a brisk honesty not seen in any American teen movie I can think of. Of course the film is funny--and tender as a poorly healed wound. Cuarón also surveys Mexico's landscapes, present and future, making a teen movie that's more than just a pretty face. Note to under-17s: I'll rent it for you.

2. Spirited Away. The second time I saw Hayao Miyazaki's film, a three-year-old, some rows down from me in Papa's lap, raised his or her arms and clapped after each creative plot turn. Exactly. Oh, the transformations: parents into pigs, globs of black muck into towering river gods, enemies into allies, a complaining girl into a brave and loyal adventurer. And animation so rich with color and detail that it's as real as the collective stew dreaming our futures.

3. Far from Heaven. A meticulous period melodrama wherein an affluent white '50s housewife loses her husband to gay life and her friends to their intolerance of her dating a black man. After the screening, I thanked the publicist: That was fun! And then I felt stupid. But the movie is fun--if you define it as great colors, knowing artifice, and acting awesome enough to knife you with emotion even as you're kept aware of the trick that is moviemaking. Here's to deep explorations of fakeness, that truth of our times.

4. Morvern Callar. Director Lynne Ramsay streamlines Alan Warner's unbelievable plot and cedes the screen to Samantha Morton's quietness and cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler's lush shadows. This is a sneaky, beautiful movie about getting even with grief. (Opens here in February.)

5. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat). The first Inuit-language feature, notable for the distinctive vision it shares: of apparently endless ice and snow, of a people at home in it, of the art that fuels those vulnerable humans under their heavy layers.

6. Gangs of New York. Ridiculous, yes: the grand villain, the tortured hero, the dorky love story writ in mile-high cursive. But somewhere around a laughably decadent brothel scene, Daniel Day-Lewis's mad gang boss wraps himself in the stars and stripes, and suddenly I feel the hard weight of it. Then it gets heavier.

7. Personal Velocity. Two of the three heroines in Rebecca Miller's triptych enact stories rarely seen on film. There's a sense of joyful discovery in the shooting and editing and acting that reminds me of Jane Campion's Sweetie.

8. 24 Hour Party People. Because the history of Factory Records is a history I was a part of. Because director Michael Winterbottom gets the highs and lows right. Because Herzog is on TV as Ian Curtis hangs himself.

9. Lovely & Amazing. Yes, it's about miserable people (may Catherine Keener step out of character in '03!) with a connection to the superficial world of film. (Uncle! Uncle!) But it's also a piercing look at women looking at themselves. Raven Goodwin as the adopted black daughter of a white woman is still staring me down.  

10. Dogtown and Z-Boys. A self-serving documentary made by an erstwhile member of the legendary SoCal skateboard troupe. Also: an unbeatable record of an unruly subculture's assimilation.


Beautiful Losers
By Matthew Wilder

"Whatever happened to all this season's losers of the year?" Cheap Trick memorably asked. Answer: They're right here. Most of the best U.S. movies of 2002 constituted a Loser's Lounge, where the celery-and-ranch-dressing treats are slightly soft, and the taco salad is drawing fruit flies. In a corner is blue-suited, bullet-headed Barry Egan, the toilet-plunger salesman and abuse victim of Punch-Drunk Love, sullenly chewing turkey pastrami. (His sisters forced him to go on the Atkins.) Toby Oxman, the documentarian of Storytelling, hopes not to be noticed as he stuffs empanadas into that geeky book bag of his; and Chuck Barris, antihero of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, seems genuinely interested in the schizophrenic title character of Spider and his collection of...crumpled-up Band-Aids?

Let's give a toast to these shy fellas (most of 'em drinking wine spritzers) for making 2002 a good year for movies--and hope their nervous tics and inappropriate gestures don't make us reflect on ourselves too much.

1. Spider. As a trauma-damaged man (Ralph Fiennes) pieces together a kit of broken, wrong, and half-forgotten memories, director David Cronenberg pauses to study the unfriendly lighting on a madhouse floor. In painting a minimalist portrait of what he calls "infected memory," Cronenberg apes the style of Beckett and Bergman. Who'd have guessed that he would equal their accomplishments?

2. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. What are the odds that the handsome devil from ER would unsheath a filmmaking talent to make Scorsese and Spielberg leap back in awe? Or that Chuckie Baby from The Gong Show would headline the movie version of the Great American Novel? Director George Clooney's ingenious Barris biopic is being given condescending critical head-pats--but history will vindicate it. (Opens January 17.)

3. Storytelling. The beautiful kick the ass of the ugly; the white relish their whiteness before the nonwhite; rich trumps poor and strong beats helpless in a 10-to-nothing rout. Writer-director Todd Solondz tells the awful truth in a style that's the most successful emulation yet of Stanley Kubrick's pitiless rigor. His filmmaking suggests the genuinely concerned voice at the phone company that says, "I understand, and I'm sorry--I really am. But there's nothing I can do."

4. The Lady and the Duke. Suspense! Political psychodrama! Psychedelic-operatic digital effects! Throbbing color and a breakneck pace! In short, all the things we have trained ourselves never to expect from an Eric Rohmer movie--but they're all here in abundance. How cheering it is that Rohmer made his best film at the age of 84.

5. In Praise of Love. All the ink this Jean-Luc Godard movie got when it opened on the coasts had to do with the auteur's anti-Americanism--so tasteless after 9/11! But as Godard himself once said: "When a good movie is successful, it is because of a misunderstanding." A paean to futile resistance and a Daumier-like sketch of down-and-out Paris, In Praise of Love is the director's most energetic and least crotchety picture in years. (Opens January 24.)

6. Changing Lanes. It was a "best of" year for Amanda Peet. You expect her character here to grab her morally tortured lawyer hubby (Ben Affleck) and tell him to straighten up and do the right thing. Instead, she tells him she didn't marry him because he was a nice guy--and he'd better step on it and do the wrong thing pronto. Until the horrifying final minutes, this is a movie that Paddy Chayefsky would be proud of.

7. Punch-Drunk Love. It's so beautiful it can make you see stars: literally (in painter Mark Foster's abstract interludes), figuratively (Adam Sandler gives the performance of the year?), and otherwise (Jon Brion's score sets a new gold standard for the musical dance around sound and image). Something tells me that in a few years I'll realize this is the best movie of 2002.

8. Igby Goes Down. The rich kid's coming-of-age movie isn't my favorite genre. But first-time writer-director Burr Steers goes at the material without a drop of Wes Anderson's affection; every mean second is rendered with stunning accuracy and eloquence. The wordless scene of the kid dressing up a beautiful junkie (Amanda Peet again!) for a date with a vicious millionaire ranks among the most exquisite of recent years.

9. Personal Velocity. I love the shameless literariness of this movie: Writer-director Rebecca Miller adapts her own short stories for the screen, and hires a lisping, epicene male voice (The Sopranos' Artie Bucco!) to read them aloud...endlessly. The film is also a reminder that Fairuza Balk and Parker Posey deserve more work.  

10. About Schmidt. Warren R. Schmidt, retired insurance actuary and widower, is someone you see every day. He dines at Coco's and Quizno's, and (on fancier occasions) at Tony Roma's; he can be seen in one of the more dignified Eddie Bauer overcoats; he looks at humanity with a mixture of resignation and polite negativity. It was genius to cast Jack Nicholson as Schmidt: The filmmakers turn a character study into a suspense picture. (When is he going to go apeshit?) The movie wobbles in tone, but it comes through in the final scene with a single gesture of shattering power.

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