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Best Movies of 2002

By Eric Beltmann

Under the banner "The Movies That Matter This Month," a premiere national publication registers major Hollywood releases and the occasional independent success -- as if what makes a picture "matter" is the size of its budget, its stars, or its one-sheet posters. You and I, though, have deeper curiosity about what qualifies as noteworthy; we know that what validates a movie is the size of its passion, its eloquent zeal for personal expression. Last year, my perennial hunt for breathless cinema took me further than ever before -- I screened over 230 films released in 2002, from a wide variety of places -- and in listing those that matter the most to me, I feel compelled to outwit the customary 10.

1. Far from Heaven. Transgression has been an integral part of cinema -- why it is made, why it is watched, why it is watched in the dark -- since its beginnings, and now Todd Haynes has plundered our movie past to craft a silky, plush tearjerker about forbidden behavior and its sliding-scale relationship to social mores. Set in 1957, the story sounds like one of Douglas Sirk's overripe soap operas from the Eisenhower era, but one that tells the furtive secrets that always ducked down behind his subtext: Married to a closet homosexual (Dennis Quaid), a suburban mother (Julianne Moore) scandalizes Hartford, Connecticut when she befriends her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). This taboo-ridden triangle -- their longings hedged in by an impossibly handsome, synthetic world -- probably deserves our suspicions, except Haynes' old-fashioned daydream about sexuality, gender, and race has more to do with '50s movies than the actual '50s. Sirk practiced melodrama to dissect the decade's social norms, but what's interesting -- and electrifying -- is how Haynes revives that passé method, without once lapsing into parody or camp, to investigate modern America: Although the vocabulary we use to discuss them have changed, have the layers of oppression in this country significantly transformed in the last half-century? Never just a spot-on pastiche of how Sirk's pristine, delirious colors bubbled with domestic anguish, Far from Heaven is ultimately about the loopy, sweeping, transporting power of narrative cinema, about how an art form that banks on deception -- after all, spectators must accept faked action as "real" -- can yield something that resembles truth.

2. Bloody Sunday and Rabbit-Proof Fence. The truth about imperialism -- its unacknowledged human price -- supplies the theme for these twin raids upon colonial arrogance. On Sunday, January 30, 1972, British soldiers killed 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland. If the recent Saville inquiry can be trusted, Paul Greengrass' nervy re-enactment, which accuses the troops of butchery, has accurately revised the record. Fiction plays a larger role in Phillip Noyce's exposé of Australia's Stolen Generations, but his chase of three Aboriginal girls who flee an internment "school" and scamper 1,200 miles home feels no less authentic. Though dissimilar in their naturalism (Greengrass relies on tremulous, anemic visuals, while Noyce embraces gorgeous landscape imagery), both stories are crowded with rigorous details about egos at war: In each, one group asserts its right to reign, while another asserts its right to live free. That timeless clash may be political, but one function of realist cinema is to liberate history from politics, to reveal its intricate emotional dimensions -- which is why both directors allow panic, grief, and rage to lay claim to these events.

3. Spirited Away and Punch-Drunk Love. Animator Hayao Miyazaki has built a career out of ditching realism, but even Lewis Carroll would have admired the demented, dense invention of his latest phantasmagoria, about a young girl trapped in an otherworldly spa for the Shinto gods. Shockingly, some critics accused Miyazaki of being too "Japanese," disregarding their professional obligation to chastise that sort of provincial logic. Even more were confounded by Paul Thomas Anderson's aching, symphonic ode to the strength of love. Like Miyazaki, Anderson returned to the drawing board last year, to erase our notions about what constitutes romantic comedy. With Adam Sandler's self-loathing and passive-aggressive mumbling as his subjects, he somehow sold "I love you so much I want to smash your face in with a sledgehammer" as the sweetest, dreamiest declaration of the season. We may lack a familiar context in which to navigate these enchanting novelties, but being caught unawares -- by their indefinability, by their exquisite genius, by their sheer lunacy -- is part of the pleasure. To connect with that is to remember why we fell for the movies in the first place.

4. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and About Schmidt. Content with loutish cartoons about pie and reefer, most adolescents didn't bother to see the best teen comedy of the year, Peter Care's thorny, gawky coming-of-age adventure about two rebellious classmates at a stern Catholic school in the '70s. Drawing themselves as musclemen scuffling with the evil Nunzilla, the boys capture the bewildering, paradoxical sensations of growing up -- their insurgent ink compensates for their inability to make sense of the world. If they gave him a chance, I suspect teens would also identify with Warren Schmidt, a sadsack retiree plagued by a different, but related, form of angst: While the altar boys are confused about their futures, Schmidt is uncertain about his past. Structured as a bittersweet road odyssey across the Midwest, Alexander Payne's sharp-eyed character study exposes Schmidt's nerve endings, sincerely pondering his quest to finally matter. Some cynics -- predisposed to consider Middle America a desert of dupes -- have called Payne's satirical impulses demeaning, but this Wisconsinite found them affectionate, hilarious, and precise. With Jack Nicholson's moving, melancholic performance on his side, Payne elegantly negotiates the space between caricature and compassion.

5. Adaptation and Nine Queens. "Do I have an original thought in my head?" pouts Nicolas Cage as real-life scribe Charlie Kaufman, enacting Kaufman's meta-comedy about his struggles writing the screenplay -- a sort-of adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief -- for the same movie we're watching. I doubt a picture could be more self-indulgent, but Kaufman's tantalizing pyramid of irony, a Rubik's Cube of inadequacies and obsessions, is not just an elbow in Hollywood's ribs: What makes this bizarro blend of Fellini and Anne Lamott so absorbing is the way it spins the creative process -- grueling yet rewarding -- into a metaphor for adapting to life in general. Similar mind mazes devour the double-crossing swindlers in Fabián Bielinsky's caper-within-a-caper, a rousing Buenos Aires riddle that urges viewers to pat for their wallets. Spiked with the notion that refined fraud is an art form -- a cousin to, say, acting -- this bottomless brainteaser is sharper and more energizing than David Mamet's frosty shell games. By incorporating Argentina's collapsing economy, Bielinsky presciently insinuates that national financial systems, sheltered by government interests, are the greatest scams of all.

6. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Ten thousand orcs besiege the Helm's Deep citadel in Peter Jackson's continuing good-versus-evil saga, while a single man's bitterness disrupts his small Inuit community in Zacharias Kunuk's ancient Arctic legend. These epic tales of desperation dwell on rival ends of the blockbuster spectrum -- one expands Tolkien's visions of apocalyptic grandeur, the other was shot with camcorders inside lonely, real igloos -- but both observe the same mythic structure, with equal majesty. (In terms of splendor, the sprawling Canadian tundra, skies streaked with pink and gold, may even surpass Middle-earth's digital luxuries, perhaps because we know it actually exists somewhere other than a hard drive.) If you're exasperated by Jackson's boyish, clanging fascination with mass slaughter, you might prefer Kunuk's more benign account: Atanarjuat is a hero obliged by circumstances to abandon his old life, but unlike Frodo, his story is a universal fable set in the everyday, an exhilarating tall tale of the ordinary.

7. Bowling for Columbine and The Gleaners and I. Objectivity gets blown away in these two social inspections, from Michael Moore and Agnés Varda. Targeting our obsession with guns-violence-fear, Moore squeezes off comic swipes that divided audiences, and divided me: While scorn often seems to be Moore's dubious ammunition, there's also something about his tough, conjectural line of inquiry -- a weird blaze of anger and sincere bafflement -- that resists being undermined by laughter. Few muckrakers have stared at America through a wider window. Varda also peppers her homeland with vital questions, traversing the French countryside to learn why trash-pickers exist in wasteful consumer cultures. Although salvageable fruits and furniture occupy her digital viewfinder, her themes quickly swell beyond mere social protest. Recognizing how filmmaking is a form of scavenging, Varda converts into a spry "gleaner" herself, one in search of supple and profound images. By gathering footage that most directors would skip over -- including digressions about her own aging -- she composes a plucky, enlivened poem about perceiving what others willfully ignore.

8. The Cat's Meow and Faithless. How did silent film producer Thomas Ince die? Peter Bogdanovich's juicy, speculative answer -- his shrewdest picture in 25 years -- sizzles with Old Hollywood gossip: Whispered aboard a yacht owned by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the hearsay implicates Charlie Chaplin, actress Marion Davies, columnist Louella Parsons, and a bullet. That no cruisers present that day ever blabbed the facts about what really occurred only bolsters the scandal's theme of how power, fame, and desperation can shatter our moral compass. Secrecy and the ripple effects of betrayal are also what seduce Ingmar Bergman. Raiding his own sexual past, his script concerns an aging writer who listens to his muse recount how she defiled her marriage. Bergman recycles many of his old puritanical tropes -- psychoanalytic discourse, guilt, and remorse, among others -- but as directed by Liv Ullman, the familiar neuroses become lacerating once more. Like Bogdanovich, Ullman lets her adult, sophisticated story curdle into symbolic violence: These awful acts, as external expressions of internal annihilation, are never more wrenching than the emotional torment that summons them.

9. Kandahar and Secret Ballot. Sharing more than just a nationality, these seriocomedies from Iran both seem tailored specifically for Western eyes, designed to challenge our snobbish preconceptions of the Middle East. The first is Mohsen Makhmalbaf's surreal anti-Taliban tract about a journalist slinking into Afghanistan to prevent her sister's suicide, and the second is Babak Payami's political allegory about a canvasser collecting votes on the desolate island of Kish. Although both filmmakers encourage viewers to detect the feminist symbolism in these resourceful women, it would be a mistake not to peer beyond their chadors. Intruders themselves, they guide us on clandestine tours inside the borders of "unfriendly" states -- and show us that these societies, much like America, contain multitudes, including idealism about liberty and democracy. Using natural locations and amateur performers, each serene, evocative parable feels like a documentary that somehow mutated into fiction, a process that might also symbolize how many Americans, following the lead of news editors and the White House, consistently confuse unfamiliar peoples with their governing bodies.

10. The Rookie and Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. What remarkable lives: High school science teacher Jim Morris must have been astonished to find himself finally on the mound for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at age 40, but he's got nothing on Tobias Schneebaum, a soft-spoken New York painter who ventured alone into the jungle and cozied up to a pair of head-hunting tribes circa 1955. While Dennis Quaid now inhabits Morris in a weathered, rather touching crowdpleaser from Disney, Schneebaum himself appears in a complex documentary that charts his recent journey back to Peru and New Guinea. We can nitpick about schmaltz and questionable anthropology, but what's bracing about these yarns has everything to do with the startling, complicated, vulnerable daredevils at the center of each. Informed by their bodies -- and families -- that it's unwise to persist, these men, nagged by restless dreams, buck the odds and return to their fields of glory. Schneebaum, in particular, provides one of the most resonant images of the year: Now 80, rail-thin, and nurturing an artificial hip, the meek adventurer gingerly, reluctantly steps toward the Asmat village he once called home -- and grins like a schoolboy.

The Next Twenty: The Lady and the Duke; Baran; Lovely & Amazing; Taboo; No Man's Land; Behind the Sun; Chicago; Liam; The Business of Strangers; Elling; Signs; Code Unknown; Blue Crush; 8 Mile; Les Destinées Sentimentales; Spider-Man; The Good Girl; Minority Report; Gangs of New York; Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.

Guilty Pleasures: Human Nature; Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India; Pumpkin; Reign of Fire; Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.

Special Mentions

Offering an observant, tactful snapshot of a certain place at a certain time, Barbara Kopple's Once Upon a Time in the Hamptons set television's new benchmark standard for reality programming. Her summertime sketch of the elite Long Island resort community was billed by ABC as the first "reality-miniseries," but that curt description implies a plot-driven voyeurism that Kopple first sidesteps, and then subverts. Honest but fair, she's the sort of the filmmaker that can bring reality-TV back from the abyss.

Was there a more important cultural document last year than Jackass: The Movie? Although coarse exhibitionism can be justified within the frameworks of satire or surrealism, MTV's mook version of Candid Camera exists outside such contexts. Nevertheless, this tiresome series of vulgar, body-centric pranks says something about what now passes for mainstream entertainment, and, more significantly, its success reveals just how deeply many Americans regard arrested development as a virtue.

The Worst

1. The Rules of Attraction. Like watching vomit move. Fueled by alcohol, coke, and lust, the undergraduates in Roger Avary's mannered eye-roller might have satirized the way campus life is often a daddy-sponsored bacchanal. Instead, by inviting his buffoonish cast to play a deluded game of dress up, Avary molds a lurid, solemn shrine to self-absorption. This is Bret Easton Ellis as adapted by Abercrombie & Fitch, speaking only to spoiled nihilists convinced their "suffering" is unique.

2. 40 Days and 40 Nights. I can forgive the nonsense of surrendering fornication -- a sin -- for Lent, but why should I accept that such fleeting deprivation would morph Josh Hartnett into a deranged sex fiend? In between cuddly gags about bondage, porn, and rape, this dunderheaded farce actually has the cheek to belittle abstinence as a perverted joke, a vice that imperils any healthy relationship.

b 3. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Since it was defended as a Southern "chick flick," I guess it's okay to substitute chiffon for character and sass for story, as long as women are buying the tickets. Surely our response to art is dictated by more factors than simply gender, such as education and experience -- both of which ought to inform all of us, men and women, that the shrill, goopy "tenderness" of these lifelong friends springs not from humanity but from stupidity.

4. The King Is Alive. Released under the Dogme 95 flag -- a manifesto that shuns "superficial action" in favor of reality -- this greasy survival drama strands 11 bus passengers in a desolate Namibian ghost town. At this point, it's clear that the Dogme collective equates "truth" with an inventory of sexual debasement, which has as much in common with actual human experience as a Vin Diesel bulletfest does.

5. ABC Africa. There's no question that Iran's Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most important film artists alive, but it might be time for critics to quit giving him free passes. Watching his surprisingly shallow United Nations fundraiser, one senses that after he arrived in Uganda, Kiarostami became less interested in AIDS and orphans than in the workings of documentary filmmaking, as if his own cinematic concerns were more dramatic than the insolvency -- and resilience -- surrounding him.

Dishonorable Mention: Audition; Black Hawk Down; Chelsea Walls; CQ; Enough; Femme Fatale; Festival in Cannes; I Am Sam; Life or Something Like It; The Salton Sea.

Most Overrated: Igby Goes Down; Monster's Ball; Time Out; 24 Hour Party People; Y Tu Mamá También.

Article published 01.11.2003.

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