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Best Movies of 2002

By Michael Scrutchin

It's too bad one of my favorite movies of the year has so far failed to garner distribution. Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-tep, based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale, features Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis Presley and Ossie Davis as an old black guy who might be John F. Kennedy. They team up to battle a soul-sucking mummy that's been preying on the residents of their rest home. I wrote in my review, "More than simply the greatest B-movie of the year, the film combines sharp comedy, old-fashioned monster movie atmospherics, and genuine heart to create a film that's not merely about kicking undead ass, but also about dealing with regret and, ultimately, finding redemption." I hope Bubba Ho-tep soon receives the theatrical release it deserves, in which case it will probably wind up on my 2003 10-best list. Anyway, here are my personal picks for the best films released during the past year.

1. Punch-Drunk Love. The most exhilarating experience I had at the movies in 2002, P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love features a knockout performance by Adam Sandler. And, yes, I realize how scary it is to say a thing like that. Barry Egan isn't much different from the infantile goofballs Sandler has played in the past, but Anderson deconstructs the Sandler persona by uncovering the loneliness, insecurity, and suffering behind it. God knows why Emily Watson's Lena falls for him when any other reasonable woman would run for cover, but what ensues is an emotionally intoxicating absurdist romantic comedy unlike any other film ever made. Well, maybe "absurdist romantic comedy" isn't a great way to describe it, but I'll be damned if any three words, or any 150-word write-up on a 10-best list, will ever suffice, or be able to explain why I'm so head-over-heels in love with this brilliant, beautiful movie.

2. The Pianist. Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and renowned pianist who survived the German occupation of Warsaw thanks to luck and the kindness of strangers. His loved ones weren't so lucky. Approaching the trains en route to the concentration camps, Szpilman (Adrien Brody) says to his sister, "I wish I knew you better." Right then, I lost it. With Brody's first-rate performance as its anchor, The Pianist is a staggering, haunting film about survival in the face of unimaginable horror.

3. Far from Heaven. Todd Haynes' quasi-remake of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows features Julianne Moore as a housewife whose picture-perfect world begins to unravel when she simultaneously discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay and begins to develop a relationship with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). It's a sharp recreation of the 1950s melodrama, but what makes it great is that while Sirk drenched his films in subversive irony, Haynes isn't winking, which makes Far from Heaven more moving than it has any right to be.

4. All or Nothing. Among the excellent ensemble that forms the cast of Mike Leigh's wistful gem, Leslie Manville and Timothy Spall deliver heartbreaking performances as a working-class London couple whose marriage is put to the test after years of hopeless routine. Unlike The Good Girl, another 2002 film with a couple whose marriage is tested after years of dead-end nine-to-five drudgery, All or Nothing doesn't ever mock its characters or their suffering; its quiet honesty is remarkable.

5. Femme Fatale. Brian De Palma is back! After some questionable detours, he's back to riffing on Hitchcock while piling on the sex and violence. It's unabashedly sexy, wickedly funny, and subversively thrilling -- but there's more to Femme Fatale than De Palma merely trotting out his old bag of tricks. In the end, it approaches transcendence.

6. What Time Is It There? A brief encounter with a woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) on her way to Paris inspires a young man (Lee Kang-Sheng) in Taipei to run around setting all the city's clocks to Paris time in an effort to forge a connection. Tsai Ming-Liang's heartbreaking and funny meditation on loneliness and despair may be maddeningly slow, but it's never less than mesmerizing. What Time Is It There? has a quiet, poignant resonance that lingers long after the credits have rolled.

7. Minority Report. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, Steven Spielberg's sci-fi noir finds Tom Cruise's future cop accused of a murder that has yet to be committed. Yeah, maybe there are a few plot holes as some nitpicky folks have pointed out, but I was too enthralled to care.

8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Ever since Heavenly Creatures, I've been convinced that Peter Jackson is one of cinema's most brilliant madmen. With The Two Towers he continues to bring Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to life with impressive virtuosity. Although the battle at Helm's Deep is stunning, some momentum is lost with the intercutting of several plot threads. Despite its flaws, it's a wondrous achievement.

9. Spirited Away. This boundlessly imaginative and thoroughly engaging variation on Alice in Wonderland by revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki was scooped up for U.S. distribution by Walt Disney, effectively dubbed into English, and then foolishly released without a sound. 'Tis a shame that Disney dropped the ball on this one. Really.

10. The Cat's Meow. Centering on that weekend party aboard William Randolph Heart's yacht in 1924 and the still-unsolved murder that resulted, The Cat's Meow is a fascinating delight. With a great ensemble featuring Edward Herrmann as Hearst, Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies, Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin, and Cary Elwes as Thomas Ince.

Honorable Mentions: Adaptation; Catch Me If You Can; 8 Women; Pumpkin; Roger Dodger; 'R Xmas; Storytelling; 25th Hour; 24 Hour Party People; Wendigo.

Notable Films I Missed: Talk to Her; Y Tu Mamá También.

"You don't have to lick my ass. Just fuck me."
--Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Femme Fatale

Article published 01.06.2003.

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