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Best Movies of 2002

By Rob Vaux

It was the year where craftsmanship trumped artistry at the movie theater. It was the year of competence, the year of good-but-not-great, the year of "give 'em their money's worth and not one penny more." The usual gaggle of blockbusters maintained an unusual level of quality (unusual in that they didn't induce us to vomit), but few films did more than that. There weren't a lot of surprises, and few fresh new voices to catch us out of left field. Even the unexpected hit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding turned out to be all fluff and no bedrock. Disappointment was rare, but so was genuine artistry. As always, however, there were pleasures to be had: some tucked away in forgotten art houses, some sprawled across every multiplex in the country. Below are 10 of mine -- arbitrary and subjective, which struck my fancy and reminded me why the movies are still the greatest magic trick ever conceived.

10. Standing in the Shadows of Motown. While everyone gushes over the reprehensible Chicago, the real music can be found here, in this amazing documentary about the house band at Motown records. Nonfiction movies thrive on the compelling nature of their subjects, and this one is all but irresistible. Anyone who listens to pop music will be hard-pressed to look away.

9. Minority Report. The elite still turn their noses up at Steven Spielberg, condemning him as the Happy Meal of filmmakers. But how many directors could make a science fiction movie centered on ideas instead of explosions... and then get everyone in America to watch it?

8. Far from Heaven. I hate Douglas Sirk. Hate, hate, hate him. But director Todd Haynes loves him and his heartfelt homage to Sirk's melodramatic excess allows us to share that love. Few filmmakers express their passion so elegantly, and Far from Heaven is easily his best work to date.

7. Bowling For Columbine. Hail the iconoclast! Michael Moore may get beneath your skin, but his firebrand documentary boldly goes where others fear to tread, and asks the questions that too many people these days are afraid to contemplate.

6. 24 Hour Party People. Another film about music, this English "mockumentary" provides a bloodshot view of the Manchester pop scene: frentic, energized, and chock full of the creativity that the rest of year sorely lacked. Steve Coogan's self-deluded protagonist is a revelation -- a character so self-assured and yet so monumentally full of shit that only he could guide us through such a landscape unscathed.

5. The Cat's Meow. Peter Bogdanovich's tale of movie star debauchery shows once again how easily Hollywood can turn on itself and how wonderful the results can be.

4. Punch-Drunk Love. The year's best romance, a primal howl of frustration and fulfillment that couldn't come from anyone but P.T. Anderson. Yes, it stars Adam Sandler. Yes, we're as terrified as you.

3. The Quiet American. I can never resist Graham Greene stories, especially when they're as well-told as this one. A prophetic, delightfully cynical thriller about our earliest involvement in Vietnam, it provides Michael Caine with his best role in decades, and perhaps a few things to think about on the eve of a different war.

That leaves us with two films that, I confess, I was unable to choose between.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Peter Jackson's extraordinary movie trilogy has given all of us reason to be thankful, and this middle chapter is everything we've come to expect from him. It is, however, hugely dependant on both The Fellowship of the Ring and the upcoming Return of the King, making it hard to judge on its own merits. Because of that, I'm inclined to find a spot on the podium for a more self-contained picture.

1. The Pianist. For once, a Palm d'Or winner worth the title. Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama not only gave us the best performance (Adrien Brody's) in a year of great performances, but a haunting narrative on a subject almost impossible to convey properly. The equal of Spielberg's Schindler's List and an indelible reminder that film can serve a greater purpose than putting bums on seats.

Honorable Mentions: About Schmidt; Blade II; The Hours; Insomnia; Kissing Jessica Stein; Lovely & Amazing; Narc; Secretary; Signs; Spirited Away.

"I love you so much I want to rip out your eyeballs and suck on them and then punch you in the nuts."
--Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), Punch-Drunk Love

Article published 01.06.2003.

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