by Tony Dayoub
Continuing my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, today I spotlight my favorite films of 2002. Some reminders: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it; also, if I already wrote a review for it, I'll simply refer back to the original review. I'm still on track to post my ten best for 2009 in January when I will have finished seeing this year's films. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the past decade. And that list won't necessarily feature one picture from each year.
And now, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2002...
25th Hour, director Spike Lee - Lee nails the post-9/11 malaise perfectly in this picture about a Manhattan dealer, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), spending his final hours with his friends before reporting for a seven-year stint in prison. A truly fantastic supporting cast (Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, and Barry Pepper) is upstaged by the wonderful Brian Cox as Brogan's dad in a touching climactic monologue that takes a glimpse at his son's future should he allow his father to help him flee. Terence Blanchard's music (which I often find a bit overbearing) is almost like another character in the mix, an ever-present and smothering aural reminder of the prison to which Brogan is headed. It also provides a touching moment of catharsis when Brogan is reunited with Dawson's Naturelle (is that a wonderfully evocative name or what?) in the future-vision sequence.
Adaptation, dir. Spike Jonze - Another significant film featuring Brian Cox, here as legendary screenwriting seminar guru, Robert McKee (who I've had the pleasure of spending some time with). Anyone thinking he exaggerates McKee's personal qualities has obviously never met him. But McKee is just a minor character in Charlie Kaufman's meta-biographical adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. On the mark in its depiction of writer's block—a problem screenwriter Kaufman ran into when adapting Orlean's book—Jonze and Kaufman decide to turn the film into a self-referential depiction of the struggle to adapt the bestseller. Chris Cooper's charismatic Laroche just about hijacks the movie, despite playing opposite Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage in two of his finest performances as Kaufman and his fictional twin brother.
Auto Focus, dir. Paul Schrader - Sharp, impressionistic look at the rise and fall of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear). The movie sympathizes with the initially repressed Crane (raised as a strict Calvinist, Schrader knows about repression), implying the womanizing actor later fell prey to impulses which would later be classified under sex addiction. Willem Dafoe's subversive performance as alleged murderer John Carpenter is a bit problematic for the film. His turn as Crane's swinger buddy, an opportunistic—but loyal—video nerd, emphasizes Carpenter's gullibility and Crane's selfish need to use his "friend" to feed his fading star's ego. In the end, your heart really breaks for Dafoe's Carpenter.
Femme Fatale, dir. Brian De Palma - De Palma sets this thriller—a return to form—in France. Taking full advantage of the locale—and given De Palma's familiarity with the festival circuit—he sets the opening setpiece at the Cannes Film Festival, giving him the opportunity to poke some fun by casting director Régis Wargnier and actress Sandrine Bonnaire as themselves. Composer Ryûichi Sakamoto does his best Bernard Herrman impression later in the film, but his scoring of the opening heist at Cannes to an approximation of Ravel's Bolero elevates the sequence (and maybe the film) to that of a classic.
Frida, dir. Julie Taymor - Rarely has an actor's vanity project ever turned out so well, even when the actor, Salma Hayek, indulges in casting her friends in supporting roles. But then again, those friends include Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd, and Edward Norton (who also—go figure—contributed to the script), each burying their ego to support a visionary director's take on the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. Taymor's penchant for magical realism is the perfect fit for the surrealist, and she directed Hayek to an Oscar nomination. Alfred Molina's performance as Kahlo's husband—famous artist in his own right—Diego Rivera, is so charming, it begs the question, why wasn't the movie called Frida and Diego?
Hable con ella (Talk to Her), dir. Pedro Almodóvar - Only Spanish director Almodóvar can juxtapose the hauntingly beautiful performance of "Cucurrucucú Paloma" by Caetano Veloso with a amusingly crass dream sequence in which a tiny man runs all over the nude body of Paz Vega. Possibly the zenith in Almodóvar's long career and, dare I say it, maybe Spanish cinema?
Hero, dir. Zhang Yimou - A formalist's dream, this Chinese historical epic uses color to differentiate its shifting narrative viewpoints. Enjoy the lushly photographed Wuxia choreography, and try to ignore the film's celebration of tyranny. Stars Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Jet Li, and Zhang Ziyi... when else will you have a chance to see them all together?
Minority Report, dir. Steven Spielberg - Not only is this a hell of a science fiction movie, it is one fantastic neo-noir. All the elements are there, from the wrongly accused pre-crime cop played by Tom Cruise to the innocent femme fatale at the heart of the conspiracy (Samantha Morton); from the underworld doctor (Peter Stormare) to the expressionistic desaturated (it could almost pass for black and white) photography by Janusz Kaminski. Spielberg revels in the chance to contribute to the noir tradition. The film would be perfect were it not for the weak confrontation between Cruise and the film's villain at the climax, a scene directly lifted from The Fugitive (1993), where it didn't work either.
Punch-Drunk Love, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson - A maddeningly oddball romantic comedy thick with non-sequiturs passing for symbolism, it marks a departure for director Anderson. Lead actor Adam Sandler proves he's got the chops for drama, playing a repressed lunatic who explodes with rage whenever he's embarrassed, a result of years of emotional abuse by his seven sisters. The use of the sweet "He Needs Me"—sung by Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman's Popeye (1980)—closes the deal. This is a startlingly endearing movie in spite of it pretensions.
Road to Perdition, dir. Sam Mendes - Review here.
For more of this ongoing series, click here.