Thursday, May 13, 2010

Year in Review: 2002

I know right now that I am going to catch some flak for my top 10 list for this – especially for my choice of the year’s best, which to me is an admittedly flawed film, but one I love all the more for them. I’ll catch hell for leaving off some titles that were admittedly great films. But the bottom line is that 2002 is one of the best years in recent memory – eliminate these 10 films, and you could still make up another list of ten great ones (don’t believe me? check out the films that DIDN’T make the cut below, which just maybe the strongest group I have ever had). But I’ll stick to my choices – even my number one choice, and if you want to accuse me of making excuses for my favorite director go ahead. I don’t care.

10. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
Unlike many Polish filmmakers of his generation, Roman Polanski had pretty much resisted delving into his people’s recent past – not making an explicit references to WWII, even though Polanski himself was a Holocaust survivor who hide out in the ghetto during the war as a child. But something in him must have known that at some point, he would address the issue in one of his films – and in The Pianist he finally did. Adrien Brody gives an incredible performance as a Jewish pianist who watches in horror as his country is invaded, and then his people are shunted away into ghettos, and eventually shipped off to concentration camps. He depends on others to help him hide – eventually riding out the war pretty much forgotten about and abandoned in an apartment, where much like the people in the camps, he starts to waste away into nothing. Polanski’s filmmaking here is impeccable – the early scenes establishing the time and place remarkably. But to me, it is the later scenes – particularly a nearly half hour stretch near the end that is practically wordless where Polanski shows his true mastery. Polanski has made better films in his career – but I wonder if any are as personal as this one.

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)
I know I am most likely in the minority on this one, but I actually think that The Two Towers is probably the best of The Lord Of the Rings movies. Unlike Fellowship, it doesn’t have to spend any time introducing us to all of the characters, and unlike Return of the King, it doesn’t have to end again and again and again. This movie is pure storytelling from the beginning of the movie until the end. The film contains some of the series best actions sequences and deepens our understanding of the characters. Middle movies in a trilogy are hard, because nothing really gets resolved – but Jackson and company have made a marvelous middle movie here – and for me, it remains the best single film of the trilogy.

8. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyzaki)
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest animators in history, and Spirited Away may well be his masterpiece. This is the story of a little girl who enters a magical spa with her parents, whose greed and gluttony immediately turns them into pigs, leaving their daughter to try and fend for herself, and reverse things. The is beautifully well animated from start to finish – full of interesting characters like the witch with the giant head, the multi-armed man in the basement, and the polluted River God. Miyazaki mixes in his environmental agenda (which has been present in many of his films), but never lets the movie get bogged down or preachy. Easily one of the best animated films of the decade.

7. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is a throwback to the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s, where simmering erotic tension was just beneath the surface, and even if they were not explicit, you could tell that homosexuality and bi-racial romances were being implied. In a way, Haynes made the film that Sirk never could. Julianne Moore gives an excellent performance as a housewife you believes she has the perfect life, until she finds out her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay, and it sends her into a tailspin. Dennis Haysbert plays her gardener, and despite their racial differences, the two start to fall in love. Patricia Clarkson is great in a small role as the nosy neighbor who sticks her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Haynes does a great job recreating Sirk’s dazzlingly Technicolor look, and the score by Elmer Bernstein brilliantly evokes the classic scores of the 1950s. This is not the 1950s as it really was – but how it was as filtered through the movies.

6. About Schmidt (Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne has firmly established himself as one of America’s best filmmakers (now make another damn film Alex!), and About Schmidt is one of the big reasons why. The film stars Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his career as a recently widowed man who travels across country to be at his daughter’s wedding. About Schmidt is a subtle comedy, which mixes in healthy doses of tears along with the laughs. Schmidt is a guy who has never been all that open or loving with the people in his life, and he has become isolated and remote by the passing of his wife – a woman who he pretty much hated by the end. Kathy Bates gives a lively performance as his future in law, but this really is Nicholson’s show. He foregoes his usual tendency to simply play Jack, and instead gets inside the skin of a character unlike anything he has ever played before. A sly comedy that sticks with you long after it’s over.

5. Adaptation (Spike Jonze)
Writing is one of the least cinematic actives that you can do. How many ways are there to shot a man sitting at typewriter working through his book? But that is precisely what Spike Jonze’s Adaptation is about. Working off a brilliant screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, the film stars Nicolas Cage (in an amazing dual performance) as both Kaufman himself, and his twin brother Donald. Charlie works hard and diligently trying his damnedest to adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, a nearly impossible task he finds. He ends up injecting himself into the screenplay, as well as Susan Orlean herself (Meryl Streep) in her own story about The Orchid Thief (Chris Cooper). Meanwhile, Donald is carefree and easy, and has taken a screenwriting course from Robert McKee (Brian Cox), and has now decided that he too can be a screenwriter, and has come up with an idiotic screenplay entitled The Three (which strangely enough, seems to have been adapted in the horrible film Three). Kaufman has always been fascinated with how the human mind works, mainly his own mind, and in Adaptation he comes up with a brilliant screenplay about his mind and writing in general. And when he cannot come up with an ending, good old Donald is there to supply one.

4. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg’s science fiction film, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, is a brilliant Hitchcockian thriller set in a future world where people are arrested for crimes that they haven’t committed – yet. Tom Cruise stars as one of the cops who monitors the near future from murders that are about to take place, and then he and his team race in and stop them before they can happen. But when the machine tells him that he is going to kill someone, he goes on the run like many a Hitchcock hero – an innocent man wrongly accused. Or is he? This is the type of film that Spielberg does better than anyone else. The futuristic world he has created is full of details and wonderfully original creations (most notably, those creepy, crawly spider things). Cruise is excellent in the lead role, but I think Samantha Morton, as one of the three people who can see the future, is even better. Many think that Spielberg screwed up the ending – tacking on a happy one where it didn’t belong. But did he really, or did he just show us that like the Tim Blake Nelson says at one point, they are put where they can dream whatever they want forever.

3. 25th Hour (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee had an interesting decade as a filmmaker starting with the under seen and underrated Bamboozled and ending with the under seen and underrated Passing Strange. But to me, his best achievement of the decade was this 2002 film about a drug dealer (Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before going to jail for years. The film, coming a year after 9/11 didn’t shy away from the new New York (it even features a lengthy conversation where outside the window we can see ground zero), and instead embraced it. The sequence where Norton pours out of all his rage in a lengthy monologue where he blames everyone else for what happened to him, before finally coming around back to himself is one of the best sequences that Lee has ever shot. Yet the whole movie is electrifying and alive. Norton, who had a troubling decade where he rarely delivered the type of performance that I know he is capable of, is simply amazing here, and he is supported by a great cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson and Anna Paquin. A tour de force for Lee that ranks right along his very best films.

2. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)
After making two of the best films of the 1990s, Paul Thomas Anderson shocked people by making this movie with Adam Sandler. But the gambled paid off, as the film proved that only could Sandler actually act, but also that Anderson could pull off pretty much whatever he wanted to do. The film basically deconstructs Sandler’s screen image – his character here is just as anti-social and prone to violent rages as someone like Happy Gilmore, the difference here is that Anderson and Sandler see this character for who he really is, and do not make him into some kind of misfit hero. The movie spins around and around, as Sandler gets drawn in deeper – deeper into the phone sex scam he unwittingly became a part of, deeper into his obsessive collecting of points to build up air miles, deeper into his novelty business, deeper into his dysfunctional family relationship, and finally deeper into his romance with Emily Watson, who is outwardly normal, but there is something definitely wrong with her. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a brilliant supporting performance as the mattress king, and the films creepy soundtrack is perfect. I think if you really want to know when Anderson truly announced himself as a singular talent, it was this film.

1. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese)
I am better able to see the flaws in this film than I was in 2002 when I was enamored by the film. Yes, the storytelling is sloppy at times, and this is undoubtedly DiCaprio’s weakness performance in a Scorsese movie. And you could probably jettison Cameron Diaz and not lose much. I certainly understand the criticism that the film is a giant mess. But what a glorious, brilliant mess it is! There are scenes as brilliant as anything put to film before – the opening battle (in fact, the lead up to the opening battle is perhaps even better), the scene where DiCaprio wakes up to find Day-Lewis sitting there staring at him with the American flag draped over his shoulders. In fact, pretty much every scene with Day-Lewis who towers over the movie and everyone else in it, just like a character like Bill the Butcher should. The period detail, the amazing cinematography, the overall hugely ambitious, epic scope. So yeah, Gangs of New York is a flawed film. No doubt about that. But I absolutely love it just the same.

Just Missed The Top 10: Ararat (Atom Egoyan), Atanjuarat: The Fast Runner (Zacharis Kunuk), Auto Focus (Paul Schrader), Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass), Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg), Femme Fatale (Brian DePalma), Insomnia (Christopher Nolan), The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke), Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes), Secretary (Steven Shainberg), Solaris (Steven Soderbergh), Spider (David Cronenberg), Storytelling (Todd Solondz), Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar),Time Out (Laurent Cantet), Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Chicago
The only explanation I can come up as to why Chicago won the top prize this year is that both The Hours and The Pianist were too depressing, Gangs of New York was too flawed and they were waiting until the following year to give the prize to The Lord of the Rings – meaning that of the films they nominated, they really didn’t have another choice. Don’t get me wrong – Chicago is a flashy entertaining musical as good as we have seen this decade, and is a hell of a lot better than some previous musical winners like Oliver, The Sound of Music and Gigi to name but three. But Chicago doesn’t come close to the tops this genre has offered us over the years. Yes, the performances by Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah and especially John C. Reilly are impressive (Richard Gere less so, but he doesn’t embarrass himself by any means) and the film is undeniably entertaining. But for an Oscar win? Although I often complain that the Academy rewards movies based on their “importance” more then their merits as a film, this time they should have done just that – and given the Oscar to The Pianist – a film they obviously loved.

Oscar Winner – Director: Roman Polanski, The Pianist
Before Roman Polanski made The Pianist, his career was in an obvious downturn. He hadn’t had a box office hit since 1988’s Frantic, and his last major success that garnered critical praise was 1980s Tess. He had made some interesting films (Death and the Maiden) and some out right stinkers (The Ninth Gate), but it seemed like most people had forgotten about him. But then The Pianist won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and became a major Oscar player because of his sensitive direction, and the great work by Adrien Brody. The win was not without controversy, because almost immediately, people started to talk about how he was a wanted fugitive from justice, and even if he won the Oscar, he wouldn’t be able to accept it. But he did won anyway, and although I would have voted for Scorsese, I can’t say he didn’t deserve it. In recent months though I have started to wonder if Polanski didn’t win, and the controversy over his fugitive status didn’t get rehashed, would he have been arrested in Switzerland? America didn’t even issue a warrant for his arrest until AFTER he won this Oscar. I’m not defending Polanski – I think he is among the best directors in history, but facts are facts, and the fact is he drugged and raped a teenage girl, but you have to separate the artist from his art, and in this case, no matter what Polanski did, he crafted a brilliant movie.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Adrien Brody, The Pianist
I remember at the time I was the only person I knew who thought that Brody was going to win this award. Everyone else was predicting Day-Lewis or Nicholson, but I had a feeling that Brody would win. Brody carries the movie on his shoulders. He is practically every shot of the movie, and his sensitive, and intensely physical performance is a revelation – the best work done by Brody up until that time, and given what we’ve seen since, probably ever will do (although Brody claims his best work ended up on the cutting room floor of Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, where he had a lead role that was cut down to nothing, when Malick had to edit his original 6 hour version of the film, which to my knowledge has never been seen by anyone). I still do think that of the nominees, Nicholson, Day-Lewis and even Cage were better, and I would have been tempted to nominate Sandler and Norton as well, but Brody is great in The Pianist, so he was a worthy winner.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Nicole Kidman, The Hours
The Academy desperately wanted to reward Kidman. She had recently gotten all the good press resulting from her divorce from Tom Cruise, had reengerized her career the previous year with The Others and Moulin Rouge (for which she received her first Oscar nomination), and was looking like she was entering the prime of her career. And The Hours gave the Academy that chance, not only because as Virginia Woolf, Kidman was wonderful, but also because she fit three of the Academy’s prime factors in giving beautiful women Oscar 1) She played a real person, 2) she was suicidal in the movie with a dramatic death scene and 3) although beautiful, she hid her beauty underneath unflattering make-up – especially that nose! One of the reason I cheered a few years later when Reese Witherspoon won for Walk the Line is that they finally gave the Oscar to a beautiful woman, who actually looked beautiful in the film. Kidman was in the middle of a streak of wins with Halle Berry in Monsters Ball on one side and Charlize Theron one the other of drop dead gorgeous women who made themselves less attractive to win Oscars. Not saying that Kidman didn’t deserve to win (although I think Julianne Moore gave the truly great performance of the year in Far From Heaven, and also think that Diane Lane did a magnificent job in Unfaithful), but the facts are the facts.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Chris Cooper, Adaptation
Chris Cooper is one of those character actors who has a long and great career, but often goes completely unnoticed by the Academy. He has screen credits dating back to 1997, often working with quality directors like John Sayles, Irwin Winkler, Michael Caton-Jones, Joel Schumacher, Alfonso Cuaron and Robert Redford. But it was really Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, where Cooper played the sexually confused Army man next door, that really brought Cooper to the forefront, and when he started to get great roles. In Adaptation though, Cooper gives what is probably the best performance of his great career. He shares almost all of his scenes with Meryl Streep, and he not only holds his own against her, but steals several from her, as the eccentric “criminal”, who has the basis for the Streep’s characters book The Orchid Thief, which in the other half of the movie is giving Charlie Kaufman so much trouble as he tries to adapt it. Cooper is wonderful – and despite the strong competition from fellow nominees Paul Newman in Road to Perdition, Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can and John C. Reilly in Chicago (I wasn’t as impressed with Ed Harris in The Hours), he would have been my choice for the win – especially since the Academy didn’t nominate Dennis Quaid great performance in Far From Heaven, or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hilarious mattress man from Punch-Drunk Love.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
Catherine Zeta-Jones is all energy in her role in Chicago, singing and dancing around the screen with far more passion than the rest of the cast. With the possible exception of Queen Latifah, she is also the best singer in the cast, which perhaps explains why she is the only one to win an Oscar – that and the fact that her role is a quasi-lead, and often those win in the supporting categories. She is a lot of fun, just like the movie. But also like the movie, her performance is rather hollow – all flash, but little substance. I enjoyed her work in the film, but the Academy nominated three far better performances – Kathy Bates’ hilarious work in About Schmidt, Meryl Streep’s daring work in Adaptation and Julianne Moore’s tragic work in The Hours (for my money, the best performance in that movie). Of the three, I feel the worst for Moore – an actress of tremendous talent, and four Oscar nominations, who has yet to win the big prize – losing twice this year alone.

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