It appears that that the past year’s economic downturn motivated filmmakers to work harder. Or, at least they worked more. The year’s U.S. box office tally ran around $9.4 billion, up a lot from last year’s $8 or so billion. And, for all the public fretting over loss of faith in mass media or a turn to serious self-contemplation, audiences in the States repeatedly paid cash money to see dazzling (or not so dazzling) special effects and sequels, or stayed home (often in vast numbers) to watch Fear Factor, Celebrity Boot Camp, and The Bachelor 2.
This record-breaking production and consumption is related, somehow, to an abundance of multitaskers and overachievers. These take two forms: 1) hyphenated talents (director-actor Denzel Washington, tv-movie actors Jennifer Anniston and Nick Cannon, director-producer-actor George Clooney, producer-actor Sandy Bullock, rapper-actor Eminem, singer-actor-restaurateur-parfumier-designer-divorcee-fiancée J. Lo) or 2) purveyors of multiple projects (Spielberg, Soderbergh, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, Nicholas Cage, Samantha Morton, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Charlie Kaufman, Kirsten Dunst, Phillip Noyce, Tom Hanks, and Leo Leo Leo Leo).
As notable as all this actual double-duty may be (and granted, some has to do with release timing), far more interesting are the ways that it has been thematized in the work “itself.” Such philosophizing finds its way into a surprising number of films and television shows this year. Below, the list, in alphabetical order, with a separate addendum for excellent tv.
24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom
24 Hour Party People shrewdly unravels of the life and career of Factory Records co-founder and tv journalist/dance club impresario Tony Wilson (a breakout performance by Steve Coogan). Gorgeously shot by Robby Müller, the film also features Andy Serkis (currently receiving much attention as the model/voice for The Two Towers’ digital Gollum) as producer Martin Hannett, and traces a recent history—roughly, punk into rave, or 1976 into the early ‘90s, with special attention to the rise and demise of Joy Division/New Order—that parallels Wilson’s own ego and career, spinning into increasing self-interest, escapism, and consumption. Wilson’s self-deceptions provide an intriguing gloss on the history happening all around him.
25th Hour, Spike Lee
As smart, frustrating, and ambitious as any of Spike Lee’s movies, 25th Hour builds to a trenchant critique of what pass as “American values,” and the costs of privilege and passivity. On his last night before he goes to prison for 7 years, drug dealer Monty (Edward Norton) takes stock, with his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), best friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman), and retired firefighter father (Brian Cox). Monty’s moral myopia runs parallel to much current U.S. self-regard, an innocent victim without culpability for consequences of his actions. The incredible final sequence, an alternative future narrated by Cox, suggests that overcoming fear of difference is the way to survive.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Zacharias Kunuk
Urgently revising concepts of “simplicity,” storytelling, and situation, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat is richly deserving of all the praise heaped on it this year, including the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at last year’s Cannes Festival. Based on an ancient Igloolik legend, this three-hour opus features stunning widescreen digital video camerawork (by Norman Cohn), bringing to light another way of thinking about individual stories and communal histories, but more crucially, another way of thinking about victory and revenge.
Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore
Painful truths come to the surface in Michael Moore’s essay on gun violence in the U.S., Bowling for Columbine. Aggressively opinionated, the film takes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s 1999 assault on their classmates and teachers as a point of departure, then considers a range of contexts—legal, cultural, political, and media—in order to pose the question, “Why are people scared?” Interweaving his own story into his search for answers, Moore comes to complex, multiple answers, tangled up in a “campaign of fear and consumption” (premised on racism) that continues to divide Americans.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney
A super-peculiar dismantling of a “real” life appears in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on the autobiography of game show producer and host Chuck Barris, in which he claims to have also been a CIA assassin. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s been busy this year, what with his writing himself and his fictitious twin brother into Spike Jonze’s Adaptation and the bizarre “science” conjured in Michel Gondry’s gonzo Human Nature. But the script for Clooney’s directorial debut is Kaufman’s most outrageous and deft investigation of relations among celebrity and authorship, violence and creativity, making art and selling out.
Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven loves and breaks down its source material, in this case, Douglas Sirk’s aching 1950s melodramas, complete with craning cameras and studio-perfect autumn leaves. Here, Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid must come to terms with their dissolving marriage, as he realizes his long-repressed homosexuality and she finds compassion and affection with her gardener, Dennis Haysbert, whose single line near film’s end, “Oh, Mrs. Whitaker,” speaks to a (personal and collective) history of pain and longing. And as the façade of her life collapses around her, Moore’s Connecticut housewife can only let go.
The Good Girl, Miguel Arteta
Mike White and Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl explores the non-options confronting Retail Rodeo clerk Jennifer Anniston. Imprisoned by her learned desire to be “good,” she finds a sort of soul mate in angsty adolescent Jake Gyllenhaal, with whom she cheats on her obtusely loving husband, John C. Reilly. Never condescending to its characters (unlike, for instance, About Schmidt), the movie invites compassion and appreciation for the complexities of lives that look, on their surfaces, simple.
Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant Punch-Drunk Love is at once homage to and brilliant deconstruction of romantic comedies. Slamming, smashing, banging, crashing: Adam Sandler feels hammered by his sisters and beaten down at work (he sells bathroom supplies), then finds miraculous solace in the pink-sweatered arms of Emily Watson. Set against Jon Brion’s vividly percussive score, their love story is violent, delicate, and comic. Just like in the movies.
The Quiet American, Phillip Noyce
Quiet is the operative word. This subtly potent indictment of nation building and imperial thinking, based on Graham Greene’s novel, features a heartbreaking performance by Michael Caine as British journalist Thomas Fowler, undone and then addled to action by the ugly manipulations of American Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). Both lust after the lovely Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), embodying, to a point, the Vietnam that fell for promises made by interlopers Christopher Doyle’s brilliant cinematography is as different as could be from his equally superb work on Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, evoking a time and place that may seem mythic but are horrifically real.
The Rules of Attraction, Roger Avary
Provocative and troubling rather than mollifying, Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction pushes all sorts of limits, from language to structure to moral ground. A dark rejoinder to conventional “college movies,” it offers little in the way of broad humor or endearing characters, romance or resolution. Instead, it delivers rage, depression, self-loathing, and, even still, hope. And a decidedly unsqueaky James Van der Beek as “emotional vampire” Sean Bateman, Patrick’s little brother.
Talk to Her, Pedro Almodóvar
A stunning evocation of dual/mutual desires and memories deepens the perversity and expands the relevance of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, in which Javier Cámara and Dario Grandinetti grieve for comatose women. Telling stories and projecting fantasies—talking—they come to understand themselves and each other in their shared sense of loss and need. The film’s giant vagina scene deserves special mention, as the year’s most audacious and alarming metaphor.
Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón
Y Tu Mamá También reimagines cinematic storytelling, profoundly. Painfully intelligent and emotionally nuanced, it traces a teen road trip, undertaken by Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal), accompanied by Tenoch’s older cousin, Luisa (the incredible Maribel Verdú). Their interactions lead to lessons learned that are compelling in their own right, but viewers are also enlightened by a third-person narrator, observing images and thoughts that the characters cannot, probing into secrets they keep from one another. This strategy turns an ostensibly straight-ahead narrative—on the road—into a series of reflections and refractions, equally discrete and interdependent. While it’s easy to glean from this the familiar idea that the pursuit of truth is noble, in fact, Y Tu Mamá‘s point is far more profound: if truth is irretrievably subjective, honesty and generosity remain vital aspirations.
Special mention for Eminem, who has managed the best remix of life-as-art-as-life in the movie 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson) and the single/video, “Lose Yourself” (Eminem, Paul Rosenberg, Philip Atwell).
Whether or not Mr. Mathers receives an Oscar nomination for his self-performance, the mere thought of his possible appearance at this endlessly self-loving Hollywood event, in the company of Jack and Julia, Scorsese and Spielberg, is more bracing than any of their movies.
Best Television of 2002
Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) emotional traumas just keep piling on, with betrayals and promises by her undercover agent father (Victor Garber) and maybe-not-rehabilitated enemy superspy mother (the too fabulous Lena Olin), as well as her maybe-sorta best-friendship with SD-6 partner Dixon (Carl Lumbly) and maybe-sorta romance with CIA handler Vaughn (Michael Vartan). If J.J. Abrams’ series has pulled back this season from week-to-week hooks (completing weekly storylines, more or less), it has lost none of its penchant for globe-trotting, martial arts action, and wigs of all shapes and colors.
The Shield (FX)
Last year’s most surprising new series, The Shield extends itself this season, beyond the shock value of bad cops and worse administrators. At While Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is surely an object lesson in scary policing, he’s also evolving before your eyes, trying to make sense of the deep moral hole he’s dug for himself. The fact that his wife and kids have left has obviously shaken him, but even more alarming, he’s no longer rogue cop to his boss (Benito Aceveda). Still, he presses on, breaking trust and wreaking havoc wherever he goes—from L.A. to Mexico, a trenchant and disturbing representative of big-bully “American” self interests.
The Wire (HB0)
Making a steely, smart argument against the “war on drugs,” as it so completely fails to achieve or even articulate objectives, The Wire weekly served up intelligent plots, fascinating visual compositions, and superb performances by everyone: Wood Harris, Larry Gilliard Jr., Frankie Faison, Dominic West, and the mesmerizing Sonja Sohn. Co-written by ex-cop Ed Burns and ex-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon (who also wrote for Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Corner), the series worked against all expectations: no cop show banalities, no weekly (or even eventual) resolutions, just high ideals tempered by daily experience and resolute pragmatism.