Best Films of 2002

by Elbert Ventura

2 January 2003


A strong start, a humdrum middle, a stirring finish: 2002 defied all reasonable expectations, offering the first annus mirabilis of the new century. Out from under the daunting shadow of epochal expectations, the movies this year seemed infused with an entrancing, if belated, millennial spirit of discovery and dread. A true stunner like Russian Ark in any other year would be safely ensconced among the elite ten; this year, it barely misses out. Needless to say, 10, or any other number, is an arbitrary figure, but limits there must be. One can argue that the list of also-rans might be a more telling measure of the movie year.

Non-U.S. films dominate, as in recent years, but the Yankee contingent was as strong as it’s been in the last decade. Hardly flawless, the best American films were unusually willful. Fineness was eschewed for verve, perfection for ardor. Seized with myopic mania, the movies on this list may be vulnerable to sniping—they’re too oblivious to circumspection and audience supplication, too obsessed with their own visions. They recall Truffaut’s demand that movies should “express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.” Joy or agony, we might feel gratitude—and pray that 2003 yields as bountiful a crop.

1. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
Among the American filmmakers whose careers bloomed during the Sundance-powered indie boom of the last decade, Todd Haynes is arguably the greatest, a semiotician in love with cinema’s expressive potential. Far From Heaven, his most rapturously received feature to date, may be a terrific weepie, but its greatness goes beyond its emotional impact. Reintroducing the aesthetic and thematic possibilities of Douglas Sirk’s cinema to a new audience, Haynes has created a dazzling inquiry of film itself: its responsibilities, its role in shaping pop culture, our preconceived notions of what it should do. By divorcing emotional truth from realism (or what we construe to be such), Haynes shows us just what the movies are capable of—and just how much film culture has lost in prizing verisimilitude over expressiveness.

2. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang)
Tsai Ming-liang’s fifth feature is a funny-sad elaboration of his idees fixes: solitude, urban anomie, the impossibility of communication, bodily functions, water and liquids, etc. Boasting Tsai’s dependably breathtaking mise-en-scene and wicked taste for absurdity, What Time Is It There? is a wry portrait of dislocation in an increasingly globalized world. As the title suggests, time is a major theme: Tsai makes us profoundly aware of its passage in various forms with his long takes, his elliptical cutting, and, most startlingly, his juxtaposition of a wrinkled Jean-Pierre Leaud with the young pup of Truffaut’s 400 Blows. If the formal rigor and poetic flourishes are a mark of Tsai’s formidable artistry, the acts of kindness with which he ends his movie reveal his humanism.

3. A Grin Without a Cat (Chris Marker)
A bit of a cheat here: the great Chris Marker’s remarkable documentary about the rise and fall of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s was actually made in 1977, but was reworked in 1993 and finally made its U.S. premiere in 2002. It may open with excerpts from Eisenstein’s agitprop landmark, Battleship Potemkin, but Marker’s account is decidedly less propagandistic, if still a kindred spirit. Filtering material both epochal and tangential through his peculiar prism, Marker emerges with a compelling alchemical brew of memory and history, poetry and reportage. A needed corrective to a history written by the winners, A Grin Without a Cat is a moving essay on the impossibility—and paradoxical inevitability—of the utopian impulse.

4. Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass)
Like A Grin Without a Cat, Bloody Sunday evokes Eisenstein in its outraged recreation of a state-perpetrated atrocity. Director Paul Greengrass ups the ante on verité cinema, using an intense documentary-like approach in dramatizing the January 1972 “Bloody Sunday” bloodbath in Derry, Northern Ireland that killed 13 people. In many ways, it outdoes Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, the movie to which it’s often compared, in its technical virtuosity and sustained terror. Prelapsarian shudders give way to unmitigated horror and disbelief when the centerpiece atrocity—Brit paratroopers firing on unarmed peace marchers—breaks out. A seemingly endless sequence, the horrific immersion may be the most harrowing 30 minutes I’ve seen at the movies in years.

5. Adaptation (Spike Jonze)
Two-thirds of the way through Adaptation, I had it pegged as the best movie I’d seen this year. Filled with “sweet, sad insights,” brimming with loopy curlicues and incidental beauty, and unbound by convention, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s follow-up to Being John Malkovich stakes out similar meta territory, but expands the emotional palette. Then, the third act comes, and the responses get complicated. Is the denouement a cynical raspberry at the audience? An earnest stab at catharsis? The uneasy union of competing authorial instincts? Perhaps too clever by half, Adaptation‘s clamorous close doesn’t live up to what precedes it, unresolved though I still am about its intent. The ending may be a cause for ambivalence, but the rest of the movie is not. Boasting Nicolas Cage’s best performance in years and standout turns by Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, Adaptation is as good as solipsistic ruts get.

6. Time Out (Laurent Cantet)
Its hushed surface belying an indignant core, Time Out is as gripping as it is trenchant. Laurent Cantet’s Chabrol-esque second feature is predicated on star Aurelien Recoing’s ingratiating smile and inscrutable mien. Playing a recently laid-off middle-management type, Recoing roams the French highways like a catatonic prole, bereft of community and structure. Cantet’s subtly expressive style limns a wintry world of glass and antiseptic modernity that’s at once alien and disturbingly familiar. While it’s easy enough to blame corporate culture for the woes of the world, Cantet refuses strident moralizing, offering a sophisticated critique of the way we live now.

7. I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira)
Like its protagonist, Manoel de Oliveira’s sublime film coasts along at a serene pace, seemingly unruffled by tragedy. At its heart, however, is a piercing sadness that ultimately intrudes on the deceptive equanimity. The movie traces a path from acceptance to resignation, positing that not even art can offer refuge from the slow creep of mortality. Quietly suggestive without being obdurate, I’m Going Home is the wisest and most composed of the movies about loss and bereavement that have come out in the last couple of years—perhaps not surprising considering that its maker is a nonagenarian who’s been around since the silent era.

8. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk)
Poised between ethnography and derring-do, the first Inuit movie ever made has the unadorned power of legend. The trappings of folktale and fable are present: patricide, adultery, magic spells, superhuman feats, an odyssey. The movie’s greatest achievement is its representation of the hoary tropes of narrative epics—oft used and frequently debased by pop culture—in a way that breathes life back into them. The Fast Runner gets at the humanity in myths, imbuing the ancient with the jolt of universality and timelessness. In these parochial times and this insular culture, it feels like the shock of the new.

9. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese)
The rampaging elephant escaped from Barnum’s circus may well serve as a fitting metaphor for Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited opus. Distended and scarred, Gangs of New York is an unruly behemoth—at times, you can feel the whole thing getting away from its master. There was concern that the thing would die a death from a thousand cuts with Harvey Weinstein as its benefactor. While the 195-minute version floating around seems destined to join the original-edit Magnificent Ambersons as the holy grail of director’s cuts, the movie in theaters is no betrayal of Scorsese’s vision. Seemingly conceived in a fever-dream, Gangs of New York is a grand, rollicking, cacophonous panorama, as exhilarating as it is exhausting. Of the movies on this list, this may be the one most prized 50 years hence.

10. In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard)
Portentous aphorisms and dogmatic Yankee-bashing notwithstanding, Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love is an indelibly poignant experience. This meditation on love, life, memory, and everything else that matters is elegiac, poetic, entrancingly dreamlike and drop-dead gorgeous. If Oliveira resides in the twilight in tranquil dignity, Godard walks around muttering under his breath, refusing to behave. What makes this particular rant compelling is his command of the medium (or media, as is the case here)—simply put, I’ve never seen black-and-white celluloid and color video look this good. Sadness and self-doubt mitigate the old-man bitterness: I believe Godard when he wonders at the end, “Maybe nothing was said.” It’s a wistful undercurrent that infuses this poem with a touch of forlorn grace.

Ten runners up (in preferential order): Russian Ark, Spirited Away, Solaris, Devils on the Doorstep, Femme Fatale, Late Marriage, Minority Report, Storytelling, Esther Kahn, Lovely & Amazing.

Most overrated film: About Schmidt (Alexander Payne).
Three films into his career, Alexander Payne is being heralded in some quarters as our new Preston Sturges. About Schmidt is an okay piece of work, but working-class, fly-over poetry—or any sort of poetry—it ain’t. You can feel Payne striving for a new sort of populist comedy, one poised between broad satire and quotidian poignancy, but he doesn’t find a balance so much as oscillate wildly between the two. Sturges was funnier, more compassionate, more manic, more sophisticated, and more interesting. Payne may get there yet, but for now the unanimous praise seems misguided—wishful thinking from desperate (and, I might add, urban) critics. I’ll be damned if I could name three moments in the entire movie that I didn’t see coming.

Best movie event: A 200-minute program at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC of Jean Vigo’s entire oeuvre, December 8. Pure movie bliss.

Best pieces of film criticism: “Past Perfect: Todd Haynes,” Geoffrey O’Brien’s piece on Far From Heaven in the November issue of Artforum; “His Life to Live,” Michael Atkinson’s essay on Godard in the August 28-September 3 Village Voice; “Master Thief,” Jonathan Rosenbaum’s surprisingly positive assessment of De Palma’s Femme Fatale in the November 8 issue of the Chicago Reader.

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