Top Ten Films of 2002

[2 January 2003]

By Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

For me, this year’s best cinema came from outside the U.S., and really, I couldn’t be happier. It’s a joy to see so much richness and diversity from so many different places. Here are my top 10 films of 2002.

1. Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón)
Teenage friends Julio (Gael Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) go on a raucous road trip to the mythical beach, Heaven’s Mouth, with older woman Luisa (Maribel Verdú). The film bubbles over with drama, humor, pot smoke, and (as widely reported) sloshy, explicit sex. The true star of this marvelous film is Mexico, which provides the many stories the protagonists pass on the highway; director Alfonso Cuarón dreams a love song to his country, to cinema, to infatuation, to loss, and to life itself. It’s my favorite film of this year, and already one of my favorite films ever.

2. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke has a cruel ability to probe the psyches of the most disturbed characters and, in so doing, test audiences’ reactions to onscreen sex and violence. This examination of sado-masochism, madness, and music might have been a lurid mess, but Haneke’s lucid direction, paired with Isabelle Huppert’s stunning performance, makes it a masterpiece. Deep within her tortured eyes lies a terrifying truth: the perversity and degradation to which her Professor Kohut sinks are not so unusual in a culture steeped in gender inequality.

3. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar)
Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, a melodrama/comedy about love and relationships, is like a jewel box filled with unexpected gifts. The plot sometimes seems almost inconsequential to the deeply affecting characters and their tumultuous lives; Almodóvar takes us through love, loss, and friendship by letting us feel—intensely. I dare any viewer to resist smiling and weeping when Marco (Dario Grandinetti), almost ridiculously overcome with emotion, stands listening to Caetano Veloso’s heartbreaking voice, tears streaming down his face. This film is a reminder of the deeply affecting power of the best cinema.

4. I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira)
Close to 100 years old, famed Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira creates one of the most wonderful celebrations of life in the face of death seen in this year’s cinema. Gilbert Valance, played to perfection by Michel Piccoli, loses his wife, son, and daughter-in-law in a tragic car accident. Rather than wallow in sorrow, he delights in everyday joys: coffee at his favorite café, a new pair of shoes, the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, his young grandson’s remote-controlled car. Faced with an inevitable ending, he chooses to love the twilight, and, in turn, lets us learn how to live again, too.

5. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore)
Too often, Michael Moore’s work is frustrating: his points are well taken and heartfelt, his humor irresistible, yet leaps of logic undermine his arguments. But in Bowling for Columbine, the thesis is clear, Moore’s methods are sharp, and the film’s structure is forceful and taut. One gets the sense that Moore has grown up; when he consoles the principal of a school where a 6-year-old has shot a fellow classmate, he’s not mugging for the camera but exposing real emotion. As a result, Bowling for Columbine is angry, purposeful, melancholy, and brilliantly made, a profound look at the implications of living in a culture of fear.

6. In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard)
Few of Godard’s films of the past 30 years have made it to U.S. screens. In Praise of Love is worth waiting for. Esoteric and ambiguous, it’s best suited for viewers who can tolerate a wispy narrative and chronological jumps. If you are willing to take the risk, however, In Praise of Love pays off wonderfully. The first half is shot in somber black and white, the second in DV Technicolor (where color signifies anger); together they challenge U.S. imperialism values and pay tribute to youth and memory. Ironically, one of cinema’s great purists evokes from the harshness of DV a heretofore unseen digital poetry.

7. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker)
Lagaan is a three-hour Bollywood musical, replete with a climactic cricket game. It’s hard to resist the revolutionary spirit embodied by the villagers determined to save themselves from the land tax (or, lagaan) of their English oppressors. Here, extremes of pathos and exuberance are never cheapened or presented ironically. The film is a blissful, reverent realization of a truly bloodless revolution, envisioning the brightest future.

8. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
This hallucinatory little fairy tale by the creator of, among other animated classics, Princess Mononoke, takes places in a marvelous world of spirits and demons. Little Chihiro, determined to save her parents, recalls classic fable heroes; her determination is both magical and believable. The exquisite animation features a gorgeous dragon river spirit who soars through the air, chased by a pack of paper birds, a ghost train on tracks half-submerged in water, and anthropomorphic bits of dust careening across the floor. It’s difficult not to gape in wonder at Miyazaki’s simply amazing imagination.

9. Lurch (Boris Hars-Tschachotin)
A short film without a distributor, Lurch is beautifully made and elegantly plotted. Unfortunately, it’s probably only available to be seen in the annual “World According to Shorts” program screened at various locations throughout the U.S.; in New York, it’s an annual event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Following Hars-Tschachotin’s 20-minute journey through the dusty cellars of a natural history museum in Berlin is like watching a young Lynch at his best—creepy and atmospheric, with a camera that swoops through rows of jars filled with strange creatures floating in stasis. In a perfect world, Lurch would be widely seen and recognized as the work of an extremely talented new director.

10. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
Todd Haynes is one of the most important filmmakers of his generation; his so-far magnum opus Safe is arguably the best film of the ‘90s. Sadly, while Far From Heaven features virtually flawless cinematography, art and costume design, as well as dynamic performances by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid, it lacks a soul. But in his effort to create the perfect ‘50s universe, Haynes seems to have lost his eye for sharp social critique. The film feels oddly like a pat on the back for the contemporary viewer: feel sad for these poor fools, it urges, and be glad you are so enlightened. The problem is, we’re not all that much more enlightened now. And pretending that we are is dangerous. Haynes’ emotionally draining epic allows us an ironic distance from the very characters with whom we might identify.

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