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A Year Watching Movies 

My year-end column must inevitably begin with needed disclaimers. Readers should always remember that our city's lowly ranking as a film market means that many of the pictures people will be talking about come Academy Award time won't even open here until the new year. Last year's Oscar contenders falling into that category included A Beautiful Mind, In the Bedroom, The Shipping News and Monster's Ball. I saw and reviewed all those films in January and February of this year. But it seems foolish to include them on any 2002 honor roll. Moreover, the publishing schedule of a weekly newspaper means that I am writing even before the Christmas Day pictures make their appearances. Among the promising 2002 films that will open after my deadline are Catch Me if You Can, Adaptation, The Hours and The Quiet American.

In addition, as Gambit Weekly's sole film critic for the first 20 years of this paper's publication, I saw more than 200 movies a year. In 2002, I saw fewer than 100. Some that I didn't see might well have been included in the commentary below. In short, what follows does not claim to be a definitive judgment about the year's best movies. It is, rather, a summary rumination about the films I saw this year, but in that limited regard, I hope, a useful list of recommendations for the video seasons to come.

Honorable Mention

The movies that didn't quite make my top-10 list included Jez Butterworth's Birthday Girl, an excellent romantic thriller with a superb Nicole Kidman as a Russian mail-order bride; Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers, a flawed but ultimately affecting reenactment of America's first big battle in Vietnam; Chris and Paul Weitz's About a Boy, a predictable but winning comedy about a rich idler (Hugh Grant) who prides himself on avoiding all human relationships that might obligate him in any way; and Andrew Niccol's Simone, a mysteriously underrated comedy with Al Pacino as an unsuccessful movie director who salvages his career by creating a beautiful, talented, daring "synthespian" to star in his films.

A Top Ten

And now my favorites:

10. The Importance of Being Earnest -- Oscar Wilde's comic confection sports a plot as twisty as a pretzel. Director Oliver Parker's fine cast (including Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Frances O'Connor and Reese Witherspoon) brings infectious zest to Wilde's tangy string of zingers about love and life.

9. The Taste of Others -- Agnes Jaoui's French drama looks at how intellectual sophistication and fundamental human decency are by no means coincident. This unemphatic picture will likely prove too subtle for many viewers, but its individual scenes are like timed capsules: their bracing intent becomes clear hours or even days later.

8. The Good Girl -- Miguel Arteta's black comedy exposes the thin veneer of morality to reveal the bedrock selfishness in human behavior. Jennifer Aniston does Oscar-worthy work as a retail clerk cheating on her husband with a co-worker.

7. Together -- Lukas Moodysson's riotous comedy looks at the self-indulgent nonsense of a 1975 Stockholm hippie commune. The picture's brilliance resides in the filmmaker's deft ability to skewer the communitarians' intellectual pretense even as he makes us care about them as people.

6. Last Orders -- Fred Schepisi's account of working-class chums who savor the memory of a deceased pal is a melancholy but brilliant study of love and friendship. This film offers a terrific ensemble of performances by Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone, David Hemmings and Tom Courtenay.

5. Sex and Lucia -- Julio Medem's sexually explicit romance is the story of a blocked novelist who learns he's fathered a child in a one-night stand. The writer's attempt to forge a relationship with his daughter produces material for a new book but endangers his relationship with his girlfriend. This brilliant metafictional puzzle should make a star of gorgeous Paz Vega.

4. Gangs of New York -- Martin Scorsese's look at ethnic and religious violence in 19th century Manhattan is cinematically brilliant. It has stunning production design, haunting cinematography, searching themes and a great lead performance Daniel Day-Lewis.

3. Y Tu Mama, Tambien -- Alfonso Cuaron's sexually explicit road "comedy" about two teenage boys and the 28-year-old runaway wife they take to the beach is really an elaborate allegory about Mexican history and society. Every detail in this picture is important.

2. Sunshine State -- John Sayles' melancholy look at two Florida beach communities undergoing corporate resort development offers an array of sharply drawn characters and the director's trademark determination to afford dignity to one and all. Edie Falco's performance as the beaten-down manager of a family motel deserves Oscar attention.

1. Far From Heaven -- Todd Haynes' smart, understated and profoundly affecting drama tells the story of a white 1957 suburban housewife (Julianne Moore) who takes refuge in a friendship with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) when her gay husband (Dennis Quaid) leaves her. Many Oscar nominations await.

click to enlarge Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, the year's best, was a smart, understated and profoundly affecting drama.
  • Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, the year's best, was a smart, understated and profoundly affecting drama.


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