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The Reel World 2002 

For all the complaining that perhaps this year wasn't the best for movies, it was quite easy to have a rather good time in the dark. Granted, the buzziest buzz of all was reserved for the cotton-candy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but, in its own peculiar and surprisingly quiet way, Hollywood aspired to the heights this past year, and so does my list of the top movies I saw in 2002.

In the 10th spot sits a tie: M. Night Shyamalan's Signs and John Lee Hancock's The Rookie. Lacking the psychic unease of The Sixth Sense or the super-hero surprises of Unbreakable, Signs still deserves credit for its treatment of one man's spiritual struggle and its unique apocalyptic charm. Shyamalan proves a discussion of faith doesn't have to be Touched by an Angel; it can be ominous, sardonic, beautifully shot -- and disguised as a popcorn sci-fi flick. The Rookie, on the other hand, is a feel-good, reality-based home run, its golden-hued cinematography showcasing a Texas-sized performance from Dennis Quaid. (Quaid, as he proved in the painful Far From Heaven, can make anything watchable.) Director John Lee Hancock proves that "fun for the whole family" actually can connote craft and class.

Insomnia takes the nine spot. Christopher Nolan, who cannonballed into the deep end of the Hollywood pool with Memento, introduces a darker, crueler Robin Williams and gets a raw and rousing performance from Al Pacino as a compromised cop caught in a waking dream of murder, lies and blackmail. Both the script and Nolan's directorial style play exceptionally well with perception and reality, a disappointingly predictable ending serving as this film's only negative.

The much-ballyhooed Gangs of New York fights it way to No. 8 on the strength of Martin Scorsese's meticulous direction and Daniel Day Lewis' exceptional performance. Sadly, the film is only good, not great; the grand sweep that every epic requires is not Scorsese's strong suit, and it doesn't help that he is undercut by a script that seems sadly underdeveloped. Still, this particular fall from heaven enjoys moments of absolute brilliance; in Day Lewis, Scorsese has found his new De Niro. And even when the master filmmaker fails to touch our heart, he always catches our eye.

George Costanza wanted to name his kid Seven, and that works out well for his old friend, Jerry Seinfeld, whose documentary Comedian occupies that position on this year's list. A tight little debut from director Christian Charles, Comedian follows Seinfeld on his comeback stand-up tour and serves as a surprisingly serious look at a funny business.

Speaking of funny business, no best-of list would be complete this year without an appearance by Mike Myers, he of Austin Powers in Goldmember fame, which serves as my swinging six. Myer's international-man-of-mystery, bathroom-humor shtick should be old by now, but it's a tribute to his comic genius that he finds ways to keep it alive and kicking.

From the lowbrow to the highbrow, Neil LaBute's adaptation of A.S. Byatt's Possession is my No. 5. Deceptively simple, this is an unassuming, unforgettable film. Weaving together the story of two modern-day literary scholars with that of a pair of Victorian-era poets and lovers, Possession interprets all of the many games people play, fertile ground for LaBute and his penchant for pigeonholing the politics of sex. Possession is a perfect example of a filmmaker eschewing the grand cinematic gesture in favor of a shrewd and steady excellence.

Road to Perdition, directed by Sam Mendes, is probably the most underrated movie of 2002. Released in July and promptly dismissed as inferior to American Beauty simply because it was different, Perdition ought to be an Oscar contender and takes the fourth slot on this list. An electric showing from Paul Newman as a Depression-era Chicago crime boss and a rare genuine humility from Tom Hanks as his hit man-surrogate son serve as the center of this tale of turmoil within the family and The Family. One of the most visually rich films of the year, Perdition is a throwback to the days when a movie could be stately and still be considered superior.

Good things come in three -- Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is a study in absurdity. Adam Sandler gives an effortless performance as sad-sack businessman Barry Egan, a soul in this world but definitely not of it. Only Anderson could create a film whose main message of chaos and harmony is so open to interpretation yet so undeniably worth the mental gymnastics.

The second installment in what is shaping up to be the greatest movie adventure of all time, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is the second best movie of this list. Director Peter Jackson astonishes with his devotion to the J.R.R. Tolkien classic and his ability to marry human actors with computer-generated imagery. Towers is a film feat not soon surpassed.

Still, the No. 1 spot goes to Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on a 1972 Russian film of the same name. Soderbergh takes the material and makes it his own, courageously crafting a short story of a film that's not about the narrative at all. Rather, it's an eerie examination of mankind's place in a world he barely understands, surrounded by creatures he can never really know. Soderbergh undoubtedly had every opportunity to commercialize this misunderstood film and resisted, making his most ambitious and mature film to date.

click to enlarge Steven Soderbergh's Solaris tops my list for its courageous and effective departure from narrative storytelling -- and for asking all the big questions.
  • Steven Soderbergh's Solaris tops my list for its courageous and effective departure from narrative storytelling -- and for asking all the big questions.


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