2002's Top Ten Films

Film in 2002 was a huge contradiction. Going in, this was going to be the year of the franchise picture: Star Wars, Star Trek, Men in Black, Spider-Man, James Bond, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and many more. Indeed, most of these films were successful commercially, if not always critically. But the film story of the year was one that no one saw coming - My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Another paradox -- for much of 2002 you had to struggle to see anything worthwhile, but in the last weeks of the year the promising new offerings became bountiful. By the end even the most seasoned filmgoer would have had problems making a choice for the evening.

So maybe 2002 was not consistent, but overall it was one of the strongest in the past few years. To that end, I offer my "Honorable Mention" list (in alphabetical order), which could be a viable Top Ten in its own right:

Antwone Fisher
Bowling for Columbine
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Far from Heaven
Gangs of New York
The Kid Stays in the Picture
The Rookie
The Son's Room
Talk to Her

My 2002 favorites are very diverse. Some are very traditional, even retro, in their approach. Others were more daring and inventive. But I selected these ten for the same reasons many people embraced My Big Fat Greek Wedding. These films were all a departure from the dumbed down, test marketed, lowest common denominator products that we often see at the local multiplex. My choices, in their own way, were all clever and intelligent and had a real story (or many stories) to tell:

10. About a Boy

Directors: Chris and Paul Weitz
The second straight terrific adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, after 2000's High Fidelity. Like Fidelity, About a Boy is really about a man who refuses to grow up. Will (Hugh Grant) figures he doesn't need to mature as he's independently wealthy with no need to work. He exults in his shallowness, collecting CDs, DVDs, and one-night stands with ease. Will's free ride ends when Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a lonely and troubled twelve-year-old boy, starts hanging out with him. Will grudgingly learns to grow up while Marcus learns to enjoy life. This all sounds like an afterschool special, and it could have been. But About a Boy works, both comedically and dramatically, because the characters feel three-dimensional and don't fit into simple archetypes. Grant can be grating at times but fits perfectly as the callow Will. He charms the audience so you can laugh at him while also rooting for him. Hoult does not try to be cute and is believable as a multi-layered character. The Weitz brothers don't force the laughs or the characters emotional growth, making both feel authentic.

9. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Director Jill Sprecher
What's the one thing? You figure it out. It could be morality, guilt, fate, choices, routine, or all of the above. Sprecher tells four interconnecting stories, each of which would have been interesting but together are captivating. A cocky young prosecutor (Matthew McConaughey) is overcome with guilt after fleeing the scene of an accident he caused. A rigid professor (John Turturro) has a wife and a mistress but can't find much joy in either. A warm-hearted but naive maid (Clea DuVall) tries to overcome a devastating injury. A cynical insurance office manager (Alan Arkin) unloads his frustrations on an overly optimistic employee. The film glides effortlessly from one story, and one character, to the next and then back again. As complex as these stories are, Sprecher wisely focuses on how these people relate to themselves and each other. She weaves the story threads to illustrate how some journeys end as others are just starting. Also give her credit for superb casting, most notably with McConaughey and Arkin. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is a rich film that would only improve with repeated viewings.

8. Punch-Drunk Love

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Adam Sandler plays an ill-tempered loser who overcomes obstacles and gets the girl. Sound familiar? It is and it isn't. Anderson tilts the traditional Sandler formula. While Punch-Drunk Love has its share of funny moments, it's not played for laughs. Sandler's Barry Egan has a hard time in his relationship with everyone. He's constantly bullied by his older sisters as his rage builds and leaks out at the wrong times. Out of nowhere appears a woman who can see through his psychoses to find a lovable person inside. After Anderson stumbled with his overwrought Magnolia, he wisely decides to tone things down this time. He taps into unused Sandler qualities and perks up the story with deft camerawork and vibrant colors. He also gives Sandler physical space to roam. Kudos to Sandler for forgoing his usual bag of tricks and creating a whole character. He infuses Barry with the right combination of anger and sweetness. Sandler and Anderson together take the audience on a somewhat absurd, but always delightful journey.

7. Simone

Director: Andrew Niccol
Niccol wrote both Simone and The Truman Show, two films that complement each other perfectly. Both are scathing satires of celebrity culture. Both examine what we want from entertainment. In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank lived in a world he believes is real, but everyone else knows is fake. Simone offers the flip side; an actress the public believes is real, but is actually the computer-generated creation of washed-up director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino). The social commentary could not be more prescient, given the skyrocketing use of CGI effects and characters in many Hollywood films. But as he did with The Truman Show, Niccol skillfully combines the satire with a personal story. Tired of working with prima donnas, Viktor creates a synthetic "actress" he can completely control so he can fully realize his artistic vision. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Viktor loses control of his creation, which epitomizes his struggle with his own demons. Pacino offers one of his best performances of recent years, giving Viktor an artist's passion but also the weariness and desperation of a director who has worked in Hollywood far too long. Audiences ignored Simone at the box office, but I hope they'll rediscover this gem on video.

6. The Pianist

Director: Roman Polanski
The Pianist is harrowing in its simplicity. We follow Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a concert pianist living in Warsaw through the Holocaust. Szpilman is so focused on his music that he initially pays little attention to what is happening around him. All of that changes as the Nazis gradually strip away his livelihood and separate him from his family. At the end life becomes a brutal struggle for survival. Polanski wisely keeps the film strictly from Szpilman's point of view. He tells the story in a way that is not only unflinching but also completely unsentimental. We see hateful, selfish Jews and a caring German officer. But even without any flourishes, the film becomes very moving and powerful. Credit Ronald Harwood's script, Polanski's direction and especially Brody's riveting turn as Szpilman. Brody initially keeps much concealed, letting you wonder what's going on inside Szpilman's head. But his thoughts and desires gradually come out as his situation grows worse. For much of the last third of the film, Szpilman is alone tying to avoid starvation and maintain his sanity. This is the part where Brody really excels. His greatest triumph is showing, through gestures grand and small, how music remains in Szpilman's heart. In Szpilman, and in the film, music represents the part of humanity that can never be crushed.

5. Frida

Director: Julie Taymor
Taymor pulls off a rare feat: intertwining a life's story with a unique artistic creation. Taymor does this by telling legendary Mexican artist's Frida Kahlo's story through Kahlo's art, blending scenes into representations of Kahlo's paintings and filling the film with vivid color. Frida avoids many of the standard biopic pitfalls by focusing less on dates and times and more on who Kahlo was and what shaped her. Salma Hayek delivers a career performance in the title role; she simply becomes Kahlo. Through her we follow Kahlo in her ongoing fight against pain and suffering (the result of a vicious traffic accident) and a rocky marriage with fellow artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). As Rivera, Molina is every bit Hayek's equal. Their chemistry becomes the focal pont of the film, and eventually you see why Kahlo and Rivera had to be together despite themselves. Hayek reportedly spent seven years fighting to get Frida made. It was worth it.

4. Catch Me if You Can

Director: Steven Spielberg
After two dark sci-fi films Spielberg returns to lighter fare with the real-life story of con man extraordinaire Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). Catch Me if You Can offers many delights. The film's first half delves into Abagnale's various scams: how he came up with them and how he got away with them. The second half becomes a fun cat-and-mouse game between Abagnale and a determined Joe Friday-esque FBI agent (Tom Hanks) determined to apprehend him. Throughout all of this, Spielberg deftly weaves a tender family story focusing on the relationship between Abagnale and his father (Christopher Walken). Spielberg gives the film a zippy feel reminiscent of 1960s films. DiCaprio is smooth, charming, but vulnerable as Abagnale, while Hanks skillfully goes against type as the colorless G-man. But Walken steals the film, giving his most warm and complex performance in years. Spielberg blends these elements together to deliver his most complete film since Schindler's List.

3. Adaptation

Director: Spike Jonze
In their last collaboration, Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Jonze gave us a signature scene where Malkovich leaps into his own brain. For Adaptation, Kaufman does the same thing with himself. Seems that shortly after Malkovich wrapped Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) was hired to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief for the big screen. He vows to avoid any standard screenplay crutches in depicting Orlean's story of eccentric flower collector John LaRoche. Kaufman develops severe writer's block and eventually places himself in the screenplay, along with Orlean (Meryl Streep) and LaRoche (Chris Cooper). Meanwhile Kaufman's twin brother Donald (Cage again) writes his own screenplay through embracing the Hollywood cliches that Charlie rejects. Confused yet? Somehow Kaufman and Jonze make it all work. Adaptation moves back and forth through time and people's minds. The film blends fantasy with reality and combines two different stories -- Orlean's adventures with LaRoche and Charlie's struggles to write about them. Cooper shines as the larger-than-life LaRoche, while Streep is effective as the nebulous Orlean. But it is Cage who holds the film together. As both Charlie and Donald, Cage creates two very different but fully developed characters. Many of Cage's scenes are just him as the two brothers and in time you forget it's the same actor playing both of them. On many levels, Adaptation is about the creative process. But in the end, thanks to Kaufman, Jonze, and Cage, we understand that the film really concerns human beings' attempts to connect with themselves and with each other.

2. Y tu Mamá También

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
This Mexican film combines elements of a road movie and a coming-of-age story in this nostalgic, heartfelt, sweet, poignant and funny tale of two high school buddies and an older woman. Y tu Mamá También effectively contrasts the guys rather juvenile worries with the woman's much more adult concerns. All three of the lead performances are impeccable, especially Maribel Verdú as Luisa. Cuarón, who co-wrote the film with his brother Carlos, makes a daring choice by using a third-person all-knowing narrator. The choice works by giving the audience more information and a different perspective on both the lead and supporting characters. Y tu Mamá También seamlessly blends the personal story of the three main characters with the changing social, political, and cultural climate in Mexico. Cuarón was selected to direct the next Harry Potter film, and if that is half as interesting as Y tu Mamá También, it will be the best of the series.

1. About Schmidt

Director: Alexander Payne
Unlike the last two films on my list, About Schmidt is a simple, straight-forward tale. But it is no less compelling. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is a quiet, reserved man who retires after a long, dull career with an insurance company. He's just starting to adjust to his new life when his wife dies. Schmidt tries to take stock of a life he increasingly views as completely wasted. Finally he decides to travel from Omaha to Denver to stop his daughter from marrying a complete loser. Schmidt describes his travails in hilariously inappropriate letters to Ndugu, a six-year-old child in Africa he's sponsoring through a charity. Payne takes his time with the story, content to follow Schmidt along on his journey. He skillfully uses Schmidt's letters as both a framing device and comic relief. At just the right time Payne introduces a wild card -- Kathy Bates as Roberta, Schmidt's brassy, bohemian future in-law. Roberta is as uninhibited as Schmidt is repressed, and the scenes between the two characters are priceless. In the end though, Nicholson is the film's chief asset, and Payne clearly recognizes this. But this Jack is a far cry from the hellraiser we know. Here the fun is seeing him react rather than instigate. He shows us a man who is withdrawn and vulnerable. You can see the sadness of Warren's life etched on Nicholson's face. The legendary actor creates one of his most memorable characters, which, combined with Payne's no-nonsense storytelling, makes for a funny, tragic, and insightful film.

Adam Spector
February 19, 2003

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