Love, Self-Awareness and Madness: 2002 in Review

Aug 22, 2003

The Bottom Line Please note that the introduction is rather outdated being that I wrote quite near the beginning of 2003 and have taken months to finish the list.

Bastard years of the future would seem not so darkly predicted after visionary premonitions á la the much-evoked-this-year Philip K. Dick (Minority Report, Imposter, and The Bourne Identity to an extent). 2002 provided us some indubitably satiable treats and puncturing heartaches, as well as its fair share of swift gut-kicks, monolithic epics, indie slime and mainstream glop. As usual a bulk of noteworthy films seems to pile up in the December holiday session, clogging the cineplexes for possible Oscar recognition. Your conjecture is as good as mine as to the critical popularity of Scorsese’s overwhelming disaster epic, Gangs of New York, and yours is equal as well to the mystery of hidden gems like Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, Tom Tykwer’s Heaven and Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner going relatively unrecognized. Meanwhile the summer season was a bombastic inflation of exercised muscle, grotesque onanism, and sickly “cool” detachment while concurrently decaying the youthful mind. But, then again, what else is new? It gave us the rather fleeting if admirable suavity of Road to Perdition by Sam Mendes that despite its ardent ambitions and pretensions was uncontrollably obvious in mannerisms, and oblivious to its shortcomings (but let’s take this moment to honor that film’s expert cinematographer Conrad L. Hall: 1926-2003.)

2002 also held a cavalcade of conclusion-less finales, confident with endings on respective down notes and ambiguousness. They range from the vitriolic cadence of The Piano Teacher’s painful, abrupt ending equal in parts with Roger Avary’s exhilarating and underappreciated updated adaptation of The Rules of Attraction to the divine ascensions in both Soderbergh’s Solaris and Tykwer’s Heaven to Spike Lee’s appropriate vagueness in 25th Hour to Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, who’s The Lord of the Rings impending finish lies still but months away. Finally, echoing a tragic cry in its ending third are those such as Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt and Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, both of which promise some hope for their protagonist but strongly suggest arduous journeys. Others seem to opt for a mixture of melancholia and hope, particularly Michael Moore’s scathing and slightly manipulative documentary Bowling for Columbine, something of faintly over-lauded proportions.

Actor-helmed films were also prevalent in the directorial debuts of Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher), Nicolas Cage (Sonny), Bill Paxton (Frailty), and George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), many of which were rather flimsy. But it seems professional auteurs were the most successful ranging from wunderkind P.T. Anderson to fellow ‘kind Spike Jonze to veterans in the likes of Lee, Cronenberg, Godard, and Polanski. And though his name is now almost an obscenely overused set of words from the film dictionary Steven Spielberg (natch) stunned me with both his powerhouse popcorn thriller Minority Report and slick-as-ice Soderbergh-esque caper picture Catch Me If You Can, again exemplifying a reign of veterans in 2002.

Fewer years have been this intentionally good to the fantasy geek than 2002 that is until 2003’s (and the growing popularity of comic book adaptations) already over advertised fare comes marching out. But considering the fact that a Lord of the Rings sequel, a Star Wars installment, a Harry Potter chapter, and an almost overly-aggrandized Spider-Man adaptation were all released this past year, which I felt were all good on their respective levels, 2002 fantasy disappointed little. And though it pains me to recall its temporary thrills, i.e. Red Dragon, the remakes this season were quite up to par especially the ever-enlightening-to-recall Solaris.

But for fear of recycling and veering onto ranting tangents, let’s proceed to my best list of 2002.

10. Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love) – A seriocomic realization of the golden age and wisdom, Jean-Luc Godard’s film follows an alter ego’s journey through whimsical conversations and weirdly Technicolor digital scenery. Still stimulating and ever fascinating the enfant terrible has matured but not by much with this visual treatise on lost relationships, project discussions, and vivid dreaminess echoing Waking Life. Its loose narrative concerns a protagonist’s direction of a project about the stages of love and his heartache over a lost love. Like the prolific oeuvre of Godard, In Praise of Love is consistently provocative and compelling. Its tragic soundtrack whispers a yearning and an honoring of love, memories, the French identity, and, of course, Godard’s heyday.

9. La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) – Heartbreaking and stomach-kicking, Haneke’s (sometimes frustratingly) calm account of would-be-sadomasochism and outrage mutated by repression is powerfully admirable and a great keg of heated discussion fodder for conversation, especially with conservative types. As his masterpiece Funny Games demonstrated a nightmare scenario The Piano Teacher evokes a desolate landscape of consumerism and pornography with his protagonist (or are they often antagonists?) embittered with disdain for this landscape and life. Upsetting and realistic, Haneke’s stable tableaus are cruel mirrors of life chronicling the death of the spirit and unforeseen surreptitious monstrosity. Of course this film is no different from his bleak campaigns.

8. Solaris – While not as visually sterile and masterful as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soderbergh’s better picture of 2002 (as opposed to its irksome companion Full Frontal) is easily more accessible and surprisingly confident. A brilliant reworking of 2001 and a modern version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel (the other being Tarkovsky’s gorgeous 1972 opus), Soderbergh examines the human heart and the subconscious with superior finesse and intelligence. Evoking its mental pabulum without any obvious crowd-pleasing strategies, an impeccable procession of subtle performances, solid direction, hypnotic Eno-esque score (by Cliff Martinez), and emotional fervor are allowed for free-range play. That the film is alike to the artistically pretentious styles of 2001 and Solaris (1972) is its failing and its triumph, the former obviously concerning its performance as a gloriously cashless cow.

7. Far From Heaven – Despite the late R.W. Fassbinder’s proclamation as heir to Douglas Sirk’s descriptions of 㣖s middle-class Americana and emotional unrest in white suburbia, Todd Haynes’s takes a literal approach and comes up with something as equally dutiful and painterly as a Sirk classic. Jovial and tragic, the film prods familiar territory but with a kind innovative and brilliant method that most contemporaries can’t match or attempt. If Sirk dissected the quintessence of quiet romance triumphing over absurdity in the most profound mold of his day, and Fassbinder of his, then perhaps Haynes is Fassbinder’s rightful heir, melding the contemporary with homage.

6. Spirited Away – Dreamy and fantastical, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated love story about the loss of innocence set in a bathhouse for the spirit world is something spectacular of palatable beauty and grace. With its sumptuous combination of what seems traditional cell animation, computer graphics and rotoscoping, the surreal/ambivalent quality of the afterlife becomes partitioned into the enthralling state of phantasmagoria properly required. Depicting elements of pleasing thaumaturgy in a swirl of cinematic poetry, Spirited Away is also, perhaps, a kind of tragic personal rumination from Miyazaki on the afterlife as he gets on in years, similar to his predecessor Kurosawa as he neared the last of his career.

5. 25th Hour – Though it may be deeply rooted in very datable material, Spike Lee’s lingering epic of New York’s post-9/11 anguish and a drug dealer’s doom, examination, friends and environment is a lavish production in haunting tableau, stunning Terence Blanchard soundtrack work, and Lee’s self-reference, spliced through impeccable acting. Irrefragably powerful and mesmerizing, the film meditates on the loss of innocence and racism as cataclysm for societal deterioration similar to Lee’s past work in yet another provocative manner that stands as a kind of time capsule for 2002, caught on superior photography that’s bested only by Punch-Drunk Love.

4. Spider – Does what the Quay Brothers attempted with their rather disappointing Institute Benjamenta, in revealing the connection of madness and mental institutions to surrogate mother figures and sexuality while exploring the verisimilitude of nightmares and sickness. David Cronenberg’s latest triumph is as visually unnerving as it is psychological unraveling of its mumbling protagonist (Ralph Fiennes, in his best performance of all his numerous in 2002), waddling through expressionistic London streets and his own agonized past.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – Barely less satisfying second time around is Jackson’s second, aggrandized adaptation of Tolkien’s masterwork trilogy but far less ostensible in length. Frankly, this installment is pure adrenaline pumped at workhorse strength, mixed with gasoline and set aflame. Considerably flashier than Fellowship but superbly satisfying in masterful storytelling and performance, complete with decadent excess in special effects, kinetic action and palatable emotion. Not exactly The Empire Strikes Back but close and nearing that status of pop-legend.

2. Adaptation – Swimming in curiosities, insecurities and a fantastic sense of self-awareness, Spike Jonze’s Adaptation once again confirms the eccentric auteur as one of the greatest and most inventive of his ilk and generation. Successful as both a proponent and deterrent for anyone considering the screenwriting field, the film is auto-critique set on maximum penetration, saying the same for Charlie Kaufman fraught with self-imposed martyrdom and fey genius. It successfully accomplishes its parable of the scribe’s torture and his metaphysical journey with the wit like no other. Beautifully fabricated, photographed and scored (by Carter Burwell no less), Adaptation is undoubtedly admirable and equally interesting.

First Place Tie

1. Cremaster 3 – The zenith in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle is also the series’ final and best film, though it’s the middle episode, and strangely disparate from its predecessors. Barney’s Star Wars of art films, the Cremaster cycle is a cyclical, encompassing artistic treatise on various mythologies, American culture and history, European history, the male identity, rituals, transformation, etc., made out of order. (Though it obviously seems to be made out of order with more purpose than Lucas saw with his Star Wars as more a device of avarice.) This final installment (also the longest episode at some three hours and with not a word uttered, save Irish tenor Paul Brady’s smooth crooning) traces and amalgamates the histories of mythological Irish/Scottish giants, the construction of the Chrysler building in 1930, the process of the Masonic rites of passage, and the Cremaster cycle itself as the connection between all these elements, in an act of art-imidating-life-imidating-art. Most of all, this culmination brilliantly climaxes during a cosmic video game-esque battle called “The Order” where oblique allusions reference each other and everything becomes encompassed by the cycle itself. A masterstroke of modern art and unique, unrestrained filmmaking, if you can call it that.

1. Punch-Drunk Love – Inevitably approached and considered with wary, by mere mention of the fact it stars Adam Sandler, P.T. Anderson’s spellbinding allegory is something of an allusion to a P.T. Barnum circus; echoing animal hums on the soundtrack and expelling the greasy bread fed to America via its own Sandler’s hand. We were allowed three (four if you include The Hot Chick’s cameo) Sandler movies this year and the middle proved most enticing (and best of his entire career thus far), predictably because it’s something of a vast, and poles apart, faraway cry from archetypal Sandler characters. And even though he was able to sneak in the ludicrous Mr. Deeds during the summer, and later Eight Crazy Nights (which I thankfully missed, I think), Adam Sandler proves in Punch-Drunk Love, this was his most successful year-to-date, not to mention Anderson’s. The masterpiece is particularly succinct for usually lengthy Anderson with its gentle and perfect romance between Sandler and Emily Watson. Understating the obvious at this point seems to be an especially mature method and Anderson utilizes it marvelously. Simply breathtaking, loveable and flawlessly constructed.

The Rest of the Films of 2002 I saw, in Order from Best to Worst on the 4-to-1 Scale

About Schmidt ****
The Pianist ****
Hable Con Ella (Talk To Her) ****
Trouble Every Day ****
Hero ****
Heaven ****
Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner ****
The Rules of Attraction ****
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones ****
Minority Report ****
Y Tu Mama Tambien ****
One Hour Photo ****
Panic Room ****
Catch Me If You Can ****
City of God ***1/2
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ***1/2
Nicholas Nickleby ***1/2
Bloody Sunday ***1/2
Spider-Man ***1/2
Bowling for Columbine ***1/2
Storytelling ***1/2
Read My Lips ***1/2
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary ***1/2
Russian Ark ***1/2
Time Out ***1/2
The Ring ***1/2
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ***1/2
Insomnia ***1/2
Frailty ***1/2
Signs ***1/2
24 Hour Party People ***1/2
Changing Lanes ***1/2
S1m0ne ***1/2
Red Dragon ***1/2 (in retrospect: ***)
Jackass: The Movie ***
The Quiet American ***
The Hours ***
Road to Perdition ***
Frida ***
The Bourne Identity ***
Auto Focus ***
Welcome to Collinwood ***
Brotherhood of the Wolf ***
We Were Soldiers ***
Enigma ***
The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys ***
Igby Goes Down ***
Lovely & Amazing ***
Blue Crush ***
Big Fat Liar ***
Human Nature ***
My Big Fat Greek Wedding **1/2
Blade II **1/2
Die Another Day **1/2
Reign of Fire **1/2
City by the Sea **1/2
Undercover Brother **1/2
The Sum of all Fears **1/2
Gangs of New York **
Full Frontal **
Big Trouble **
Barbershop **
Death to Smoochy **
Windtalkers **
The Scorpion King **
John Q **
Austin Powers in Goldmember **
Deuces Wild **
Antwone Fisher *1/2
Gangster No. 1 *1/2
Fear Dot Com *1/2
Resident Evil *1/2
The Transporter *1/2
The Time Machine *1/2
Analyze That *1/2
The Tuxedo *1/2
XXX *1/2
Men In Black II *1/2
Jason X *
Bad Company *
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever *

2002 Notable Misses (some intentional, others with great pain)
About a Boy, All or Nothing, Ararat, Chicago, The Crime of Father Amaro, Crossroads, CQ, Eight Crazy Nights, 8 Women, Femme Fatale, The Good Girl, The Grey Zone, The Importance of Being Earnest, Invincible, Love Liza, Max, Morvern Callar, Narc, Personal Velocity, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Roger Dodger, Secretary, Songs from the Second Floor, Ten, Tully.

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