Filling out a top-ten film list is an irresistible parlor exercise. But it seems the important lists get hijacked every year by a slate of prestigious films whose late release creates collective amnesia among critics for all which came before. Most of the year-end polls are now out. They seem little more than lists of December’s best films.

The only problem for us in the Triangle is that since few of them have opened here yet, these films will actually qualify as the best of the first three months of 2003, not 2002.

In the interest of focusing on films local filmgoers have actually had a chance to see, I’ve arbitrarily set a local release date of Jan. 10 as a cutoff for this list. New films by the two Spikes–Jonze and Lee–will therefore be included, while the new Roman Polanski and Pedro Almodovar films won’t be, because they won’t get here until later. Likewise, a few 2001 releases will be included here because they didn’t appear here until this year.

Though it’s always possible to identify ten good films at a year’s end, 2002 wasn’t as rich as 2001, an excellent year for film. In fact, only two or three of my top ten films for this year would have ranked among the best of 2001, a year that saw such superb fare as Mulholland Drive, Memento, Waking Life, Ghost World, A Time for Drunken Horses, Tape, Yi-Yi, In the Mood for Love, The Circle, The Day I Became a Woman and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Still, there was plenty to be thankful for in 2002:


10. John Q. Actually, this Nick Cassavetes melodrama is impossible to defend on aesthetic grounds. Still, it was a timely bit of agitprop in favor of universal health care, an ideal that yet awaits its political Aslan. My impressions of the film will forever be colored: I saw it in a packed theater, with the audience gasping, hissing, sighing, sniffling, laughing and cheering as Denzel Washington battled an indifferent health care system. Cassavetes’ expert handling of treacly material makes him a director to watch.

9. The Good Girl. Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White’s downscale update of Madame Bovary is a scattershot but compelling, complex and sympathetic look at America’s working poor, with Jennifer Aniston turning in an unlikely but excellent performance. The film’s best turn comes from good-hearted but ineffectual husband John C. Reilly.

8. Storytelling. Todd Solondz seems intent upon becoming the Luis Buñuel of the American suburbs. In his latest indictment of New Jersey, he explores the second-hand nature of modern existence and the artificial distinctions we make between what’s real and what’s “real.” A brave, original–and sadly unseen–effort: plagued by censors, the P.C. police and unsympathetic reviewers, Storytelling played the Triangle for one week.

7. Y Tu Mama; También. The first time I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican road movie, I was annoyed by how its lily-white characters bore no resemblance to the Mexicans who live in the Triangle. Upon subsequent viewings I was won over by the charming banter, Gael Garcia Bernal’s cackling charisma and the ten-minute take near the end, with our three protagonists laughing, dancing and loosening up for that now-famous ménage a trois, one of the year’s two best sex scenes.

6. Late Marriage. This Israeli import, the best ethnic wedding movie of the year, also contained the year’s other best sex scene. Dover Koshashvili’s film tells the story of Zaza, a Georgian Jew whose family insists he break off a relationship with an older, divorced mother and marry a young virgin of their choosing. Although Zaza is a thoroughly modern intellectual, his family exerts a powerful pull on his loyalties and Koshashvili refuses to take sides. By comparison, Monsoon Wedding and that big fat surprise hit were much too sentimental. Unlike Late Marriage, they also had happy endings.

5. 25th Hour. Opening locally next week, Spike Lee’s impassioned new film is a melancholy love song to New York City, post-boom, post-Rudy and most of all, post-Sept. 11. It’s also a sprawling mess: for every intoxicatingly languorous scene, another leaves us screaming, “Cut!” Apparently Spike can’t–he loves his city and his characters too much. Despite the flaws, it’s still his best film since Do the Right Thing, if not his best ever.

4. Spirited Away. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s surreal fantasia about a supernatural health spa is sometimes baffling, but the story is often beside the point. This tale of a lonely, somewhat petulant girl’s trip down the rabbit hole is the most purely beautiful film of the year, encouraging us to discover the marvels of our own inner worlds.

3. Bowling for Columbine. Michael Moore’s relentlessly absorbing exploration of American gun violence has something to amuse, surprise or outrage at every turn. Moore’s digressive showboating catches a lot of flak, but he lays out a surprisingly personal and nuanced call for popular revolt against our corporatized, nominally democratic government.

2. The Fast Runner. Fast Runner would be noteworthy merely for being the first Inuit feature film. Zacharias Kunuk’s three-hour film was shot on digital video and featured a mostly amateur cast. The resulting tale of nomadic hunters and their battle against an evil curse is an astounding cinematic achievement, opening up a heretofore unknown world to mid-latitude viewers, and boasting the year’s best action scene to boot–a thrilling chase across ice fields.

1. The Piano Teacher. Walter Benjamin said every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism. Michael Haneke’s film is likewise dedicated to upending the comfortable equating of culture with civilization. Isabelle Huppert plays a terrifying pianist whose immersion in the likes of Schubert and Schumann is her main bulwark against madness. It’s possible to see this film as an allegory of Nazism, but Huppert’s performance keeps the film operating on a personal and tragic level, down to its final, shocking frames.As this list demonstrates, I have an affinity for rough-edged, political and risk-taking films, with qualities like polish and professionalism – important as they are – a little further down in priority. Still, 2002 saw many other films that were worthy, well-made and entertaining – just in a Best Picture Oscar kind of way:


Mostly Martha – FIn this German hankie-fest, Martina Gedeck plays a high-strung chef who finds herself in charge of her suddenly orphaned niece. Unfortunately, after a pitch-perfect 90 minutes, the film ends flatfootedly, with a maladroit, saccharine denouement.

The Two Towers – Although Spider-Man isn’t bad, Peter Jackson’s second Lord of the Rings installment is far and away the best of the year’s blockbusters.

Life and Debt – Who knew that a lucid, fascinating and rabble-rousing film could be made about the International Monetary Fund?

Chicago – Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere acquit themselves honorably in this creative, successful musical- theater-to-screen transfer. Then there’s John C. Reilly’s heart-rending number, “Mr. Cellophane,” as he plays his second sad-sack husband role of the year. Opens Friday.

Secretary – A charming valentine to the liberating possibilities of S&M–and the year’s best date movie.

Jackass: The Movie – The funniest, most anarchic “film” of the year. Wasabi, anyone?

Merci Pour le Chocolat – No knives for Isabelle Huppert this time around; only drugged chocolate in Claude Chabrol’s latest excursion into bourgeois perversity.

Rabbit-Proof Fence – Director Philip Noyce directs this true story of three aboriginal girls legally kidnapped as part of an Australian government reeducation policy, and who subsequently escape into the outback. A worthy subject, told without too much fuss. Still, it’s not as good as Noyce’s other current effort, The Quiet American, a 2002 release which won’t open locally until February.

About a Boy – Hugh Grant continues his career resurrection, and the Weitz brothers graduate from American Pie in this witty and gently sentimental adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel.

The Hours – A little too solemn and literary, but it’s a marvelous vehicle for Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman (aided by a powerful supporting effort from her prosthetic nose). But who let Jeff Daniels, “Dumber” himself, into this one? In an additional attraction, John C. Reilly offers up sad-sack husband No. 3.

Lantana – Anthony LaPaglia heads up a strong ensemble cast in this Australian murder mystery that keeps us guessing right up to the end. Along the way is a sensitive exploration of loss, regret and middle-age.

No Man’s Land – Danis Tanovic’s Balkan satire starts out as a brilliantly comic thriller about three men, two guns and a bomb. However, this farcical anti-war film soon encounters the difficulty of lampooning an already preposterous, and heartless, real world. A fine film nonetheless.

Bloody Sunday – Peter Greengrass’s neo-realist take on the 1972 massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland was an outstanding technical achievement, and a horrifying depiction of a peace movement’s collapse.While it’s always fun to pick out the most rotten apples in the barrel, it’s also a bit like shooting fish. In the same barrel. While Eddie Murphy’s turkey trifecta (Showtime, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and I Spy) was remarkable, it still didn’t make our list of the year’s most disappointing would-be masterpieces–several of which have ended up on ten-best lists elsewhere:


Punch-Drunk Love – Adam Sandler destroys some inanimate objects, and Emily Watson fixes an adoring gaze in P.T. Anderson’s latest effort, about zilch.

Full Frontal – Give Steven Soderbergh a video camera and 18 days with top talent, and what does he produce? An unfunny, derivative film about self-loathing Los Angelenos.

Adaptation – Actually, this new film from the Being John Malkovich crew is breathtakingly brilliant for an hour. Then comes the cynical, infuriating third act, in which the filmmakers trash their beautiful soufflé.

About Schmidt – Jack Nicholson is charismatic as always, but this latest film from Election director Alexander Payne is a relentless assault on middle-American stupidity, with none of the empathy or insight of The Good Girl.

Road to Perdition – The sophomore effort of American Beauty director Sam Mendes is a phony-baloney gangster flick with a plot hinging on the homicidal idiocy of a minor character.

Gangs of New York – Martin Scorsese waited twenty-five years to turn rich Civil War-era material into an overblown revenge film. Elaborate sets and top-drawer screenwriters can’t levitate a film burdened by the dead weight of a listless Leo DiCaprio.

Far From Heaven – Todd Haynes’ overpraised film certainly has some entertainment value. But cut through those carefully placed leaves and the blather about Douglas Sirk, and what’s left is a frequently stilted, academic and obvious film which begs to remind us that, in the ’50s, interracial romance was discouraged and homosexuality was poorly understood.


There were a number of excellent performances, but since most of the names are so familiar, my pick would be Maggie Gyllenhaal for Secretary, although Martina Gedeck’s turn in Mostly Martha also deserves recognition as does Madame Huppert’s in The Piano Teacher. However, this is probably Julianne Moore’s year, for her excellent (but quiveringly similar) performances in Far From Heaven and The Hours.


Although props are due to Nicolas Cage for his dual roles in Adaptation, my vote would go to Michael Caine for his work as an over-the-hill, lovelorn journalist in the forthcoming film The Quiet American. EndBlock