Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2002

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Dirty Pretty Things - This was the first film I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in, playing an illegal African immigrant who works in a London hotel. He and the rest of the ensemble are phenomenal, humanizing the plight of the desperate souls who comprise an invisible underclass of legal and illegal immigrants from all over the globe. Director Stephen Frears, whose intense human dramas and thrillers I prefer over his comedies, is at his best here. His careful treatment of the difficult material gives it some real emotional power.

Punch Drunk Love - An Adam Sandler movie conceived and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is a lovely, precious thing. The emotions are heightened, the violence stings, and the colorful romance is as strange as it is affecting. Sandler proves that he's not only capable of being a good comedic and dramatic actor, but a devastating one in the right hands. As for Anderson, "Punch Drunk Love" has some of his most stunning images and memorable characters. And this is without a doubt the funniest film that he's ever made.

Oasis - This is the film that cemented Lee Chang-dong as my favorite Korean director. Somehow it manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of stories about the disabled, being neither too maudlin nor too exploitative - though the disabilities in question are certainly mined for drama. Instead, it finds ways to us to help the audience to connect to the characters who the rest of the world has largely written off. There's a daring to the portrayal of the couple, particularly the female lead stricken with cerebral palsy, that is riveting.

Bloody Sunday - You can trace the popularity of the quasi-documentary shakeycam style back to this film, where Paul Greengrass uses it to capture the horrors of Northern Ireland's 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre up close and personal. The intensity and the realism of the recreations are tremendous, and just enough context is provided to drive home the depth of the tragedy. Greengrass would go on to make other films in the same vein with the same style, but he only rarely achieved the same degree of verisimilitude.

25th Hour - Spike Lee captures the aftermath of 9/11 in New York in this thoughtful, uncompromising human drama about a young man's last day freedom before a long prison sentence. Edward Norton leads a strong cast, and delivers the film's signature monologue with so much dynamic, uncoiling emotion, it's impossible to forget it. And Lee's dreamlike shots of New York and its imperfect citizens build to one of the most beautiful endings in film, bar none. Lee maybe inconsistent, but when he lands a hit, there's no one better.

City of God - A look at the nightmare world of Brazil's favelas, where crime is often committed by the very young, and it's nearly impossible to escape the cycles of violence and poverty. The film is bursting with energy and constantly in motion. It's easy to relate to the young protagonists as we follow them from childhood to adulthood while Brazil changes around them. Nearly all the characters were played by non-actors, mostly kids from the real favelas. This lends a striking degree of authenticity and poignancy to "City of God."

Frida - The life of the celebrated Frida Kahlo is vividly brought to the screen by director Julie Taymor. Her mixed media approach never felt more appropriate, and Salma Hayek tackles the title role with everything she's got. I adore the portrayal of Kahlo and Diego Rivera's tumultuous relationship, which forms the backbone of the film, and all the different ways that Taymor finds to incorporate the art and iconography of Kahlo into the visuals. I especially love that the Brothers Quay contributed a brief snippet of animated body horror.

The Pianist - Roman Polanski's most personal film is a Holocaust memoir of a Polish-Jewish pianist, Władysław Szpilman. There's little sentiment or emphasis on larger messages here, just a quetly matter-of fact chronicle of Szpilman's struggle to survive in wartime Warsaw. From the ghettoes, to the concentration camps, to life in hiding, the effect of Polanski's own experiences is clear. Since "The Pianist," Adrien Brody never had another part so perfect for his talents, and Polanski's career has been in a notable decline ever since.

Chicago - The best time you could have had at the movies in 2002 was watching Rob Marshall's bold, brassy film adaptation of the stage musical "Chicago." Everyone is cast right, everyone knocks their solo out of the park, and we get some great cinematic versions of iconic numbers like "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," and "Mister Cellophane." The use of the fantasy cutaways for the musical sequences is especially effective, letting supporting actors like John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah enjoy their much deserved moments to shine.

Infernal Affairs - Long before it was remade by Martin Scorsese as "The Departed," "Infernal Affairs" was memorable for being the film where popular Chinese actors Tony Leung and Andy Lau went head to head, as competing moles for the police and the mob, respectively. The script was smart, the direction was slick, and the performances were excellent. It remains among the best of the Hong Kong crime thrillers, full of inventive twists and turns. Pay special attention to the early use and depiction of nailbiting cell phone conversations.

Honorable Mentions

Far From Heaven
Road to Perdition
Russian Ark
Better Luck Tomorrow
About Schmidt
Talk to Her
One Hour Photo
Catch Me If You Can

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