Rewinding 2002 -- The Year in Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
December 31, 2002

Go Directly to the Top 10

2002 was a great year in cinema... for any male between the ages of 12 and 18. Hollywood has always catered to this demographic, but never has it been more obvious than this year. And, as evidenced by the stunning success of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, the approach has paid off. Sure, not everyone seeing the movie was a teenage boy, but a large percentage of viewers were, especially when return trips are factored in.

Gene Siskel used to lament the "dumbing down" of movies. The situation has gotten worse since the critic's death. It's not as much fun being a film reviewer as it was a mere 10 years ago. I used to enjoy the occasional mindless flash-and-bang motion pictures Hollywood had to offer -- until it seemed like every other movie fit into that category. If you eat a steady diet of junk food, you will eventually grow obese and die of malnutrition or heart disease, whichever catches up with you faster. Ingest junk cinema, and your appreciation for quality entertainment will suffer the same fate.

I'm not saying that every movie should be an art film, especially since some of the most lauded art films are terminally boring. But there needs to be a mix. Unfortunately, Hollywood is out of the risk-taking business. So we see a steady stream of "safe" motion pictures, which consist of sequels, remakes, and easily packaged products that can be sold to the teenage market. Yes, we're back to the 12-to-18 males again. Why? Because they have cash and like to spend it, and one of their favorite purchases is the movie ticket/soda/tub of popcorn package. Go to a multiplex on a Friday or Saturday night, and what will you find? Countless numbers of teenage boys. Of course, there are teenage girls, as well, but many of them are on dates with the aforementioned boys.

One growing trend is that older movie-goers, fed up with the poor quality control and general noisiness of the average multiplex, have elected to stay home and watch movies on VHS or DVD. The concept of a "home theater," once reserved for cinephiles, has entered the mainstream lexicon. It's not that unusual to find a 5.1 speaker setup with a 45" monitor in Joe Sixpack's living room, and he's not just using it to watch football on Sunday afternoon. So, while his 14-year old and 16-year old sons are out at the multiplex on a Friday night, he and Mrs. Sixpack are at home, viewing something on video.

The surprise of the year (and every year seems to have one) is none other than the Little Art-House Hit That Could. I am, of course, referring to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The film opened in the spring with little fanfare, then hung around for the rest of the year, amassing a gross of more than $200 million. There's nothing extraordinary about the movie - it's essentially a 90-minute big-screen sitcom - but it received some of the best word-of-mouth of any 2002 picture, and proved that, if someone is willing to market and distribute a movie aimed primarily at a non-teen demographic, mature viewers could still be enticed to spend a night in a movie theater.

The box office trends in 2002 have been an extension of those evident in 2001. The concept of "winning the first weekend" (as if financial results are an indication of quality - and when did movie openings become a competition, anyway?) has been blown out of proportion. Many movies are amassing more than 50% of their gross during those first three days, and anything that doesn't draw a big audience gets booted within a week or two.

To be fair, there were plenty of good movies available during the course of 2002, just not many great ones. I can count on my fingers and toes the number I was truly enthusiastic about - those I made a point of singling out for praise or that I actively stumped for. A few exceeded the $100 million mark, but most toiled in relative obscurity. Something like Minority Report, one of the year's best, "only" made $130 million because too many teenage boys didn't understand it.

One of the most depressing trends I have noticed is the concept of the motion picture as an advertisement, the foundation of a massive merchandising franchise. This isn't new, but it's getting bigger every year. Sure, when the original Star Wars came out, there were dolls (oops... I mean "action figures"), trading cards, towels, sheets, books, records, etc. But there was never the sense that the purpose of the movie was to sell them. Today, many films are feature-length trailers designed to hawk everything from soundtracks to video games. Sure, you can see the Spider-Man movie, but that's only the beginning. You also have to buy the comic books, own the CD, and play the PlayStation 2 game. The movie ticket only costs $10 - a bargain compared to the $100 necessary to get a few key extras.

One 2002 footnote is the end of Disney's dominance in the animated market. The Magic Kingdom released two new animated movies this year. Lilo & Stitch performed okay, but its final gross was nowhere close to what Disney cartoons were taking in five-or-so years ago. Treasure Planet was an unmitigated disaster. The biggest animated movie of the year was Fox's middling Ice Age, which made more than the two Disney movies combined. To add insult to injury, the best animated movie of the year, Spirited Away, was largely ignored at the box office because Disney didn't see fit to market it.

The smart money indicates that little will change in 2003. We're in for another year of vulgar, unfunny comedies, big-budget action movies where all the money is spent on the razzle-dazzle and none on the screenplay, and sequels. There will be lots of enjoyable distractions, but little that will stay with the average viewer after the end credits have finished. One year ago, I wrote the following words: "Hollywood is making money - and lots of it - by turning out crap. As long as people will pay to see this sort of drek, there's no motivation to change. So, for the foreseeable future, until movie-goers revolt, we are doomed to endure one big-budget film after another where plot, character development, and intelligence are reduced to footnotes in lavish productions that emphasize quick cuts, loud music, louder explosions, and lots of cool special effects." There's no reason to believe anything will change in 2003.

And that's exactly the way teenage boys want it.

Performances To Be Remembered

Enough of the negatives. Now it's time to highlight what was good about 2002, starting with individual performances. As was the case last year, I will restrict myself to one name for each category (with a runner-up or two). The point is to emphasize that single performance. This is not to say that there weren't other great portrayals to be found on the screen during 2002 - but these are the best.

Best Supporting Actress - Rosario Dawson, 25th Hour: As good as all of the performers are in this movie, it's Dawson's work as Edward Norton's long-suffering girlfriend that provides that glue to hold the film together. The actress is luminous and demonstrates great range. This isn't a large or flashy role, but the movie is better whenever Dawson is on screen, and, when it's all over, her character is the one that stands out the most vividly.
Runner-Up: Zoe Deschanel, the flip talker with all the best lines in The Good Girl.

Best Supporting Actor - Noah Taylor, Max: As a young Adolph Hitler, Noah Taylor gives a stunning, riveting, deeply disturbing performance. Watching Taylor during these scenes, it's easy to understand why Hitler amassed such a huge following. There is charisma, madness, and unfiltered hatred in each of his rabble-rousing speeches. The film as a whole has some problems, but the pure force of Taylor's performance is something to be seen.
Runners-Up: Kenneth Branagh, the low-key villain in Rabbit-Proof Fence; Christopher Plummer, the anything-but-low-key bad guy in Nicholas Nickleby.

Best Lead Actress - Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary: Sexy, saucy, and seductive, Maggie Gyllenhaal turns in not only the most courageous performance of the year, but the most remarkable one, as well. Displaying amazing range, Gyllenhaal gives her all in this breakthrough portrayal of a troubled woman who discovers herself through the S&M relationship she develops with her boss. Gyllenhaal captivates every moment she's on screen and proves that, as an actress, she has few taboos. One of the reasons Secretary is a great film is because Gyllenhaal is so impressive in it.
Runners-Up: Jennifer Aniston, shedding her "Friends" image for something grimier in The Good Girl; Jennifer Westfeldt, the bi-curious woman in Kissing Jessica Stein.

Best Lead Actor - Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt: This is one of those increasingly rare occasions when Jack Nicholson acts, rather than just postures. Nicholson's powerful, deeply honest portrayal of loser Warren Schmidt isn't just the highlight of the movie, it is the movie. Want to see an example of peerless, dialogue-free acting? Watch Nicholson's face during the retirement dinner when a friend is giving a speech about living a meaningful life.
Runner-Up: Daniel Day-Lewis, the fiery Nativist leader in Gangs of New York

The Not-So-Elite (The Bottom Five)

(Presented in reverse order - the worst last.) There were a lot to choose from (too many, really), but these are the ones I have singled out for special mention. Because I missed so many of the curdled-cream-of-the-crop (although obviously not enough), I elected to shorten the list to five this year, rather than the usual ten. My rationale: at least five of the movies I neglected would have ended up here had I possessed the necessary constitution to endure them.

5. Crossroads: Ooops. Britney did it. Pray very hard that she doesn't do it again.

4. Jason X: The filmmakers could have made this a wonderfully entertaining, high-camp romp. But they didn't, and this franchise is far too old and rusty to be played straight.

3. Serving Sara: The best argument for not ending "Friends." If Matthew Perry is busy making his TV series, he can't serve up any more bombs like this. (Maybe he should take acting lessons from castmate Jennifer Aniston.)

2. Kung Pow: Not a bad premise... for a five-minute short. Stretched to feature length, however, this becomes an endurance trial.

1. Master of Disguise: The good news is that it's better than last year's worst film, Freddy Got Fingered. The bad news is that it's worse than anything else to hit screens this year. It's almost physically painful to watch the once-funny Dana Carvey stumble through this atrociously unfunny movie. Save your memories of this guy from his better years.

The Elite (The Top Ten)

So to the Top 10 we come. As usual, a disproportionate number of my highest-rated films were released at the end of the year (40% of the Top 10; 30% of the Top 30). Of course, that's par for the course, so it's hardly worth noting. I recommend each and every one of these films highly. I have no qualms about compiling a "Ten Best" list - even during down years, there are still a number of very good and excellent productions to be absorbed. It is worth mentioning, however, that none of the 2002 releases made my All-Time Top 100 list on its own. (The Two Towers got there because I combined it with last year's The Fellowship of the Ring.) Here, in my opinion, are the best of 2002:

(Presented in reverse order - the best last.)

Runners-Up (alphabetical): Bowling for Columbine, Chicago, Far From Heaven, Monsters Ball, Mostly Martha.

10. Spirited Away: Animation at its finest. The best of the year's non-live action films was also the least seen. "Distributed" (thrown out and allowed to drown) by Disney, this movie never got a chance. From the master of anime, Hayao Miyazaki, this is a wonder to behold, with a storyline strong enough to enchant for more than two hours. The film is arguably not as accomplished as Miyazaki's previous feature, Princess Mononoke, but it's good enough for a Top 10 position.

9. Read My Lips: Poor distribution and worse marketing keep most people from seeing this superior thriller about the unlikely partnership between a lip-reader and a con artist. A love story and a caper film wrapped up in one, Read My Lips deserved better than it got. Hopefully, when it reaches VHS/DVD, it will garner more attention. I first saw the film in 2001 at a film festival, and it has stayed with me since then. With an official U.S. release date in 2002, I couldn't allow the year to pass without including this as one of the 10 best.

8. Rabbit-Proof Fence: We can be thankful that Phillip Noyce has at least temporarily turned his back on Hollywood. That rejection allowed him to make this film, the powerful and moving stories of three stolen Aborigine children making their way home. On the surface, the subject matter may not sound more compelling than the title, but this is a wonderful motion picture - an uplifting story of human triumph that will bring tears to the eyes.

7. Kissing Jessica Stein: This is one of the most unusual romantic comedies of the year, and one of the few that can claim to have a smart script. Initially, one might assume that the only twist to the movie is that it's about two women in love, but the film's real genius is that neither is a lesbian (one is bisexual, the other is what is frequently referred to as "bi-curious"). By not miring itself in gay issues, this lighthearted and funny movie allows itself to be accessible to all movie-goers, not just those who belong to a narrow demographic.

6. Eight Women: Some of the best and most beautiful French actresses have banded together to create an unlikely musical comedy/mystery that features more laughs than anything Hollywood produced all year. Visually, the film is amazing, but the real treat is seeing stars like Emmanuelle Beart, Catherine Deneuve, and Virginie Ledoyen belting out fantastic production numbers. Chicago is getting all the hype, but Eight Women was the year's best musical.

5. Talk to Her: Following up his moving All About My Mother, Pedro Almodovar has once again struck a deep chord in the human heart with his latest, Talk to Her. In recent years, Almodovar has matured greatly as a filmmaker, but he has not entirely abandoned the quirkiness that earned him a legion of loyal fans during the early part of his career. Talk to Her is one of his best yet - easily the rival of All About My Mother and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!.

4. Secretary: I approached this film with some trepidation, expecting it to be a schlocky secretary-obsessed-with-her-boss motion picture. To say that I was surprised - and pleasantly so - is a gross understatement. Secretary is not only my favorite romantic comedy of the year (beating out Kissing Jessica Stein by a lash), but one of my favorite motion pictures of 2002. Featuring a star-making turn by Maggie Gyllenhaal and an unimpeachable mix of comedy and drama, the film belies its S&M subject matter by turning out to be rather sweet. Not really for a conventional first date, however.

3. The Pianist: Comparisons with Schindler's List are warranted, although I found the Spielberg film to pack a greater emotional punch. Nevertheless, Roman Polanski's gut-wrenching tale about life in Poland during the Nazi occupation will haunt viewers for a long time to come, and deserves to be placed amongst the best non-documentaries to tackle the Holocaust. It is relentless, non-melodramatic, and unflinching in its portrayal of events, and features a great acting performance by Adrien Brody.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: With the second installment of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has proven that what he accomplished with The Fellowship of the Ring was no fluke. Overall, I slightly preferred the first film to the second, but the difference is so small as to almost not be worth mentioning. Certainly, the spectacular battle at Helm's Deep, which forms that bulk of the movie's final third, represents the top cinematic highlight of 2002, and betters anything in The Fellowship. A great movie, and there were times when I toyed with awarding it the #1 spot on this list.

1. Minority Report: Science fiction and film noir combined - that's what Minority Report is, and it works magnificently well as either. A tour de force from Steven Spielberg, this represents the director at the top of his game - a visual feast with non-stop action, a thought-provoking storyline, and solid acting all around. Unlike many science fiction movies, this one stands up extraordinarily well on a second viewing. Some of the suspense is gone, but that allows more time for consideration and rumination upon the many convolutions and paradoxes explored by the screenplay. Not quite an all-time Top 100 film, but close.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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