Critics Vs 2002

The Year's Best in Movies, TV and Music

The Year of Living Dangerously

Cinema 2002 counterbalanced a treacherous world.

In order to distill the essence of a year in cinema, one must first appraise the year itself. In a word, 2002 was about strife. Why? Mainly because some of our leaders are stupid and/or insane. (We've all been suffering the aftermath of what filmmaker/journalist John Pilger in London's New Statesman noted as the Bush administration's war-catalyzing design for a "new Pearl Harbor," i.e., 9/11.) Fortunately, on the big screen, 2002 was also a year of bravado and surprise.

Squishy Robin Williams and squeaky Tom Hanks finally played heavies. A mousy Greek girl named Nia Vardalos plied her wedding wit for a megahit. Octogenarian Christopher Lee topped the bill in two global sensations. Britney Spears and Eminem didn't embarrass themselves (much). Denzel directed, Jack got passionate, and the standards of the animated feature, biopic and documentary hit unprecedented highs. From the parking lot outward, things often got pretty ugly, but inside, in the communal darkness before the Great Flickering, 2002 was a year to celebrate. Folks, we scored.

While Americans practiced their sacred S' rituals (shopping, SUV-ing, Starbucks-ing and shooting each other), international cinema peaked all around the globe. From just a little to the south, Mexican films showed up rough-and-ready. Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También took teen angst to a whole new level of frankness, while Carlos Carrera's controversial El Crimen del Padre Amaro – a routinely executed but thought-provoking drama – guaranteed itself omission from Catholic best-of-year lists (coincidenciamente or not, both films starred Latin heartthrob Gael García Bernal). Meanwhile, Guadalajara golden boy Guillermo del Toro made his way over to Prague (a.k.a. Hollywood East) to direct Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson in Blade II, a bad-ass superhero in a rare superior sequel.

International affairs continued under the auspices of Australian director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm), whose Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American proved a potent double-header. While the former was somewhat obvious – white people (Kenneth Branagh) are bad while aboriginal people (Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan) are good – this true tale of three young girls' perilous walk home across the outback is a must-see for its compassionate view of hurtful history. ("Those fucking Australians!" shouted one furious codger at my screening.) Strictly as a film, American is even more impressive, a richly satisfying adaptation of Graham Greene's tale of international meddling in Saigon. And if you craved even more stark views on U.S.-Vietnam interaction, Gail Dolgin's and Vicente Franco's documentary, Daughter From Danang hit some moving notes about the aftermath of 1975's Operation Babylift, with regard to Americanized Heidi Bub (Mai Thi Hiep) and her Vietnamese mother, Mai Thi Kim.

Here on the home front, documentaries got wild in 2002, most notably Stacy Peralta's rip-snorting, insightful Dogtown and Z-Boys and Doug Pray's Scratch – ironically both art-house releases about dual vanguards of pop culture. With its smartly edited blend of archive footage, interviews, and endlessly mesmerizing surf and skateboard stunts, Dogtown ensured that one would never look at American youth – or an empty pool – in the same way. Scratch, on the other hand, made adrenalized music less a backdrop than a way of life, following turntable DJs Q-Bert, Shadow and Swamp – as well as pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Herbie Hancock – around on their audio adventures. Two docs to push your envelope, yo.

Hollywood also made lots of movies in 2002. It does all right promoting its own, but there were some fine products worth mentioning, from Sam Raimi's smart and long-awaited adaptation of Spider-Man to an astute directorial debut from George Clooney in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (about that Gong Show guy). Clooney – practically the king of Tinseltown at present – passed a superb year, also cajoling us to feel his heartbreak in Stephen Soderbergh's Solaris and to bum around Cleveland in his witty, enjoyable co-production of Joe and Anthony Russo's Welcome to Collinwood.

Of course, as yammering into a cell phone with pants falling down and miles of thong hanging out became the new standard of feminine power, 2002 cinema made way for another wave of kick-ass chicks, featured in Blue Crush and Resident Evil (both with Michelle Rodriguez), The Powerpuff Girls Movie and Die Another Day (featuring the chops of Oscar-fortified Halle Berry). Meanwhile, mellower ladies took to the likes of impressive fare like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mostly Martha.

Indeed, 2002 cinema offered countless alternatives to the horrors of CNN. Certainly, there were puzzlements (Why was Signs so lamebrained? Why was Chicago shot in Toronto?), but we got our giggles (Kung Pow! Enter the Fist: "If you've got an ass, I'll kick it!") said our woeful goodbyes (Richard Harris closed out an amazing career with the new Harry Potter and the gutsy My Kingdom), and welcomed new helmers (Jacques Thelemaque with The Dogwalker, Heathers scribe Daniel Waters with Happy Campers). We also revisited classics (Metropolis, Lawrence of Arabia), and I was lucky enough to help host the American première – 20 years late – of Philippe Mora's The Return of Captain Invincible – a New York- and down under-based superhero-musical-adventure-comedy guaranteed to make you feel a lot less strife and a lot more life. Which is the whole point of cinema, eh?

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