No question, the respective film reviewers from this publication toil under arduous circumstances: stuck in a lower-tier film market that gives us the feistier independent fare long after their initial release; the belated dumping of Oscar-worthy films at the end of December (and often after our deadlines pass); and the split of films over three writers.
Having said all that, I still can't help but feel this year was a letdown over 2001. I'm not sure if a couple extra weeks would do any of us much good -- not this time at least.
With that predictable whine, a half-hearted top 10 for 2002.
10. Undercover Brother -- Director Malcolm D. Lee (Spike's cousin) did what hasn't been done in years: create a hilarious, maybe politically incorrect spoof of racism that cuts both ways. Eddie Griffin lapped up his title role, Afro and all, and even Denise Richards did a mean take on a racist femme fatale. And what was up with all those mayo jokes?
9. Naqoyqatsi (Life as War) -- Native New Orleanian Godfrey Reggio ended a 14-year drought in completing his Qatsi trilogy with this often mesmerizing look at man's losing battle against (and morphing into) technology. Philip Glass grounds his work with a wonderful, symphonic score highlighted by guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma.
8. Punch-Drunk Love -- Actually, I thought Paul Thomas Anderson's latest wasn't all that great; I'm still trying to figure out if he had anything to say here. But at the same time, you have to love his daring, trimming the fat that bogged down Magnolia. Here he goes for a little magic realism of a romance between put-upon Adam Sandler (another Oscar-worthy performance) and the idealization that was Emily Watson.
7. Secretary -- Director Steven Shainberg breaks through the cheeky irony of his story about a dysfunctional young woman (a charming Maggie Gyllenhaal) who falls for her S&M-loving lawyer boss (James Spader, who deserves an Oscar nod). At last, a movie that explores S&M with humor, grace and even sympathy.
6. Rodger Dodger -- Some viewers cringed at the opening sequence, as ladies' man (Campbell Scott) holds forth on the dying breed that is the male species, wondering if this is all this movie has to offer. But then writer-director Dylan Kidd takes Roger's smugness and throws it right back in his face as Roger spends the rest of the movie teaching his "tricks" to his gullible, virginal nephew (Jesse Eisenberg).
5. Frida -- Ignore the episodic, cliche-ridden script; director Julie Taymor's bio-pic of artist Frida Kahlo crackles with life, thanks to a vivid star turn by Salma Hayek. Finally, a movie that connects the dots between life and art (and back again).
4. (Tie) Catch Me if You Can/Minority Report -- It's suddenly fun to watch Steven Spielberg challenging himself when he could very well sit on the Jurassic Park franchise or burden us with his historic revisionism. Minority Report featured that delicate balance between snappy futuristic fun and a social critique of our obsession with crime and punishment that would (hopefully) please author Philip K. Dick, while Catch Me if You Can is Spielberg's breeziest film in years. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are perfect together.
2. Bloody Sunday -- Screened at this October's New Orleans Film Festival, Bloody Sunday is a riveting, cinema verite look at the massacre of 13 peaceful Northern Irish protesters at the hands of occupying British soldiers in 1972. Writer-director Paul Greengrass deftly mounts the building blocks of tension that leave the viewer squirming with a sense of dread over the inevitable outcome.
1. Y Tu Mama, Tambien -- Just when you thought the road movie and its metaphor of discovery was all played out, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron comes up with his own unique take. Two friends from Mexico's wealthy and lower class (Diego Luna and a brilliant Gael Garcia Bernal, respectively) form a romantic triangle with an older woman (Maribel Verdu). Cuaron's exploration of dreams, reality and how they shape contemporary Mexico is heightened by the warm cinematography of Emmanuel Lubenzki, and rarely as sex been so accurately rendered onscreen.
Runners-up: Far From Heaven, Monsoon Wedding, Kissing Jessica Stein, Solaris, The Mothman Prophecies, Barbershop.
Wished I'd seen: 24-Hour Party People, Gangs of New York, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Fast Runner, Possession, Road to Perdition, The Salton Sea.
Still waiting on: Adaptation, About Schmidt, Chicago, CQ, Max, The Pianist, The Quiet American.
Overrated: The Hours, Insomnia, Sex and Lucia, Signs, Sunshine State.
Greatish performances (not previously mentioned): Hugh Grant in About a Boy; Mira Sorvino in Triumph of Love; Samantha Morton in Minority Report; Richard Gere in The Mothman Prophecies; Edie Falco in Sunshine State; Kirsten Dunst in The Cat's Meow; Dennis Quaid in Far From Heaven; Meryl Streep in The Hours; James Nesbitt in Bloody Sunday; Paz Vega in Sex and Lucia; Ryan Gosling in Murder by Numbers.
- Alfonso Cuaron's refreshing update on the "road movie" genre, Y Tu Mama, Tambien was the year's best.