The 10 Best Films of 2002

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Article by Mark Dujsik

Looking over the list of my top films of 2002, I notice that a good majority of them struck a raw nerve and forced one to confront some rather weighty and timely issues while still maintaining a sense of the joy of cinema. I see films that deal with issues of faith in a domestic horror story and morality in a Hollywood thriller where no one is the hero. I see films that take place in a time of looming destruction against the backdrop of a rural family dealing with the loss of a loved one and in a time of denied civil liberties in a futuristic world where the police can stop murder before it happens. I see the politics of a world at war taking focus in the second installment of a fantasy epic and a political coup of the government within the fourth sequel of a science-fiction phenomenon. I see our justice system skewered to within an inch of its life using song and dance, the deterioration of the American family set to the tune of an old-fashioned comedic thriller and character study, and man’s search for meaning in a human comedy about loss and regret. And then there’s our real world, seen through the eyes of a man asking the questions on everyone’s minds and ultimately discovering that perhaps there are no answers. This year, as always, there were movies that are simply too painful to remember, so let’s forget them for now. Why recall the bad when you can take heart in the great? Now, my list of the ten best films of 2002:

10. About Schmidt
The one thing you cannot fault director Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt for is its title. The movie is about one person, but in a very real, very intimidating way, Warren Schmidt represents us all to a certain degree. We laugh at his exploits because they are rooted in his character, and we feel his fears because they are the fears of every human being. As he sets out to revisit the past, reconcile with the present, and come to grips with his inevitable future, we cannot help but recognize these moves as a thematic exploration of man’s search for meaning. The third act suffers from a reliance on situational comedy as Schmidt visits his daughter’s future in-laws, but the rest of the film’s humor is all character-driven. Jack Nicholson’s exceptionally subtle and expressive performance allows us to pick up on important details about this man from the very start, and the inclusion of a voice-over narration only digs deeper.

9. Changing Lanes
Two men are placed in a cage and let loose to inflict as many problems and as much pain on each other as they see retributively fit in Roger Michell’s Changing Lanes. Reality is played out on an exponential level as two basically decent but fundamentally flawed men whose conflict rises at the same rate. This is not the typical Hollywood thriller of its setup but a fascinating modern morality play about what’s right, what’s wrong, and how experience can blur the line between the two with terrible results. Both men are at the end of their ropes and completely, utterly convinced that their reasoning is the just one. This is not a clash of people but a clash of ideals. Two actors at the top of their game keep the material honest. Ben Affleck mixes cocky self-assurance with a deep-seated ethical vulnerability to keep his character from becoming a simple villain, and Samuel L. Jackson gives complete validity to another character’s description of him: "You’re addicted to chaos."

8. Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
Why do I feel the need to justify this choice more than the other films on this list and that no amount of justification will satisfy some people? Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones is the most entertaining purely visceral experience of the year. George Lucas weaves a rather complex tale with a lot of ground to cover and, with the help of his Industrial Light & Magic special effects artists, creates an expanse of wondrous worlds using the full extent of a digital canvas, resulting in the most visually impressive film in the series. The movie is at once a giddy confection of science-fiction fun, a dead-serious continuation of a piece of movie mythology, and a (probably unintentional) commentary on current politics. Are there problems? Of course. The romance is rushed, and the performances are about as good as we’ve come to expect from a Star Wars movie (Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi being a large exception). Still, this is an exhilarating piece of entertainment.

7. Frailty
This is the best horror film to come along in quite some time, but it’s unfair to categorize Frailty into one specific genre, especially one with such a shaky track record. Bill Paxton’s directorial debut scared me unlike any other film this year, but it also left me thinking and rethinking its mechanics and the implications of its finale. The movie’s violence is wisely kept off screen, forcing our imaginations to fill in the gruesome details, and the film burrows deep into the subconscious with is dissertation on religious fanaticism. Paxton’s performance as the axe-wielding servant of God and loving father is chilling, and Matthew O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter give fine performances as his two sons. Matthew McConaughey provides the narration for the flashbacks in which the tale slowly unfolds and appears in the present-day scenes where all is revealed. The ending leaves a view so absolutely frightening and bloodcurdling that our first instinct is to deny it as a possibility.

6. Catch Me If You Can
Generally dismissed as a fluffy, hollow, although entertaining diversion, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is deceptively simple. The film is a joy to watch, radiating with a love of filmmaking, and much deeper than it lets on. Spielberg once again tackles the family unit, and this time, the focus is the father/son and surrogate father/son relationship. Based on a true story, the film works on three distinct levels: a nostalgic comedy of deception, a cat-and-mouse chase, and a family drama. It’s also the character study of a boy who’s merely working to get his family back together and who slowly begins to accept the reality of and need for responsibility. A trio of great performances brings an intense emotional resonance to the central relationships. Leonardo DiCaprio ages physically, emotionally, and psychologically over a decade. Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken play the father figures, one slowly discovering his role and the other realizing his is coming to an end.

5. Chicago
Here is one of the most successful stage-to-screen musicals I’ve seen. Chicago remains theatrical when it’s absolutely necessary but also accepts the conventions and possibilities of the filmed medium. The invigorating musical numbers choreographed by director Rob Marshall make you feel like applauding once they’re done. It’s not all song and dance, though, and at the core of the film is a biting, incisive, and explicit commentary on the state of the American justice system and the curse of criminal celebrity. Who is implicated in the judicial descent the film decries? The media, the criminals, the lawyers, the penal system, the politicians, and the public (yes, that includes us) are all targets of the film’s sharp, ironic humor. Renée Zellweger is mousy and driven with a seductively breathy voice, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is an exceptional singing/dancing talent. Richard Gere plays the slippery attorney with aplomb, and John C. Reilly is pathetically sympathetic as the sad cuckold of a husband.

4. Signs
M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs solidifies what everyone suspected back in 1999. This is the work of brilliant filmmaker. The film forces us to confront our greatest fears and hopes for and about the unknown, but it also works as a purely unnerving exercise in suspense, atmosphere, and simple storytelling. Shyamalan’s script expertly weaves tension, humor, and domestic drama into an entirely convincing look at one family on the edge of crumbling and, through them, a world on the brink of possible destruction. The build is slow, meticulous, and almost unbearable, and the payoff is absolutely ingenious in the way it ties the ends of two mythical conflicts together without relying on a twist ending. Mel Gibson’s performance as a man of lost faith and total dedication to his surviving family is intelligent and sympathetic. Everything falls into place here, thanks to the best work to date of a now mature and completely assured filmmaker.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The year-long wait ended and all doubts cast aside almost immediately into the start of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The second installment of Peter Jackson’s monumental “trilogy” is not a typical sequel but a direct continuation of the story started in The Fellowship of the Ring, signaling not three separate films but one huge epic composed of three individual parts. So, no, The Two Towers does not stand on its own, but in a way, it is a stronger film as a result. The fantastical cast of characters returns, but they are only a minimal part of the focus here. The most important character in the film is Middle-Earth, the world in which they live. Despite the arguments of author J.R.R. Tolkien, there is plenty of allegory throughout the story, but it’s universal and non-specific and therefore not the kind he so despised. This is a look at a world at war, incredibly realized, ambitiously mounted, and entirely awe-inspiring.

2. Minority Report
Another Steven Spielberg film appears on the list and with good reason. Minority Report’s haunting vision of the future is a wholly relevant warning for our times, but it is also a grand, ambitious, rousing entertainment. The issues and questions raised by the narrative are seamlessly introduced and debated throughout the story, which is brought to life by equally seamless special effects. Scruples about the ending cleaning up everything far too easily are certainly justified, but if one is caught up in this plot and the world it occupies, the finale provides the answers and resolution we desire for this situation and these characters, who are embodied by a talented cast. Tom Cruise stars in one of his best performances, and two supporting actors do great work despite relatively short screentime. Samantha Morton is haunting and gives a heartbreaking monologue in the film’s key scene of emotional catharsis, and Colin Farrell creates a full-blooded character out of a plot mechanism.

1. Bowling for Columbine
No film this year affected me or had me thinking more. Bowling for Columbine is inflammatory and important filmmaking. Michael Moore goes on a mission to discover why America has more gun-related murders than other economically and industrially developed countries and happens upon a proverbial dead end. Along the way, he uncovers a culture of fear and paranoia, encounters people across the broad spectrum of willingness and ability for democratic debate, and keeps his sense of sardonic humor all the while. Some have called his tactics questionable and his politics blatant, but a joke is a joke, a refusal to talk is a refusal to talk (Dick Clark agrees to talk but makes a decision not to talk about what he’s presented with), and an uninformed president of the National Rifle Association is worthy of alarm. As for his politics, Moore never feigns objectivity and consequently reminds us that all film—even the documentary—is inherently subjective. This is the rarest kind of film, one that not only has the ability to incite a heated, intelligent discussion but also reminds us that, if our democracy is to endure, such conversations must take place.

Special Mention:

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (20th Anniversary Edition)

In my review of the re-release and re-tinkering of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, I pondered how many people who had never seen the film on the big screen would now get the chance to do so. As it turned out, not too many took advantage.  Now I wonder why. Was it the controversy surrounding the new special effects? Some of the changes simply don’t work, but how much damage can changing shotguns into walkie-talkies really make? Is it because it’s been available on home video for so long? After all, why make a trip to the theater when you can save a few bucks and rent it? Well, I took advantage of the opportunity and was reminded why the film has a place in the hearts of so many filmgoers. Now I'm convinced it will continue to do so for years to come.

Honorable Mention:

About a Boy, Gangs of New York, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Igby Goes Down, Max, One Hour Photo, Panic Room, Red Dragon, Road to Perdition, 24 Hour Party People, We Were Soldiers, Y Tu Mamá También

Seen too late:

The Quiet American, Spirited Away

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.