I made this Top 10 list relatively early in awards season, before I’d seen a number of films that factored into the race that year — including The Hours, 8 Mile, Secretary, Frida, Talk To Her, and The Pianist, some of which came away with major wins (Best Actress and Best Actor included).
Reconsidering this list in 2015, I wouldn’t change a whole lot. There are a couple films I like better now than I did back then — like Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, which didn’t quite do it for me the first time around. Others, like Talk To Her, Secretary, and 8 Mile, I know I did like quite a bit when I saw them, but now it’s been so long that I’d need to see them again to know if they’d find their way onto my list.
And, full disclosure: I did make one change to this list from back in 2002, adding a film I saw shortly after making this list that has since become one of my favorites of the year. It seemed a shame to leave it off, considering that it was one of my favorites both back then and still now.
Which film did I add, and which one got kicked off to make room for it? I’ll never tell…
The second installment in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy suffers slightly at not being nearly as fresh and exciting as the first, and lacks the inevitable climactic pay-off of The Return Of The King, but it does bring one cinematic marvel to the screen — Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis but entirely rendered by CGI, to date probably the most impressive computer-generated creature we’ve seen. (And definitely the most preciousss.)
The Two Towers adds several new characters we didn’t meet in The Fellowship Of The Ring, and many favorites from the first movie are shoved into supporting roles far away from the main action. And sure, these guys are pretty much in the same predicament at the end of this movie as they were in the beginning, and not a whole lot closer to Mordor. The battle of Helm’s Deep is the central focus, and director Peter Jackson brings his expected flair for technical wizardly and large-scale spectacle. It’s big and awesome, even if it seems there’s less at stake than at other points in this series.
Viggo Mortensen does an excellent job of carrying the movie as this film’s hero, leaving Frodo in the backseat, and Gollum is somehow the best-developed and most captivating character in the film. The Two Towers‘ main purpose is keeping audiences invested long enough to make it to the series’ grand finale, but as big budget fantasy epics go, it certainly delivers the goods.9. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE
It’s Paul Thomas Anderson! So, it’s excellent, right?
Punch-Drunk Love is a surprise on almost every level from the uber-acclaimed director of Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and Hard Eight. Anderson’s films up until now have mostly been sprawling epics that don’t shy away from sex, violence, and some very dark themes, so it takes some adjustment to prepare for this quirky, smaller-scoped love story about Barry Egan and his quest to buy a whole lot of pudding — with some evil Mormon sex phone operators thrown into the mix.
This movie proves Adam Sandler can be at least a halfway decent actor, aided by the always lovable Emily Watson as patient love interest Lena and a pretty crazy turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman as an ill-tempered Mormon. (We can assume he’s Mormon since he lives in Provo, although his foul mouth and sex phone operation may suggest otherwise.) As in Magnolia, Anderson doesn’t follow the typical three-act structure — he marches to the beat of his own drummer, and this one is willfully offbeat.
At a scant 95 minutes, Punch-Drunk Love seems to gloss over some story elements and instead spends its screen time on a fair amount of chaos and randomness, but you gotta give it credit for being unpredictable. It’s funny, clever, crazy, quick, and entertaining, and Emily Watson lights up the screen, though it falls well short of being a masterpiece like Magnolia and Boogie Nights. I guess they can’t all be instant classics… (but they can still be very good).
Insomnia is a remake of a Norwegian film I haven’t seen, so I’m sure some of the credit goes to the original — but this adaptation definitely does it some justice regardless. Al Pacino is a tough-guy cop from Los Angeles struggling with his own morals and police ethics while trying to solve a murder in Nightmute, Alaska. (A real place, apparently — despite the noirish name.) As his conscience eats away at him, so does the titular lack of sleep he struggles with in a town where the sun never sets — a nice twist on the typical murky nighttime setting of such thrillers.
Al Pacino is awesome as always, if you like that sort of thing (and I very much do!). Hilary Swank is perfect as the eager young local cop trying to learn from Pacino, unaware that he is not quite the good detective she idolizes. The real revelation, though, is Robin Williams in icy-cold killer mode (previously shown in One Hour Photo, which somewhat undermines the surprise of the comedian’s malevolent turn here).
Christopher Nolan, best known for Memento, pulls off some brilliant editing that puts us in an insomniac state of mind, and the film’s morality plays are almost epic. Certainly one of the best American thrillers to come along in quite some time. (Even if it did come from Norway first.)7. ADAPTATION
This movie probably plays better to screenwriters than anybody else — sorry! The ultimate scribe’s wet dream has Charlie Kaufman literally writing himself into the movie he was supposed to be writing, an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Most writers who tried this would get a swift “no, thank you,” be fired, and never work in this town again. Somehow, Kaufman got a critically beloved film made — one that could easily win some Oscars. (It would be a sweet irony if a film called Adaptation won Best Adapted Screenplay, especially considering that it is basically an original story.)
Nicolas Cage gives two very solid performances as the frustrated screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and his half-witted twin brother. In addition to basically ruining the move version of her book, Kaufman also begins stalking Susan Orlean, who is played perfectly (of course) by Meryl Streep. Chris Cooper also provides a memorable turn as the kooky subject of Orlean’s book. But none of that orchid-thieving business is what ultimately makes Adaptation such a breath of fresh, weird air — it’s the bizarre mix of fact and fiction, with the real-life Kaufman and his made-up brother battling for screenwriting supremacy, tossing in plenty of industry in-jokes along the way.
The film goes spinning off on a strange tangent in the third act that embraces everything the movie is against. I get the point of it, thematically, but I didn’t love it. Adaptation is funny, clever, and twisted, and probably quite a bit more interesting than a straightforward Orchid Thief movie would have been — though let’s hope it doesn’t spark a dangerous trend of writers inserting themselves into their screenplays ever time they get writer’s block. This will only work once, people.6. MINORITY REPORT
Steven Spielberg proves once again he’s a peerless entertainer. In 2002, he delivered two very different chases movies, this one and Catch Me If You Can. (“Everybody runs” could be the tagline of either film.) While not as diverse as the films in other years when Spielberg has delivered a one-two punch (1993’s double-offering of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List obviously takes that cake), I can’t help but be impressed that one man can craft a breathless piece of action-packed science fiction as well as a moving drama within a few months of each other, and have them both be so good. Let us never take Spielberg for granted.
Between the two, it’s Minority Report that gets my full-on Top 10 stamp of approval, with an utterly convincing (and somewhat terrifying) vision of the future despite a far-fetched premise — cops using prescient humans to predict crimes before they happen, but nevertheless arresting criminals for their murderous intent. Tom Cruise is at the top of his form as the detective who goes from hunter to hunted, grabbing an ethereally excellent Samantha Morton to prove his innocence along the way.
Spielberg once again blunders the ending to an otherwise great film — I had third-act issues with Catch Me If You Can and A.I. too — but it’s not an egregious error when so much that came before was so very good. The vision of the future presented here is the most original I’ve seen since, well, Spielberg’s last film (A.I.), and the maestro of wonder delivers several of his trademark Great Movie Moments — particularly the exhilarating mall chase scene. In a world that so often gets them wrong, this is a blockbuster done right.5. 25TH HOUR
Countless filmmakers have made movies in and about New York City, but few are as closely tied to it as Spike Lee. He’s as essential to the city as Woody Allen, depicting a very different, but equally vital slice of life in the city that never sleeps.
So it’s almost impossible to think that Lee wouldn’t somehow respond to the devastation faced on September 11 by New York (and all of America, of course) — and it’s entirely appropriate that he is, essentially, the first. Though it’s probably too soon for cinema to cover the attacks in their entirety, 25th Hour finds a perfectly subtle way to pay homage without letting that dark shadow loom over the film overall.
The story itself has nothing to do with the World Trade Center — it’s about a drug dealer named Monty (Edward Norton) who has just one last day of freedom before he heads to prison for dealing drugs. He spends that day with his best buddies Frank (Barry Pepper), a Wall Street hotshot, and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a shy high school teacher with a crush on his student Mary (Anna Paquin). Another key figure is Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), whom he suspects might have been the one to give him up to the cops.
25th Hour spends more time on character development than on mystery or suspense, though, and that’s a very good thing. It takes its time and isn’t afraid of some random detours to explore its supporting characters or a slice of New York City life. (One incredibly memorable sequence features Monty’s foul-mouthed disparagement of virtually every person in New York, which somehow still comes across as a love letter to the place.)
Developed before 9/11 and shot afterward, the film’s only reference to the tragedy is a mournful look down at Ground Zero — and it’s all that’s needed. September 11 would be easy to exploit for some added emotional weight, but that’s now what Lee is doing here. Sure, it can be read as a metaphor for Monty’s life in ruins, but it would feel more conspicuous for a Spike Lee joint about these New Yorkers to pretend like it never happened. Monty’s angst is front and center, but 25th Hour is also very much about the rest of the people who inhabit his world. That single shot of Ground Zero hits just the right note, and then quickly moves on.
4. Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN
Hollywood loves a good coming-of-age story, but apparently it takes a Mexican to get it right. Y Tu Mama Tambien treads in waters you’ll rarely see in any American film about teenage boys, with graphic sex scenes that are both hetero- and homoerotic. (Something for everyone to enjoy!)
The film takes us on a road trip, as two teenage boys (Diego Luna and Gabriel Garcia Bernal) woo the same older woman (Maribel Verdu) who has just left her cheating husband — and is carrying an even more heartbreaking secret, too. They go in search of a beach and instead find all kinds of romantic and sexual complications that come with the territory of growing up.
Cowriter and director Alfonso Cuaron understands that sexuality is complicated, especially when we’re young. The fact that these teen boys explore their sexual curiosities with each other doesn’t mean that either is gay, necessarily, but that the lines between friendship and romance aren’t always explicitly defined. (To be fair, there is a female present when they’re making out, which makes it a little less queer.)
The film is all about the journey instead of the destination, and the journey is not so much the road trip but adolescence itself. The most remarkable thing about the film is how natural it feels — less like a movie, more like eavesdropping on these people’s lives. Part of this is due to the raw, explicit sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination.
The performances by all three are stellar, though it’s Maribel Verdu that really brings the film to life. The final scene is a real heartbreaker, because of what we learn happens to one of the characters, but moreso because of what it says about what happens when friendships grow a little too intimate. For better or worse, I’ve never seen a more honest movie about being a teenage guy.
I had a hard time figuring out where, exactly, to put Chicago on this list. It’s the songs and the spirit that make it so great, and that’s lifted pretty much verbatim from the musical. However, Rob Marshall finds a pretty nifty way to pull off a stage-to-screen adaptation, suggesting that the musical numbers take place in Roxie Hart’s warped mind. That could easily be cheesy, except that Roxie is so obsessed with being a star, it’s easy to see how she’d be deluded enough to imagine that everyone around her is starring in a musical that’s all about her.
Based on entertainment value alone, Chicago might have be the most enjoyable entertaining movie I saw all year. Shockingly, Renee Zellweger can sing! She’s great in Chicago, playing a character anyone who hasn’t seen this on Broadway may be surprised to learn isn’t very likable at all. (It’s a nice way to subvert the actress’ usual cutesy charms.) Balancing her out is Catherine Zeta-Jones as another murderess bitch, one who plays off Zellweger very well. Zeta-Jones’ Velma Kelly is more upfront about her killer instincts, though not necessarily the more ruthless — she may look darker, but both of these women are devious vamps.
Chicago is all about fame versus infamy, and Marshall nails every musical number, giving each one its own distinct flair. (Not always the case in movie musicals.) “Cell Block Tango” in particular is a real knockout. And though much of the film is a cynical look at criminal celebrity — witness Richard Gere’s turn as a sharky defense attorney — the film also has a tiny bit of heart in John C. Reilly’s poor schlub of a husband, who sells the melancholy “Mr. Cellophane.” Chicago feels perfectly poised to sweep the Academy Awards, and for all its gloss, it’s hard to fault a film that’s so much fun for painting the Oscars red.2. ABOUT SCHMIDT
Jack Nicholson is an icon — he’s won three Oscars and been nominated for many more, turning in essential performances in classic films like Chinatown, The Shining, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. And while I haven’t seen his entire body of work, I’m prepared to say that this might be his best performance ever.
We all know Nicholson can rant and rave like a madman. It’s become a bit of a shtick, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t still work when used effectively. (Call it the Al Pacino Syndrome.) But Nicholson rarely does that here, instead delivering a subdued and understated turn as a man grappling with aging, retirement, and the death of a spouse — and that’s just the first act.
Nicholson is fearless in his touching and honest portrayal of the perils of being a senior citizen, an underexplored topic in cinema to be sure. He allows his Schmidt to be vulnerable and pathetic, weak and petty. As good as he was in As Good As It Gets, that was not as good as Nicholson gets — it’s this performance that deserves an award. It’s the rare turn from Nicholson that’s more about acting than performance.
The movie as a whole is filled with solid work from a cast including Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, and Dermot Mulroney, reveling at times in the mundane cultural squalor of Middle America. Alexander Payne’s film is alternately very funny and very sad, and just when it seems like it might get boring, the plot goes in a new direction and makes us laugh all over again. About Schmidt proves that Election was no fluke, trading some of that film’s biting comedy for genuine pathos instead.1. FAR FROM HEAVEN
This is both the best movie of 2002 and the best movie of 1955 — or at least it feels that way. Todd Haynes presents a pitch perfect pastiche of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, though here the ideals of the “perfect” 50s family are shattered by topics that the world wasn’t ready to tackle back then. (Namely, homosexuality and interracial relationships.)
Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a seemingly happy housewife whose cheerful suburban bubble is about to pop. When Cathy finds her husband engaging in unspeakable acts with a fellow gentleman, she discovers her marriage, her friendships, and basically her entire white hetero Connecticut world are nothing but surface — and longs to find something deeper. That causes her to fire up a flirtation with her black gardener, which is almost as taboo as her hubby’s same-sex hanky-panky in this era.
Anchored by Moore’s immaculate performance, Far From Heaven looks and sounds like it was made 50 years ago — with no sex or profanity, it’s certainly tame in comparison to today’s films, though it probably would have been the raciest, most controversial movie of 1955. The period details are simply flawless, with a Technicolor-like sheen that makes this by far 2002’s most beautiful picture to look at. The supporting cast — Dennis Quaid, Patricia Clarkson, and Dennis Haysbert — does plenty of good work too, but this is Moore’s movie, and she shines. If there’s any justice, she’ll win the Oscar this year.
Far From Heaven also contains my favorite line in a movie this year, because of its simplicity and importance to the story: “Here’s to being the only one.” Though it isn’t the only great film of the year, it is certainly one of the most strikingly original, in that it inhabits the tropes and mores of a 1950s melodrama while simultaneously critiquing them. That’s not an easy maneuver, but Haynes pulls it off in spades. And as good as Julianne Moore is in absolutely everything, this may endure as her most essential performance.
Todd Haynes, Far From Heaven
Spike Lee, 25th Hour
Steven Spielberg, Minority Report
Rob Marshall, Chicago
Peter Jackson, The Two Towers
Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
Renee Zellweger, Chicago
Maribel Verdu, Y Tu Mama Tambien
Diane Lane, Unfaithful
Emily Watson, Punch-Drunk Love
Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs Of New York
Nicolas Cage, Adaptation
Edward Norton, 25th Hour
Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago
Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
Patricia Clarkson, Far From Heaven
Susan Sarandon, Igby Goes Down
Meryl Streep, Adaptation
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Dennis Quaid, Far From Heaven
Paul Newman, Road To Perdition
Chris Cooper, Adaptation
Dennis Haysbert, Far From Heaven
Colin Farrell, Minority Report
The Two Towers
Far From Heaven
Road to Perdition
Far From Heaven
Y Tu Mama Tambien