Best Films of 2002

It looked for a while as though this would be a year to forget, with early returns indicating that only Lasse Hallstrom's "The Shipping News" could stand up to any kind of scrutiny. But then in April came the amazing "The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)", and things started looking up.

My choices are not complete; for various reasons I haven't yet screened "Talk To Her," "The Hours," "Adaptation," or a few other likely candidates, so this January 1, 2003 list is amendable. Nevertheless, in what turned out to be a quite-good year for films, I choose one above all, followed by a group that by any standard are just fine. They are listed in alphabetical order. Here is my list; extended reviews are found at each individual title.

Best film of the year:

"Heaven" - The brilliant German director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") took a script by the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski and made it into a film that has many lessons about the moral implications of our actions, and by letting us in on a deceptively simple story it forces us to examine the nature of good and evil. Tykwer has drawn an astounding performance from Cate Blanchett, an everywoman and a good wife, who tries to do a bad thing for a very good reason, but inadvertently does a very bad thing instead; and Giovanni Ribisi as a young man who sees in her a way to give his own life meaning. This film grabs us at the start, and doesn't let go until the astounding final shot - a shot so cathartic we find ourselves weeping for joy. A standout in any year, this film confirms Tykwer's place as the finest director working today.

The rest of the best:

"Bowling for Columbine" - Michael Moore does it again with this unsparing look at America's love affair with guns, and the way in which that sets us apart from most other civilized countries. The interview with the Michigan prosecutor charged with trying a six-year-old for murder, in which he shares some of the hate mail he's received urging him to execute the boy, is particularly shattering.

"The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)" - Was there ever a first film so compelling, so fascinating, so powerful as this? A look at the life of an Inuit clan in some undated time before now, with the resonance of a Greek tragedy and a centerpiece bravura sequence, on the ice of the Arctic ocean, that will have you gasping in amazement.

"Frida" - Julie Taymor ("Titus" and the stage production "The Lion King") gives us the life and loves of the artist Frida Kahlo, married, sort of, to the muralist Diego Rivera. The film is sexy, beautiful to look at, and filled with color and excitement and wit and sorrow. Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina are exquisite as the couple.

"Igby Goes Down" - A dark and original comedy that reveals first-time writer-director Burr Steers as the real thing. Kieran Culkin is 16-year-old Igby, adorable son of the bitch Mimi (Susan Sarandon), brother of the Republican Ollie (Ryan Philippe) and very quickly lover of Amanda Peet and Claire Danes. Igby's coming of age is is a brilliant piece of acting by Culkin, who deserves an Academy Award nomination for his work.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" - Director Oliver Parker gives this evanescent miracle of a play the right touch of, well, earnestness, without beating it to death. Light but solid, with a cast (Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Judi Dench, Reese Witherspoon (!)) that does it complete justice.

"Italian for Beginners" - Dogma 95 and comedy are two concepts that don't go together, except in this lovely film by the Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig. Ms. Scherfig brings six characters together in an Italian class and before long we are privy to many secrets, both funny and sad. Wonderfully well made as the unraveled strands of six lives are wound up together.

"Monsoon Wedding" - A relaxed and fascinating (to an American) look at a New Delhi family in the four days leading up to the arranged marriage of the daughter. Director and co-writer Mira Nair ("Salaam Bombay") has a perfect touch for the romance, the humor and the sad secrets that we learn in the course of the film. Adorned with some gorgeous songs and dances in the Bollywood tradition.

"Punch Drunk Love" - Were you upset by the rain of frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia?" You ain't seen nothing yet. From the arrival of a harmonium on the street to start the film off, to the seven sisters and the four blond brothers we meet under varying circumstances, this is a film like no other. Anderson is a filmmaker who gives no quarter, and I love him for it.

"The Shipping News" - Is it possible to translate one of the great novels of the late twentieth century to film, and survive? Somehow director Lasse Hallstrom, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, and a cast that understands every nuance of the story and their own characters have created a masterpiece. Kevin Spacey, in perhaps the hardest role of his career, is Quoyle, the homely lump of a man; since Spacey is not that at all, he has found in his talent and technical skill the ability to create it metaphorically. He is ably assisted by Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, and Cate Blanchett. A richly textured, absolutely compelling film that died everywhere but in my heart.

"The Son's Room" - Writer-director Nanni Moretti has fashioned a film about a tragedy - the death of a son - that confronts a family with an event beyond understanding or analysis; but it is also about the ways in which loss,grief and the ability to heal are all somehow built into the human psyche. Wonderfully acted, with a redemptive finale that is a lesson in itself.

"Spirited Away" - Hayao Miyazaki ("My Neighbor Totoro," "Princess Mononoke") came out of retirement to make this animated film, and we are all grateful. It is the beautiful story of a 10-year-old girl who undergoes a fairy-tale experience that will lead her into adolescence, something like "Alice in Wonderland" but owing nothing to that or any other work. An instant classic for children and adults.

"Storytelling" - Todd Solondz has made a two-part comedy that only a very strange person would find amusing; most of us would be either upset or frightened. And yet there is a cosmic wit to this austere work, in which two dissimilar stories turn out to be related in a metaphysical way. An adventurous film by America's most adventurous filmmaker.

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" - Alfonso Cuaron's film is a frankly erotic look at the rite of passage that brings two horny 17-year-old Mexico City boys into adulthood, as they travel with the older wife of a cousin to the coast, looking for a perfect beach. What they find is a much larger and more important lesson. The beautiful Spanish actress Maribel Verdu is the center of the film and of its lesson.