TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2002

 

 

1.)  TALK TO HER                                                  A                     97                   

Spain                                      Pedro Almodovar

 

A moving, hypnotic film with a wonderfully unusual rhythmic pace, largely underscored by some extraordinarily sensuous music and dance sequences which are fully integrated into the storyline, along with a unique inner black and white silent film that is both hilarious and sad, all at the same time.  I'm not aware of another film so sensitively probing a relationship between two men, who each, themselves, are searching for the love of a woman.  This is a superbly directed film about improbable circumstances and the mysterious search for love, where there is so much going on under the surface, almost all of it unrealized, similar perhaps, to Kieslowski's A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE, and while invisible to the human eye, this road winds it's way into our hearts with some deeply compassionate, beautifully told storytelling, always balancing boldness and originality with such an effortless, artistic grace.

 

2.)  SPIRITED AWAY                                              A                     97                                           

Japan                                    Hayao Miyazaki

 

I loved, simply adored, the unending imagination on display here.  I found Miyazaki's film an absolute delight, just a terrific experience.  My 7 year old daughter Eva got a chance to read her first sub-titles, and she loved it.  She understood it all, not that it was that hard, but there were plenty of families that walked out, as their kids refused to even try reading sub-titles.  Many were crying and whimpering that they wanted to go, while of course their parents were enamored with the film and they didn't want to leave.  So all throughought this film there were whimpers and moans of kids who couldn't bear the thought of having to endure a "Japanese" language film, and it turns out to be one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, and enchanting film experiences of the year.

 

3.)  SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN               A                     96                                           

China                                     Tian Zhuangzhuang

 

Certainly worth the wait, the director of HORSE THIEF, a timeless film that seems more relevant each passing year, and THE BLUE KITE, which took its shots at the devastation left behind by the Cultural Revolution, thoughts that blacklisted this director from working again in China for nearly a decade, Zhuangzhuang returns with a seemingly "conventional" film, yet there is an extraordinary precision, a marvelous attention to detail, very slow, very subtle gestures replace action in this style of film which I felt packed the most powerful cinematic wallop of any film seen this year.  There is a poetic rhythm and grace to this film, which also features a quiet, underlying, and very subtle musical elegance.

 

4.)  THE TRILOGY                                                  A                     95                   

France  Belgium                 Lucas Belvaux

 

A trilogy, opening with my favorite of the 3 sections, a taut, atmospheric suspense thriller featuring a terrific performance by the director himself playing the lead character, who escapes from prison in the opening scene, no explanation is given for his crime, but we learn he is a radical fugitive, a master of disguises, who walks through crowds of policemen completely undetected, bold, undaunted, an unbelievable study of control.  The camera follows his every move in extremely close, graphic detail.  There is a wonderful pace to this film; the sound of a pulsating bass underscores the tense, edgy mood. Throughout the Trilogy, there’s some brilliant writing going on and the acting is flawless.  Each section features new lead characters as well as new musical inventions, there are some overlapping story interludes, some terrific editing, as this story moves right along at a brisk pace, and the story is always fresh, unique, and interesting, one of the most original films of the year.  This is the one film that put a smile on my face throughout the entire ordeal.  I began to think of this film as you would your ideal or perfect partner, gorgeous to look at, sexy, terrific staying power in bed (6 hours!), and it’s still intelligent and witty in the morning.  Great stuff!  Simply a terrific film experience. 

 

5.)  PLATFORM                                                       A                     95                   

China Hong Kong  Japan  France        Jia Zhang-ke

 

So emotionally detached throughout, a very oblique presentation, with little or no narrative, this played like a documentary with very little embellishments, it reminded me of a style of three Russian documentaries from Kazakhstan that showed at Facets a few years back, Sergei Dvortsevoy's BREAD DAY, PARADISE, and HIGHWAY, particularly the latter, which featured a broken down circus act in the middle of this vast emptiness where there was nearly no life at all...

Set in the 1980's this nearly broken down bus or truck drives into the middle of nowhere, so our Chinese version of the Satantango collective can present their "cultural performance art," in this case an extremely primitive rock n roll show, while few, or no one, pays them any interest, in one scene, right out of HIGHWAY, two dancing girls are dancing on a flat truck parked on the side of the highway, as buses and trucks whiz by, but no one stops in this ominous desert and mountain backdrop.

 

The decade of the 80's opens needing Party approval for all State sponsored art, so kids are seen bored stiff at lifeless cultural performances singing the praises of China only in the most affirmative manner, something akin to pre-school exhibitions here, glorified by an always shining sun and by beautiful bright colors, but in this film, no one is fooled by this.  Initial images are shot in near darkness or with the bleakest of light and there's a kind of feint, glowing aura surrounding such diminished light.  Initially there is obviously no heat or electricity in this cold, barren, wintry landscape, so each image features frost on the breath and the cold, desolate interior brick rooms, occasionally, people gather around a stove for warmth, they really don't want to move at all, bricks dominate the exteriors as well, the obvious poverty in the images is similar to many Iranian films, as there is absolutely nothing to grab the interest of the graduating high school class, who have no expectations of a better life, yet they are constantly seen interacting, but largely avoiding one another, smoking, staring off into the barren landscape, saying little or nothing, unbelievably detached from the rest of the world and each other, one guy is seen again and again with different girls, none of them stick, the characters are a revolving door, now you see them, now you don't, some characters are seen throughout the film, like regulars, others appear and then disappear...

 

6.)  SEVENTEEN TIMES CECILE CASSARD              A                     95                   

France                                                           Christophe Honore

 

It's exquisitely directed, well-written, beautifully edited, and in my view, Beatrice Dalle literally carries this film, she is utterly fabulous, rivaling even the great Isabelle Huppert's PIANO TEACHER performance this year, and while saying little, this is one of the more sensuous performances I've seen in years, better even, in my view, than Samantha Morton's performance in almost the exact same story in MORVERN CALLAR, a film about grief and loss that veers into a road movie.  Well so does this one, but it's much more of an intense, interior journey, there are no hallucinogenics here, it's all natural; the common theme here seems to be disassociation, displacement, disorientation, someone who has lost touch with the world. This is a carefully crafted look at a more mature women who is looking to find her way back, not gracefully, but she is utterly fearless by making choices that, in my view, not one of us has ever contemplated. That's the originality factor here. The mood of this film is dead serious, yet odd, and always emotionally challenging. I felt it was exploring feelings most of us don't even know we have; the musical rock overtures come out of nowhere and are emotionally bone jarring, and yes, they absolutely rock us from any sense of calm or complacency and add to the continuously disorienting mood in what is otherwise a very quiet and spacious film.

 

7.)  MORVERN CALLAR                                       A                     95                   

Great Britain Canada                                 Lynne Ramsay

 

Described by the director as "a bit of a head trip," this is an extraordinarily precise, brilliantly sensual and expressionistic film, which if you can follow me here, is told in a wildly impressionistic style, small miniature portraits, unraveling vignettes from the life of the character of Morvern Callar, another wonderfully original performance by Samantha Morton, (think of JESUS' SON), as she literally re-invents herself from frame to frame, exploring her wildly intense adventures through Spain in what might be termed an acid-western-style road movie, as most of it is happening internally, she literally transforms herself into a new human being before our eyes, partying and traveling with a friend, played by the non-professional actress Kathleen McDermott, with large periods of no dialogue.  Ms. Ramsay originally intended the entire film to be wordless.  I found this to be a very personal, yet very dreamy homage to love, with sections reminding me of the LSD sequence in EASY RIDER, also some terrific musical selections, particularly memorable is Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking With You."  Not easily explained, as there's not much explanation offered, just an exquisitely crafted montage of a film, beautifully shot by Alwin Kuchler, who also shot her previous film RATCATCHER.  I can't think of another film I've seen this year that had such originality of images that were each so stunningly beautiful.

 

8.)  THE GREY ZONE                                            A                     95                   

USA                                                    Tim Blake Nelson

 

A film based on the director's own play set in Auschwitz, featuring the Sonderkommandos, Jewish concentration camp workers whose job it was to lead their brethren to their deaths in the crematoriums and then clean up afterwards, a job usually lasting about 3 or 4 months until they were replaced by a new group.  They were given special privileges, causing large doses of personal guilt, but they were also always under the gun of the Nazi's, and each ultimately faced their own impending death.  This film revolves around their internal thought process, how they were ordered to perform horrid, involuntary jobs, but also how they thought each day, each moment, as there were rare moments where perhaps one action might change their own, or others, all-too-certain fates, and how this constantly plagued their state of mind, challenging one another inside a concentration camp, always searching for a glimpse of freedom, rebellion, or for others, a preference for an immediate death.  The play is inspired by essays written by Primo Levi, also the documented, true life experiences of Dr. Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor who was ordered by Dr. Mengele to perform certain nefarious medical experiments due to his high expertise, who survived Auschwitz and lived to reveal what happened inside the camps.  Despite the devastating severity of this subject matter, where each of the characters is faced with their own unspeakable moral dilemmas, there's a boldness to this film which I found poignant and profound, truly a rare event.

   

9.)  THE SLEEPY TIME GAL                                A                     95                   

USA                                                    Christopher Munch

 

What a discovery!  Christopher Munch does a brilliant job of weaving together multiple story lines with characters that haven't seen and don't know about one another, confronting incredibly powerful moments in their lives.  There's some terrific writing here, and there's also brilliant acting by all involved, Jacqueline Bisset? I could hardly believe it myself. I know Scott Tobias paid tribute to Charlotte Rampling re-inventing herself in recent roles, but she never had a part as well written or as fully realized as this one.  Add to this Martha Plimpton and Nick Stahl, both worked beautifully together before in Tim Blake Nelson's first film THE EYE OF GOD, which is one of the best American films I've seen in recent years.  Seymour Cassel, of all people, from the Cassavetes films, reappears here along with Frankie R. Faison.  All are simply fabulous.  This is amazingly human, as intense and emotionally compelling as anything I've seen this year.

 

 

10.)  BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE                     A                     95                                     

USA                                                                Michael Moore

 

A counterpart to Scorsese's bloody and violent vision of American history, this is instead a hilarious, satirical film essay on America's obsession with guns, both funny and frightening, the likes of which I haven't seen since Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE.  Finally, a breath of fresh air in a political arena that simply stinks of mediocrity, I was delighted to have someone ask good questions that really have no answers, and someone who can demonstrate that sharp humor is the best medicine into the hearts and minds of a whole new, as yet undiscovered, generation that hopefully will love and adore Mr. Moore's brilliant animated history of the USA, arguably the best 5 minutes of any film seen this year.        

 

 

Special Mention

 

CODE UNKNOWN                                                  A-                    94                                           

aka:  Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys

France  Germany  Romania                     Michael Haneke

 

An intense, ravishingly beautiful film, a mixed, cross cultural integration of personal experiences that is unlike any other film seen this year, using, in my view, completely original cinematic methods, as the director's style here is to film, with utter clarity and a brilliant sense of being exact and concise, what appears to be random sequences, incomplete fragments from people's lives that, without any explanation at all, produces such a depth of emotion from an audience that is forced to unseal the secret to this madness. 

 

ESTHER KAHN                                                      A-                    94                   

Great Britain  France                                 Arnaud Desplechin           

             

Winner of the French Cahiers du Cinema award as the best film of the year 2000,this is an extremely dense, somber, and complicated film that unravels quite slowly, revealing excruciating detail, like the attention paid in a novel, and watching this film IS like watching a novel unfold. While I didn't care for the narrator, as I felt he was out of balance with the rest of the performances, this film features some of the best ensemble acting I have ever seen, and the lead, Summer Phoenix, is fabulous. Her innocence and naiveté some might find implausible, sort of a cross between Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. I can buy that critique, but she's still fabulous, partially because she's unlike anything I've ever seen before. This film is unbelievably beautiful, filmed by Eric Gautier, and part of what is so unique about this film is how it doesn't ever show what you'd expect. It's always surprising, and despite its length, the film never reveals more than it needs to. At 163 minutes, it's extremely concise, to a fault, I'd say, which is one of the wonders of this film. It's filled with brief moments which are simply wonderful, some of the best you're likely to see all year, particularly the theatricality of the last 20 minutes, and all these moments add up in the end to an extraordinary film experience. The family experience is quite unique, Ian Holm is brilliant, and what this film has to say about the theater hasn't been seen in films since Cassavetes' OPENING NIGHT or perhaps Chaplin's LIMELIGHT.  But, believe it or not, this film is much "less" conventional. I never knew where this film was going, and now, having seen it, it still has multiple possibilities. This is a powerful, incredibly provocative film.

             

 

 

Best Actress                                                Best Actor

 

Beatrice Dalle – 17 Times Cecile Cassard         Daniel Day-Lewis – Gangs of New York

 

 

Best Supp Actress                                     Best Supp Actor

 

Samantha Morton – Minority Report                 Ian Holm – Esther Kahn

 

 

Best Director                                               Best Screenplay

 

Michael Haneke – Code Unknown + The Piano Teacher            Lucas Belvaux – The Trilogy

 

 

Best Cinematography                               Best Art Direction

 

Alwin KuchlerMorvern Callar                        Spirited Away