2002: The Year in Reviews

By Steven D. Greydanus

You can see the glass as half empty or half full.

Yes, 2002 was another year of big-budget popcorn movies (Spider-Man, Attack of the Clones), not to mention humorless "comedies" (The Hot Chick, The Master of Disguise) and witless sequels (Men in Black II, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me).

But there were positive trends too. For instance, it was a better year for families at the movies than in quite some time. Despite some disappointments and failures (Spy Kids 2, Big Fat Liar, Hey Arnold!, Scooby-Doo), there were solid successes (The Rookie, Stuart Little 2, Lilo & Stitch) and a sizable number of decent efforts (Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, Powerpuff Girls, Return to Never Land, Tuck Everlasting, Treasure Planet, Wild Thornberrys).

There were also a couple of split decisions (Was Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron enjoyable or tendentiously politically correct? Was Spirited Away a family film at all?), and a pair of warm-hearted ethnic wedding comedies celebrating family (Monsoon Wedding and of course My Big Fat Greek Wedding) that weren’t exactly family films. In any case, there were more worthwhile family flicks in 2002 than in the previous two years combined.

Religion at the movies

2002 was also a remarkable movie year for religion. In the films The Count of Monte Cristo and Signs, Jim Caviezel (a devout Catholic in real life) and Mel Gibson (a member of a breakaway traditionalist group) play heroes whose faith in God is shattered after devastating personal crises, but is ultimately restored in faith-affirming resolutions. (Caviezel and Gibson also teamed up to make the religious movie event of 2004, The Passion, directed by Gibson and starring Caviezel as Jesus.)

Catholic novelist Nichols Sparks’s A Walk to Remember was brought to the screen with teen pop diva Mandy Moore as a squeaky-clean Fundamentalist girl who didn’t mind her peers mocking her for her faith, was a poster girl for sexual purity, and helped morally transform a disaffected classmate (Shane West). The Rookie prefaced its real-life story of baseball late-bloomer Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) with a pair of nuns consecrating to St. Rita the ground on which Jimmy would practice his pitching, and suggests that his miraculous comeback may be due to her intercession. Finally, the VeggieTales movie proclaimed God’s mercy and forgiveness as well as his loving care for Jew and Gentile alike.

Making movies for grown-ups

For thoughtful entertainment pitched at a grown-up level, 2002 was decidedly mixed. On the one hand, most of the year’s ambitious efforts at adult moviemaking ultimately failed to deliver. On the other hand, consider how many more of those ambitious efforts at thoughtful adult moviemaking there were this year than in the last couple of years. Even those that didn’t entirely succeed were often intriguing (Changing Lanes, Signs, Solaris, Bowling for Columbine). Others were at least trying to do something interesting, and perhaps came close enough to success to be frustrating (Adaptation, The Four Feathers, Gangs of New York, Punch-Drunk Love, Road to Perdition, The Salton Sea, S1m0ne).

Then there were some that were well-wrought on their own terms, but morally problematic or objectionable (The Hours, Far From Heaven). And a few simply didn’t work, but had good intentions (John Q, Dragonfly).

Finally, some films actually succeeded as thoughtful, superior adult entertainment: Insomnia, Minority Report, Monsoon Wedding, The Pianist. These stratifications, of course, are personal and subjective; some readers will want to count one or more of the titles from earlier paragraphs as "successful" films, or perhaps discount one or more from this one. (I’m sympathetic to advocates of Changing Lanes, Signs, and Solaris, though I don’t ultimately quite buy any of these films.)

But however you rank them, compare the above list to comparable films from the last couple of years with aspirations as thoughtful adult moviemaking (e.g., the 2001 list might include A.I., Amélie, A Beautiful Mind, Black Hawk Down, Memento, Training Day, and Vanilla Sky). The year 2002 may have brought more failures than successes, but all in all it was arguably a more intriguing year.

The Year’s Best

I’ve always had misgivings about the time-honored critical tradition of the annual top-ten list. For the past two years, the Decent Films Guide has instead tried to identify the year’s top films in the categories of Art, Religion, and Values (the three categories of the Vatican film list).

This year, however, as a member of the Online Film Critics Society I no longer have the luxury of flouting convention; the annual top-ten list is an obligation. Rather than proceed with two different systems of recognizing the year’s best films, then, I will end my brief experiment with the "Decent Films Guide Awards," and present instead, with all the usual misgivings and subject to change without notice, the first-ever Decent Films Guide year-end top 10 list.

Some caveats: The ten films in the list below are not ranked; the order is alphabetical. Some are suitable for the whole family, others are adult fare; where possible, please check the full reviews for content advisory and ratings information, including appropriate-age ratings. (Unfortunately I don’t yet have full reviews for every title below, but I’ll seek to rectify that as soon as possible.)

The Decent Films Guide Top 10 Films of 2002

Runners-up: About a Boy, The Count of Monte Cristo, Stuart Little 2

Insomnia
Al Pacino stars in director Christopher Nolan’s remake of a Norwegian film about a sleep-deprived big-city detective trying to solve a murder in a small town above the Arctic Circle where the never-setting summer sun becomes a metaphor for the inexorable light of truth. Stylishly directed by Nolan, the film examines the moral ambiguities of its story in the harsh light of day. Robin Williams, in the second of his career-reinventing trifecta of bad guys this year, is effective as a self-aware, creepily ingratiating killer, and Hilary Swank costars as an inexperienced but sharp local cop.

Lilo & Stitch
Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders helm what is one of Disney’s clearest breaks from the moribund formula of its 1990 cartoons, and a one-of-a-kind success. Lilo (Daveigh Chase) is more troubled and vulnerable than any Disney heroine to date, while alien monster Stitch (Sanders) is downright nasty throughout enough of the movie to make his eventual transformation meaningful. Refreshingly, a Disney cartoon reflects honestly about the drawbacks of life in a broken family, yet it remains pro-family. The Hawaiian setting provides genuine creative inspiration, and the jaunty watercolor backgrounds are luminous.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Peter Jackson’s historic trilogy of epic mythopoeic adventure continues in this sequel to The Fellowship of the Rings, which is more spectacular and epic in scope than its predecessor, but also departs more radically from the source material. Triumphs include Gollum (brilliantly performed by Andy Sirkus and astonishingly rendered by Jackson’s effects team), the magnificent two-part resolution of the conflict that began at the bridge of Khazad-Dûm, and the visionary sieges at Helm’s Deep and Isengard. Tolkien’s Catholic themes continue to resonate, boding well for the finished project.

Minority Report
Steven Spielberg directs Tom Cruise in a rip-roaring sci-fi thriller set in a provocatively conceived near-future in which skyscraper-climbing freeways overlook decrepit tenements, billboards call to pedestrians by name and pitch them products based on their purchase histories, and ubiquitous retina-scanning technology offers convenience at the price of lost privacy. Bravura action sequences with jetpacks and robotic assembly lines jostle with moral questions about social and existential freedom, and spiritual references and allusions appear throughout the film.

Monsoon Wedding
Indian director Mira Nair’s art-house crowd-pleaser tantalizes with its exotic sights and sounds while simultaneously offering reassurance that relationships and family life in any culture come with the same heartaches and the same joys. Father of the Bride pandemonium proves an apt genre for hugger-mugger Bollywood filmmaking with its disparate moods and tones. Many of the characters are ennobled by redemptive moments of selflessness on behalf of another, and morally problematic situations come to sometimes painful but necessary resolutions.

The Pianist
Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski, who once declined to direct Schindler’s List, finally confronts the Holocaust in an utterly different but equally masterful film, one that resolutely avoids melodrama, polemicism, heroics, or sentimentality. The Nazis commit ghastly atrocities, but aren’t demonized; the protagonist, a classical pianist (Adrian Brody), survives, but isn’t celebrated. The result is a powerful film that is not about good and evil or cowardice and courage, but simply, starkly, life and death, civilization and chaos.

The Rookie
Root, root, root for the home team, and St. Rita, ora pro nobis. John Lee Hancock’s sweetly inspirational, beautifully photographed valentine to the national pastime tells the true story of Texas southpaw Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), who got a second chance at his childhood dreams of Major-League glory after recurring shoulder pain and a series of surgeries put an end to his minor-league career. Real-life Texas southpaw Quaid is terrific as Morris, supported by Rachel Griffiths as wife Lorrie and giggly Angus T. Jones as son Hunter.

Russian Ark
Once the advent of digital video freed filmmakers from the constraints of physical film, it was only a matter of time before someone made the first feature film entirely in one take, without a single edit or cut. Aleksandr Sokurov’s experimental art-house meditation on Russia’s cultural heritage and current identity crisis has the distinction of being that film. For 96 trance-like minutes, Sokurov’s camera drifts from room to room in the Hermitage, a St. Petersburg monastery turned art museum. Though casual viewers with no special interest in either film history or Russian history may be bored to tears, for serious film students Russian Ark is a must-see.

Spirited Away
Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s beguilingly surreal fairy tale draws on mythology, animist spirituality, Alice in Wonderland, workplace dynamics, and environmental motifs, crafting a dreamlike spirit world of shifting realities. The imagination here as unbaptized as that of Homer or Sophocles - and even more alien to Western Christian sensibilities — yet the imaginative power and visual virtuosity of Miyazaki’s creations are well worth appreciating.

Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones
The dialogue is clunky, the romance flawed, but ah, for the magical worlds in which it all takes place — the glorious Flash-Gordon cityscapes, the breathless aerial car chases and coliseum derring-do, the swashbuckling heroics of the Jedi order at the height of their power. Lucas continues to develop the mythology of the nascent Empire and the boy who will be Darth Vader, along the way casting a positive light on both marriage and celibacy, as well as a moral shadow over the promises of human cloning.

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