In past attempts at putting together this annual list, especially in recent years, I've almost always had trouble paring things down. Either the films out there have been getting better or I've relaxed my standards. Here's hoping it's the former. But this time, having perused the titles of everything released this year (on a great Web site at www.filmreleases.com), I came up with a short list rather quickly. That isn't to say it was a bad year, just that there were less absolute stand-outs.
There was actually a lot of quality filmmaking in 2002. I intend to give many movies on my runner-up list a second or third viewing. Those would include: Last Orders, We Were Soldiers, The Cat's Meow, The Importance of Being Earnest, Insomnia, The Bourne Identity, Lilo & amp; Stitch, Signs, Barbershop, The Four Feathers, Secretary, Jackass: The Movie, Roger Dodger, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Catch Me if You Can.
Good films all (except the guilty pleasure Jackass), missing only that little something that would have caught me up, transported me completely, as you can only hope a film will.
For the record, there's a trio of films I haven't seen yet that I believe could be great: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chicago and Gangs of New York.
Here, though, are the ones I did see that did move me -- cinematically, emotionally, sometimes physically. They all will have opened nationally by the first week in February. They're in alphabetical order.
ADAPTATION -- The second collaboration, after Being John Malkovich, from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. It's not as surreal as its predecessor, but it is just as insane. Nicolas Cage, in superb form, plays the Kaufman twins -- Charlie and Donald -- and the film is about Kaufman's frustration in writing a film adaptation of the book, The Orchid Thief. It's also about the book's author (Susan Orlean, as played by Meryl Streep) and its subject (Chris Cooper). It's an odd film, sparklingly original, and very funny.
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE -- Documentarian Michael Moore aims at guns and gun owners in America, taking the title from the fact that the two kids who committed the Columbine shootings went bowling earlier that morning. As usual, the shlumpy Moore gets in lots of people's faces, sometimes embarrassing the hell out of them -- who would believe I could feel sorry for Charlton Heston? But Moore is mostly razor-sharp in his interview technique and in his method of getting the bad guys to show their true colors. He might be a little too nervy, but most of the time he's right on.
FAR FROM HEAVEN -- After the radically different Safe and Velvet Goldmine, director Todd Haynes went in a whole new direction with this paean to the 1950s films of Douglas Sirk, especially the melodramatic All That Heaven Allows. Here, housewife Julianne Moore falls for gardener Dennis Haysbert (the president on 24) after her husband (Dennis Quaid) reveals his own homosexuality. The plot is laid on a little thick, but the actors shine, and Haynes does more than pay homage to a director and a style -- he makes his own 1950s film, absolutely drenched in color.
THE HOURS -- Three, three, three films in one. This is about troubled author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, with a marvelous nose) writing Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920s, troubled housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore -- another housewife?) in the 1950s, and troubled book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) in modern times. All three women are terrific, as is Ed Harris, as a dying writer connected to them. Lots of story interweaving and time displacement, all done subtly, all done well.
THE TWO TOWERS -- The second part of Peter Jackson's screen telling of the Tolkien trilogy is exactly what this Rings fan was hoping for. The trek to Mordor to properly dispose of the little gold menace is just as thrillingly told as last year's introduction. But this film is much darker in mood and story. It does ramble a little in parts, but everything is made up for with the creation of and performance by Gollum, the best CGI character ever, voiced by Andy Serkis (give him a supporting actor nomination!) and by the spectacle of the huge battle scenes.
MINORITY REPORT -- Another grim look to the future from Steven Spielberg (hey, A.I. was no picnic), with Tom Cruise as a cop heading up an important police force that stops crimes while they're still being considered by the perps. Spielberg has always had great science fiction chops, and he goes at it with wild abandon here, with sleek cars that slide down the sides of buildings, as well as retro portable rocket packs on the cops. But as usual, he also tells a deeply human story. Standing out are the big blue eyes of Neal McDonough, who's currently seen on TV's Boomtown.
THE PIANIST -- Tough to choose here. Is it a Holocaust film, a Roman Polanski film or a tour de force from actor Adrien Brody? Don't choose. It's all three. It's the true story of Jewish Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Brody), who miraculously survived the Warsaw ghetto, where he hid out after his family was carted away. Searingly emotional stuff, an incredible recreation of what the hellish place looked like, and a great story of faith, perseverance and, some would say, pure, unadulterated luck. Lots of Chopin on the soundtrack.
THE QUIET AMERICAN -- From the prescient 1950s Graham Greene novel, this sure Oscar nominee stars Michael Caine as a jaded British journalist covering the beginnings of what would later become the "police action" in Vietnam, and Brendan Fraser as the mysterious man of the title, who shows up in 1952 Saigon saying he's there to give aid where needed, but who is harboring some secrets. Ah, and there's a woman involved. This is a spellbinding, intelligent, very adult film. Great story, fabulous acting and direction.
THE ROOKIE -- A nice surprise of a film, with Dennis Quaid as real-life baseball pitcher Jimmy Morris, a man who had to give up his dream of playing ball when his arm prematurely wore out. Satisfied as a high school teacher, but still yearning for that dream, he gets another chance. But this is no predictable bit of treacle. It's sweet and warm and very real, written with much sensitivity. There's also some fine and honest screen time between Quaid and Rachel Griffiths (an Australian with a dead-on West Texas accent) as his wife.
Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN -- Whew! What a hot tamale of a movie. From Mexico, it's a variation of a road trip story, with young pals Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna hopping in a car and searching for a legendary beach with hot and game older woman Maribel Verdu. A very sexy (and funny) coming of age tale with a message of living life to the fullest. It has a downer ending, but you still come out smiling wisely.