Combustible Celluloid

What Happened to Me in the Dark

Choosing 2002's Best films

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Was it a good film year or a bad film year? Most critics seem to grumble about the latter, but the fact remains that most film years run about the same. When we reminisce about some great past year, say 1939 or 1962, the bad films have faded away -- with the exception of bad Oscar-winners. They stick around forever.

But that's another story. Good films, truly great ones, stay in the memory on their own power, because they frightened, shattered, warmed or simply made us laugh.

This year, my glass is half-full as I choose to remember the following 15.

1) I'm Going Home
With this love poem to Paris, 94 year-old master Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira gave us his best and most accessible film. Michel Piccoli is in top form as the aging actor who loses his family in a car crash and tries to keep going with his work; he's so good he performs several scenes with only his feet.

2) Spirited Away
Like last year's Waking Life, Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece is probably too good to win the Best Animated Film Oscar, so just take it on its own terms: it's a kids movie laced with enough pure nightmare-fed imagination to make it an all-time classic.

3) Far from Heaven
The year's best American film came from the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Yet director Todd Haynes was smart enough to borrow only Sirk's autumn-tinged paint set. The hidden anguish raging beneath benign surfaces is all Haynes.

4) Werckmeister Harmonies
This three-hour, black and white Hungarian film by Bela Tarr played for one fleeting week in February at the Castro Theater, but its astonishing vision and hauntingly quiet poetic mood hung over the year like a fog.

5) Adaptation
The finest example of American screenwriting since Pulp Fiction begins with self-reflex and irony but -- amazingly enough -- breaks through the other side to discover a kind of humble truth.

6) The Pianist
Some have accused Roman Polanski of Oscar-baiting with this shattering, wrenchingly powerful Holocaust story showing how Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) eluded the Nazis for five years. But instead, it's a story presented with a dreadful calm, no self-importance and no frills; Polanski's best since Chinatown.

7) What Time Is It There?
Taiwan has produced some of the world's finest films over the past 10 years. One masterpiece, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo, would have made my list had it found a distributor this year. Instead, moments from this odd, wonderful comedy about Tapei and Paris and clocks and The 400 Blows kept flashing through my head.

8) Punch-Drunk Love
Many people hate this Paul Thomas Anderson comedy, which channels Adam Sandler's natural aggression into strange, uncomfortable and ultimately edifying places. Still, its strangely-colored world filled with odd music gave my soul a lovely snuggle.

9) Femme Fatale
Brian De Palma cannot separate cinema from voyeurism, and the delicious guilt that comes with it, and this film most clearly showed his damaged, needy psyche. On top of that, few directors alive possess the raw skill to pull off this film's stunning, bravura opening sequence. It's his best and most crystalline work since Scarface.

10) Gangs of New York
A lesser work by Martin Scorsese, but even one of his good ones is still better than most other films. The sheer exuberance of the filmmaking carries it through -- no one else loves the pure language of film as much.

And five more runners up: In Praise of Love, Merci pour le chocolat, Minority Report, Possession and 25th Hour.

David Cronenberg's Spider would have topped the list had Bay Area viewers been able to see it at any point during 2002. It's his best, most adult film since Dead Ringers. A quietly terse first-person plunge into a warped psychology, Ralph Fiennes stars as the title character, reliving his twisted childhood as if against his own will. The film opens in Bay Area theaters in February.

Honorable mentions to two perfect pairs: director Phillip Noyce for The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence and director Kathryn Bigelow for K-19: The Widowmaker and The Weight of Water.

Guilty pleasures: Blade II, Friday After Next, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Jason X, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Soderbergh's Solaris, The Sweetest Thing and Undisputed.

(See also the year's worst.)
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