Music Features

Top "10" Films of 2002

You're probably asking yourselves, why would No Ripcord, ordinarily such a timely, on-top-of-things publication, wait until mid-January to publish their obligatory "best films of 2002" list? Shouldn't they have moved on to modern, 2003 films like Kangaroo Jack by now, and left the antiquated cinema features of the past behind?

Yes. Yes they should.

Alas, when I agreed to my editor's request that I compile this list, a very important detail had slipped my mind: I did not see ten movies this past year that I enjoyed. However, before you reflexively slap the "movie snob" label on me - the way all my friends and coworkers seem to - I am willing to admit that this is partially my fault. There were a number of promising films this year that I simply did not get around to, for one reason or another. (Read: a time-consuming addiction to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City) The Fast Runner, 8 Mile, Spirited Away: none of these will appear on this list because, fine movies though they may be, I didn't see them.

As a good-faith effort to come up with a comprehensive list, though, I have spent the past few weeks frantically storming my local houses of moving-picture amusement in the hopes of catching up on things. To my dismay, I came away from nearly every film feeling strangely dissatisfied; even if I sort of liked the picture, I felt as though I would be giving up my modicum of critical integrity if I placed it on this list. To wit:

Adaptation? Head-spinningly clever, but far more clever than enjoyable; you can get the same rush of meta-humor in the two minutes it takes to read the liner notes to XTC's Go 2 record. Far From Heaven? Fabulously shot, but nothing I haven't seen before. Insomnia? Fine performances all around, but it succumbs to an energy-sucking narrative inevitability midway through. The Bourne Identity? Excellent, taut direction from Doug Liman, but a fairly routine espionage thriller at heart. The Good Girl? Nope, that one flat-out sucked.

This whole exercise initially left me feeling rather worried - am I just a movie snob? Have my arbitrary "critical standards" and personal biases ballooned to a point where the experience of seeing a film has been reduced to a mere intellectual exercise, and I've lost the sheer joy of it? Do I need to buy some horn-rim glasses and start humorlessly namedropping Andrei Tarkovsky everywhere I go? But then I thought back to the films that I'd already placed on this list, and remembered why I put them there in the first place. Regardless of whether they're message films, stylized love stories, or satires, they all have one thing in common: the vibrant, invigorating sense of joy they exude.

As MST3K's Kevin Murphy wrote in his excellent book A Year At the Movies, a dishearteningly high percentage of what we watch on movie screens is entertainment only in theory. We drive to our enormous local googolplexes, plunk down our money, sit through two hours of Minority Report or Catch Me If You Can (to pick on Spielberg, who desperately deserves it), and then leave telling ourselves that we must have been entertained, even if we forget everything about the event only a matter of weeks later. Well, the following films are those I saw in 2002 that absolutely did not allow for such a forfeiture of experience. These are the ones that stick with you, and if there are only eight of them, well, eight mind-blowing experiences is pretty good for one year, I'd say.

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Michael Moore's cheerfully searing documentary doesn't settle for easy answers in its quest to uncover the reasons behind the proliferation of gun violence in the United States. Focusing his "common man" surliness on targets both obvious (soulless NRA mouthpiece Charlton Heston, George W. Bush) and less so (Dick Clark, K-Mart), Moore expertly leads a whirlwind tour of the irrational fear that pervades the nation. Simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, Bowling for Columbine is a carefully assembled media collage that leaves you questioning your own motives as well as those of everyone else... exactly the way a great bit of cogent mudslinging should.

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If you'd told me a month ago that the most fun I'd have at a film in 2002 would be a musical adaptation of a Broadway play, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, I would have politely punched you in the throat. However, Rob Marshall's film is unapologetically gleeful in its presentation of two imprisoned murderesses (Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger) competing for the media attention that went hand-in-hand with acquittal in the 1920s. With brassy wit, crisp direction, and instantly addictive songs, this is probably the best cinematic valentine to the underbelly of early-20th century America since Miller's Crossing. If it can conquer this critic's violent aversion to musicals, it can win over anyone.

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In Alexander Payne's satisfying, funny road movie that's in no hurry to get anywhere, Jack Nicholson gives the defining performance of his career. His Warren Schmidt is a sad, detached automaton who awakens to what's left of his life after big chunks of it (his job, his soon-to-be-wed daughter, other surprises that a courteous critic shouldn't mention) are suddenly whisked away. As he travels across the country, taking in sights and learning for the first time what introspection and contemplation feel like, you can actually see the sparkle of a soul start to flicker and gleam in Schmidt's eyes. Without ever becoming schmaltzy, this is the rare redemption story in which you leave feeling every bit as rejuvenated as the protagonist.

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A fairytale romance that owes more to the ghoulish humor of the Brothers Grimm than to the whitewashed Disney variety, PT Anderson's fourth film pulls off perhaps the biggest coup of the year: coaxing a deeply affecting, Oscar-worthy (not that he has a prayer) performance from Adam Sandler. You heard me. As a socially confused loner who wrestles all manner of demons (psychotic phone-sex kingpins, nasty sisters, the Healthy Choice corporation) to put his life in order for the woman he loves, Sandler achieves a twitchy vulnerability that only makes his assured victory all the sweeter. It's not a film that always makes sense even in the idiosyncratic world it sets up, but Anderson's "all you need is love" sincerity makes that easy to forgive.

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Two puerile, horny teenage Mexican boys hook up with a newly-single Spanish woman (in more ways than one) and take off on an impromptu journey to a beach in Alfonso Cuaron's playful coming-of-age romp. Along the way, the characters' attitudes toward sex, friendship, the future, and the intersection of those three things are challenged and changed, mostly through a torrent of dialogue that's beautiful in its ribald honesty. Even the film's weakest point - the distracting narration about details tangential to the plot, which is a gimmick that was put to much better use in Amelie and Run Lola Run - reveals itself as necessary in the end, matter-of-factly underscoring that there is plenty of pure ecstasy to be had in life despite (or perhaps because of) its transitoriness.

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If there were any justice in the world, this turn as a sour, over-articulate Madison Avenue man-child would've landed Campbell Scott on Hollywood's A-list. (If there were still more justice, he would've taken Elijah Wood's spot.) Scott's Roger talks in a stream of calculated, swaggering treatises on gender dynamics that are belied by his private, codependent neediness, and when his nephew (Jesse Eisenberg, "charmingly spastic" in the role, to use the film's own terms) shows up looking for advice on picking up women, Roger sees it as an opportunity to boost his own ego. As the two cruise, and Roger's rants begin to tip dangerously toward misogyny, misanthropy, and self-loathing, a weirdly uproarious little buddy picture unfolds. Roger Dodger is, at heart, a story of a boy becoming a man, but its inspiration is in the way it keeps you guessing as to which of the two will get there first.

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With no fewer than a dozen characters sharing more-or-less equal screen time, and dialogue that switches from English to Punjabi and back with a nonchalance that almost seems mocking at first, Mira Nair's ensemble comedy might sound like a headache of sensory overload on paper. However, once you get attuned to the whirling rhythms of the pre-wedding craziness that has gripped the Verma family (daughter Aditi is arranged to marry a man she's only just met), Monsoon Wedding could carry you along solely on its intriguing and lively web of interpersonal relationships. That it also scores plenty of points regarding open-minded notions of "family," as well as the clash of India's traditional caste system with the increasingly ubiquitous presence of Western culture, simply makes this already-sturdy film as solid as the familial bond it presents.

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It's no Rear Window, but this single-location thriller is an inventive and ceaselessly tense tribute to Hitchcock that's indelibly stamped with David Fincher's buzzy gloom. The setup is refreshingly simple: when three thugs break into her New York dwelling, Jodie Foster and child lock selves in impenetrable "panic room" for protection. Turns out thieves are after treasure hidden in panic room. Battle of wits ensues. Even when he resorts to self-parody (i.e., the amusingly gratuitous through-the-tea-kettle shot), Fincher's devilish enthusiasm for putting his characters through clever, Rube Goldberg plot twists never flags. Not a life-changer by any means, but a reminder of how much fun suspense films can be when they refuse to take themselves seriously.