Thursday, July 08, 2004

Top 10 Films of 2002

2002 was a tough year for viewers. Just months after September 11th, we found ourselves timid to go out and do much. Travel was difficult, going to a concert seemed frivolous, but staying at home and watching a movie seemed a safe bet. The burden on films to soothe our troubled sleep was a great one.

Video sales and rentals increased, and the new installment of The Lord of the Rings and other blockbusters continued to show that Americans were ready to let go of billions of annual spending for the sake of entertainment. What else could we do, short of wondering about how we as Americans may have had something to do with the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. There were so many unresolved feelings that occurred for such a wide variety of reasons that it was possible that we were going to view movies this year with a more critical mind - if in fact we were going to the movies in order to do some thinking.

So, with no further ado, here are the films that remain fresh in my memory, these are the ones that floated to the top of the mix. This year, the items are presented in order of preference. Thanks for reading and feel free to send any comments to

Happy viewings!

1) Sex and Lucia (Spain)

Never mind the Y Tu Mama Tambien, this was probably my favorite film of the year, and for good reasons. The director gracefully handled themes of love, loss, redemption and, oh yeah, sex, in one of the most intriguing film narratives of the year. Although some critics found the story-line confusing, on a second (welcomed!) viewing, it was much easier to see the way that the whole was conceived. Of course none of that really mattered, the fusing of film narrative, author's narrative (the film is about a writer who is writing one of the sub-plots of the film) and the elements of a magically realized myth was presented in a completely coalesced film world, where it didn't matter so much how the pieces fit, but rather that at the end of the story, (even when a new beginning is suggested) most of the themes were resolved. This type of self-referential writing, which could be compared to the process in "Adaptation" (without the use of Hollywood steroids), can seem gimmicky, but only when you're aware that it is writing. In Lucia Y Sexo, the viewer is completely engaged in the images of the story (after all, it is film) and swept up by the beauty and playfulness of the actors as they traverse erotic love, tragedy and forgiveness.

2) The Pianist (Co-Production of France - Poland - Germany - UK)

Watching Roman Polanski re-enact his childhood memories of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw through the eyes of survivor and pianist Wladislaw Szpilman was the most powerful film experience I had with a new film this year. The Pianist is a sober, emotionally gripping film of courage that plays more like De Sica's diamond In the Garden of the Finzi-Continis rather than Spielberg's well-polished cubix zirconium Schindler's List. There's no frills, no sensationalized weepy moments of grandeur (although some of the scenes will certainly drive you to tears), just simply some of the finest performances of the year throughout the large cast of players that populate Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto. The Pianist is a truly great film by a master film-maker at the top of his game. (Winner of the Palm d'Or - Cannes Film Festival)

3) The Piano Teacher (France)

Okay, so there's a piano theme going here. Some folks will find this film hard to watch, but I found this startling meditation on power one of the most moving and disturbing films of the year. The film is fueled (beneath the surface) by an over-arching metaphor: that French culture is crippled when it relies on the art-forms established by the Hapsburg Dynasty. The film deals with the stagnation and the emotional and cultural paralysis that sets in as the heroine finds herself fenced in a cultural dead-end street. Isabelle Huppert (an icon of cinematic ice-queens) plays a master pianist that teaches at a conservatory in Vienna (where not a note of French music is played). She is a woman that is eclipsed on one side by her bitter matriarch at home and the patriarchal grip of the first and second Viennese schools of composers while at work. Rather than hitting the road and building a cultural identity of her own, she acts out rebellion in the form of torturing (both physically and sexually) her students.

Anyone that has gone through institutionalized musical training will find many of the images and conflicts in this film between student and teacher familiar, but certainly pushed to the border of extremes. For those of you not familiar with "Conservatory Training" (yes, in capital letters!!!), welcome to the darker side of music education. And you thought those skinny models had it bad.

4) Secret Ballot (Iran, in Persian)

Babak Payami won the director's prize at the Venice Film Festival this year for his simple little film about a woman that must spend the day collecting ballots for an election. She is dropped off on a small island full of idealism and has a full day to collect the votes of everyone that she can find and/or encourage to take part in the election process. Her challenge, among the many she faces along the way, is that she must be accompanied by an unwilling armed soldier who has little regard for women or voting who may just lose his job for his troubles.

Although the film starts slowly (for American audiences), the young woman faces issues of brutality, gender roles, and the seemingly every question one might have about the voting process, not to mention the act of voting when someone is standing nearby with an automatic rifle in their hands. Transcending ideas from odd couple films, road movies, and politically driven films, Secret Ballot is a film that is more dream than cinema - and it leaves you with impressions that could easily spark debate rather than clearly stated "ideas" about politics, feminism and freedom. Fascism? Not in this film - look to Hollywood for films that tell you how to feel.

5) Rivers and Tides (Germany)

The art of Andy Goldsworthy must be truly remarkable to see in person. If you don't have the time to travel to one of his locations and stand knee deep in a river, or wait while snow is falling at just the right angle, you might want to get down to the theater and catch Rivers and Tides - a beautifully crafted film that reveals Goldsworthy's process. Rivers and Tides, like Goldsworthy's work, seems to be blessed with an alchemy that fused the elements - in this case, film, subject and music, into a beautifully conceived whole. Time is the essence of the artists' work, the time that it takes to conceive and create on the fly, and the time, which literally changes with the weather and effects the work, that it takes for Goldsworthy's art to recede back into nature, which is often does.

If you're unfamiliar with Goldsworthy's work, Thomas Riedelsheimer's film is a wonderful introduction - perhaps the best way to experience his process, which calls on nature and the elements and culminates in sculptures that are made entirely of whatever the artist can find in whatever immediate environment he chooses. The stillness and simplicity of the work is something we could all aspire to take into our lives, and is especially inspiring to witness in this meditative documentary.

6) Bowling for Columbine (USA)

Michael Moore delivered the one film this year that clearly set out to look at some of the problems that fuel violence in America, particularly focusing on the problem with guns and how Americans make use of them. The film, while presenting all the usual problems of a Michael Moore film (bad editing, bad structural decisions, sloppy presentation of facts and themes), allows us to take a (decidedly biased) look at ourselves when we are in the possession of weapons. Along with presenting these ideas, the true gem of the film, and certainly reason enough to go see it, was the fast-paced sequence of US imperialist actions (our easy manipulation of developing nation governments, CIA trained contras, etc.) that could be perceived as events that led to the attack on 9/11.

Whether or not you like the way Mr. Moore goes about his business is really outside the point. His ability to startle people and catch them off guard allows us to see people at their worse, or perhaps merely their least prepared. I'm reminded of a statement that Martin Luther King once made: "show me not how a man acts in time of peace and tranquility, but how he acts in times of chaos and trouble" (forgive my possible mis-quoting). This idea seems to fuel most of Moore's films. He gets people on screen, whether they're ready or not, and asks them to defend themselves against his questions...questions any American should be prepared to answer.

In the case of Charlton Heston, (whom I've heard so many viewers defend as a result of seeing this film), I have only this to say: If you're going to be the spokesperson for the NRA, you damn well better know your shit and be able to stand behind your position. Heston, clearly, was not up to the challenge - he appears the nearly drooling idiot, and as Moore questions him to support any of the gun-toting rhetoric he so boldly pronounces publicly on a regular basis, Heston falls short of his heroic stance.

7) Far from Heaven (USA)

Todd Haynes seems to have a knack for drawing air-tight environments in a film. An earlier project of his, Safe, also a collaboration with Julianne Moore, placed a sterile suburban Pandora's Box beneath your nose, where chemicals and real and imagined illnesses could simply jump off the screen and infect you with ease. In Far From Heaven, he imagines, along with Moore, a suburban environment of a different era - one that includes the ubiquitous white upper-middle class clientele, replete with bigotry, homophobia, and a good dose of initiative (read: over competetive).

Watch Julianne Moore slip and slide along with Dennis Quaid through the thickets of New England bigotry, homophobia and a generous helping of upper-middle class initiative. Todd Haynes, who seems to love directing (as he did in SAFE) Moore seems a match made in the interior of American

8) Italian for Beginners (Denmark)

The Dogma film makers have sought to make films that step outside the traditions set in stone by Hollywood and the more traditional tracts of film-making. Part of the fun of watching these films is trying to work out what the "rules" are that they must follow. One imagines the following: Do not adhere to the usual structural considerations (the M.O. must be established and the problem set in motion by the 30 minute mark - the crisis and turning point must occur at the 1 hour mark, etc etc etc...), do not use special effects; digital cameras are preferred, handheld camera work is more natural than crazy cranework - to imagine just a few. This places greater emphasis on story and acting, both of which seem to rise to the occasion in most of the Dogma films and certainly in this case.

In Italian for Beginners, the viewer is rewarded with a host of seven interesting characters who decide that taking Italian lessons would be a great use of their spare time. While Lars von Trier and many of the other Dogma film-makers have chosen to focus on the darker impulses of human nature, writer and director Lone Scherfig has given us a film that features far more tender relations. Themes of forgiveness and the complications of sexual attraction between unlikely couples replace dark family secrets and the failure to communicate, although mis-shapen information is clearly one of the comic devices that allow the characters to revolve around one another like a stream of roulette wheels - each searching for a deeper connection with their community and a sense of belonging within and with someone else.

9) Sunshine State
John Sayles is an American film-maker of the first degree. He is one of the few directors largely concerned with problems that plague our country and he examines them faithfully in every feature. Even when he leaves the country and makes a film like Men with Guns, you're aware that he's also commenting on our relationship and influence on politics in Central America.

You can think of Shakespeare's "genres" and find that Sayles films fit easily into them: The Histories (Matewan, 8 Men Out, The Return of the Secacus Seven) The Tragedies (Men with Guns) The Comedies (Brother from Another Planet) and the Character-Driven Plays (Passion Fish). Surely Sayles style, particularly in Sunshine State, is much like a play that's being filmed in real locations. Dialogue is heightened, landscapes are there only to help tell the story, and the direction of the actors is just a little bit stilted, so that you're always aware that this is a "dramatization" of an idea - something that would read overly self-conscious in the hands of a less masterful director.

10) The Hours (USA)

This film had a hard struggle to find itself on this list. There was the problem of Michael Cunningham's book, which, despite its Pulitzer Prize status, proved little more than an exercise in how to write like Virginia Woolf. The ideas in the book are interesting, but as Nabokov (a vastly superior writer) once told us: "beware of ideas".

Mrs. Dalloway, the prime victim of cannibalism in this postmodern feast, is Woolf's response to James Joyce's Ulysses - a book that takes on epic proportions in its view of a single day in the life of an ordinary woman about to throw a party.
Capturing a single day on film proves a little more difficult (not that the above mentioned novels appeared without their own set of challenges). Capturing a single day in the life of three characters living in different time periods proves very interesting (the idea that perhaps exalted Cunningham among the literary cognoscenti) and extends the idea that Woolf used to show us 1) that women are still struggling to find their way in a male-driven society and 2) That queer identity still must struggle amongst a society that largely ignores their existence (or their right to an existence).

Getting past all of these ideas and noble gestures, The Hours offers of some truly fine moments in cinema. Nicole Kidman, in order to completely submerges herself in Woolf, hides in a remote spot in the country for months, doing little but reading and writing, and emerges as the ethereal hermit, blessed by genius, as was Woolf herself. Julianne Moore, one of America's great actors of her generation moves beneath a veneer of stifling suburban life - neither able to appreciate the "gifts" of the post-war housewife, nor the stability her nearly catatonic husband (read Ozzie Nelson) offers. Meryl Streep, in one of her many brilliant roles, somehow manages to tie up all the loose ends that the screenwriter offered the actors. The male roles could have benefitted from a closer eye on the book, Ed Harris' Richard comes off overacted and hyper, John C Reilly doesn't offer Julianne Moore much of a spine to rub up against.

Re: Discoveries

In addition to the 10 films that rocked my world in 2002, I have added a section for truly amazing older films that I saw this year for the first time. Some of them are classics - some obscure, some not. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, a group/panel of film enthusiasts who package great films on DVD and go way out of their way to remaster and restore prints of great films, some unsung gems are just blocks away at your local video store.

These three films, along with the Tarkovsky films that follow them, are some of the finest films to come out of post-war Russia. Unfortunately, due to the cold war and other complications, these newly restored classics have been sorely absent from American screens since their creation. Along with others like them, these works are beginning to make it into US video stores thanks to Russico (one of the larger Russian film distributors) and represent some of the post-war milestones of Russian cinema.

The Cranes Are Flying
From the very opening of this heartbreaking film, the audience is seduced by Veronica (played by Tatiana Samoilova), Boris (Alexei Batalov), and the cinematic vision of director Mikhail Kalatozov. Witnessing Balatov's conception for image design, it's easy to see the influence Eisenstein had on the director in these opening scenes, and also where Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock learned a few lessons on how to frame a shot.

Astonishing film technique aside, this post-war Soviet masterpiece was filmed in 1957, just one hear after Khrushchev's declaration of the "thaw", a time when Russians began to take back control of their artistic visions.
Consequently, Cranes has a unique vision of later day 20th century art in Russia. The story focuses on individuals outside the party, unlike so many previous films made during Stalin's lifetime. Kalatozov's film focuses on a beautiful love affair and how it is destroyed by the war. At the films' end, American audiences might find some of the Russian sentiment on war in drastic conflict with what we have been fed throughout most of our lives.

Veronica and Boris are blissfully in love, until the eruption of World War II tears them apart. Boris is sent to the front lines…and then communication stops. Meanwhile, Veronica tries to ward off spiritual numbness while Boris’ draft-dodging cousin makes increasingly forceful overtures. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, The Cranes are Flying is a superbly crafted drama, bolstered by stunning cinematography and impassioned performances.

Ballad of a Soldier (1959)
Ballad of a Soldier could be seen as a companion piece to The Cranes Are Flying. While Cranes shows the spiritual numbness of a woman separated from her lover during wartime (and for the rest of her life), Ballad presents a character whose innocence is comparable to the young protagonist in Truffault's The 400 Blows. Directed by Grigory Chukhrai

Russian soldier Alyosha Skvortsov is granted a visit with his mother after he single-handedly fends off two enemy tanks. As he journeys home, Alyosha encounters the devastation of his war-torn country, witnesses glimmers of hope among the people, and falls in love. With its poetic visual imagery, Grigori Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier is an unconventional meditation on the effects of war, and a milestone in Russian cinema.

Come and See

A dramatically different film that the other two Russian films on war mentioned above, Come and See was made years later (1985) by director Elem Klimov. The film begins with two boys unearthing a german rifle from a sand dune near the Russian front and continues with one boys' journey to his home village, only to find that the Nazis have invaded and are about to destroy. Not for the faint at heart, this journal of war and its effects on the human psyche is an especially heartbreaking experience in that it is seen through the eyes of children. Also included in the DVD are Stalin-era newsreels that depict the German invasion of Belarus - true stories and events which served as historical models for the creation of this film.

Director Alexander TARKOVSKY:

Seeing this film at the Tarkovsky Festival at the Castro was a good move. It's amazing seeing a large-scale visual feast like this in an old, enormous movie theater with lots of other viewers. Without a doubt, this was the highpoint of my film viewing experience in the past year, and probably in the past few years. Viewing Stalker on the big screen is like no other film experience.

What is decidedly different about Tarkovsky's films, (especially this one), is that if you're prepared to sit and be still and hang out with some slow plot developments, you're likely to come away from the theater feeling as if you've witnessed one of those religious experiences that have graced so many sages. It's possible that Tarkovsky doesn't make films at all, he makes experiences for people to work through. And yes, the films take work, there's the act of paying attention for over three hours, which, in this case, is relatively easy to do when the visual material is so rich and spiritually charged. What you don't get are easy answers, no bombs exploding, no cheap sex, and no clever dialogue to "capsulate" or "drive the plot". If you suddenly feel as though I'm speaking another language, you can stop here. If not, consider a film that can create a great deal of tension simply by showing a man and a woman sleeping in the dark. In the future, when I see David Lynch point a camera down a dark hallway and I suddenly feel terrified, I will think Tarkovsky and of the ways that he can frighten you by merely pointing a camera at a field, a tree, an abandoned building (not to mention a frozen sewer).


Ground control has been receiving strange transmissions from the three remaining residents of the Solaris space station. When cosmonaut and psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to investigate, he experiences the strange phenomena that afflict the Solaris crew, sending him on a voyage into the darkest recesses of his own consciousness. In Solaris, legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky creates a brilliantly original science fiction epic that challenges our preconceived notions of love, truth, and humanity itself.
(Criterion Collection synopsis)

Andrei Rublev

Widely recognized as a masterpiece, Andrei Tarkovsky's 205-minute medieval epic, based on the life of the Russian monk and icon painter, was not seen as the director intended it until its re-release over twenty years after its completion. The film was not screened publicly in its own country (and then only in an abridged form) until 1972, three years after winning the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Calling the film frightening, obscure, and unhistorical, Soviet authorities edited the picture on several occasions, removing as much as an entire hour from the original. Today, viewers can watch the complete version of a journey that placed the artist at the forefront of the search for meaning in the midst of the Tatar invasion and the loss and retreival of faith.

Other Re:Discoveries

Travels of Sullivan
Preston Sturges' bright and fast paced comedy is a road picture rife with satire that stars Veronica Lake and Joel McCrae.

The original film effort of GB Shaw's play, years before Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn decided to sing their way through this commentary on class and human destiny. Starring Trevor Howard and (the real delight) Wendy Hiller.

Movies that I really wanted to see but couldn't catch:
(i.e. - films that would probably have made this list if I would have caught them!)
Daughter from DanangIn Praise of Love
The Fast Runner


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