Film Faves: 2002

Welcome once again to another edition of Film Faves.  For those not already familiar, Film Faves is a monthly feature where I list my favorites from a movie-related topic.  Unlike many other lists, which feature a top 10 countdown with honorable mentions sprinkled on top, Film Faves is a list of a dozen movies or movie-related picks.  This is not intended to be an objective best-of list; it is unabashedly biased and all about the infectious enjoyment of film.

For those who have been following this feature it will come as no surprise that this post is focusing on movies from the year 2002.  Science fiction and fantasy ruled 2002.  The final pre-reboot Star Trek film, Nemesis was released, as well as Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones.  In many ways an improvement on its predecessor, Attack of the Clones ranked among the top box office earners of the year, but was the only episode of the series to not hit the top spot.  Other sci-fi and fantasy releases include Men in Black II, Die Another Day, and several of the films listed below.

Chicago, The Pianist, The Hours, and Adaptation were the big award-winners of the year.  Other noteworthy films were 8 Mile, About a Boy, About Schmidt, Bubba Ho-Tep, Frida, The Good Girl, Insomnia, Lilo & Stitch, Panic Room, Punch-Drunk Love, Secretary, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Unfaithful, Whale Rider, and Windtalkers.

The year had a good deal of middling releases, but few bad ones.  Those that rank among the ones that stank are Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (voted by many as the worst of the decade), Crossroads, Death to Smoochy, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, Master of Disguise, Mr. Deeds, Queen of the Damned, Simone, and Scooby-Doo.

But my favorites were:


12. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

We’ll start once again with a charming romantic comedy. This movie was produced by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and written by and starring Nia Vardalos, who turned out to be a sort of flash-in-the-pan talent. Greek Wedding is probably best-remembered as a cute little rom-com about a Greek woman snagging herself a man. Thankfully, it stands apart from the by-the-numbers romances by focusing on the main character, Tula (Vardalos), her family, and how her background and strict heritage makes for romantic conflict. It informs audiences about a foreign culture while appealing to a very relatable concept: the conflict our upbringing can create in a relationship with a different person. The cast is delightful, including Michael Constantine as the papa who’s proud of his Greek culture, Lainie Kazan as the nurturing mother, and a winning John Corbett (despite an unfortunate hairdo) as the guy who doesn’t remember a “frump girl” but does remember Tula waiting tables at her family restaurant. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a modern classic of its genre.

11. Signs

This is M. Night Shyalaman’s last good movie. It isn’t as gripping as The Sixth Sense or as convincing as Unbreakable, but it still works rather well. Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, and Abigail Breslin star in a story based on the crop circles myth. Shyalaman takes a page from Spielberg by not showing the aliens until the end, which adds to the intensity of many scenes, particularly the basement scene. Shyalaman may not have knocked it out of the park here, but he at least hit it out in the field, something he has yet to accomplish again.

10. Gangs of New York

Director Martin Scorsese went historical again with this 19th century tale about the fight between settlers and immigrants on the streets of New York. The broader struggle in the film can be applied in different ways to present day, but Scorsese went even more personal by plopping a story about a son seeking vengeance against a tyrant by the name of Bill the Butcher, who slaughtered his father. Daniel Day Lewis devours the role with bloodthirsty glee, stealing every scene from even his most talented co-stars. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the son now grown up, stars in his first “adult” role, letting the world know he’s here to stay (thankfully). Gangs of New York is often considered one of Scorsese’s middling works; however, while it may not be Goodfellas or even Casino, it’s certainly nothing to turn a glass eye to.

9. The Bourne Identity

Like Jason Bourne, I nearly forgot how awesome he (and this movie) is! This is one of the best action movies of the past 20 years. So great is it that it even influenced an old standby, the James Bond series. The chase in the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland features some of the best stunts, set piece orientation, and pacing in any action movie in recent years. Matt Damon previously proved he could do comedy (Dogma), drama (Good Will Hunting), and unsavory villainy (The Talented Mr. Ripley), but here he becomes one of the most bad-ass action stars of the decade. The Bourne Identity also shifted the genre from the meathead muscle to the cunning and lean Everyman with fast and brutal fight scenes. Great fun.

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

It’s interesting to go back and revisit the Harry Potter series now that most of the chapters have been released. I imagine Chamber of Secrets is the most interesting in this sense simply because it is the movie that best indicates how the film series worked as a whole. This is the film where we learn about Harry’s parcel tongue, that Voldemort is the heir to Slitherin, and we’re introduced to Tom Riddle, the Weasley family, and Malfoy’s father. There are also many characters introduced here that have zero to minimal presence in the rest of the film series: Aragon, Colin Creely, Dobby, Moaning Myrtle, Madame Sprout, and Sir Nicholas. It’s a shame that director Chris Columbus’s kitchen-sink approach resulted in an uneven, consistent inconsistent series; that said, this is still a really good family film. Considering all the garbage and mediocrity kids and families are spoon-fed in theaters, Chamber of Secrets is a diamond in the rough. It’s exciting, with well-developed characters, a steady pace and creative mystery. Even at its worst, one could do far worse than the Harry Potter series.

7. Minority Report

Minority Report seems to be, like The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can, one of Spielberg’s most overlooked films. Based on a Phillip K. Dick story, it is an interesting film for him in that it features some nasty eyeball imagery and its protagonist is addicted to drugs. Tom Cruise is a pre-crime cop who has a forbidden encounter with one of the experimental program’s pre-cogs (those who ‘see’ and report the crimes of the immediate future). This interaction leads to the accusation that he is going to commit murder – then the chase is on! Minority Report is a chase film, but Spielberg knows how to keep it interesting, including a wonderfully choreographed escape that begins in an alley, goes through some dinner-time apartments, and climaxes in a vehicle manufacturing plant. The movie is filmed in a grainy stock that makes the CGI effects seem more real and underscores the murkiness of our future. Minority Report is great sci-fi with thrills and interesting ideas.

6. Spirited Away

By far the most imaginative and magical animated film of 2002. Spirited Away is considered to be Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece and it’s easy to see why with its deliberate pacing and detailed imagery. Miyazaki combines the magical with the grotesque in a magnificent world. Do yourself and your kids a favor: instead of plopping them in front of yet another wiseacre fairy tale full of pop-culture references, show them any of Miyazaki’s films and I guarantee you’ll have happier, more thoughtful and creative children. Spirited Away is family animation at its greatest.

5. 28 Days Later

Director Danny Boyle claims this is not a zombie flick, rather a “rage virus as metaphor for society’s aggression” story. No matter what side you’re on, there’s no debating this movie is intense. Boyle spends ten minutes after the prologue in near silence; a strikingly inactive and desolate London, accompanied only by an occasional yell for life and John Murphy’s slowly intensifying score. Boyle thankfully staves off camp through realistic characters and quick cuts that keep up the frantic energy. This is excellent world-building and great horror. A classic in horror and the zombie sub-genre.

4. Spider-Man

This film was long in-development. For some time in the nineties, James Cameron was fighting for the rights to adapt it. Who knows what that would’ve looked like? Cult director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Darkman) was eventually offered the director’s chair. It may pale today in comparison to later superhero films, but Spider-Man was the first film to make $100 million during an opening weekend. Rising talent Tobey Maguire shot to stardom as Peter Parker. However, Willem Dafoe’s clunky Green Goblin and occasionally questionable effects held the film back in Superman: the Movie territory – one foot in comic book nonsense, the other grounded in reality. Regardless, Spider-Man was among the first three Marvel films to legitimize the superhero film once again in the public eye thanks to Raimi’s assured direction, a talented cast, and reverence of the source material.

3. Bowling for Columbine

Easily Michael Moore’s best work to date, not because of the subject matter itself as much as the structure and his handling of the film. Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11, which spent its first half in smug pointed-ness or Capitalism: A Love Story, which was full of grain-of-salt logic and theatrics, Bowling for Columbine shows Moore investigating an issue from various angles and discovering there is no single target to aim his Crosshairs of Blame. Yes, one may argue over Moore’s discretion during his heavy-handed and uncomfortable encounter with NRA head Charlton Heston during the film’s climax. But weigh that with everything else he pulls off and discovers in this film and you might cut him some slack for losing a bit of his cool. Regardless, being less confident and pursuant ironically resulted in Moore’s most apolitical and accomplished work.

2. The Ring

This film by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) kicked off a trend in Hollywood during the last decade: the boom of J-horror remakes. Thanks to this film we have The Grudge, Dark Water, and Pulse. It’s safe to say The Ring is the best of the bunch. This trend also kicked off something else Hollywood continues today: remaking recent foreign hits rather than playing the originals in the multi-plex. The decade began with foreign films hitting pay dirt with wide audiences. Now, a movie outside the U.S. isn’t more than three years old before Hollywood releases a remake. At any rate, The Ring is highly effective horror that relies less on gore and more on the pull of the mystery behind the stakes. Naomi Watts brings her A-game, giving us not another clueless waif, but a determined and intelligent character that ranks among the Sydney Prescotts (Scream) and Nancy Thompsons (A Nightmare on Elm Street) of the genre.

1. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Anyone looking for another The Empire Strikes Back need look no further than this, the best chapter in the fantasy epic. Smeagol / Gollum. Ents. Faramir. Black Gate. The Wolves of Isengard. Wormtongue. The epic battle of Helm’s Deep. The Two Towers introduced all of these things. This is cinema spectacle at its best. But there’s also great character work in Samwise Gamgee, the tragic King Theoden, and Gollum, one of cinema’s most interesting characters. Anyone who has any doubt about this chapter (even after recalling the events and characters mentioned above) needs to re-watch Sam’s exceptional monologue near the end, which works on a character level, a story level, and a historic level. At a time when the country was still reeling from tragedy and uncertainty it took an escapist epic titled The Two Towers to offer hope:
“How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, the shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine clearer.”
Stuff like this is why The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest films of the decade.

There you have it, my favorite films of 2002.  What are your favorite films?  Vote on the poll to the right or leave a comment below or on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or via email.  Is there a movie I neglected to mention that you feel deserves one?  I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Next time on Film Faves, come what may, tombs will be raided, monsters go corporate, and some cats sell out. But do we have to listen to Smash Mouth again?  See you then.


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