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Before listing my top ten, I'll note that the criteria used in determining eligibility was a New York or Los Angeles premiere in 2002.

 

10. Les Destinees Sentimentales  - Rarely are epic films as sensitively conceived as this one, and rarer still is the movie that is as content to recoil from modernity, both in political and aesthetic approach. Simultaneously, Les Destinees Sentimentales works as an examination of the ways that time forces change upon people and the world that they occupy and a subdued celebration of what manages to remain constant, despite great external and internal pressures. The intimacy achieved in the magnificent ballroom sequence almost feels too alive to exist in a costume drama, and its observations about the ebb and flow of faith are remarkably delivered within the same framework. Three superb performances anchor the journey, but the entire ensemble excels here, giving the impression that life and passion extends beyond even the great amount that director Olivier Assayas shows.

 

9. The Piano Teacher - Isabelle Huppert delivers what is easily the performance of the year in this difficult, but never boring, slice of shock cinema. Her unerring dedication to the material powers the viewers through any moments in which director Michael Haneke's intentions become suspect. The unresolved nature of the film makes it one that warrants repeat viewings, no matter how difficult that first viewing is (and that perceived difficulty is all the more impressive considering how much of the sex and violence is implied). Both as an austere character study and as a look at the need for transgression in the face of fascism, this radical work is a white-hot, in-your-face experience that still respects your brain.

 

8. Spirited Away - Master animator Miyazaki stumbles a bit here if you compare this outing to his greatest works, but the result still qualifies as a cause for celebration. Spirited Away features several of the year's most remarkably enchanting moments (tears fall upward, the strike of the soot creatures) and inspired visuals interspersed along a wandering, nonchalant, and utterly charming narrative. The best moments here occur in the third act, in which conventional plot resolution is tossed aside to celebrate the honest-to-goodness friendships that we feel have formed.  

 

7. The Hours - As an attempt at adapting an "unadaptable", notoriously insular novel, this film succeeds brilliantly, mostly thanks to what is clearly one of the most distinguished acting ensembles ever assembled. Each member of the cast (with the exception of a shaky Ed Harris) allows us to understand the importance of the seemingly insignificant, which creates a cumulative, teeming neurosis that is tamed in a truly cathartic catharsis. Philip Glass' superb score ties these narratives together without ever overwhelming them and director Stephen Daldry moves forward considerably from the likable but maudlin Billy Elliot.  

 

6. In Praise of Love  - A dazzling display of Godard's distinctive brand of filmmaking, In Praise of Love is probably this year's biggest cinematic challenge, but for those willing to work to make the connections required to get something out of it, it's an immensely rewarding experience and proof positive that truly serious cinema is not yet dead. After a few viewings, I'm more convinced than ever of the sad power of its ruminations about memory and loss. Its narrative, which is partially concerned with mourning cinema's inability to become a universal language, is all the more affecting after I witnessed many of my peers reject the film without even recognizing that message. Technically, it shows the master still on the cutting edge. I'm not sure that there's a digital film that's more gorgeous than this one and the sound mix is so adventurous that it almost says more than the visuals do.

 

5. Far From Heaven  - Todd Haynes' plate-spinning act here never failed to captivate me. As his movie threatened to tip over into an ironic disgrace, it became difficult to place my emotional faith in it. It's only after the viewing experience ended, and I realized that my skepticism had been misplaced all along that the true dimensions of what the film is mourning became apparent to me. Cynicism seems to have become a natural response to emotional honesty, and a lot of energy is spent here trying to explain how that sad state of affairs might have come about. In retrospect, I see Far From Heaven as a profoundly moving, deeply observed, technically brilliant film. I only wish that my defense mechanisms had allowed me to see that the first time out.

 

4. 25th Hour  - There's no filmmaker quite like Spike Lee, and there are few that can work on his level when he manages to reign himself in a bit as he does here. 25th Hour doesn't shy away from provoking its audience, and rarely fails to really do so when it tries. Ostensibly a whodunit, the film plays out more like a modern morality play that's driven by a series of conversations about what it is to accept and assign responsibility for wrongdoings. Surprisingly character and ensemble-driven, this movie features, among other things, the most honest father-son relationship in recent film and at least one sure to be classic monologue, courtesy of the stellar Ed Norton.

 

3. Cremaster 3 - Obscure in the extreme, but still obviously heartfelt, this amazing, thoroughly conceived film plays out like a modern version of Jean Cocteau's Blood of the Poet and represents an astounding step forward for sculptor/film director/art-world celebrity/father of Bjork's baby Matthew Barney. Though it's tremendously self-absorbed (to the point where it contains no dialogue), its self-reflection becomes an inspiration of sorts as the amazing inner workings of Barney's mind are made plastic and exhibited before the audience as if they were the greatest of all spectacles. 

 

2. Spider  - Insularity dominates this uneasy masterpiece, which comes courtesy of Canadian horror director David Cronenberg. With surprising maturity, on both a cinematic and narrative level, he unfolds the story of a schizophrenic in a manner that truly conveys the dreadful subjectivity that must make the disease such a nightmare. A startlingly original, deeply moving performance by Ralph Fiennes keeps us frustratingly outside of the subject while superb support courtesy of Miranda Richardson coupled with the film's minimalist direction keeps threatening to pull us back in. 

 

1. Punch-Drunk Love - It's the rare romantic comedy that manages to make a sense of danger genuinely endearing, but P.T. Anderson's fearless filmmaking does just that here. No film I've seen better captures the feel of Los Angeles than this movie, and in that setting, Anderson finds a deep sort of disconnectedness that imbues everything that happens with such emotional reluctance that any attempt to make contact with another person feels like an act of great temerity. Large chunks here play out almost musically, carrying the viewer along in the sweep that potential love creates. On so many levels, this is my favorite film of the year, but it's its unguarded boldness in the face of failure that most pulls me in.


A Dozen Runners-Up

The Pianist, Trouble Every Day, What Time is It There?, Femme Fatale, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Songs From the Second Floor, Russian Ark, About Schmidt, The Truth About Charlie, 8 Women, 'R-Xmas, Maid in Manhattan

Best Achievements in Individual Categories:

Best Director P.T. Anderson - Punch-Drunk Love (Runner-up: David Cronenberg - Spider)

Best 1st Feature Group (Runner-up: Standing By Yourself)

Best Ensemble The Hours (Runner-up: 25th Hour)

Best Actor Ralph Fiennes - Spider (Runner-up: Michel Piccoli - I'm Going Home)

Best Actress Isabelle Huppert - The Piano Teacher (Runner-up: Julianne Moore - Far From Heaven)

Best Supporting Actor Brian Cox - 25th Hour (Runner-up: Barry Pepper - 25th Hour)

Best Supporting Actress Julianne Moore - The Hours (Runner-up: Miranda Richardson - Spider)

Best Original Screenplay - Todd Haynes - Far From Heaven (Runner-up: P.T. Anderson - Punch-Drunk Love)

Best Adapted Screenplay - David Hare - The Hours (Runner-up: Patrick McGrath & David Cronenberg -  Spider)

Best Cinematography - Robert Elswit - Punch-Drunk Love (Runner-up: Edward Lachman -  Far From Heaven)

Best Art Direction - Russian Ark (Runner-up: Far From Heaven

Best Costumes - Russian Ark (Runner-up: Punch-Drunk Love)

Best Editing - The Hours (Runner-up: Punch-Drunk Love)

Best Sound - What Time Is It There? (Runner-up: 25th Hour)

Best Sound Editing In Praise of Love (Runner-up: Songs From the Second Floor)

Best Visual Effects - Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Runner-up: Frida)

Best Makeup - The Hours (Runner-up: Songs From the Second Floor)

Best Score - Punch-Drunk Love (Runner-up: Trouble Every Day)

Best Song - Anything from About a Boy

Ten Best Foreign Films - 1. In Praise of Love, 2. Spirited Away, 3. The Piano Teacher, 4. Les Destinees, 5. Trouble Every Day, 6. What Time Is It There?, 7. Songs From the Second Floor, 8. Russian Ark, 9. 8 Women, 10. The Happiness of the Katakuris

Best Movie Trailer - None. I gave a shout out to my favorite movie trailer last year, but this year, I essentially stopped watching them because I was tired of having the experience of watching a film without prior knowledge of it lessened. Down with movie trailers!

 

Never let it be said that I don't know my tastes... Here's a link to an article I wrote at the start of the year that lists my most anticipated films of the year.

 

12-29-02

Jeremy Heilman