Spectacular musical 'Chicago' leads the year's best films
Two mesmerizing musicals were the two best films of 2002 -- and I can't tell you how strange and surprising it feels to declare that since I'm not a big fan of musicals.
But for days, even weeks, after seeing these two pictures, I couldn't get their infectious songs out of my head (I don't advise absentmindedly singing a song called "They Both Reached For the Gun" while sitting in an airport at Christmas). Nor could the film buff in me shake the wildly entertaining stories, the charismatic performances, the fantastic photography and about a thousand other exquisite details that made both movies completely unforgettable.
One of them is "Chicago," an ingeniously cinematic adaptation of the jazz-fueled Broadway hit about murderous vaudeville vixens, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and the magnificent Renée Zellweger in a career-best performance. We'll get to that one in a minute.
The other is called "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time In India," and it couldn't be more different. It's a nearly four-hour long epic "Bollywood" extravaganza about rain-starved Indian peasant farmers in 1893 challenging their cruel colonial British overlords to a winner-take-all cricket match that will determine if the farmers will have their taxes waived for the next three year -- or tripled.
It sounds ridiculous, I know. But the prolific Indian film industry has been cranking out pictures in this vein for years. They know what they're doing and this fabulous, whimsical, Oscar-nominated feel-good delight is the culmination of every ambitious, romantic, cinematic and melodious instinct of showmanship the country's studios have ever mustered.
However, "Lagaan" (now available on DVD -- widescreen is a must) can be only a footnote to this list because, as you might have guessed from the Oscar mention above, was officially released in 2001, although it didn't reach San Francisco until May of 2002.
But enough about the one that got away. Let's talk about 10 best films that really are from 2002:
No. 1) "CHICAGO"
Within the first five seconds of the first musical number of this incredible Broadway adaptation, director/choreographer Rob Marshall establishes such a sublimely vivacious speakeasy atmosphere of hot jazz, cigarette smoke and showgirls that you'll feel as if you've been transported backstage at a posh 1920s cabaret.
Reality, fantasy and stage performance bleed together through brilliantly creative precision editing as ambitious flapper floozy Roxie Hart (Zellweger) and rival siren Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), each arrested for murder, compete with all their showbiz acumen and feminine wiles for the attention of the expensive, unbeatable, headline-grabbing celebrity lawyer (Richard Gere) who has taken both their cases but seems interested only in whichever one can be manipulated to generate the most publicity.
Adapted for the screen by Oscar-winner Bill Condon ("Gods & Monsters"), whose innovative alterations take full advantage of the cinematic medium, "Chicago" is clever and funny, zestfully paced and every song is a show-stopper. It is, quite simply, one of the two or three best movie musicals I've ever seen.
No. 2) "ADAPTATION"
This navel-gazing behind-the-scenes dark comedy got its start as a commission for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to pen a film from Susan Orleans' "The Orchid Thief," a novel about the misfiring conservation philosophies of a real Florida flower poacher. But in the process Kaufman wrote himself and Orleans into the story, creating the most imaginative cinematic cerebellum-bender of 2002.
Directed by Spike Jonze (Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" collaborator) the film stars Nicholas Cage in a dexterously goosey performance as the madly insecure Kaufman and his fictional alter-ego, a vulgar, crass, freeloading nitwit twin brother who fancies himself a screenwriter too. Meryl Streep (as Orleans) and Chris Cooper (as the swamp-trash orchid poacher) round out the cast of this weird fact-fiction amalgam, building authentic, affecting characters while providing esoteric reminders that they are born of Kaufman's poetic license.
Where Kaufman's real-life devotion to "The Orchid Thief" ends and his fiction begins is anybody's guess. But "Adaptation" is a work of outstanding, brilliant originality.
No. 3) "FAR FROM HEAVEN"
An extraordinary homage to, and deconstruction of, Douglas Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s, "Far from Heaven" is a layer cake of potent emotion, puritanical taboo, composed anguish, and forbidden affections festering below the idealistic facade of an Eisenhower-era New England family.
Julianne Moore gives an intense, captivating, flawless performance as a consummate '50s housewife whose life begins to unravel when she catches her seemingly perfect husband (Dennis Quaid) having a homosexual affair. This in turn draws her toward the tender understanding of her gardener (Dennis Haysbert), with whom she dare not be seen because he's not her husband, he's not of her social class, and especially because he's black.
Operating on three levels at once while giving each a rich, resonant texture, writer-director Todd Haynes ("Safe," "Velvet Goldmine") masterfully marries the idyllic Technicolor fiction of post-War Americana with the authentic, imperfect humanity and the malignant subterfuge that always lay beneath it. A wondrous accomplishment of veracity and narrative grace.
No. 4) "CATCH ME IF YOU CAN"
Steven Spielberg's best movie in at least a decade, this capricious, invigorating, infectiously jaunty true-crime caper follows the extraordinary con-man career of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his finest performances to date), who kited millions of dollars in bogus checks while successfully passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer -- all before his 1966 arrest at the age of 20.
With an uncommonly light touch that doesn't leave familiar stylistic fingerprints, Spielberg creates a transporting, sunshiny-'60s atmosphere and plays all this deception for the cheeky, opportunistic fun it is in young Frank's mind. Meanwhile, John Williams' mellifluous, period-styled, progressive jazz score fits perfectly with the cat-and-mouse game played between DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, who relishes his role as the humorless, starched-shirt FBI agent frustrated at every turn by this teenage charlatan. Brilliant, timeless and destined to be a classic.
No. 5) "THE ROOKIE"
Navigating the cliché-clogged, slippery-slope obstacle course of the feel-good family film genre has to be one of the hardest challenges of modern moviemaking. So the fact that "The Rookie" is a nearly impeccable cinematic experience -- and a warm, wonderful, all-ages triumph besides -- is a miracle akin to the story the film portrays.
Dennis Quaid (again!) stars as real-life high school baseball coach and science teacher Jim Morris whose quashed major-league ballplayer dreams came belatedly true in 1999 when he tried out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and found himself pitching in the major leagues.
Director John Lee Hancock has such a command of the picture's emotions that he can induce goosebumps for the high school's "big game" scene in the first act while saving plenty of excitement for Morris's recruitment, for his first time on the mound before 40,000 fans, and more. As unbelievable as this story would seem if it weren't all true, it's even more amazing that it's depicted honestly, sap-free and brimming with pure cinematic joy. This may be one of the all-time great baseball movies.
No. 6) "IGBY GOES DOWN"
Snarky, sardonic, silver-spoon-raised Igby Slocumb (Kieran Culkin) has been booted out of every prestigious (and not-so-prestigious) prep school on the East Coast -- and one military academy too. A bored, intelligent, resourceful and willful teenage screw-up, he's almost proud of this record, even though he'd be the first to admit it's a cry for attention from his sad yet comically dysfunctional family. Now, having escaped the limousine taking him to yet another boarding school, he's on the loose in Manhattan and determined to get by on his own (or at least with the help of his mother's American Express card).
Sharp, sagacious, philosophical, zestfully tangy, wistful and pensive dark-comedy delight, "Igby Goes Down" is tightly packed with droll dialogue, gloriously glib personalities and crackerjack acting from an under-appreciated cast including Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet, Susan Sarandon and Ryan Phillippe.
No. 7) "ABOUT SCHMIDT"
An unaffected, quietly melodious, uniquely American melancholy comedy, "About Schmidt" stars Jack Nicholson in his most tactile, nuanced and natural performance in years. He vanishes into his performance as a former insurance actuary from Omaha, Neb., whose life has become untethered in the double-whammy wake of recent retirement and sudden widowhood. Trying to cope with a glut of sorrow and regret, Schmidt sets out on a soul-searching road trip -- the eventual destination of which his daughter's unfortunate wedding to a mullet-headed waterbed salesman -- documenting the lonely journey in hilariously frank, compulsively long letters he writes to a Tanzanian orphan he sponsors through a TV-advertised charity. Droll yet heartfelt and as profoundly affecting as it is sweetly, surprisingly simple. Written and directed by Alexander Payne ("Election").
No. 8) "WAYDOWNTOWN"
This tremendously inventive, ironically relevant big-city-office dark comedy, is a sardonic but whimsical sign of our times in workaholic Western society. About a quartet of friendly but ruthless office rivals who all live and work in an interconnected, high-rise office-mall-apartment complex, the movie begins a few weeks into a bet they've made to see who can stay sane the longest without setting foot outside -- and every one of them is about to crack. Semi-linear, sardonically funny and quite kinetic, it's reminiscent of "Trainspotting," "Run Lola Run," "Office Space" and "Being John Malkovich," and ranks right alongside those films as a defining entry in the emerging school of smart, avant garde filmmaking born of music video but creatively matured thanks to young directors' unbridled magic-carpet minds.
No. 9) "IVANS XTC."
Set in the most furtive, cutthroat corners of the film industry, this tense and pensive, Tolstoy-inspired, digital-noir dark showbiz farce stars Danny Huston (son of director John Huston) in an astounding performance as a young, serpent-smirking talent agent who is diagnosed with cancer and goes on a soul-battering binge of drugs, drink and sex. Based on Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," this potent, surprising piece of seat-of-the-pants cinema retains every ounce of the weighty Russian melodrama's tragic tinge while capturing Ivan's discombobulated state viscerally through creative, agitated cinematography and a classical-and-electronica score you can feel crawl over your skin.
No. 10) "THE QUIET AMERICAN"
Politically intricate, emotionally complex and psychologically gripping, this understated thriller features Michael Caine's most profound performance in ages as a London Times reporter in 1952 Vietnam, just as the French are losing their grip on the country and the CIA is secretly laying groundwork for the disastrous U.S. involvement there. Brendan Fraser co-stars as an ostensibly guileless American aid worker who befriends Caine but proves to have darker motives. Stirring dialogue by screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare In Love," "Enigma"), who adapted Graham Green's novel of the same name, aids the film's psychological punch. Directed by the accomplished Philip Noyce, who also helmed this year's Australian import "Rabbit-Proof Fence".
An emotionally and factually detailed, uniquely personal true story of the day-by-day Holocaust survival of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a composer and musician who eluded deportation to concentration camps in 1942 by hiding in the ghetto as it was emptied by German soldiers. Adrien Brody's portrayal of Szpilman's walking-wounded state of shock permeates the screen in a way that sneaks into the senses and rattles the soul.
An adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel about three women in three different time periods whose lives are profoundly affected by Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." Equally magnificent performances from Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman (as Woolf) are emotionally resounding and tied together beautifully by Philip Glass's modest but fervently illustrative score.
"KISSING JESSICA STEIN"
On the leading edge of romantic comedy, this fresh, frank and melodiously funny crowd-pleaser discovers a novel avenue to stroll down with the genre's reliable old friend, the romantically frustrated New York neurotic. A history of bad dates and dysfunctional relationships leads Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt, who co-wrote with co-star Heather Juergensen) to answer a "Women Seeking Women" personal ad on a whim. Sweetly comical, romantic and sexual misadventures follow. Popping with personality, amusing awkwardness and idiosyncratic, naturally chatty one-liners. Gay or straight, this is one of the greatest date movies in years.
"THE CAT'S MEOW"
Kirsten Dunst gives a spunky, sensual, savvy, sensational performance as Hollywood starlet and William Randolph Hearst's mistress Marion Davies in this smart, foxy, spirited historical showbiz anecdote based an incessant rumor about an infamous and mysterious death aboard the Hearst's yacht in 1924. There's never a dull moment with Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and insolvent producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) on board. Delightful, memorable, tense, funny and dramatic.
The funny flip side of "Far From Heaven," this affectionate, sophisticated French film parodies Technicolor melodramas and musicals of the 1950s, with some mock-Agatha Christie thrown in for fun. An ironic, estrogen-overloaded, cinema-couture candy whodunit, it's full of frivolous twists and frothy performances from an A-List cast including Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant and more.
"ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS"
With this warm, evocative, sublimely human, sweetly melancholy romantic comedy, the fascinating Danish-born minimalist moviemaking style called Dogme95 has graduated beyond its signature look of shaky-vérité handheld cameras, "found" settings and natural light. Writer-director Lone Scherfig has dropped the pretense and just made a wonderful movie about curiously interconnected, enduring and endearing, remarkably well-drawn adult characters who each find love while taking an Italian class one quiet winter in Copenhagen. A true gem.
"DOGTOWN & Z-BOYS"
A kinetic, spirit-capturing documentary that recounts with vivid enthusiasm the history a group of teenage surfers who took their wave-riding athletic style from the beach to the hot asphalt of a dilapidated south Santa Monica in the 1970s and led a revolution in skateboarding that continues to influence youth culture to this day. Winner of the Audience Award and the Director's Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, this flick is about as cool and crowd-pleasing as a documentary can get.
"THE BOURNE IDENTITY"
I love James Bond flicks, but I'd take this kind of sensational, cerebral thriller over cartoony gadget- and stunt-driven pictures any day of the week. Matt Damon gives a sharply focused performance as a highly-trained CIA assassin with amnesia who is surviving on his lethal instincts while on the run in Europe from his own people -- who are trying to kill him even though he doesn't know why or who they are. Directed by the understated and resourceful Doug Liman ("Swingers," "Go"), this is a film in which even a seat-gripping car chase through the streets of Zurich bristles with brainpower, yet the movie's best scenes are character-driven.
"THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING"
A distinctively empathetic meditation on the choices we make that define our identity, "The Business of Fancydancing" is a about an egotistical, intellectual, gay American Indian poet (Evan Adams) making an unwelcome return to his reservation 16 years after leaving to make his fortune by publicly exploiting the heritage he privately shuns. Independent Indian filmmaker Sherman Alexie (writer of "Smoke Signals") does an extraordinary job of bringing to life the fear, frustration and bitterness of his cast of characters, as well as the blood ties and kinship that bind them together in spite of it all.
"CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND" (review coming soon)
George Clooney's auspicious, egoless directorial debut, this semi-surreal dark comedy is based on "Gong Show" host (and "Dating Game" creator) Chuck Barris's "unauthorized autobiography," in which he claims to have been a part-time CIA assassin. Starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts, and written by "Adaptation's" enjoyably askew Charlie Kaufman, it's a deadpan delight that plays at being serious but doesn't take itself seriously at all.