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THE BEST FILMS OF 2002

Written by movies  |  20. December 2002

by Ben Kenigsberg According to my brother, this was the year I evolved from mere aesthete to full-blown cine-snob. Perhaps it seemed that way because many of the year's best films -- an audacious re-imagining of the Douglas Sirk oeuvre, a single 96-minute tracking shot, an exercise in creative lensing with Adam Sandler under the microscope -- were aimed primarily at film buffs. It was, from my perspective, a worse year than the more bemoaned 2000 and 2001. Yet a few pearls surfaced, as pearls always do. 1. Y Tu Mam Tambin -- Life, death, and Mexico, as seen through the eyes of two teenagers who remain oblivious to everything except the moment -- even their incongruity as friends. Y Tu Mam is at once the most intelligent road-trip/buddy comedy of all time and a sincere rumination on the transience of youth and memory. But I'm making it sound pretentious, and it isn't. Utterly hilarious, the film is, as one would hope, safe for viewing at Dionysian parties. 2. Far from Heaven -- Even if it's less wrenching than some are claiming, what's most astonishing about Todd Haynes' collage (and updating) of the Sirk canon is the degree to which Haynes nails Sirkian grammar. Far from Heaven proves that it's possible to replicate another filmmaker's style completely without turning the resulting product into a parody. The clash between Haynes's ideas and technique is jarring, but it might be why the film is finally so resonant. 3. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) -- Far from Heaven is a movie that insistently calls attention to its movie-ness; The Fast Runner, by contrast, is the year's most transporting feature. With the intimacy of Pather Panchali and the epic scale of Ran, the first film made in the Inuktitut language is also so real that you forget you're watching actors. 4. Russian Ark -- Although its primary appeal is as a technical stunt, Alexander Sokurov's film -- shot in a continuous 96-minute take in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg -- is also a surprisingly poignant meditation on the human struggle to record, and thus preserve, history in art. (In one moment -- is it safe to call it a scene? -- an actor playing the father of the director of the Hermitage mentions how difficult it was to hold onto the collection during World War II.) Russian Ark is rife with small epiphanies -- an orchestra suddenly breaking the silence of the halls; the camera spinning around to reveal Rembrandt's "Danae" (which was itself nearly destroyed in 1985 by an assailant); the camera barreling down the hallway, chasing running children. 5. Punch-Drunk Love -- Salon's Charles Taylor put it best: "Walking out of Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, I was certain of only two things: that I had no idea what I'd just seen, and that I wanted to see it again right away." Overcoming difficulties -- like the apparent absence of a screenplay -- Anderson's inventive experiment in creative linkage of sound and image mysteriously morphs into the year's most lovely romantic comedy. 6. Bowling for Columbine -- Michael Moore may go too far, and his film may go on too long, but Bowling for Columbine is still an unusually enlightening conspiracy-theory documentary, by turns hilarious and nauseating. 7. Devils on the Doorstep -- The absurdist beginning of Jiang Wen's humanist anti-war film, about a Chinese man hiding a kidnapped Japanese soldier and his translator in late-WWII occupied China, belies but is essential to the power the movie works up by its end. Catch it at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth and Varick) through January 1. 8. Adaptation -- There's still a part of me that wants to flunk Charlie Kaufman for his solipsism, self-described though it may be, but Adaptation is still the year's most enjoyable and clever reality-fiction hall of mirrors. 9. The Truth About Charlie -- Easily the most underrated film of the year, Jonathan Demme's semi-remake of Charade (1963) brims with the joy of the freewheeling filmmaking of the French New Wave, even if it isn't as innovative. 10. Insomnia -- A bit of a safe play after Memento, Christopher Nolan's remake of the Erik Skjoldbjrg's 1997 Norwegian film adds a layer of character development and makes the talkative serial killer scenario seem fresh again. RUNNERS-UP (in alphabetical order): Catch Me if You Can, Sunshine State, Talk to Her. Like many film nuts, I was kind of counting on Gangs of New York to save the year. It didn't; the third hour was everything I'd hoped for, the first everything I'd feared, and the second somewhere in between. I considered putting that final hour alone on my list, but once you start cutting up films, you're opening a can of worms. Besides, the best ambitious partial failure of the year was not Gangs (which is still worth seeing) but Spike Lee's 25th Hour, now playing in Manhattan. Less of a mess than we've come to expect from Lee, 25th Hour is an acerbic character study about a drug dealer re-examining his life on his last day before beginning a seven-year jail sentence. Lee re-shot parts of the movie after 9/11, and the new footage, which at first seems exploitative, gives the film additional resonance. The three main characters (played by Edward Norton, Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman) are all gambling with their lives. What does it mean to waste a life, Lee asks, in a city where so much life has been wasted already?

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