"Spider-Man" didn't save anything

I liked "Adaptation" and "The Two Towers," but the blustery year of big directors paid mostly diminishing returns.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 23, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Well, it ought to have been a good year in movies, with ambitious new projects from Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg (twice, or three times if you count the rerelease of "E.T.",) Todd Haynes, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Sam Raimi, Roman Polanski, Sam Mendes, Alexander Payne, Atom Egoyan, Spike Lee, Hayao Miyazaki, Michael Winterbottom and any number of lesser-known but worthy directors. (Every one of those established filmmakers is male, and so it's worth noting that women directors from various parts of the world finally seem to be catching some breaks. With movies like Nicole Holofcener's "Lovely & Amazing," Raja Amari's "Satin Rouge" and Samira Makhmalbaf's "Blackboards," for example, we could be seeing the early stages of significant careers.)

In the hard, cold light of hindsight, however, I don't think I saw more than three or four films in 2002 that fully succeeded on their own terms. My strong suspicion is that the ghostly image of Sept. 11, 2001, continues to haunt filmmakers (and the rest of us). Our entire culture is in a hesitant, stumbling mode, uncertain whether or not we're at war or with whom, and increasingly fearful that, in the immortal words of Pogo the Possum, we have seen the enemy and he is us. Please don't waste your time sending me self-righteous screeds; I'm not "blaming America" for being attacked by time-traveling wackos from the 14th century. I am suggesting, however, that all the imperial bluster and braggadocio (not to mention the wholesale gutting of the U.S. Constitution) does not conceal the fact that our society is plagued by doubt and dissension and that our real problems are internal.

While Hollywood tried to address our insecurities with the CGI version of Manhattan and the geek-boy hero of "Spider-Man" (and audiences slurped it up to the tune of $400 million), my favorite films of the year worked through allegory and indirection. Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" situated a contemporary saga of closeted homosexuality and interracial love in the Technicolor conventions of 1950s melodrama. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón's "Y Tu Mamá También" looked like a tale of '70s-style sexual liberation, but it was also a canny odyssey through the political and geographical landscape of our southern neighbor, where class and race are all too often destiny. "How I Killed My Father," a flat-out brilliant intellectual thriller from French director Anne Fontaine that American audiences avoided as if it had art-cooties, may be an oedipal collision between father and son or may be a bourgeois husband's sexual, ideological and psychological breakdown.

As ever, there were movies I didn't catch this year that might well have made the list: "The Piano Teacher," "Blackboards," "About Schmidt," "Morvern Callar," "24 Hour Party People," "25th Hour," "Ararat." Apologies are due to those filmmakers and to readers alike. But then, who among us has a complete understanding of the world? Here, rendered with as little grouchiness as possible, are the best of what I did see in a lumpy, uneven year at the movies.

1) "Far From Heaven" Maybe you can't love the exploding Technicolor flowers of Todd Haynes' synthetic suburban landscape if you haven't been steeped in the gloriously fake '50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk (and other filmmakers of that period) at some point in your life. I gather that some viewers are confused by "Far From Heaven." Maybe they expect it to be a John Waters-style camp sendup, and can't adjust to its fundamental beauty and sincerity, the way it respects its characters but refuses to violate the rules of the artificial universe in which they find themselves. So, yeah, this wrenching tale of forbidden love in the scary postwar burbs is a movie for people who love movies, but I still don't think it's a postmodern in joke. If Julianne Moore doesn't take your breath away with her autumnal-bouquet outfits -- and if you don't reach for a hankie when she finally dances with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) -- then God help you. (Furthermore, if Moore, Dennis Quaid and Patricia Clarkson don't all get Oscar nods, there's no hope for Hollywood. Oh wait -- there's no hope for anyone. Never mind.)

2) "Y Tu Mamá También" A couple of upper-crust Mexico City teenage brats (Diego Luna and the irrepressible Gael García Bernal, also the star of "Amores Perros" and "El Crimen del Padre Amaro") hit the road with a bombshell older woman from Spain (Maribel Verdú) for a road trip full of nookie, jealousy and self-discovery. That's accurate as far as it goes, and director Alfonso Cuarón has a marvelously nonjudgmental wandering eye, always as alert to the chickens rooting in the dust in the corner of the frame as to the people fucking in the car in its center. You can't expect North American critics to know anything about the country next door, I guess, but is it too taxing to notice that this is also a lateral journey across the great mosaic of Mexican society, crossing various political, racial and class boundaries as it goes? Mexican cinema may seem to have arrived suddenly over the last two years, but at its best (as here and in "Amores Perros") it has a mordant, grown-up sophistication that makes most American films look like teenage stroke fantasies.

3) "How I Killed My Father" I don't know if French director Anne Fontaine will ever get the international audience she deserves, but based on this film and on her earlier "Dry Cleaning," she offers a rare combination of rigorous intellect and an instinctual feeling for cinema. An enigmatic fable about an affluent doctor in the Parisian suburbs (in Versailles, to be specific) whose long-missing father either does or does not abruptly reappear to throw his son's entire life and career into doubt, "How I Killed My Father" has the dramatic intensity of Ingmar Bergman and the chilly intrigue of Alfred Hitchcock. Visually, Fontaine's intimate and subtly distressing compositions are near perfect -- you could probably follow the story without subtitles, even if you don't speak French. OK, maybe the title scared viewers off, but in a quiet year for French movies, this was the standout.

4) "The Hours" Director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot") and screenwriter David Hare have done the nearly impossible, rendering Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel into a memorable -- and emotionally wrenching -- movie experience. "The Hours" is a lot of things, most of them quintessentially literary: a meditation on the nonexistence of time; the pattern of frustration, desire, liberation and loss repeated in women's lives; a theme and variations based on Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." By juxtaposing and intercutting scenes from the lives of Woolf (an astonishing performance by Nicole Kidman), a 1950s California housewife (Julianne Moore) and a 2000 New York woman (Meryl Streep) caring for a writer dying of AIDS (Ed Harris), Daldry actually makes this work on-screen. It's easy to be cynical about a multiple-Oscar candidate like this (Kidman and Streep are near-certain nominees), but when it's this engrossing and involves this much pure craft, it's better simply to enjoy it.

5) "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" No, it can't live up to "The Fellowship of the Ring," but that's not entirely a fair comparison -- Tolkien geeks (me included) had been waiting for that film their whole lives. If I never felt as emotionally overwhelmed by "The Two Towers," it still left me dying for more, even after three hours of nonstop adventure. It is ever more clear that the landscapes of New Zealand are Peter Jackson's secret weapon in adapting this most beloved of fantasy epics to the screen. If on one level his "Lord of the Rings" depends on a simple recipe (breathtaking vista, action scene, repeat) it's no less enjoyable for it. Purists may object to a number of diversions from the sacred text (indeed, I'm not convinced by the Aragorn-Warg episode or the reshaped character of Faramir), but the most important thing is that the battles of Helm's Deep and Isengard will leave you drained and exhausted -- by the prospect that you have to wait another year for the saga's conclusion.

6) "Adaptation" Some critics (among them my friend and colleague Stephanie Zacharek) seem determined to view Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's self-indulgent goofball rip-job on Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief" as some kind of cowardly cop-out, a crime against art, nature and God. To which I say feh. I have already written that I think "Adaptation" is a highly entertaining failure that can't solve the quandary of its own existence. It is a movie, after all, and despite its reckless attempts to mock or destroy the conventions of movieness, it finally can't escape them. But to me the question is simple: Is it fun? Is the movie's fictional version of Charlie Kaufman a classic self-hating sad sack? Is its version of Susan Orlean as a classic repressed lady writer in search of hedonistic liberation a subject of upscale librarian porn? Yes, yes and yes. "Adaptation" isn't an adaptation of "The Orchid Thief" and isn't really trying to be. It's a satire of various pretensions and affectations, those of Hollywood, those of literary journalism and those of its own creators. And it's funny.

7) "Russian Ark" This marvelous, mysterious creation by Russian director Alexander Sokurov deserves more attention than I can give it here: It's a 96-minute single take (that's right!), shot on digital video, that travels through St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum and through all of modern Russian history at the same time. Narrated by a visiting French aristocrat (and by an enigmatic, off-screen Russian voice), "Russian Ark" is simultaneously some kind of postmodern historico-artistic inquiry and a grand spectacle like no other. There are literally hundreds of actors (remember -- one take!), at least two live orchestras (I lost count) and a costume budget that would make Erich von Stroheim look like a penny pincher. Catherine the Great! Peter the Great! The doomed Czar Nicholas II! If "Russian Ark" occupies some oddball middle ground between documentary and narrative film (see also Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York"), it's all the more a strange, amazing, sui generis creation.

8) "Spirited Away" This is clearly not the masterwork of Japanese animation godhead Hayao Miyazaki -- that would be 1999's "Princess Mononoke" -- but hey, didn't you always know that the abandoned theme parks of the 1990s would become portals into another realm of existence? In this case, an enterprising young girl whose parents have been turned into pigs (and who can be surprised by that?) must negotiate the complex bureaucracy of the Bathhouse of the Spirits, ride the elevator with the Radish Spirit, dispense tough love to a demon called No-Face and fall in love with a boy who is almost certainly not what he appears to be. I realize that Miyazaki's wondrous, shape-shifting universe may seem somewhat less strange to Japanese viewers than to us, but it's precisely his Mixmaster approach to Eastern and Western myth and fantasy of all kinds (as well as his strikingly pure animation style) that makes him so distinctive. Anime as a whole isn't really my bag, but 15 minutes with "Spirited Away" -- or any Miyazaki film -- should be enough to convince you you're in the presence of a major film artist.

9) "The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)" OK, somebody's going to accuse me of handing out an affirmative-action spot here, and there might be a grain of truth to that. Here's what I mean: Zacharias Kunuk's debut feature is also the first film ever made in the Inuktitut language, and that in itself is a fact worth honoring. But it's the dazzling, all-white Arctic landscape, rendered in spectacular widescreen digital video, that lets you know there's a genuine aesthetic here that goes well beyond p.c. village-movie kitsch. A grimy, realistic retelling of an ancient Inuit legend about an evil spirit that invades a settlement, spreading sexual jealousy and causing a blood feud, "The Fast Runner" is not dense with plot and often demands considerable patience. Shot mostly at or near head level with a hand-held camera, the movie carries you bodily back to the Inuit settlements of premodern days, against the limitless flatness of ice and water and the boundless sky. For the truly adventurous, this year's must-see.

10) "All About Lily Chou-Chou" This elliptical, exasperating, intermittently marvelous story of alienated Japanese teenhood isn't quite the flick to bring international attention to the new wave of young filmmakers in Japan, but it comes close. Shifting point of view recklessly, shifting from the apparent objectivity of film to the subjectivity of video, and shifting tones from the sentimental to the sadistic and back again, writer-director Shunji Iwai assembles the story of Yuichi, a lonely kid obsessed with a pop singer named Lily Chou-Chou. (Except, that is, for the section of the film when Hoshino, a bully with James Dean good looks, seems to become the main character.) "All About Lily Chou-Chou" sometimes goes nowhere on purpose (and ultimately probably doesn't work), but it does so with more daring and panache than a dozen respectable three-act Hollywood flicks.

Honorable mention: "Gangs of New York," "Maryam," "Minority Report," "Moonlight Mile," "Punch-Drunk Love," "The Ring," "Satin Rouge."

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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