Dec. 27, 2002-
The Coolest Month
By Mark Jenkins
Every week, the major Hollywood studios and some smaller distributors release new films, and critics dutifully review them. Increasingly, though, it seems that filmmaking (as opposed to popcorn retailing) is focused on just one month: December in New York and L.A., January in the rest of the country. Putting together two top-10 lists—one for this article, another for the Village Voice film critics' poll—made this clear for me. Cinematically, Washington and New York had very different 2002s.
Up there, the movies that qualify for this year's top-10 lists include ABC Africa, Blackboards, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Devils on the Doorstep, Intacto, Love Liza, Morvern Callar, Narc, The Hours, Max, Nicholas Nickleby, The Pianist, The Quiet American, Russian Ark, Take Care of My Cat, and 25th Hour, most of which will open here in January. (A few will probably show up even later.) In D.C., however, listers can reward such films as Black Hawk Down, The Devil's Backbone, Gosford Park, Iris, Kandahar, Monster's Ball, The Son's Room, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and What Time Is It There?—all released in New York in 2001 (or earlier).
Of course, some local reviewers pretend that they had the same year as their New York counterparts. That's not hard to do, because most of the more prestigious limited-release films are screened for D.C. critics before the end of the year. I've actually seen all but three of the December 2001 New York releases listed above (including four that I saw in local film festivals or repertory programs). But putting those films on a top-10 list for a Washington publication would be like reviewing plays that are being performed only in New York. (Oh, wait—the Post does that, too.)
This year, the release schedule leaves Washington filmgoers halfway through one of the bigger recent trends: films about defeated and secretly angry Middle American male losers. We've already seen Punch-Drunk Love, Adaptation, and About Schmidt all wildly overrated—but still have Love Liza to go. Although self-consciously wackier, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind can also fit in this category; after all, it was written by Charlie Kaufman, bard of the self-hating (if secretly self-impressed) schmuck. Just about any character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Love Liza, Punch-Drunk Love) or John C. Reilly fits the bill, too, so the latter's small roles in Chicago and The Hours (opening Jan. 10) should be mentioned here. More of these films are set in L.A. than Omaha, but that doesn't stop them from being Middle American. If sprawling, empty Southern California isn't the heartland, it sure looks like it on
My own top 10 includes only one American movie, which is probably the biggest commercial flop on the list. The others are foreign films, most of which had healthy runs locally. A number of them are actually about losers, but they evoke their characters' marginal lives far more persuasively than Hollywood's sad-sack auxiliary.
All or Nothing A contrived ending mars Mike Leigh's snapshot of South London working-class life, but the rest of the film is the year's most assured and nuanced ensemble piece.
Bloody Sunday Urgent yet pensive, Paul Greengrass' docudrama indelibly burns its images of the Jan. 30, 1972, Derry massacre that began 25 years of civil war in Northern Ireland.
Kandahar Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's startling tour of the Taliban's Afghanistan is a poetic mingling of fact and fiction whose unforgettable images trump technical lapses (and a controversial bit of casting).
The Fast Runner The first Inuit-made feature is an ancient tale of vengeance, set in a timeless Canadian Arctic landscape—and captured dazzlingly on digital video.
The Rules of Attraction The year's most brazen bad-boy stunt, Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary's audacious and hilarious satire set out to intimidate fans of both Dawson's Creek and Road Trip—and succeeded.
Sex and Lucía Yes, there's lots of sex, or at least nudity, but that's not why this is Basque director Julio Medem's most engaging film. The story slips through a wormhole, allowing him to divest the latter half of the sex-and-death combo
The Son's Room Writer-director-star Nanni Moretti's first drama—if that's what it is—takes "the Italian Woody Allen" to an unexpected place: an acceptance of transience that seems almost Asian.
Time Out No 2002 American-loser parable can match Laurent Cantet's account of an unemployed Frenchman who pretends he still has a job, defining himself by white-collar activities that would be meaningless even if he were being paid for them.
24 Hour Party People Unpredictable British director Michael Winterbottom's grand tour of the Madchester scene is a garrulous romp that both glorifies and needles Joy Division, the Happy Mondays, and the very idea of based-on-a-true-story flicks.
What Time Is It There? Set somewhere between Taipei, Paris, and the afterlife, existential absurdist Tsai Ming-Liang's film is part meditation, part vaudeville routine on the themes of losing, changing, and killing time.
Among the films that didn't quite make this list are Majid Majidi's Baran, Zhang Yimou's Happy Times, Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home, Richard Eyre's Iris, Eric Rohmer's The Lady and The Duke, Benoît Jacquot's Sade, Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie. Not contenders but still very intriguing were three distinctive thrillers from Spain, Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, Fabián Bielinsky's Nine Queens, and Intacto. (The third of these will probably open here in January.)
The National and Freer Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the American Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, the Museum of African Art, Films on the Hill, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, and La Maison Française screened hundreds of movies this year, as did the city's numerous film festivals. Many of them were retrospectives or revivals (of which perhaps the most stunning was the restored Metropolis at the AFI). Of the recent films shown in these venues (some of which will return in 2003 for repertory or commercial bookings), among the most interesting were Abbas Kiarostami's ABC Africa (Freer), Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards (National Gallery), Thomas Arslan's A Fine Day (Goethe/Visions), Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo (Filmfest DC), Nick Hughes' One Hundred Days (Visions), Wang Chao's The Orphan of Anyang (Filmfest DC), Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera (Freer), Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen (AFI), Jae-eun Jeong's Take Care of My Cat (Filmfest DC), and Maziar Miri's Unfinished Song (Freer).
Hollywood still makes plenty of films with straight-to-video production values, but it has developed some stylists whose work is worth seeing just for its look and feel. The most notable of such movies this year were Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, Sam Mendes' The Road to Perdition, and Steven Soderbergh's Solaris—all of them visually dazzling but narratively clumsy, simplistic, or uninvolving.
I didn't see anything this year that starred Freddie Prinze Jr. or Rob Schneider, so I can't judge what were surely the year's worst movies. Among supposedly intelligent films, though, a few particularly idiotic ones stand out: Gillian Armstrong's Charlotte Gray, Neil LaBute's Possession, George Hickenlooper's The Man From Elysian Fields, and M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. Even more unpleasant, though, where films that subjected their characters to rape, murder, and terror in the service of stories that didn't need to be told: John McKay's Crush, Bill Paxton's Frailty, and Pedro Almódovar's Talk to Her. Such pointlessly ruthless films are enough to make a defeated and secretly angry Middle American male loser drive halfway across the country, muttering to himself.
As to the question of most interest to wizards and trolls: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was better than its predecessor, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers worse. CP