The Best Films of 2002
by Craig J. Clark

It's been a bizarre year for me. I lost my job in April and spent the ensuing seven months collecting unemployment, which gave me ample time to go see movies. Lots of movies.

Over the last year I saw 31 festival or repertory screenings (including two programs of short films), six films originally released in 2001, and one re-release (the restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis). And I saw 32 films released in 2002, three of them twice. That's 70 films all told. My previous record was 54 films in 2000, but only 18 of them were released that year, so whittling them down to ten wasn't too difficult. This year should be more of a challenge, so join me, won't you?

Lilo & Stitch  [Dean Deblois & Chris Sanders] -- It seems sad that the first film to make my list wasn't released until June, but there's a reason why I have dubbed 2002 "The Year That Pretty Much Sucked." (This is not to say that all of films I saw before Lilo were bad, but quite a few of them could have been much, much better. Yes, I'm talking to you, Attack of the Clones.) Lilo & Stitch wins the Rat Race award for the film with the worst marketing campaign that turned out to be quite a hoot. Once I was able to look past Disney's blatant attempts to disassociate itself from the best film to come out of its animation studio in at least a decade, I had a grand old time. This was a fun, intelligent, inventive film -- and it was deliriously funny. I reveled in Stitch's destructive antics and didn't mind a whit when the film turned out to have a heart, too.

The Powerpuff Girls Movie  [Craig McCracken] -- Wait a second. Shouldn't the Rat Race award for the film with the worst marketing campaign go to The Powerpuff Girls Movie? No, because The Powerpuff Girls Movie had no marketing campaign. Plus, shortsighted theater owners didn't give it any late night showings (because The Powerpuff Girls is a kids show, you know) and yanked it after only a few weeks. I still managed to see it twice before it was banished from the big screen, sending it to an early box office grave and a full-frame-only DVD release. (Bite me, Warner Home Video.) More than just a spin-off of a successful television show, The Powerpuff Girls Movie succeeded because it had a movie-length story to tell and told it well. Best line/worst pun: "Nothing in this gray matters." That's our Mojo Jojo.

Minority Report  [Steven Spielberg] -- The only big-budget summer release that really delivered the goods in my estimation (Sam Raimi's Spider-Man came close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, as my father would say), Minority Report is a classic man-on-the-run story transposed to a frightening near-future (that seems nearer and nearer the longer President Bush and his father's cronies are allowed to get away with whatever they damn well please). After disappointing a lot of people -- myself included -- with last year's A.I. and its forty-seven endings, Steven Spielberg bounced back with a lean, mean, entertaining thrill ride that still managed to clock in at two and half hours. There's some substance there, I tell ya.

Spirited Away  [Hayao Miyazaki] -- Another in a long line of masterpieces from the Japan's premier animation director, Spirited Away is a film of great warmth and humor, as well as an acute understanding of how scary things can be to a child. Chock full of memorable characters and gorgeous visuals, this film even boasts a terrific English dub. (I can't tell you how often that is not the case with anime.) Sadly, this is another film that was under-promoted (again by Disney), but one can always hope that it will reach a wider audience on video. (You are releasing it on video, right, Disney?)

Bowling for Columbine  [Michael Moore] -- A frustrating film because it raises more questions that it can fully answer, Moore's latest documentary is just the kind of slap in the face that America needs right now. If only more Americans would go see Bowling for Columbine. Sure, some sequences work better than others, but the film as a whole paints a devastating portrait of our culture of fear and violence. Recommended to anyone with an open mind and a willingness to look at the nightly news in a new light. Watch out for snakes.

Punch-Drunk Love  [Paul Thomas Anderson] -- This film very likely represents the only time I will be able to say that I identified so completely with an Adam Sandler character. I could say more, but this is the kind of film that benefits the more you don't know about it. If you liked P.T. Anderson's other films but stayed away from this one because of Sandler's presence, don't worry. Punch-Drunk Love actually asks you to think about the conquences of its lead character's violent, anti-social behavior. (This means that Sandler's usual audience probably should -- and, in fact, already did -- stay away.)

Femme Fatale  [Brian De Palma] -- This was a long time coming. De Palma returns to form with his most complex and stylish film in decades. Some might complain that it's all style, but they obviously don't know a masterful technical achievement when they see one. Like last year's Memento, it takes a second viewing to pick up on all the clues that you missed the first time around, but I was more than willing to go back a second time. Probably the most fun I've had at the movies all year.

Far from Heaven  [Todd Haynes] -- This is another film about surfaces, but what's bubbling underneath is a critique of social mores that is as relevant today as it would have been if Douglas Sirk had actually been allowed to make it in 1957. From the exquisite settings to the precise color schemes to the period costumes and lighting, Haynes gets all of the details right, but he's no mere mimic and his actors bring real depth to their characters, making them more than just mannered '50s stereotypes.

Solaris  [Steven Soderbergh] -- I didn't mind Full Frontal as much as some people, so I didn't feel like this was some kind of return to form after a misbegotten misfire. I just thought it was the best science fiction film I've seen in years -- and this was in the same year as Minority Report. Elegant, sad, thoughtful, mesmerizing -- these are the words that come to mind when I think of Soderbergh's Solaris, a film that manages to fuse the personal with the universal without taking three hours to do so. (Not that I didn't like Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 version, which is based on the same Stanislaw Lem novel, but his films are notoriously hard to get through.) This film also contains the best film score I've heard in a long time. Cliff Martinez should be nominated for (and win) an Oscar, but his work is the kind that never get the recognition it deserves.

Adaptation  [Spike Jonze] -- Hey, for once Charlie Kaufman writes a screenplay that doesn't fall apart in the last act, but that's because Charlie didn't write the last act -- his twin brother Donald did. Once you see the film you'll know what I mean. In fact, if you haven't seen it yet, go now. It should still be out in theaters when I post this. Come on, go! What are you waiting for?

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers  [Peter Jackon] -- I lost count of how many times a shiver went down my spine while watching this film. That's how good it is. Eleven and a half months to Return of the King and counting.

For those of you who are good at math, yes, that was eleven films. I had eleven films on my list last year and it felt right, so I have eleven films on my list this year. Now for the runners-up: Todd Solondz's Storytelling (ever since I found out that there was a third story cut out completely at the studio's insistence I've been convinced that this film is a wounded would-be masterpiece), Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending (funny, but too inconsequential to make one forget about Allen's heyday in the '70s and '80s when he made films that were funny and substantial), Christopher Nolan's Insomnia (a well-made film, but not nearly as interesting as one of Nolan's own stories), Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también (an art house hit from Mexico with compelling characters and some images that will stay with me for the rest of my life), Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing (a gem of a film about a family of women with a lot of issues), Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (and you thought the star of Hogan's Heroes was just a regular guy), and Atom Egoyan's Ararat (a complex depiction of how the act of telling a story -- any story -- changes it in ways you wouldn't think possible). Hey, that's a lot of honorable mentions, isn't it?

For those of you who tuned in last year, in this space I included my list of the Top Ten Films of All Time. After much thought, I have decided to suspend that list because it gets more and more arbitrary the more really great films I see. Suffice to say, Terry Gilliam's Brazil will always be my favorite film of all time, and A Fish Called Wanda, Living in Oblivion, Manhattan and Schizopolis are perennial favorites, but I just don't feel the need to figure out what the other five are going to be every single year. I doubt that even Steven Soderbergh still does it. (I, of course, could be very wrong about this.)

At any rate, thanks for reading. Now, onward to 2003, which will hopefully suck a great deal less than this year.

Agree? Disagree? E-mail me at