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Cinema 2002 

A surprising year in film

It's that time of year when the nations' critics are expected to line up from coast to coast, denounce the past 12 months as a miserable period for cinema, lament the long-gone Golden Age of Hollywood, and end with a stirring rendition of "We Shall Overcome."But somebody switched the script pages this time around. Like the oasis of water at the center of a desert mirage, the notion that 2002 was a decent year for film might still appear a little fuzzy, but it's coming into focus. Forget the box office returns: Yes, it was a robust year for ticket sales, but when something as lackluster as Men In Black II is partly responsible for such an economic windfall, it's obvious that true success can't be measured in such crass terms. What does work is reflecting back on the movies that succeeded in making us think or feel, and then realizing, perhaps with a burst of surprise, just how many titles managed to pull this off.

Of the 165 movies I screened in 2002, there were plenty that jumpstarted my enthusiasm. It's not just the films that reside in my Top 20, though obviously they cornered the market share of my attention. Rather, this past year was one in which Hollywood demonstrated it had deep pockets, releasing a large number of titles that, while probably not positioned to be long-standing classics, at least offered plenty of laughs or thrills or what-have-you. From 8 Mile to Moonlight Mile, from The Pianist to The Piano Teacher, from Red Dragon to White Oleander, from Nicholas Nickleby to Roger Dodger, 2002 saw a dizzying array of worthwhile efforts from all sorts of genres -- enough solid titles, in fact, that home theater enthusiasts should have an enjoyable 2003 playing catch-up.

Of course, let's not forget that the year also witnessed the usual hefty number of losers: bloated star vehicles (K-19: The Widowmaker, Bad Company), lame TV knockoffs (I Spy), ill-advised remakes (Solaris, Mr. Deeds), tepid thrillers (High Crimes), etc. And then there were the pictures that looked so godawful, I couldn't justify wasting two hours of my life on them (yes, I'm primarily thinking of The Country Bears).

At any rate, here's a look at the best and worst from a better-than-average year. May 2003 follow closely in its footsteps.

THE 10 BEST

1. FAR FROM HEAVEN (Todd Haynes). The best picture of 2002. It's a little frightening to realize exactly what writer-director Todd Haynes has managed to pull off with this audacious endeavor. Channeling the spirit of filmmaker Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows), he has replicated the look, the feel, the technique and the simmering subtext of those color-soaked melodramas from the 50s -- and yet not once does his movie even remotely feel like a goofy gimmick, a high-minded stunt meant only to draw attention to its creator's cleverness. Instead, Far From Heaven emerges as the most heartfelt, the most honest, and the most moving motion picture of the past 12 months, and its emotional content is matched by its sumptuous look and its multifaceted characters. As the happy homemaker whose life begins to unravel once her husband steps out of the closet and her black gardener steps into her affections, Julianne Moore delivers a heartbreaking performance that's easily the finest of the year.

2. MINORITY REPORT (Steven Spielberg). Spielberg. Cruise. Science fiction. Summer blockbuster. Sure, it'd be easy to dismiss this expansion of a Philip K. Dick short story as mere popcorn entertainment -- it'd also be completely imbecilic. Even more than The Two Towers or Attack of the Clones, this futuristic stunner creates its own self-contained universe and then invites us to get lost in its synthetic splendor. Yet this isn't simply a triumph of set design; instead, Spielberg and company employ an astonishing and intricate plotline to punch across a treatise on this nation's simultaneous erosions of personal responsibility and individual freedom. It's the year's most topical release -- even if it is set in 2054.

3. SPIRITED AWAY (Hayao Miyazaki). The best animated achievement since 1991's Beauty and the Beast hails from Japan but was purchased stateside by Disney, who then buried it alive while promoting the hell out of its own mediocrities, Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet. No matter: This instant masterpiece -- cinema as hallucinatory dream -- will haunt us for years to come.

4. CHICAGO (Rob Marshall). For sheer let-your-hair-down entertainment, it's hard to top this exuberant adaptation of the Broadway hit, a whirlwind of a musical that provides a toe-tapping revitalization of those moldy adages about fleeting fame, media manipulation, and the cult of celebrity. Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and John C. Reilly can all sing and dance -- who knew?

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