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Best Movies of 2002

2002 was a seminal year for film in a variety of genres. The musical and fantasy adventure film were given some of their strongest entries in decades and classic films with themes of love, poverty and desire were produced. As the world settled into a post-9/11 mentality, filmmaking reflected both a need to escape current worries and to reflect on recent events.

Best Film – City of God by Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God was hailed as an instant classic at its release over ten years ago. Its glow has not diminished since.

The story of two boys, Rocket and Li’l Zé, growing up in the 1960s in Rio de Janeiro, the film illustrates life in a crime-ridden world where violence is everywhere and moral corruption begins at a young age. Rocket is trying to figure out his life and just wants to be a photographer. Li’l Zé is hell-bent on power and will do anything to get it. By showing these two alternate roads, the film illustrates how difficult it is for youth to rise above their environment and the great temptation that environment has to corrupt.

Terrifying in its visual style and deeply moving, City of God is an incredibly visceral film that presents a history of violence. For those wondering how violence and poverty correlate in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control, this film explains it all.

Adaptation by Spike Jonze

Strange, funny, dramatic and at times disturbing, Adaptation focuses on not just the problem of writing, but the problem of finding meaning in something you create, a task far more daunting.

Written by the great Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, once the film starts, it never pulls back. Putting himself in his own screenplay, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) has been given the task of adapting Susan Orleans’ (Meryl Streep) novel, “The Orchid Thief”, a tale starring orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Coopet), into a film. Bewildered and suffering a crisis of confidence, Kaufman struggles as his own idiot twin brother (also played by Cage) develops his own ridiculous projects.

Strongly acted, stylishly directed and wonderfully written, the film embraces a number of genres to illustrate the difficulty of any act of creation, even the one presented to you now.

Chicago by Rob Marshall

With Moulin Rouge reviving the musical genre the year before, Rob Marshall and company took Bob Fosse’s classic Broadway show “Chicago” and brought it to cinemas. The result may be the greatest movie musical of all-time.

Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly, Chicago tells the story of a young wannabe star who ends up murdering her lover and gaining infamy in prison through a desperate appeal to the press as her case comes to trial.

By presenting the musical numbers through the mind of Zellweger’s character, the film avoids the awkward intercut between music and dialogue. In addition, the editing allowed the filmmakers to move the story along with the songs, keeping a vibrant pace that smooths out the narrative. Wonderfully designed and endlessly watchable, the film is not only the most fun of the year, but also one of the best made.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson continued his foray into Middle-Earth with the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers.

With the fellowship broken, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of the free peoples of Middle-Earth must fend off a growing horde of evil as the forces of darkness march against them. Culminating with one of the greatest cinematic battles of the modern era at Helm’s Deep, the film also finally introduced audiences to Gollum, a CGI creature that forever changed the way movies were made.

Not just a breathtaking war story, the film also goes deeper into each of the characters, their struggles and themes of sacrifice and companionship. Perhaps the most beloved of the now decade-old trilogy, the film firmly established The Lord of the Rings franchise as a pop culture phenomenon.

Talk to Her by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar delivered one of his best films in Talk to Her, the story of two men joined together by difficult circumstances and struggling to make sense of love and fate.

Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), after a chance meeting at a movie theater, meet again at a private clinic where they discover that they are each caring for a woman in a coma, Benigno caring for a Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student, and Marco caring for Lydia (Rosario Flores), a matador. As they are encouraged to talk to the women despite their unresponsiveness, they learn intimate details about love and unrelenting desire.

Flashing back and forth from past to present, the films delves into fantasies and produces images that are thought-provoking, grotesque and beautiful all at the same time.

 

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Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

Movie Essentials: The Godfather and the Godfather Part II

There is little to be written about the first and second Godfather movies that hasn’t been written before. They are the most popular movies in American culture, having revolutionized a Hollywood system that was dying off in the early 1970s and presenting a unique picture of not only mob life, but a story of America itself.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) never wanted to be a part of his father, Vito’s (Marlon Brando), illegal mob business. A war veteran of World War II, he is in love with a pretty girl, Kay (Diane Keaton), and has his whole life in front of him. He is still attached to his family, his hot headed brother Sonny (James Caan), his meek brother Fredo (John Cazale), his adopted brother Tom (Robert Duvalle) and his sister Connie (Talia Shire). When his father is shot and nearly murdered, it is up to Michael to save the family. By voluntarily killing his father’s near-assassins, Michael is thrown down a dark road that leads him to becoming the next head of the Corleone crime family.

By the start of The Godfather Part II, Michael has taken complete control of the empire and eliminated the other rival families. When a plot against his own life is foiled, he seeks those responsible, a path that draws him back to his brother, Fredo, and a very difficult collision between business and family. Haunted by the strength of his father, we are also presented with a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and his rise to power, contrasted with Michael’s own moral condemnation.

The Godfather is its own complete film, presenting a singular story of son supplanting father, but The Godfather Part II enhances the overall themes of power corrupting, the love of family driving us to do horrible things and adapting to a new society. Viewed together, they are a remarkable portrait of American life.

Director and writer Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter Mario Puzo and cinematographer Gordon Willis create something with the Godfather films of utter brilliance, completely defining a genre. At a time when the old Hollywood system was giving way to the film auteur of the 1970s, The Godfather merged both old and new styles, creating the modern gangster film and defining how new story structure, with its violence and its individual mark, could be constructed in a studio system. It launched the careers of Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and James Caan and gave new birth to Marlon Brando. Almost overnight, The Godfather became a sensation, and it’s legacy was firmly cemented forever with The Godfather Part II.

There are so many different interpretations of the two films. It has probably been analyzed more than any other work of cinema. Some see it as a representation of how evil infects our souls and destroys us, the devil represented by the mob. Others note how similar to mythology the film is, Zeus represented by Vito and the son, a Hercules, the Corleones literally gods on Mount Olympus. Others note how Michael loses sight of what his father accomplished and becomes so obsessed with preserving the Corleone legacy that he destroys it, thereby linking how the next generation destroys the previous one, how the stability of the American family in the 1940s and 1950s is destroyed by the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. And still others look at the immigrant story, the failed promise of an American dream (represented by Vito running away from a bad homeland to a United States full of promise). The dream is a mirage because human emotions, greed and cruelty, keep others from succeeding (how often Michael is kept from doing the right thing by corrupt politicians and cops and local thugs), thereby leaving crime the only way to survive. There is no single interpretation for Coppola’s work because to limit the films in such a way would be a detriment to their success. They stand for so many things and appeal to so many people.

Ever since its release, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have remained the most popular films in American life, a representation of almost every facet of our culture (love, family, patriotism, crime, politics, feminism, religion, sexuality, loyalty, betrayal, existentialism and racism), epic in scope, impossible ever to replicate. It is rare for films to achieve cultural significance and alter the way we view the world, but the Godfather films touched the heart of America. They continue to stand as a representation of our best and worst selves, our own American story.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a powerhouse film

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” tells the story of Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother struggling with the rape and murder of her daughter. Frustrated with the police investigation, she buys three billboards near her home and writes the message, “Raped while dying and still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?” across them. This sets the town into an uproar as Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and fellow officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) must confront the hardheaded Mildred and their own personal failures.

The film is an emotional tour-de-force, featuring great acting, solid directing and superb writing. It is a character examination of Mildred and Dixon in particular as they each come to terms with finding some form of justice in the world. They are as deep and interesting as novel characters, and the film in many ways come across as a long-form novel. The twists and turns of the story leave the characters facing heavier and heavier burdens and the stakes of finding Mildred’s daughter’s killer continue to grow.

There are some uneven moments throughout the narrative, especially in regards to Chief Willoughby’s character arc, and the film is decidedly not a straightforward mystery. The ending to the film is vastly different than how most of these types of films end and is sure to please some but anger many. At times, the film is clunky and some scenes don’t serve much purpose, but the emotional core and character dynamics keep the story sturdy.

The film deftly veers between comedic elements and dramatic scenes, providing an all-encompassing view of life that is both melancholic and hopeful. It is the journey that is important to these characters, their continuous striving towards a just outcome despite the obstacles in their way. And the obstacles in a world that doesn’t seem to value righteousness are indeed great.

“Three Billboards” is a harrowing look at our world that wears it’s heart on its sleeve. The fully dynamic characters and surprising plot make the film unforgettable.

‘Lady Bird’ a well-made, if familiar coming-of-age tale

Greta Gerwig’s impassioned look at youth coming of age in 2002 is being hailed as one of the best films of the year. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it is certainly a very well-made movie.

Lady Bird’s real name is Christine (Saoirse Ronan), but she refuses to go by it. She spends her final high school year arguing with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), trying to find the perfect boyfriend and fitting in with the ‘cool’ kids in the rich neighborhood. In a Christian school, she yearns to break out of her Sacramento upbringing and hit the East Coast. As the pressures of life mount, it seems as though she is trying to be anyone but herself.

Saoirse Ronan is terrific in the lead role, totally encapsulating the angst, desire and anguish of youth. Her confrontations with her mother are heated yet loving.

There are some chuckles throughout a story that primarily focuses on the bonds we have with others and have they influence us. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, father, brother, best friend, the cool girl at school and various boys all test the boundaries of how she defines herself. It is a very universal story of acceptance of oneself.

There’s a lot to like about the film, but it is not really anything we haven’t seen before. There’s great writing, strong directing and powerful acting, but not much in the way of original ideas.

Movie Essentials: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

A rumor surrounding the initial studio screening of the film follows that one of the producers of the film, having worked hard to pump millions of dollars into the budget over an enterprise that lasted years, stood up at the film’s conclusion and promptly had a heart attack. Whether the rumor is true or not, the film has been giving viewers similar moments of shock, awe and bewilderment since.

2001: A Space Odyssey starts with a group of early humans, scrounging for food, competing with each other. They discover a strange, tall, black monolith which somehow instinctively draws them to it and soon they learn the concept of tools, the creatures taking the bones of a deceased tapir and using them to kill prey and rivals. Next, the audience is transported millions of years into the future, mankind now roaming space at ease, having discovered that same monolith on the moon, unsure what to make of it. A space mission to Jupiter finds a trio of characters, Drs. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with the artificial intelligence program HAL 9000 trekking to the far corners of the solar system. After HAL mistakenly reports that a part of the ship is malfunctioning, Bowman and Poole talk of shutting HAL down. HAL responds by killing Poole, cutting off his air tube in space and then disabling the life support systems of the other crewmembers in suspended animation. Bowman is able to unprogram HAL as the ship comes to Jupiter, finding another floating monolith in space that transports him through the cosmos. In a desolate room by himself, Bowman watches himself quickly grow old until he is on his deathbed. He stares up at the monolith above him once more, reaching out towards it before he is suddenly transformed into the Star Child, a fetus-looking organism that overlooks Earth.

What it all means has been debated for years. Some have likened it to the journey of evolution, the growth from primitive animal to man to machine to eternal being. Others note the similarity in the storyline to that of The Odyssey (Bowman using a key to unhinge HAL similar to Odysseus knocking the eye out of the Cyclops). Some even see technology being the true center of the story, HAL at times much more human than either Bowman or Poole, who often appear robotic and unemotional.

Kubrick refused to reveal his original intentions as to what the film meant. Wisely, he did not want to sway anyone’s opinion. Screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke once said, “If you understand ‘2001‘ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” However, if you read the subsequent book that he wrote of the same name, it explains that the monolith is a creation of alien life that imbues other species with intelligent life. There are no aliens in the film however, giving the monolith a far more God-like feel, an omnipotent object that is unidentifiable.

Personally, in the mind of this reviewer, the monolith has always seemed a symbol of knowledge and power beyond human understanding, a metaphor for the eternal nature of the universe that we as human beings can only ponder but not understand. HAL, our attempt to create life, goes horribly wrong because of our inability to replicate consciousness as the universe does. What Bowman undergoes at the film’s conclusion is the metamorphosis into a being of sublime eternalness, the wisdom that comes from our souls joining the universe.

This process of understanding life is illuminated throughout the film itself, our birth represented as primeval man just learning to adapt (to walk for a child), the journey of adolescence symbolized by the voyage into space and the acceptance of inevitable death as Bowman is transported to a location beyond space and time, where such material aspects are inconsequential, and where he is joined with the universe, reaching a state of Utopian existence.

Now, that is only my interpretation. There are literally hundreds of others from all over. Different religions identify with the themes of the film and their own notions of the afterlife. Scientists debate its views on evolution and the progression of life on Earth and throughout the universe. Even hippies, those primarily responsible for making sure the film has the stature it does today, see psychedelic importance in the journey away from civilization into pure bliss. There is no right or wrong interpretation, creating a legacy for the film that will never end.

Kubrick stated that he wanted to change the medium of cinema with his work. He wanted to investigate new ways of experiencing film beyond the conformity that had set into the industry. With 2001, he has given audiences a film that continues to elicit questions and tickle our minds long after viewing. Boasting special effects that still appear seamless today and having influenced a generation of filmmakers, 2001 makes the wonder of the possibility of cinema seem infinite.

“Into the Woods” a solid film

Whenever Disney dabbles into fairy tales, especially darker ones, there’s an inherent perception that studio executives will dampen down the story and ‘Disney-fy’ it, making it more accessible for families and taking the darker tone out of it. With Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, there was fear that the studio would subdue the darker third act elements, some of them downright violent, but Disney, thankfully, has let director Rob Marshall tell the story as it was meant to be told.

Into the Woods tells the story of a Witch (Meryl Streep) who places a curse on the house of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). To remove the curse, the couple must retrieve several objects from other fairy tale creatures such as Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). As the tale unfolds, an escalating series of events and romances converge to bring about a dramatic finale.

Sondheim being Sondheim, the music keeps the film moving even as it struggles at times to maintain its footing with so many storylines and characters. Prince Charming played by Chris Pine, by far one of the most entertaining characters, is given far too little screentime while Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) is given far too much. Some of the CGI effects also come off as rather pedestrian and the direction at times lack focus. And while Disney should be applauded for keeping the darker tone and message of the original production, some of the intense moments are either only winked at or glossed over instead of emphasized for true dramatic effect. The strength of the characters however makes up for the film’s shortcomings.

All of the cast excels, Meryl Streep of course stealing the show, but Emily Blunt and James Corden, as the heart of the story, really help ground an emotional stake for the viewer. Even as some musical numbers fall flat for not being cinematic enough or unnecessary and some characters do not hit the mark (Johnny Depp as the Wolf in a rather hideous costume), the journey of the Baker and his Wife keeps the audience engaged in the story. The story is not a children’s tale where things end happily ever after, but a reflection on how those types of stories help us deal with the cruel world around us. That message comes across strong, and the resulting film is enjoyable and thought-provoking.