Some more highlights and low-lights that spring immediately to mind when I think about a year spent in the cinemas. As always, you can only imagine what I'm leaving out... And by the way, Nathaniel at The Film Experience just revisited his pets from 2002, so even though mine's a chronicle of vivid theater-going memories, not a list of the best I saw in 2002 (and at times, very much the opposite!), they might be fun entries to read side-by-side.
Jan 21, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
In the Bedroom should have been the bell-ringing opener to another year of great films, but despite an entire year's worth of flawless buzz from the previous Sundance festival, I sat in my seat not really liking it. You know how sometimes, you make quite clear to your viewing partners, loudly or subtly, that you aren't digging the scene? And then at other times, you are cowed: why am I not liking this? Am I just wrong? Am I in the wrong mood? Am I missing something? I wasn't looking forward to admitting how nonplussed I felt by Field's overweeningly grim visuals and his vacillating commitment to the particulars of his characters, beyond the overall attitude of middle-class despair and vengefulness. I had roughly the same experience this year at A Serious Man, assuming that everyone I was with was perceiving the greatness in a movie that I found uneven, perplexing, in many ways full-on aggravating. And thenhosannas!in both cases, the whole group slowly, bashfully admitted to each other that none of us got it. Cases like these are not vindications of being "right" but welcome insulations of one's own affect: it's not only okay to dislike a celebrated object (or the opposite), but one gets reprieved from the work of repairing oneself out of the "wrong" affect to fit the consensus, soothe the feelings of the group and the immediate moment, whatever. I didn't have to pretend my way out of my bad mood; in fact, at the same time, it ironically became much easier to let go of. Even today, I don't have it in for In the Bedroom, or even for the demonstrably worse Little Children, but it was a moment where I realized it really was okay to go with my gut, regardless of the wider climate of reception. Some of you will be surprised that I ever worried about this, but of course I did, and still do.
Jan 25, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
By this point, I'd been on the board of the local nonprofit art cinemas for over a year, and we decided to use the "Community Education" platform of our 501(c)3 status to stage a benefit screening of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar. Proceeds from ticket sales went to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, and we coupled the screening with an academic panel about Middle Eastern cinema, Makhmalbaf's career, global feminism, the protocols and history of emergency medical deployments, and the politics of the region. I co-organized, co-hosted, and moderated the event, and it was one of my proudest moments in graduate school. The film remains a thing of eerie beauty and also a thought provoker, in some ways less potent than it felt so shortly after 9/11 but in other ways more visible on its own, highly idiosyncratic terms, disentangled from the implacable contexts of the moment.
Feb 5, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Nothing better to warm an upstate winter than a Dietrich-Von Sternberg series at the campus moviehouse, prompting my first encounter with Morocco. A lean, tawny, erotic jewel of a film throughout, but never more so than when Amy Jolly staggers out into the desert at the end, a glamorous martyr to love and heat.
Feb 6, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
One night later, and still technically in Africa, but oh, how things had changed! Despite having rented Désiré Écaré's Faces of Women on VHS in college, seeing Ousmane Sembene's Xala counts to me as my conscious, adult introduction to African cinema, and what an intro it was. Sembene's storytelling, like his shots and narrative structures, implies a distilled, almost offhanded simplicity, but the visual and cultural tensions, the tradeoffs of sympathy and critique, and the balance of humor and outrage are hard to equal, even among the greatest filmmakers. Why you can't get people to rent his movies is a tough nut to crack, especially since they're so accessible, even as they feel like a genuinely different portal into "world cinema" than you get from France or Japan or Sweden. There is no reason on Earth why The Seventh Seal should be a more hospitable experience for uninitiated Anglophone viewers than Xala is, but somehow it always shakes out that way.
Feb 8, Hoyts Carousel Mall 19, Syracuse, NY
More adventures in the dementia of Oscar completism, overlaid with my well-known affinity for Sean Penn. My friend drove an hour away to Syracuse so we could see I Am Sam, which didn't come anywhere near Ithaca, a very wise town. Best to say nothing about the movie, but the occasion was more than redeemed by my first-ever trip to Syracuse's Dinosaur Barbecue, whose T-shirt I still wear proudly in my new Midwestern timezone, and I am constantly stopped by fellow travelers who remember the zest and the spike of the sauce. See how quickly I squirmed out of talking about the film?
Feb 14, Cornell University Film Forum, Ithaca, NY
A truly red-letter Valentine's Day. Derek, as I have indicated, is not much for cinephilia, but his graduate funding one semester was tied to a gig as the projectionist for two big film-studies lecture courses. I came home that evening to a series of cryptic notes around the apartment, until one of them actually led me outside my building, then up the road, then up a hill, in well-indicated bushes and local landmarks, and all the way up to the Theater, Film, and Dance building at Cornell, where I was able to sneak in well after dark to the full-projection lecture hall, where there was a candlelit dinner waiting underneath the screen, a very dapper gentleman in a tux, and, as dessert, four consecutive landmarks of early silent cinema projected from celluloid, none of which I had ever seen: René Clair's Entr'acte, Dziga Vertov's mind-blowing Man with a Movie Camera, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber's uncanny and galvanizing The Fall of the House of Usher (reviewed here), and Germaine Dulac's feminist milestone The Smiling Madame Beudet. Top that, lovebirds. I knew I was with the right guy, even while I was watching a dark-eyed gal clawing her way out of her own crypt and hurling herself at her brother-lover-killer.
Feb 26, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I suppose that every rule needs an exception, and the single anomaly in the otherwise flawless procession of Criterion Collection DVDs is the dark, gritty-looking transfer of The Scarlet Empress. I'm not a print-quality queen, and I don't even know what bitrate means, but this is one movie I would actually discourage people from discovering on disc, especially because Sternberg's typical symphonics of whites, silvers, and grays is so astonishingly luminous on screen, made all the more majestic but also dramatically counterposed by the stony, towering, grotesque architectures of the Russian palace and by the fruity perversion of all the intrigues therein. Some of Dietrich's campiest moments, particularly in the early chapters, but also some of her canniest acting, and two stellar supporting turns from ornery Louise Dresser and batshit Sam Jaffe. Easily among the most visually ravishing experiences I have ever had in a cinema, all the way from shots with hundreds of extras and swinging censers to extreme closeups on a wedding veil, shivering with the sharp inhalations and panicked gasps of a reluctant bride.
Mar 6, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I hated Fat Girl (À ma soeur!) when I saw it, because for all of the ingenious tensions in its images and rhythms, and for all of its startling candor about sisterly rivalry, painful deflowering, and the motives and costs of stolid self-composure, Breillat seems just crouched in sinister, lip-licking anticipation of marauding her own characters, which she climactically accomplishes with an almost pure jolt of arbitrary, devastating sadism. I think hating this movie is a fully fair response, and I couldn't bear to return to it for a long time, but when I did, the depths of Fat Girl's ideas and compositions became all the more impossible to gainsay. As off-putting as I find certain aspects of Breillat's habitus as an artist, the gut-punch of this movie is impossible to forget, and few filmmakers could have attained it. I left the theater with my whole impression of the movie curdling in respond to its vicious end (vicious simultaneously to the audience, the characters, and the actors, including the recent survivor of pre-teen rape who plays the eponymous character). But I have to concede, in one of the decade's peak examples of profound if begrudging respect, that Fat Girl's frankness and lucidity have resonated more and longer than its sour aftertaste. (And against my expectation, it works brilliantly in the classroom... provided, of course, that it's prefaced by some very assiduous warnings!)
Apr 17, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is the first movie of which I have a fragmentary memory of an in-theater experience. I think I was in first grade when I saw it, but my mother says I was younger, like four or five. In any event, I was petrified when he jumped out of the bushes after Elliot goes searching for whatever's making a ruckus in the backyard shed. The fact that E.T. himself struck me as so ugly didn't help (who'd want this for a best friend, when you could have a Winnie-the-Pooh?), and I basically checked out of the rest of the movie. So, not only were pretty huge plot points a total surprise to me when Derek and I caught the 20th-anniversary theatrical release, two proud giants in a theater full of little squirts, but I was even more surprised by how complex, tonally measured, and profoundly moving the film is. It sometimes gets a bad rep as an exemplar of Spielberg at his most "manipulative," but the emotions sure feel real to me, and the techniques by which they are generated are marvelously deft, and palpably impassioned.
Jun 28, Fall Creek Pictures, Ithaca, NY
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys exceeded my expectations completely, not just to the extent of being better than I had predicted, but of being completely wonderful when I hadn't expected a thing. I probably would have skipped it if I hadn't been asked to lead a post-film discussion, but well beyond the pleasures of Jodie Foster doing tasty character work as a peg-legged nun, and beyond showing Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, and Jena Malone to better advantage than almost anything else those three actors have done, Altar Boys feels real and informed in its portrait of adolescent boyhood. It's colorfully embellished, with a zoo animal as a major character and regular, sensational dives into animation, but it has the power of feeling emotionally true. Almost no one seems to have seen it, and despite his Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature (he scored the same gong from the Boston Society of Film Critics), director Peter Care hasn't been back in cinemas since. This was my off-the-radar recommendation from that summer, and it still stands, even though it was soon enough eclipsed by...
Aug 2, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
...Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), which I loved so much I saw it at 4:00 and then again at 7:15, not minding a bit that it's a three-hour epic in the Inuit language. Nanook of the North was an inevitable point of comparison for lots of people, but in odd ways, the palpable cold, the implacable faces in evocative close-up, and the sleek, sharp, often forbidding lines of the horizon, the snow, and the sky made me think of Dreyer. It's a rare instance of mythic storytelling that works completely, even brilliantly on screen. It's grounded in landscape, subtly and perfectly embodied by its cast, and attuned to a plausibly spiritual mode of telling, retelling, believing, and passing on.
Aug 23, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
I've chronicled my passion for Late Marriage very recently, but it completed the summertime hat-trick of totally transfixing films, all of them compelling me toward multiple viewings, despite the fact that I came into all of them virtually cold. In almost any year this decade, Atanarjuat or Late Marriage would have been my favorite film of the year, and Altar Boys would have been easy Top 10 material. The fact that my list looked very different than this only serves to indicate what a tremendous year it was for the movies, even when this meant getting delayed American glimpses of the previous year's festival darlings.
Sep 2, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
I handed in my written exams for my master's degree at lunchtime and was too dazed to do a single productive or even semi-productive thing, so I did what no good pilgrim should ever do, and I bused up to a movie starring Udo Kier and Natascha McElhone. I mean, for God's sake. Though I will always feel gratitude to FearDotCom for the line "Is there any reason why he would have died clutching your book as though it were the Holy Grail?" and for almost single-handedly doubling my site traffic when some undiscerning fan included my merry pan in his fanboy list of write-ups about the movie. Having apparently failed to get my fill of hokum, I stuck around for Signs, and even if there's not a single good thing to say about "Swing away," there's at least the knife under the pantry door and the single, shocking apparition at the Argentinean birthday party to give that movie a reason for being. Not a reason for casting Cherry Jones or raking in $200 million, but a reason for being.
Sep 28, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Erika Kohut, stabbing herself in disgust at the end of The Piano Teacherthough the proportional targeting of disgust toward her lover, her mother, and herself remains unclearis one of those heart-stopping moments that you know, right in the moment, you will never forget.
Oct 9, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Back to my numbers games. I rigged things up good so that I saw my 1,500th movie with some very dear friends on the night of my 25th birthday. Why I take such pleasure in these obviously forced alignments I cannot tell you, but I do love them. The film in question: Aki Kaurismäki's fabulously concise and wickedly vicarious The Match Factory Girl, lately made available in a boxset from Criterion's Eclipse line. So see, Scarlet Empress aside, you just can't ever, ever, stay mad at the Criterion crowd.
Nov 18, Fall Creek Pictures, Ithaca, NY
A double-triumph of the unexpected, wherein I fell hard for Spirited Away despite having no previous affinity for anime whatsoever (and, in the case of this film, my heart still goes on), and of the expected, wherein I enjoy a warm, cozy evening of movie and talk with Dr. S, exactly the sort of friend with whom one would most want to be spirited away. We'd done just that many times that summer and fall, and though we more often quote Lovely and Amazing ("I think you should tell them to just f*** off!") and Possession ("I don't know... just look shit up on microfiche, I guess"), this was the movie that snagged our hearts. But you're the memory expert, Doc: have I got it right?
Nov 22, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
Far from Heaven remains Todd Haynes's most instantly beloved and commercially embraced movie, and I hope to God this isn't the reason why I'm just a hair less enamored of it than I am of all of his other films. But just a hair, people. And what a stupid hair to split anyway: what that means is, I only saw it twice in the theater and swooned over it for months and gave a talk about it and wrote one of my favorites of my own reviews about it. Moore and Haysbert in front of the gallery painting, Viola Davis's bitter wisdom, the gliding handkerchief, the color-blocked clothes, "It's not plausible for me to be friends with you," the lusciously lachrymose score, the era-specific turquoise title font (designed by Christine Vachon's partner), Patricia Clarkson sympathetically sighing out, "Oh, Cathy..." What I'm saying is, I love Safe and Velvet Goldmine and Dottie Gets Spanked and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story like they are family members, and I'm Not There is getting there fast, and I teach Poison to my students, so Far from Heaven, jewel-toned, purposefully stiff, desperately emotional, red-gloved Far from Heaven, is somehow the Haynes film that I think about the least. What this means is that I think about Todd Haynes films a lot. I gasped and cried so often at the final train-station scene, and even more at the backyard confessional a few scenes before, that Far from Heaven was like a near-asthma experience.
Nov 30, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
Double-dipping: I was so struck and seduced by the spindly, delicate, brooding thing that Steven Soderbergh had made out of Solaris that I walked out of Screen 10 of the multiplex, the smallest screen, the closest to the ticket-counter, and I bought another ticket, and I watched it again immediately. A kind of Purple Rose of Cairo moment, and the blue and lilac melancholia of this Solaris is something that Mia in Purple Rose would surely have understood, even if the outer-orbit mumbo jumbo glided right over her head. Cliff Martinez's score was so instantly indelible, even in my obdurately unmusical brain, you just knew it wouldn't get nominated for anything. If only someone had coached poor George Clooney to chop a vegetable so as to resemble, even remotely, a person who makes his own meals from time to time.
Dec 27, Loews Lincoln Square, New York, NY
These last five go out to literature and language faculty all over the country, because the organizing context for this necklace of glories in the waning days of the year was the annual MLA Conference, wherein quite literally thousands of humanist academics convene to give talks, interview for jobs, conduct said interviews, calm each other down, stress each other out, strain to read each other's name tags, buy cheap books, and grouse about having to ditch their families between Christmas and New Year's. Now, I love my family, love them, but when you're a mad cinephile in a small rural town, and your job basically requires you to hit some major metropolitan center for four or five days of the peak period in holiday releases, I am not going to sit here and pretend that I minded MLA, even one bit. 2002 was the first of six years in a row that I attended, and even if the dyspeptic, uneven About Schmidt was one of the least entrancing of the movies I saw that week, it was the very first in a long line of films that I got to see weeks or even months before they were a glimmer in the eye of a single Ithaca ticket-taker. Adaptation, which I caught immediately afterward, was a bit closer to the mark of my affections, and skipping out of the theater amidst Spike Jonze's kinetic rush of artistic, schizophrenic, aesthetic, and literary energy made me all the gladder that my whole reason for being in New York was for a literature conference. The major sides of my professional life and my ripest passions, all falling into alignment.
Dec 28, Cinema Village, New York, NY
But then, I hadn't seen anything yet. It's one thing to get the scoop on two Oscar hopefuls that would wend their way toward the frozen north in fairly short order. It was another thing to seize the occasion of haunting a huge city and deciding to get off the AMPAS path and check out some weirder fare. So, on a virtual whim, and based on some growing interest in precog Samantha Morton and an abiding weakness for female directors, I took a chance on Morvern Callar. Again, the glorious motif of 2002 wasn't just that I flatly adored so many movies, paying to see them again and again and again, but that they were almost never the movies that I most anticipated adoring. Morvern Callar is almost supernaturally confident, copper-toned and electric, bleached and cold, boldly chromatic, aggressively sonic, fleetingly but powerfully erotic, irresolvably mysterious. What else could a movie possibly, much less reasonably be? I know the world has bigger problems, but I spent a solid week at the end of 2002 struggling to decide whether this was the year's best film, or whether that title belonged to...
Dec 28, Lincoln Plaza 6, New York, NY
...Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark. I am already confronting the same dilemma trying to sort out my favorite film of the decade, because I know at least one of you is going to ask, and while there are other contenders, these two films stunned and upended me from virtually out of nowhere, and they haven't lost a thing after seven years of revisits. It was Morvern that got me to Russian Ark: my afternoon experiment had gone so well, I thought I'd take a chance on something much more esoteric, even though I was expecting more of a museal experience than a cinematic one. I realize that some people take Russian Ark in exactly that spiritshit, I realize that it unfolds in a museumbut where a few critics lamented a cul-de-sac of gimmicky, dry, and unproductive derring-do, I saw a filmmaker believing in cinema, with the controlled ardor of the clergy and the questing spirit of the explorer, suffusing the screen with equal parts grey lament and dawning potential. That this blend resonates as strongly with Sokurov's national heritage and his historical purview as it does with the art form he both eulogizes and reinvents makes Russian Ark as Great, to me, as the great novels are Great: not in the way you're intimidated to grab them off the shelf, but in the way you discover how world-shaking they really are, the way you realize you'd never have wanted to live without experiencing them. You can tell that I haven't lost any of my initial fervor for this movie, helmed by one of the decade's most unpredictable, truly singular, but consistently reliable auteurs.
Dec 29, Clearview Ziegfeld, New York, NY
But auteur, schmauteur. Yep, I just said schmauteur, because even a one-two punch of the decade's best didn't change the fact that movies are sometimes a spangly gesture, a tawdry dance, a team of groping talents, and a calico of moving lights. Chicago is gaudy and a little desperate; you've heard it said before, on this very site. But it's still fast and loose, it still stores the juice, it's still a bunny hug up in United Drug, especially when you soak it up in the opulent, giddily anachronistic, balconied, and velvet-walled Clearview Ziegfeld, New York's most semi-tastefully Art Deco cinema. Fill that joint with show queens (it's just north of the Theater District's epicenter), with excitable families on holiday break, and with a parade of Manhattanites, smug in the knowledge that they're seeing now what everyone else in the next three timezones has to wait for, and a scarlet tart like Chicago feels like two hours of pure movie-movie high. I pitied the fools who were laboring through another afternoon of panels, even though MLA was full of strong panels that year. I was slap-happily ensconced across the street, ogling Roxie's bargain-basement lavalier and thinking I'd snuck my way into the splashy, vibrant core of the Big Apple.
Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2002 (Chronological):
The Best Years of Our Lives, All This, and Heaven Too, The Circle, Grand Illusion, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Comfort of Strangers, Tongues Untied, The Last Command, Hands on a Hardbody (review), Irma Vep (review), AliFear Eats the Soul, All That Heaven Allows, Ici et ailleurs, Other Men's Women, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, The Baby of Mâcon (review), Eraserhead (review), King Kong, Swoon, Before the Rain, Claudine (review), Fox and His Friends (review), Earth, Within Our Gates (review), The Last of England, I Can't Sleep, Love Streams, Stalker, The War Zone, and Bicycle Thieves
Labels: End of 00s