Best Films of 2002

Michael Haneke, Code Unknown, 2000
Michael Haneke, Code Unknown, 2000
In any relationship there are decisive moments, often apparently inconsequential but which in reality determine the future, just as a rock or a fallen tree up in the mountains may determine the course of a stream.

- Robert Hellenga, The Sixteen Pleasures

After Irony.

With spring upon us, and the Oscar ceremony — that final, self-congratulatory last word on industry achievement, if not cinematic excellence — only a few hours away, it seems high-time to list my own best film experiences of 2002. The fact that the U.S. is at war makes me more than a little self-conscious about the triviality of such indulgences; still I offer these thoughts perhaps as a brief respite from more grave matters, perhaps too as an inventory of world views counter to the unprecedented myopia that we seem to be victims of these days.

To begin, while the past year was eventful for me in many other ways, not least my marriage to SG, time spent in the cinema was regrettably less than most years previous. Highlights still emerged however, and not all were expected. I’d like to think my absence from film culture has been much less due to a lack of offerings than the growing demands of other pursuits and pastimes.

It is through this personal window of ever-shrinking time that I have culled the following favorites.

Code Unknown (2000, Haneke)

The best movie of the year was Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (originally released in 2000, but not screened in Chicago until early 2002). Exploring several provocative, if not always original, ideas through loosely connected vignettes — the film is subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” — Code Unknown is a smart, well-realized, if often elusive work. I’ll be honest: on the surface, one may think this film is yet another European art house favorite, waxing about this or that philosophical conundrum. And while I am perhaps too forgiving of this type of movie, in this case, Haneke tempers his big ideas with skillful, unobtrusive filmmaking and an immediacy of experience that thankfully undercuts any threat of cliché or pretension.

The title itself is a clue to the film’s interest in the habits and heuristics of everyday interactions — how we signal distress or desire to one another and how these signals break down or miss the mark altogether; how racism in particular influences choices one makes and the roles one plays, not always by choice. Also, in the same vein as Kieslowski’s masterpiece, Decalogue, the film touches on the many different rules impacting one’s life, again both conscious and unconscious.

Though the movie includes many incidents and scenarios designed to raise difficult questions, two in particular stand out for me. In one, Anne, played by Juliette Binoche, is harassed on a subway car. It is a common occurrence which lacks any truly satisfactory remedy. People take advantage of others, they bully, they scare, and no matter how much one chooses to rationalize their choices — their insecurity, their own fears, their small opinion of themselves — the violence remains, dignity is challenged, and humanity is the worse for it. In another scene, the brutality is heard off-screen. At home ironing clothes and watching television, Anne overhears a neighboring couple’s argument and is unsure of what to do. Contact the police? Call for help? Intervene? Ignore? Decide it isn’t what you think it is? The scene is at once an isolated dilemma, and also emblematic of the paralysis imbued in a society that prizes individual freedom but isn’t sure of how to respond to the abuses that such freedoms afford. In a sense, it is this paradox that the film addresses again and again.

I’m Going Home (2001, Oliveira)

In recommending this movie, I know I’m going out on a limb. Oliveira’s latest effort to reach the U.S. is a tale of an aging actor (played by Michel Piccoli), and his life following the loss of his wife, including a failed effort to play in an American production of Ulysses (an homage to Contempt?). There is a dignity to the movie, one might say even a signature detachment, that threatens to alienate its audience. Nonetheless, I found the premise, and the portrayal of this man both moving and quietly instructive. A worthy alternative to the likes of About Schmidt.

The Hours (2002, Daldry)

The chick-flick of the year, if not the best movie of the year, The Hours will likely be remembered for the strong performances of its three lead actresses — Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman. It’s much-touted feminist sensibility also seems to have grabbed a fair bit of ink. While there in no doubt that these are prominent features, my own appreciation stemmed from its sobering treatment of depression, female or otherwise. A highpoint is Clarissa’s (Meryl Streep) wistful reflections on the small events in one’s life, often mis-recognized as insignificant or at best beginnings to something yet to come, something anticipated, rather than the key moments that they in fact turn out to be.

Spirited Away (2002, Miyazaki)

Like last year’s Waking Life, this tale of a young girl’s quest to rescue her family further expands the limits of animation, and not just in terms of technical achievement. Hayao Miyazaki’s inventive and entertaining Spirited Away follows an innocent’s journey into a magical and disturbing world, echoing such classics as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. I was especially impressed with how the film juxtaposes workaday details and realities with otherworldly flights of fancy.

Far From Heaven (2001, Haynes)

The critical darling of the year, I found Haynes’ redux of Sirkian 50s melodrama an over-saturated exercise in camp, and at times a victim of its own criticisms. I’ve clearly missed the point altogether. And it isn’t because I’m cold on melodrama. Remember Magnolia, and all of its excesses (and, interestingly, its shared cast)? A favorite. And Haynes’ forebears, Sirk and Ophuls? Gifted artists both. Perhaps it is Far From Heaven’s ambitiousness that prevents me from liking it more. As melodrama, it felt more mechanical than emotional, too concerned with re-enacting emotion rather than responding to its many (albeit codified) manifestations. As a political statement about the normative racism of 1950s America, I found it less than ground-breaking and even a bit precious. So, why is it here, amid my “favorites”? I’ve been laughed at for saying so, but the best way I can appreciate Far From Heaven is as a companion piece to Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece, Safe. I can’t think of a more horrifying portrait of the bankruptcy and lifeless disconnect of “late capitalist,” suburban American life. And it is the imagined conversation between these two films that I find most interesting. This and the fact that it has inspired several impassioned debates over the past year makes it a true stand-out, however frustrating.