“2002: My Favorite Year!”
by Scott Mantz

We all know that time flies when you’re having fun, but let’s face it–time really flies when you’re having fun at the movies. That’s the only explanation for why 2002 went by so darn fast (at least, it did for me), and after a couple of years when quality movies were hard to come by, 2002 actually had a slew to choose from and ended up being the best year for studio films since 1999.

From a box office standpoint–which is pretty much all that the Hollywood studios care about anyway–2002 was the best year ever. Moviegoers paid a whopping $9.3 billion (yes, billion!) to see their favorite flicks–an increase of 14% over the previous year’s record total. While that may be partly due to an increase in the average ticket price, admissions still ended up with a record total of 1.58 billion tickets sold, beating the previous record set in 1998.

To that extent, there’s no doubt that 2002 will be remembered as the year that your friendly neighborhood “Spider-Man” swung into theaters and broke a slew of box office records in the process. To name a few: highest opening weekend ($115 million), fastest to hit $100 million (3 days), fastest to hit $200 million (9 days), fastest to hit $300 million (22 days), highest single day gross ($43.6 million on Saturday, May 4), and 5th highest grossing movie of all time ($404 million domestic).

It was also the year of the biggest box office surprise since…well, since ever! That, of course, was the micro-budgeted $5 million indie hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which took in more than $230 million (and still counting), making it the highest grossing independent film of all time. Nia Vardalos’ semi-autobiographical romantic comedy kept the honeymoon going all summer long, leaving anticipated box office sure-things like Tom Cruise’s “Minority Report” (final tally: $132 million) and Tom Hanks’ “Road to Perdition” (final tally: $104 million) at the altar.

OK, enough about the box office! Let’s talk about the good stuff. You know, the movies that made you think, the movies that stirred your emotions, the movies that kept you up at night, and the movies that were so incredibly entertaining that you had to run back and see them again (and again). For me, there were 10 movies that fit the bill, and they’re the ones that I’ll remember when I look back on the year that was…2002.

1) “Chicago” – Forget “Moulin Rouge.” “Chicago” was the new musical that we’ve all been waiting for, and boy, was it worth the wait. With its energetic direction, sharp script, top musical numbers and revelatory performances by Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere, the cinematic version of Bob Fosse’s Broadway classic felt like it was right at home on the big screen. You simply couldn’t help but feel rejuvenated and excited by the movie’s exhilarating entertainment, and let’s face it–that’s what movies are all about.

2) “Road to Perdition” – Every frame of Sam Mendes’ follow-up to his 1999 Best Picture winner “American Beauty” was a finely crafted work of art with incredible cinematography, moving performances and a simple, but powerful story about fathers and sons. Tom Hanks played against type (sort of) as a hitman with a heart, Paul Newman brought powerful conflict to his role as his emotionally conflicted boss, and young newcomer Tyler Hoechlin more than held his own against his Oscar-winning co-stars.

3) “Insomnia” – If this movie was a cup, and you filled it up with water, there would be no leaks. Director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to 2001’s innovative mind trip “Memento” was a tight suspense thriller that got better, stronger and more gripping as it went along, proving that he was just as masterful at telling stories moving forward as he was at telling them backwards. The atmospheric, intensely-paced film also featured strong performances from Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, and of course, a deliriously sleep-deprived Al Pacino, who was so effective that you couldn’t help but feel exhausted just by watching him.

4) “Adaptation” – When it comes to multi-layered films, it doesn’t get better than director Spike Jonze’s latest about (now pay attention) a screenwriter who’s writing a screenplay about his attempt to write a screenplay about a woman’s attempt to write a book based on a wacky orchid thief (got all that?). Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who’s portrayed in the film to neurotic perfection by Nicolas Cage) have conjured up a more-than-worthy companion piece to 1999’s equally bizarre and wholly original “Being John Malkovich.” Can’t wait to see what’s next!

5) “About Schmidt” – Life’s too short, and so is director Alexander Payne’s heartbreaking character study about a retired mid-western father who realizes too late that he squandered his life. His last-ditch attempt to give it some meaning turns out to be less like a comedy and more like a provocative drama with some funny moments. Of course, the film is anchored by a touching, desperate and vulnerable performance by a never-better Jack Nicholson, who once again proves that he really is as good as it gets.

6) “13 Conversations About One Thing” – Talking about happiness and actually being happy may be two different things, but hearing this group of New Yorkers talk about it sure made for an engaging, introspective and philosophical cinematic experience. It also featured standout performances from Matthew McConaughey as a cocky lawyer who becomes paralyzed by his own guilt, John Turturro as a teacher whose attempt to go with the flow makes him more rigid than ever, and especially Alan Arkin as a frustrated middle manager who’s blinded by jealousy over one of his happy-go-lucky co-workers.

7) “Punch-Drunk Love” – I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but goofball Adam Sandler was an absolute revelation in Paul Thomas Anderson’s unexpectedly bizarre, but strangely beautiful romantic comedy. It’s hard to tell what was really going on beneath the surface here, but then again, that’s the beauty of it–it made you think. Funny, touching and hauntingly surreal, Anderson kept it short and sweet (for a change), and the result was an inexplicably sublime film that stayed with you long after the house lights went up.

8) “The Pianist” – Director Roman Polanski had first-hand experience with the events depicted here, giving the film unapologetic realism and power. Polanski eases viewers into the horrors of the Holocaust, moving from naive denial to complete hell on earth where every day becomes a desperate struggle for survival. He doesn’t pull any punches, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with sentiment either. The ultimate power of the film isn’t revealed until the very end, since it is only then when you can look back on the experience and appreciate it as a whole–kind of like history itself.

9) “Far From Heaven” – From the “and now for something completely different” department comes writer/director Todd Haynes’ masterpiece about a husband grappling with his sexuality while his adoring wife hangs on for dear life. Haynes channels the ghost of Douglas Sirk for the perfect companion piece to one of his 1950’s melodramas, but with a subject matter that would have been completely off-limits in Sirk’s day. A well-written screenplay, a beautiful score, rich cinematography, and top-notch performances from Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert all made for one of the more admirable productions of the last few years.

10) “Solaris” – Every year I like to put a totally far-out wild card on my list. Last year it was the love-it-or-hate-it love story “Vanilla Sky,” and this year it’s the love-it-or-hate-it love story “Solaris.” What was sold to festive Thanksgiving moviegoers as an exciting mainstream epic was in fact a cerebral, somber and impressionistic art film about the nature of our existence and the importance of the choices we make in life. Those who were impatient and bolted for the door missed out on the year’s most haunting, mesmerizing and misunderstood movie, which featured director Steven Soderbergh at his experimental best and George Clooney in the performance of his career.

Though they didn’t make the list, I also really enjoyed “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Monsoon Wedding,” “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “Ice Age,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “The Rookie,” “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” “The Cat’s Meow,” “Spider-Man,” “About a Boy,” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” “Minority Report,” “Lovely and Amazing,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Barbershop,” “Secretary,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Gangs of New York,” “Narc,” “Antwone Fisher,” and “Catch Me if You Can.”

As for what we can expect for 2003, it’s hard to say. Many of the films that made the list weren’t exactly “must-sees” a year ago at this time, but as we all know, things change.

One thing’s for sure: 2003 will be the year of “The Matrix.” With not one, but two sequels to the groundbreaking 1999 hit coming out a mere 6 months apart–“The Matrix Reloaded” opens May 15, followed by “The Matrix Revolutions” in November–you can expect box office grosses to reach “Lord of the Rings”-style proportions.

Speaking of which, the third and final chapter of the top-dollar Tolkien trilogy opens December 17, and with “The Two Towers” currently outgrossing its mammoth predecessor, “The Return of the King” will surely make a big return at the box office. Finally, Marvel Comics will be following “Spider-Man” with 3 superhero movies in 2003–“Daredevil” (February 14), “X2” (May 2) and “The Hulk” (June 20)–so there’s a strong chance that even more box office records will be broken, including the coveted $10 billion mark in total receipts for the year.

We’ll know what happens soon enough, since the end of the year will be here before you know it. Like I said, time flies when you’re having fun, and judging by the upcoming slate of movies, there sure is a lot of fun to be had in 2003!