One leaf fibrillating on an otherwise naked bough, and a wind that seems to stain the lungs with ice: It's that time of year, so let's start rounding it up, let's start making our lists.
Best films of 2002? Surveying the movie landscape of the past 12 months, it's hard to see the peaks and valleys. It's hard, in fact, to see anything at all. The movies are out there -- the jostling mediocrities, the genuine disgraces, the occasional pockets of virtue -- but a species of haze, a smog of indeterminacy, hangs over everything. What's going on?
One answer is that the old forms have broken apart and the new have yet to arrive. Hollywood is in a post-human stage, what we might call the Age of Swordfish: Marketing has us more pinned down and demographically dissected than ever, and through the medium of focus groups, we reveal, as if under hypnosis, our smallest and silliest needs. The product, meanwhile, grows shinier, colder and less mammalian by the minute. The boys troop in to see Vin Diesel in XXX; the girls head for a nice adaptation such as White Oleander or Possession.
The dead thump of the bottom, once reached, is unmistakable. But while I can name with absolute confidence and clarity the worst movies of the year -- Rollerball (an exceptional disaster) and Road to Perdition (a gas attack of a film, monstrously inflated) -- to find the best we must look a little harder.
Diligently I went canvassing for opinions, asking friends and colleagues for their No. 1 film of 2002. Their responses were interesting: In general they would flatter the question with a brief frown of recall before saying something like, "Well, I actually didn't get out too much this year," or, "You know what, nothing really leaps to mind." Two interviewees did come out strongly on behalf of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. "It's just such a feel-good movie!" raved my travel agent, thereby hardening my vague sense that I would never see the film into an adamantine certainty. (For this reviewer, although he occasionally self-medicates with the likes of Notting Hill, there is no more comprehensive existential cop-out than the feel-good movie.)
My research revealed, at any rate, that 2002 had no main event, no Rushmore, no Three Kings, no -- to stretch a point -- Tootsie. So the most (artistically) successful films of the year were side happenings and one-offs -- slanted, slightly cultist endeavors. Donnie Darko, in fact, the breakaway dramatic highlight of 2002, will more than likely be found in the "Cult" section of your local video store, brooding and stewing along with all the other marginalia. Jackass: The Movie, another improbable, unclassifiable and genuinely freakish triumph, might one day be there, too.
Hybrid forms also did very well, as the not-widely-respected genre of docudrama achieved two entirely different apogees with 24 Hour Party People and the shattering Bloody Sunday, both by British directors. And the documentary proper made a spectacular comeback with Scratch and Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Anyhow, enough said. To the list:
1. Donnie Darko
It begins with a separated jet engine, monstrously alone, spinning out of the firmament, whomping into the roof of a suburban home and (incidentally) suspending linear time -- the sheerest aerial paranoia. Scheduled for general release a month after September 11, Donnie Darko was buried immediately. Its half-life, however, proved tenacious, and in 2002 it had a second release in the art houses. This ghostly, shadowed provenance could not have been more appropriate, as Donnie Darko has to be the most cosmically foreboding teen love story ever, and, owing to certain narrative convulsions, it ends literally before it begins.
Written and directed by intolerably talented first timer Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko is at its root the story of a brainstorm, a psychotic break. Teenage Donnie (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) -- who lives, deep in the 1980s, with a nice family in a nice house -- sees that everything is about to become nothing. Time travel, the seduction of madness, the awful privilege of revelation and a long-running family argument about Michael Dukakis: The feel of this film is unique, at once eerie and humane, and it leaves a dent in the heart. The ordinary world -- Dad with his leaf blower, little sis on her trampoline -- is evoked tenderly, nostalgically, its streets and lawns aglow as they are glimpsed from the departing space capsule of sanity. And as the apocalyptic spiral in Donnie's head grows grander and more dangerous, picking up details like a tornado, you feel it might pull you out of your seat. Extraordinary.
2. Bloody Sunday
On Jan. 30, 1972, British soldiers fired on a civil-rights march in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Thirteen people were killed immediately, with another dying soon after. Writer/director Paul Greengrass' dramatized re-creation of the events leading up to and during the massacre is so tight you can barely breathe. English snobbery, Irish rage, military breakdown: The fuse is lit long before the first frame. Soundtrack-free and filmed in drained, handheld 16 mm, Bloody Sunday fades to black after each short, blunt scene. The effect is of a fixed and horrified gaze, slowly blinking, almost stunned.
The cast includes British soldiers and real-life participants in the original march, their performances made indistinguishable from those of the more experienced actors because there is precious little acting going on. Rather, what is required -- by Greengrass and by history -- is not acting but simple, urgent fidelity to the situation.
3. Dogtown and Z-Boys
The elegiac, pagan guitar chimes of Led Zeppelin's "Achilles Last Stand" set the tone for Stacy Peralta's account of skateboarding in 1970s California. This film is a sort of creation myth for the sport, in which blond young gods test themselves, rise and fall, change, battle demons and drag an era in their wake. As viewers, we follow their line from the baked rims of dried-out swimming pools to the highest and most lucrative levels of competition.
Subtitled The Birth of Extreme, Dogtown focuses on Santa Monica's now-legendary Zephyr team and the impact that its stylistic and attitudinal innovations had on skateboarding, on music and on the culture at large. Director Peralta was part of this original crew, and having honed his talents on a series of for-aficionados-only skateboard videos, he is now an excellent filmmaker, a master of the kinetic edit. Skate stunts are woven in and out of a dense tapestry of 1970s classic rock tunes, and the result is the most thrilling, viscerally enjoyable film of the year.
4. 24 Hour Party People
Manchester, England, has always had a disproportionate number of good bands, and Michael Winterbottom's fictionalized, highly stylized look at the local scene -- from punk rock to rave -- is giddy with this imbalance. The unreliable narrator is Tony Wilson (British comedian Steve Coogan), opportunist, bullshit artist and devout Mancunian. Wilson's entrepreneurial zest and shameless appropriation of postmodern theory kept things buzzing for a decade or more; in the process, his record label Factory and his club The Hacienda became cultural lodestones for the city. Wilson was a tremendous, even pathological puffer of his own schemes, but he was no Wizard of Oz, no smoke-generating illusionist; pull back the curtain and there was always incredible music. From the somber spaces of Joy Division to the messy antics of Happy Mondays, 24 Hour Party People is slaphappy with sound, fully immersed and riotous.
5. The Believer
Henry Bean was a Hollywood journeyman, a screenwriter of better-than-average cop movies (Internal Affairs was one I always enjoyed) before writing and directing The Believer. Good versus evil was his beat, and his possessing themes -- police corruption, undercover work -- evinced a usefully Manichaean sensibility. But only the most extreme logic could have foreseen the creation of The Believer's Danny Balint, a Jewish Nazi skinhead. "Modern life is a Jewish disease!" rants Danny (Ryan Gosling), and leaps into the electrically violent life of the racist thug, fully wired with self-hate. There is a brutal neatness to the concept -- an angry young man becoming his racial and spiritual reverse image, to the horror and disgust of those around him -- and Bean's film, foolishly brave, doesn't flinch from the fallout.
Surprise, surprise! Two other items of interest:
Best Performance by a Rap Star
It's not Eminem in 8 Mile. No, the finest exhibition of hip-hop thespianism came courtesy of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in Marc Forster's turbulent, clouded Monster's Ball. Combs plays Lawrence Musgrove, a prisoner on death row in Georgia, and in the prelude to and enactment of his execution, he somehow makes himself a still, quiet center for the film.
Everyone around him is going to pieces, and in the careful, neurotic observances of the execution ritual -- the last meal, the head shaving, the solemn dressing of the prisoner in an enormous diaper (for when he voids his bowels during electrocution) -- we feel the terror, not of the condemned man but of his executioners: ordinary, clumsy men startled to find themselves performing as apocalyptic engines, angels of death in too-tight uniforms. In Musgrove, regret and defiance have canceled each other out, producing a weird, almost saintly poise. His last words, the ones that linger long after the film's end, are "Push the button."
Best Movie Containing Dragons
As I napped and moaned through Road to Perdition this summer, I could hear, one screen over, the muffled artillery of some truly cracking action flick. It was Rob Bowman's Reign of Fire. The title itself is to be savored: pure exultant heavy metal, magnificent bombast. Add the special ingredient of shrieking, flame-blasting dragons on the wing and you have a surefire hit.
The distinguished cast (Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco) gives it everything: no winks, no smirks -- this is dragon-fighting to the death, by God, over the scorched carcass of a futuristic England, and every performance must be full-blooded. Did the writers ever read Russell Hoban's post-nuclear masterpiece Riddley Walker? I'd love to know, as the primitive, dragon-razed communes of Reign of Fire their inhabitants huddling around their botched myths -- a scene from Star Wars, for example, is performed like a medieval mystery play -- seem to directly echo Hoban's vision.