Sometimes a year comes along and you’re filling in your Ten Best bracket and the Numero Uno isn’t quite clear but you have to put them in some kind of order or end up with a pasty-faced alphabetical list. So you look for the X factor. Which for me would be: if a few movies of the last 12 months achieved a high level of grace and cinematic excitement, which one astonished? Which one either kicked the movies forward into new realms, or managed to be something I’d never quite seen before?
For my 2002 accounting, the latter point was nailed by The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), a three-hour epic of Inuit life directed by Zacharias Kunuk. The film tells a ripping yarn that might have been knocking around for a thousand years or so, yet bristles with a completely modern humor. It is fascinating as a look at an unfamiliar culture, yet it carries not a whiff of National Geographic sobriety. It is shot on video on a presumably small budget, yet it has vistas and plot turns that would make David Lean’s eyebrows furrow with envy.
As the most astonishing film of its year, it outpoints a collection of worthwhile movies. (Okay, the year thing: IMDb has it listed as a 2001 film, and it did show at some film festivals that year, but according to IMDb’s other records, The Fast Runner did not properly open for regular runs anywhere, including its home country of Canada, until 2002. That’s what I’m going with.) My favorite U.S. film of the year is Punch-Drunk Love, a movie that fires on all pistons and will increasingly be seen as an American classic; fave European film is To Be and To Have, a miraculous look at the life cycles of a schoolhouse in rural France. But here’s the list:
1. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), (Zacharias Kunuk)
2. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. To Be and to Have (Nicolas Philibert)
4. About Schmidt (Alexander Payne)
5. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
6. The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki)
7. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze)
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)
9. Heaven (Tom Tykwer)
10. The Emperor’s New Clothes (Alan Taylor)
The Two Towers was the best segment of Jackson’s trilogy, and a real movie unto itself (in which the slippery Gollum emerged as the true protagonist of the whole saga). Polanski’s Oscar-winner was a fine reminder of this director’s command, and The Man Without a Past a beautiful example of what Kaurismaki can do when he rouses himself for disciplined work. Heaven, based on a Kieslowski script, is a strange little closed-system thing, but it’s well suited to Tywker’s particular talents and it gives a strong role to Cate Blanchett (even Giovanni Ribisi is on good behavior). And The Emperor’s New Clothes, a comedy on the subject of Napoleon (Ian Holm in good form), sneaks in there because it’s an ingenious picture that slipped by almost completely unnoticed.
I almost made room for Robert Rodriguez’s daffy Spy Kids 2, which is a real example of directorial giddiness; I feel less disappointed about leaving off the official arthouse successes of the year, Far from Heaven and Talk to Her.
Next week: 1960.