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Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Top 10 Films of 2002

By Kevin John

2002 was a rather unorthodox film-going year for me. Living in Milwaukee for the first half, I caught on to a 2001 fave like "Donnie Darko" well after the start of the new year. Living in Montréal later on, I caught several films that have barely played elsewhere but would definitely have made my top 10: "11'09"01," "De L'autre Côté" and "Ten." So, as with all lists, only more so this time out, do not take the entries below as etched in stone.

9. "Far From Heaven" and "8 Women" (tie): The placement of these two together at the bottom of the list is obviously a polemical gesture. Against critical orthodoxy, I still feel "8 Women" is the richer film. When I wrote of the former in a previous "Continuity Error" column, saying that "Haynes ensures the narrative leaves nothing incommunicable," it was against my instincts as a budding intellectual who knows that communication is never absolute. Just as we should ask "ironic for whom?" of Douglas Sirk's 1950s masterpieces, we should ask "communicable to whom?" of "Far From Heaven." In any event, Haynes has found a way to pastiche with his eyes wide open. His imitation of Sirk oozes with intention and ulterior motive, but with nary a satirical impulse in sight. So the real conundrum for mental laborers like critics and budding intellectuals, at least, may be that it leaves us with no work to do.

8. "8 Mile": Who says they don't make musicals anymore?

7. "About Schmidt": Who says they don't make Westerns anymore?

6. "Absolut Warhola": If you thought Warhol had no use for aura, his relatives in the village of Miková have even less. Which means that Stanislaw Mucha's fascinating documentary tracing the artist's Eastern European ancestry may prove the most useful and thought-provoking document we have on this crucial 20th century figure. Especially given how Warhol's homosexuality is such a non-subject for his relatives, who apparently didn't glimpse his fame until after his death, we can see the melancholy behind "Blow Job" and those rows of Marilyns starting to seep through the surface of his assembly-line production techniques. Somewhat by default, then, the film allows us to meditate on the relationship between urbanity and identity. But whither that wandering Warhol lookalike who populates the edges of the frame, if not Eastern Europe itself?

5. "The Lady and the Duke": Eric Rohmer channels his hypnotic, chatty energy into the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Scottish royalist living in France during the French Revolution who was understandably horrified by the dismantling of the monarchy. In the era of Chirac, this is indeed an itchy endeavor to undertake. But it certainly didn't prevent Rohmer from transforming Elliott's plight into a phantasmagoria of digital video, painted backdrops and pop-up-book sets.

4. "La Cienaga": Not since Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" have locale and temperature radiated such an nerve-wracking fatalism. Lucrecia Martel's remarkable feature traces the slow, dreary deterioration of the married-with-kids middle-class dream under the Argentinean sun. The energy here is entirely implosive — one character takes a shower only to wind up even muddier. But Martel carves out myriad facets from the stalled story. A rough-cut diamond, to be sure, but one to forever marvel at in all its labyrinthine brilliance.

3. "Y Tu Mamá También": Houston, we have context.

2. "Russian Ark": Alexander Sokurov's 95-minute shot would probably place at the top if I felt I could ever get a grasp of it. For now I'll just say that like Rohmer above, Sokurov posits his formidable technical grasp (if it's not the longest single-take in cinema history, it's certainly the first feature of any renown recorded directly onto hard-disk rather than film), provocatively at odds with his content. For instance, when the Marquis de Custine, our host throughout 33 rooms of the Hermitage museum in Russia, says he will not go forward into the night with the mazurka-mad revelers on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, his reticence suggests a longing to get off the treadmill of progression so endemic to Western thought. A perfect segue into...

1. "Time Out": In a 1925 essay called "The Hotel Lobby," the great cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer examined how thoroughly industrial rationalization had bled into every facet of existence. Laurent Cantet's corrosive follow-up to "Human Resources" resembles Kracauer's essay so uncannily that the thing practically serves as a screenplay. It's all there in this tale about a man who won't tell his family about his new job, even the hotel lobby itself with its clandestine activities (both legal and illegal) and its opportunities for a radical boredom to escape capitalist subjectivity. It doesn't work out, as the devastating end confirms. But that the possibility is even laid out is the most liberating cinema experience I had all year.

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