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Dubious Honors

I don’t have one of those fathers who dispenses pellets of wisdom like Pez, but he does have one choice saying: "There’s no shame in any job, so long as you do it well."

I’ve always applied this adage to movies. If you’re going to make an action movie—and action movies are the only kind of movie Hollywood truly excels at producing, as they mostly require violence, speed and trillion-dollar budgets—then make a taut movie like Speed, not the malodorous Deep Impact. Or if you’re a one-note actor, then sing that one note with gusto, á la Hugh Grant, the bumbling, quipping romantic comedy king.

Most of us go to movies for all kinds of reasons—some lofty and some not so lofty. Sometimes we go to be challenged, sometimes we seek titillation, and sometimes we just crave the movie theater as a womb—a dark, temperature-regulated room with a light flickering at its end. But while the best movies may successfully meld substance and style, there’s still something to be said for filmmakers doing well at whatever it is they set out to do.

This is awards time, when a bunch of jaundiced Hollywood insiders deem what’s best from 2002 for the Oscars, and a bunch of jaundiced semi-outsiders do so for the Independent Spirit Awards. It’s easy to mock those award ceremonies, but the truth is most of us watch them. Scratch any Brooklyn hipster who says that she never watched Oscar night on television and you’ll find a woman who won her local bar’s Oscar pool in 1999.

As we acknowledge cinematic glory, and take major umbrage with who wins what, the ceremonies will no doubt incite us to consider what films we did and did not like over the last year. If we’re lucky, we’ll even ask ourselves why. Here I’ve compiled a list of honorable—and in some cases, dishonorable—mentions from the movies of 2002.

Best Coming-of-Age Story Oh, how this country loves its homage to youth, puberty, and raging hormones. This year didn’t boast any films that measured up to the likes of the witty Election or Rushmore, or the bold Mexican import, Y Tu Mama Tambien; rather, we got the regrettable Igby Goes Down, which conflated ennui with actual adolescent angst, and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, straight out of screenwriting 101—not to mention the usual spate of Hollywood ejaculation masquerading as teen movies. The best of 2002’s lot actually focused more on a grown-up’s coming of age as induced by his misty-eyed adolescent nephew: the well-written Roger Dodger, starring Campbell Scott and Jesse Eisenberg. Along those lines…

Most Undeservingly Cast Actor Kieran Culkin. Someone should tell young Kieran, the star of both Igby Goes Down and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, and the younger brother of Macaulay, that the affectless misunderstood teen schtick is only interesting when something teems beneath that surface.

The Rolling Stones "Enough Already" Award Woody Allen. Wouldn’t it be great if this year’s Hollywood Ending was his, too? He hasn’t made a good movie since 1992’s Husbands and Wives, his last venture with Mia Farrow. Since then, all his films have had a hollow, frantic quality, the true mark of an artist who’s making art to escape from rather than to explore life.

Worst Woody Allen Imitator Kissing Jessica Stein. More offensive than the conceit that women turn to women ONLY because men disappoint was how badly this movie improvised on Allen’s 1970s neurotic love stories that I so loved. Better to just watch Annie Hall again. Squint your eyes and it’s not that hard to pretend Allen is a hot lesbian living downtown.

The Worst Post-Oscar Choke Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh has turned out nothing but pap since 2000’s Oscar-reaping and eminently worthy Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Ocean’s Eleven was a crappy remake of a crappy original, but it was nothing compared to this year’s movie-about-moviemaking conceit Full Frontal, and the misguided remake of Solaris tanked. Perhaps it’s time for the analyst’s couch, although that hasn’t seemed to help Mr. Allen very much.

The Best Feel-Good Movie of the Year that Doesn’t Make You Feel Like a Sucker Monsoon Wedding. An unabashedly sentimental yet unflinching look at all the different elements necessary to launch not only a romance but a wedding, Indian style. It’s all there: class tensions, family fights and reconciliations, lush visual details, and hot make-out sessions. In other words, it’s everything that the two-hour sitcom My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the "indie" movie produced by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, was not.

The Hottie Olympics Gold Medallists Gael Garcia Bernal, the star of last year’s Y Tu Mama Tambien and this year’s El Crimen del Padre Amaro, acts well enough to sometimes distract me from his adorable bumpy mouth. And, though Catherine Keener used to specialize in hapless singletons, actors, and ex-wives, in her forties she’s mastered the smoldering impatience of women who are sexy not despite, but because of, their hostile narcissism. Check her out in this year’s (otherwise lousy) Full Frontal as well as Lovely and Amazing, not to mention 1999’s Being John Malkovich.

Best Performance in a Bad Movie Nothing’s more depressing than a great performance buried in a really terrible movie. Alan Arkin’s richly complex portrayal of a bitter insurance executive is that one good thing in Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, and Michelle Pfieffer is fabulously fierce and convincing as the sociopathic mother in the otherwise forgettable White Oleander.

The "Back in the Day" Award Downtown 81. Released this year though filmed back in 1981, the movie follows a 19-year-old Jean Michel Basquiat for two hours through the enviable art and music scenes of the East Village before a studio apartment in a tenement building went for $400,000 and you could buy $12 martinis on every block.

The "Who Knew?" Award Adam Sandler. Director P.T. Anderson has an amazing ability to extract great performances out of unlikely sources: Burt Reynolds, Tom Cruise, and now Adam Sandler. Granted, Sandler revisits his standard braying manchild, but in the ragged Punch-Drunk Love, he explores the dark underbelly of that same character. Watching Sandler’s face blush a dark red right before he "beats up" a restaurant bathroom to quell his anxiety on a date, I caught myself thinking, "My god. He’s really acting." What next? Jennifer Aniston doing an understated turn, notably free of hand-flailing, in an indie film? Come to think of it, girlfriend just might deserve the same award for The Good Girl.

Best Action Movie Spiderman. True, the fight scenes looked like bad video games, and Willem Dafoe was gravely underused, but Tobey Maguire’s wide-eyed subversion suited earnest Peter Parker, and the movie’s cartoony, 1960s style provided a great summer escape. And it was far better than the runner-up for the Enough Already Award, George Lucas’s Star Wars II, Attack of the Clones.

Best Movie Musical 8 Women. Eight house-bound French women clad gorgeously in 1950s fabrics and colors, singing and dancing and grabbing each others’ hair. Some complained the film was too long, but I could have watched it forever.

Mr. and Mrs. Indie Movie USA Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In the last few years, no indie movie seems complete without one of them in its cast (they’ve appeared in a staggering 35 movies each in the last ten years, though not all of the films have been released) and the two actors share an uncanny ability to disappear wholly into each role. This year, each has carried an independent film: Moore in Todd Haynes’ flawed but worthy Far from Heaven (she also starred in Hayne’s Safe in 1995), and Hoffman as the stumbling widow in the compelling, excruciating Love Liza. Both performances far outstripped the movies themselves, and I look forward to watching both star in even worthier vehicles.

Best Portrait of Resignation Edie Falco. Whether she’s speaking in a Jersey accent as a mafia don’s wife or in a flat Florida twang in this year’s Sunshine State, Edie Falco has cornered the market on intelligent women unhappily aware of situations they feel helpless to change.

The Nepotism-Takes-You-But-So-Far Award Rebecca Miller for Personal Velocity, which she wrote and directed, based on her own book of short stories. The only unfalse note was the middle of the three vignettes that comprise the film, the one about the upper middle class girl with a famous, withholding father. I wonder how playwright Arthur Miller enjoyed his daughter’s project.

The Feminist Film Award Personal Velocity and Lovely and Amazing may have listlessly looked at how society distorts female self-image, sexuality, and autonomy. But only Almodovar, who consistently makes the most un-misogynistic movies on either side of the Atlantic, made a film that embraces rather than shies away from femininity itself, mostly by exploring the femininity of two heterosexual men who find a way to truly love each other in a way that transcends the back-slapping jocularity that defines most male friendships. Talk to Her rocks.

And, lastly, The Rosman Award for Best All-Around Movie I awaited John Sayle’s latest effort, Sunshine State, with much anticipation, but was disappointed by what turned out to be an almost dull investigative report on Florida real estate, which lacked fleshed-out characters or an absorbing plot. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine admittedly asked wonderful questions about why Americans are so violent, but his bombastic, meandering movie-making style could take cues from his firm yet understated approach to interviewing subjects. On the other side of the spectrum were movies like Secretary, the stylish but too-glib exploration of a sadomasochistic relationship between a damaged young secretary and her boss.

Most surprisingly, my favorite movie of the year was the rapper Eminem’s vehicle, 8 Mile. Eminem stars as main character Rabbit, whose beady but clear eyes loom out of his grey hooded sweatshirt to gaze upon an even grayer landscape of abandoned houses, the stamping plant where he works, and the trailer park where he lives with his mother and his baby sister. The local radio’s station call letters, WJOB, doesn’t feel like a coincidence given Rabbit’s victimization in all areas of his life—he’s plagued by a cheating girlfriend, a bum car, a slatternly, alcoholic mother with a worthless boyfriend, raging neighborhood thugs gunning for him, slacker friends, and a hard-assed boss. True, you have no sense that he can or even wishes to transform the futuristically bombed-out Detroit, a once-thriving industrial and musical Mecca now serving as a ghost town for the packs of poor black and white kids who roam together through its hip-hop clubs and the streets. But the movie sees much more than Rabbit himself: Though being fat or white or, in the case of Cheddar Bob, dumb enough to shoot your own leg, is fodder for the dozens, what truly bonds these characters is their poverty, their disenfranchisement. And if everyone’s a victim, then the best offense is their best defense.

Rabbit (and to some degree, Eminem himself)’s willingness to reveal his weaknesses serves as both the film’s strength and climax: In its first scene, he is depicted vomiting nervously on himself in the bathroom of the hip hop club where he chokes in a performance a few minutes later, hardly his standard image; and in the final hip-hop battle between himself and the defending champion, Papa Doc, Rabbit heads off his rival at the pass by listing everything that can be mocked about himself—"I live in a trailer park," "I’m white trash…"—but finishes up by adding what the audience doesn’t know about Papa Doc himself: his real name is Clarence and he went to private school.

The crowd in the club’s immediate roar echoed the roar in the downtown Brooklyn theater where I was watching the movie, and in that moment, I finally understood: 8 Mile reflects a new moment in cultural history, when hip-hop culture, originally an African-American domain, now speaks to all of the dispossessed. In the final shot of the film, Rabbit walks away from his friends to work a second shift at the stamping plant. It’s clear that from here on in, he’ll find a way, alone, to rise like a phoenix out of Detroit to become the ultimate hip-hop star: a rapper without any franchise but himself. Maybe that image represents the best that 2002 cinema had to offer: an engaging movie that at the end of the day could both save itself and remind you that maybe, just maybe, you can save yourself, too. I have to admit it: I was cheering.

But I’m also reminded of what local hip-hop radio DJ Dr. Dre said on local station Power105 the day Jam Master Jay died: "It’s time we started striking that balance again in our work. We got to make the good music, always, but we affect people. And if you’re listening, Eminem, right now you’re the biggest star hip hop has got right now. We have to step up, people." Along the same lines, there’s always going to be action flicks and romantic comedies. Maybe it’s time for us to also make and demand movies that motivate us to change what needs changing not only in ourselves but in our worlds—and still cheer from our seats.


Lisa Rosman


The Brooklyn Rail


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