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The Best & Worst of 2002

The Best & Worst of 2002

Articles - Directing

There weren’t any parades or celebrations—except
maybe in the hearts of retailers—but last year marked the silver
anniversary of the home video market. From one store in Los Angeles
in 1977 (which charged $10 for a one-night movie rental) to more
than 32,000 rental outlets in 2002, home video has become an astonishing
$8 billion-plus annual industry.

According to the Video Software Dealers Association,
VHS is still the dominant home cinema format, comprising about 70
percent of all rentals. But the sheer volume of films being released
on DVD each month—films that have long been out of print on video—makes
our task of cheering and jeering 2002’s releases a more daunting
one. While it would be easy for us to rave or ridicule only the
top films of the year—the big guys like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.—the marketplace is overcrowded with much
less obvious choices. From the always-interesting Criterion selections
to new releases of some favorite classics, choosing the best of
the best isn’t easy. And while we’ve done our best to warn you of
the “worst” available, please beware—this list is hardly comprehensive.
There are shelves full of other bombs lurking where these came from.
Our only aim is to be of some small assistance as you attempt to
avoid squandering two hours of your life with cinematic drivel by
clueing you into a few of the easiest-to-spot red flags. For instance,
whenever you spot phrases like “the feel-good movie of the year,”
or “starring Steve Guttenberg” or any comment from Peter Travers,
step away immediately or risk being burned. Also, if it’s “guaranteed
to be in,” it’s almost “guaranteed to be bad.” Finally, if you hear
other people asking for a particular movie by name, chances are
they’ve been sucked into the undertow of a studio’s wave of marketing—and
the movie is certain to be all wet.

So once again this year we hope you’re enlightened
by the opinions of our Home Cinema columnists as they pick the best
and worst of 2002’s home video and DVD offerings.

The Best of 2002

by Travis Crawford

In the Mood for Love (CRITERION COLLECTION)

Wong Kar-Wai’s haunting study of melancholic romantic
yearning and infidelity in 1962 Hong Kong remains one of the most
visually accomplished films in recent years—and it only seems to
improve with successive viewings. This inherent revisitation appeal
is only one reason why Criterion’s lavish two-disc special edition
was perhaps the finest DVD release of 2002. The
majority of acclaimed overseas films arrive on American DVD with
a bare minimum of supplementary features (and often with disappointing
transfers, e.g. New Yorker’s Beau Travail and Kino’s The
Piano Teacher
). Exhaustive extras are typically reserved for
the latest mega-budget Hollywood fodder.

In the Mood for Love not only provides a wealth
of special features, but contextualizes them expertly so that they
actually provide a deeper appreciation for the film. From interviews
and “making-of” documentaries, to short films and deleted scenes,
the disc complements the film beautifully—and the extras are mercifully
fluff-free.

Singin’ in the Rain (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

Be honest: there are some classic films which one
watches again with all the enthusiasm of impending oral surgery—a
cultural obligation far divorced from any personal pleasure. Then
there are those canonical critical favorites that still appear as
fresh, vital and entertaining as they did upon initial viewing.
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical masterpiece Singin’ in
the Rain
resides in this latter category, and the new Warner
DVD would likely appear on this list even if it only contained the
gorgeous remastered transfer of this most glorious of Hollywood
musicals (Technicolor has never looked better). But this two-disc
reissue also boasts a commentary track, a (rather trifling) new
documentary on the production, a deleted sequence, excerpts from
the original 1930s musicals which contained the Arthur Freed/Nacio
Herb Brown songs used in the film and—best of all—the impressive
1996 feature-length documentary Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed
Unit at MGM.
Even if your interest in musicals is minimal (or
your exposure to the genre is limited), this release remains an
essential purchase.

German Horror Classics: 4-DVD Boxed Set (KINO)

The most historically significant DVD boxed set release
of the year, particularly for those with interest in horror and/or
silent cinema, German Horror Classics assembles four pivotal films
from the German Expressionist silent cinema of the late teens/early
1920s. Most of these films have appeared on DVD before in dreadful
public domain transfers (Elite’s similar release, Masterworks of
the German Horror Cinema, was a notable eyesore), but the exemplary
quality of these properly licensed Kino restorations easily surpasses
all previous editions. The earliest entry, Robert Wiene’s The
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
remains the best of the quartet, with
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu not far behind. Both look quite good
here, with excellent use of color tinting and a choice of two accompanying
musical scores. Although a production design marvel, Paul Wegener
and Carl Boese’s The Golem is the slowest going of the group,
undoubtedly because it’s simply more narratively conventional and
less visually experimental than its companions. Paul Leni’s imaginative,
little-seen Waxworks is an engrossing surprise, though, and
its inclusion is welcome. The set also comes with a wealth of supplemental
features, principally in the form of short films and feature excerpts.

Coffin Joe: 6-DVD
boxed set (CINEMAGIA OF BRAZIL)

“Who?!,” some readers might ask. The cinematic alter-ego
of Brazilian actor-director Jose Mojica Marins, Coffin Joe was a
black-clad, blasphemous, misanthropic bogeyman who appeared in several
brutal and excessive horror films in the ’60s and ’70s, directed
by Marins himself. Described as “a cross between Russ Meyer and
Luis Buñuel,” this boxed set collects six films from 1964 to 1978,
all of which are English-subtitled, as well as a positively staggering
selection of extras: documentaries, trailers, short films, radio
plays, new interviews and more. Regrettably, few of the extras are
English-subtitled (though subtitles appear on Ivan Caroso’s documentary O Universo de Mojica Marins), but this set remains a fascinatingly
thorough overview of Marins’ cinema—and some of the extras are enthralling
even for non-Portuguese speakers. Clearly a labor of love, the Coffin
Joe set is perhaps the oddball DVD collection of the year.

Solaris (CRITERION) 

There are two types of people in this world: those
who like Andrei Tarkovsky films, and those who would prefer to avoid
them in favor of watching, say, a George Clooney movie. Criterion’s
cannily timed special edition of Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece is
an appropriately beautiful release for this extraordinary film (along
with Mirror and Stalker, it’s one of his best works).
Tarkovsky’s hypnotic, meditative approach to the genre is about
as far removed from vulgar contemporary American notions of science
fiction as one could imagine—and rest assured, that’s a good thing.
This enigmatic space-station spirituality saga has previously been
available as a Russian import, but the Criterion disc improves upon
that worthwhile release, with a correct mono soundtrack and extra
features, including audio commentary, video interviews, and nine
deleted scenes.

Donnie Darko (Criterion),
and George Washington (CRITERION)

Three of the most striking and impressive feature
directing debuts in contemporary English-language cinema are available
on DVD in superlative special editions, and this trio offers a solid
primer on the careers of three promising young moviemakers. Scottish
director Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (a meticulously miserable
evocation of adolescent life in 1970s Glasgow) and David Gordon
Green’s George Washington (a wry, surreal portrait of interracial
adolescent life in the contemporary South), both deservedly receive
the Criterion treatment. But Donnie Darko seems to be headed
for the most enduring cult following, and Fox bestows Richard Kelly’s
unclassifiably witty and disturbing ’80s-teen-timeslip genre-bender
with a deluxe DVD so thorough it almost makes you forgive them for
botching the theatrical release. All three discs are packed with
supplementary material, some of which prove illuminating (the short
films on Ratcatcher), and some of which might make you wish
these young moviemakers would just let the films speak for themselves
(the overly descriptive director’s commentary track on Darko).

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival: 3-DVD
boxed set (CRITERION)

Talk about exhaustive: Criterion’s three-disc boxed
set of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival is perhaps the
one multi-disc release that you’ll most enjoy spending several days
savoring. Like Singin’ in the Rain, this release would likely
appear on a “Best of” list just for presenting the primary feature—director
D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 film of the music fest—with remastered clarity
(which truly is impressive for this film) and a solid new 5.1 audio
remix. Fortunately, this comprehensive collection goes much further:
if the original Monterey Pop film’s brief 78-minute running
time necessarily omits dozens of immortal performances, then the
other two discs offer some consolation, as the set also includes
Pennebaker’s Jimi Plays Monterey documentary on Hendrix’s
legendary set, as well as his short, Shake! Otis at Monterey, on Otis Redding’s performance. Finally, an entire third disc
includes more than two hours of outtake performances (still no Dead
though, and Big Brother and the Holding Company is underrepresented,
but the extra Who footage is worth the price alone). In addition,
there are audio commentaries, audio and video interviews and an
accompanying 62-page book.

The Tarantino Quartet: Reservoir Dogs (ARTISAN), Pulp Fiction (MIRAMAX), Jackie
Brown
(MIRAMAX), and True Romance (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

After a long wait, fans of QT were certainly rewarded in 2002, with
lavish two-disc special editions of the three features he directed,
along with one he wrote (True Romance). So how does the
poster boy for the mid-’90s cinema zeitgeist look several
years later? Pretty good, actually. While Reservoir Dogs does appear more glibly gimmicky over time and Tarantino’s True Romance script isn’t particularly well served
by Tony Scott’s bombastic direction, Pulp Fiction remains
as riotously amusing as ever, and Jackie Brown—surprisingly—emerges
as the true masterwork of the group, a reaction most viewers would
not have had upon that film’s original release (in an interview
on Jackie’s second disc, Tarantino even jokes about
the film’s delayed appreciation). Extras on all four titles
are predictably thorough, although it’s regrettable that the
two lesser films, Dogs and Romance, have far more interesting
supplementary features than the two Miramax releases (in particular,
the second disc of Pulp is notably useless). Best extra:
Tarantino and his Dogs cast’s uproarious recollections
of the late Lawrence Tierney on the second disc.

Don’t Look Now (PARAMOUNT)
and Macbeth (COLUMBIA/TRISTAR)

Who needs extras, anyway? Nicolas Roeg’s elliptical thriller Don’t Look Now, with Donald Sutherland and Julie
Christie as grieving parents adrift in a sinister Venice, and Roman
Polanski’s grisly Shakespeare adaptation, Macbeth,
a bloody and earthy take on the Bard’s tragedy of power and
madness, both arrive on DVD with nary an extra in sight. That’s
fine: both films could justifiably be labeled masterpieces, and
(aside from somewhat weak audio on the Roeg film) both have excellent
transfers to DVD. The British DVD of Don’t Look Now had a documentary featurette on the film (nice job, Paramount),
but the American discs are still essential purchases.

Spider-Man (COLUMBIA
TRISTAR) and Blade II (NEW LINE)

Aaah, who are we kidding? Extras are great! Just to demonstrate
that this list doesn’t have to exclude feature-laden discs
of contemporary Hollywood blockbuster fare, a final recommendation
for these two 2-disc releases. First, both films represent the most
imaginative and stylish approaches to big-budget, CGI-driven genre
moviemaking, and both stand as two of the few successful translations
of the comic book aesthetic into feature film (undoubtedly due to
their directors, Blade II’s Guillermo del Toro and Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi, longtime genre fans with
roots in low-budget horror moviemaking). Second, the extras on both
releases are assembled with much greater attention to both education
and entertainment than the grab bag overkill one normally finds
on similar DVD bonuses. Blade II is particularly thorough in this
area. Fun if forgettable sensory-overload popcorn nonsense…
but man cannot live on Tarkovsky alone.

The Worst of 2002

by Coby Carlucci & James L. Menzies

Eight Legged Freaks

Eight Legged Freaks (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

Why does Hollywood keep passing off crap like Eight
Legged Freaks
as “camp?” Camp is not a spontaneous creation,
nor can it be sold as such. Film history is littered with awful
movies that you grow to love. What would the world be like
without the terrible glee of Polyester or The Frogs?
Hollywood has been trying to force this issue on us by producing
expensive, plotless movies, hoping that they will endear themselves
to the masses. Perhaps the biggest perpetrators of this vile trickery
are Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. First they nearly tainted
the good name of Godzilla and now they attempt to make
a mockery of the hokey, genetically-altered infestation genre
we all loved as kids with films like Night of the Lepus? What makes a movie like Tarantula (an obvious precursor
to Eight Legged Freaks) endearing is the sheer tackiness
of seeing a real tarantula poised over a Styrofoam mountain. It’s
clever, gaudy—and effective. Spiders are creepy because they are
quiet and can sneak up on you—and could possibly be under your
bed sheets right now. These CGI behemoths leap, trap, pummel yet
essentially bore the ever living heck out of us without ever being
unnerving. Why? Because we can see them coming a mile away, just
like each and every moment of this movie.

Scooby-Doo (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

Speaking of making a mockery of our youth, will
Hollywood ever stop messing with our cartoons? They’re better
left as they are. This live-action stupidity should have ended
with Casper. Now that Scooby-Doo has been ruined,
how long until they tackle The Snorks or Camp Candy?
If they really wanted to woo my age bracket they should have used
the original animated Hanna Barbera Scooby (a la Pete’s Dragon)
instead of this CGI aberration. Throw in Don Knotts and the Harlem
Globetrotters and we’re in business! Another thing: we didn’t
need to see Velma’s cleavage to realize she was sexy; she was
attractive for her brainpower, not for what may have lurked beneath
her turtleneck sweater.

Murder By Numbers

Murder By Numbers (WARNER HOME
VIDEO)

This film is named after one of Sting’s more popular
songs—and it’s an adequate title, as the song hints at what the
film is about. However, if you’re going to rip off a Sting title
to describe this movie, a more appropriate choice would have been A Thousand Years, which is precisely the amount of time
it takes one to stagger through the multitude of predictable plot
twists and character arcs in this picture.

This film is about as sharp and gritty as a well-floured
rolling pin. It doesn’t know if it truly wants to be a conflicted
cop drama, a psychological thriller or both, but it ultimately
fails as either and all. Don’t rent this movie. You’re better
off renting one of director Barbet Schroeder’s earlier works such
as Single White Female or Reversal of Fortune, each
with a decisively sharper edge than Murder by Numbers. Actually, why not just ignore the new release section altogether
this week and rent a few seminal films that are sure to satisfy
all of your conflicted cop drama and/or psychological thriller
needs—films like The Parallax View, The French Connection,
Sea of Love, Manhunter
and The Manchurian Candidate. Better
yet, look for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Tom Kalin’s Swoon or Orson Welles in Compulsion, each of which (like Murder by Numbers) is based on the Leopold and Loeb murder
case. Murder by Numbers should only be rented as a last
resort… if The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is out.

Dragonfly (UNIVERSAL)

If ever a movie was damned it was Dragonfly.
A movie directed by Patch Adams perpetrator Tom Shadyac,
featuring Kevin Costner as a doctor haunted by the ghost of his
dead wife. Or is she really dead? Who cares! There are far better
questions I would like answered—like what the hell Eddie LeBec
is doing in this movie? Jay Thomas’ 30-second role as a whitewater
guide who guides no one through any amount water at all is perhaps
the dumbest cameo of the year. Why does Jacob Vargas keep spotting
Costner a 30-second head start? Costner keeps darting off and
Vargas (who has a gun, by the way) keeps letting him go, then
deciding to follow approximately half a minute later. Stick the
gun in his back and make him leave or just go with him—why make
things difficult? And why are the natives wearing clothes? Come
on now, they could have given us a little of that National
Geographic
G-rated nudity we all so desire. Then this movie
would have supplied at least one interesting moment.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the
Clones
(FOX HOME VIDEO)

Dear Mr. Lucas: My name is Billy and I am in the
third grade. I just wanted to know, are you mad at Lawrence Kasdan?
Because let’s be honest here, these scripts just aren’t cutting
it. I’ve heard better dialogue between my breaded chicken patty
and hot buttered corn at lunch. And what’s the story with Obi-Wan
Kenobi? There are Power Rangers with more personality than that
guy! Where are all the cool ships and stuff? Where is Han Solo?
Why is Anakin always whining? Isn’t he 20? Why was Natalie Portman
out-acted by the blue screen? Darn you and your stupid, stupid
digital worlds. I don’t want any more superfluous monsters! And
what did you do with the Yoda puppet, anyway? Is it busy writing
the next movie with Jabba the Hutt?

The Time Machine (UNIVERSAL)

I wish I had a time machine so I could go back to
the moment right before I pushed ‘play’ on this movie and hit
‘self-destruct’ instead.

Windtalkers (MGM/US)

This movie was not a good fit for John Woo, the
unquestioned master of Hong Kong action flicks, since he is not
really the storytelling, character-driving type. He took an intriguing
and little known account from WWII and turned it into the sequel
from Hamburger Hill. Japanese soldiers dart out of bushes Missing in Action style and it all concludes with a healthy
dose of Saving Private Ryan sentimentality. Oh well, at
least Christian Slater gets his cube gleamed clear off by a Japanese
sword or there would have been no salvaging moments. I just wish
it had happened prior to the impromptu jam session between Slater’s
Ox on harmonica and Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) on the Indian
Flute… or even better, during the jam session! That would
be the John Woo we know and love.

Mr. Deeds (COLUMBIA TRI-STAR)

Each year Adam Sandler puts out his perennial piece
of crap. This is 2002’s offering. Given his provocative
performance in P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love,
it’s even more inexplicable why Sandler keeps settling for
bad scripts. His potential as a dramatic actor makes one even
more furious after seeing Mr. Deeds.

Death to Smoochy

Death to Smoochy (WARNER HOME VIDEO)
This movie almost defies categorization. Is it a western? No.
An action-adventure? Nope. A chick flick? Hardly. It is indeed
part of that ever-nebulous genre, “the black comedy.”
You may ask, ‘How can I tell if something is a black comedy
or just a regular comedy?’ Well, who knows. But we can say
this: if you want to see a good black comedy, rent Dr. Strangelove.
If you want to see a bad black comedy, get Death to Smoochy.

This may be one of the most irrelevant movies ever
made. To put it into perspective, this film is unfunny in the
same way that Very Bad Things was unfunny. Both are heavy on mean-spiritedness
and bad karma and light on laughs. Halfway through, I decided
to turn it off in favor of something more enjoyable—watching
a fan oscillate. One can only conclude that Robin Williams owed
someone a favor when you consider that, aside from this, he appeared
in two of the better movies of 2002, Insomnia and One
Hour Photo
(both recommended rentals). Leave Death to
Smoochy
for those individuals who actually laughed at Shallow
Hal
.

A Beautiful Mind (UNIVERSAL)

Sure, it may have won the Oscar for Best Picture,
but that doesn’t give it immunity. What needs to be said—and
saying it is long overdue—is that a sensitive topic like
schizophrenia is better left to the experts. Someone like, say,
Paul Schrader, who directed Auto Focus and Affliction—not
the director of Splash! That’s not to say that
Ron Howard is an incompetent director; he’s certainly made
his share of enjoyable movies. But this film needed to be much
harder for the audience to watch—more unforgiving in its
depiction of John Nash’s condition. Does schizophrenia really
entail the creation of such friendly and unthreatening apparitions
as a fun-loving college roommate and his adorable niece?

Despite great performances from Russell Crowe and
Jennifer Connelly, the film reeks of Hollywood sentimentality.
It is rife with overbearing orchestral arrangements that prompt
the audience’s emotions. Nash’s story is an interesting
one to tell, but one that ultimately would have been better told
by a director who has lived on the edge, and lived to tell about
it. MM

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