2002 was a year of despair and desperation at the movies. Danger, oppression, and grief came from all directions. Sure, there were the usual invaders from outer space. But this year, self-absorption, doubt, paralyzing grief, and long-repressed anger proved much more difficult enemies.

In many movies, sudden and violent deaths deeply wounded those close to the deceased. The parents and fiancé of a murdered woman fumbled for hope and healing in Moonlight Mile. In Signs, a reverend turned against God after the death of his wife. In Love Liza, a widower numbed himself to the pain of his wife's suicide. A girl named Morvern Callar coped with her boyfriend's suicide by partying hard and taking expensive vacations. A gangster took his son out on a vengeful crusade against the man who killed his family in Road to Perdition.

Several characters suffered grief, loneliness, and fear as consequences of their own behavior. One man (Time Out) seemed unaware of his sin, and continued telling lies to friends and family, running into deeper and deeper distress. Another (Minority Report) helped design a presumptuous and chancy crime-fighting system, only to find himself trapped in his own designs. Others (About a Boy, About Schmidt, Adaptation) discovered they had wasted opportunities, and scrambled to assemble a meaningful life or make some kind of connection before it was too late. In Songs from the Second Floor, an entire city of vain, cruel, and self-destructive people plunged themselves into suicidal despair, ignoring the image of Christ, which they had turned into a commodity. Only a few characters (Catch Me If You Can, Insomnia) found grace on the other end of living in denial.

Young men grappled with years of repressed anger, coming to strikingly different conclusions. Antwone Fisher found healing through the help of a counselor and a longsuffering girlfriend, eventually rising to confront those who had wounded and angered him in the first place. Barry Egan (Punch-Drunk Love) was prone to violent outbursts because of his seven punishing sisters; nevertheless, he learned to control his anger and restrain himself when provoked. Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones) lashed out, thinking anger and force would solve everything; thus he suffered pangs of conscience before his inevitable surrender to the dark side. Two men exploded in anger on the highway in Changing Lanes, setting in motion a series of violent and cruel acts. And in Narc, vengeful anger entangled two cops in a complex web of lies and cover-ups.

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Many heroes grappled with conscience at the edge of revenge or violence. John Anderton (Minority Report) and Barry Egan (Punch-Drunk Love) tried to muster the strength for restraint while facing down their enemies. British journalist Thomas Fowler (The Quiet American) and Wil Dormer (Insomnia) investigated the dirty dealings of bad men, only to arrive at apprehensions of their own guilt. The heroes of Atanarjuat—The Fast Runner and Gangs of New York returned from hiding to regain control of tyrannized people, but one found room for mercy where another brought down judgment without flinching.

Women seemed preoccupied with enduring or escaping the pressures of bad marriages. They longed for release, for new passions, new beginnings. Diane Lane (Unfaithful) and Parker Posey (Personal Velocity) played women falling into lust and infidelity in spite of happy marriages. Julianne Moore played two troubled housewives—in Far from Heaven and The Hours — struggling to remain faithful while suffering either loss of passion or the realization of infidelity. A shop clerk tried to be The Good Girl as her husband struggled to become more responsible and caring. In Chicago, Roxie did not give infidelity or murder a second thought, and the world rewarded her sins. The mother of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Catch Me If You Can) was so desirous of the American dream that she willingly sacrificed the happiness of her husband and her son.

Only a few of these films offered any substantial hope. Frightened, persecuted heroes walled themselves in against their enemies (Panic Room, Signs), but some found courage to "ride out" from behind the walls to meet the enemy face to face (The Two Towers).

A handful of adventurers found support in their communities (Ice Age, The Rookie, About a Boy.) Others took refuge in the safety and grace offered by others (Atanarjuat, The Pianist, The Two Towers). You could count on one hand how many characters bothered to consider the help available from heaven. Thus, many were moved by the calls to a Higher Power for rescue in The Two Towers and Signs. Most stories ended in angst and the disintegration of families and dreams.

Films To Revisit and Remember

Several films this year have joined my list of favorites. I'll revisit them for what I learn from the troubles they portray, and for the hope and insights that they offer. Perhaps it was the persistence of dark despairing stories that made these films stand out. Each one of them inspired me and rekindled my sense of wonder and amazement at how God can redeem the mess of our lives.

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1. The Pianist

Director Roman Polanski returns us to a familiar big screen subject: the Holocaust. But his version of the story is so personal, specific, and unsentimental, that it stands as the most affecting, devastating, and inspiring film I've seen about these historic atrocities. Polanski's film brings to life the story of a classical pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who lived in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded. Szpilman and the rest of the Jews in his neighborhood slowly realized the horrific reality of the Nazi trap closing upon them. He escaped and went on the run, dodging patrols and tanks, hiding in the houses of gracious strangers or in the dusty ruins of demolished buildings.

Adrien Brody's performance as Szpilman is the best performance of the year, bar none; his transformation under the fear and pressure recalls Tom Hanks' famous turn in Cast Away. He makes us intimately acquainted with a quiet and introspective artist who survives by listening to the music in his memory even as he is forced to keep silent and still. The music itself becomes the agent of grace, the voice of God, guiding him through the darkness. There have been too many movies about the Holocaust, but this one is told with unmistakable passion of someone who lived through it. It's the most memorable and moving film I've seen this year.

2. Punch-Drunk Love

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) divided audiences with this strange, abrasive romantic comedy about an angry man who meets a mysterious and gracious woman just as his lonely life is spiraling out of control. Many walked way displeased and uncomfortable with Anderson's experimental style. I found it to be the most consistently unpredictable, surprising, and exhilarating good time I had at the movies all year. The biggest surprise of all: Barry Egan, the central character, was portrayed with humor, depth, and sensitivity by Adam Sandler. As random and chaotic as the film seems, I was enthralled. Each time I saw it, I found more meaningful connections between its disparate parts. It avoids the crowd-pleasing indulgence of a violent showdown between rivals, making Barry's triumph over his anger the peak of the action. The story reveals itself as a parable of grace entering fractured lives and patching up the damage. Just as Barry is repairing a broken harmonium and learning to play, his own life is being repaired; love, like music, is working in and through him.

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3. The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers

This is no sequel. It's just the second part of a very long film. Yet, Towers is quite a change from the first installment in Peter Jackson's great adaptation of Tolkien. While the special effects still amaze, and the actors do great work with what is given them, the film stumbles. Instead of drawing us in close to the characters, it keeps us at a distance, preferring to wow us with vast and busy spectacles of war and wonder. We lose touch with major characters. Timelines in different stories seem to contradict each other. Worst of all, Jackson takes away the wisdom, nobility and courage of many characters (Theoden, Treebeard, Faramir), showing them as fearful, despondent, self-serving, even lazy, until they are cornered. They only finally rise up to do the right thing when it has become an act of self-preservation. This is a severe crime against Tolkien's courageous, selfless heroes.

But in spite of the film's many weaknesses, so much here is done with brilliant craftsmanship and breathtaking vision that Towers stands next to Fellowship of the Ring as one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Gollum emerges as the most captivating animated character ever to be incorporated with living actors. These films are so rich, so impressively acted, so complex and rewarding, they make the Star Wars prequels seem like the work of amateurs.

4. Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki's latest is another phenomenal fantasy epic. Echoing Alice in Wonderland and a hundred other favorite fairy tales from around the world, Spirited Away is a landmark of dazzling handcrafted animation and fast-paced adventure. The ending stumbles a bit—the spunky central character prevails based on a lucky guess, not on anything intuitive or earned. But along the way she becomes an admirable heroine, exhibiting patience, kindness, and grace to friends and enemies alike. There is a spirit of discovery, humor, and playfulness that makes this a more joyful experience than any of the other fantasies released this year.

5. The Rookie

It seemed like just another predictable sports movie from Disney in the previews. You know the kind: a guy follows his dream and against all odds, in the bottom of the ninth inning, with a full count, he hits a home run that wins the championship, and the crowd goes wild. But no, that scene never arrives in The Rookie. This is a film about real life, without the usual syrupy sentimentality. I was astonished to find myself cheering for the most moving and inspiring sports-oriented film since Chariots of Fire. The story is told with honesty, warts and all. And Dennis Quaid steps up to deliver the best performance of his career.

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I was also richly rewarded by:

  • The low-budget romance Italian for Beginners, which had the enchantment and charm of a Shakespeare comedy, and that all-too-rare movie hero: a likeable and admirable priest;

  • Steven Spielberg's playful story of escapism and grace, Catch Me If You Can;

  • Phillip Noyce's haunting adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American;

  • Two epics of revenge set in dazzling contexts—Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner and Gangs of New York—one for its tale of mercy in a forbidding landscape, the other for its detail and performances (in spite of some shoddy storytelling);

  • Michael Moore's somewhat inaccurate documentary Bowling for Columbine, which fudged the facts but had its heart in the right place;

  • And, finally, two tales that show us the emptiness of life without God, without love, and without responsibility: Time Out and Songs from the Second Floor.

I will post a more detailed year-end wrap up at Looking Closer later this week.


Religious Press Critics Pick Differing Favorites

Critics in the religious media came up with dramatically differing best-of lists for the year.

Peter Chattaway, sometime film critic for Books & Culture, The Vancouver Courier, and Canadian Christianity, is still making up his mind. "C.S. Lewis once said no book was any good to him unless he had read it twice, and that's how I feel about films. I haven't had time to re-watch all the films that are currently contenders for my end-of-the-year top-ten list. So take this with the proverbial grain of salt, but the films that have stuck with me this year—the films that have impressed me, haunted me, entertained me, or forced me to think deeper about art and faith and life in general—have been (in no particular order): The Son's Room, an Italian film about a psychiatrist coping with sudden, unexpected grief in his own life; The Believer, a challenging and deeply theological American film about a Jewish neo-Nazi, which had an incredibly difficult time finding distribution because of its subject matter; Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, a non-linear ensemble piece about the search for happiness and meaning in a seemingly indifferent world; and Punch-Drunk Love, which moved me in ways I didn't expect with its whimsical, but occasionally shocking, portrayal of a man beset by anxieties who desperately wants someone in his life who can hear, and keep, his secrets. I thought The Two Towers was pretty good, too, though it lacked the joy, intimacy, and even complexity of The Fellowship of the Ring; and I will have to see About Schmidt a second time before I can say with any certainty what I make of that film, which I found both very funny and profoundly sad."

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Chattaway also mentions being impressed by other films that grapple with significant moral issues: Changing Lanes, Insomnia, Frailty, Minor Mishaps, The Man Without a Past, Songs from the Second Floor, and Trembling Before G-D ( "a documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews that is more interested in creating dialogue between different points of view than in forcing people to accept an agenda").

The list submitted by Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) features many titles that most readers have not yet seen: Bowling for Columbine,Eureka,Far from Heaven, The Lady and the Duke, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Spirited Away, Take Care of My Cat, Time Out, and What Time is it There?

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) highlights Changing Lanes for emphasizing "the need to forgive [and] the destructive power of failing to forgive … set in the midst of Good Friday." He also recommends 13 Conversations About One Thing, Spirited Away, and Far From Heaven.

"I'm not sure how the 2002 movie year will be remembered," says J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth), "but for me it was one of the better years in quite a while." His top ten is capped with an obscure Swedish film, Songs from the Second Floor. "I always feel bad when my #1 movie is something you've probably never heard of. But several months after seeing this dark, Swedish comedy, I still can't get it out of my head. [The imagery of this film] punctured the myth of progress we're fed daily and reminded me of the starkness of the human soul and the spiritual quest each of us are on. It's definitely not a date movie, but its philosophical, even theological, message was the most urgent thing I heard all year." Parks also applauds The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Bowling for Columbine, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Bloody Sunday, The Hours, Atanarjuat—The Fast Runner, Adaptation, City of God, and The Last Waltz.

Michael Elliott lists ten films of spiritual significance to him at Movie Parables. The Two Towers tops the list, followed by The Pianist, Lilo and Stitch, Minority Report, Antwone Fisher, The Emperor's Club, About a Boy, Stuart Little 2, Ice Age, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

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Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) saw many "artistically impressive, but spiritually unsatisfying" films this year, so he made up a list of uplifting films. He includes The Emperor's Club, We Were Soldiers, Nicholas Nickleby, A Walk to Remember, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Rookie, Changing Lanes, Ice Age, and Signs.

Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth) applauds About Schmidt, Adaptation, Crush, Elling, Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner, Gangs of New York, Late Marriage, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Road to Perdition, Secret Ballot, The Hours, and The Pianist.

Josh Hurst and Mark Baker (The Rebel Base) chose the same five favorites, ranking them in different order: Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Attack of the Clones, The Two Towers, and Signs.


Film Forum Readers Like Signs Best

Readers that responded had one popular favorite: M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. Shyamalan's thriller seemed at first glance to be just a hokey X-Files episode. But it draws viewers in and becomes something much more than that - a compellingly emotional and spiritual journey through grief and anger to redemption and healing. Even if the conclusion is a bit preachy and contrived, it comes at a time when many viewers are asking how a good God can let the world suffer so much evil. Shyamalan has interesting suggestions about the way God takes the world's evils and tragedies and works them together for good.

One reader who chose Signs as her favorite writes, "I was scared half out of my skin; Shyamalan knows how to build a narrative arc (or roller coaster). The scene where Mel Gibson and family are enjoying a sort of 'last meal' is suddenly interrupted by the ominous sounds of the aliens breaking in. The claustrophobic terror of them isolated in the shadowy old farmhouse, watching the world fall apart on CNN, is agonizing. Almost equally agonizing, though, is Hess wrestling with his faith. I'm a huge Mel Gibson fan, and he went to the depths on this one. Gone is the sturdy hero of Braveheart and The Patriot; you can see his uncertainty and doubt. Joaquin Phoenix, too, is extraordinary - I wondered how this could be the same guy who was so despicable in Gladiator. Most secular critics gave the film 3 stars. I think it's better than that. I can't wait for the DVD."

Donald Ratcliff says, "I especially appreciated Signs because it opens the door to God's work in the everyday circumstances of life. Often we do not notice what He is doing until afterward when we can look back to how He was at work behind the scenes." Ratcliff also recommends A Walk to Remember and Joshua. "Both have strong religious themes that are compelling."

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The calendar of movies coming soon looks like a marathon of heroes versus villains. It will probably become known as The Year of the Comic Book Hero. Get ready for Hulk, X-Men 2, Daredevil, and The Matrix 2 and 3, just to name a few. Will these just be heroes of violent justice? Or will any of them represent deeper virtues?

And how will the hero of Mel Gibson's Passion play measure up against these Marvel-ous characters?

Stay tuned.

Related Elsewhere

See also our Film Forum area, a weekly roundup of what Christian critics are saying about new and noteworthy movies.