2002 was definitely a robust year for serious adult films, and the result is a catalogue of terrific movies that no longer exist, at least in the theater. This was the strongest year so far, of the three years, and it may very well be the peak for a while…
10. Panic Room – David Fincher’s claustrophobia-fueled thriller was met with a nod, maybe a shrug, when it opened in the spring of 2002. The box office was fine, and it sort of drifted off into the ether. It may be “minor Fincher,” whatever that ridiculous phrase means, but this is a propulsive little gem in the auteur’s career, an energetic and increasingly exciting thriller that’s aged surprisingly well.
The CGI setups – the camera moving through keyholes and coffee pot handles, etc. – feel a little silly and a lot indulgent now, but all the swooping, sweeping camera movements ratchet up the early moments of the film and lay out the complicated geography of the biggest, most opulent Manhattan brownstone ever. Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart are a perfect pair of diabetic daughter and scorned mother/wife, and the trio of burglars cover a wide range of villainy, from sympathetic (Forrest Whitaker), to dangerously stupid (Jared Leto), to monstrously psychopathic (Dwight Yoakam, the MVP of every film in which he stars).
9. One Hour Photo – Robin Williams’ dark performative shift in the early 21st century kicked off with easily the strangest, most idiosyncratic entry into a trio of villainous roles. One Hour Photo, Death to Smoochy, and Insomnia showed Williams diving into mental illness and vengeance-fuled anger in wildly different ways, to varying degrees of success; his turn as Sy Parrish, Sy the Photo Guy, is a daring stretch to the outer limits of characterization, and easily his best of the three.
Prolific music video director Mark Romanek creates a staid, sterile environment where Sy’s obsession with the seemingly idyllic Sorkin family – whom Sy sees only through happy photos of birthdays and vacations – can reach a fevered pitch and work to rend the intentionally mannered art direction. Despite the antiquated idea of developing film at a big box store, the notion that the photos we share don’t tell the whole truth are even more pronounced today, and can easily fit into Romanek’s unnerving thriller.
8. The Bourne Identity – It’s easy to forget that, in 2002, Matt Damon was not a movie star, or a bankable star of any kind, really. From the success of Good Will Hunting Damon took a swing at stardom with the titular role in Saving Private Ryan, a fun gambling thriller Rounders co-starring Edward Norton, and he even earned his second Best Actor nomination with The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999. But after a handful of calamitous flops – namely the high-profile flops The Legend of Bagger Vance and All the Pretty Horses – it was beginning to feel as if Damon didn’t have that leading man swagger.
The Bourne Identity changed perception. Nobody would have predicted this white bread All-American Boy Scout could be an action star. But Damon, and director Doug Liman, squash any fear of that almost immediately. The Bourney Identity belongs more to Damon, whereas the Greengrass sequels were taken over by a director’s intrusive style; they’ve aged worse than this original. Here, Jason Bourne is given a chance to talk, and fall in love in one of the more underrated spy/thriller romances of the modern era.
7. Adaptation. – Charlie Kaufman’s own fractured psyche, spun together by director Spike Jonze, spills out on the screen in the form of two Nic Cage’s in what might be considered The Cage’s last great “mainstream” performance – make no mistake, he’s done great movies since this one, just not in the same arena.
Charlie Kaufman is now Charlie and Donald, two sides of the same neurotic coin. What boils down to a story about the very structure of storytelling has a delightfully off-center roadmap from beginning to end. Charlie wants to write something special, Donald is neck deep in silly genre tropes, and all the while Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper begin a most unusual romance and serve as the topic of Charlie’s story. It’s all put together with such an attention to detail and raw humanity, it’s hard not to fall in love with every clever little nuance.
6. Minority Report – Steven Spielberg’s first post 9/11 thriller, dealing with the nature of surveillance and how much is too much, is the filmmakers only real foray into heavy noir filmmaking. This mixture of Hitchcock’s wrongly-accused hero and the Blade Runner adjacent science fiction elements captured its own identity thanks to a vulnerable performance from Tom Cruise, who hadn’t yet turned into exclusively a human pinball.
5. Unfaithful – The idea of an extremely hard-charging adult drama like this – the story of a suburban wife and mother who has a torrid and often stunning sexual affair with a young French book dealer in Manhattan – opening in wide release to kick off the summer movie season is quite bizarre. The fact that they don’t make movies like this anymore is, sadly, a reality, because amid all the melodrama and sexcapades of Adrian Lyne’s brilliant thriller are performances that feel like they breathe smoke.
Richard Gere is having the tables turned on his typical character here, from debonaire ladie’s man to sweater-vested cuckold, and Olivier Martinez is, of course, the polar opposite, an unusually handsome free spirit who seduces Gere’s wife, Connie, played by Diane Lane in one of the best female performances of the 21st century; it probably deserves even higher praise, if we’re being honest, for everything she’s doing in this incredible train scene alone.
4. Punch-Drunk Love – The first attempt to steer Adam Sandler away from his doofy manchild comedic persona came from a surprising place. Paul Thomas Anderson, the man who’d just directed a San Fernando Valley porn opus and a wildly ambitious three-hour family epic, took Sandler under his wing and released something completely different: an unconventional 95-minute romantic drama with a wonderful, meditative heart.
Adam Sandler isn’t entirely goof free, just goof lite. He is restrained here, until moments of fury overtake him. Punch-Drunk Love is funny, sweet, exciting, and it has such a strange, dreamlike quality that keeps our feet off the ground the entire time. Emily Watson is perfect, porcelain, calming, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman absolute shines as a nefarious mattress salesman.
3. Catch Me if You Can – Steven Spielberg’s second major release of 2002 was even better than his summer film, Minority Report. The story of Frank Abignale, legendary conman, is tailor made for the cinematic treatment, and there was arguably no better director to helm such a charming adventure story.
Spielberg’s first and only pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio is fragmented, told in segments and stories that would fit into a miniseries these days. The entire look and feel of the picture hearkens back to the lighthearted caper films of the 60s, a free-wheeling splash of style and color, and Tom Hanks playing against type in one of the most underrated roes in his storied career.
2. Road to Perdition – 2002 was clearly a strong year for Tom Hanks who, before appearing in Catch Me if You Can, starred in a somber, dead-serious gangster picture in the middle of the summer. Different times.
Hanks is Michael Sullivan, right-hand man for the gangster John Rooney, played by Paul Newman in an incredible, muted performance. When Michael’s son witnesses a murder, their world is upended and they find themselves on the road, robbing banks and avoiding the devilish assassin (Jude Law) sent to take care of them. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty follow up has aged much better than his debut film, for obvious reasons; this is a stunningly beautiful, emotionally devastating picture with truly focused performances.
1. 25th Hour – Spike Lee’s story of a condemned drug dealer (Edward Norton, never better) spending the last day of his freedom with friends and family before serving a prison sentence, works on multiple levels. It’s a story of friendship, and honesty among friends, and it’s a solemn ode to Lee’s broken city.
25th Hour is the first post 9/11 movie to deal with the tragedy face first. Barry Pepper’s office overlooks ground zero, and discussions of immigrants, terrorism, and fear permeate even the most mundane conversations. The whole package fits together to create a propulsive, vibrant, often angry story about our place on this planet, and the fleeting moments we take for granted. And this final scene, where Brian Cox tries to talk his son into skipping town, is brilliant, heartbreaking, and one of the greatest sequences in Lee’s career.