Critic rates the most moving pictures of '02

January 03, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: An outlandish adventure so big-spirited, multi-hued and profound that it's more than thrilling; it's ecstatic. Director Peter Jackson and his inspired company of artisans and actors bring to vivid, tumultuous life J.R.R. Tolkien's epic about the peril of absolute power. Like the Hollywood mythmakers of old, they're bequeathing to huge, varied audiences a common fantasy history.

2. Y Tu Mama Tambien: Gritty, lyrical and uninhibited, Alfonso Cuaron's contemporary fable follows two randy teen-agers who search for a beach called Heaven's Mouth with a gorgeous, unhappily married woman. It has the immediate beauty and excitement that derives only from the union of imagination and observation. It depicts boys coming of age in a chaotic time (our own) - and learning to respect and savor life in the knowledge that it can, so easily, slip away.

3. Spirited Away: Hayao Miyazaki's animated masterpiece about a spoiled suburban girl who jumps into a parallel universe and there learns her own strength is miraculously fresh - its wonders and horrors leap off the screen with a ravishing spontaneity, no matter how many thousands of drawings the finished product required. This film brings an audience inside sorcery's wellsprings; it argues for enchantment as an unsentimental education.

4. Last Orders: If the De Sica of Umberto D and the Fellini of I Vitelloni had collaborated on a portrayal of war veterans uniting to scatter the ashes of a friend, they couldn't have bettered Fred Schepisi's robust, haunting salute to England's version of the Greatest Generation, working-class division. It has the plangent, irrevocable pull of a great commemorative song.

5. Chicago: This galvanizing Roaring '20s musical satire is like a dare extended to 107 minutes. Can you bring back the time when Americans first reveled in celebrity murder - and sustain that era's tabloid charge with characters human enough to care about and performers versatile enough to embody them in word and dance? If you're director Rob Marshall and stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, the answer is a resounding yes.

6. All Or Nothing: Mike Leigh returns to London's housing projects and arrives at one of his most piercing and hopeful portraits of contemporary families struggling against pressures that test love and loyalty to the breaking point. His ensemble, led by Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen, is extraordinary.

7. Lantana: Think of it as an Australian, middle-class cousin to the Leigh film, centering more exclusively on marriage and done as a brilliant psychological detective film. Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush may spearhead this other amazing cast, but several women equal or better them, including Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong and Rachael Blake.

8. Triumph of Love: The world's most underrated director, Clare Peploe, whose last film was 1995's Rough Magic, takes an 18th-century romantic comedy by Pierre Marivaux full of disguises and surprises, keeps it in period, films it in a simultaneously jumpy and fluid 1960s style, and brings out the boldest, subtlest feelings and playfulness in Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw. The result is elegant magic.

9. (tie)The Last Kiss and Femme Fatale (tie): The former is Gabriele Muccino's masterful group comedy about a bunch of Roman guys who can't grow up; the latter is Brian De Palma's virtuoso bad-boy thriller about a con-woman on the loose in Cannes and Paris. Muccino's film is essential viewing for anyone who prizes movies as an extension of theater; De Palma's for those who love movies as an empire of dreams.

10. Rabbit-Proof Fence: The most harrowing dramatization of the ravages of racism since Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (another Australian film), this story of three "half-caste" girls, with mixed white and Aboriginal blood, who escape from a camp where they are meant to be culturally brainwashed (then married off or hired out), takes social protest to the level of poetic transcendence.

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