- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

It's the rare week when a deserving candidate (or several) for the annual worst-movies-of-the-year roster fails to turn up. The companion list for the best fills up far less predictably, but it does accumulate, fortunately, and usually with more than the conventional 10 best.
The first hopeful outcropping of 2002 appeared in March: a trio consisting of Mira Nair's jubilant nuptial comedy, "Monsoon Wedding"; the endearing animated adventure farce "Ice Age"; and the small-town baseball saga "The Rookie,"the latter inspired by the actual case history of lefty reliever Jim Morris, impersonated by Dennis Quaid.
A welcome quartet arrived in May: Woody Allen's unfairly scorned Hollywood spoof "Hollywood Ending"; the French drama "Time Out," a character study of a man acting out a workplace deception; the movie version of Nick Hornby's "About a Boy," with Hugh Grant as a playboy compelled to start growing up; and the unsavory but exceptionally talented and provocative crime thriller "The Salton Sea," a strong candidate for guilty pleasure of the year.
June brought Christopher Nolan's gripping remake of a European crime thriller, "Insomnia," with Al Pacino in a tailor-made role as a compromised police detective; the French-Austrian shocker "The Piano Teacher," distinguished by Isabelle Huppert's fearless performance as a depraved aesthete; and the exuberant Disney animated feature "Lilo & Stitch," which demonstrated that neither the company nor traditional cel animation were as outmoded as detractors like to insist.
The end of summer was propped up only by the year's most satisfying romantic drama, Neil LaBute's movie version of the great A.S. Byatt novel "Possession," co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart as a scholarly romantic match in the present and Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam as a clandestine poetic match in Victorian England. It may remain the year's most absurd orphan: an appealing, reputable and classy movie that has yet to find its public.
The cupboard remained a bit bare until "Roger Dodger" emerged as the year's best sleeper in November. (The worst, hands down, was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which became a bewildering and humbling box-office colossus.) The second installment of the Harry Potter franchise, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," enhanced the prototype in several respects, including melodramatic tension and ferocity.
Finally, the end of the year contributes a brilliantly executed musical, Rob Marshall's production of "Chicago," and another distinctive, hard-nosed crime melodrama, "Narc," directed by newcomer Joe Carnahan. The former opened Dec. 20; the latter arrives the second week in January in the Washington market.
These titles stretch the 10 best to 15 best, not atypical when I take stock, and perhaps more relevant to a year in which no single title enjoys commanding superiority. In the previous two years, extraordinary spectacles adorned the end of the year: Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000 and Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" last year.
Their towering status has not been duplicated this season, not even by "The Two Towers," Mr. Jackson's watchable follow-up Ring spectacle, but neither "Crouching Tiger" nor "Fellowship of the Ring" went on to dominate their ensuing awards seasons as I thought they would. Indeed, in the critical group to which I have belonged for years, the National Society of Film Critics, Mr. Lee was brushed off in favor of a Taiwanese upstart with an interminable domestic comedy titled "Yi Yi." And we sometimes mock the Academy Awards membership for getting it wrong.
The belated creation of a Washington Area Film Critics Association affords me the luxury of advancing more candidates than I could before. This option might prove especially satisfying in the acting categories. I could prefer Campbell Scott in "Roger Dodger" within one association, then Mr. Pacino in "Insomnia" within the other. Likewise for Renee Zellweger in "Chicago" and Miss Huppert as the notorious "Piano Teacher."
Turning to the supporting categories, I could favor Rachel Griffiths in "The Rookie" and then Toni Collette in "About a Boy," pairing one with Chris Cooper in "Adaptation" and the other with, oh, Dennis Haysbert in "Far From Heaven" or Mark Rydell in "Hollywood Ending."
Even then, injustice would abound because there still would be also-rans who deserved better, such as Daniel Day-Lewis in "Gangs of New York" a great performance in a movie I didn't like.
Should one ignore masterful performances by unfamiliar foreign actors? For example, Naseerudin Shah as the father of the bride in "Monsoon Wedding" and Aurelien Recoing as the semifugitive family man of "Time Out"? Obviously not, but superior performances get shortchanged every year because of overcrowding or absent-mindedness.
Scarcely a movie appears any more that cannot be misrepresented as a masterpiece in display ads that showcase the words of admiring critics. Nevertheless, an awful lot of rubbish piles up.
The collection started last winter with the French import "Brotherhood of the Wolf" and the belated Arnold Schwarzenegger revenge spectacle "Collateral Damage," initially postponed out of deference to a nation recovering from the authentic slaughter of September 11, 2001.
It would be unfair to slight Britney Spears' debut feature, "Crossroads," or the latest tear-jerker to discredit Kevin Costner, "Dragonfly." The campus farce became the worst of all possible genres with "National Lampoon's Van Wilder" and "Sorority Boys." Then the overextended but genuinely witty "Pumpkin," a spoof of college romance as once glorified by Hollywood in the early '60s, salvaged a little something for the genre while also emerging as runner-up for guilty pleasure of the year.
The sorriest conspicuous entertainment probably was "Men in Black II," which caught Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld with their judgment out to lunch, as "Wild Wild West" had a few years ago. "Signs" also exposed the threadbare quality of supernatural menace in the overrated M. Night Shamalyan.
Steven Soderbergh, who directed the insufferable "Full Frontal" and the misbegotten "Solaris" while also fronting for the opaque and unpronounceable documentary polemic "Naqoyqatsi," probably had the worst year among prestige names.
The prurient farce, playgirl division, trifled with early disgrace in "The Sweetest Thing," starring Cameron Diaz, currently losing authenticity in "Gangs of New York." Nevertheless, she threatens to return as one of "Charlie's Angels" in the new year. It looms as a strong pre-season choice for worst movie of 2003. "The Rules of Attraction" and "Secretary" failed to improve on lewd wretched excess in the fall, but "Jackass" was the gross-out entry to beggar description.
Despite the competition, I think "Death to Smoochy," the show-business satire starring Robin Williams as the malicious star of a kiddie TV series, is the film I would least like to find myself watching again. You imagine it as an eternal, profoundly demoralizing movie of the week.

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