What went right?
Even the most curmudgeonly filmgoer had to admit that 2002 was a pretty good year in movies. It started promisingly, stayed steady and is just now ending with an astounding crop of really good films to appeal to viewers of nearly every stripe and temperament. This isn't due to new trends as much as to some smart aesthetic and business decisions that solidified what has always been an uneasy marriage in American filmmaking between art and commerce.
Sure, George Lucas -- who has become more of a digital systems salesman than a filmmaker -- subjected loyal audiences to "Attack of the Clones," and there was the usual plethora of Hollywood widgets, from "Men in Black II" to insert-Adam-Sandler-movie-here (talk about attack of the clones).
But consider: Even Sandler had a good day with "Punch-Drunk Love," directed with guts and panache by Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson was one of the star members of the Class of 1999, a mini-Golden Age in itself with his film "Magnolia," as well as Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich," Alexander Payne's "Election," M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" and Sam Mendes' "American Beauty." All those notable directors came back this year (with "Adaptation," "About Schmidt," "Signs" and "Road to Perdition," respectively).
In 1999, the Little Movie That Could was "The Blair Witch Project," a micro-budgeted independent film that earned more than $140 million at the box office, making it the most profitable picture in ratio to its budget in Hollywood history. This year's "Project" was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (cost $5 million to make, made more than $200 million at the box office), as warm and fuzzy as its predecessor was lean and spooky. But they prove the same point: There is money to be made, not just in trotting out overpaid stars or digitized special effects, but in telling a good story about characters people care about.
Even the blockbusters proved the same point, in their way: The No. 1 movie of the year was "Spider-Man," Sam Raimi's smart, warmhearted adaptation of Stan Lee's classic comic. In a year in which moral choice was a recurring dramatic element (from "Minority Report" and "Road to Perdition" to "Signs" and "Solaris"), what was most interesting about Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker wasn't how he became a spider but how he became a man.
And plenty of movies advanced the idea that a good story doesn't necessarily mean one that stays obediently inside the lines. "Jackass" notwithstanding, this year marked the emergence of films that dared to challenge Hollywood's tired notion of linear three-act structure, and did so with nerve and style. Atom Egoyan's "Ararat," about the Armenian genocide in the Turkish empire in 1915, deftly interweaves historic and contemporary drama in a nuanced meditation on the nature of collective memory, the ambiguity of narrative and the arrogance of filmmakers who presume to tell the definitive story. Sixty-year-old Martin Scorsese proved he's still a Young Turk at heart with the ferocious, unrelenting "Gangs of New York," in which he presented the 19th-century city as history-as-fever-dream, artfully dodging questions about historical accuracy with his signature blend of grim realism and florid expressionism. Canadian Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk soothed the dog days of summer with "Atanarjuat" ("The Fast Runner"), a nearly three-hour epic aboriginal legend, much of which is taken up with a naked tribesman running silently across the snowy tundra. (How do you say, "You want a story? I'll give you a story" in Inuit?) Most playfully -- and effectively -- Jonze and "Malkovich" screenwriter Charlie Kaufman gave their chosen profession a swift kick in the third act with "Adaptation," a trippy metaphysical joy ride that simultaneously subverts and celebrates Hollywood excess.
"Adaptation" is a humorously distorted version of Kaufman's own story of trying to adapt Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief," her own true-life account of a Florida orchid poacher. Orlean had the talent to write the original book, Kaufman had the guts to write a truly radical film, Jonze had the vision to direct it, actor Nicolas Cage had the goodwill to take a pay cut to star in it.
But the real hero of "Adaptation" is Amy Pascal, head of Columbia Pictures, itself home of -- well, what do you know -- "Spider-Man." Proving that her nose for hits is as acute with small, quirky pictures as with blockbusters, Pascal had the taste and chutzpah to greenlight "Adaptation." With healthy early box office, the movie is promising to recoup its relatively modest $19 million budget, which bodes well for such endeavors in the future.
There's a generation of directors with bold, original sensibilities (including Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson and Nicole Holofcener, along with those already named) who need and deserve the support of equally visionary stars and producers to get their movies made. Let's hope Pascal's competitors take her lead and realize that they don't have to sacrifice art for commerce. If 2002 proved anything, it's that this marriage can be saved.
Drunk Love," in which the comic gave a surprisingly powerful performance.