The top 30 underrated films of 2002
The year of Baggins, Potter and Spider-Man also had a wealth of lesser-known movies. Here’s our pick of 2002's underappreciated films...
At the top of the box office tree, 2002 was dominated by fantasy and special effects. Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers made almost a billion dollars all by itself, with Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets taking second place and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man not too far behind.
In many ways, 2002 set the tempo for the Hollywood blockbuster landscape, which has changed relatively little in the decade since. A quick look at 2013‘s top 10, for example, reveals a markedly similar mix of superhero movies, with Iron Man 3 still ruling the roost at the time of writing, followed by effects-heavy action flicks and family-friendly animated features.
As usual in these lists, we're looking at the less celebrated films of 2002 - the kinds of movies that not only didn't make the top 10, but also failed to get either the financial or critical attention they deserved. Compiling such a list is incredibly tricky, especially when it comes to films that didn't do particularly well in cinemas, but have become adored by a legion fans since. So apologies if your favourite isn't included...
Without further ado, here's our pick of 30 underappreciated films from 2002...
When thinking about the movie adaptations of visionary sci-fi author Philip K Dick, it’s likely that a handful of films will spring to mind: most obviously Blade Runner and Total Recall, followed by Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly, then maybe the less-than-brilliant Paycheck and Next.
The sorely overlooked Impostor, directed by Gary Fleder and based on the 1953 short story of the same name, isn’t in the same league as the very best PKD adaptations, but it’s still full of the twists and existential crises you’d expect. It’s set in a distant future where invading aliens are capable of creating replicant spies that are almost indistinguishable from humans - that is, until they detonate with deadly effect.
Gary Sinise plays a weapons designer who falls under suspicion of the authorities, and spends the rest of the film attempting to convince everybody he’s not a deadly weapon forged by extraterrestrials. Madeleine Stowe, Mekhi Phifer and Vincent D’Onofrio round out a great supporting cast, and Mark Isham provides some decent music.
Oddly, Impostor actually looks less expensive than its not-bad $40m budget might imply, but it’s the quality of the acting (in particular from the ever-reliable Sinise) and the story that makes this a science fiction film well worth watching.
29. The Quiet American
The first of two Phillip Noyce movies that we're going to talk about on this list, The Quiet American is an adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, and casts Michael Caine as an experienced British reporter and Brendan Fraser - who once had a great knack for mixing in blockbuster roles with interesting projects such as this - as a young American, with the two both attracted to the same Vietnamese woman.
Caine's performance is what anchors the film, and unsurprisingly, he was Oscar nominated for it. But there are qualities dripping right through the rest of the movie. The political subtext adds weight, whilst there's a feeling of unease that Noyce successfully cultivates throughout. Beautifully shot, The Quiet American is a treat that grips from pretty much the get go.
28. Bubba Ho-Tep
Full disclosure: the oddball premise behind Bubba Ho-Tep made us approach it with some trepidation when it appeared on disc years ago, but there's far more going on in Don Coscarelli's horror comedy than mere goofy charm. But first, that premise: Bruce Campbell plays an eldlerly Elvis Presley, who after faking his death is now living out his final days in a godforsaken nursing home. Unfortunately, the reanimated corpse of an Egyptian mummy is roaming the corridors in search of tasty souls to devour.
Beyond the puerile yet often very funny comedy moments, there's an unusually touching story tucked away in here about the inevitability of death and the struggle to find a sense of dignity and peace in old age - weighty themes for a horror movie, not least one packed wall to wall with flying killer insects, souls dragged from backsides, and African American acting legend Ossie Davis playing an elderly man who claims to be John F Kennedy in disguise.
Campbell was born to play the part of an ornery old Elvis, and Bubba Ho-Tep is surely one of his finest and most moving performances. It's also a fine film from Coscarelli, who specialises in little-seen cult films - for a more recent underappreciated gem, track down a copy of the John Dies At The End, another sterling cocktail of comedy and gore.
Horror writers are always looking around for new and unusual situations, and while plenty of genre films have been set in World War II, relatively few have tackled the Great War, which tore through Europe between the years 1914-1918. Writer and director Michael J Bassett’s Deathwatch plunges us deep into the trenches and barbwire-strewn battlefields of this devastating war.
Jamie Bell, Hugo Speer, Laurence Fox and Andy Serkis are among the British troops who become lost among a network of German trenches, and slowly realise that something evil is stalking them. Bassett’s brilliantly chosen cast ably depicts the madness and trauma of conflict, and that’s before the supernatural horrors have even kicked in.
Admittedly, the story doesn’t always satisfy as it should, but we’d argue that critics were a bit too harsh on what is an atmospheric and disturbing film - full of grime and squalor, its plot is forgettable, but its atmosphere is difficult to shake.
26. The Good Girl
Aim as many barbs as you like at Jennifer Aniston's movie career - as some tabloid columnists seem determined to do - but she's consistently had a knack of choosing interesting movie projects to tackle. The Good Girl, from Miguel Arteta, was arguably the first time she's got the critical notices she deserved, but even before this, she'd signed up to do movies such as The Iron Giant, Office Space and She's The One. We never got the memo that we weren't supposed to like her, we're glad to say.
The Good Girl is written by Mike White (who also penned the wonderful Chuck & Buck), and follows Aniston's shop worker who starts up a relationship with an unusual young helper in said shop, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. There's a sadness to Aniston's character, and to the entire film as a consequence, as she's trapped in an unhappy marriage, and stuck in an unhappy life.
Quality support comes from the brilliant John C Reilly, and there's a good role for Zooey Deschanel too, who does some of the comedy lifting here. But credit to Aniston for taking on and making such a rounded lead role her own. And credit too to director Miguel Arteta - who would go on to make Cedar Rapids and Youth In Revolt - for keeping the tone of such a delicate story.
25. Laurel Canyon
It's somewhat dull to say that Frances McDormand has put in another excellent acting performance here, given that we can't remember a time when she hasn't. Laurel Canyon is one of her lesser-seen projects though, and that's something of a shame.
She stars alongside Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, in a film that sees a young couple move into the home of the husband-to-be's mother. Bale and Beckinsale play the couple, McDormand is the mother, and if you suspect that tensions and inappropriateness ensue, then you're on the right track.
It's a film with problems, certainly, but Laurel Canyon still has enough going on to make it more than justify a watch. Furthermore, McDormand is quite brilliant, and writer/director Lisa Cholodenko - who would go on to make the wonderful The Kids Are All Right - wrings plenty out of the setup.
24. The Good Thief
A taut, twisty thriller from Neil Jordan, The Good Thief also gives a rare and much appreciated leading role to Nick Nolte. He takes the title role, with his character living in France, battling addictions and failing to resist the chance to take on a particularly lucrative job in Monte Carlo.
Jordan makes the most of his unusual French setting, and his stylish film is well cast even beyond Nolte. There's an uncredited turn from Ralph Fiennes for a start, but credit to Nutsa Kukhianidze and Tcheky Karyo too.
Yet this is Nolte's film, in a troubled, three-dimensional role that he inhabits with utter conviction. It's a very loose remake of a French movie by the name of Bob le Flambeur, and a good one at that. If you're a sucker for a good crime drama, with an outstanding lead performance, The Good Thief is a really compelling piece of work.
23. Death To Smoochy
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, FilmFour was well on its way to becoming a British powerhouse. It funded or part-funded a stream of interesting movies, and gave many British filmmakers a much needed break. By 2002 though, after a string of disappointments, it needed a hit. In fact, it needed its $5m investment in Danny DeVito's Death To Smoochy to pay off. The total budget for the movie was $55m. The film would gross less than $10m at the box office. FilmFour shut down in its original form at the end of 2002.
Death To Smoochy attracted some vitriolic reviews at the time, and we can't stand before you and declare it a full-on classic. But it is an interesting, challenging piece of work, headlined by Robin Williams as he was seeking out darker material. Co-starring Edward Norton, the movie follows a children's TV host who is fired and replaced by a Rhino character by the name of Smoochy. It's a very grown-up and satirical comedy that ensues, and one far better than its reputation suggests. It may forever be entwined with the story of an era coming to an end, but that's no reason to write an ambitious, difficult film off.
22. Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself
A great title, and a really good film this. Wilbur, played by James Sives, is not happy, and feeling suicidal. Along with his brother though, he inherits his father's seocnd hand bookshop. Located in Glasgow, said bookshop is visited by Lisa McKinlay's Mary (along with her mother), and there's a connection between her and Wilbur that the film moves on to explore.
It's a moving piece of cinema this, that doesn't just explore the character of Wilbur, but also the people he affects (his brother in particular). Uniformly excellent performances help, but the screenplay from director Lone Schefig and Anders Thomas Jensen is exquisitely pitched, finding dark humour in the midst of what could have been a very melancholy film.
Schefig would go on to make the excellent An Education (and she also tackled the film adaptation of One Day), but this arguably remains her best film. It's crying out to be discovered by a larger audience, and at the time of writing is just £4 at Amazon. That, friends, is a bargain.
A few years before Christian Bale took on the mantle of the Dark Knight, he donned a black outfit of another kind for this futuristic action flick by Kurt Wimmer. The stylish coats and stylised violence gave the impression of a low-rent Matrix rip-off in trailers, but in reality, it's more akin to George Orwell with added martial arts.
Bale plays John Preston, a particularly talented member of a government force tasked with wiping out any cultural artefect held by so-called “sense offenders". In this particular future dystopia, all emotion is kept strictly in check, and stimulating things like books, films and paintings are rooted out and destroyed by Preston and his order of Grammaton Clerics. But when Preston stops taking his state-supplied drugs (designed to further suppress emotion) and sides with an underground resistance group, he starts to use his ‘Gun Kata' fighting skills to fight the Totalitarian establishment instead.
Throwing together ideas from all over the place - a bit of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 here, a healthy dose of John Woo there - Equilibrium couldn't be described as an original movie, but it is a compelling one. Wimmer's use of Berlin locations creates an appropriately chilly, imposing atmosphere, and there's a great cast alongside Bale, including Emily Watson, Sean Bean (you can probably guess how his character fares) and William Fichtner.
20. The Cat Returns
Fans of Studio Ghibli's output will probably be wondering what on earth this entry's doing here, but we'd argue that, for many people in the west, The Cat Returns is among the least well-known of the Japanese animation house's works. About a young girl who has an unusual ability to talk to cats, The Cat Returns is a kind of feline Alice In Wonderland, as the heroine ventures into a mystical Cat Kingdom. Extremely funny and beautifully animated, The Cat Returns is full of charm and personality- the chubby, slightly surly cat Muta, in particular, is an exquisite creation. A kind of spin-off from Studio Ghibli's earlier Whisper Of The Heart (Baron is the returning cat from that film, hence the title), The Cat Returns isn't the best of Studio Ghibli's films, but it's still seldom less than captivating.
A drama about a meek secretary dominated by her boss could so easily have emerged as a smirking, puerile effort, but writer and director Steven Shainberg's Secretary is instead a mature and elegant film, and laces its kinky subject matter with a pleasing thread of wit. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the secretary in question, while James Spader (who's no stranger to quirky or difficult roles) is her boss.
Slow-burning yet constantly compelling, Secretary explores its central relationship impeccably, with Gyllenhaal and Spader both excellent as likeable people whose fetishes happen to overlap. The film's conclusion is a little too muted to satisfy, perhaps, but the journey towards it is eminently watchable.
18. Morvern Callar
We’re not quite sure what went wrong behind the scenes of the forthcoming Jane Got A Gun, but we hope the negative publicity surrounding director Lynne Ramsay’s abrupt exit from the production doesn’t prevent her from making more things in the future, because as films like 1999‘s Ratcatcher, 2011‘s We Need To Talk About Kevin and this one, adapted from the novel of the same name, shows just how talented a filmmaker she is.
A simple story about a young woman (played by Samantha Morton) who puts her own name on the manuscript of her late boyfriend’s unpublished novel, Morvern Callar is a brilliantly acted and superbly made, expertly treading the line between comedy and pathos. Although it made a pittance on its limited theatrical release, Morvern Callar is well worth tracking down on disc - Samantha Morton’s turned in plenty of great performances in her career so far, but this one is easily among her best.
17. Rabbit-Proof Fence
We've already talked about The Quiet American here, but Phillip Noyce also saw his adaptation of Doris Pilkington's Rabbit-Proof Fence released in 2002. This, too, is an excellent film, set in 1930s Australia and following three young Aboriginal girls who are taken from their homes to work as servants. The three girls escape, and begin the 1500 walk home along the fenceline in search of home.
Based on a true story, and with real footage added at the end, Rabbit-Proof Fence finds levity in the midst of a horrible tale, and the young leads - playing opposite Kenneth Branagh's officer leading the charge to track them down - add a warm and very human feel to the film. It's an accomplished and strongly realised take on the story, deliberately taking its time - even appreciating its brief 94 minute run - to get its moments across.
Save for one festival appearance at the end of 2001, Frailty was rolled out properly in 2002, hence we've included it in this round-up, rather than our 2001 piece. Wherever we'd put it though, Bill Paxton's directorial debut is a piece of work that gets under the proverbial skin.
Paxton and Matthew McConaughey take the lead roles, and Frailty centres on a heavily religious father and the relationship with his two sons. You might think there's a very slight Carrie parallel in there, but Frailty is a different kind of horror. There's an awful lot going on under the surface here, and Paxton's quite uncompromising in his approach. He trades off just a little bit of accessibility in favour of a deeper film.
It crosses genres, refuses to paint the father - played by Paxton himself - as an outright villain, and doesn't shirk some of the big moments, which we won't reveal here. It's a difficult film to watch, but ultimately, a very rewarding one.
We've had to split this one over two pages. We don't make a habit of this, and we're not doing it as some trick to get ad impressions or anything. It just tends to make longer pieces more manageable if we do this.