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...
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15. Once Upon A Time In The Midlands
There aren't enough westerns set in the East Midlands, and not for the first time, it leaves us thankful that Britain has a director such as Shane Meadows willing to right this particular wrong. Meadows, who co-wrote the film with Paul Fraser, actually puts together something more akin to a romantic comedy than a western here, in truth, and a really very funny one. The catalyst is when Rhys Ifans' character proposes to his girlfriend on television. The problem? Robert Carlyle's Jimmy happens to be watching the television at that very moment, and he thinks said girlfriend - played by Shirley Henderson - should be with him. Thus, off he heads to Nottingham to try and win her back.
It's arguably Meadows' lightest film - he'd follow it up with Dead Man's Shoes and This Is England - and frequently a very funny one. Furthermore, there are super performances all round, and you end up buying even the more far-fetched moments of the film. There's no shortage of heart to this one, and whilst Once Upon A Time In The Midlands feels just a little like the forgotten Shane Meadows film, it's one of the best British films of the early 2000s.
14. One Hour Photo
There's a tragic, unsettling atmosphere to One Hour Photo, which was marketed as a thriller but emerges as a character study about Robin Williams' lonely photo developer Sy Parrish. Single, lonely and obsessive, Sy becomes infatuated with the seemingly perfect family whose pictures he develops month after month. And when Sy notices a fissure running down the middle of this family he idolises, he grows increasingly irrational.
Featuring one of Williams' very best performances, One Hour Photo is a quietly affecting drama, with its sense of loneliness and detachment underlined by some magnificent production design - the store where Syworks is like a light-bathed fantasy world, which contasts sharply with the austere emptiness of his home. A film which did only middling business, One Hour Photo was compromised by some studio-enforced edits and reshoots, but still emerges as a potent piece of filmmaking thanks to Mark Romanek's intelligent writing and direction, and of course Williams' bravely unshowy, leading turn.
This sci-fi thriller directed by Vincenzo Natalli is efficient and absorbing, with a great leading turn from Jeremy Northam. He plays an ordinary, somewhat beige former accountant who's drawn into a murky world of corporate espionage, only to be dragged into an even deadlier intrigue involving engineered identities and betrayal. At its strongest when Northam's character uncovers the layers of lies and corporate double dealing, and at its weakest when it devolves into a more straightforward action film at the end (at which point the very low budget becomes apparent), Cypher's nevertheless a cracking sci-fi conspiracy, full of paranoia worthy of vintage Philip K Dick.
12. Infernal Affairs
A knotty and enthralling Hong Kong thriller about a criminal who infiltrates the police force, and an undercover cop who passes himself off as a Triad gangster, Infernal Affairs is something of a classic. A hit in Hong Kong (where it spawned two very good sequels), it’s since become a cult film in the west. So why include it here? Because, like so many great foreign-language films, it was the subject of a remake (Martin Scorsese’s The Departed in 2006), which seems like as good a reason as any to recommend the original.
Loaded with tension, briskly told and immaculately filmed, Infernal Affairs is one of the best crime thrillers in any language. Tony Leung and Andy Lau make for a great pair of co-stars in a story of deception and violence, and are arguably a match for Leonardo Di Captio and Matt Damon in the US version. To his credit, Scorsese didn’t go down the usual remake path, and instead forged a film of his own with Infernal Affairs’ premise as his inspiration. For us, though, the HK original just edges it as the superior movie.
11. Sympathy For Mr Vengeance
Many cinemagoers in the west first encountered the work of director Park Chan-Wook through his 2003 thriller, Oldboy. But Sympathy For Mr Vengeance came first, the opening instalment in Park’s Vengeance trilogy, which concluded with 2005‘s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance.
If you’ve seen Oldboy, you’ll probably know what to expect: sumptuous visuals, an uncompromisingly brutal story, and graphic violence. Shin Ha-kyun plays a deaf-mute factory worker who resorts to unpleasant measures to pay for his desperately ill sister’s kidney transplant, and brings ruin on himself in the process. A disturbing yet hypnotic film, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance depicts a grim world where there are no heroes and villains, only poor choices and dire consequences.
Both Oldboy and Lady Vengeance made around 10 times as much at the box office, but Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is arguably their equal. If you haven’t seen Sympathy or Lady Vengeance yet, do track them down before someone in Hollywood greenlights another ill-advised remake or two.
10. Home Room
Busy Philipps remains arguably best known for her excellent work on the television show Freaks & Geeks, but she's one of the cornerstones of this hard-edged indie drama, ultimately based in part on the Columbine High School massacre of April 1999. Its uncomfortably close release to those events certainly can't have helped Home Room find much of an audience, although the director made a point of showing the staff, students and parents at the school a preview of the film.
And this is a bold piece of work, written and directed by Paul F Ryan, that attempts to discover the reasons behind such atrocities. The focus is very much on the aftermath, with the people left behind to cope with what happened, and the film frames this through Philipps' Alicia and Erika Christensen's Deanna.
Home Room never goes for easy answers, and that doesn't help make it any more comfortable to watch. But it does feel like a more important piece of work than it's generally regarded as. It's a very human response to something so inhuman, pitched and played very well. It's not easy to track down, but it is worth the effort.
9. The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys
A real gem, this. Based in part on the novel by the late Chris Fuhrman, The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys follows a bunch of boys at a Catholic school in the 1970s. Said boys - who included Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin - get up to the usual assortment of pranks. But they also pool their efforts for their own comic book, and find themselves constantly at odds with Jodie Foster's Sister Assumpta.
British director Peter Care's intelligent adaptation of the source material intersperses animation with live action, and he balances the coming of age themes with real intelligence. It arrives in a run of films that were winning acclaim for their portrayal of school life, yet The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys deserves to stand toe to toe with many of them. As it happened, it only received a limited cinema rollout, and has been left to be found on DVD. Ignore the terrible cover of the British disc release: this is excellent.
8. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind
George Clooney's second movie as director, Good Night And Good Luck, attracted serious Oscar attention. Deservedly, too. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, his first, is similarly rooted in real life events, but is a very different, very offbeat beast. It also boasts arguably Sam Rockwell's best screen performance to date, outside of Moon.
Rockwell plays game show host and producer Chuck Barris, a man who claimed to have been hired as an assassin by the CIA. And as a one-star review at Amazon perfectly puts it, "if you want to watch a film about a guy whose life was so vacuous that he had to try to make it interesting by writing an autobiography pretending to be employed as a hitman by the CIA, then this film is for you".
Charlie Kaufman (of Adaptation fame) penned the script for this one, and Clooney handles it maturely, frequently destabilising the audience and heightening the often uncomfortable comedy. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind may not, ultimately, be to everyone's tastes. But there is a strong argument for it being Clooney's best film as director yet. And it does reward as many viewings as you are willing to give it.
7. The Magdalene Sisters
We talked about Peter Mullan back we looked at the underappreciated movies of 1998, with his superb dark comedy, Orphans. For his third film as director, the darkness remained but the comedy is long gone, as Mullan tackled the haunting story of The Magdalene Sisters. He focuses on four teenage girls who were sent to what was known as the Magdalene Asylum in Ireland. Each was regarded as a sinner by their families, and they were put under the strict stewardship of the Madalene nuns.
It's a superb film, but good grief, it's a diffiult one to watch. The despicable treatment of the young women, all under a banner of religion, is hard to stomach. And, of course, the story is very much based on truth.
Mullan doesn't direct very often, but when he does, he has a legitimate claim to be called one of the very best contemporary British directors. And this one might just be his best.
Stanislaw Lem's stunning science fiction novel Solaris has been adapted multiple times - once for Russian television, for the big screen by the great Andrei Tarkovsky, and then one further time by Steven Soderbergh. Where the novel was a kind of detective story on a space station, Soderbergh's Solaris is a meditative sci-fi love story. George Clooney plays a psychologist who's despatched to a space station orbiting the sentient planet Solaris, and is haunted by the appearance of his late wife made flesh.
Beautiful to look at and sublimely acted by Clooney and Natascha McElhone as his ethereal revenant wife, Solaris is shot through with an atmosphere of sadness and regret - a tone which predictably failed to help its box office performance, but also makes for a cerebral, unusual and quite brilliant sci-fi film.
Ralph Fiennes puts aside any hint of Hollywood glamour for the title role in David Cronenberg’s minimal, eerie drama, and his performance is all the more remarkable for its lack of dialogue - the inner turmoil of a disturbed man (with a disturbing past) is conveyed through his awkward movements and expressions.
A moving and unshakeably sad journey through the character's fragmented childhood memories, Spider is impeccably shot and acted, with brilliant supporting performances from Gabriel Byrne and especially Miranda Richardson, who pops up multiple times through the film in different roles. Well received by critics after a screening at Cannes, Spider was given a mystifyingly low-key general release which made it nigh-on impossible to track down in cinemas.
It’s well worth tracking down on disc, though, with Fiennes turning in a career-best performance, and Cronenberg proving once again that, although he’ll probably never quite escape the “king of venereal horror” label commonly applied to him, he remains an ace director of intelligent psychological dramas.
4. The Count Of Monte Cristo
To call The Count Of Monte Cristo a good, old-fashioned action blockbuster sells it a long, long way short. Based on Alexandre Dumas' often-adapted story of the same name, director Kevin Reynolds casts Jim Caviezel, at first an innocent and trusting count, who is betrayed by the brilliant Guy Pearce. Pearce proved he had movie-villain chops recently in Lawless, but here he's far more three dimensional, and it's one of his best three screen performances.
Caviezel's Count finds himself locked up with Richard Harris, and his quest for revenge begins roughly there. Director Reynolds sharpens the action tools he deployed well in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and his approach fits this darker, tense movie.
The old-fashioned label The Count Of Monte Cristo often gets bestowed with is testament to the fact that it doesn't cheat. It has rounded characters, doing understandable things, and stages quality action sequences when required. It's a really, really fun film, and - here comes the cliche - the kind of swashbuckler they really don't make any more. One of the best action movies of the decade? It might just be...
Described in some places as a mystery thriller, we’d argue that director Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible is more akin to a horror drama. Its use of sound, intense colour and dizzying framing and editing create a sense of unease before anything even happens, and its minimal story about rape and revenge is painfully difficult to watch. With its events shown in reverse order, effectively making the end the beginning and vice versa, Irreversible is a blood-curdling examination of how one terrible crime leads to another.
Vincent Cassell is excellent as a boyfriend blinded by fury, while Monica Belucci deserves a medal for her performance as his girlfriend. Harrowing from start to finish, Irreversible isn’t likely to be a film you’ll watch more than once, but its aggressive direction and imagery make it a difficult yet unforgettable experience.
2. In America
There's no shortage of love for the work of Paddy Considine around these parts, and In America is one of his most brilliant films. Directed by Jim Sheridan, he stars alongside the also-excellent Samantha Morton (who we'll always love for turning up at the Oscars wearing a T-shirt), and the film follows them as a pair of Irish immigrants trying to make a new life in the US following the death of their youngest.
Theirs is no idyllic story of finding a warm America waiting for them though, as they struggle to put their family unit back together in trying and testing circumstances. There's one scene at the end in particular, a simple scene at a fairground, that's utterly heartbreaking.
Sheridan is a wise enough director to not overplay the emotional cards though (he also wrote the script with his daughters, Kirsten and Naomi), and he finds pockets of warmth and a real quest for humanity in the film. Yet even saying that makes it sound trite, whereas In America simply couldn't be better pitched. It's played superbly well - if there was any justice, both leads would have snared Oscar nods for their work - and is an accessible, excellent story of trying to find a way forward through pain. A fabulous, fabulous movie.
1. Igby Goes Down
What are the required ingredients for a classic drama? A great cast? A word-perfect script? Confident direction? Writer and director Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down has all three, and is arguably, for our money, the best drama of 2002. Kieran Culkin exudes a certain grumpy, outsider charm as the Holden Caulfield-like Igby, a teenager whose life is made a misery by his dysfunctional extended family. Susan Sarandon plays his icy mother. Bill Pullman (who’s unusually cast yet excellent) plays his clinically depressed father. Jeff Golblum plays his extraordinarily dislikeable douchebag godfather.
Although Igby’s background is a privileged one, he’s essentially a normal teen rebelling against repression, whether it’s the brutal punishment he receives at his military academy school (one of several seats of learning he’s sent to and swiftly banished from) or the stifling expectations of his family.
Artfully walking the line between wry wit and emotional drama, Igby Goes Down is impeccably written and performed, with Culkin carrying the picture with ease. Barely making a ripple at the box office, it's the very definition of an underrated movie: well-received by critics yet largely unheralded at awards ceremonies or in cinemas, it’s a quietly brilliant, hidden gem of a movie.
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