“One of the best years for all-round quality I can remember … some extraordinary films,” Sight & Sound editor Nick James waxed enthusiastically over the 2007 movie year (click on PDF link for full article download), though you’d never know it by me. But out here in the boondocks at civilization’s edge, what passes through the cineplexes isn’t necessarily what the arbiters of culture get most wound up about. Plus we’re all arguably in remission—or at least I am—from Milla Jovovich’s latest, which undoubtedly explains a lot.
Still, with 2007’s example to spur him on, the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray has decided it’s once again time to reflect on what the greatest year in movie history might be. “To qualify as ‘the best ever,'” he argues in what’s mostly a semantic circle, “a movie year needs to be both bounteous and pivotal,” which in his own considered view means 1974—the year of Godfather II and Chinatown and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (not to mention Celine and Julie Go Boating, which Murray confesses he hasn’t seen yet). What mainly disturbs me about all this isn’t so much the choice of year, on which I’ve little to add one way or the other, as the writer’s nomination for the year’s best film—actually two best, since it’s a double-decker toss-up between Robert Altman‘s Thieves Like Us and California Split. “Minor miracles” is how Murray describes this critical perfecta, though I’m wondering if alleged “bests of the best,” however miraculous, shouldn’t be more than minor works. Because look at Steven Spielberg in 2002, who gave us both Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can. On a par with Altman’s twins, I think, as well as among the director’s most precision-crafted and/or thoughtful films, at least of recent vintage—also, not coincidentally, released during my own “favorite” year for movies, if not of all time then at least of the last 15. Arguably nothing groundbreaking about 2002, but there’s a lot of rigorously calibrated niche work, like architects’ surgical “interventions” in a building-wall facade, pushing the visual and thematic energies as far as they can go. Some career “bests” too from the filmmakers involved—Iosseliani, P.T. Anderson (in keen-edged pre-There Will Be Blood mode), Cuaron, Tian, maybe even Godard in an objet d’art sense—which is arguably a weasel’s way of measuring, since even a relative “best” from, e.g., Spielberg might not be all that significant or enduring.
In any case, here’s what we got in 2002 Chicago, from my own list of favorites for that year. (Not everything listed is ’02 kosher—see dates in parens—but that’s when these movies first came to town and I’m not inclined to quibble.) “Bounteous” without being pivotal, I guess you could say—albeit we can only speculate, like blind historians groping in the dark.
1. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, Paul Thomas Anderson
2. IN PRAISE OF LOVE, Jean-Luc Godard (2001)
3. MONDAY MORNING, Otar Iosseliani
4. SPIRITED AWAY, Hayao Miyazaki (2001)
5. THE LADY AND THE DUKE, Eric Rohmer (2001)
6. THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE, Manoel de Oliveira
7. Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, Alfonso Cuaron (2001)
8. SEX AND LUCIA, Julio Medem (2001)
9. RUSSIAN ARK, Alexander Sokurov
10. SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN, Tian Zhuangzhuang
SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, Roy Andersson (2000)
Not to neglect other ’02 faves, like Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (arguably best in the cycle), Jia Zhang-ke’s Unknown Pleasures, Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon, or James Benning’s completed “California Trilogy.” Or ’02 releases that didn’t show up for another year or so: the Dardenne brothers’ The Son, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover, Bill Morrison’s Decasia, Claire Denis’ Friday Night … Or Catherine Breillat’s contentious, ineffable Sex Is Comedy, about which I’ve already blabbered on more than enough.
So: any more “favorite” years out there? Or are we all gonna get stuck on 1939?