The Best and Worst Movies of 2002

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Movie critics and normal people are living in peace and harmony.

Glance at my list of the best movies of 2002 and you’ll find no foreign films, no Sundance Film Festival entries, and only one documentary. If you’re a regular movie-goer, you’ll probably find that you’ve seen — and enjoyed — nearly everything on the list. Or at least HEARD of them.

It’s not that my fellow critics and I have lost our taste for non-mainstream films. It’s just that this year, Hollywood managed to produce some excellent movies and deliver them right to the multiplexes rather than to the arthouses. Critics and audiences applauded a lot of the same movies this year.

Below are 10 thoughtful, well-crafted films. Three of them are comedies, but with serious undertones. Two of them are fantasies, but with humanity and depth. One is an outright tragedy, but so beautiful it uplifts rather than depresses. All 10 restore my faith in the potential of film to inspire, inform and — above all — entertain.

Herewith, my top 10 list for 2002.

1. “The Hours”: Most noticeably, this thoughtful drama is a parade of terrific performances by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Toni Collette, Ed Harris, Jeff Daniels, John C. Reilly, Stephan Dillane, and so on. You need the acting, otherwise the film — which tells three stories in three different time periods — would be a disastrous, action-less mess. You also need the directing, which in this case, by Stephen Daldry, seamlessly weaves the stories together, moving fluidly from one subject to the next. The film focuses on three women on the verge of either coping with life or giving up on it. The beautiful, emotional manner in which their stories are told make it the most piercing, heartfelt movie of the year.

2. “Far From Heaven”: An achingly tragic melodrama in the style of the weepy romances of the 1950s, perfectly re-creating the cinematography, costumes and dialogue down to the last detail. But the film’s success at capturing the movies of a previous era is not what makes it great. It is the masterful, honest performances by Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert that make this stylized, old-fashioned story as relatable as if it were set in 2002. You will seldom see such beauty and poignancy on the big screen.

3. “About Schmidt”: Jack Nicholson, as a recently retired man who has no idea what to do now, gives his best performance in recent memory in this subversive, hilarious comedy that has — like most of the best comedies — a sweet, emotionally effective undercurrent. That the nicer sentiments are hidden beneath raucous humor and outrageous characterizations makes it all the more sublime.

4. “Spider-Man”: For sheer, all-out entertainment, few films this year could hold a candle to the humor and visual thrills of “Spider-Man.” Just as last year’s “Lord of the Rings” did, “Spider-Man” combined exhilarating fantasy with gravity and humanity, reminding us that while we go to the movies for fun — especially during the summer — we shouldn’t have to check our brains at the door.

5. “Adaptation”: By far the most clever, original film of the year, “Adaptation” is a movie about a man trying to write a movie, based on a book about someone writing a book. Off-kilter performances by Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, with delightful humor at every turn, make us forgive it if it’s a little contrived. The sheer courage it took to make a film this self-referential and loopy warrants praise, and the more you think about it, the more of its hidden surprises you discover.

6. “Panic Room”: David Fincher’s ingenious thriller about a woman and her daughter trapped by villains in their house’s “panic room” is as crafty a game of cat-and-mouse as you’ll ever see. The omniscient camera takes us through every nook and cranny of the house, and the all-too-real sound mix puts us in the room with the heroines. By the end of the film, we are as relieved to have survived as they are.

7. “About a Boy”: Hugh Grant quit stammering and started acting in this fantastically witty film about an irresponsible man whose friendship with a kid forces him to grow up. The keen literary style of Nick Hornby’s novel is left intact, as is the underlying pathos that propels the comedy. As a result, we have sad humor and hilarious drama, all mixed and mingled and making for a perfectly delightful movie. And that soundtrack…!

8. “Bowling for Columbine”: Part documentary, part journalistic inquiry, this account of rabble-rouser Michael Moore’s examination of American gun culture is, by turns, funny, harrowing and thought-provoking. Whatever your politics, “Bowling for Columbine” asks questions that are desperately in need of answers, and Moore has assembled a film that is more watchable and engaging than nearly any documentary you’ll ever see.

9. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”: It didn’t have as much heart as its predecessor, but part two of this fantastic trilogy was still more impressive than most of its competition in 2002. This is truly an epic for the ages, and the middle chapter of Frodo, Aragorn and friends gives us three more hours of grand entertainment.

10. “Road to Perdition”: Sam Mendes proved “American Beauty” was no fluke with this gorgeous, elegiac film about an Irish-American mobster who wants to stop his son from following in his footsteps. The father-son relationship is explored with compassion and subtlety, enhanced by stellar acting from Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and young Tyler Hoechlin. The rare film in which acting, photography, music and screenplay all blend together so seamlessly that you can’t imagine the film succeeding without each of them.

The next best 10 (in alphabetical order): “Chicago,” “Lovely & Amazing,” “Minority Report,” “Moonlight Mile,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “One Hour Photo,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “The Ring,” “Spirted Away,” “Tadpole.”

The Worst Movies of 2002

1. Nearly anything starring a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus. Dana Carvey’s comeback film, “Master of Disguise,” came and went. Adam Sandler gave us the dreadful “Mr. Deeds,” did fantastic work in “Punch-Drunk Love,” then came back again with the horrid “Eight Crazy Nights.” His old buddy Rob Schneider joined him and Carvey in the slums with “The Hot Chick.” They all need to do what Mike Myers did: Find a few good characters that are actually funny, and milk them for all they’re worth.

2. Kung Pow: Enter the Fist: Several fine concepts, ruined by squeezing them into one film. Seldom has a more basic misunderstanding of the fundamentals of comedy been demonstrated so thoroughly.

3. Serving Sara: I am convinced this movie, starring Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley, hated me. Why else would it beat me so mercilessly with its dull, anemic comedy and its gross-out humor? Though I don’t remember it, surely the film and I crossed paths earlier and it held a grudge.

4. FearDotCom: You look at a Web site, and two days later, you die. An idea just as absurd worked fabulously in “The Ring”; here, it’s merely an excuse for wanton gore and frenetic editing, accompanied by an incomprehensible storyline and turgid acting. (Runner-up in the bad horror film category: “Ghost Ship.”)

5. Juwanna Mann: This obvious, dim-witted drag comedy makes juwanna kill yourself. It is always disheartening to realize that after spending 90 minutes with a movie, you have found more flaws in it than the filmmakers did in the several months it took to write and produce it.

P.S. I am disappointed that I cannot include Freddie Prinze Jr. anywhere on this list. “Scooby-Doo” was bad, but not bad enough to make the cut. Better luck next year, Freddie!