[First appeared in Ghost in the Machine, 12/30/01.]

Top 15 Films of the Year
(not including those I haven't yet seen, which include Black Hawk Down, Amelie, Royal Tenenbaums, Sexy Beast, Moulin Rouge, Ali, Ghost World, A Beautiful Mind, Monster's Ball, and In the Bedroom):

1. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring: I have already sung its praises enough in the past few posts. Suffice to say, it was everything I had hoped for and more. NOT for fanboys and fangirls alone - In fact, given its epic breadth and cinematographic sweep, I'd put it up as a worthy successor to the works of David Lean. Mr. Lucas, the bar has been raised.
2. Memento: In a spring and summer characterized by truly awful blockbusters, this small film proved that a great story is still the best eye-catcher around. A gimmick, perhaps, but flawlessly executed.
3. Traffic: Although it officially came out in 2000, I saw it in the first week of this year. An expertly-made, nuanced glimpse at the drug trade that was good enough to convince policymakers in Washington (among them, John McCain and Orrin Hatch) of the inefficacies of fighting supply at the expense of demand. Gets better with repeated viewings.
4. (tie) The Man Who Wasn't There: The Coen brothers stay in form with this beautifully shot film noir. Never thought I'd say this, but Billy Bob was hypnotic in the title role.
4. (tie) Mulholland Drive: Just when you thought it was safe to see a David Lynch film. After the surprisingly conventional Straight Story, Mulholland proves that David Lynch is still a master craftsman of the mindbender.
6. Monsters, Inc.: Pixar continues its great run. Most other people would probably disagree with me putting this above Shrek, but most other people can make their own lists. The best CGI of the year.
7. Shrek: Shrek was good too, though...clearly the best film to come out over the course of this dreary summer.
8. From Hell: The Hughes Brothers (directors of Menace II Society, still on my all-time top 25) successfully make Alan Moore's Jack the Ripper the meanest mutha in the hood. Heather Graham is lousy as usual, but at least she didn't have the worst British accent of the year. That goes to...
9. Ocean's 11: Seamlessly made caper flick, if in the end a bit breezy. Just plain fun. I hate to say it, but Don Cheadle was bad.
10. Waking Life: Although it's ranked higher than Ocean's 11 in the sidebar, the more I think about it, the more it seems that academic pretension ultimately gets in the way of the stunning animation in this film. Just a little too much name-dropping of theorists, in the final analysis. In other words, it's a bit dry. But still definitely worth a view. Linklater-esque to the extreme.
11. Training Day: Would probably be ranked higher were it not for the last 25 minutes or so, which almost completely ruins what had been a surprisingly good film. Denzel chews the scenery like no other.
12. Thirteen Days: Again, I think this came out in 2000. Nevertheless, I saw it this year, and was surprised by how involving it was. Costner's lame Boston accent couldn't ruin great character work by Bruce Greenwood (JFK), Steven Culp (RFK), and Dylan Baker (McNamara). Should be required viewing for all high school US history classes.
13. Snatch: Guy Ritchie's sophomore outing was better than most of the stuff on American screens this year, but it nevertheless pales in comparison to the joys of Lock Stock.
14. A.I.: A deeply, deeply flawed film. But you know, at least Spielberg was swinging for the fences. And I have to give it to Haley Jo Osment - the kid is good.
15. Vanilla Sky: Strangely disappointing. This really shouldn't be here, since in the end it wasn't very good. But, given what it was up against this year, it sneaks in to the last spot by default. Cameron Diaz was great, though.

All in all, a strong fall and winter redeems what had been a grievously bad year for cinema. But, at least from this vantage point, 2002 looks to be chock-full of choice movie morsels for filmgoer and fanboy alike, including LOTR: The Two Towers, Episode II, Spiderman, Tom Hanks's gangster tale The Road to Perdition, David Fincher's The Panic Room, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (I know, I know, fool me once...), Spielberg/Cruise's sci-fi Minority Report, Blade 2, Adaptation (Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman's follow-up to Being John Malkovich, Below (U-571 meets Cthulu), X-Men 2, To the White Sea (the next Coen), Signs, and Star Trek 10. I'm eager to see how they'll all pan out.

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