First, let's do movies. How did we get so many terrific films this year? None of them is perfect, but 2002 turned out to be the best year for movies since 1998, the year of Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan. Here's the list, for better or worse:
1. Chicago: As much as I disliked Moulin Rouge, which was a lot, this is how much I enjoyed Chicago. Rob Marshall made his mark two years ago when he made a TV version of Annie that could have been released to theatres. That's how good it was. All of that energy has made it to Chicago, with a cast full of intensity and purpose just kicking the heck out of this show. Since no one in the cast was previously known for this kind of work, that makes it all the more special. My personal favorite moment is John C. Reilly singing "Mr. Cellophane." But it's a movie full of great moments and sheer glee. It has the sound of triumph and the look, too.
2. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Last year when we sat down for The Fellowship of the Ring it turned out that it was pretty good, better than expected, and everyone was relieved. But nothing prepares you for the second installment, in which Peter Jackson's utter devotion to this project (as well as New Line Cinema's Mark Ordesky) permeates the whole spectacle. The battles are magnificent, the comic scenes are lovely, and the movie has a gigantic heart. I was not a fan of these books as a youngster, but this movie has made me re-think the whole thing. Bravo!
3. Gangs of New York: You can't not appreciate Martin Scorsese, especially if you're from New York. In Gangs, his passions — which are sometimes out of balance — just pour through the screen. On the downside, the character development is not fully textured for the subsidiary players. But Daniel Day-Lewis is so mesmerizing that it doesn't matter. When he makes his "fear" speech to Leonardo DiCaprio (who's in bed with Cameron Diaz), you just want to applaud. It's brilliant. Scorsese fills each frame with so much energy and life, it would be great to run the thing at a slow speed and take a longer look at what he's done. I imagine in years to come people will do this. Nice stuff too from Henry Thomas, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson.
4. Insomnia: Overlooked, forgotten and released too early in the year, Chris Nolan's Alfred Hitchcock-like effort is one of the few DVDs I've been recommending to people for months without equivocation. Al Pacino really works here (instead of sidestepping and mugging) and Robin Williams should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The underwater scene with the logs is brilliant and worth the price of admission.
5. Minority Report/Catch Me If You Can: Two completely disparate ideas from the brilliant mind of Steven Spielberg. MR is the dark side; Catch Me is the reward. Watch the chase scene in MR from the time Tom Cruise escapes from Colin Farrell until he arrives in the greenhouse with veteran character actress Lois Smith. It's more exciting than anything in Indiana Jones. And then Spielberg throws away all the running, jumping, flying and lets Christopher Walken's face just burst with sympathy, pain and pathos in Catch Me. Tom Hanks delights when Leo DiCaprio calls him on Christmas almost as if he's licking his lips. Spielberg gets better and better every year.
6. The Hours: OK, the music is too loud and constant. You want to say, turn it down or off already. We get it! Everyone's on edge in this excellent adaptation of a little novel that was quite brilliant. Few movies "get" books the way this one does, but then again it doesn't hurt to have this incredible gang of A-list actors, all with theatre training. If nothing else, The Hours should be shown to some top box-office actresses for educational purposes. Nicole Kidman walks away with the movie, but I think my favorite moment is when Claire Danes hugs Julianne Moore in the last segment. This is one chick flick that's really just a people flick in the end.
7. About Schmidt: Yeah, yeah, Jack Nicholson gives a great performance as Schmidt. But listen, this movie is so much more than just that. And it's not for everyone. About Schmidt is a brutal satire on middle America and old age; if I lived in a St. Louis suburb and saw this I'd get up and scream. But Alexander Payne's satires — Election and Citizen Ruth — were just like that, too. He managed to take Louis Begley's novel and transform it into something even more devastating than a musing on aging. And Kathy Bates, someone I do not want to see undressed again in a movie, is brave and beautiful.
8. Far From Heaven: If there were a film festival of this movie, Ice Storm and The Flamingo Kid, you would basically have my life in chronological order. Connecticut in 1964 was much the same as it was in 1957, and still even in 1969. The Connecticut here is rendered so perfectly I'm having trouble keeping out of the personal memory part of my brain. When Viola Davis walks through that swinging door in the kitchen in her white maid's uniform, it sent chills up my spine. That Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid just hit every note right, the production design and attitude are spot on and Elmer Bernstein whipped up such frothy music — the whole thing is a winner. I've heard that audiences in suburban New York and Connecticut are very uneasy when they see Far From Heaven. It probably induces more nightmares than a slasher flick. And that's the point. Dennis Quaid is this year's Kim Basinger — see him grab that little gold man with two hands on March 23.
9. Antwone Fisher: Denzel Washington used to be snickered at behind his back — he was so earnest and plodding and never took his eye off the ball. So now see what happened? He finally got his Oscar for Best Actor, then turned around and delivered a directing job that puts to shame 90 percent of the regular DGA. AF is a little sappy and very Good Will Hunting, but it's also real and the emotions connect in disarming, unexpected ways. The whole movie is worth the scene between Derek Luke and Viola Davis, and Denzel saw it when he was shooting it. He has an eye, and I hope he keeps going.
10. The Pianist: This is a long movie about a man who hides in abandoned Warsaw apartments during World War II, rather than be exterminated with his family and friends. You could say nothing happens, but so much happens. Adrien Brody's on-screen journey is just amazing. But it's Roman Polanski who understands more than anyone what it's like to hide, to run away, to dodge and to survive. When Brody's Szpilman finally comes up on the roof of the apartment house to see the destruction of Warsaw, it's jaw dropping. The most important movie of 2002.
11. Igby Goes Down/Tadpole/Rodger Dodger: I call these three "Salinger Syndrome" movies since each of them feels inspired by J.D. Salinger while not mocking or imitative of his work. Igby is the most developed, with some extraordinary work by Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Kieran Culkin and Jeff Goldblum in his best role ever. Tadpole, made by Gary Winick for two cents on high def video, was the hit of Sundance last year. You can't help but admire its deft storytelling. The characters move around like chessmen on a board. Bebe Neuwirth is terrific, and Aaron Sanford ties Antwone Fisher's Derek Luke for best breakthrough performance. Finally in this category, Rodger Dodger: Campbell Scott deserves more than just the crazy National Board of Review award. He gives a movie-length rant in this movie that his own father, George C. Scott, the king of screen rants, would bow down to. Who could have sympathy for this character? And yet, anyone who sees Rodger Dodger does. An exceptional, off-beat entry that should have been in the Spirit Awards this year.
Runners-Up: Frida, Spider-Man, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Bowling for Columbine, Talk to Her, The Quiet American, Auto Focus, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Believe it or not, Dame Judi Dench has no movie out in time for this year's Oscars. And as of right now, she's still free for 2003. How could this be? The Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love and four-time nominee (also for Mrs. Brown, Chocolat, and Iris) is in London's West End, currently starring in David Hare's The Breath of Life through March 1.
About a month ago I had the pleasure of visiting Dame Judi backstage at the Royal Haymarket Theatre after seeing her and another Dame, Maggie Smith, perform this two-character play. If you can get to London between now and March 1, this pair should not be missed, even though the play is perhaps not as perfect as it could be. The two women, it turns out, have shared the same man (one of them was married to him), and now that he's gone they reminisce about him. It's standard fare, but in their hands the material comes alive and the Royal Haymarket fairly well glows with excitement.
Up seven little flights and turns (there's no elevator) Dame Judi is ensconced in the same dressing room she had last year when she starred in The Royal Family. On most nights after the show she welcomes guests for a glass of Champagne and a chat. Her daughter, Finty Williams, an actress, stops by from time to time with her toddler son, Sammy, who is also the apple of Judi's eye. Her best friend and understudy, Penny, who could also be her twin, is never far away. And often conversation turns to Judi's late husband, Michael Williams, who passed away in 2000 after a bout with cancer. Dench misses him terribly.
But fame has been fun, too. "The most amazing thing happened the other day, Roger, and you mustn't write about it," she said. "I fell asleep between the matinee and the evening show. And all of a sudden the phone rang and it was Elton John!"
"What did he want?" I asked.
"I'm not telling you!" she laughed. "But it was extraordinary."
Besides her Oscar nominations and theatre raves, Dame Judi also likes to make money. So she's not unhappy that Die Another Day, her third James Bond movie, as M, has been a worldwide hit. And she's ready for more. So bring it on!
If you're in Paris, France (which I, sadly, am not), be sure to catch "Soul Man" Sam Moore at Le Meridien Hotel at the Lionel Hampton club. Otherwise, see you again on Friday, Jan. 3, 2003!