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The year in films

The good, the bad... and the really bad

By Paul Clinton

Paul Clinton says Nicholson's performance in "Schmidt" is one of his finest.

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(CNN) -- To borrow a lyric from Ervin Drake, "it was a very good year."

Usually, as the year draws to a close, it becomes alarmingly difficult to pick the 10 best films of the past 12 months. But 2002 produced a bumper crop of excellent films that cover a wide range of interests -- and some of them even came out early in the year, and weren't crammed into the two final weeks of December. New talents and old have produced some landmark work.

Likewise, as usual, many films which made it into local cineplexes in 2002 made you scratch your head and wonder "What were they thinking?" Plotless lumps of goo, costing tens of millions of dollars, get made every year -- year in and year out -- and the reasoning behind these decisions will forever remain a mystery.

So despite the number of excellent films, finding turkeys has not been a challenge. In fact, this category is like shooting fish in a barrel, so I'm limiting myself to five, since this list could go on and on and on.

Here -- in no particular order, for better or for worse -- are my picks of the best and worst films of 2002. Feel free to agree or disagree: that's what makes this time of year so much fun.

The 10 best

"About Schmidt"
New Line Cinema -- Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Kathy Bates

Alexander Payne brought us "Citizen Ruth," a scathing indictment of the abortion issue from both sides, and "Election," starring Reese Witherspoon, an unblinking look at our society's need to win at all cost. Now with the brilliant "About Schmidt," Payne examines the dilemma of an "everyman" who has come to a crossroads where he must decide how to proceed with the rest of his life. Deeply insightful, funny, sad, and ultimately life-affirming, "About Schmidt" is also one of Jack Nicholson's finest performances -- which is saying a lot -- and will undoubtedly earn him another Oscar nomination, which will tie him for the most Academy nominations (12) with Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn.

Columbia Pictures -- Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

Written by Charles Kaufman, who brought us "Being John Malkovich" (also directed by Spike Jonze), "Adaptation" is fresh and original, with some of the finest acting you will ever see anywhere, anytime. Nicholas Cage plays the real-life Kaufman, who, while filming "Malkovich," was offered the job of adapting the novel "The Orchid Thief" (the thief is played by Cooper) into a movie. But he suffers such an intense case of writer's block that he begins to write himself -- and the actual author of the novel, played by Streep -- into the screenplay. The result shows little resemblance to the original source material, but is a wonderful combination of convoluted madness as Kaufman and his fellow players -- including a fictional twin brother, who receives a writing credit on the film -- fall through a rabbit hole and into a loopy reality which blends fact and fiction into a fabulous confection. Sometimes Cage's mannerisms and accents can totally ruin a film, but in "Adaptation," he is picture perfect.

"Igby Goes Down"
United Artists - Directed by Burr Steers
Starring: Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum

Take some of "Portnoy's Complaint," mix in a bit of "The Graduate," and you get some idea of what this coming-of-age story has in store for you. In "Igby Goes Down," Culkin plays Igby, a young man born to privilege living in the rarefied world of upper class Washington D.C. and New York City. His father, played beautifully by Bill Pullman, becomes institutionalized; his mother (Sarandon) is a pill-popping control freak; his older brother (Ryan Phillippe) tries to be as removed from his family as possible; and his godfather (Goldblum) is a sleazy loser in an Armani suit. The comedic and dramatic possibilities are endless, and Steers (who also wrote the screenplay) grabs the best and the brightest. Hilarious, tragic, sublime and ridiculous, "Igby Goes Down" is a wonderful story about a young man rebelling against the hypocrisy of the status quo.

"Moonlight Mile"
Touchstone Pictures -- Directed by Brad Silberling
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Susan Sarandon, Dustin Hoffman
Moonlight Mile
Gyllenhaal, left, plays the former fiance of Ben's (Hoffman) murdered daughter.

Set in New England in the 1970s, "Moonlight Mile" tells the tale of grieving parents (Hoffman and Sarandon) dealing with the murder of their only daughter. Sharing their grief -- and little else -- is Joe, the daughter's fiance, played with understated brilliance by Gyllenhaal. Joe desperately wants to do the right thing by his murdered wife-to-be, but he can't help feel he's operating on a different level of grief than his would-be in-laws. When Bertie (played with great depth by newcomer Ellen Pompeo), a local girl with a loss of her own, catches his eye, things get very complicated, very quickly. The film underlines the fact that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. This is a multi-layered story with complicated themes that was largely overlooked when it was released in theaters, but it's a heartfelt and honest glimpse at the nature of loss, forgiving -- and the pain of moving on -- that will stay with you long after the final credits roll.

"The Quiet American"
Miramax -- Directed by Philip Noyce
Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen

This is the second film version of Graham Greene's classic novel "The Quiet American," and this time they've gotten it right. Set in Vietnam in 1952, the story details America's covert operations in that country's affairs which ultimately resulted in the Vietnam War. Caine stars as a British journalist in love with a Vietnamese woman (Do Thi Hai Yen). His mantra regarding the county's politics is "I offer no opinion, I take no action, and I don't get involved." This benign attitude is challenged by the arrival of Alden Pyle, a young -- and, yes, quiet -- American played by Fraser. Pyle is a man with many secrets, and he is not at all who he pretends to be. This sensual, thoughtful movie unfolds like an exotic flower and is likely to bring Caine another Oscar nomination.

"Gangs of New York"
Miramax -- Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz

It has taken Scorsese 30 years to realize his dream of making "Gangs of New York." The director is usually more interested in characters than plot, but in "Gangs," he uses a tried and true Hollywood combination: the ingenue, the villain and the hero. He's also trying his hand for the first time at the genre of the American epic. He succeeds beyond all expectations. With his usual eye for detail, Scorsese has recreated the Five Points section of New York circa 1860, a world that even Charles Dickens found appalling. Set against the backdrop of draft riots (caused by the Civil War), "Gangs" is expertly crafted, a major achievement for two men (Scorsese and Day-Lewis) who already stand at the pinnacle of their professions, and a reformation of the gigantic talents of DiCaprio. "Gangs" is also a brilliant reminder -- in the wake of 9/11 -- that our country has been through many violent times and has always emerged the better for it.

"Catch Me If You Can"
DreamWorks -- Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken

"Catch Me If You Can" is based on the real-life story of Frank W. Abagnale (DiCaprio), who, before reaching the age of 21, had scammed his way around the world posing as, among other things, an airline pilot, a surgeon, and an attorney, financing his adventures with millions of dollars in bogus checks. The film captures the innocence of the early 1960s, just after the time of "I Like Ike" and just before the bloody end of Camelot and the Kennedy White House. From the crisp opening credits to the outlandish but true conclusion, Spielberg weaves a delightful tale. The audience never loses track of the fact that the boy is breaking the law, yet still identifies with him in this highly unusual coming-of-age story. Spielberg puts us right into Abagnale's head as we actually feel the mounting pressure -- the real need -- to finally be caught.

Miramax -- Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere

Zeta-Jones shakes her thing in "Chicago."
I don't know if movie musicals are coming back or not, but if they aren't, it won't be because "Chicago" didn't give its all. This drop-dead gorgeous, toe-tapping extravaganza is truly spectacular. Zeta-Jones is a pure delight as Velma Kelly, the hard-as-nails vaudeville performer with an iceberg where her heart should be. Zellweger is a revelation as Roxie Hart, an outwardly innocent girl who wants to sing and dance -- or kill and sleep -- her way to the top. Gere is amazing as the corrupt Billy Flynn, a cheating, scamming lawyer who will defend a snake by twisting the law into a pretzel for the right price. This resurrection of John Kander and Fred Ebb's 1975 Broadway musical has been a long time coming, but it's been worth the wait. Director Marshall has finally discovered how to turn this wonderful story -- and all that jazz -- into a cohesive motion picture.

"The Hours"
Paramount Pictures/Miramax -- Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman

A complex book, "The Hours," based on the 1925 novel "Mrs. Dalloway," by literary icon Virginia Woolf, does not sound like the type of material anyone would dream of making into a movie. But in the hands of Daldry, writer David Hare, and Streep, Moore and Kidman, you have cinematic magic. The drama, which tells three simultaneous stories taking place in three different time periods, each over a single day, is exquisitely told with a stunning score by Philip Glass, which acts as a thread binding the three stories together. Kidman has never been better as she portrays Woolf's increasing frustration with a world and a mind she cannot control. Likewise, Streep and Moore are excellent as her two futuristic alter egos, struggling with the same issues. Bring on the Academy Awards.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
New Line Cinema -- Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen

The second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic tale, "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" continues where the Part One left off, and contains even more action, suspense and thrills than the first. Once again we're reunited with the kind-hearted hobbits trying to destroy the fabled One Ring before it can fall into evil hands and thrust Middle-earth into everlasting darkness. Once again Jackson has drawn us into another world -- a wondrous place full of ogres, kings, elves and wizards. This second episode of the trilogy won't disappoint, as you are swept into an alternate universe full of breathtaking adventures.

The five worst

"The Adventures of Pluto Nash"
Warner Bros. -- Directed by Ron Underwood
Pluto Nash
Clinton says "Nash" contends among the stupidest movies ever made.
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Randy Quaid, Rosario Dawson

"The Adventures of Pluto Nash" may not be the stupidest movie ever made, but it is a contender. This is an Eddie Murphy movie that made only $4 million and change at the box office. That's Murphy's dry cleaning bill during his heyday. Why anyone would think a Mafia movie set in outer space in the year 2087 would be a good idea is beyond logic. Even Murphy seemed embarrassed to be in this one. This movie will be stinking up bargain basement video bins for years.

"I Spy"
Sony Pictures -- Directed by Betty Thomas
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Famke Janssen

"Hey, let's take a really old, out-dated TV show with a premise that is packed in mothballs and make it into a major motion picture!" I assume that was the conversation that launched this turkey. Frankly, Bill Cosby should sue. Murphy plays a professional boxer brought in to help a U.S. government secret agent, Wilson, recover a missing jet. Say what?!? In this film, Murphy really crosses the line and begins to actually parody himself. Wilson, on the other hand, should be ashamed of himself. This is one giant step backward in his career. This whole genre of making films out of old TV series should be illegal. What's next, "My Mother The Car?"

Warner Bros. -- Directed by Tom Dey
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Robert De Niro, Rene Russo

This movie has a decent premise and it has Robert De Niro. It also has what has now become the curse of Eddie Murphy. This spoof of buddy cop movies where two very different men are forced to work together is ripe for parody; unfortunately, "Showtime" becomes exactly the type of movie it sets out to make fun of. These cops are shooting blanks. The funniest thing about this film is the outtakes shown with the closing credits. Too bad you have to sit through this endlessly predictable mess to get to the only laughs in this flick.

"The Truth About Charlie"
Universal Pictures -- Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, Tim Robbins

The truth is that "The Truth About Charlie" stinks. Talk about a remake that should never, ever have been made. The original film, "Charade," starred the incomparable Cary Grant and the luminous Audrey Hepburn. Sorry, but Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton can't even find their shoes, let alone fill them. The original stars had chemistry to burn; with Wahlberg and Newton, instead of surging hot hormones, you get slow-dripping, lukewarm tapwater. In all fairness, "Charade" was a lightweight movie with a paper-thin premise, but director Stanley Donen and his two stars still carried the day. "The Truth About Charlie," however, is an exercise in futility.

"Swept Away"
Sony Pictures -- Directed by Guy Ritchie
Swept Away
Madonna, left, and Giannini are stranded in "Swept Away."
Starring: Madonna, Adriano Giannini

"Swept Away" is another remake that boggles the mind. When it comes to acting, Madonna is talent-free. She can dance, and sort of sing, but act? No, no, no, no, no! In fact, this remake of Lina Wertmuller's 1974 film is so bad, director Guy Ritchie -- also known as Mr. Madonna -- sent it straight to video in England, the country he and the missus call home. "Swept Away" isn't really a movie; it just squats on the screen, like a side dish no one ordered. Madonna is a great artist who has conquered the world on many fronts, but when it comes to acting -- girl, let it go!!!

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