Anyone who thinks the Academy Awards is about quality isn’t paying attention. The Oscars are little more than a multimillion-dollar campaign for media primacy, with such emotional heights and depths for the participants that, in comparison, the Florida recount looks like a tea-time debate over Equal versus Sweet’N Low. Spending to win an Oscar nomination is written into stars’ contracts. Studios unleash rumors and whisper campaigns to tear down the competition. And it’s all less for the honor itself than for, respectively, the tens of millions of dollars that an Oscar adds to a film’s bottom line, and the potentially higher asking price for an Oscar-winning movie star.
The perpetually easy-sell in this regard is political correctness, not entertainment. (How else to explain the cuckolded industry’s praise for the morally toxic The Hours?) And if something is simply fun, fuhgedaboudit. So movies that are simply fun get forgotten this time of year.
Here, presented in order of interest, are the top-ten overlooked movies of 2002 — funny movies, thoughtful movies, entertaining and amazing movies that, for Hollywood, were just too easy to like, and too much fun to praise in front of their tuxedoed peers.
Cherish. Worth seeing if for no other reason than the appearance of Tim Blake Nelson, a versatile writer, director, and actor who came to fame as the “rubest” of rubes in the Coen Brothers’ wonderful O Brother, Where Art Thou? (See him also in 2002′s Minority Report, also on this list, and the otherwise execrable “The Good Girl.”) Cherish is a simple story about a woman under house arrest and the man who monitors her, and falls in love with her. Set to a great 80s pop soundtrack.
Scotland, PA. You think Christopher Walken deserves an Oscar for “Catch Me If You Can”? Try him as bizarre police lieutenant Ernie McDuff in this re-imagining of Macbeth, set in a hamburger joint in 1975. Joe “Mac” McBeth, along with his wife, of course, plan the murder of Norman Duncan, their sooty employer. Doubt and paranoia soon follow, as does crazy Walken.
Joy Ride. Maybe the funniest young actor in Hollywood, Steve Zahn plays characters who are simple-minded about nearly everything, to hilarious ends. Joy Ride is a punched-up version of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, peppered with jokes that arise directly out of the nature of the characters. Zahn’s naïve ex-con is at the center of nearly all those jokes. (Also: Listen for the ominous voiceover from Ted Levine — Buffalo Bill from Silence of The Lambs. And, after an especially foolish prank by Zahn, watch for a hilarious moment when a police officer bellows at him, “When did you get out of prison, yesterday?” The answer, of course, is yes.)
We Were Soldiers. This moving and profound drama about the humanity, nobility, sacrifice and commitment of American soldiers in Vietnam provided the most emotional experience of any movie last year. No one with a heart can leave this movie without a stronger sense of the personal sacrifice that war demands of soldiers, families, and friends.
Minority Report. Steven Spielberg did his homework and put onscreen the most realistic and likely portrait possible of the future. No technology featured in this movie is entirely out of the question; much of it exists on the boards or in prototype, and could be reality within a decade. By making new technology an integrated part of the characters’ world instead of the center of the movie, its impact is all the greater.
Goldmember. You want to talk about a Best Actor award? How about a guy who plays five physically disparate characters in one movie, and inhabits them so completely that, unless you know going in, you’d never guess they were the same guy. That’s Mike Myers in Goldmember. It’s funny from beginning to end.
Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian. This documentary shows what most folks don’t know about comedians: these independent-looking guys derive their self worth from the approval of strangers. Instead of taking the usual route to ask why, the filmmakers recognize that the answer is different for everyone, and instead faithfully document the unusual internal life of this kind of personality. (Self-serving disclosure: My essay on this film, written for the Hudson Institute, will appear in the liner notes of the DVD release coming May 13.)
Red Dragon. Shot in the same meticulous and patient style of Silence of the Lambs, wunderkind director Brett Ratner proves that his early post-film-school promise as an innovator and hard worker is a more accurate reputation than what one would imagine having seen his music video work and his action comedies (Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, Money Talks). This movie looks great and is truly scary. It’s a more than worthy successor to Silence.
Jackass. Crazy, stupid, dangerous stunts performed by young guys determined to hurt themselves and make each other cry. Deranged. Cringe-making. Utterly compelling and absolutely hilarious.
Super Troopers. For my money, the best time at the movies all year. A total indie project from a bunch of former Colgate students known as the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, Super Troopers is a string of silly set pieces, many of which are highway patrolmen playing mind games with speeders. There’s also a syrup-drinking contest, foolishness on a firing range, and a scene with a bear that you have to see for yourself. Destined to be a cult classic — and not a movie for the easily offended.