1 & 2
127 min; Dir. Sam Raimi
Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons and Alfred Molina
The Passion of the Christ
127 min; Dir. Mel Gibson
Starring James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Rosalinda Celentano, and Monica Bellucci
For what it's worth, I wasn't looking forward to getting around to writing about the top two films on my list because in so many ways my reasons for liking the films are more personal than objective. I was aware that objections might come for two reasons: 1) the people who didn't like The Passion and insist that it's "violence pornography" and 2) people who think Spider-man 2 isn't serious enough to really be the best movie of the year. In the end I decided to write about both of them at once and that way we can have the debates in one thread of posts rather than two.
For a long period of time over the year I was wavering back and forth over what was the "number one" movie of the year. Several of the other films that I've mentioned could easily have been number one, such as The Incredibles or Eternal Sunshine. All will end up being favourites of mine for a long time. What it came down to was the two moviegoing experiences that resonated with me the most and I'll remember for the longest time.
The Passion of the Christ; What really can be said about this film that hasn't been said before? For one, it's so hard to look at the film objectively apart from the controversy it stirred ("Does it portray Jews as 'Christ-killers'? Is it too violent? Is it being abused as an evangelical tool?"). I don't meant to dismiss those questions as irrelevant; Those are all legitimit questions, but what they all have in common is that they don't really approach The Passion as a film. The value of the film as a cultural event itself can be debated over and over. Suprisingly I fall on the side that doesn't really see the film as a very good "cultural event." It caused divisions among people. It was abused as an tool of "evangelism" by some. I was disgusted to see the movie used as a tool of conversion, turning me off of much of the "Christian" discussion about the film. But what about the film as a "film"?
I enjoyed Mel Gibson's 1995 film Braveheart. I'll admit it (even if every History major I know will have a fit about that). I think he's a decent director who, ironically, puts a lot of passion into his films, even if they aren't as skilled works as others. That's what I see The Passion as. A work of devotional art that some are going to like and others aren't. It's a artistically sophisticated work, depsite what the violence-pundits will tell you, beautifully photographed and interestingly composed. Jim Caviezel does a good job of portraying Jesus in his last hours and supporting work, especially Romanian-actress Maia Morgenstern as Mary, and Rosalinda Celentaro as Satan. Some of the most effective and moving moments in the film take place at the beginning, in the garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prays and faces temptation. The lushness of the garden, coupled with the extreme emotion of the scene makes one feel completely overwhelmed by the entire scene. The ending, with (spoiler? j/k) Christ's crucifiction and death is just as emotional and compelling. There is a moment of sublime beauty when a single drop of water falls from the sky on Golgotha. Is this merely rain? Or is it the tears of God, weeping for what His own son must do?
In the end that is perhaps the greatest triumph of Gibson's film and it's greatest detractor. Film has a way of inviting people to viscerally participate in a moment in a way that few mediums do. It convinces us of its own reality and in doing so takes a certain responsibility over what it says and shows that other mediums, such as books, don't. For me, the film was a beautiful and intense look at Christ's final hours. For others the film is a Biblical-exploitation film, playing on people's personal connections with Christ for the sake of art.
I have only seen the film once, on the opening day, and that in many ways was enough. It may not become a regular part of my film viewing life, but the experience that February night is still with me nearly a year later, and I want to acknowledge that power by saying it was one of the best films of the year.
So, finally, my number one pick: Spider-man 2. It wasn't really a surprise to anyone who knows me well. I'm perhaps one of the biggest comic book fans that I know. But it was a surprise to me. I enjoyed the first Spider-man film quite a bit, but it didn't make my top ten list of 2002, and I saw a few flaws with the film as a whole. So I was looking forward to the film, but I wasn't expecting to see what has become one of my favourite films of all time.
What I experienced was the best superhero film I've ever seen. It's a film of remarkable emotion, especially prescient to my own life. And that in the end is why I love it. It shows the thrill and the challenges that Peter faces. It doesn't forget about the past film, but it also treads new ground, pushing forward the drama that is Peter's life and taking places that, for comic book fans at least, it needed to go.
A word on several of the performances. Tobey Maguire owns the Peter Parker role now. He puts so much into his Peter scenes that, as I've stated elsewhere, I could watch an entire film just about Peter. There is a scene about half-way through the film where Peter has just had the worst night of his life; at the observatory party he has just fought with his best friend, the girl he loves is engaged to another man and his job is in jeopardy. Dejected, he goes out to the balcony and reaches for a fancy drink, tilts back his head and...the drink is empty. At that moment I knew I loved the film. The way Peter reacts to that moment, the buildup of emotions and the way that they translate over to his life as a masked hero is so poignant, so wonderful. I loved it.
Alfred Molina is excellent playing a sympathetic, yet menacing villian. Kirsten Dunst (who I mentioned in my Eternal Sunshine post) is turning into one of the best young actresses out there. And J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson? Sheer perfection. The man steals every scene he's in, bringing the comic book character to life perfectly.
Also, Spider-man 2 competes with Before Sunset for having my favourite ending of the entire year. (Spoiler: for real this time!) Peter, finally able to allow MJ into his life and allowing her to take the risk that is loving him, swings off to action leaving MJ staring out the window as the evening sun settles across her beautiful face. It's a happy ending, but it's real. We know that Peter and MJ aren't going to have an easy time of it. This is the thing that Peter tried to protect her from, the dangers that his life as a hero entails, but in the end the strength of her love is that she, knowing full well those dangers, chooses to love him anyway. Powerful stuff for a "mere" comic book film. At least I think so.
In the end I decided that Spider-man 2 is my favourite film of the year for all those reasons and more. It's filled with fun moments (the "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" scene is sublime), compelling drama (Peter and MJ's confrontation on the streeet after he misses her performance, again) and intense action (the train sequence). All in all, it's film that I 'll keep coming back to over and over again. Like Star Wars, I'm going to be watching it on those rainy weekend afternoons when I need a movie that I can enjoy, yet savour, knowing that I'm watching a film that speaks to me.