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  FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: A TALE OF TWO TOP TEN LISTS.  
   
   
 

Since the early days of high school, the day before the Oscar nominations has been special for my oldest friend Tim Grierson -- who moonlights as the co-editor of The Simon and a bi-weekly film columnist for Knot Magazine -- and me. At a very young age, Tim and I became obsessed with film, and perhaps even more so with lists. We scoured through every top 10 list we could find, and we watched everything we could get our hands on -- not easy at 14 -- so we could make our own lists.

At first, we tried to put together our lists when everyone else did, at the end of the year. Problem was, the best movies weren't likely to make it within 400 miles in Mattoon, Illinois, by the end of the year, not a chance. We were lucky if the Ernest Saves Easter movie had finally left by Christmas Day.

So we bought ourselves some time. We set a day when we would reveal each other's top 10 to one another: the day before the Oscar nominations. -- WL

***

That was yesterday. Here are Will Leitch's top 10 films of 2002, in descending order.

 

 

 

10. Signs, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan has been fellated on the cover of Time magazine as the "next Spielberg." But his slow, quiet, ponderous doodlings with suspense and paranoia are more in line with Hitchcock crossed with the sincerity of Paul Thomas Anderson than anything else, and he nails it perfectly in Signs, his best film. What makes the film work is Shylaman's strange ability to somehow intermix winking I'm-just-playing plot twists-you see, the aliens are really are allergic to water!-with characters who seem just human enough to make you believe them. Shylaman telegraphs his moves and then shifts them just enough to keep you on your toes. There isn't a second, amidst all the otherworldly excess, that you don't feel these are real people, with real worries, real sadness and real hope. These are characters whom are not difficult to root for, and when they emerge victorious, in trademark loopy ways, you'll cheer along with them.

 

 

9. 8 Mile, directed by Curtis Hanson
A friend pointed out that the plot of 8 Mile is essentially the same as Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, but that's missing the point. What carries this above your typical Rocky-esque, up-with-people, little guy rises above the muck fare is Hanson's dogged persistence in grounding it a culture of hopelessness, poverty and muted rage. This is Hollywood poverty, to be sure-even the inevitable appearance of a gun is played for laughter-but it all feels believable. And, yes, Eminem can act. His woeful, hangdog mystery is a perfect fit with a guy who silently believes in himself, and his inability to escape what would seem an inescapable environment. The rap sequences are electrifying, slivers of documentary spliced in as epic set pieces and subtly remind you that true talent can be found anywhere, if given a chance to shine. Hanson certainly knows where to find it. Definitely improves with subsequent viewings; the populist tendencies are shaved off to reveal a raw, darker core.

 

 

8. Panic Room, directed by David Fincher
After attacking complicated, mind-bending projects meant to challenge and subvert, David Fincher scales himself down with the simplest of premises: Two people stuck in a room that can't be busted into, with three bad guys desperately trying to get in. Every possible permutation is explored, along with a few easy plot mechanisms for the sake of keeping things interesting-did the daughter have to be asthmatic too?-and Fincher never lets up or betrays the inherent logic of the situation. Never has a movie set in just two rooms felt so alive; you can just imagine Fincher doing the math in his head, licking his chops. Theories have arisen on the possibility of the whole film taking place in the head of Jodie Foster's bruised and cast-aside mother, and even though that sounds like a trick Fincher would have up his sleeve, it doesn't matter one way or another. This is rousing entertainment.

 

 

7. Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg
Speaking of rousing entertainment, Steven Spielberg finally puts aside political struggles, blatant flag-waving populist kowtowing and boring aren't-kids-great speechifying and gets down to what he does best: Have a great time. Minority Report hurtles from one inspired set piece to another at breakneck speed (personal favorite: the spider-like spy satellites scourging through tenements while Running Man Tom Cruise hides underwater to avoid capture). Spielberg still has no idea how to end a film-this one ends four times, which might be a record, even for him-and elevating this film into a Orwell-esque warning about government surveillance is giving it more credit than perhaps it deserves it. But in an age of whiz-bang effects, quick cuts and obvious CGI reliance, Spielberg seems relaxed here, quite happy to show those kids exactly how it's done.

 

 

6. Y Tu Mama Tambien, directed by Alfonso Cuaron
It is not easy to make a coming-of-age sex movie involving self-involved, oblivious, horny teens while also illustrating socioeconomic tensions of a country at war with itself, but Alfonso Cuaron not only pulls it off, he also it makes you care about all of it without resorting to soapbox declarations or heavy-handedness. This is as big a small movie as you'll find, seemingly simple and compact but carrying and balancing so much more. The big revelation at the end of the film seems forced at first but grows with power the more you think about it. And, lest you forget, as if it were an afterthought, this is a very sexy film. Warning: Do not rent the Blockbuster version of this. Not only is any sexual scene excised, but a key plot point is senselessly omitted, making one of the film's more moving concepts all but non-existent.

 

 

5. Narc, directed by Joe Carnahan
Where has Ray Liotta been hiding? Maybe it was Corrina, Corrina, but this powerful, commanding actor appears to have been in remission for 10 years before resurfacing with a vengeance in this uncompromising police drama. Director Joe Carnahan tells a police procedural like no one's ever made one before, making every shot count while never forgetting that just because a cop's beat is over doesn't mean he can just come waltzing home to his wife and family like nothing happened. Liotta carries the film, as an elusively sinister cop either trying to solve his partner's murder or cover it up. The film earns special notice for an out-of-nowhere ending that not only shocks you, but makes absolute sense.

 

 

4. Insomnia, directed by Christopher Nolan
When Al Pacino brings his A-game, which rarely happens anymore, he is as compelling a screen presence as you'll find. He's at his best as a sleep-deprived cop stuck in Alaska-during the time of year where the sun never sets-who's not only trying to solve an inexplicable murder, he's also trying to run from his own misdeeds. Take a look at how tired Pacino is in this film; he makes the film's conceit from a gimmick into a breathing, tortured reality. Nolan (who directed Memento) is right at home here, letting the actors do their thing (even Robin Williams is spot-on) while filming the Alaskan skies alternately as heaven on earth and as a never-ending hell. It's a shame so many people have forgotten this film already.

 

 

3. About Schmidt, directed by Alexander Payne
Rarely has American been more keenly and compassionately observed than in this tragic, almost inert comedy. Jack Nicholson's Warren Schmidt is a man who looks back on his life and sees no beauty, no vitality and no permanence, and ultimately realizes that he has no one but himself to blame. That sounds like an unrelenting downer, and at times it is, but ultimately Warren Schmidt realizes that the past is gone the minute it happens and embraces it. Nicholson and Payne see the inherent comedy in a man like Schmidt, but they never cheat and allow him to fall into pathos. He is a man, like any of us, who had a plan for himself but could never get out of his own way. That he never stops wondering, even if it's in his own stunted way, is a victory for him, and for all of us. Not that it makes any difference, in the grand scheme of things. We all know more people like Warren Schmidt than we'd like to think.

 

 

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson
The first Lord of the Rings film was slowed by its obligation to set up its story and characters before allowing them to run loose. This second film has no such obligation, so from the very first frame, it's off and sprinting. The genius of Jackson's films is their sense of wonder, their absolute insistence on never winking or selling out for the easy payoff, unlike, say, that other recent Force-d trilogy. Jackson has the courage of his own convictions, and the film spins off into three equally magnificent subplots, all converging in a castle-siege sequence packed with invention and inspiration. It's a three-hour film that feels like 15 minutes. The final film is anticipated with something resembling sadness; it's a shame the series has to end at all.

 

 

1. Punch Drunk Love, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Wired like a dirty bomb packed with chocolate, Punch Drunk Love is the one movie this year that defies classification. Is it a character study? Is it a love story? Is it an exercise in violent self-immolation? It's all of that, and a million things more. But most of all, Paul Thomas Anderson's bizarre creation is almost scarily good-hearted; maybe all any of us really do need is love. Adam Sandler is a wonder-his skin seems to be rippling with unknowable fear and loathing-and Anderson paints a canvas that is both suffocating and infinitely expansive. Sad, creepy, hilarious, introspective, the film seems to take place on another planet all together, with its own warped rhythms and shifting kaleidoscope of logic. When Sandler's Barry Egan finally breaks through and gets it together, in one gripping and frightening attack on his assailants, you won't know whether to cheer or to run screaming from the theater. Have you ever seen a movie even remotely like this one? I haven't.

 

***

On this list, you won't see The Hours, Far From Heaven, The Pianist, Gangs of New York, Bowling for Columbine, The Two Towers, or Adaptation. Did I like anything in 2002? I did, actually, and a decent amount of the great films were either undervalued or forgotten because they came out before the massive December crush of Oscar-worthy movies. Thank god I kept a running list of what I've seen as I go through the year. It does the double trick of making sure I didn't leave off any pre-summer gems and also of offering a comprehensive view of an entire year of films. All in all, I'm very happy with 2002, moviewise. Any year where Spirited Away was the 11th best film has to have been a decent 12-month span, right?

Let's get on with it and start with Number 10…

***

 

10. TALK TO HER, DIRECTED BY PEDRO ALMODOVAR
When Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars a couple years ago, I just shrugged. While I certainly didn't dislike Mother, it thought its combination of high-art structure and campy humor was sometimes an uneven mix. Talk to Her is a better attempt at that juxtaposition in which Almodóvar weaves together two totally different love stories, a jumbled timeline, and even the funniest silent-movie porno you could imagine. Much less a plot than an allegorical rumination on love, Talk to Her watches as two men -- a nurse and a reporter -- become reluctant friends when their objects of desire are saddled with comas in the same hospital. The reporter (played by Darío Grandinetti) is saddled with guilt because his last conversation with his bullfighter girlfriend was a fight; the nurse (Javier Cámara) is a shy, sensitive wisp of a man who adores his female patient from afar but cares for her and loves her unquestionably.

What happens to these couples isn't nearly as important as how it happens and certainly not as crucial as the feel and tone of Almodóvar's sad yet hopeful romantic mood. Talk to Her has a fable-like quality that fans of Amelie or Red will recognize and appreciate; in all these films, the narrative seems less constructed than inevitable, each scene moving into the next with the common touch of a typical, uneventful day.


 

9. COMEDIAN, DIRECTED BY CHRISTIAN CHARLES
Jerry Seinfeld is a man who can appreciate the merits of turning the mundane into entertainment; it's what's made him a very rich, famous man. When his hugely successful Seinfeld finally called its quits, Seinfeld had a desire to go back to his roots: the stand-up's world of bad clubs and two-drink minimums. To make it even tougher on himself, he chose to hang up his entire routine that he had honed over years of experience. He would start from scratch to see if he still had it after years of sitcom complacency. And, he would have a documentary crew follow him around.

Comedian works first as a travelogue of Seinfeld's journey, secondly as a defining primer on how stand-up comedians do what they do, and thirdly as an inspiring document of how creativity and personal drive go hand-in-hand. It also doesn't hurt that Seinfeld remains a very funny individual -- even when he's bombing on stage with his new bits.

Two of the most financially successful documentaries of the year focused on the personalities of its subjects in order to pave over their massive deficiencies. The Kid Stays in the Picture was one big self-serving love letter to Robert Evans, while Michael Moore's insufferably smug Bowling for Columbine was ostensibly about guns or something, but was mostly about how freaking smart and clever Moore is. Comedian could have easily gone that way, too -- Seinfeld, after all, is one of the movie's producers. But like the best documentaries of the year (let's pause a moment to give mad props to Biggie and Tupac and Scratch, not to mention the terrific re-release for The Last Waltz), Comedian merely uses a subject to get to a deeper truth. Anyone who ever thought comedy was easy, or thought that the people who perform it just wing it, won't ever be able to look at the art form the same way again.

 

 

8. MOONLINGHT MILE, DIRECTED BY BRAD SILBERLING
If great comedy is difficult to achieve, then a good tearjerker is damn near impossible to pull off. That's one of the best things about writer-director Brad Silberling's Moonlight Mile: It aims for something more complex. The hack who gave us Casper and City of Angels, Silberling wasn't expected to do much with his seriocomic look at how a family deals with the loss of their daughter and how the young fiancé copes with the secret he harbors about his never-to-be bride. But, unlike his formulaic, drippy City of Angels, Moonlight Mile is a defiantly alive and unpredictable movie, a mess of a film sideswiped by tragedy but also redeemed by great performances, a wise script, and a remarkably unsappy streak. The Flosses -- a rarely better Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman -- try to put their lives together after the death of their Diana, who was to be married to Joe (the terrific Jake Gyllenhaal).

This is such Weeper 101 territory, and considering Silberling's dismal track record, it's understandable why a lot of critics kicked this little gem to the curb. But unlike anything he's done before, Moonlight Mile follows no preconceived plan. Even the recent In the Bedroom, which has a similar set-up, is miles away in terms of tone and execution from this work. That film was concerned with how the deceased's parents were coming to terms with their own marriage because of a child's death. Moonlight Mile has that as one of its concerns as well. But Silberling is in some ways going for something more grand -- how each of us grieves in our own way, how there is no right way to do anything in the face of death. With that in mind, how could Moonlight Mile not be a little disorganized, slightly fraying at the ends, when its characters are barely holding on themselves? This is a skillful and honest movie whose seemingly tidy ending shouldn't be confused with a Hollywood happy ending. Additional thanks to Silberling, who picked a perfect soundtrack of late '60s-early '70s tunes that are never obvious but give a moving emotional charge to several key moments.

 

 

7. ONE HOUR PHOTO, DIRECTED BY MARK ROMANEK
One Hour Photo is one of those movies that might have gotten greater Academy attention if it had been released later in the year. (How sad that even films from September have long since been forgotten.) But then again, it would be a difficult film for a lot of voting members to cuddle up to, regardless of when it came out. Still, it's a shame that when Robin Williams finally gives us a great, unmannered performance, it goes largely unheralded.

Williams plays Sy, a quiet photo developer in a dehumanizing mall landscape. We all know him; he's that guy who provides us with some basic service every day that we simply take for granted. Writer-director Mark Romanek won't let us pass right by Sy, though. And because he's put his protagonist in a psychological thriller, we cringe at the prospects of what we know is coming. Sy is gonna crack, go crazy, do something bad to himself or someone else. We just don't know how exactly.

Stylistically shot and designed like a Kubrick nightmare, One Hour Photo is more than a loner-goes-loony caricature. It's, in fact, one of the great visualizations of loneliness that recent cinema has given us. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver showed us impotence and buried rage. One Hour Photo, although laced with suspense, is more sympathetic and less sentimental about its misfit. Williams does a fine job of burying himself in the mediocrity of Sy. His achievement is that you stop thinking, "Oh, hey, look, it's Robin Williams in there." Even his role in Insomnia had a touch of showiness to it. How could Sy be showy? On a normal day, you can look right through him and never know he's there.

That's what makes his infatuation with the impossibly perfect Yorkins that much more tragic. He loves and envies the happiness of this mother, daughter, and son. He craves what they have -- and yet there is no joy in this family, no contentment. The Yorkin parents are stuck in a loveless marriage, while their son can't seem to shake a gloomy melancholy from that angelic face. And still Sy wants to be a part of it. The darkest joke in One Hour Photo is that only through the terrible actions Sy takes against this family, only through his own violence and harm, does he actually bring them the happiness he thought they always possessed in the first place.


 

6. FRAILTY, DIRECTED BY BILL PAXTON
Now, we come to the most forsaken film of the year. It's a creepy, disturbing horror movie, but I'm not talking about The Ring. It features a widowed father with his young children out in the middle of nowhere, but it's not Signs. And it's spearheaded by a respected actor making his directorial debut, but it's not Antwone Fisher or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I'm talking about Bill Paxton's frightening Frailty, more proof, like 2001's magnificent The Others, that the best horror films get into your mind rather than assaulting your eyes with scary special effects.

Paxton's movie feels totally in keeping with his skills as an actor. It's effective, efficient, impressive without being flashy, and never less than thoroughly genuine. Not only as he crafted a superb thriller on the merits of an ingenious script, he's given himself one of his best roles in the process. As the mechanic dad of two impressionable, adoring sons, Paxton perfectly embodies the Perfect Dad in no time flat. He's loving, strong, decent … until everything goes hellishly wrong.

Consumed one day with the belief that God has chosen his family to kill demons hiding out on Earth, Paxton recruits his confused children in this bloody, gruesome mission. Except, in retrospect, the film isn't nearly as graphically bloody or gruesome as it seems. A lot of the terrible ax murders shown in Frailty occur offscreen, but, like Paxton's perfectly calm diligence in regards to his task, they unnerve you with their simple modesty. If you want, you can read all of this as an indictment of religious hysteria, but Frailty's nature is as unassuming as its star-director's. Even when the movie goes for one too many twists near the end that badly upsets the tone of the whole work, you never get past the fact that this is an eloquent examination of the destruction of one American family because of the right-as-rain convictions of its father.


 

5. SUNSHINE STATE, DIRECTED BY JOHN SAYLES
John Sayles also loves American families; his best movies encompass at least two or three of them at the same time. Sunshine State takes the same panoramic approach to a specific locale that he used to fine effect in Lone Star. But even if the location has moved from Texas to Florida, the writer-director is still exploring the same emotional and sociological territory: how geography, history, and family shape our actions, and how individuals can choose to escape those limitations or not. Edie Falco is the high-water mark in a film with several great performances -- everyone from Timothy Hutton to Alan King to Richard Edson to Angela Bassett does great work. But Falco's Marly is one of a kind: a funny loser, full of life and generally bemused by her limited existence. What makes her performance so commanding is that she doesn't allow us to feel sorry for her. Hell, Marly doesn't feel bad for herself, so why should we?

Likewise, John Sayles is never condescending to his characters. They live in small towns, but they're not yokels; they're not saints spouting homespun wisdom, either. They're people and, in the hands of Sayles, pretty damn interesting ones. Enough with the complaints that Sayles is limited as a director. His novelistic work is well-suited to his quiet long takes and subdued compositions. You don't want anything to get in the way of his performances, and with Sunshine State he again rewards an attentive audience's patience.

 


 

4. ABOUT SCHMIDT, DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER PAYNE
Patience was also required for Alexander Payne's unconventional but ultimately moving About Schmidt, a showcase for Jack Nicholson and further evidence that Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor are perhaps the best chroniclers of modern life that we've got in this country.

Following on the heels of his masterpiece, Election, Payne returns with a less darkly comic and more risky endeavor: a metaphorical road movie. A cousin to David Lynch's poetic The Straight Story, About Schmidt recounts the tail end of Warren Schmidt's thoroughly unremarkable, disposable life. Saddled with retirement, shocked by the sudden death of his wife, Schmidt (played by a very remarkable Nicholson) has only his malcontent daughter's wedding in front of him. Everything else points to futility, loneliness, and the end.

Just as Robin Williams had to bury his personality and recognizable tricks in order to play a normal guy, so too does Nicholson make you forget that he's one of the coolest, smartest, hippest actors around. His Schmidt is the consummate sad sack; even when he goes on a bender, he just goes to Dairy Queen and simply orders the medium Blizzard. The medium Blizzard.

As with many of the films on this list, About Schmidt does not have a riveting plot. (The best flicks of 2002 as a whole were a sort of anti-Memento in that they lacked blazingly original concepts.) And so it's amazing to watch Payne navigate a totally different sort of film than the caustically biting Election. I don't think About Schmidt is quite as miraculous; Nicholson's encounters with his daughter's in-laws are too broad and lack the complexity that makes the rest of the film so rich and meaningful. But, still, what's been achieved is a rare feat, and shows Payne's flexibility as a storyteller. Election was painfully funny as it made an Omaha high school a corrosive microcosm for society as a whole. About Schmidt, by comparison, is more contemplative and somber, although its jokes do draw blood when you least expect it.

And then there's the ending -- an ambiguous, perfect note to conclude what's already been a very delicate balancing act. Most coming-of-age tales (whether the protagonist is in his teens or in his 60s) have difficulty resolving their lifelike, complicated plot lines. About Schmidt ends exactly right; it's unforgettable. Alexander Payne, with the help of his cast and creative team, is telling us more about ourselves and the lives we lead than just about anyone else out there.

 

 

 

3. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, DIRECTED BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON
Punch-Drunk Love is a triumph on many levels, but one of the really miraculous things about it is how it redeems its two principal creative forces: Sandler and Paul Thomas Anderson. Now buried in the hinterland of pre-Thanksgiving releases, Punch-Drunk Love is one hell of a great romantic comedy. Oh yeah, it subverts all the rules of the genre -- the meet-cute is a disaster, the male lead is this close to complete mental collapse, the film starts and ends with car accidents. But, nonetheless, P.T. Anderson is making his version of a romantic comedy, one with prickles on it and a guarded, gushing heart.

When the film came out, the publicity surrounded the "Can Adam Sandler Act?" question. And the answer is, yes, absolutely. He's undoubtedly riffing on his unstable/manic persona he's been doing since Saturday Night Live, but Anderson has given Sandler a backstory and a definable role which enlarges and enriches the person we all know and tolerate as Mr. Happy Madison Waterboy.

It also helps that this is Anderson's most coherent, least derivative work. His last two movies, Magnolia and Boogie Nights, was film-student techniques masquerading as cinema's Brave New Voice. In sharp contrast, Punch-Drunk Love is a truly gutsy movie, one that is fraught with peril and could have gone astray pretty easily. When's the last time a romantic film was this suspenseful? Or have its sweet love-conquers-all story lock horns with its brilliantly frenetic score, meant to externalize the unbalanced protagonist's state of mind? Or give us a main character who calls a phone-sex line but still deserves to get the good girl at the end?

Special mention must also go to the wonderful Emily Watson, who turns an underwritten role as the Most Perfect Girl Ever into a realistic woman. How any heterosexual man could pass her up is, frankly, beyond me.


 

2. Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, DIRECTED BY ALFONSO CUARON
Romance and true love are the furthest things from the minds of the two horndogs at the center of Y Tu Mamá También, the other fantastic road movie of the year. Alfonso Cuarón's Spanish-language film is the first in ages that reminded me of what it was like to first start watching foreign films. Whether it was The 400 Blows or Nights of Cabiria, there was a pervasive sense that these movies were somehow coming from another, better planet than the one I was on. There were many similarities between my world and theirs, but in that distant land, life was truer, realer, and much more amazing. The other important quality those films share with Y Tu Mamá También is that they're all deceptively simple in structure while utterly devastating in terms of emotional and thematic impact.

Julio and Tenoch want to get laid. They're teenagers, so they really like to drink, too. But mostly they want to screw. So, they meet this really hot woman in her late 20s, Luisa. And even though she's married, see, they invite her to go on a car trip for a weekend. And, get this, she says yes. And so, they go, and then she gets with one of them. And then she gets with the other one. And then … well, everything changes.

Franker than any sex film around, smarter and less whimsical than most road movies, packed with a lesson tougher and harsher than coming-of-age films will allow, Y Tu Mamá También is precise in its design and structure. But the trick is that this tightly focused film beautifully appears effortless, off the cuff -- exactly as it needs to be in order to convey the sense of teenage freedom giving way to grown-up self-awareness. The movie sneaks up on you, lures you in with two or three of the most natural (i.e. sexy) sex scenes around, and then smacks you upside the head with a couple of surprises you weren't expecting. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the road from puberty to maturity, doesn't it?


 

1. CHICAGO, DIRECTED BY ROB MARSHALL
Which brings me to the top of my list, and a shock I've never experienced in my lifetime. I think my favorite film of the year has a very good chance of actually winning Best Picture. You're free to make your assumptions from that comment -- Lord knows I would if I were you -- but I'll simply say that if Chicago walks away with the big prize, I won't complain in the least.

Great films -- "masterpieces," we like to call 'em -- are too often confused with serious films. It's been a long-standing complaint that the Academy Awards by and large ignore comedic, lighter works for biopics, dramas, and other hand-wringing social topics. Critics can be susceptible to this as well. A film like Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven gloriously dazzles us for a couple hours, but, well, it couldn't have been that hard to do, right? I mean, it looked like it was fun to make -- how hard could it have been, then?

Chicago has suffered from some of the same wrongheaded thinking. Rob Marshall's transformation of the legendary stage musical has to be one of the most assuredly fun experiences ever concocted. Fans of the original can pick apart the changes -- Is Richard Gere better as Billy Flynn than James Naughton was? Why didn't they include "My Own Best Friend"? Let them; I'll take the movie, a work that staggered for years to get made under several big-name directors and screenwriters until they came up with what we now have.

On paper, it didn't look promising. Rob Marshall: Who the hell's that? The guy who directed Annie on television? Adapted by Bill Condon, he of the overrated Gods and Monsters? Starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Gere -- three actors who hardly guarantee a satisfying product?

And yet, Chicago is a stunner from beginning to end, proof that masterpieces can entertain and astound as much as they move us or illuminate the human condition. It's a timely reminder that while sometimes great films come from consummate artists and dedicated geniuses, sometimes they are a miraculous combination of all the elements coming together perfectly at the exact right time. After all, who knew how much fun Zellweger would have shedding her cutie-pie image and becoming a sexy, nasty little charlatan of a celebrity? Who could have guessed that the way to bring back the movie musical was not to postmodern it to within an inch of its life, but to figure out how to preserve the integrity of the original while streamlining the narrative? And how great is it to see John C. Reilly, a lump of a nice-guy stereotype bordering on self-parody at this point, fully redeem a year of monotonous performances as the put-upon husband with a terrific rendition of "Mister Cellophane"?

With Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, there was a notion that the modern movie musical had to separate itself as much as possible from its predecessors to not seem utterly antiquated and lame. The trick was to cut the sequences together like it was MTV, not to worry about the choreography so much, focus on contemporary songs, and give the audience a sense of movement by keeping the sucker moving as fast as possible. Chicago's success flies in the face of all that. It proudly is a throwback to another era, although it has an energy and wit to it that suggests it's lost none of its edge. The result is a musical where the song-and-dance numbers and the set pieces stand side by side. Howard Hawks once said a great movie had three great scenes and no bad ones. Chicago has at least five great ones -- and those are just the musical numbers. The damn thing is so life-affirming and giddy with pure enjoyment it makes you float out of the theater. If this is so easy to accomplish, why can't anyone else seem to do it?


*BT*