2002: The Year in Movies

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Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2003 5:19 PM

2002: The Year in Movies

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Just when we're all hitting our stride with the films of 2002, the Movie Club must end: The films of 2003 beckon. Last night I saw The Son ("Miraculous!"—A.O. Scott, the New York Times) and you know what? It was indeed miraculous that a 103-minute movie could be shot entirely from behind someone's ear. I liked it, though; and I wondered if the sensory deprivation that the audience experiences (most of the film is shot with a hand-held camera just behind the protagonist's head) is the price for its astonishing (or do I mean "Astonishing!"?) payoffs. I don't want to review the movie here (I'll get paid more if I do it in a separate review), but I think that much of its power has to do with agonizingly deferred gratification—a protagonist who's opaque (even his eyes are hidden behind thick glasses) and a climactic confrontation that might, in an American movie, have come in the first 15 minutes. I had a professor once who said that as Chekhov got older he lopped off the eventful beginnings and twist endings of his early works and that quivering middle was the mature short story. The Son is its movie equivalent. And I couldn't help thinking, as I watched, of Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to hack 20 minutes from the last act of In the Bedroom. If he were to take an ax to The Son—which is like the last act of In the Bedroom minus the conclusive violence—it would be about five minutes long.

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By "we're all hitting our stride" I also mean readers, who have sent me scores of glorious e-mails—so much of it so smart that it breaks my heart I can't post them all here. (Hey, here's a thought: Why not do something revolutionary and send it to the Movie Fray?) Every time I think I should de-list my e-mail address (the low point was when a reader said he "only wished harm on me and my family" because I didn't like The Mummy 2—although there were some spooky, anti-Semitic rants on the subject of The Pianist), I get mail from high-school students like Ben Jolley or college critics like Todd VanDerWerff that makes me … sniff … so hopeful about the future of movies. (And thanks to Bea Lee for asking why, if Bill the Butcher hates the Irish so much, they're the only people he seems to hang out with?) The audience is not de-evolving.

It is, perhaps, fragmenting. But I wouldn't mind if, a la H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, we eventually split into two races. The Morlocks can have their Mummy 2 and the rest of the "franchises"—no, that's unfair. If blockbusters like Men in Black 2 and Mr. Deeds made me ill with their whacking obviousness, both The Lord of the Rings and (whatever its compromises) Spider-Man were honest labors. Hell, I liked Star Trek: Nemesis. If there's less overlap between the audience for blockbusters and for indie pictures than we hope, there is more than we fear. And if digitalization ends up making distribution more economical, it's possible that movie lovers in smaller cities and towns will have more access than ever before to the year's best. Then we critics really wouldn't be "obscurantist."

Speaking of elitism, obscurantism, etc., I feel bad that we haven't spent much time on Far From Heaven, which some people liken to a big doll house (or doll museum) and others find overwhelmingly pure. My mail is running about 50-50. I agree with Richard Cobeen, whose wife had never seen a Douglas Sirk picture and thought she'd find the movie cold, but who came away with tears running down her face. I can't not respect the people (some friends of mine among them) who found the movie a sterile exercise with unduly constricted characters; I hope they respect that some of us simply melted in the face of its beauty and found Todd Haynes' horror of the period perfectly balanced by the passion of his homage. Or, as Chris Wisniewski put it, "It converts subtext to text without losing any of the subtlety of Sirk, and while it inverts that subversion of genre, it still somehow manages to feel relevant and moving." (I don't know precisely what he's saying, but I know in my heart it speaks for me.)

This has been a strange but I think very productive Movie Club. We have really seen where we differ on Adaptation and About Schmidt. On the former, I'm with Doug Lane, who says the ending pasteurizes and homogenizes both the protagonist and the movie; but I now understand better what people like Andrew Lindemann Malone mean when they write of the final act: "The clichés themselves, even as one laughs at their sudden eruption, do have an emotional resonance, as stupid and lazy as they are. Even as they compound the problems of the exposition and development, at some basic emotional level, they relieve them. The movie, itself, has adapted to the forces that shape it, just as each of its characters have; it has lost something, and gained something, and moved on." William Driver mounts a nice defense of About Schmidt that would have you nodding, Sarah, up until his last paragraph: "It is then—That Moment—when Schmidt realizes that his life has been a meaningless, unfruitful, unrewarding, thankless trip. Life is a superficial journey to which we try to give meaning, but ultimately fail. Just like movie critics trying to give sage meaning to sageless travesties like Adaptation."

Thank you, Roger, wherever you are. Thank you, Sarah, for pointing out that Chicago, in its desperation to steamroller the audience, is devoid of the sinuousness that made much of Fosse memorable. (It is the quiet moments of Pippin, for example, that have stuck with me since 1972.) Thanks, Tony, for a description of a dinner party with the French that will supply me with ammunition against my Francophile wife for years to come.

I'm not sympathetic to those who find the very idea of movie criticism "elitist." My mail suggests that both reading and writing criticism is a natural impulse for people who spend as much time at the movies as many of us do. It's the converse that I worry about: people who use movies and TV as drugs to shore up their narcissism, and who find neither excitement nor pleasure in examining the complexity of their own responses. In this regard, I hope, it was not just the movies that spoke about "liberation from the prism of egoism," but the Movie Club.

Egoistically yours,

David

P.S.: Matthew Singer liked it when I named Life Is Beautiful the worst movie of the year two years in a row. OK, the fact that I thought about it for a millisecond while watching The Pianist makes it the worst film of 2002 as well. Happy?

Roger Ebert is the Chicago Sun-Times' film critic. David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can e-mail him at movies@slate.com. Sarah Kerr is Vogue's film critic. A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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