Feeling Better About the Year's Movies Than Anticipated
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 2 2002 2:13 PM

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Dear David, Jonathan, Roger, and Sarah,

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Nice to be here, and sorry to show up so late. I spent the first week of this "Movie Club" on a misguided family jaunt to the White Mountains, getting thrown from a horse-drawn sleigh and watching many episodes of Spongebob Squarepants on motel cable—far from ringing telephones, copy editors, screening rooms, and the Internet. All in all, it's nice to be back, and it was invigorating to read David, Jonathan, and Roger's postings on AI, In the Bedroom, Black Hawk Down, and related matters. I hardly know where to begin—do I join David in piling on Larry Clark? Defend my admiration for AI and my enjoyment of Freddy Got Fingered? Enter the debate on Black Hawk Down or join the chorus of praise for Gosford Park and Ghost World?

All of the above, if time allows. For now, a thought on vigilantism and In the Bedroom. David, when I noted that your extravagant admiration for a movie that looks sympathetically (if also uneasily) on extra-legal revenge killing seemed to go against your eloquent and principled criticisms of the glorification of such violence in movies and elsewhere, I was trying to provoke you a little. (After reading last week's exchange, I'm glad I did). I agree with you and with Roger that the film is more complex than such an interpretation allows—Tom Wilkinson is not Charles Bronson—but I do think that the way the story is told raises some ethical questions, as well as questions of plausibility. In the Bedroom depends on our belief that a mild-mannered, Saab-driving Maine doctor—also a veteran, as that shot of his license plate makes clear—would commit an act of premeditated violence. At a few key points, I think the movie, otherwise a model of subtlety and suggestiveness, manipulates our sympathies. There's the indifference of the prosecutor, for one thing: When the socially designated instruments of justice are so cavalier, how can a decent fellow not take the law into his own hands? The son's killer, furthermore, is both a brawling badass AND the son of the family that owns the local cannery, which gives the grieving father, and the audience, a double helping of class animus—contempt for an unruly white-trash type and resentment of a spoiled rich kid. The deck feels a little stacked to me. Also, I thought the title was a reference to lobster fishing.

It's interesting, in the year-end flurry of list-making, award-giving, and movie-clubbing, to see which consensuses, or at least clusters of opinion, take shape. This year's flurry has me, so far, feeling better about both the year's movies and my fellow critics than I would have anticipated. Notwithstanding the myopic refusal to see AI for the masterpiece of nightmare humanism that it is, the overpraising of the pedestrian Shrek (inferior to both Monsters, Inc. and Spy Kids), and the resuscitation of the cult of David Lynch, the members of our profession seem to be displaying remarkable good sense—by which I mean, of course, that a lot of them seem to think as I do. I'm pleased that The Gleaners and I, Sexy Beast, and Ghost World are in so many top 10s, and I'm also happy to see movies that just missed my list—Monster's Ball, Lantana, Waking Life, The Devil's Backbone, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (my conflict-of-interest movie of the year, since the music and lyrics—the absolutely brilliant music and unforgettable lyrics, I mean to say—were written by one of my best friends)—found their way onto other lists.

Was it a good year for movies? Jonathan, you're right to caution against making pronouncements about the state of the art based on such partial information. It depends on what you mean by good, what you mean by movies (does it count if it was shown first on television? shot on video?), and what you mean by year. (Tsai Ming-Liang's The River, completed in 1998, at last received a brief and little-noticed commercial release in New York last June; his new movie, What Time Is It There, showed at the Cannes and New York festivals and will be released, I hope to more attention, later this month. For me, these were both 2001 movies since that's the year I saw them, which is of course an absurd criterion. And what about Apocalypse Now Redux?) Looking back, I'm astonished—almost overwhelmed—at how many good movies I saw this year and frustrated at how little time there was and will be to give all of them the sustained thought and conversation they deserve. In any case, the afterglow of The Legend of Rita, The Lord of the Rings, and The Man Who Wasn't There, to take three wildly different examples, chases away the grouchiness occasioned by Pearl Harbor, K-PAX or A Beautiful Mind.

Roger, I admit I was shocked when, on a single episode of your TV program, you praised Beautful Mind and then knocked Iris for failing to be true to its subject. Now, I think Iris is a thin, self-satisfied movie, and I share your dismay that Murdoch's novels, so rich in character, incident, and ideas, have been neglected by filmmakers. (After GosfordPark, which is in effect the movie that Merchant and Ivory have been failing to make for the last 20 years, I would love to see Altman tackle The Philosopher's Pupil or The Book and the Brotherhood.) But Iris at least makes some attempt—a plodding, piecemeal attempt, to be sure, overly reliant on the charisma of Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent—to get something of John Bayley's book onto the screen. A Beautiful Mind, in contrast, jettisons the story of John Nash almost entirely—even the chronology of his illness is fudged—in order to make him into a palatable sentimental hero.

It's not the inaccuracy I mind so much as what I take to be the motive behind it, which is based on a mistrust of the audience's intelligence and a fear of ambiguity. I'm more than a little bothered that the filmmakers seem to have assumed that Nash's bisexuality, his peculiar political opinions, and the fact that he fathered a child out of wedlock would have interfered with our sympathy for the character. I think these and other omitted facts would have made a stronger movie with a more interesting, more complex character at its center. The movie that resulted has its virtues—including Russell Crowe's ferociously concentrated performance and those lovable imaginary friends—but I can't overlook the cowardice at its heart.

Something similar bothers me about Black Hawk Down, a movie whose cinematic coherence—I was amazed at how rigorously its action was embedded in time and space, at how clearly it mapped the chaos of combat—is not matched by intellectual clarity. The comparison to Three Kings is inescapable (not least because at least one scene—interrogation of a wounded Wahlberg by a smooth-talking enemy officer—is a blatant rip-off). That movie offered a way of thinking about the complexities of American military action, whereas Scott's makes the refusal to think appear to be the very substance of heroism.

That's enough for now. Sarah, Roger, and David's latest posts have arrived as I was writing this one, suggesting new wrinkles and fresh topics.

Until later,
Tony

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.