Critical Gush

The Year in Movies

Critical Gush

The Year in Movies

Critical Gush
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2004 10:11 AM

The Year in Movies

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Dear cine-friends,

Of course, since I wrote my last dispatch about Tony, my divulged e-mail and In the Cut, I have been anguishing over the fact that I probably insulted him and he won't want to sit with me at the next Cannes. What people may not know is that a surprising number of film critics are friends or at least friendly; some, of course, are sworn enemies, but a number are engaged in regular discussion. The only reason that this is worth sharing is that it helps explain, if only a little, how criticism works in this country. (I'm fond of showing people what's behind the curtain.) There are all sorts of pressures, many unspoken and unacknowledged, that come with being a movie critic. There are agendas, ideologies, career factors, grudges, et cetera, at work. And, indeed, part of the reason I chided Tony about Campion is that I'm all too aware that what I write can affect someone's career. I hate that. I don't want to think about a filmmaker's mortgage, children's college funds, whether they will ever work in this town again. I just want to write a review, no strings attached. It's a fantasy, but one I cling to fiercely.

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Excuse my rambling, but until this morning the discussion, though very interesting (and addicting), has been all over the place. Given the past year and that there were no major touchstone films or great big bones of contention, I guess I'm not surprised. But I am a bit worried. We can knock movies until we drop, but if we can't collectively get fired up in favor of a particular movie, much less "the movies," what does that say about the state of the art? I had a really tough time coming up with a top-10 list this year because I didn't feel terribly passionate about the new movies I saw. Sure, I liked and even loved a few films (a very few), but I only swooned hard for Au hasard Balthazar and Le Cercle Rouge. Both are wonderful (and I'd seen both before), but Balthazar was released in 1966 and Cercle in 1970. I resist the notion that movies (especially American movies) were better, say, in the 1970s than they are now, because beneath my hardboiled exterior beats the heart of a true believer. I really want to believe that a great movie awaits me, if not at Sundance, then surely at Cannes.

Which leads me to Sarah's most recent dispatch. Tony, I know that many men love a good catfight, but I'm not going to fight with Sarah. And, Sarah, I'm not going to defend Mystic River. Many people have written eloquently on the movie, and all I would be doing was matching your tit for my tat. (That doesn't sound right, but you know what I mean.) In the end, whether you like the movie or not (and I believe that David also likes it) just comes down to taste—you know, different strokes, blah blah blah. What I'm more interested in is the point you raise in this sentence: "In a way my quarrel is not so much with the film, which is mostly solid and professional and clearly one of the better entertainments of the fall, as with its reception." No shit! I loved Eastwood's movie when I saw it at Cannes and wept copious tears (while sitting next to the N.Y. Times boyz, let me add gratuitously), but when the reviews and the gush started to pour forth, I just winced. What movie—even a movie as fine and as occasionally powerful as Mystic River—could live up to that hype? I understood when my non-critic friends started complaining, "Well, it wasn't that great." Cuz it ain't, and neither is Lost in Translation, the other most overrated movie of the past year. Nice movie, even if it owes nearly its entire look, flow, almost-love-affair and that last unheard whisper to Wong Kar-wai.

Which makes me wonder: Why did Tarantino get hammered for ripping off a zillion other filmmakers when Ms. Coppola got a free ride?

Meanwhile, don't you all think that the Japanese influence we've seen in American movies this past year has a lot to do with the fact that the center of the cinematic world—the thrilling and unexpected center of the cinematic world—has in the last few decades shifted East? Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, and my beloved Wong Kar-wai, along with Tsai Ming-liang, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the occasionally insufferable Takashi Miike, and a host of other filmmakers from Taiwan, the People's Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, and Thailand are what make attendance at foreign film festivals an absolute must these days. Like us, Tarantino and Sophia Coppola have clearly been paying attention.

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That's it for now. I've got to go review Dog Days, an Austrian movie with a lot of naked, pasty white people in it, but when I return later this afternoon I will try to take on Jim's formidable posting.

Love,
Manohla

P.S.: My pal Wesley Morris, a film critic for the Boston Globe, sent me an e-mail last night that I wanted to share. (I asked for and receive his permission to quote him, btw.):

It's late, and I need to sleep, but this is the only way to get my two cents in. But to answer your question: I think a lot of critics do fear dealing with movies' politics. I'm not sure if it's the muddle that Tony describes or some kind of editorial pressure, but as movies are inherently political, we have a responsibility to consider the politics. Why should that be any less our goal than assessing its entertainment value? I'm a black, gay man, and I'd like to think my filter tends to allow less bullshit to pass without seeming enslaved to notions of political correctness. Then, I'm someone who actually liked Cold Mountain for daring not to go into the slavery business. I mean I just don't think Minghella's smart enough and the movie he's made big enough to parse out the politics.

To the film's immense credit, slavery is this non-philosophical, abstract condition that seeps into the movie. The subtext without no name and no face, much as some wagers and opponents of the Civil War tamped slavery into the conflict's subtext. Moreover, it's necessary to remember that the strains of personal history that the movie fantasized—soldiers straining to make it back to their women—was real and this movie realizes it in a manner I found moving. Would I like to see the Civil War from the blacks' point of view? More than anything. But who's going to tell that story?

And here's where I get frustrated: not in the telling of Cold Mountain, but in the dispiriting lack of alternative perspectives. And that is the heartbreak of going to the movies this year: the utter homogenization of everything. There was a diversity of stories, but so few diversity of people. I really wanted, for instance, to like In the Cut just for its balls, but it was hard for me not to see Meg Ryan's student lover as a sex-threat because that's how movie ended him up, after promising to make a more complex figure of him. Campion pushes him into a box of black male virility that goes largely unredeemed, so that by the time we've left him he seems less than human, and I think Campion baits us into thinking about his function as sexualized-racialized concept, which, again, is brave but insane. But forget that: what about the nasty use of Derek Luke in Pieces of April or Japan in The Last Samurai or Cuba in Bad Boys 2? Although I'm still trying to figure out why Benny was the most virile-seeming male in Elephant. Kill Bill, Vol. 2, with its mongrelizing, was amazing in small part for its multiculti interfacing. Still, this was another terrible year for non-whites in American movies—although you might argue it was a bad year for whites, too, but, hey they at least had their bad time on screen.

Each year, film critics gather in the "Movie Club" to chew on the year in film. This year's group includes Manohla Dargis from the Los Angeles Times, David Edelstein from Slate, J. Hoberman from the Village Voice, Sarah Kerr from Vogue, and A.O. Scott from the New York Times. Hoberman is the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.