The Year in Movies

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Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 9 2004 12:38 PM

The Year in Movies

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Dear Friends,

I join you, for the last time, having just completed one of the grimmest tasks in the daily newspaper critic's repertoire of chores, the Friday-for-Saturday review. (Count yourselves lucky, you weekly, monthly, and Webbily employed.) Every so often, a motion picture comes along of such exquisite quality that the releasing studio decides that to show it to critics in advance would spoil its delicate beauty, and so said critics must rise early on opening day, sit through the masterpiece in question (in this case My Baby's Daddy), and then hurry off to write the review in time for the next day's paper. In some ways, I suppose, this is a throwback to the old days, when movie critics, like their theater-reviewing colleagues, would attend the premiere and then rush back to the newsroom at midnight (often still in their tuxedos), decoct a pitcher of martinis, and pound out their considered judgments on manual typewriters in time for the morning editions of the paper.

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Were those days better? Some would say so, but there was no Movie Club back then, which can only mean that the lives of movie critics (and, whatever some Fraymooks might say, their readers) could only have been duller and sadder. I know that mine will be when this is over and we all make our lonely ways through another year of unexpected delights and inevitable disappointments. I can hardly wait to fight about Dogville, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, and whatever else 2004 has in store for us. But in the meantime, a few final thoughts on the year just ended and on what you all had to say about it.

Jim and Manohla, I would happily join in your chant in praise of Jia Zhangke if I could pronounce the man's name or stay awake through his movies. Actually, I did admire Platform for its attempt to dramatize the slow, incremental process of historical change (one of my favorite things for movies to do). But the glum remove of its characters was off-putting and began to seem, in Unknown Pleasures, somewhat mannered. I did love Guy Maddin's Dracula and Decasia, and I'm struck by the persistence of an avant-garde at once embracing the new capacities of digital video and rediscovering old stuff like silence (or near-silence, as in both Maddin's film and the classical, Keaton-esque sight gags in Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention), black-and-white, the stationary camera (Tsai Mingliang's Goodbye Dragon Inn and also, of course, the Paris Hilton sex tape), and the materiality of celluloid. Perhaps the emblematic instance of this was the Criterion Collection's loving and scrupulous release of Stan Brakhage's work on DVD, which will make his work accessible to more people than ever before and also, to some degree, betray it since Brakhage famously despised video. (It was his determinedly anti-video technique of dabbing coal-tar based pigments onto celluloid with his bare hands that probably caused his death).

As for Mr. Tarantino, I found Kill Bill in some ways impressive but ultimately not very interesting. Yes, he does love movies, and he has a marvelous skill at refreshing and recombining them, but I'm more than a little wary of your testimonials to his genius and your professions of love for him. I certainly admire his absence of cynicism—Kill Bill is as pure an expression of cinematic ardor as you could wish and an earnest attempt to communicate delight—but there is also an absence of genuine emotion, of connection to anything outside his pop universe, that deadens the joy. Yes, Jim, Scorsese possesses a similarly obsessive love of the medium and its touchstones, but his movies work best when his feverish immersion in the movie past allows him access not only to the formal accomplishments of old movies, but to their living content. It also helps that the movies he is most devoted to contain a deep strain of humanism, something that can't really be said of QT's canon. So Scorsese uses I Vitelloni, in Mean Streets, as a way into the question of male friendship, just as he uses Visconti's costume melodramas and John Ford's epic westerns in Gangs as a way of thinking about the dynamics of historical change. Still, I have to say that for my money, Spielberg is a better filmmaker than either Scorsese or Tarantino, though perhaps we should postpone that argument for next year, when all three may well have movies ready for the club.

Sarah, I'm also sorry we didn't get around to comedy but be assured that your grumpiness has been, for all of us, a source of delight, thanks to your unfailing wit and intellectual precision. Manohla, I'll save you a seat in the Salle Lumiere, but in the meantime I'm setting up a Web site where I can post all your private and confidential e-mails. Jim, you are both a genius and a mensch and, as such, a credit to the cause of Miramarxism.

And above all, David, thanks for hosting us, once again, at the best party of the year and for being such a great critic and such a great guy. Your next 100-proof Manhattan is on me.

Until next time,
Tony

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.

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