The Year in Movies

Out Here in L.A.
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 9 2004 10:43 AM

The Year in Movies

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Dear Sarah, Jim, Tony, and David,

I will be out of the house for much of the day attending screenings of the anime film Tony mentioned earlier, Tokyo Godfathers, and the latest (I think) from Guy Maddin, The Saddest Music in the World. Maddin's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary was one of the highlights of my past year; it's amazing how fresh and innovative his witty gloss on pre-studio system filmmaking looks. Another highlight was Unknown Pleasures, and following Jim's advice, I will now chant its director's name—Jia Zhangke, Jia Zhangke, Jia Zhangke. But I want to point out that the film's American distributor, the redoubtable New Yorker Films, didn't bother to open it or another of its better recent acquisitions, Abderrahmane Sissako's Waiting for Happiness, in Los Angeles. Likewise, Women Make Movies chose not to open Jennifer Dworkin's remarkable Love & Diane, arguably the best documentary of last year, in my city. Living in the boonies really can be a drag.

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Jim, I wish I could read your piece that pits Bus 174 against the loathsome City of God, yet another exploitation flick in art-house drag. I guess you could level the same charge against Gus Van Sant's Elephant, but I was too floored (yes, stunned) by the movie to agree that it's purely (or impurely) exploitative. In some ways the film just doesn't make "sense" (among other things, the Bela Tarr influence is both obvious and inexplicable), but I was smitten by the film's beauty and its elegiac, heartbreaking tone. For me the film is, at heart, about the devastating loss of these beautiful children. I don't think Van Sant has a clue either why Columbine happened (I share his ignorance, despite that bully Michael Moore) or what can be done to stop another similar tragedy, other than ridding this country of easily accessible guns and, well, loving one another much more. Van Sant isn't an intellectual, but there's no doubt in my mind that he's one of our most important filmmakers.

Until now I've avoided jumping into the Tarantino discussion, in part because I was really depressed by Kill Bill—Vol. 1. It gave me no pleasure to give that film an unenthusiastic review. I think that Tarantino is capable of greatness, which he proved with his best and most unfairly received film, Jackie Brown. But I have always thought that most if not all of his movie-genius, such as it is, exists more on the page than on screen. Like Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorite American filmmakers, and unlike Paul Thomas Anderson, whose work alternately thrills and dismays me, Tarantino isn't a natural born filmmaker. He has some wonderful (literal) moves, but he's still learning where to put the camera, and there's a kind of forced, awkward quality to his mise-en-scène, as if he were trying to remember some great shot he once watched and loved. I have no problem with that—he certainly can hit the cinematic sweet spot—but I don't think his work has the flow and grace of either Anderson or Martin Scorsese. (Yes, Anderson cribs from Scorsese, among others, but he's also a natural.) I think Tarantino's genius is for dialogue, for situational black comedy, for violence, and for something more intangible—he makes his movies and "the movies" seem exciting. There is something about a Tarantino film that feels really electric—waiting for one of his movies to start reminds me of being at a rock concert and waiting for the guitarist to let out the first lick. And because Tarantino does love movies, he wants us to feel that love as strongly as he does—he works hard for our pleasure.

I love that about Tarantino, but I don't think that has anything to do with how smart he is, cinematic or otherwise. And I still believe that Steven Spielberg is the greater, better director, even if he does love himself more than he does "the movies"—perhaps because he mistakenly believes he is "the movies." I wish that Spielberg worked as hard to make us happy as Tarantino does; with Spielberg, I feel as if I'm supposed to take it on faith that he's a genius. There's much that I don't like about Spielberg—paying thousands for one of the sleds from Citizen Kane while refusing to write even one check for Orson Welles, and the gas-chamber that poured water, not Zyklon B, in Schindler's List—but I love him nonetheless. And I think that he's been pushing himself in really interesting ways these last years; if you lop off the idiotic, sell-out ending of Minority Report, there's a future masterpiece waiting for you/us. But back to Tarantino: I think he has been damaged both by his success and his own self-mythologizing. I don't think the filmmaker-as-rock-star thing was good for him; I don't think all the articles, the books, the magazine covers (some of which I wrote, alas) were healthy. Certainly they were not conducive to his growth as an artist. There's something a little bit charming and something very dismaying about him retreating into B-and-Z movie fandom after Pulp Fiction, when he went around lecturing on the genius of the likes of William Witney, who directed some Roy Rogers flicks. The geeks lap this nonsense up, in part because the democratization of movies is very comforting—in this view, everyone is a genius and every movie is great. I don't buy that, and I don't really think that Tarantino buys this, which I believe Kill Bill—Vol. 1 proves. The most interesting thing about the film is that it's his attempt to make the ultimate movie of its kind, which is why I think Uma is really Quentin in the film—she/he is going to kick the ass of every cinematic stand-in that comes her/his way. She/he is going to kick Vivica A. Fox/Pam Grier's ass and Roger Corman's ass and Seijun Suzuki's ass and Kenji Fukasaku's ass.

I wish I could go on, but Tokyo Godfathers await. Thank you, David, for inviting me into your cool club, and thanks to you and Jim and Sarah and Tony for putting up with my rants, bad jokes, and meandering missives. It's been an honor and a privilege.

Love,
Manohla

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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