Peter Jackson and Jean Renoir

The Year in Movies

Peter Jackson and Jean Renoir

The Year in Movies

Peter Jackson and Jean Renoir
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2004 9:06 AM

The Year in Movies

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Hey ya:

Very late Monday greetings from the other coast. Sorry for the delay, my friends, but after a few days of not writing I was feeling way rusty. Plus, I have been trying all day, on and off, to write about Nick Broomfield's documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which I highly recommend. If nothing else the film is a welcome corrective to that art-house exploitation flick Monster, in which yet another Hollywood actress tries to prove that beneath the va va va voom lies the soul of what Jon Lovitz would call a thespian.

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Some random and unorganized thoughts:

Thanks for that link to that Louis Menand commentary, Tony. I have thought many different things about you, Elvis, and Stephen Holden, mostly flattering (really!), but I never once thought of you guys in a parental light. I generally enjoy Menand's work, despite his silly ideas about Bonnie and Clyde and a tone that sometimes seems, as with this piece, so utterly world-weary it's a wonder his words don't slide off the page from exhaustion. Somehow I imagine that if David Denby and Anthony Lane assembled top-10 lists Menand would not broadcast his condescension toward us lowly movie critics in quite the same way.

In any event, what's wrong with arguing about movies, as long as everyone refrains from (really nasty) name-calling and keeps fists tightly coiled in pocket? To me, the most depressing thing about the critical reception of The Return of the King is that so few reviewers took even slight issue with the film. I mean, it's a fine movie—overlong, occasionally boring (well, very boring), predictable, et cetera, but to judge by the reviews you would think that most American critics had just seen the face of God or at least Jean Renoir. Which leads me to another grievance: critical hyperbole. After all, Jackson's film isn't Rules of the Game, much less The Wizard of Oz. Maybe it's not just hobbits smoking da pipe weed?

And for the record, my ho-hum reaction to The Return of the King has nothing to do with my gender, and I can't believe I feel the need to even write this sentence. For starters, if I were that squeamish about gender and movies I couldn't work as a full-time critic, especially in this country. I loved The Fellowship of the Ring and was mixed on The Two Towers (which I kept calling "The Twin Towers" while writing my review, btw); alas, this last film seemed interminable. By the end, I felt as wiped out as Frodo and ready to board that ship to the hereafter; instead, I just jumped in my car and headed for home and a drink. It was boredom—and my fabulous taste—not my ovaries that determined my reaction.

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And while I'm flitting along from thought to thought: Do you think that a lot of (American) critics have become reluctant to deal with movies politically for fear of being labeled "politically correct"? I ask because it's been on my mind a lot, especially since reviewing The Last Samurai and Cold Mountain. Believe it or not, a reader accused me of being politically correct because I mentioned that in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain Ada (the character played by Nicole Kidman) exploits slave labor. The idea that mentioning slavery—in regard to a Civil War movie, no less—makes me politically correct (and therefore a liberal scold) is, I think, pitiful. I wonder if this kind of reaction explains why I sometimes pull back on matters of race and gender—that and the fact that I don't want to repeat myself. I mean, how many times can I write that this week's movie is sexist, racist, or—even in the year of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—homophobic? (I felt the same way when I was writing for the LA Weekly.) Still, that all these "isms" now seem to be off the table seems strange, don't you think?

OK, this is way longer than I meant to write, but much more enjoyable than thinking about Aileen Wuornos. So, one last thought in regard to what Sarah and Tony wrote about dead kids. I think that mainstream narrative movies, which, after all, rely heavily on melodrama, have always used dead children as a plot device, so I'm not sure that anything new and (particularly) untoward is afoot. There are dead children in films by D.W. Griffith and a dead child is central to George Cukor's wonderful 1950s multiple-hankie weepie The Marrying Kind. I don't usually like the way children, dead or alive, are treated in movies, and even good directors are susceptible to exploiting death. I didn't like how Kieslowski used the death of a child (and a husband) in Blue for that very reason, and I loathed how John Woo exploited the murder of a child in Face/Off. I wonder if the recent rage for dead children (sorry, I realize how awful that sounds) doesn't have some sort of metaphoric resonance, wherein the dead children, the ultimate innocents, stand in for the grown-ups both making and watching these movies? It is, after all, a comforting illusion that in the great drama of life we (Americans) are innocent.

Speaking of death, I have got to get back to Aileen Wuornos and "old sparky," so that's it for now.

Your pal,

Manohla

P.S.: Here's the link to my top 10.

P.P.S.: Oh, yeah; in regard to Jane Campion's In the Cut and David's comment about my "entertaining" review: David, I would much rather watch a movie that tries to break new aesthetic and thematic ground, that aspires toward the condition of art (rather bravely, too, considering Meg Ryan's trout lips), than yawn my way through the middlebrow, cello-accompanied tastefulness of a movie like Master and Commander. Campion may finally fail with In the Cut, but unlike Hollywood-hire Peter Weir she has the soul and genuine talent of an artist, and I'd rather watch her fail spectacularly than watch Weir try, yet again, to win his Oscar. I did like Russell Crowe's ponytail, though—sweet!

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.