The Year in Movies

Top 10 Lists All Around!
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 5 2004 3:07 PM

The Year in Movies

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Dear friends,

As I was waiting for your e-mails this morning, I happened upon this piece, in which Louis Menand breezily mocks the conventions of year-end list-making (without, of course, deigning to suffer what he rightly calls the "anguish" of making his own list). The piece is funny and well worth reading, if a bit glib. He seemed troubled that the Times published three separate lists this year, containing 24 different films (none of which made all three lists) and that the three critics in question (Elvis Mitchell, Stephen Holden, and myself) amiably argued, in the pages of the "Arts & Leisure" section, about some other movies, a spectacle he likened to "watching your parents fight."

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All I can say is, if his sensibilities are ruffled by disputation and multiplicity, he'd better stay off the Internet in early January. If that page of "Arts & Leisure" was like a parental quarrel, then this Movie Club may well resemble the family reunion where your grandpa backed the Lincoln into the swimming pool and your great aunt pulled a gun on your second cousin. Not only that. If three list-making critics give Menand vertigo, what will he make of the 10-best lists compiled at moviecitynews.com? There are around 200 from every imaginable newspaper, magazine, and Web site, and they've all been digested into an unreadable but nonetheless fascinating chart that has occupied my attention for much of the past two weeks.

And it also obliterated any sense I once had of my own individuality, since even my most obscure choices show up on at least 10 other people's lists. On the other hand, I find myself drawn into strange communities of taste, in which I find myself agreeing with some of the people I think of myself as having least in common with, and violently at odds with some of the critics I respect and admire most—like, um, you, Manohla, and you, Jim.

I guess my point is that our conversation, which tends to be the high point of my year, is part of a much larger, endlessly contentious, and chaotic movie discourse. Louis Menand finds this dismaying—a further Zagatization of a culture that above all needs authoritative criticism—but I can't agree. Especially when this year has produced so many movies worth arguing about. You may be right, Sarah, that the overall quality was weaker than last year, when we had Talk to Her and The Pianist and Spirited Away and Punch-Drunk Love, but this deficit may have been made up for in intensity of debate. There were more movies out there this year that seemed worth fighting about—not just politely admitting to differences in opinion over, but really defending or attacking, tooth and nail. In the past few months, I've had heated exchanges, verbally and over e-mail, with friends, colleagues, and readers, about Mystic River, Love Actually, The Triplets of Belleville, Elephant, Fog of War, Something's Gotta Give, Kill Bill, In the Cut, and 21 Grams. That's quite a range of movies to be vexed about, and the disputes have covered just about every aesthetic, ideological, and moral base imaginable. I must say I'm looking forward to more, in particular to defending Barbarian Invasions from Jim's disdain.

Meanwhile, Sarah, I'll take your Big Fish bait. In a year of dying parents and imperiled children, this was one case where I wished the man would just hurry up and die. The narcissism of Edward Bloom was so suffocating, and so thoroughly endorsed by the movie—which made the poor, decent son into the deficient one in the relationship, rather than his monstrously selfish dad—that I wanted Billy Crudup to slap a pillow on Albert Finney's face and be done with it. Would you really want to spend two hours in the elder Bloom's company, much less marry him or be his child? I also found the movie's conflict-free nostalgic Americana oppressively Gump-y. (Gosh, Alabama in the '50s and '60s sure was a swell and happy place!) In America, of course, was in its own way just as sentimental, and just as prone to a slightly soft magic realism, but I minded it much less (actually I really went for it, though less rapturously than some), because of the acting, the modesty of the direction, and because I'm a sucker for romantic views of New York, for precocious children, and for anything to do with E.T.

The child-in-peril theme is certainly the dominant one this year, and by the time I got to House of Sand and Fog I felt thoroughly oppressed by it and found myself thinking back fondly on movies that viewed children as resourceful and resilient as well as scared and anxious and that showed their relationships with adults to be more complex and two-sided than protector/predator and prey: I'd mention Spellbound and Finding Nemo and Être et Avoir, and also Holes and Freaky Friday. Spellbound and Friday (which did have a dead parent, I realize, but only because divorce has lately become a renewed source of skittishness in Hollywood and because the plot was already plenty complicated without a Dad in the picture) showed that the parent-child relationship is full of dramatic potential even—or maybe especially—when there is no mortal peril. Those movies also affirm what the others deny, which is that most American children live in cocoons of safety and privilege, or are at least fed, sheltered, and encouraged to believe that they can accomplish great things. Of course, there are reckless drivers and sexual predators and serial killers and brain tumors (and, for all I know, white-slaving Indian brujos as in The Missing), but to look at Bus 174 or In This World or The Magdalene Sisters is to be confronted with an inequality that some of those child-in-peril melodramas actually, though inadvertently, work to deny, which is that the lives of children elsewhere are imperiled not by random evil or ill fortune but by structural and institutional cruelties that we can hardly imagine.

But on to the comedy deficit! This is ground we've gone over before, but I think things looked up a bit this year. Also, Sarah, I love your No. 10 pick. What was your favorite part, the bit where Ludivine Sagnier performs topless brain surgery on Patricia Clarkson or Russell Crowe's uncanny impersonation of an angry French dwarf?

All the best,
Tony

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