The Year in Movies

Turning Japanese
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2004 8:04 AM

The Year in Movies

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Good morning everyone,

This is being dashed off so early in the a.m. it's bound to have some free-associational interest. I appreciate Tony's illuminating juxtaposition of Angels in America with The Barbarian Invasions—though I'm more convinced by criticism of Kushner than praise for Arcand. Perhaps I'm missing the richness of Arcand's dialogue; I also miss an absence of visionary excess. The allegory is too constrained—given Arcand's background and early interests, the failure of Quebecois nationalism (and not just the '60s) has to be his great unacknowledged subject.

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Angels can be dangerously sentimental and has more than its share of straw men and women, but Invasions is blatantly mawkish as well as a virtual reservation for the dimensionally impaired. Say what you will about Kushner's villains, his Roy Cohn is a sensational character and a red-meat role—witness Pacino's lip smacking perf. Anyway, since this isn't the Made-for-TV Movie Club, I'll digress. Like much of what appears in The New Yorker, Louis Menand's "Talk of the Town" meditation on year-end 10-best lists struck me as earnest clucking. (Consider the hilarious evisceration that could have been written on the subject by a true stiletto man like James Wolcott.) But then, it wasn't my 10-best list Menand deigned to critique. The whole thing reminds me a wonderfully egregious Socialist Realist painting showing a trio of heroic workers taking their lunch break and avidly reading a single newspaper. The title is something like They're Writing About Us in Pravda! (I warned you this would be free-associational.)

Having already been denounced twice—although not at this particular free-for-all—as part of the all-male dog pack that mugged the noble hind of In the Cut, I have no particular desire to revisit, jackal-like, the scene of the crime. The movie's flaws are as evident as its ambitions; it seems likely that partisans may love it precisely because of those flaws—which is one definition of a cult film. (Guy Maddin's Dracula:Pages From a Virgin's Diary is another. Any takers?) Elsewhere on the correctness front, I'm wondering what y'all thought of the front page piece in last Sunday's "Arts & Leisure" section—a perfect trifecta, dissecting the exploitation of Japan and Japaneseness in The Last Samurai, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Lost in Translation. The writer made many good points but, unless I missed it, failed to note that, judging from these examples, American cultural superiority is quite tenuous. Each in its own wistful way, these movies attempt to re-energize American pop by appropriating the vitality of East Asia.

Since TheLast Samurai is walking around with a big, self-affixed "Kick Me" sign, I won't revisit its operetta politics. (Gen. Douglas MacArthur would be a rabid Communist in Ed Zwick's looking glass.) Like David, I enjoyed Kill Bill although I was left disappointed. Quentin Tarantino is still the smartest filmmaker in Hollywood, albeit obnoxiously anxious to let you know it. For the first time, however, he seems a victim of the system. Cut down to size and pathetically deprived of structural complexity, Kill Bill can't help but seem trivial—even if it does become the greatest "director's version" DVD cult movie of all time. Lost in Translation, which handily won the Village Voice alt.critics' poll over Elephant, is a more mysterious creature. To judge from responses I've gotten, critics have definitely oversold the movie (perhaps because they themselves were pleasantly surprised). Frankly, I expected to hate it and was completely disarmed—it even worked on a second viewing.

Sofia Coppola's bratty sense of entitlement is undeniable—but so is her claim to dramatizing this particular sort of father-daughter love story. The "lip my stocking" scene is gratuitously stupid—but the movie is remarkably subtle, and Japanese, in basing its narrative in unacknowledged feelings. (My review hyperbolically invoked Naruse.) Even more amazing is Coppola's decidedly un-Tarantinian pop culture romance. I think Tony has noted this, but I'll ditto: For me, the most poignantly self-reflexive, emotionally complicated moment in any Hollywood movie this year was Bill Murray's (or rather, "Bill Murray's") decade-collapsing, sincerely off-key karaoke version of "More Than This."

Party on,
Jim

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