2004: The Year in Movies

A Very Tarantino Christmas
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2005 8:46 AM

2004: The Year in Movies

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I've been looking at the feedback in the Fray and want to answer a few reader questions.

To the reader that wondered if one of my posts was missing, it is. I expect it to appear about the same time they discover the cut footage from The Magnificent Ambersons. A few of the topics I raised in it have since been referred to by David and Armond, and raised by Scott and Wesley, who didn't get the e-mail (I might summarize briefly).

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To the reader who theorized that I didn't like Sideways or About Schmidt based on my previous reviews calling M*A*S*H a disservice to our men in uniform, and Animal House a smear on academe, there's just one problem: I never reviewed either film. (Though I think M*A*S*H is one of the great American comedies and I've always enjoyed Animal House.) So you're either a) mistaken,  b) delusional, or c) a bald-faced liar. Whichever it is, I'll take it as a measure of the worth of your comments.

Scott—great to have you. I'm going to take issue with your swipe at Hotel Rwanda. You're too smart to remotely consider this in the same league with Attenborough pap. For one thing, unlike Attenborough's film about Africa, this one is about black people. I think the moral urgency in the film, the suspense-movie craftsmanship, and the finely honed anger makes it, hands down, the best political movie of 2004.

You also mentioned that you think the main problem in criticism is the struggle between editors and writers to decide what should be covered and how. Bingo. I wrote about this in the missing post. Some of what I said is that critics should be accorded the same respect as journalists who are out in the field working on a story. After all, we're the ones seeing the movies, determining how each fits into the overall picture, the ones who know which movies are getting the publicity push and which are being dumped by their distributors. But at too many publications, that experience counts for nothing. When editors say that they have to give a hyped movie prominence of place—no matter what the critic thought of it—they invariably justify the decision with, "Our readers are interested in it." All that means is that the readers have seen the ads on television or on the sides of buses and were aware of the hype surrounding the movie. In most cases, that's all the editor knew as well. Editors sit in offices, read the advance profiles (read: PR) in competing publications (pieces commissioned by other editors like themselves), and think they're responding to genuine interest about a movie rather than accumulated publicity. And so, their inevitable decision to feature the blockbuster as the lead review in their sections—again, no matter what their critics think—simply means they're serving the studios rather than their readers. I have little faith that it can change. But I think critics need to keep agitating, need to keep, in effect, asking editors, "Who's the critic here?" The reason I bring it up is because it is anything but inside baseball. It determines what you, the readers, get to read about, and whether movie criticism is independent or co-opted as another adjunct of studio publicity departments.

As someone who put both of Zhang Yimou's releases at the top of my list, I'd like to defend them. But I'm damned if I can say—to someone who's seen House of Flying Daggers and says, "so?"—why that movie is so heart-stoppingly beautiful, any more than I could play you Maria Callas singing "Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino" from Madame Butterfly and persevere past an indifferent response. I might take your pulse, but I couldn't convince you of what your senses should. I find the movie thrilling, ravishing, and finally passionate beyond expectation. And I'm moved as much by the spectacle of as controlled a director as Zhang giving himself over to the operatic intensity of the story as I am by the story itself.

Hero, maybe because it's a more formal film, is easier to defend in more concrete terms. Though strangely, in a year of supposed political engagement at the movies, I find the misreading of Hero as a celebration of brute power utterly baffling. I got a letter from a reader this morning accusing me of glorifying a movie that praised authoritarian rule. That reading is completely contradicted by the movie. The emperor who brags about enforcing the strength of his vision, who says the happiness of the one is unimportant next to the good of the many, is forced to own up to the consequences of his realpolitik by ordering the execution of a man (Jet Li) who spared his life. The next to final shot of the film is the emperor's throne in long shot, a symbol of power with the emperor nowhere in sight—in other words, absent all humanity. And diminishing the throne is the calligrapher's banner which the emperor himself has interpreted to mean that the greatest triumph for a swordsman is never to draw his sword. So by his own measure, the emperor has failed. I'd say that was pretty resonant while this country is in the maw of a leader willing to sacrifice anything for his vision while refusing to face up to the tragic consequences. Besides, nobody who's condemned the film has answered the unanswerable question—who does the title refer to?

One reader asked me what it is I liked about 13 Going on 30. I've already written about it in my 10-best list and in the section of the Voice poll on orphaned films. I'll just say that Jennifer Garner's performance has some of the cockeyed charm you found in '30s performances (she does some amazing bits of physical comedy—if it wasn't for Jamie Foxx in Ray, this would be my candidate for performance of the year), the male lead (Mark Ruffalo) is almost as charming, the picture is blessed with good second bananas— Judy Geer and Andy Serkis as sort of a hip Franklin Pangborn. And despite the conventional ending that lets Garner down, the film is genuinely sweet-spirited and captures something of what's so magic in comedies about the romance of the big city.

The same reader asks what I thought of Michael Winterbottom's Code 46. Underrated it, is what I did. I included the film in a long essay on what I saw as a trend about the new feeling of rootlessness in movies. I thought the film petered out. Seeing it again last week on DVD, I was hooked. Winterbottom uses the same trick Godard used in Alphaville, shooting on existing locations that could look like something in the future. The cinematography is just stunning. At moments, when Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton walk through Shanghai at night, the film looks like a color version of the lovely soft-edged French films of the '30s. Appropriate for a fatalistic romance set in the future. The whole thing has a transitory, drifting feel. Robbins gives the sort of performance that shows him at his best—quiet, modest, relaxed. And Morton ... even in an underwritten role, she's the most consistently amazing actress working in movies.

I was hoping that Tony or Armond would say more about The Dreamers. The comment that nailed the essence of the underwhelmed reaction came from Rob Nelson, the critic for Minneapolis' City Pages, who said that critics seemed to mistake the naiveté of the film-freak characters for the naiveté of Bertolucci. Exactly. I got the feeling, reading some of the negative reviews, that critics were embarrassed to recognize their own nascent cinephilia in the young people. The movie was a celebration of the time when you are discovering movies and they seem to contain the whole world, mixed with a rueful look back at the young people who took to the streets in Paris in May '68. Rueful because Bertolucci sees in the isolation of the three characters in a rambling Paris apartment both the freedom of that generation to create their own world and the insularity that would implode it. Like no other movie for me this year, The Dreamers was rapture from beginning to end.

And I need to say a word about Kill Bill, Vol. 2 starting with wondering whether I should ever review Tarantino again. I've done it twice now and, by my lights, failed miserably each time. I gave a middling review to Jackie Brown, which I think is a casual masterpiece with the deep relaxed feeling of late Howard Hawks like Rio Bravo or Hatari! And I was lukewarm on KBV2. There's a lot that bugs me about Tarantino. I dislike Pulp Fiction, and I hate the streak of sadism in his work (epitomized to me by the gloating over the rape of the comatose Uma Thurman in KBV1). But despite how his approach can seem strangely formal, he's got a great loopy ear for talk. To complain, as Chris did, that KBV2 is chatty is like making the same complaint of a Hawks movie. The talk is what's sensational in the movie; I kept waiting to hear what would come out of each character next. God, Michael Parks as that pimp is like a stoned Alfonso Bedoya—a rattlesnake who's been to charm school. Even the tension in the scene where the Bride discovers she's pregnant and that assassin comes into the hotel room, a scene without much dialogue, comes from the charged pauses in the actor's interchange, the way each moment and each syllable counts for what will come next—a house of cards built word by word, pause by pause. In this volume, the grisliness has the right touch (the satisfying gag of Elle's remaining eye being plucked out and then squashed like a cherry tomato between Uma's dirty toes). And finally, it's a sort of comedy about fidelity, of people who can't get free of each other emotionally and do so only knowing they are entailing great regret. There isn't a moment in it that's underfelt. Put it this way—I watched it with Stephanie and my dad on Christmas Eve, and by the end of it none of us felt we'd be tongue in cheek by saying we'd spent that night watching the story of a woman searching for her lost daughter.

So, to close this out, if I had to pick my fleeting moments this year, some would be:

Kill Bill, Vol. 2: Keith Carradine gathering himself to walk the last mile—consisting of only five steps.

13 Going on 30: Jennifer Garner looking like a rare bird as she cocks her head at the strange chirping noise (a cell phone) coming out of her raincoat.

Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle: "You know the Holocaust? ... Picture the exact opposite of that."

Last Life in the Universe: The books and records and toys swirling through the air around Sinitta Boonyasak like the toys from Mary Poppins on mad holiday.

Hero: Maggie Cheung, indolent as a cat, and as close as this age will ever get to Garbo.

The Dreamers: Garbo again. Eva Green channels Queen Christina: "I'm memorizing this roooom."

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The dark, a cloak the characters can slip into at the risk of disappearing completely.

Infernal Affairs: Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

Ray: The magic scene where young Ray learns to use his ears while his mother (the wonderful Sharon Warren) watches, torn between the mother's heartache at not being able to help him, and the mother's responsibility of allowing him to find his own way.

Ray: The silence that makes you suspect the projectionist has forgotten the sound, broken by the electric piano line of "What'd I Say."

Hotel Rwanda: Paul ties his tie.

Blissfully Yours: The camera staying contentedly on the lovers sleeping in the sun so long, you can feel the warmth of it as you watch.

All, it's been a slice
or
as Kumar says, "Thank you. Come again."

Charley

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