2004: The Year in Movies

Flight of the Movie Club
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2005 5:31 PM

2004: The Year in Movies

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Dear all,

I've been enjoying reading you all so much that I haven't felt compelled to jump in—until now, when I have to bring down the curtain on this year's monster mash.

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First, yesterday's business. Thanks, Armond: I found Flight of the Phoenix to be a terrific genre survival picture. I liked the scale of the spectacle: trim but genuinely transporting. As I watched it in Times Square with a small but appreciative audience of regular folks, I thought, "Who could not respond to this?" Of course, I'd been primed by a critic I respect; I knew going in that the picture wouldn't move the boundary posts but was eager to enjoy the simple plot, sophisticated use of color and space, and triumph over cynicism. I loved the fakey colors and the hip (sorry) synthesis of old-fangled Hollywood lighting and newfangled location shooting and technology. It's like a new romanticism. The way that John Moore isolated Giovanni Ribisi in the frame made me laugh out loud, and when Ribisi opened his mouth and that baby-fascist-nerd voice came out, I laughed harder. It's also refreshing to see Dennis Quaid's contemptuous, lone-wolf pilot proved wrong on just about every front. He becomes a hero when he starts hearing everyone else.

My only serious problem was with some of the whooshy effects. They felt more apt in Moore's last film, in which the soldier-hero was tracked by high-tech gizmos. This might be the time to say that I am LEARNING TO HATE WHOOSH. It was shocking when David O. Russell showed a bullet ploughing through organs in Three Kings—an example of the moral uses of gore. Now, it's just a mannerism, cheapened by kinky overuse on CSI and even by a series I like, the medical detective show House.

That said, there's some good whooshing in two other sensational genre pictures: Infernal Affairs and Infernal Affairs 2—absolutely first-rate, twisty, galvanic B cop movies from Hong Kong. Infernal Affairs 2 has a larger scale; it's set on the brink of the handover of Hong Kong to China and is clearly influenced by The Godfather Part II. (The third film in the Infernal Affairs trilogy doesn't work as well, although it certainly puts a cap on the whole tragic affair.)

But if I've scored some points with you for "getting" Flight of the Phoenix, Armond, I am still behind in the game, having succumbed to hetero- and homocomplacency by liking Sideways, Before Sunset, and Bad Education. The complacency thing haunts me: It's the C-word for a critic. Let me puzzle it out in relation to the plot of Bad Education. There's this hot young gay Spanish Catholic director who is looking to exploit current events for his next "underground" movie. He is visited by his first love (whom he doesn't recognize), who offers him a script about revenge—revenge on the Catholic Church officials who abused him (or his alter ego, a transvestite performer). In the end, the avenging transvestite becomes a victim of those diabolical priests once more—but wait, that's not the real story. The real story is much larger and more tangled. It involves the transvestite's younger brother's lust to get into the director's bed and to become a movie star (in part by playing on fashionable anti-Catholic impulses in the director's work), and it also implicates the director himself: He knows something's not kosher but has decided to sleep with the beautiful young man anyway. (Note to readers: I didn't put a spoiler alert on this because if you haven't seen the movie, you won't follow a word of what I've written.) OK, I'm still puzzling over how being absorbed by this unholy tangle fosters complacency. I see a director using the language of noir, Sirk, and Hitchcock (in something like Vertigo) to sort through his own exploitive impulses—and expose them.

This complacency charge is also underneath your criticism of Hotel Rwanda, Scott. You claim the movie—with its graphic atrocity footage—offers "reassurance." It's true that it's not an artfully constructed film—although the performance of Don Cheadle is a work of art, connecting the dots between the man's opportunism and his heroism. It's true that the more challenging films (and novels) are not the stories of heroism but those that threaten our moral, um, complacency (as The Pianist did) or even force us to see the world through the eyes of a collaborator (as in Louis Malle's masterpiece Lacombe, Lucien). But come on, man, cut Hotel Rwanda some slack. It's not uplift. It presents human beings doing monstrous, barbarous things to other human beings. And it does indict us, along with our media: I imagine that many Americans will watch it (if they watch it at all because the lack of "reassurance" might scare them off) thinking, "Oh my God, it took a Hollywood movie to drive home what happened there—to make it real."

I don't deny the problems you point out with Spanglish, and let me quote Alonso Duralde on another: "My parents were immigrants to this country, and I know a lot of people whose parents were also first-generation off-the-boaters. One thing that is consistent to all these émigrés is that they came to America so that their children could have a better life and more opportunities than they had had. So I had to call 'Bullshit!' when Flor pulls her daughter out of the fancy school just so the kid won't turn out different from her."

Clearly, there is much in Spanglish for audiences to debate. What isn't debatable, Scott, is the danger of sliding glass doors. I once dated a woman who walked straight into a freshly cleaned one, and you could hear her nose break a block away.

Now, for a final look at the mailbag. I feel bad that I haven't been able to quote every letter, but I'll answer as many as I can. And I invite you to meet me in "The Fray" over the next few days, where we can all get virtually drunk and talk movies.

Mike Phillips writes, in reference to Chris Kelly's worry that he had overidentified so much with Ethan Hawke's character in Before Sunset that he "couldn't maintain any real objectivity": "That's exactly the damn problem with a lot of critics: sham objectivity. He thought he over-identified with a character, so he didn't write about it. Bullshit! Write about that, how much you identified with the character. Tell us you love the film and why. If it's because you see yourself in a character, fine. Don't hide behind false objectivity, pretending that film criticism is some kind of science. You're not fooling anybody."

Alex Massie wants to know why we haven't talked about Maria Full of Grace, which indicts the U.S. war on drugs even as it celebrates the human spirit. I can't speak for the others, but I liked the movie. I'd have liked it more if I hadn't known where it was going the entire time. The freshest thing was the actor who played the community "don," who turned out—his power notwithstanding—to be the neighborhood do-gooder.

The philosophy professor Harvey Cormier has left the messy, annoying cinema (he and a friend shushed an incessant talker and got assaulted with a popcorn box) for the comfort of his living room, progressive-scan DVD player, and new HDTV. He goes on to say that modern audiences, used to watching movies at home, have no concept of social responsibility when it comes to sitting in the theater. Would this, then, be a conundrum, professor?

Mark Asch brings up Samuel Fuller, whose restored The Big Red One we didn't discuss (I liked a lot of it but found it vastly inferior to Fuller's Steel Helmets), to dispute the idea that Michael Moore and Mel Gibson are trendsetters. "No director was more of a bullying pop ideologue than Sam Fuller," he writes. "But while Fuller (and Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah, who Mr. White invokes in a different context, and other directors that people more knowledgeable than me might be able to name) applied this kind of aesthetic to genre filmmaking, Gibson and Moore are making what are essentially polemics. Outside of their respective films (and maybe Dogville), I can't really think of any other works that might indicate a trend; maybe their popularity, in a rather tumultuous year, is obscuring the compartmentalization of their style of filmmaking?"

B. Keizer suggests that this year's Zhang Yimou movies should be for a new generation what Stars Wars was for the old. And more: "Hero is perhaps the greatest essay on use of color in film since Michael Powell, and the technique did not strike me as hollow but as the natural landscape in which I experienced the glamorous and quite alive and ass-kicking and soulful emotional tussles of Maggie, Tony, Ziyi, and Jet as characters, as spirits of earth and the air and as some of the greatest film stars in the world."

Bravo to that, and to this, from Paul McDonald, which I excerpt against my better judgment to prove that I can take a good ribbing:

Greetings David, Tony, Charlie, Armond, and Stephanie,

It's such a great honor to be invited to this year's Movie Club. It's been such a long time since I had the honor of discussing movies with such intelligent and insightful critics. Actually, I lie. We all got pretty slammed last night together at dba, didn't we? David was rhapsodizing about some new single malt while Charlie was drinking from the urinal. It's rapidly turning into the place to be for us spry young Paulettes! (At least until we get an invite to David Denby's lap dance party at Scores.)

In the spirit of open disclosure, here's my top five list (long story, but needless to say, my fascist editor only let me have one print column this year):

1. Fahrenheit 9/11
2. The Passion
3. Rose Petals Falling on Tea Leaves
4. Anacondas: The Search for the Blood Orchid
5. The Incredibles

My top two choices may seem, at first, incompatible. But let me elaborate. Fahrenheit 9/11 was a shallow, simplistic piece of political propaganda by an opportunistic, mean-spirited director. At the same time, if I don't mention it, the guys at the Village Voice will revoke my Hipster Brigade Badge, and I will be banned for life from entering Brooklyn.

Similarly, The Passion was a punishing, anti-Semitic screed directed by a demagogic, self-indulgent director. At the same time, after my review prompted death threats and outraged letters, my editor gave me a raise and started calling me the next Frank Rich (could you put a word in, Tony?). In fact, my paper gave me such a huge bonus, I can finally afford to go on that wine-tasting trip in Santa Barbara with my washed-out actor friend. What a blast we'll have bedding beautiful women and mocking poor people!

Moving on, I am shocked that none of you put the little known Malaysian Buddhist fable Rose Petals Falling on Tea Leaves on your lists. Well, actually, I'm not that surprised. I was the only person in the theater at the Angelika for its onetime midnight screening. But wow! The 10-minute slow-motion shot of a rose petal falling behind a red curtain on to a red tablecloth was a breathtaking technical achievement. This powerful film by Run Wu Sun, in combination with his past masterpieces Sunrise, Sunset … Sunrise and The Wind BlowsMe as one of today's foremost directors.

I'm sure a critic as respected and bat-shit nuts as Armond will get my selection of Anacondas: The Search From the Blood Orchid.The fact that critics around the country did not laud the tender sophistication that director Dwight Little brought to this breathtaking, fast-paced film shows how hollow film criticism is these days. The mutant carnivorous snake reflects the murky contemporary anxieties found in today's taunt political environment. Take the line, stunningly delivered by Johnny Messner: "Everything gets eaten out here. It's the jungle." Messner speaks with a heavy and weary voice about the brutal consequences of "the jungle," by which he means pure hatred, unchecked aggression, and in a word, terror. What might seem like a cliché to most critics is in reality a subtle, sophisticated, and politically charged cliché.

My final movie is The Incredibles. Now, to tell you the truth, I only mildly enjoyed this movie. I made up a bunch of stuff about the state of the American family for my review, but really I just thought the animation looked neato. And while I'd much rather have put Tarnation, Bad Education, Outfoxed, or Moolaadé on my list, my editor insisted I put a movie that real people actually saw. (I put Lord of the Rings on my list last year for the same reason.) But hopefully, we can avoid talking about popular Hollywood movies like this one at the Movie Club again this year as well.

Topics for consideration: How many times can we call Jamie Foxx "underrated" until he becomes "overrated"? And at what point does Catwoman have to return her Oscar? And in the so-called "Year of the Documentary," why will no one acknowledge the subtle genius that is HBO's Pornucopia?

Yours always,
Jay Johnson
New York Bugle

As Stephanie would put it, CLONK!

Which brings us to the end of this Movie Club, which has been a little like Flight of the Phoenix: a motley, fractious group of misfits in a cultural desert trying to get an unwieldy discussion to fly while being sniped at by angry nomads. But I don't regret a line of it—only that it can't go on and on.

I'm the luckiest guy in the world getting to throw this bash every year for people I like and admire. Maybe at this one some furniture got broken, and there are one or two puke stains to scrub in the morning, but isn't that true of the best parties? Let's hope we've opened up one another's minds a bit. And let's hope we all—participants, correspondents, readers—leave here better critics, better moviegoers, better friends.

David

David Edelstein isSlate's film critic. Scott Foundas is a film critic for LA Weekly. Christopher Kelly is a film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. A.O. Scott is a film critic for the New York Times. Charles Taylor is a film critic for Salon. Armond White is the film critic for the New York Press. Stephanie Zacharek is a film critic for Salon.

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