Tony Scott is mellowing out in the tropics (with family) and has license to appear when he pleases. Moreover, as a champion of Million Dollar Baby, Birth, Before Sunset, etc., he will be somewhat on the defensive here before he posts a word. I think that Stephanie invoked him, Armond, not because he's the voice of the hallowed New York Times but because he is a judicious fellow who doesn't practice the scorched-earth criticism of, say, you and Charley. (Which is not to say, Armond, that he isn't one of your biggest fans, however much you slag him—not by name, but by implication—in his prominent role.)
I didn't review Sky Captain for Slate or NPR's Fresh Air; instead, I raved Mr. 3000 and Bernie Mac that week. But I got lots of e-mails from people who wanted to know what I thought of Sky Captain and why I hadn't written about it. I should have reviewed it, however briefly. It was a dull movie but a cultural event, and a harbinger. Remember the joke about the Broadway show that sent you home whistling the sets? It was a giant, computer-generated art project, and lots of movie directors (and studio executives) out there are eager to dispense with the building of gigantic sets (or expensive location work and its whopping star per diems) and move the whole process into the realm of animation. So, it was worth saying that nothing in Sky Captain gave me as much joy as Bernie Mac's look of panic in the middle of his first push-up in a decade, or Mac getting taunted by the team mascot, a giant sausage. (Well, I did love Angelina Jolie in Sky Captain; talk about a brilliant and unfairly maligned performer. And how ironic that the most vivid thing in the movie was an actor's hilarious World War II RAF accent!)
Armond and Charley: I feel a bit sheepish—a bit like Albert Brooks' indecisive barber—in the face of your coruscating certainties. I agree, Armond, that Birth was a failure and rather irritating in its self-important longueurs, but the critics who gave it a chance (some of them shared my enthusiasm for the same director's Sexy Beast) don't strike me as the villains of this story. I don't know that this story has villains. Certainly not the youngish, posturing alt-weekly critics who seized their moment to get in the Voice and connect the movies of the moment to an administration that fills them with dread. Michael Moore's empathy is suspect. When he Suffered for the Children after meeting with a confused Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, it was an appalling moment, and his use of the Apocalypse Now template to portray bucolic Iraq before and after the bombings was deeply disingenuous. But that doesn't mean that his outrage wasn't just. Charley, I find your politics on the subject of Iraq naive. Despite the smokescreen, our invasion of Iraq had little to do with human rights. Fact-check Michael Moore, challenge him, call him a prick (I did), but respect him for speaking out and matching the blowhards of the right huff by puff. He also helped create an appetite for documentaries like The Hunting of the President, Bush's Brain, Outfoxed, and the too-little seen The Corporation. These are not documentaries for the ages—well, The Corporation does go beyond the politics of the moment to examine the overweening conglomerate and its inherent psychosis—but they contribute to the health of this medium. Is there no room in your definition of movies for agitprop, for naked outrage, for ridicule? We sure don't get it from faux-objective TV news shows.
As for your charges against Sideways, Charley, I worry that we might be so p.c. in our tastes that we do not admit nasty satire. The fornicating couple in that movie was lusty and refreshingly perverse. The man wasn't beating the woman or charging out after her lover. They were playing a kinky game that revolved around her infidelity—good for them, and for a movie that showed us some non-vanilla sex. I was far more offended by the treatment of Hilary Swank's trailer-park kin in Million Dollar Baby. They were unrelentingly greedy and mendacious; and they didn't seem to have a drop of empathy for Swank's generous character. In an especially opportunistic piece of screenwriting, they even manifested a weirdly blueblood snobbery toward professional boxing. Even Ruth Sheen's corrupt and striving character in Vera Drake had more nuance and texture.
One last thing before I leave Sideways, Charley. You went for an easy laugh with that Rolling Rock jab. What our readers don't know is that we frequently go to one particular restaurant after screenings, and it is, among other things, a superb beer bar. There are gorgeous, gorgeous American, German, and Czech pilsners and lagers on tap, light per the style but tasty and fresh as a hop garden. And you reliably order a watery, skunked, bottled beer that you can get in any dive. I know your palate is adventurous when it comes to movies, books, and music. Why not expect you to be open to different potables? (And it's not like I'm forcing some Russian stout or lambic geuze on you.) If trying to educate your palate aligns me with the insufferable Miles, well, Miles has the right intentions. (I know, many of you are thinking, "His poor kids…." But I do attempt to control this impulse at home.)
Now, can each of us make a case for one overlooked movie this year? Stephanie? Tony? Charley, I appreciate your paean to Ray and especially to those great actresses: Any other nominations? Armond, why do you find Patrice Chereau's (extremely moving) Son Frère such a vital counterexample to Million Dollar Baby and, presumably, The Sea Inside?