2004: The Year in Movies

I [Heart] Dogville
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2005 10:59 AM

2004: The Year in Movies

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New Yorkers, Bostonians, and Texans,

Sorry to join the fray so late in the day, but I have been in the midst of traveling from L.A. (I mean Los Angeles—apologies to Thom Andersen) to New York, catching up with everyone's posts from earlier in the week during a layover in Dallas and those precious in-flight moments during which it is permitted to turn on one's laptop. Of course, given the breadth of what's been discussed so far, it's tough to know where to begin, so perhaps I'll just say that with the exception of a few factual errors (Stephanie, I was sure it was David E. who had the Jaguar, as well as an Aston Martin that he keeps for weekend trips to his estate in the Hamptons), it's been a heady, raucous, stimulating discussion of the sort that (as Tony also suggested) reminds me of why I got interested in film criticism in the first place. When Stephanie suggested earlier in the week that how a critic thinks is more important than what he thinks, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had several years ago with a filmmaker friend, who said that his wife loved to read film reviews even though she only saw a handful of movies every year. In other words, she wasn't looking to criticism as some sort of consumer guide of what or what not to see, but rather for the exchange of ideas it offered between the reader, the critic, and the work being discussed. As, I might suggest, it should be. (Or, to quote Manny Farber, "The last thing I want to know is whether you liked it or not—the problems of writing are after that.")

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Now to get down to business. In keeping with the house rules, I hereby offer a link to my own article on the 10-best films of 2004.

Which, as it happens, is actually a list of 12 films. Which is another way of saying that, like everyone else in the room, I found 2004 to be a remarkably strong year for the movies, specifically where American movies were concerned. I can't remember the last time that more than half of the films on my year-end list were home-grown, and there were many more (including Eternal Sunshine, Sideways, and We Don't Live Here Anymore) on the top-20 list I submitted to the Film Comment critics poll. Not to flog a dead Mo Cuishla, but as anyone who reads my list will also note, I'm a big fan of a couple of movies that have thus far taken a pretty bad drubbing in this forum: Dogville and Million Dollar Baby. To begin with Dogville, which I feel may be the most widely misinterpreted movie of the year, let me say this: I am far from an unconditional admirer of von Trier's. His early films struck me as hollow triumphs of smart-alecky style over substance—much as I feel about latter-day Wes Anderson—while I've long thought von Trier's best work to be his exuberantly playful TV miniseries, The Kingdom (which recently became a bad, Stephen King-shepherded miniseries in the United States). But Dogville was, for me, as urgent, radical, and mordantly funny as anything onscreen this year—and, I should add, not in the least bit anti-American. It's true, of course, that von Trier, who is often his own worst enemy, gave interviewers plenty of good copy around the time of the film's release, suggesting that his decision to make a movie set in America without ever having visited the country was no different than the decision to make Casablanca on Hollywood sound stages instead of on location in Morocco. But if we can, for a moment, separate the film from its maker's public persona—something many critics seem as unable to do with von Trier as with Vincent Gallo and Kevin Spacey—it seems to me easy to see Dogville as a pungent allegory for man's inhumanity to his fellow man, whenever and wherever in the world it may surface. (And in this respect, I find Dogville eminently preferable to a piece of pandering, sanctimonious, Richard Attenboroughish tripe like Hotel Rwanda.) Of course, Charley, the film borrows many of its aesthetic and thematic ideas from Brecht and Wilder and Durrenmatt, and we might as well add Bresson and Dreyer (two of Lars' biggest influences) to the roll call while we're at it. But what artist doesn't borrow from/reference/reinvent the work of those who preceded him? And as for the accusation that Dogville looks as though von Trier had never seen a movie before, I would argue that what the look of the film really suggests is that von Trier has seen so many movies that seek to wow us with their formal richness and how'd-they-do-that trickery that he decided to go in the opposite direction, paring down cinema to its bare essentials, to faces and gestures filling the wide screen the way they once did in Pickpocket or The Passion of Joan of Arc. Put simply, von Trier may be the ultimate anti-CGI filmmaker, no matter that he has come of age in the era of CGI bombast.

Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, is one of the last gainfully employed holdovers from an earlier moviemaking moment, and when I recently interviewed him, he made a point of saying that he could no longer relate to a film industry that felt the need to make movie versions of old TV series. He even went so far as to suggest that Hollywood studios should corral writers into dormitory-style buildings like they used to and force them to come up with original material. And while I know that most of my fellow Movie Clubbers would sign up for a repeat viewing of his Million Dollar Baby only if the other choices were a trip to Dogville or death by firing squad (and even then, I wonder), I'd be lying if I didn't say I was profoundly moved by the film both times I saw it. Yes, I saw Patrice Chereau's Son Frère, too, and greatly admired it, especially coming after (cover your ears, Armond) the suffocating solipsism of his earlier Those Who Love Me … but if I'm being honest, Million Dollar Baby still affected me in deeper and more meaningful ways, and if thinking so makes me a terminally middlebrow puppet of Hollywood's publicity machinery, so be it. Where I saw a potential mine field of clichés nimbly navigated by a master craftsman, many of you clearly witnessed a giant napalm explosion. Well, that's what makes the horse races. All I want to know is: If Eastwood's fine cinematographer, Tom Stern, is to be accused of not buying enough light bulbs, what does that say about the work Gordon Willis was doing with Coppola in the 1970s?

Another film from my top 10 is Michael Mann's Collateral, where I paired it with Thom Andersen's sublime filmic essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself—partly because the two struck me as a natural fit, and partly as a provocation since I find Mann's film to be exactly the kind of movie about the "real" Los Angeles that Andersen advocates (but know, thanks to his thoughtful article in the Fall 2004 issue of Cinema Scope, that Andersen doesn't exactly agree). I must say I'm surprised, Armond, to hear you deride Mann as a "hack," especially in the same breath that you praise Walter Hill for his professionalism and political awareness. I'm right there with you vis-à-vis Hill, a terribly underappreciated American director whose recent work (the terrific boxing movie Undisputed and the pilot to the Deadwood TV series) shows that he's still in fine form. But I've often thought of Mann as being one of Hill's few contemporary counterparts where a sort of post-Hawksian investigation of masculine identity is concerned. Certainly, you can find that in Collateral, along with lipstick traces of Hill's The Driver and 48 Hours and far savvier insights into race and class in Los Angeles than anything offered by Spanglish.

So, I've now come perilously close to the suggested word count for these entries (as well as the curtain time for Pacific Overtures) without getting to any number of other issues du jour: Why, in hindsight, I like almost everything about Spanglish except for the movie itself; why I think the battle between critics and editors over the coverage afforded to smaller films is perhaps the most important battle facing film criticism today; why Michael Moore can kiss my ass. But as Scarlett O'Hara wisely observed: Tomorrow is another day. And if I don't go get some dinner now, I'll definitely be hungry again.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2005: An earlier version of this post misidentified a Walter Hill film as Undefeated. The film is Undisputed.

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