2004: The Year in Movies

The Heavenly Hellboy
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2005 6:31 PM

2004: The Year in Movies

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Dear Armond, Tony, Charley, David, Chris, Wesley, and Scott,

This is a quick reworking of a post I wrote last night, before Chris joined the fray, which seems to have gotten lost in the ozone. So if parts of it are tiresomely familiar to you, Armond, Tony, Charley, and David, just skip over them.

I'm sick of talking about critics, and I'm relieved to be able to take David up on his entreaty to gas poetic about one overlooked movie. In fact, I'm feeling so good, I might do two. The first is Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy, which I love because it's mad and passionate, like crazy Catholic art—you know, those Italian and Spanish paintings resplendent with blood-spurting St. Sebastians or Jesus pointing with mooing sincerity to this giant, gaping crimson hole in his chest, like it's no big deal—that sort of thing. I suppose that's the effect Mel Gibson thought he was going for, but he didn't have enough sense to stylize it—the violence is so naturalistic in The Passion of the Christ that the thing comes off as an exploitation movie. Great if you're a believer, abusive if you're not. (Wesley, I, too, have a mother who, despite her sharpness on most matters having to do with movies, couldn't be made to understand that The Passion was a movie and not the actual gift of Christ's sacrifice, replayed for our benefit. And Chris, I'd like to say something about your notion of the Michael Moore/Mel Gibson model as "filmmaker as bully and pop ideologue," but I'll have to get to it later. Also, I was tremendously disappointed by Bad Education—beautifully made, I concede, but I miss the insane hyper-Catholic lushness and voracious omnisexuality of Matador and Law of Desire. Again, my long-ago-renounced Catholic upbringing rears its horny head in the movie theater.)

Hellboy has this grand, heavy theme—that the seeds of both good and evil are within all of us, and we choose which ones to cultivate—but it's treated with such lightness that it never bogs down. And so few movies, American ones at least, have any sense of real craziness anymore, and I just think del Toro is really attuned to lavish visual nuttiness and poetic intensity: There's that scene where Ron Perlman's Hellboy is sitting in the garden of the insane asylum with his sweetheart, Selma Blair, and the trees around them are covered with plastic and lit from within. Why? There's no good reason, but it's just this stunning visual that makes perfect emotional sense—these lovers connecting in this totally messed-up Japanese garden.

David, you wrote to me mentioning Stage Beauty, another movie I loved this year. I'm a little too tired to go into it fully, but I just think that movie is really sensitive to actors—it understands that, done right, acting can be the most terrifying kind of emotional work. Actors can be so annoying as people and so full of themselves. (So much like critics, poor lambs.) But we're also really hard on them when they disappoint us—it's almost as if we want to punish them for having given us too much pleasure. Anyway, there's also something very melancholic about Stage Beauty. If I were blurbing it for Thespians Today, I'd call it, "A melancholic Restoration romp!"

Small moments I loved … there are many, many of them. Here are a few: The moment in Last Life in the Universe, more than halfway through, when we get a glimpse of the librarian-hero's naked back, and (spoiler alert!!!!) we see that it's blanketed with this elaborate, sinuously patterned tattoo, and we realize that he's Yakuza—a fantastic plot twist that's purely visual. Lots of things in Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, but I particularly remember a fabulous long take of Miao Tien, the older actor who appears in King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn (the movie that's playing within the movie). He's sitting in the audience, an older man watching himself as a younger one, and the light from the screen is reflecting back on his face, a moment where the past reaches out to bless the present. That moment in the problematic but wonderful-looking Collateral when the coyotes cross the road, with that silvery moonlight catching their eyes—an instance of nature asserting its presence in the urban landscape, which I always find incredibly touching (and nothing remotely Catholic about that at all). The tampon teabag scene in Catherine Breillat's waaay-out-there Anatomy of Hell (and here, a shout-out to New York Sun and Film Comment critic Nathan Lee, whom I have teased mercilessly on this subject, but who responded more honestly and more directly to Breillat's zowie visual provocations than nearly any other critic, manwomangaystraightwhatever, I read). And yes, David, Fenella Woolgar (such a great Waughian name) in Bright Young Things, behind those googly-eyed goggles or just about anytime: She's a Katzenjammer Modigliani. "How shy-making!"

Stephanie

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