2004: The Year in Movies

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Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2005 9:03 AM

2004: The Year in Movies

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Dear Friends,

First of all, welcome, Chris—and also, I hope, Wesley and Scott before long. Let me say, in all sincerity, that I believe that children are the future. (I also decided, long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadow, but that's a subject for another post.)

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And let me say, Stephanie, that I think it's remarkable that you're still so active and energetic—the word I'm looking for is spry—at your advanced age, and so kind to the young 'uns. Up to now, though, I thought we were the young 'uns, but I guess it's time to face the sad fact of maturity, which at least gives me a new excuse to be pompous (as if I needed one). David, can I get a shot of prune juice with my hoppy Czech lager?

Backbiting, factionalism, inside-baseball talk, and personal animus entangled with high principle are aspects of any profession, and they have certainly been a part of film criticism for years—or at lease since the silent era, when Grandma Stephanie and Vachel Lindsay started up the very first Movie Club on a hand-operated letterpress in Dayton, Ohio. Our readers may well find themselves confused and exasperated to see us squabbling and meta-babbling in public this way. But in reading Armond's paragraphs on Son Frère and Charley's on Secret Things, I for one was reminded of why I started reading movie critics in the first place (way back when Manny Farber was my editor on the high-school paper), which was for precisely the combination of ardor and intellect that you both display with such grace and ease. You've seen something that excited you and you want, in one gesture, to communicate that excitement and to probe its source and significance. I haven't seen Secret Things—or, I must confess, Flight of the Phoenix—but I certainly won't miss either one now, and even if I end up thinking the two of you were completely wrong about them (the probability is not small), my experience will be clarified and enriched by having encountered and grappled with your responses.

Last year I found a number of lovely, strange, or otherwise memorable moments in movies I otherwise didn't care for or was lukewarm about. For example, in Spanglish—a movie whose potential charm and insight were completely undone by its churning misogyny and bourgeois complacency (I'm baiting you, David, and you too, Armond)—there was that scene where Adam Sandler (whose performance very nearly saved the movie in spite of everything else I've said about it) makes himself a fried-egg sandwich. Now, his character is a professional chef (the best chef in the whole country, according to one critic), and the care and imagination he puts into this late-night snack are evident, but he's not trying to impress anyone. He just loves what he does—loves food, loves making it, loves the anticipation of the first bite. He pours himself a glass of beer without looking and instinctively knows to stop just before the foam spills over the rim of the glass. And then, of course, his pleasure is ruined by a big, chaotic argument, during which the camera and his eyes keep straying longingly toward that sandwich as the perfectly runny yolk starts to congeal, the cheese hardens, and the bread goes soggy. (Something similar happens to Spanglish itself, at about that moment. The man who made it loves his work and knows his art, but his touch and his spirit abandoned him in this case.)

My favorite moment in Before Sunset—which I neither loved as much as the hipsters in the Voice poll nor loathed as much as their nemesis, Armond (that's me all over: middle class, middlebrow, middle of the road!)—was when Julie Delpy talks baby talk to her cat. It was both painfully self-conscious and discomfitingly unself-conscious: Celine was reacting to a sudden uptick in the awkwardness of the situation (Am I really taking this guy to my apartment? Oh look, there are my neighbors) and also setting a little test for Jesse. Will he tolerate this burst of goofiness and fuss over her sweet little kitty? Will he overdo it? The look on Ethan Hawke's face suggests that Jesse knows it's a test, and that, much as he may be thinking of pussy, he understands that he's going to have to deal with this cat first.

One more moment: Donna Murphy's single, perfect scene in TheDoor in the Floor, playing the owner of a frame shop whose combination of decorum and human decency recalls John McGiver's classic one-scene performance as the sales clerk in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Chris, I'd like to chew, briefly, on the points you raised in your post about the overrating of "technique" for its own sake, and about the critical habit of fetishizing movies that fetishize other movies. As an admirer of both Adaptation and Far From Heaven, I can't agree with you on every particular. In the case of Goodbye Dragon Inn, I found both the formalism and the nostalgic movie love to be carriers of authentic emotion, and I felt the same way about the luxurious camera movements and greatest-hits-of-the-cinematheque inserts in The Dreamers. But I share your more general concern that cleverness and stylishness are celebrated while sincere feeling, earnest conviction, and plain storytelling are often regarded with suspicion. (I will forego the opportunity to bring up Million Dollar Baby again). For all their beauty and bravura, those Zhang Yimou pictures, like the Kill Bill pictures, struck me as fundamentally cold, and for all its punchy technique, The Aviator was as hollow as an empty fuselage.

And yet: Bad Education is a movie about moviemaking, and a movie energized by its engagement with other movies; it's full of Almodóvar's adoration of Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and others. It hardly seems surprising that Almodóvar sees himself as having a lot in common with Tarantino—both make movies with amor and pasion, words that fill the screen at the end of Bad Education—and yet his universe seems to be expanding while Tarantino's is closing in on itself, becoming as claustrophobic as Michael Madsen's mobile home or Uma Thurman's coffin. To pursue this line of thought: The Incredibles, which I found unexpectedly moving, is as visually and culturally allusive as Shrek 2, which repelled me with its cynicism. Tarnation, in Chris' words "synthesizes every major cultural/aesthetic milestone of the MTV era into one dizzying and haunting 88-minute package"—but so, it could be argued, does The Life Aquatic.

So I guess what I'm wondering is how far we can go in generalizing or applying our aesthetics (or our politics or morals or anything else that can be applied) before we run into the inarguable puzzle of our own subjectivity, which is where all the arguments start.  In any case, I'm sure they will continue.

Your pal,
Tony

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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