2004: The Year in Movies

Two or Three Things I Know About Choses Secrètes
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 5 2005 12:24 PM

2004: The Year in Movies

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Some loose threads:

Speaking only for myself, my shout out to Tony was not an invocation of the unassailable authority of the Times. It was a way to tell a colleague I respect and a friend I love that I wanted him to join in this melee. I like or dislike writers for what they write, not where.

Tony, I know you've seen a movie before. (I've seen some of them with you.) Sometimes, I rely on hyperbole to clear the air (or in this case, the incense—sorry, couldn't resist).

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David, it's hard, looking at the grosses for all the documentaries you mentioned, to believe in the "appetite" Moore has created. I don't think that audiences who respond to Moore's smartass methods will, for instance, be willing to sit through the sober, nonpartisan attack on Ashcroft's Justice Department in Unconstitutional. The Moore-ish techniques in the first half-hour of The Hunting of the President are what's wrong with that movie. Sure, Moore can match the right-wing blowhards. But I think the left can do better than producing its own Limbaugh. And I think our case is strong enough to stand on the facts. We can debate the alleged naiveté of my politics elsewhere. Suffice to say I find the willingness in many quarters to see Bush as the Snidely Whiplash pimp for Halliburton & Co., rather than to parse the appalling, tangled motives that formed—again, I repeat—his impulse to invade, as indicative of the willingness to reduce both politics and art to simplistic, comforting motives.

And, oh yeah, my uneducated palate likes your taste in bourbon better than your taste in beer. (Could it be I'm so adventurous everywhere else that I need a reassuring oasis of conventionality to soothe and quiet my hearty lust for experience?)

Armond, not to sound like I'm backing down here or playing nicey-nice, but your dislike of Ray is a different creature than what I was talking about. (You didn't dislike it out of a prejudice against mainstream moviemaking.) It's not flattery, just stating what's obvious, to say that I've never found your reaction to any movie dependent on where it came from. You don't give indies and art movies an automatic free pass, don't automatically treat mainstream films with suspicion. Which is why I spent so much space (oy) responding to your call to critical arms to uplift worthy and overlooked movies. I wanted to point out some of the prejudices that get in the way of critics doing just that.

And speaking of overlooked movies, David wants us to pick one to spotlight. Holy Cahiers, Batman! What wasn't overlooked? Since I wrote a long piece on The Dreamers, I'd love to hear Tony or Armond (or both) on that since they were both as enraptured as I was. I think I'll choose something that wasn't on my list but included in my honorable mentions, Jean-Claude Brisseau's Secret Things.

This was the first of this Belgian director's movies to be released in the States. It's a sort of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in the business world. Two young women (Sabrina Seyvecou and Coralie Revel) determine to use their sexuality to get to the head of the corporate ladder. The shy novice (Seyvecou) turns out to be a natural manipulator while the mastermind (Revel) turns out to be—apologies to William Robinson—the hunter captured by the game. Some of the reviews seemed content to be amused by the movie as long as it was a swanky porno turn-on, with the two girls getting it on, strip-club-performance art opening, etc. But Brisseau works in a style you might call overheated sang-froid. He wants to take plots with the looniness of opera and treat them straight. It's disjunctive; you watch some of his movies (I saw a bunch during the Walter Reade retrospective) feeling that they are on the cusp between tragedy and ludicrousness. Some, like the exquisite White Wedding (with a knockout performance by Vanessa Paradis, in her debut), are squarely and devastatingly into the former. Others, like the noir Black Angel, fall right into the former. But like all of Brisseau's work, Black Angel, even at its craziest (and it's the nuttiest of his films) keeps a straight face. It's not deadpan; it just hasn't occurred to Brisseau that anything silly is going on.

Which I suppose makes him a mixture of naive and sophisticated. Secret Things is a critique of sexual politics and corporate culture, but at bottom it's trying to deal honestly and deeply and morally—but not moralistically—with what price the unabashed pursuit of success costs the souls of these two young women. And that topic, which I think would strike many of us (in good and bad ways) as very 19th-century, is what makes Brisseau a man out of time. He's not a finger-wagger. He's too much of a sensualist to show us the sex in a cold, condemnatory manner, and yet we feel the calculation in the midst of the erotic abandon. The outlandishness of his style—in Secret Things, an angel of death turns up periodically with a raven on her arm to hover in the corner of scenes—may be easier to giggle at than how serious he is about sin and redemption (his Céline is one of those rare religious movies that works because it radiates faith instead of proselytizing). The movie worked for me like the marriage of a 19th-century novel and a crazy opera. And it's on DVD now, so I hope people check it out.

In my first post, I alluded to the last shot of Ocean's Twelve. I went to see it a few days before my Christmas break with all writing and shopping done, hoping to have as much fun as I did at the first one. I thought the plot was both impossible to follow and lazy, thought the actors were amusing themselves too much to amuse us (though I did love the Pythonesque tone of some of the exchanges). So, I'm sitting there in the theater feeling let down when the end sequence comes on, with all the actors playing cute and hugging each other. Right at the end of the scene—it's the last shot in the movie proper—Soderbergh freezes the frame and pans in on a blurred shot of Catherine Zeta-Jones, her mouth open so you can see every one of her choppers, bent over with laughter. And I was transported. I'm still not sure if I could tell you why. Maybe because an actor can't prepare for the way he or she will look in a freeze-frame and the spontaneity of it undercut the calculation of the rest of the movie. Maybe because there's a wonderful lack of vanity in seeing a gorgeous woman give herself over to laughter like that. And maybe it's because so much of what I love about the movies are fleeting moments that I was moved by Soderbergh's demonstration of how fleeting they can be, and by the desire to hold one, to caress it for as long as he could before the inevitable fade-out.

Film Comment used to do a year-end feature I wish they'd bring back, in which there were pages of elegant one-sentence descriptions of moments from the past year's movies that had delighted or moved or startled the writers. It was a way of reminding us all that sometimes it's the individual moments that matter to us more than the movies they are in. And it was a reminder that our job, not just as critics but as moviegoers, is to stay alert to those moments. Maybe you four have some of those moments from this past year you'd like to share?

Love,
Charley

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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