OK, Babel. Reluctantly (because my initial reaction was positive), I have to admit that it doesn't quite stand up for me as a whole in retrospect. The problems in the mirror seem larger than they appeared. Still, I think its intentions were pure. (Unlike some Best Picture winners that come to mind.) Which brings up an interesting—to me, at least—question: Which, when they conflict, is the more honest reaction—the gut response or the careful (and carefully drafted) consideration? In the case of Babel, it seemed at the time more honest to go with the gut reaction. You can't discount the twin forces of context and timing. Maybe because so many of the good films this year were packed into the last month, I was more receptive to it and more forgiving of its flaws than I would have been otherwise. Hard to say. The more distance I get, the more tendentious and manipulative it feels. Moreover, the fuzzier and more indistinct the things that knocked me out about it in the first place become. I was totally transported by the Rinko Kikuchi character, especially the scene at the club, when the sound goes in and out. And the Berber kids were completely compelling to me—there was something about their unconscious vulnerability that just seemed too tragically plausible. Context again. Truth seems so much stranger than fiction these days.
On the other hand, the Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett section drove me nuts. I don't care how Clooney-ishly careworn they made Pitt look: If naturalism was the aim, why not dispense with the movie stars altogether? There was something creepily—I don't know, imperialistic? hegemonic?—about throwing a pair of A-listers in with a bevy of unknowns. It stacked the deck and threw off the balance. And I had the same reaction as you, Wesley, to the couple's choice of grief-recovery/marital-reconciliation destination. Nothing against Morocco, but wouldn't Aruba have been more apposite? And did they really need both problems to keep us interested? Maybe, because I didn't really care about what happened to them. Also—and this is minor, but when else will I get the chance to ask?—did anyone else have a weird reaction to the kids being named Mike and Debbie? As far as I know, there is no such thing as a Mike or a Debbie under the age of 35 in California. It's Kai and Brianna now.
Speaking of pitch-perfect cultural attunement: Fast Food Nation did instantly cancel out the effects of Babel for me, for exactly the reasons you cite. I am consistently amazed by Richard Linklater's intelligence, sensitivity, and modesty. Talk about rare qualities. There's no bombast or false polemic in Fast Food Nation, which could have been incredibly grim but is instead unexpectedly buoyant. I think it's because Linklater genuinely likes people, and it shows through in everything he does. He likes them! He really likes them! Which is really something you don't see everyday. In my opinion, Fast Food Nation was under-praised and ignored not because it hit too close to home and made people uncomfortable, but because it blended in so well with the scenery that it went unnoticed. Of course, that's what made it brilliant. The characters were real characters, with real personalities, not socioeconomic avatars. And talk about guts! On the table! Now that's the last word on visceral.
Sorry to cut this short, but I will talk about Little Miss Sunshine in my next post. Also, romantic comedies and love stories in general. If I had a kingdom, I'd give it for a good one. I'll leave you, Dana, with this poorly remembered anecdote that I read somewhere about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is perhaps my favorite relationship movie of the past decade. Apparently, after a screening, someone in the audience stood up and said something to the effect of, "That's the love story I've always wanted to see." That (misquoted, no doubt) reaction sums up for me what we seek when we go to see stories about love, funny and otherwise. Everyone has the story they've already wanted to see. We don't know what it is, but we figure we'll know it when we see it.