Dana, Carina, Keith, beloved Slate readers,
Ahh, complacency and greatness: culture's own Hundred Years' War! Although I'm sure I don't get the nuances of the skirmish: Who's complacent again? Just the filmmakers? Or the studios, the audiences, and critics, too?
And regarding matters of greatness: Keith and Dana, I have to scratch my head about your ambivalence toward Borat. Its very knowing anti-cinematic approach was an obvious function of necessity (little digi-cams are best for capturing, say, the bagging of Pamela Anderson) and in accordance with the sociological and scatological ugliness afoot. Come on: The director, Larry Charles, had made more than a bunch of sketches, and Cohen has an ever-changing, superhuman purpose. In that antiques store, for instance, he's no longer a journalist. He's the raging anti-Confederate id disguised as a Jerry Lewis bumbler.
But the movie's form is incredible: What kind of movie is this? Is it a documentary? Is it one about an itinerant happening? Who knows what about Cohen's ploys (is Anderson acting)? And when should we take this man seriously? Should we ever? I was moved when, after the Anderson debacle, he actually goes back to Luenell's house. Under some typical American racial spell, he was smitten with the wrong buxom blonde. I thought Luenell was a tired, one-note, black-hooker joke when she showed up at that dinner party, but she's a joke of at least three or four notes, each one sweeter than the previous one. Their affection is mutual and convincing. It's clear the movie has a consistent political point of view (left) and that Cohen and his collaborators have targets in both their encounters and in the audience. But aside from the unwittingly anti-cinematic Dreamgirls, this was the only movie I saw last year that brought the whole house down.
OK, I'm done with Borat (though not Dreamgirls—more later).
Dana, regarding your earlier war concerns: Obviously, the valences of the war movie are many. And it seems you've singled out a particular subset of the genre that relies, more or less, on a formula that when exploited well, as it is in Saving Private Ryan and in Children of Men (a relatable war picture in New Age, sci-fi fatigues), is powerfully cinematic. I'm struck by your saying you don't like the genre. In your explanation, what upsets you about these films is their absolute subjective submersion—their very you-are-there-ness.
You're describing something fundamental about what makes such a picture so effective: its immediate transparency. The movie is not a re-creation of war. In its own way, it is war. Why would you like that? But your question is a timeless moral one, too: The war movie—huhh!—what is it good for? This is the concern of many a great war film—from Grand Illusion to Army of Shadows to The Thin Red Line to that bravura sequence in Children of Men. I also happen to be a fan of Jarhead, a movie whose indifferent public and critical reception still surprises me since it was so dead-on about combat's existential doldrums and its individually corruptive moral aims.
Whatever. The public doesn't want to see a true war picture. American moviegoers want sublimation. Bring on the football dramas! There were four this year and none of them terrible. (Still, talk about a formula.) These are more digestible, domestically heavenward notions of war. They're all based on true stories; thus, a happy ending is preordained and victory assured. Of course Vince Papale is Invincible—Mark Wahlberg is playing him. (I've got to see my dermatologist, 'cause that guy won't stop growing on me!)
If we're souring on our current war, then I think we're definitely not feeling it at the movies, regardless of how good the filmmaking is. Had it come out during peacetime (which is when, exactly?), the grisliness and heroism in Flags of Our Fathers might have seemed, how you say, exotic. When it's released nationwide in a couple of weeks, I suspect the follow-up, Letters From Iwo Jima, which is even better made and performed, will fare even worse: It's subtitled.
I wasn't keen on making a ranked list at all (what's it all about, really?). But I had to for editorial reasons. And in doing so, I favored John Cameron Mitchell's little-seen pansexual bohemian rhapsody Shortbus, because—on-screen and in the filmmaking—it had balls.
Speaking of gay: This year seemed gayer than last year, with the melancholy of Brokeback Mountain and the wallows of Capote behind us. There seemed like a minor (minor) liberation—from Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell's not-insincere make-out at the end of Talladega Nights and Robin Williams' radio queen in The Night Listener to fatless Daniel Craig rising from the sea like Botticelli's Penis—I mean Venus—in Casino Royale and the homosocial highjinks in Jackass Number Two. And then there were movies that were so closeted it hurt, like You, Me, and Dupree, the boy-horror of The Covenant, and girl-horror of the fantastic The Descent (those titles: what a double feature!), and the nose-to-nose trash-talking in District B-13 (also great) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, in which Lucas Black and Leonardo Lam (I hope it was him) come this close to who knows what.
Eggheads and Bondphiles were determined to note that the series gave us a darker, more psychologically cogent 007. I was just struck by Martin Campbell's camera's blatant lust for Craig, whose contracts clearly have a nudity clause (he's for it). The man is more lovingly photographed than the bodacious Eva Green.
In other matters, Carina, can you discuss the unknown pleasures of Little Miss Sunshine? And Dana, can you please, please, please talk about your passion for Babel, because I'd rather have Ken Davitian, the guy who plays Borat'sproducer, Azamat, sit on my face than watch it again.