The Movie Club

Who Is the Director of the 2000s?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2007 6:16 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear Dana, Wesley, and Carina,

We probably shouldn't get too bogged down with Altman since this is supposed to be about 2006, but it wouldn't be right to let the year fade out without some comment. A while back, this site ran a Douglas Wolk piece asking why Fleetwood Mac was our "least influential great band" and concluding that there was simply no duplicating the combustible internal chemistry that made them great. I tend to think of Altman in similar terms. Sure, his influence has taken root in the work of Paul Thomas Anderson and others, but the movies that really try for the Altman feel tend to get the notes but miss the music. (I'm looking at you, Bobby.) From the felicitous collision of sound and image to the almost musical editing to performances that couldn't happen anywhere else, there was no mistaking an Altman film for anything else. Even a bad Altman film—and he made them; try watching H.E.A.L.T.H.—still looked and sounded like Altman. But, more importantly, they all felt like Altman films: cranky, restless, pessimistic, and challenging, but with these teasing undertones of faith in humanity that often dimmed but never faded. I'm sorry we've seen the last of them.

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Most of the Altman eulogies called him the defining director of the '70s, or some variation on that term. We're now well past the halfway point for this decade. Anyone want to put forth a candidate for the defining director of the '00s? Looking around, I don't see anyone having the extended run of greatness that Altman had between M*A*S*H and Nashville. Then again, no one really makes movies that quickly anymore. Is a defining director still possible? Have we grown out of such distinctions? I've got no answer. Positing the question to my colleague and officemate Scott Tobias, I got only sputters and a puzzled look. Can anyone beat that?

(As an aside: I was happy to see another defining '70s director, Martin Scorsese, make a return to full power with The Departed, a film as gripping to watch as it was uncompromising. Wesley, is it too much of a stretch to see shades of Army of Shadows in its depiction of how one's devotion to a larger cause, however noble, corrodes the soul?)

I'll echo those previous comments on The Pursuit of Happyness with amplified frustration. Will Smith was so good here that I often forgot I was watching Successories: The Motion Picture. For all its shots of poverty and homelessness, there's this uncomfortable subtext that if all those losers would just try as hard as Smith, nobody would have to sleep in the streets. And not only does Smith get inspired by a Reagan speech, he's bedeviled by evil hippies … twice! Also, Happyness seemed allergic to talking about race at all. I cry foul.

While I'd love to pick up the Lynch thread, I'll have to leave that to others. Inland Empire has only screened once here in Chicago and I was unavailable at the time. I'm guessing Lynch and his cow will be passing through town again soon. I look forward to getting back to you. Behind the scenes, sadly, since we're winding this down. It's been a real pleasure, too.

So, final(ish) thoughts on 2006: I'd like to steal an observation from one of the Fray posters (thanks Pandyora!) and suggest it's been a pretty great year for movies and a pretty terrible one for Hollywood movies (or at least, with a few exceptions like Casino Royale, big, blockbustery Hollywood entertainments). Week in and week out, I saw movies with no shot of making a lasting contribution to the pop culture landscape. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest dominated the box office, but I'm convinced it's going to end up this year's The Golden Child: one of those movies that everyone sees and nobody likes. (Sorry to bring up what sounds like a sore subject, Carina.)

It was a year that lacked a Lord of the Rings or a Matrix, but plenty of interesting stuff ended up in the margins either because of its size (Brick), a lack of proper promotion (Children of Men), those blasted subtitles (everything but Volver, really) or top-heavy ambition (The Fountain, which I've taken to my heart like a wounded bird). And, to get really marginal, it was fascinating to see the emergence of a particularly brutal kind of horror film—those tightly focused on the detailed torture of the human body—at the expense of virtually every other genre. Some, like Hostel, were clever. Others, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, were completely vile. But I can't help but think that the emergence of torture as an aspect of foreign policy had something to do with their ascendance.

Gosh, that's a ghastly note with which to close. Sorry. I'll try to check back in later with something a little more uplifting.

Clooney-ishly yours,
Keith

Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.

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