The Movie Club

My Top 10
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2009 12:05 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear Dana, Lisa, Jeannette, and Stephanie,

It's a pleasure and a privilege to hang out in the clubhouse with all of you.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter
Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.
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I agree that the last 12 months lacked for a sleep-stealing wonder like 2007's There Will Be Blood or Zodiac or take your pick, and that history-in-the-making occupied a lot of the imaginative room we might usually reserve for the movies. Dana cited a dearth of "wow" moments in the Oscar-season crop; in such an extraordinary news year, it's fitting that the wow factor registered most highly (for me, at least) in the nonfiction films. I share Dana's and Lisa's (and pretty much everyone's) adoration for James Marsh's transcendent Man on Wire, which retells a famous story yet still manages to be a cuticle-shredding suspense drama, even on second viewing. And Werner Herzog's Antarctica essay, Encounters at the End of the World—with its stunning below-the-ice cinematography and Pink Floyd symphony of seals—achieves a totally Herzog-ian synthesis of awe and dread and ecstasy (similar to the effects of a steady diet of MSNBC and the New York Times circa early November).

Closely related to the wow factor, for some of us, is the cry factor. I was touched by David Ansen's lovely ode to Young@Heart in Newsweek's year-end cultural roundup and, emboldened by Mr. Ansen's unashamedly teary example, would also submit for consideration the end of Wendy and Lucy, when Michelle Williams makes a sound, selfless decision that costs her far more and cuts her more deeply than doing the wrong thing ever could. I well up just thinking about it. Other waterworks moments: the scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (spoiler alert) when the aged Cate Blanchett sees the man she loved and lost hunched over a piano, his mind retreating into senility as his body recedes into youth. Or—lost youth, indeed—the long tracking shot of Heath Ledger in his nurse's frock and Joker paint as he ambles away from Gotham General: a day-lit, pregnant pause amid the hustle and shadowy tumult of The Dark Knight that allowed just enough cognitive space to remember again, with fresh shock, that the actor was gone.

Like Dana and Lisa, I felt a certain editorial detachment from most of the Oscar season's offerings, admiring the intelligence and technical dexterity of Frost/Nixon, Doubt, and (for its first two hours or so) Benjamin Button without quite losing myself in them. Revolutionary Road hit me harder; even though Leo and Kate's combined star wattage does mean you have to squint occasionally to see the actual movie they're in, I liked the meta-ness of the Titanic couple careening toward an iceberg of the soul. Actors reach a point at which their stardom almost unavoidably becomes a subject—or the subject—of whatever movie they're in. This is not necessarily a problem, as we saw this year with Robert Downey Jr. (while Tropic Thunder allowed him to disappear, Iron Man harnessed his past and persona effortlessly into the mythos of a rogue redeemed) and The Wrestler, which is virtually a documentary about Mickey Rourke—his ravaged face, his heap-of-ashes career—as much as it is a fiction about a body-slammer reaching the end of his tether.

Speaking of ravaged faces: Lisa, you suggest there may be a gender divide on the topic of our stars' plastic-surgery habits, or one that splits the film-watching experience in general. I've always felt pretty epicene as a moviegoer—I watched the Sex and the City movie with the same mildly distressed bewilderment that I would feel at a Vin Diesel chef-d'oeuvre. But for whatever it's worth, I can report that I've had doleful conversations with a veteran male critic about a certain European beauty and past Oscar nominee whose face in recent years has taken on the texture, sheen, and expressive capacity of a newly laminated ID card, and likewise commiserated with a younger male critic about the reworked nose, chin, and chest of a thirtysomething British actress. And it's safe to say that the art house visitors among my male friends are as fascinated as I am by Asia Argento's magically enhanced bosoms in Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress. So I'm not sure whether or how we should talk about it, or how our chromosomes influence how we talk about it. But it's right up there for all to see.

My 2008 top 10, in alphabetical order:

A Christmas Tale
The Class
Encounters at the End of the World
Flight of the Red Balloon
The Last Mistress
Man on Wire
Milk
My Winnipeg
Wendy and Lucy
The Wrestler

All my best,
Jessica

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