The Movie Club

Real Life Trumped the Movies
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2009 7:26 AM

The Movie Club

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Hi la … well, I was going to say "ladies," the kind of retro hello I would offer a group of girlfriends without a second thought. But here we are, movie critics who happen to be women as well as women who happen to movie critics, and perhaps I ought to be more formal, at least on the first go-round. Or at least until we get into the rich territory of how we-as-femme-critics see what we see on screen. So, hi all.

You know, the way I've been explaining away the eh (or is it meh?) year at the movies that Dana identifies is: In 2008, real life trumped anything we might have seen on screen. The logic doesn't track if you follow it through, I know—we're looking at projects that have been in the works for months, years, or, in the curious case of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, decades. But I do think that the global and domestic convulsions of the past year have been so gripping that something handsome and polished and packaged like Revolutionary Road … or The Reader … or Doubt … or Defiance … or Benjamin Button … or Frost/Nixon … or or or … feels even less satisfying. They're all movies that keep viewers at a distance, admiring (as Dana says) the line readings. Or, in the case of Defiance, the cut of Daniel Craig's tough-Jew leather jacket. They're all received notions of what we think of as "the good stuff."

By the end of the year, in the dutiful Prestige Season, an attentive viewer can be excused for feeling dulled by cap-Q Quality. No wonder we're so grateful for feelings like joy! (in Wall-E, my No. 1 movie of the year, as well as in Happy-Go-Lucky) and awe! (in the magnificent documentary Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit's breathtaking 1974 dance on a high wire between the then-solid Twin Towers of the World Trade Center) and even roused despair! (in the essential documentary Trouble the Water, about the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina made personal).

As for The Dark Knight, there's so much for which I'm grateful, and about which I'm moved, even setting aside the mournful experience of watching Heath Ledger burn dark and bright, eternal at least on screen: I love the angry, greedy anarchic city Christopher Nolan created (embodied by Ledger's terrifying Joker), and the conflicted Batman who really doesn't want the gig at all. I love the vertiginous angles of the thing, both visually and as narrative. I especially love that if you watch the movie again—at the dawning of the Age of Obama, rather than at the collapsed end of the Bush Catastrophe Years—the meanings of heroism, responsibility, and financial evil shift all over again.

But enough about superheroes: time to advance the girl talk. You know, I was talking to a (male) colleague about how we, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Movie Club, were all cautiously excited about talking about Worked Over Faces (to put it succinctly)—I mean, from a cinematic point of view—and he observed that women are much harder on other women than men are. I briefly felt shallow. (He's a great friend.) But then I thought, really, it's that we women look at faces (and boobs, and butts, and the kitchens, gardens, and sunsets) on screen in a different way than men do. It's like—I don't know, it's like we do an instantaneous translation: "Oh, hmmm, Nicole Kidman's forehead and Hugh Jackman's teeth, not real, OK, and now back to Australia." And we do it automatically, and with such allowance made for artifice—only now the artifice has begun seriously to distract from the stories being told. Except if it's Benjamin Button. You know?

Lisa

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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