The Movie Club
Yeah, I'm with Stephanie. I'm less inclined to cut Avatar slack for its lame-ass dialogue and story when James Cameron clearly thinks that he's written a masterpiece. The HMFIC has packed Avatar with enough straight-faced hokum to convince me that he's certain its message is profound, its plot ironclad, and its science impeccable. To which I can only say: Why do the Na'vi kiss?!?!? That doesn't make any sense. They are different from humans in every way—Cameron-mandated tits excepted—so why on Pandora would their particular evolutionary track have led them to a culture in which affection is expressed by the unlikely method of smooshing your lips up against someone else's? Arrgh!
My ballot for the Indiewire poll, which serves as my Top 10 list, was submitted just hours after I finally saw Avatar. I didn't really know what to do with the movie, finally placing it at No. 3 on the grounds that it's epochal, if not necessarily great. (My No. 1 and 2— Wild Things and Basterds—felt both epochal and great, with a capital GRRR.) Avatar's just so gobsmackingly beautiful, and so astonishing a technical achievement, that it seems churlish not to recognize that it's going to change the way movies are made for the next 10 years or more. But at the same time, the gulf between its visual ambition and its narrative laziness is so vast that, as an overall aesthetic experience, it feels less coherent than, say, 2012. Roland Emmerich can't reach Cameron's imaginative heights, but on the other hand he doesn't have delusions of depth. His tongue was planted firmly in his cheek for all of 2012, so that the whole movie seemed, while I was watching it, of a piece. The cheesy speeches about the future of humanity triggered the same primitive pleasure centers in my brain that were already lighting up in response to the helicopters airlifting bellowing giraffes across the Himalayas.
It's touching, in a way, that Cameron has such mountainous ambition. In his hubris—and in his talent, which almost justifies that hubris—he reminds me of no one so much as 2009's other great HMFIC, Lars Von Trier, whose Antichrist featured as much pseudo-psychology as Avatar did pseudo-philosophy. (And was, at times, as unintentionally hilarious; I can't decide if "Chaos reigns" or "Who'd you expect, numbnuts?!" is my favorite laugh line of the year.)
Moving on! I want to return, briefly, to Jeff Bridges, whose performance in Crazy Heart is, I'd argue, the opposite of Swinton's in Julia. They're both, as Dana points out, drunks in charge of other people's children, but what I like about Bridges' performance so much is how effortless it feels. Despite the unsightly sweat stains marring Bad Blake's Western shirts while he plays the bowling alleys of New Mexico—and what a treat it was to see the Dude back in his native habitat!—you never saw Bridges working hard. In this way the performance is a tribute to the perfect match of actor to character, something that as a moviegoer I must confess I treasure just as much as seeing a high-risk, high-wire performance of the type in which Tilda Swinton specializes. I'm happy to see both kinds of acting rewarded, and so I won't mind so much when Bridges inevitably wins the Oscar. Just so long as he thanks his agent and Crazy Heart's casting director, who are just as responsible for his performance as he is.
Other questions: What do you guys think of the Up in the Air backlash? Am I just imagining it, or are a lot of people underwhelmed by this movie? I really loved it when I first saw it but found myself unable to muster up much energy in its defense when others bad-mouthed it. Reading negative reviews, like this incisive one by Scott Foundas' newly installed replacement at LA Weekly, Karina Longworth, made me question my own response in a way that I usually don't do—to the point that, while recording a Spoiler Special podcast with Dana and the estimable John Swansburg, I ended up gleefully shitting all over Jason Reitman.
But a recent second viewing went down almost as smooth as the first, even if the movie's missteps (the Backpack Lectures, the Running-to-the-Airport Scene, the very idea that George Clooney could hail from northern Wisconsin) are even more obvious. Roger, you loved it when you reviewed it; has it paled at all in your recollection?
Finally, for this round, anyway, I'm curious to know whether y'all had any particularly pleasant—or unpleasant—moviegoing surprises this year. What films—indie, quasi-indie, or studio—betrayed your high expectations, or exceeded your low ones? My two most pleasant surprises this year were World's Greatest Dad, Bobcat Goldthwait's pitch-black Robin Williams vehicle, which I found unaccountably touching and brave, and the stupidly titled romance Love Happens, which everyone else hated but which I thought handled grieving and recovery with surprising forthrightness—and gave Jennifer Aniston a pretty good role, to boot.
My unpleasant surprise? Discovering, during a late-night viewing with friends, that Obsessed isn't so-bad-it's-good but is instead just so-bad. I had high hopes, based on this intense 26-second clip, but the rest of the movie didn't live up to that level of badcomplishment.
Oh P.S.! That sure was a douche-bag move on Jeffrey Wells' part, huh? But I found it oddly endearing as a statement on film critics as a group. I always sort of thought that part of our charm was our total lack of perspective—an inability to see past the screen. I know that if I was on my deathbed, and someone asked me my 10 favorite movies, and none of my friends made fun of me afterward for possibly including Ishtar, I would be posthumously disappointed.
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.