The Movie Club

My Inception Problem, and Yours
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2011 5:59 PM

The Movie Club

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Still from Inception. Click image to expand.

Dear Movie Clubbers,

Karina writes somewhat nostalgically about the days when she wasn't compelled to make Top 10 lists. I know the feeling—I felt it when I was one of those people who had to do it, when I was reviewing for Dallas Observer and New York Press. I used to rationalize the Top 10 list as an exercise, a snapshot, a yearly ritual. But I still dreaded it.

Why? First there's the matter of comprehensiveness. How could I label these particular films the year's best, I always asked myself, when I knew there were dozens of good or great movies that for whatever reason I hadn't seen? And I used to see about 300 theatrical releases a year—three times as many as I managed to see in 2010! (Still haven't seen Black Swan yet, but I plan to see it this week, having been forewarned that it would come up here—though not in flowchart form, Dan, you sneaky bastard.) Beyond that, taste evolves, and hindsight cools reactions to Films of the Moment. I bet almost everyone who makes Top 10 lists looks back at them years later and wonders why they put a certain movie on a list when they can barely remember a thing about it.

All of which is a prelude to saying I don't have a proper "10 Best" list to offer this time out. That's partly due to being a gypsy freelancer who's not tied to one publication or beat. But it's also due to my having shifted my focus in recent years. Most of the pieces I published in 2010 weren't straight reviews but pieces that took a macro- or a micro-view of movies and TV—everything from video essays about the life and work of Dennis Hopper, the cultural impact of 24, and the opening credits of David Fincher's movies, to pieces about the   soul-sucking mediocrity of most superhero films, and how digital-era filmmaking clichés have destroyed the magic of stunts. It's either the microscope or the telescope for me—and that's increasingly how I like it.

In that spirit, here's a list of telescope and microscope subjects that I hope we'll examine.

1) The documentary (or "documentary") as conceptual art stunt—a category that includes such diverse films as I'm Still Here, Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Karina's favorite, Trash Humpers (which I reviewed, quite positively). These movies dealt with issues that don't often get examined outside semiotics classes: the fungibility of genre distinctions; the relationship between art and audience; the storyteller's right to blur fact and fiction and/or intentionally mislead viewers. Their impact extended beyond the art house, and at least one of them—ExitThrough the Gift Shop—was a breakout popular success, deservedly so. Last summer my 13-year old daughter and 68-year old father went to see Exit together on my recommendation, loved it, then went to a deli and spent two hours discussing it. Talk about crossover appeal! Is this kind of movie a momentary blip on the radar or a harbinger of art house cinema's future?

2) The "3-D is the future of theatrical movies" meme, and the utopian fantasizing and cranky backlash that went with it. I suspect the fascination with 3-D is less about the (legitimate) fear that theatrical moviegoing is being threatened by home video and Internet piracy and more about a deeper shift that has made the computer the main venue for experiencing media—and life. Are we on our way to becoming Matrix people with data ports in the backs of our skulls? What does it to get people to turn off their laptops, desktops, iPads, iPhones, and spend a couple of hours experiencing popular art in the company of other humans?

3) Inception, aka the answer to the question posed at the end of 2). Karina writes that certain images in Trash Humpers "are more uncannily dreamlike, or at least nightmare-like, than a lot of Inception." I've noticed a lot of critics doing this—describing a favorite 2010 movie that was unconventionally structured and/or dealt in dream imagery as somehow being better than Inception. (I did it myself just last week in a video essay about one of my favorite 2010 films, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island.) Clearly Inception is to 2010 what Avatar was to 2009 and Titanic was to 1997 and what the original Star Wars was to 1977—the box-office juggernaut that many critics find lacking, perhaps egregiously shallow and overrated, but that cast such a powerful spell over millions that they keep invoking it over and over to call attention to their own pets. So I have to ask: If we repeatedly deny the quality and effectiveness of a movie that enthralled the world, is that not a back-asswards way of endorsing it? If we ourselves cannot stop thinking and talking about Inception, might there in fact be something to it?

P.S. And have you seen this? I want to make it my ring tone.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture and the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com.