The Movie Club

The Japanese Baby in Babies Gave One of the Great Diva Performances of the Year
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 5 2011 6:13 PM

The Movie Club

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Still from Babies. Click image to expand.
Mari from Babies

Colleagues: It seems hard to gainsay Karina's nomination of Greenberg for the Most Awkward Sex Scene award for 2010. Never before in history (I hope) has a shared Coors Light led so quickly to such unfun cunnilingus. But it's worth noting that Baumbach's cringefest faced some—fine, I'll say it—stiff competition in that department. From the Oedipal sticky wickets of Cyrus to the all-in-the-family hothouse shenanigans of Dogtooth to just about anything sexual that transpired in Sex and the City 2, this was a year in which it was wise to choose your date movies very, very carefully. And moving along the continuum from awkward sex to just plain awful sex, we had that hotel-room scene from Blue Valentine, in which Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams used the physical act of love to express everything but love: resentment, sexual frustration, repulsion, revenge.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

About Blue Valentine, Karina: After challenging a couple of you to persuade me to reconsider movies you loved, I find myself struck dumb when asked to do the same. I guess I just have to have recourse to Matt's impassioned plea that we, as critics and viewers "[talk] first about the heart of the film … whether or not what's onscreen bears the slightest relation to the truth as we have experienced it." To me, Blue Valentine just felt raw and honest and true, and modest about its rawness and honesty and truth, in a way that few American films about love and marriage are. And the performances, especially Williams', were beautifully modulated and not Oscar-grabby at all (which is precisely why I hope Williams gets an Oscar).

On a second viewing, I could get outside the story enough to see the movie's flaws, though I still found them relatively minor. The Grizzly Bear soundtrack in the flashback sections can be intrusively twee, and Gosling's character as written seems to oscillate between being a working-class salt-of-the-earth type and an educated hipster—would that character really play the ukelele and not the guitar, and would he know that Tin Pan Alley-sounding song that he uses to woo Michelle Williams in the shop doorway? But the fight the couple has in the car after visiting the liquor store—when we see both sides of the argument clearly but can't do anything to stop the impending carnage—was so acutely scripted and minutely observed that it was like one of those hyperreal Dutch still lifes that leave you saying, wow, that's just exactly what a bowlful of peaches looks like. If the bowl of peaches were a decaying marriage.

In a discussion of Black Swan on this week's Culture Gabfest, my colleague Julia Turner argued that the movie's appeal lay in the fact that it was, secretly, a sports movie, with the heroine's artistic triumph at the end standing in for the big game. This may explain my Swan allergy; sports movies, as a rule, bore me almost as much as real-life sports do (with very rare exceptions that are really not sports movies at all: Breaking Away, North Dallas Forty).

And yet David O. Russell's The Fighter, Dan, won me over despite the will-he-or-won't-he-win-the-boxing-title storyline. Matt's right; at its heart, that movie is no more about boxing than The Apartment is about the insurance industry. And though the movie didn't make my Top 10 list precisely because of the squarebait factor Dan mentions, it managed to Trojan-horse in plenty of first-class David O. Russell weirdness, like the a cappella rendition of "I Started a Joke" that Christian Bale sings to Melissa Leo in the car. (I know whenever my mom comes to pick me up from the dumpster behind a crack house, I try to cheer her up by singing 40-year-old Bee Gees songs about … well, what exactly is "I Started a Joke" about, anyway?) I fully concur that Russell should stay crazy—no one hearts Huckabees more than I heart Huckabees—but I also feel little need to worry on that score.

For our last round, I want to propose a game we've played in past clubs to rewarding effect: Without bothering to mount arguments or formulate zeitgeisty questions, just give me some of the individual moments you remember from movies this year, scenes or lines or cuts or music cues (BrAAAAAHHMM!) that stay with you, especially from films that might not otherwise make the cut of being worthy of discussion. I'll start: Mari, the Japanese baby, rolling repeatedly on the floor in an epic temper tantrum about midway through Babies, that quasi-anthropological Anne Geddes-photo-shoot-turned-documentary that Dan definitively assessed in a Village Voice review consisting only of the repeated word "Babies! Babies babies babies!" Frustrated by her inability to manipulate a stacking toy, Mari gave one of the great diva performances of the year, surpassed only by Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Not much else of Babies sticks with me, but that little moment of recorded human behavior made an indelible mark: It was low comedy and high drama, and it made the whole film worthwhile. Anyone have a Mari moment of their own to share?

Yours,
Dana