Sundance. Critics struggle manfully to pin down an overarching theme that unites the hundreds of movies shown. A documentary opened the festival for the first time, and the most popular line is that 2004 was the year of documentaries. But was it also the year of black filmmakers? The year when fact and fiction blurred? The year of too many "hang-yourself-in-the-basement downers"? (Isn't that every year?) And how about the overall quality of films: "mixed-to-tepid"? Or an "unusually strong showcase"? Prompted perhaps by Peter Biskind's gossipy history of indie film, which focuses on Sundance and Miramax, many commentators noted the Hollywoodization of the festival. The Los Angeles Times points out that "there are more official corporate sponsors" than "films in dramatic competition." And the New York Times managed to find a real, live, "creepy" Harvey Weinstein deal-making moment. But really, who cares about the movies? Indiewire cuts to the chase: "While Sundance has delivered a solid crop of new American films," "it's the nightly unofficial parties that have consistently faltered."
The Butterfly Effect (New Line). The Onion calls "the casting of Ashton Kutcher as a dark, tormented genius" "one of the more plausible elements" in this thriller, which uses chaos theory as the excuse for lots of convoluted time travel back to repressed childhood traumas. "If the storytelling induces brain cramp," groans the New York Times, "the imagery brings on a bad case of acid indigestion": "Seamy motifs" include "kiddie porn, child abuse, inmate sodomy, pet immolation [and] smack-addled prostitutes," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Variety finishes off the turkey shoot, saying The Butterfly Effect"is poised for a theatrical life span scarcely longer than that of its eponymous insect." The film's only defender is the Dallas Observer, which argues that it bears "the hallmarks of Gen X ennui" and claims that "as a portrait of a people, it's effective and intriguing." (Buy tickets to The Butterfly Effect.)
Win a Date With Tad Hamilton! (DreamWorks). Critics find this "1950s movie magazine fantasy," about an innocent girl from West Virginia (Kate Bosworth) who wins a date with a movie star, almost as implausible as The Butterfly Effect. The film features "jokes that have been canned and stored in bomb shelters since the Cold War," says the Dallas Observer. But the movie lacks "the sly imagination and satirical underpinnings of the best sex comedies from that era," according to the Hollywood Reporter. Still, many critics find themselves charmed by youthful stars Boswell, Topher Grace, and Josh Duhamel: "There seems to be some kind of adorability sweepstakes going on here," says the Chicago Tribune. "They all twinkle their eyes, crinkle their noses and make both cow and bedroom eyes." And the Washington Post suggests we "forget Tad Hamilton—this is really a 90-minute date with Kate Bosworth." (Buy tickets to Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!)
Touching the Void (IFC Films). This docudrama about a mountaineer's improbable survival after his partner leaves him for dead "reanimates every blurbable cliché in the film reviewer's word bank," says the Village Voice. When the pair sled down thousands of feet, it's a true "white-knuckle ride!" And when one of them dangles over a mountain face, it really is "a taut, gripping cliff-hanger!" Critics are not just excited by the film; they also find themselves stirred to contemplate deeper matters. "At its heart," says the Onion, Touching the Void "contends with the physical and spiritual dilemma of facing the unknown." And in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane is inspired by an escape into the depths of a crevasse, calling "this passage into the underworld" "a true Dantean moment" that compels us to "read the movie symbolically—as a journey to the center of the earth, or farther still." (Buy tickets to Touching the Void.)
American Dynasty, by Kevin Phillips (Viking). An attack on the Bush family from "that rarest of creatures,"New York writes: "A Republican who has seen the light." (Phillips crafted Richard Nixon's Southern strategy.) The book, which paints "a gloomy, even frightening picture" of the Bushes' rise to power, is "more incendiary than the Bill-Clinton-murdered-Vince-Foster books" of the '90s, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. But it's "a thinking person's diatribe," says the Christian Science Monitor, and "the extent of research and knowledge here is impressive." The Economist disagrees, lumping Phillips in with Michael Moore and Al Franken ("how sad") and arguing that "the historical analogies are all over the place" (parallels with European royalty feature prominently). The New York Times wants less data (the research is all secondhand) and more dish: "We are robbed both of whatever firsthand stories Phillips has to tell us and of any way to judge the credibility of his animus." (American Dynasty.)
The Man in My Basement, by Walter Mosley (Little Brown). Bill Clinton's favorite mystery novelist takes a stab at what the Los Angeles Times calls "the Gutbucket Novel of Ideas." The book revolves around a striking concept: A white mercenary moves into a cage in the basement of a destitute black man's house. The novel, which contains echoes of Ralph Ellison and existentialism, reads as a kind of "Cliffs Notes from underground," says The New Yorker, and dialogues on the nature of evil (as it relates to U.S. foreign policy in particular) mark the first time Mosley "has been so blatant about the contemporary scene," according to USA Today. The Onion applauds this approach: The exchanges "have the crispness of a great legal thriller and the bottomless moral inquiry of a Beckett play." But the New York Times is glibly unimpressed by the philosophical nuggets on offer: The book fails to illuminate "the banality of evil," it says, and "suffers instead from the evil of banality." (The Man in My Basement.)
Voyage to the End of the Room, by Tibor Fischer (Counterpoint Press). Fischer made waves that rippled all the way across the Atlantic last year when he wrote a cutting review of Martin Amis' Yellow Dog. Though more polite, U.S. reviewers are not much kinder to his new novel, a postmodern travelogue about a woman who never leaves her apartment. The Washington Post detects the influence of a certain someone, saying Fischer's style "evokes Amis in the style of Martin with the Amis clearly influenced by following in the Amis of Martin bloody Amis help ow Amis." In the New York Times, Jay McInerney calls the book rambling and implausible, and picks off the low-hanging fruit: "Maybe someday he can look forward to a really vicious review from an up-and-coming novelist." Only the Washington Times sticks up for Fischer, saying that the "on-target social satire" "at least proves that his comic bite lives up to his bark." (Buy Voyage to the End of the Room.)
The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier (Dutton). In this follow-up to The Girl With a Pearl Earring, Chevalier uses a 15th-century French tapestry as the jumping-off point for "another lusty portrait of a bygone age that's infused with historical detail and forbidden romance," says the Daily News. Sounds formulaic, but the New York Times thinks Chevalier is "too careful and thoughtful a writer to paint by numbers," and Entertainment Weekly says she's "deftly braided" her characters' voices to create "the literary equivalent of, well, an ornate tapestry." (The San Jose Mercury News begs to differ, seeing "characters as flat as the figures in the tapestries they're creating.") The Detroit Free Press laments the absence of a good role for Colin Firth in the inevitable movie adaptation and questions Chevalier's historical accuracy: Her "young girls have a too-modern set of neuroses, down to the self-mutilation one girl practices." (The Lady and the Unicorn.)