The Movie Club

Five critics dish over the year in film.

My colleagues and friends,

Welcome to Slates third “Movie Club,” and thanks for agreeing to mix it up. A funny thing struck me in looking over my reviews this year: Without meaning to, I’ve turned into a mainstream critic. In part this happened because I pay closer attention to my national, Hollywood-oriented readership than I’d like to admit; and in part because I was less enchanted than some of you by such mannered, allusive fare as TheWind Will Carry Us, Beau Travail, Time Regained, and George Washington (the last of which I heard accurately described as Gummo directed by Terrence Malick). Although I remain as severe a critic of Hollywood as ever, I have nonetheless allowed the studios to dictate my agenda, with the result that I simply passed over works that–like them or hate them–demand to be grappled with.

Probably my conscience is flaring because J. Hoberman will be chiming in here, and I learned a lot from him in my five years at the Village Voice about creating one’s own agenda and sticking to it. Another reason is that Jonathan Rosenbaum (a participant in the first Movie Club) has written a bellicose new book (surprise!) about the suppression of great movies by–among others–the mainstream press. I don’t fully accept the blame (as A.O. Scott will confirm; he wrote an extremely warm and positive review of The Wind Will Carry Us for the NewYork Times and was deluged with hate mail), but I do believe that critics have a responsibility at least to spread the word about the existence of other voices, other ways of distilling reality.

In my defense, critics also have a responsibility to offer richer, more nuanced takes on movies that the multiplex audience might actually see, and I’ve gotten hundreds of profane missives for attacking Gladiator (a movie that pretended to critique mob violence but did a sterling job of inspiring it), Mission: Impossible 2, and What Women Want. Many of my choices for the year’s eight (not 10 this year) best films have Hollywood money but actively beckon to the avant-garde.

1) Traffic
2) You Can Count on Me
3) Before Night Falls
4) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
5) Hamlet*
6) Yi Yi
7) Gun Shy
8) Chicken Run

The asterisk is because Hamlet’s director and adaptor, Michael Almereyda, is a friend, and while I’ll defend this choice with a rapier as being one of the 10 best Shakespeare adaptations ever made, I must in good conscience disclose my loyalties. It’s too bad that the buddies of Philip Kaufman–who fell all over themselves overpraising Quills–didn’t attach similar disclaimers to their reviews, some of which appeared months ahead of the film’s release. (I have even worse things to say about longstanding enemies of Kaufman who damned the movie to hell without disclosing their own prejudices.) It’s also too bad that Hamlet’s distributor, Miramax, which has all but abandoned fringy, small-scale films in pursuit of middlebrow Oscar bait like Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love, tested Hamlet on the multiplex crowd, were horrified by the numbers, and buried the movie without a second thought.

I loved the wide canvas of Traffic, the off-center framing, the loss of moral gravity, and I thrill to a mainstream director (I consider Steven Soderbergh mainstream in the best sense) who has a compulsion to mess up his surfaces and muddy his waters. It’s too bad that, in his book on Richard Lester, Soderbergh devotes a lot of space to disparaging the very idea of film critics–which is odd, since critics have supported him in huge numbers throughout his career and have made it a mission to help Traffic reach the biggest possible audience. I expect idiots like Alan Parker and Roland Emmerich to belittle criticism; I’m depressed when a thoughtful guy like Soderbergh treats us as irrelevant and parasitical. 

I accept Robert Hughes’ assertion that Basquiat was a film about the world’s worst dead artist by its worst living artist. That said, it was a terrific movie, and Before Night Falls is even better. Julian Schnabel might be one of the art world’s most obnoxious figures, but he’s also a great–and daring–filmmaker. I have sympathy for his editors–I get the feeling he dumps a lot of very evocative but disjointed footage in their laps–and yet the vision is all of a piece. Schnabel also has in Javier Bardem a gorgeous camera subject.

Crouching Tiger has been written about to death, but with Hong Kong-style martial-arts movies sweeping both the art house and the multiplex (in the form of Charlie’s Angels and M: I2), it’s time to recognize that the Chinese have conquered. And let me welcome the conquerors: In some ways these movies are as dumb as their old-style Hollywood counterparts, but they’re also wilder, more graphically ingenious, and more formally dazzling.

Readers can refer to my pieces on You Can Count on Me, Crouching Tiger, and so on, but I’ll bet no one remembers Eric Blakeney’s Gun Shy, which came and went so quickly last spring. At its one New York press screening Elvis Mitchell and I were the only ones laughing, but I’ll go to the mat and say it’s a screwball classic–and the only comedy of its genre to make the standard subtext (the hero’s inability to loosen up and release his bowels) the actual text: The free-spirited heroine (Sandra Bullock) literally cleans out his colon and puts him to work with manure in her garden. (This is my annual excremental pick.)

I wasn’t invited to any screenings of The House of Mirth (its publicists evidently don’t consider me a real critic), and thus I haven’t seen it and won’t be discussing it here or voting for it in any category at the upcoming National Society of Film Critics meeting. The same PR company handled You Can Count on Me, but I went to the theater to check that out and am glad I did. I hate to make artists pay for their publicists’ omissions, but I don’t know any other way (beyond the e-mails and phone calls) to say, “Sir (or Madam), I exist.” I have little use for critics’ societies and only flaunt my memberships because it gives me more bargaining power at awards time. Regardless of the size of our readerships, online critics are mushed into the same category–many studios see no difference between legitimate online magazines and critics with sites called “Joe’s Movies.” Other possibly major films that I have missed–Shadow of the Vampire, The Gift, L’Humanité–are strictly my own fault, and I look forward to catching up with them.

In future exchanges, I’d like to discuss the late charge of Yi Yi, the influence of Bamboozled even among those of us who loathed it (look at how we greeted The Legendof Bagger Vance), the inexplicable groundswell for Gladiator, etc. But it’s time to get negative.

The worst movie of the year: Battlefield Earth? Nah, too easy. I vote for The Patriot, a film about a veteran slaughterer of Native Americans who dresses up like a Native American so he can righteously bash in Limey heads with a Cherokee tomahawk–not for reasons that have anything to do with patriotism, but because they blew away his little son. As history, as politics, as art: Is there a level on which this vigilante/militia wet dream isn’t a crime? Banner scene: Gibson tosses rifles to his kids in a bit designed to provoke orgasmic yelps from gun activists and tsk-tsks from liberals. I didn’t take the bait, though. I said I was squarely behind the right to bear arms in the 18th century.

Runners Up: Dancer in the Dark was an appalling piece of work, one of those supposedly feminist films in which a woman chooses martyrdom when it would take five minutes to clear everything up. Bjork has managed to convince herself that she’s playing a saint, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lars von Trier just thinks the essential nature of women is masochistic idiocy. More faux feminism: A critic for a major publication reportedly told his colleagues that Nurse Betty was the best American comedy since Annie Hall. I don’t know; I liked the scalping scene in Annie Hall better. Howthe Grinch Stole Christmas was for me a miserable experience, a bloating and disfiguring of something that in its original form was wise, elegant–perfect.

I’ve been dipping into Dorothy Parker of late, and what strikes me about her criticism isn’t her insights into the work–she had few, or at least few she cared to share with the reader–but the relish with which she took on the audience. She had radar for the ways in which it flattered itself, for its lack of critical intelligence. Perhaps it’s suicidal for me to say this in a medium as dependent on reader “hits,” but I feel more strongly than ever that a critic has no responsibility to mirror public consensus and more responsibility than ever to take it on. An audience that can watch Gladiator or The Patriot or What Women Want uncritically, without tolerating other peoples’ nuanced responses, deserves to be goaded and at times insulted.

I open the floor.