The Movie Club

Good Year for Neuroses

Welcome back to “The Movie Club,” all. I’m grateful for your participation and hope you’ll keep that gratitude in mind if I get especially combative. Probably we’re all pretty vulnerable this year.

First things first. Slate actually asked me for a movie column that would run on Friday, Sept. 14; unlike those of you at daily publications (and with staff salaries) I had the luxury of demurring. From my rooftop I had watched one of the trade towers fall—I’d taken my daughter up to its observation deck several weeks earlier—and writing about a film that week would have seemed like reviewing My American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre.

At the time I thought that movies, let alone writing about movies, made no sense, and so I bashed out a senseless column called “No Escape From New York.” The following week, feeling as if I’d betrayed everything I believe in, I wrote another column saying that movies were more vital than ever—and that a way to work through our grief would be to watch the great films on the horror of war, from Intolerance to Grand Illusion to Forbidden Games to Open City to The Battle of Algiers to Night of the Shooting Stars to Three Kings. I also urged readers who believed in the necessity of a war on terrorism to refrain from turning for comfort to vigilante scenarios. A few weeks later I found myself arguing that the best movie of the last several years was one about righteous vigilantism—that argued, in fact, that vigilantism was a part of the natural order.

As I told A.O. Scott the other day when he raised this question, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the way that In the Bedroom slipped under my radar. It would have been consistent to reject it for the reasons I reject many vigilante films, mostly on the right but also on the left. (Ghost Dog comes to mind in the latter category.) But perhaps my response to it told me something I should have known all along: that my deepest reason for hating vigilante films so strenuously is that I’m a rather vindictive person, obsessed with my own impotence, and that I’m drawn to them. The impulse to fight them so hard makes me a saint or a hypocrite—or, I hope, something in between. It certainly makes me sensitive to the retribution fantasies that dominate world culture, from our country’s embrace of capital punishment to Osama Bin Laden’s obsession with avenging the slights against his brand of Islam. Perhaps I responded to In the Bedroom because it suggested that the impulse to seek retribution is inherent and is also the tragedy of our species.

My next favorite film of the year, Gosford Park, has a vigilante element, too, and Sexy Beast endorses the murder of a Cockney monster. Fortunately, I didn’t fall for Black Hawk Down. I think it’s a dazzling piece of filmmaking—Ridley Scott’s best—and I screamed with pleasure in a number of places when nasty Somalis with machine guns got blown to pieces (literally, thanks to the magic of computerized FX). But after cheering the sight of hundreds of anonymous Black Devils mowed down by Our Good Boys, I found myself disgusted by the movie’s persistent lack of political context. Only a deeply amoral moviemaker would embrace the subjective experience of American soldiers under fire to the total exclusion of any other perspective—especially in Somalia. You can believe in the essential rightness of that mission and in the courage of American soldiers and still despise the film’s sins of omission.

Here, by the way, is my 10-best list, which is actually another Spinal Tap 10-best because I’d already made it up (and sent it to the Village Voice for its critics’ poll) before realizing I’d left off Amores Perros. Rather than bump one of the many movies I liked more or less equally, I decided that my 10-best list (for the second time) will go to 11.

In the Bedroom
Gosford Park
The Gleaners and I
Ghost World
Sexy Beast
The Lords of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Shallow Hal
Mulholland Drive
Amores Perros

The ones that almost made it were: Intimacy, Waking Life, The Circle, No Man’s Land, Va Savoir, The Pledge, The Claim, The Tailor of Panama, and Baby Boy. I haven’t seen Iris, Piñero, Baran, or any of the other films (like Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders) that have one-week engagements in 2001 but are really 2002 releases. I’m not a Miramax basher, but it seems to me that the act of loading up the December schedule with one-week awards-qualification runs is too transparent (and cynical) for words. (I also missed some legitimate late December releases, but will catch up this week with Monster’s Ball—Roger’s fave-rave—and Charlotte Gray.)

Some quick notes about my list: Gosford Park, which I’ll review in Slate next week, might be Robert Altman’s best movie since Nashville—at any rate, it’s less mannered than much of his recent work and has those great British actors in clover. The Gleaners and I is that rare piece of first-person filmmaking that becomes a celebration of leaving the self behind. Apart from its stylishness, Sexy Beast won me over by being the wittiest goof on gangster homophobia ever made: It’s practically an allegory of homoeroticism leading to violence, from the boulder that crashes into the pool at the sight of the girlish poolboy to the climactic caper, during which men strip down and jump into a warm pool with long drills. I found every piece of the Mulholland Drive puzzle to be gloriously, glamorously creepy and was gratified that when I put them together the movie made an even deeper kind of sense. My most controversial choice, Shallow Hal, is in recognition of the Farrelly brothers’ daring humanism. Their films all feature the unprepossessing and the disabled as objects of both pity and fun: part of the same continuum as the rest of us poor bastards, laboring to make do with what a jokester God has bestowed on us.

The worst movies of 2001? Bully, of course, because Larry Clark is the anti-Renoir—he despises his nubile characters as he drools over them. Blow, because of how it turns a pioneering coke dealer into a moral straight-arrow in the face of historical fact. The French plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux, which is every bad French art movie distilled into 15 minutes of eye-rolling idiocy. Vanilla Sky for obvious reasons. Planet of the Apes for being the only soulless, emotionally perfunctory thing Tim Burton has ever done.

We are in the remarkable position here in The Movie Club of having two critics of wildly different temperaments, A.O. and Jonathan, who consider A.I. the best film of the year. It is a film I wanted to like, but the plangent, stuck-record yearning of its protagonist told me nothing about the human condition and everything about the way in which Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick have greater faith in machines. I can’t wait to tear into it with you’se two.

Movie I Wish I Liked More:Freddy Got Fingered. Back when I wrote for the Voice, I never dreamed the day would come that I’d be panning a gory, anal-expulsive comedy while my New York Times counterpart would be singing the praises of the transgressive artist. It would have been so easy to go agree with you, Tony, if Freddy weren’t such a piece of shit.

Movie That Might Have Made the List With a Better Climax:The Tailor of Panama. Someone clearly ran out of money …

Movies I Liked Made by Friends: the misdirected but mythically smutty Monkeybone; Josh Kornbluth’s Haiku Tunnel, an incisive office-tower comedy that had the misfortune to open in New York three days after the World Trade Center was destroyed; Michael Almereyda’s as-yet-unreleased Happy Here and Now, a gentle meditation on the fragility of identity in cyberspace.

Critic of the Year: David Manning.

Finally: The autumn began early with the death of Pauline Kael, and I still haven’t come to terms with the loss. To mourn her in public is to risk being branded a fellow-traveler, but I’ve spent the last several months thinking aloud about her legacy and I don’t plan to stop just yet. I’m glad that Jonathan Rosenbaum is on hand, as he was one of her most persistent critics but also someone whose writing she frequently admired. The fallacy of the “Paulette” conspiracy theory is that she didn’t enjoy the company of yes-men (or yes-women). Of course she wanted people to agree with her, but she also wanted people to come up with things that hadn’t occurred to her. She was a surprise addict—and she constantly surprised herself with her own responses. What I treasured most about her was the way she made music of her irresolution. I am proud to work toward the same ends but in my own way. I am proud to be a Paulinista.