The Movie Club

“It Was a Very Good Year”

Dear David, Roger, and Tony,

Warm hellos to you all, and a very Happy New Year’s Eve. Thanks for getting us off to such a juicy start. It’s been a good year, no? I want to second your praise of many actors and pick a nit or two, but to begin with here’s my list:

1. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat). I wish that Hollywood would produce an epic as simply engrossing as this Inuit myth of a hero harassed by a bully and his scheming sister. The story, carefully gathered from oral accounts by elders, then shot in unnervingly modern documentary style, immerses you in its exotic milieu until you feel like you could build an igloo. But it’s universal, too. It shows the tipping point in any human culture that leads to the first morals and laws.

2. Spirited Away. The great Japanese animator Miyazaki’s tale of a smart little girl in a rickety old amusement park, mingling with the oddest fantasy zoo of creatures—cute, majestic, and godly, spheres of gummy goop. Miyazaki combines a grownup’s humanity with the free imagination that many of us possessed at the age of 7 and that all but the geniuses lost.

3. Far From Heaven. Todd Haynes’ luscious, kitschy but compassionate riff on Douglas Sirk 1950s melodramas has a great social conscience without feeling humorless, disturbingly good sets and outfits that function like beautiful prisons, and transcendently good acting by Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Patricia Clarkson.

4. About Schmidt. Yes, it’s a little broad in two or three places, but it’s more often right on target and more engaged—angrily, lovingly—with this country of ours than most. I actually like the fleeting touches best—the nails-on-a-chalkboard wedding music; Kathy Bates sucking a meat bone bare at dinner and throwing it too loudly onto her plate. I see more compassion in it than critics who found it smug and tougher satire than those who thought it went gooey at the end. But more on this later …

5. I’m Going Home. A companion piece to About Schmidt, in a way, this study of an aging Parisian actor (the sublime Michel Piccoli) facing the twilight of his career, of his generation’s way of thinking about art, and of his own gradually exhausted body—tells you in a nutshell what cosmopolitan Europe meant, for a while, in the second half of the 20th century. John Malkovich has a wicked cameo as a pretentious, huckster Yankee film director.

6. Talk to Her. Though, like Roger, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s being ever so slightly overpraised.

7.Adaptation. Nicolas Cage as dueling schlemiels! I saw this very early and alone in the screening room for a long-lead deadline, and without fellow witnesses I wondered, is Charlie Kaufman sane? Is Columbia Pictures sane? Am I, at long last, sane? I’ll try to explain Thursday how I read the ending rather differently than Roger and David do.

8. About a Boy. David’s entry gets at what I so admire about this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, besides the performance of Hugh Grant, finally recognizing and exploring his inner pig. What’s fun here is the storytelling swiftness and shrewdness—like young Muhammad Ali next to the lumbering, always expositioning moves of so many comedies.

9. The Pianist. I couldn’t improve on David’s description.

10. Bloody Sunday. Enormously sympathetic performance by James Nesbitt as the well-meaning liberal who couldn’t hold back chaos; more intelligent and purposeful than so many you-are-there voyeurism fests.

That’s it for the time being. Now I look forward to trading ideas: about the trend this year toward ambivalent, arguable endings. About the success of smaller, niche movies across the country (welcome, except in the case of Her Big Fat Greek Annoying Phenomenon). About the best movie music in years—from lush orchestral scores to throat-singing to Caetano Veloso’s haunted-lullaby voice—playing a crucial role in almost all the movies on my list, not to mention Morvern Callar, and of course 8 Mile and Chicago. And much more …