The Movie Club

Running to 11

My 10-best list is intended as a prologue to the first installment of Slate’s Fifth Annual “Movie Club,” which will officially begin on Jan. 2, 2003. I know myself too well to imagine I’ll be capable of drafting anything coherent on Jan. 1, so I hope my fellow Clubbers—veterans Roger Ebert, Sarah Kerr, and A.O. Scott—will permit me to get a jump start. It has been an exhausting month. As my editor has pointed out, the holiday season for film critics is like the first two weeks of April for accountants. That’s especially true THIS holiday season, with many studios—especially those that begin with “m” and end with “x”—trotting out pictures for one week—or even one day—to qualify for the critics’ awards and Oscars.

As I scrutinize my balance sheet, I see that some of the movies of 2002 were unexpected windfalls and others more like taxation without representation. But on the whole I feel as of Dec. 30, 2002, like a very rich man. This was not only a good year for movies, it was a year in which the healthy influence of the American independent cinema could be felt at all levels. In spite of the massive dumbing-down that began in the early ‘80s with the rise of the blockbuster mentality and of conglomerates taking over studios, many passionate and talented filmmakers have found new avenues for breaking through and finding a limited (but sustaining) audience. And judging from my e-mails and the sundry chat groups I sample, it’s clear that, more than ever, the average movie-lover is something of a cinephile.

In the spirit of Spinal Tap, my 10-best list goes to 11—although it could have gone to 20. After the first film, the order is random. (People with way too much time on their hands can hear me read and discuss this list with the fabulous Terry Gross here, in the archives of Fresh Air.)

1. The Pianist (Focus Features). A classical movie, but radically limited in its perspective: It’s the Holocaust viewed from a weird side angle. It’s about a Jewish pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who manages to stay in the Warsaw ghetto when his whole family is shipped off to Treblinka. Then he manages to slip out before the uprising that kills virtually everyone he knows. This is not a movie about survival as the ultimate moral sellout: It’s a movie that suggests that this particular instinct transcends moral categories and, in the case of Szpilman (and Polanski, too), comes with its own set of horrors. The Pianist is a real Polanski movie: It’s about being shut away with oneself and going quietly mad. Adrien Brody gives a remarkable performance.

2. Chicago (Miramax Films). Not in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition but a Brechtian (or Dennis Potter-esque) vaudeville about bitches and SOBs who’ll do anything to be stars, this is the best movie musical in many a year. True, the numbers are out to kill you: It’s one colossal showstopper after another. And the dancing is too chopped up. But director Rob Marshall is also a choreographer, and if he edits too much, he has learned from Bob Fosse to edit in synch with the dancing—to make the cut an extension of the dance gesture. It’s sometimes an ugly, overcrowded movie; but Catherine Zeta-Jones emerges as a real musical-comedy animal, and the supporting cast is delish.

3. The Triumph of Love (Paramount Classics). I’m not sure why this movie hasn’t been more acclaimed: I guess not many people saw it. Based on a 1732 comedy by Marivaux, it’s a cross-dressing romp in the tradition of As You Like It set among too-intellectual people—it’s really about fear of emotion. The director, Clare Peploe, does it half-natural, half-stylized, as a sort of midsummer-night stage show on the lawn of a great estate. She often frames the action as she would a theater piece, yet she uses close-ups and jump-cuts to intensify the emotions. The result is not just the best theater/film hybrid since Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute (1975), it’s a movie that makes you love both theater and film a little more deeply. The cast is a treat, too—Ben Kingsley (rarely better), Fiona Shaw, and Mira Sorvino, who looks and sounds here like a classically trained actor.

4. Talk to Her (Sony Pictures Classics). One of the year’s best romances, despite the fact that the women are in a coma. It’s also a meditation on the ways in which couples communicate, or don’t; a study of loneliness; and a story of friendship based on little but shared longing for the unattainable. Pedro Almodóvar’s drama is mostly down-to-earth but with disarming jolts of surrealism: It swallows you whole before you realize just how incredibly perverse (yet incredibly sincere) it actually is.

5. Time Out (ThinkFilm Inc.). Laurent Cantet’s haunting psychodrama could be Exhibit A in The Year of Living Fraudulently—one of the many fascinating movies about hustlers, some of whom half-believe their own scams, to emerge since the New Economy nosedived. The con man here is not in the expletive-spouting David Mamet tradition. He’s a former hotshot consultant who now drives around, sleeps in his car, and sells investments in things that don’t exist. He wanders the bars of international hotels in a sort of stupor because that’s what he once did and is all he knows how to do. And the movie implies that one’s source of income has become so disconnected from the physical world that there’s no apparent difference between what he does mindlessly and what he did as a real consultant. Lefty European directors can be irritating when they rail against the inherent injustice of capitalism, but sometimes they’re the only ones who actually bother to scrutinize the system for Twilight Zone scenarios like this.

6. Igby Goes Down (MGM). In this funny but also dissonant and cruel teen comedy, first-time writer-director Burr Steers has found a way to tell the story of a deeply unhappy and fundamentally unloved rich kid without softening his jerkiness. That’s important because (c.f., Alice Miller) a lot of unloved people don’t end up like puppy dogs staring at you with big eyes: They turn into overly defended assholes. Igby (in a gratingly perfect turn by Kieran Culkin) gets slapped in the face a few times, and so does the audience. But the pain is bracing.

7. Far From Heaven (Focus Features). Todd Haynes’ Douglas Sirkian melodrama about forbidden love in Hartford, Conn., in 1956 is that rare pointy-headed, ironic deconstruction of a movie that’s emotionally accessible. Haynes has gone so deep into his attraction to Sirk that he has fetishized the conventions of ‘50s melodrama. There isn’t an image in this entire wide-screen film that hasn’t been meticulously worked out, but the actors aren’t deadened: Julianne Moore and Patricia Clarkson are both stylized and emotionally transparent, helplessly alive beneath their ‘50s suits of armor.

8. Y Tu Mamá También (20th Century Fox). The most creative use of narration this year is in Alfonso Cuarón’s wonderful sex comedy, which is about two horny teens who go on a road trip with a dishy married woman to a remote Mexican beach. Along the way the narrator interjects things about the places they pass and the people they see: The implication is that the boys have no notion of the corrupt class system that fuels their little sex comedy. By the end Cuarón demonstrates that, through the magic of cinema, a teen sex comedy can expand in ways we never thought possible: to be a study of sexual mores, a political allegory, a story about the impermanence of life, and a great teen sex comedy, too.

9. Lovely & Amazing (Lion’s Gate). An oblique drama by Nicole Holofcener about female self-image. It revolves around a woman (Brenda Blethyn) in late middle-age who decides to have liposuction—which might end up killing her—and her three daughters, the youngest adopted and African-American with a burgeoning weight problem. The centerpiece is a scene in which the middle sister, a thin and pretty actress played by Emily Mortimer, asks a matinee idol with whom she has just slept to scrutinize her naked body and confirm her warped (and yet, from an insane Hollywood perspective, accurate) self-image. The scene puts the rest of the movie into horrifying perspective. The film has some coarse touches, but it’s completely original and daringly unresolved.

10. Domestic Violence (Zipporah Films). One of those Fred Wiseman documentaries that can change the way you see the world. This one takes place in and around a shelter for victims of physical and emotional abuse in Tampa, Fla., and it gets at the dynamic of abusive relationships, at the sort of ecosystem of cruelty, like nothing I’ve ever seen or could imagine. One of the secrets of Wiseman’s greatness is his temperamental inability to force an issue. He makes people feel safe to go inside themselves and safe to come out when they’re ready. And the payoff for those stretches where nothing seems to be going on is a kind of heightened awareness of the density of ordinary life. He teaches us how to see. The word is that Domestic Violence will show up on PBS in early 2003.

11. Gangs of New York (Miramax)* The asterisk means I’m hedging my bets pending a look (I hope someday) at Martin Scorsese’s preferred three-and-a-half hour cut. In its present form, it’s a strange tribal blood-feud melodrama with hints of something larger around the edges. The movie builds to the New York Draft Riots of 1863—which Scorsese also seems to think effectively dealt a mortal blow to the kind of medieval tribalism that had marked the previous era. In the climax, Irish immigrants lynch newly emancipated African-Americans, then are shot down in cold blood by troops of government soldiers—explosively ugly stuff. The problem is that it hasn’t been properly set up. Still, how many American movies attempt to portray the sweep of historical forces in the manner of Bertolucci or Visconti? Or feature bravura turns like Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher—epically monstrous and epically human?

My runners-up: Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s animated parable, the meanings of which I’m still sorting out; the Spielberg double-bill of the larky/melancholy Catch Me If You Can and seven-eighths of Minority Report—a blast until its flat final act; Punch-Drunk Love, that peculiar, alternately discordant and harmonious performance piece for Adam Sandler and Emily Watson; the romantic S&M fairy-tale Secretary; the oft-enthralling Inuit epic The Fast Runner (although I was disappointed by the video image); Bloody Sunday, as expert a piece of faux-documentary agit-prop as any ever made; and large parts of The Believer, Insomnia, Femme Fatale, The Cockettes, About a Boy, and, yes, Solaris, which didn’t bore me. The scatological dumb-show in Austin Powers in Goldmember. I’d have Morvern Callar here, too, for its daring trippiness, if I’d understood a word anyone said.

Although I was not as big a fan of About Schmidt as some, I’m pleased to see its brilliant director, Alexander Payne, receive the attention he deserves; and Jack Nicholson’s climactic toast proves that sometimes the most restrained moments on screen can seem the most explosive.

The best performance of 2002 was by Diane Lane in the underrated infidelity melodrama Unfaithful—widely regarded as a “woman’s picture” but maybe more powerful as a male masochistic cuckold fantasy. The scenario is nutty, but it does give Lane literally scores of opportunities to make you feel like you’re looking through X-ray specs into her soul. Adrien Brody in The Pianist is just as remarkable. Michael Caine doesn’t play the title role in The Quiet American, but his performance is quietly anguished perfection. It was a good year for the Gyllenhaals. Also, in addition to those named on the 10-best list: Ryan Gosling in The Believer, Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can, Al Pacino in the ultimate (i.e., most monumentally stuporous) Al Pacino role in Insomnia, Catherine Zeta-Jones and everyone else in Chicago, Goldie Hawn reborn in The Banger Sisters, Edward Herrmann and Jennifer Tilly in The Cat’s Meow, Alfred Molina in Frida, Ray Liotta in Narc, Campbell Scott and the ensemble of Roger Dodger, Rhys Ifans in Human Nature, Chris Cooper in Adaptation, Andrea Martin in My Big Fat Greek Wedding,

Peter Sarsgaard in K-19: The Widowmaker, Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander, Susan Sarandon in Igby, Bebe Neuwirth in Tadpole, Parker Posey and Kyra Sedgwick and Fairuza Balk in Personal Velocity, and everyone who contributed to the heartbreakingly disgusting Gollum in The Two Towers.

I don’t want to do a 10-worst list in this good year, but I’m sorry that so many critics gave the alternately shallow and delusional The Kid Stays in the Picture a free pass.

The longest movie I saw this year was The Hours.

The low-budget indie picture My Big Fat Greek Wedding is of course the box-office story of the year. I liked the movie. It’s in an honorable tradition of broad, ethnic intermarriage comedies. But the most interesting thing about it is really its success. The movie has a very public, live-theater feel to it that appealed to an older, more middlebrow audience hungry for the sort of community theater experience that youth-oriented blockbusters aren’t giving them. They loved the way the movie reached out to them, and they loved that they could reach back and make it a $200 million-plus phenomenon. In a bizarre way, it’s the year’s most empowering movie. (But it’s fitting, isn’t it, that the executives with $$$ in their eyes don’t see movie sequels, they see a long-running sitcom?)

Some thoughts to start the ball rolling:

As one of the few critics unseduced by Adaptation, I feel a little guilty making the subject of adaptation (and of storytelling—the name of another movie that left me less dazzled than many of you) my Big Idea for the year. We can talk a lot about Literary Themes (such as the Year of Living Fraudulently), but it’s not always clear how conscious moviemakers are of those things. What they’re emphatically alert to are the ways in which a story can be told onscreen. Again and again you see screenwriters and directors trying to adapt great (or even not-so-great) novels and banging up against the limits of the medium. But now you see them routinely utilizing the sorts of tools (narration of all kinds, flashbacks and flash-forwards, cross-cutting, pixillation) that for long periods were off-limits to mainstream commercial cinema. Filmmakers not only have a mandate to tell exciting stories, they have a mandate to tell them in new ways—to invent new languages.

I think it’s great, on the whole. Yes, after years of complaining about the absence of any narration in movies (there was an unwritten Hollywood rule against it), I’m stunned that the pendulum has swung so far to the other side: A lot of films these days are like narrated slide-shows. But I’m grateful even to writer-directors like Rebecca Miller, who employs in Personal Velocity too-large swatches of too-literary narration—they prove that you can sometimes achieve remarkable intimacy when you straddle the line between fiction and cinema. (For an example of straightforward narration that sets up the dialogue sequences gorgeously, you can’t do better than About a Boy—a huge leap in storytelling over the previous Nick Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity.)

The issue of adaptation used to be confined to film schools and screenwriting seminars, but Charlie Kaufman has made it an issue for us all. He has also made an issue of Robert McKee. I went to McKee’s seminar and found myself hugely conflicted. He is a smart man; he speaks compellingly about stories that work and don’t work and the reasons why. But taken as a whole, his principles are anathema to those of us who believe that a story (even a commercial story) should find its own form—organically, from the inside out. If nothing else, Charlie Kaufman has proven that such restrictive principles can be entertainingly flouted.

On the other hand, the “initiating action” in Adaptation is “Charlie Kaufman” ‘s assignment to adapt a book for the movies, and the conclusion is the successful completion of that adaptation. So, maybe Kaufman’s script is deeply formulaic.

Maybe this will make more sense to me after a few bottles of champagne. Have a great New Year’s, drive carefully, and see you in 2003.