Dear David, Manohla, Jim, and Tony,
Hearty hellos to all and thanks as always to our host David, whose list and commentary last week and this morning is so rich and packed with goodies (and one or two wrongies, like Kill Bill) that it will take all week and more to respond to it. David, it’s great that you’ll keep us up to speed on reader complaints and contributions. Whoever wrote in to complain about that women-don’t-like-The Lord of the Rings piece in the New York Times has my sympathy. Whoever wrote in to say that Peter Pan is a new classic also has my sympathy, for being, to my mind, sadly mistaken. I thought it was some of the dullest storytelling of the year, not to mention inappropriately sexualized.
Anyway, Happy New Year—the more so, from my point of view, because this past year was a real crap shoot for films. True, there were memorable accomplishments to appreciate. There were so many brilliantly executed feats of craftsmanship that the general mediocrity was at times hard to perceive. And, yes, there were documentaries. I liked those a lot, too. But they were a consolation prize: I would be more than happy to slide them down the list in return for feature films with, say, wittier wit or more bracing cultural news to deliver. So, my list arrives with a great big asterisk stapled to its side. Several films on it I liked with reservations such that I didn’t expect to remember them come the end of the year. But time passes; the thing comes due, and here we are. I would trade a number of the following in to have one entry I loved as much as last year’s top five:
The Lord of the Rings
Lost in Translation
Man Without a Past
Être et Avoir
Station Agent/Swimming Pool/Master and Commander
Now, since we first started doing this a few years ago I have cut down on my tendency to spin out grand themes from the mere fact of a release date. So, some movies came out this year and they weren’t quite as good as last year or the year before. So what? But I do want to start off by pointing out a pattern that many others, too, have noticed but still bears more discussion:
Revelatory movies about children (Spellbound, Être et Avoir, Thirteen, and Bus 174). Weird new formula in movies about adults. You made a great point, David, about films that exploit dead kids in your review of 21 Grams (a film I liked better than you, because the gorgeous acting and the charisma of Gonzalez Inarritu’s direction triumph, barely, over the depressive O. Henry setup). The problem started a few years back. It was especially noticeable in the season of In the Bedroom and Monster’s Ball; and the success and coming film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones would indicate that missing or killed children have their role to play in modern fiction and could be with us for some time. But what is with the shocking number of films this year in which the plot or the character’s sole motivation—indeed, the reason said character is even a person of interest—involved either fearing or grieving the loss of a child, or (more rare) a parent? It’s not just 21 Grams—not at all. It’s The Station Agent, Finding Nemo, The Missing, In America (tomorrow I’ll explain why I think this is lovely in places but overrated), Mystic River (a good film in many respects, but ditto), The Son (ditto ditto), and Pieces of April.
I think we’re talking about something more than a device resorted to by cynical or sentimental screenwriters here. I think we’re talking about a cultural neurosis, or perhaps a new degree of influence on the cinema by the conventions of TV melodrama. In any case, to my mind it indicated a weird laziness, a temporary impoverishment, when it came to storytelling. The threatened family member as a kind of placeholder for a plot. I often got the feeling at the movies this year that the filmmakers’ imagination had atrophied. They couldn’t really think of anything else to say that would feel important enough, yet they couldn’t give up the idea of being important. This may be a reason why something like Lost in Translation—not a great film, but wonderfully comfortable with its slightness and grieving-mother-free—seemed so fresh. In the other direction, there were films like Master and Commander, which had almost no plot (though the few brief moments of emotional engagement did resort to dead children) and strove instead to create a kind of enveloping, diverting, moment-to-moment virtual experience. I missed the space in between these two poles—the space of interesting, economically told stories.
That’s it for now—back later, and can’t wait to get overwhelmed by the torrent of preferences and provocations you all unleash. Next time I’ll try to explain why neither Bad Santa nor A Mighty Wind did much to solve one of the gravest crises our nation currently faces—our great comedy deficit.
*Since I’m not thrilled with this list anyway, I confess to including Tim Burton’s father-son-reconciliation fantasy Big Fish in part just to tweak you guys, since if I’m not mistaken none of you could stand it. And part of me thinks you’re right: It’s garish, with major Southern accent issues and several episodes that feel like they came out of a can. And yet: Through all the corniness the film is quite moving at the end. And I appreciated its warmth and defiant non-realism in a year when so many big releases opted for gloomy verisimilitude.