The Movie Club

Enter the Critic

Dear Armond, Charley, David, Stephanie, and middle-class cowards everywhere,

In case the link is no longer live, my 10 best movies  of the year were:
1. Million Dollar Baby
2. The Big Red One: The Reconstruction
3. Moolaadé
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. Tarnation
6. Goodbye Dragon Inn
7. Kinsey
8. The Incredibles
9. Tokyo Godfathers
10. Fahrenheit 9/11

Bourgeois bad faith! Banal sentimentality! Liberal demagoguery! Art-house snobbery! Something for everyone. If only I had thought to include Dogville—which I found fascinating as a formal experiment, thought-provoking as an interrogation of the psychology of fascism, and completely unconvincing as a vision of “America” (though not nearly as sour, self-satisfied, and sadistic as Spanglish)—then I would be forever enshrined among the hipsters, reactionaries, America-haters, “snake-hipped word-slingers,” and the other sundry straw men thronging your posts.

But perhaps I already am. I was moved by the somber tenderness of Million Dollar Baby and exalted by its easy grace, and what I wrote about it reflected that experience. Not everyone shared it, which is fine—a movie everybody loves is, in the end, not much use to anybody—and I’m not surprised that intensity of admiration on one side is matched by intensity of scorn on the other. I would say that to charge Eastwood with being conventional and manipulative is not quite adequate, since any list of consensus masterpieces would have to include quite a few movies that could be described in exactly those terms. Also, I’m not sure what purpose it serves (beyond a fleeting sense of rhetorical self-intoxication) to impute someone’s admiration of the movie to “ignorance” (as you did, Armond) or (what amounts to the same thing) to not ever having seen a movie before (as you did, Charley). This is not a way to start or advance an argument, but rather a way of short-circuiting the argument before it starts. I’m not ignorant! I do so know what I’m talking about! I have too seen a movie before! I know you are, but what am I! Paulette! Auterist! Blogger! Doody-head!

I don’t much feel like playing that game this week. Armond, I was much taken with your conceit of pairing movies—the idea that, for every over-praised, meretricious failure out there you might be able to find an undersung work better able to fulfill the same needs if only people were aware of it, and if only critics bothered to make the case for it. (As someone who was intrigued by Birth, with its odd fusion of Henry James and Luis Buñuel, I confess to being baffled by your account of its fortunes. Much as some of us schemed and connived to foist it on a naïve public, the public pretty much stayed away). But isn’t it also possible that movies sometimes exist in complementary relation to each other? Son Frère is a hard movie to watch, and a movie that deals with death and illness without the slightest hint of exploitation or sentimentality. It’s about the ethical obligations of caring for your brother (perhaps metaphorically as well as literally) and also about the irreducibly physical realities of suffering. I was perhaps not as eloquent or as passionate as you were, Armond, but I did my best to make a case for it.

But why should I have to choose between Son Frère and Million Dollar Baby? I suppose you could see Patrice Chereau’s aesthetic radicalism as an alternative—or even a rebuke—to Eastwood’s aesthetic conservatism, but it seems to me that these directors are using different methods to confront the same hard questions about love and mortality.

David, you asked about overlooked movies. Abouna and The Clay Bird come immediately to mind—two lyrical, humanist, deeply intelligent coming-of-age-stories, one from Chad, the other from Bangladesh, both arriving early in the year for about a week on a single Manhattan screen.

Among American movies, I thought The Terminal was unfairly knocked around. I liked it well enough the first time I saw it, more for the atmosphere than for the story, but its wisdom and generosity of spirit (qualities in chronically short supply in American pop culture these days) really hit home when I saw the impact it had on my 8-year-old son.

Who expects me at the swimming pool. I’ll catch up with you all later.