The Movie Club

It Takes a Village

Hello, everyone. I’m thinking about starting a support group for gullible young critics who fail their critical duty by allowing filmmakers to pander to their gay complacency. Anyone want to join? (Hetero complacents are welcome, too!)

And thanks, Charley, for pointing out to the world that I’m not Jewish. You are correct, sir! But do you realize that you’ve fallen into the very same snake pit that you criticize Mel Gibson for trolling around in, by playing this game of “My Jewish critic friend’s death threats are better than your death threats,” and by implying that I don’t “get it” because of my religion? Here’s all I will say further on the matter: Both The Passion and Fahrenheit introduced me to scores—perhaps hundreds—of new readers who had never paid attention before to movie reviews, and who were eager to argue with me intelligently and enthusiastically. If that’s not a wonderful thing, well, I don’t know what is.

On to less divisive topics: I wish I could roll up my sleeves and fight alongside Stephanie, David, and Charley against Scott, Wesley, and Tony, regarding Million Dollar Baby (with a few pickaxes and chain saws, we could re-enact the playground fight in Anchorman). But, alas, every war needs its pacifist—so let me step up to the plate with a totally middle-of-the-road reaction. As I suggested in my review today, I liked the movie just fine, but Eastwood only navigates his way around the cliché minefield for so long before the Twist detonates and suddenly we’re watching The Sea Inside. That said, the Academy Award people need to invent an Oscar for Best Narrator and give it to Morgan Freeman—what a voice!

Scott, I wish I could have figured out a way to write about Before Sunset without sounding precious (“These characters are the voice my generation!”) or Oprah Winfrey Show-ish (“I, like Ethan, brood that every time I get something I want, I tire of it instantly and then want something new”). But I couldn’t, and eventually decided maybe it’s good for critics to have movies they keep all to themselves. I’m not sure it’s so healthy for us to be out there on everything. (Or is that my therapist talking?)

The readers (and David) asked for more talk about “mainstream” movies, so let me put in my two cents on the biggest hit of the year, Shrek 2, which many (including Tony, in his brief reference yesterday) call cynical. But where others see cynicism, I see a movie deliriously in love with all things pop—a movie that exists on its own zany plane where everything is a goof on other movies, fairy tales, comic books, TV shows, and so forth.

Wait a minute … wasn’t I just complaining about movies like that yesterday? Yes, I was! But in Shrek 2, the goofing also has teeth—I’m amazed that others don’t see the Shrek movies as political as they are. This one, especially, makes an impassioned argument against those who would seek to tell others who they can and can’t marry (an argument that felt especially resonant this year). Indeed, in jubilantly skewering so many other forms of pop entertainment, what the Shrek movies really seem to be saying is this: Don’t let your life be dictated by Hollywood’s standards, or anyone else’s—instead, make your own fairy tale. If that’s cynical, I’ll take two helpings.

More big hits that earned their paychecks: How about The Bourne Supremacy, with its go-go-GO aesthetic, and with Matt Damon’s surprisingly nuanced performance, as a stripped-down, self-loathing killing machine? Or the achingly tender, unabashedly hokey The Notebook, with its own revelatory performance by Ryan Gosling, who was so fiercely committed—so bursting at the seams with raw, flailing desire—that I was afraid he was going to hurt himself. And I promised to say a few nice things about Friday Night Lights, wherein Peter Berg’s camera throws you right into the muck and crunch of Texas football. The movie is finally too simplistic and falsely uplifting, but it conveys real disgust along the way about a system that has allowed high-school sports to become entirely divorced from joy. (Or at least the players on the Southlake High School football team, who packed the screening I attended, seemed kinda bummed out by the whole thing.)

After all our critic-on-critic in-griping, I’d like to end with both a little bit of optimism, as well as a call-to-arms. First the optimism: It’s obvious we were all jazzed by the last year of movies, and that’s a very good thing, because good movies breed stimulating criticism. I’m especially excited that so many of the jazziest movies were by emerging filmmakers—like Mean Creek, like Tarnation, like Open Water. And like Primer, a movie whose praises I didn’t get to properly sing. It makes not a lick of sense to me, but it moves like a rocket, it’s gorgeously made, and it hums with mystery and playfulness. I can’t wait to see what Shane Carruth does next.

But Scott, you’re spot-on: None of this matters a lick if writers aren’t willing to make a case for the movies they love, and if editors won’t listen to and trust their writers. So to all of you (and to all of the other professional critics reading this exchange): Let’s redouble our efforts this year to fight for space—column inches, Web pages, etc.—for the lesser-hyped movies that win our hearts and engage our minds. I’ll start the drumbeat by asking my editor publicly for 20 inches on Notre Musique (which I haven’t yet seen, and don’t expect to like—but I’m very curious; it opens here in early February). And to all the moviegoers out there who care deeply about reading enlivening criticism, I’d urge you to call the editors at your local newspapers, and at your favorite magazines and Web sites, and tell them that you care, and that you want to read about the new Godard, the new Kiarostami, the Breillat, etc.

It takes a village—preferably one without Adrian Brody as its idiot—to start a revolution.

This has been a true pleasure. Thank you again, David, for the invitation. And thanks to everyone else for keeping me on my toes this week.


P.S. If any of you will be at Sundance, please find me, wake me if I’m napping, and let me buy you a drink.