The Movie Club

The Newbies Arrive

Greetings, all:

I met Tony briefly at Toronto last year, and I’ve been e-mailing with David for years, but everyone else I only know by byline—so, it’s a real treat to get to argue with you guys.

The gremlins in the Star-Telegram Web site seemed to have devoured my year-end piece whole, but here’s my Top 10:

1. Bad Education
2. Tarnation
3. Open Water
4. In Good Company
5. Shrek 2
6. Vera Drake
7. The Notebook
8. Crimson Gold
9. Fahrenheit 9/11
10. Kinsey

(I should add that I also adored Before Sunset—but I worried that I had over-identified with Ethan Hawke’s character and couldn’t maintain any real objectivity about the movie, so I elected not to write about it.)

But to the matters at hand: Like many others it seems, I read Armond’s posts with a heavy heart, and I’m grateful, Tony, that you said everything that needed to be said. I’m eager to take up David’s charge that we talk about actual movies, but briefly I just want to say to Armond (and to all of the other “film-culture-and-film-criticism-is-dead” doomsayers out there): There are plenty of wonderful critics, young and old, all across the country, begging their editors every day for column inches to sing the praises of movies like Crimson Gold, Tarnation, and even Son Frère; and there are more than a few daring, smart editors willing to afford them that space.

Maybe you just need to open your eyes and look beyond the reaches of the New York City subway system to find them. (Or maybe, as my therapist might tell you, you just need to stop reading the Village Voice if it throws you into such apoplectic fits.)

On to the fun stuff. … David asks, “Are we averse to discussing The Passion of the Christ?” By now I should be—but hey, I’m a glutton for punishment, and besides, it’s been a few months since I’ve gotten a death threat on my voicemail. Here’s the thing about dual phenomena of The Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11: They made 2004 a wonderful, privileged year to be a film critic, especially for those two weeks each in February and June, when everyone wanted to hear what you had to say about these movies. (And when all those readers were simultaneously praying for my doomed soul!)

For the record, I found the first 20 minutes of The Passion very intriguing (I loved that blue-black lighting in the forest and that Nosferatu-ish devil-chick), until it turned bludgeoning, repetitive, and snuff-y, while I found Fahrenheit moving, funny, and very brave. (One guess as to who I voted for in the presidential election.) But beyond matters of individual taste and political stripe, here were two movies that galvanized the culture in unprecedented ways; and two filmmakers who (for better or worse) finally came into their own as populist artists, by presciently seizing upon the election-year divisions in this country, and then exploiting them all the way to the bank. (Philip Roth and Jon Stewart did this, too, albeit with a bit more grace and wit.) Moore’s and Gibson’s techniques are as crass as they are effective—the crassness is bound up in the efficacy—and I suppose I should put my Serious Movie Critic hat on and brood that things like subtlety and poetry and visual imagination have long since left the building. But I’m much too intrigued by the possibility that we’re at the dawn of a new era of filmmaking, of the Filmmaker as Bully and Pop Ideologue, and I’m eager to see where the carnival heads next.

Indeed, as much as I finally reviled The Passion, I’ll take Gibson’s bluntness and nutjob proselytizing any day over the scads of painstakingly made, “technical” triumphs that got wildly over-praised this year. I’m thinking of Tsai Ming-ling’s gorgeous and staggeringly pointless Goodbye Dragon Inn; the maddeningly self-indulgent Life Aquatic; the maddeningly chatty Kill Bill, Vol. 2; and, worst of all, those incomprehensible and derivative Zhang Yimou martial-arts movies. (What all of you see in Hero is far beyond me. I see early Wong Kar-wai meeting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with some fancy Cook, Thiefy color coordination.) Gibson at least gives you something you can roll up your sleeves and fight about. These other filmmakers give you museum objects you can only bow down to and stare at. Lately, too, I feel like we’re seeing more and more of these hermetically sealed-off works—where the only frames of reference for the filmmakers, and their only larger concerns, are other films and art forms.

(Russian Ark and Adaptation, the two most overrated movies of this young century, leap to mind here.) Is this just me and my populism, or do others worry that we’re communicating to the next generation of filmmakers that “cleverness” and “stylishness” are the only gold standards that matter?

A few other thoughts I wanted to throw into the mix: For many years, I ran hot and cold on Almodóvar; and while I liked his recent movies, I wondered if the critical enthusiasm directed their way was a function of both their formal elegance and their plotlines about men obsessed with women. Which is to say: I wondered if the word “mature,” which kept creeping up in gushing reviews of Talk to Her and All About My Mother, actually translated to, “Thank you for not being so darn GAY anymore.”

But then along comes Bad Education, and it turns out to be exactly the Almodóvar movie I was pining for: as formally controlled as the recent stuff; as ripely erotic as the ‘80s stuff; as compulsively watchable as any thriller since The Silence of the Lambs—and clearly the product of a gay filmmaker unashamedly working through his sexual demons. At long last, Almodóvar seems to have freed himself from that cultural closet that expects gay men to be obsessively interested in style and camp (the odious Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) or “women’s stories” (Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, the third most overrated movie of this century). Except here’s the rub: Bad Education hasn’t been greeted with even half the critical enthusiasm of the previous two Almodóvar films, and it certainly doesn’t look like it’s catching on at the box office.

I pose these questions: Is this our culture’s latent homophobia at work? Or do others simply not find Gael Garcia Bernal soaking wet in his underwear as infinitely fascinating as I do?

Two final provocations, riffing off my Top 10 list, before I cede the floor:

I saw In Good Company in mid-November and naturally assumed it would show up on dozens of year-end lists. No dice. But it struck me as much more plugged into the realities of 21st-century adulthood and all its attendant disappointments than Sideways; and Topher Grace’s performance, as a twentysomething comer slowly realizing that he’s been sold a false bill of goods on life, is just about perfect. (Or maybe I’m over-identifying again.) I’m now calling it this year’s 25th Hour: The movie everyone will realize is a masterpiece about four months after it turns up on DVD.

And, David, since you invited me on here as a “young twentysomething whippersnapper” (albeit one who turned 30 last July), I’m tempted to say that anyone who doesn’t see how Tarnation synthesizes every major cultural/aesthetic milestone of the MTV era into one dizzying and haunting 88-minute package is just too obtuse and too old to get it. But since I’m not one of those critics, I’ll just point you to the long, gushy piece I wrote on it for the Star-Telegram, which you can read here.


P.S.: Was anyone else out there brought to tears by the despairing and terrifying Open Water, the most harrowing portrait of existential panic since David Cronenberg’s The Fly? Oh, and Mario Van Peebles gave the performance of the year, channeling the spirit of his (still-living) father, and then exorcising him, in Badassssss.