The Movie Club

Acting Up

I just received Jonathan’s list and need some time to absorb it. (I can’t believe I’m in the minority—one against three—on Match Point. I’m going to start looking around for giant desiccated pods. …)

In the meantime, grateful as the majority of our readers are for such deep and far-reaching discussions of films like Munich and Brokeback Mountain, one hears the occasional plea for a more inclusive and egalitarian discourse—i.e.: “Blah blah blah. Where’s your editor, asshole? Why don’t you talk about movies that some of us have actually seen?”

I thought perhaps I should list some other 2005 titles—movies we haven’t spent much time on—to jog our memories:

The Aristocrats, Bee Season, Bewitched, Breakfast on Pluto, Broken Flowers, Brothers Grimm, Capote, Casanova, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chicken Little, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Cinderella Man, The Constant Gardener, Crash, Dark Water, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Domino, The Dukes of Hazzard, Elektra, Elizabethtown, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Everything Is Illuminated, The Family Stone, Fantastic Four, Good Night, and Good Luck, Grizzly Man, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Head-On, Hustle & Flow, In Her Shoes, The Interpreter, The Island, The Jacket, Jarhead, Junebug, King Kong, Kingdom of Heaven, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Kung Fu Hustle, Last Days, The Longest Yard, Lord of War, Lords of Dogtown, Madagascar, March of the Penguins, Memoirs of a Geisha, Millions, Monster-in-Law, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Murderball, Mysterious Skin, North Country, Oliver Twist, The Pacifier, Paradise Now, Pride & Prejudice, The Producers, Proof, Red Eye, Rent, Robots, Rumor Has It, Serenity, Shopgirl, Sin City, The Squid and the Whale, Star Wars—Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Transamerica, The Upside of Anger, Walk the Line, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Weather Man, Wedding Crashers

Where to begin … I’m in the minority on Capote, having had problems with its funereal, Village of the Damned tone and its relentlessly judgmental treatment of its protagonist, but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance supplies the missing soul—the transformation really is miraculous. I was stunned that Cinderella Man did as badly at the box office as it did, since I think it was a beautifully done piece of utter bullshit. The problem, I think, is that we rarely see the schism between life and art as vividly as we do here. We watch Russell Crowe play—superbly—a scene in which this boxer and man of nonviolence Jimmy Braddock holds himself movingly in check when Max Baer suggests his wife come for a visit after he kills her husband in the ring; and we think, simultaneously, of a poor, uncomprehending desk clerk brained with a broken telephone.

Did any of you like Crash, a movie with a structure worthy of a bad 19th-century melodrama that proves it’s just as bogus to make race a relentless, all-defining issue as it is to make it a non-issue? How about Domino, the second-worst movie of the year, in which Tony Scott (the director, not the critic) proves that you can shoot a scene from 30 different angles, never repeat a shot, and still not once put the camera in the right place? Do we have any defenders of the surprise nonsmash Hustle & Flow, with its urban-pimp variation on The Sound of Music’s inspirational “Climb Every Mountain”—”Whup That Trick”? Anyone appreciate Jarhead, a movie about the hell of not shooting Iraqis that I feel I ought to have liked more than I did? Has anyone other than Time and the author of the (much better) book surrendered to the face-powder-deep Memoirs of a Geisha?

Should we let the end of the Star Wars saga pass without at least a hearty huzzah—or one last raspberry? Thinking back over those poor actors—speaking the unspeakable while stuffed and mounted on blue screens absent Creatures To Be Computerized Later—makes me appreciate Naomi Watts’ little vaudeville act (and her tears) opposite what must have been a bunch of pulleys manned by hairy, leering Kiwis.

I watched Robin Wright Penn’s performance in Nine Lives the same way I stare at a great painting or photograph: What was captured existed only for an instant but transcends its time and place. Even an actor will look back on such a performance and think, “Was that me?”

Serious film criticism—which I don’t write but do read—rarely devotes much space to acting, which is why I want to mention some of my favorite performances (after Robin Wright Penn—and, for that matter, Kathy Baker, Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek, and nearly everyone else in Nine Lives). As “Bree,” a man in the process of a sex change in Transamerica, Felicity Huffman deconstructs and reconstructs a woman before our eyes. Bree’s movements are studied and often a beat off, but the character’s joy in assuming his/her new role shines through.

Jeff Daniels deserved all the acclaim he got for The Squid and the Whale as a dethroned king whose subjects had dwindled down to one—his son. I’ve been remiss in not also recognizing the work of Jesse Eisenberg as that son, an unattractive little shit who somehow holds the whole movie together.

I’ve saluted John C. Reilly in Dark Water and Ralph Fiennes in Harry Potter—and should also mention Fiennes in The Constant Gardener, his emotions going whoosh along with all that streaky camerawork.

Sibel Kekilli gives the sort of raw performance in the German-Turkish love story Head-On that makes you worry about her safety and sanity—while at the same time you know, somehow, that she’s in control of what she’s doing, and that the performance has been cunningly shaped. Amy Adams is just as naked—and just as in control—as the pregnant, pathetically envious chatterbox in Junebug. (The object of her envy is Embeth Davidtz, who keeps her irritating character tantalizing, and who does, indeed, have the “purtiest” legs since Cyd Charisse.) With help from good writing and directing, Maria Bello takes a character that might have been peripheral (or downright intrusive) and makes her the center of A History of Violence—the person whose emotions matter most.

It can be marvelous fun to watch an actor dial him- or herself back. Donald Sutherland’s slightly groggy Mr. Bennett in Pride & Prejudice has so much soul and even a hint of the counterculture. Never more grave, immobile, or witty, Frank Langella radiates power as William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck. And did anyone enjoy Gary Oldman as much as I did in Batman Begins? Only that kind of hot-dog showboater would dare to play an ordinary man (Officer—the future Commissioner—Gordon) as that ordinary.

Will you each consider talking about a performance this year that really startled you—that made you rethink your preconceptions about an actor, a character, or even, Lord help us, a species? (Tony: Do you want to talk about Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin …?)

There’s another subject I’d like to consider in the next day, one that’s normally outside the purview of critics: the future of exhibition.

For advance screenings in New York, the studios are so obsessed with keeping people from videotaping off the screen and distributing via the Internet that they practically do cavity searches before they let you in, and sometimes you can’t even concentrate on the movie because there are huge guys in the front of the screen staring at you with night-vision goggles. (At one movie I took to sticking my middle finger up whenever I saw the red light shining in my direction—which of course was incredibly unfair to the filmmakers whose work I should have been paying attention to.) It won’t be long before this private culture of which we’ve spoken gets even more private, and most of the movies we see are downloaded to watch on our widescreen TVs (or tiny iPods). One well-known exhibitor is trying to close the three-month window between theatrical and video releases, so that you can choose either to go to the theater or to buy the movie. I hate that idea—but then, I know I’m in a pretty rarefied position living in New York and getting paid to see movies.

I’m sure that you—Jonathan, Tony, and Scott—have sat on enough exhibition panels or gotten drunk with enough distributors to have thought long and hard about this subject. Is there anything to be said? Or should we resign ourselves to sitting back and watching it happen?