When I say I’m honored to find myself among the four of you, talking about movies of the year and decade past, there’s zero puffery involved. Scanning the roster of this year’s movie club fills me with dorkily genuine joy. Roger, I’ve been a fan of yours since age 11, when I wrote to ask you how I could become a movie critic when I grew up. The advice you gave in your prompt, typewritten response—”See all the movies you can, good and bad”—could serve as this grown-up critic’s resolution for 2010. Dan, you’ve become such an indispensable companion on the Slate Spoiler Special podcast that when I walk out of a screening, I often find myself texting you first thing: Just saw X, when can u spoil? (After years of untrammeled spoilage, I just hope we can get through this Movie Club without letting slip any key plot points.) And Wesley and Stephanie, I know from clubbing with you in past years how much energy, humor, idiosyncrasy, and passion you bring to these conversations—even, especially, when we disagree. Which we should now get down to doing.
For movie critics (at least this one), late December sometimes feels like tax season: a time for sorting and filing and compiling. But now that the lists are up (the trusty film site Auteurs Daily has a psychotically exhaustive list of lists here), it’s Miller time. I have all of your best-of lists right here, copied out in archaic longhand on Slate letterhead and spread out around me on the futon. And I have some questions. Given that all four of us have produced lists for both the year and the decade—all of them full to bursting with runners-up and alternate lists and annotations and caveats—it’s hard to know where to begin. But just plucking a title from thin air: Precious. It appears on two of your 2009 lists: Roger’s and Wesley’s. Dan and Stephanie don’t list it (but I know you, Stephanie, felt that the honesty of the performances was what saved the movie from becoming a social-issues tract.)
In the months since seeing it, my initial queasy ambivalence about Precious has hardened into active dislike. I tried to watch it a second time on DVD and couldn’t make it through. I agree with you, Stephanie, that the actresses are all astonishing, especially Mo’Nique, who should, and probably will, win a supporting actress Oscar for her role as Precious’ hateful and deeply damaged mother. But what irks me about the movie is how its relationship to these characters, and to the audience, doesn’t rise to the performers’ level of honesty. Precious is supposed to be about the heroine lifting herself out of abjection, yet the film itself wallows in abjection, hurling the awfulness of Precious’ home life in our faces and watching us squirm. I’m thinking in particular of the film’s treatment of food: the close-ups of pigs’ feet frying on the stove, the congealed lump of macaroni and cheese that Precious’ mother, Mary, forces her to eat, or the bucket of fried chicken that she steals, eats, and then vomits into a trash can. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, like Armond White, that these scenes are racist. Pigs’ feet and fried chicken may be stereotypical “ghetto” foods, but they’re also traditional soul foods sold cheaply in the inner city, and it doesn’t seem offensive or far-fetched to imagine characters like Mary and Precious eating them. But there’s a voyeurism to those aggressive close-ups of greasy-chinned chomping—it’s as if the audience is being encouraged at once to recoil from Precious’ world and to congratulate ourselves for being brave enough to confront it: a combination that I find complexly icky.
Another discussion topic for your consideration: Has it struck anyone else that two of the best lead performances of 2008—Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and Tilda Swinton in Julia—bear a sneaking similarity to each other? Both movies were about the steep decline and possible redemption of peripatetic alcoholic loners, and both hinged on story lines in which these loose-cannon drunks were temporarily responsible for the care of someone else’s child. And while Tilda’s name would no doubt get crossed off the list of potential baby-sitters faster than Jeff’s—he played a genial fuckup, she played a sociopathic liar and kidnapper—there was something about those lead performances that connects the two movies in my mind. Both Bridges and Swinton imagined the alcoholic’s life as a kind of theater, an exhausting and endless performance piece in which personal charm is but the most convenient means of getting the substance you need, and if that doesn’t work there’s always surly withdrawal, the threat of violence, or simply running away. Bad Blake and Julia Harris are characters who knew how to sing for their supper—Bridges by literally (and beautifully) singing, Swinton by giving a grand, self-immolating performance worthy of an operatic diva.
By way of launching this first go-round of exchanges, let’s all sign off with our worst movie moment of ‘09! As hostess, I’ll pluck the cherry from the top of that sundae: the Malin Akerman/Patrick Wilson sex scene from Watchmen, in which the two semi-retired superheroes make deep, ponderous, slow-motion love in a hovercraft perched low over the city, to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (a song that’s strong enough to survive this association unbesmirched, but only after a thorough mental laundering). Which aspect of Patrick Wilson’s on-screen climax is more mortifying—his sweaty close-up grimace or the cut to flames jetting out of the ship’s engine—may be the lasting movie conundrum of ‘09. I wish you all a new year and decade free of any moments resembling that one, either at the movies or, God forbid, at home. And with that, the torch goes to Mr. Ebert.
Let the games begin!