The Movie Club

Looking for Trouble in Your Top 10 Lists

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Dear all: Thanks so much for joining the Slate Movie Club this year. Two of you, Stephanie and Dan, I’ve happily clubbed with in the past, and the other two, Matt and Karina, I’ve long wanted to engage in conversation. We don’t get a chance to talk much during the year as we duck in and out of darkened screening rooms—especially since two of you, Karina and Dan, do your ducking in other cities. So this post-holiday Movie Club is always a dreamy week for me, a chance to take stock of those hundreds of hours we spend immobile in front of giant flickering rectangles. (Estimating conservatively, I’ve probably put in 300 hours at the movies this year, and I suspect I see far fewer than some of you.)

Since this first post will be the only one starting from zero, let me take a quick tour of all your 10 best lists—in Matt’s case, a roundup of video essays on the best individual scenes of the year—and see what rabble I can rouse. Dan, I notice you’re the only one of us to have put Black Swan on your top 10. I’m not asking you to defend that choice—I didn’t hate the movie, though I thought it failed on the terms it set for itself (more on those terms below). Draw me a flowchartof the pleasure you experienced in that film, because I’m genuinely flummoxed by people’s swooning love for it.

In his recent consideration of Black Swan for Slate, Dennis Lim asks: Is the film intended as camp, or is it appropriating camp tropes (the victimized ballerina, the passive-aggressive stage mother, the leering Svengali ballet master) to do something different? And if so, what? For all its virtuosic technique, Black Swan seemed to flail tonally, unsure of how to combine body-horror voyeurism with an after-school-special-like focus on the travails of its virginal heroine. Natalie’s artistic apotheosis at the end felt like a pure narrative contrivance. And—the one commonality tying together all of Aronofsky’s films so far—so little humor! (Though I did laugh at the moment when the dancer costumed as the evil wizard Rothbart passes by an overwrought Natalie in the wings and proffers a hilariously casual, “Hey.”)

Karina, I loved how you kicked off your Top 10 list with some musings about this year’s preponderance of epistemological mind fucks at the movies. Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I’m Still Here, and in the non-documentary format, Shutter Island, Inception, The Ghost Writer,and others asked the quintessential 3 a.m. dorm-room question you summarize as “How do you know that what you think is real is actually, like, really real?”

As soon as you start to think about it, the circle of films that posed some version of that riddle won’t stop widening: Dogtooth, Salt, Black Swan, even Greenberg all in some way forced the viewer to continually re-address disorienting questions like “Did what I think just happened really happen?,” “What sort of movie am I watching, anyway?,” and “How am I supposed to feel about this?” Some of these films (Shutter Island, for example) manage, or at least try, to pull off 180-degree genre shifts midway through. Others ( I’m Still Here) seem intended to mock their audience for having believed the bill of goods the movie initially tried to sell them. Given that your list hints at a personal predilection for movies that yank the viewer’s chain—Harmony Korine’s faux-found documentary Trash Humpers was your  no. 1—I wonder if you have further thoughts to share about the state of cinematic chain-yanking.

Matt, I was amused by how the scene from The Social Network that you considered worthy of close reading on your scenes-of-the-year list was my least favorite moment in the movie: the part where the Winklevoss twins lose a crew race on the Thames to the strains of Trent Reznor-arranged Grieg. And Stephanie, before the Club is over, you and I have to talk Somewhere. Now let me quickly fire up the Italian historical drama Vincere—one of Stephanie’s favorites—in the DVD player while Dan takes up the baton for the next post. It’s a full day’s work keeping up with you people.