Now here's a topic for CNN's Talk Back Live: Might Jean-Luc Godard (who?) be as great a threat to national security as Osama bin Laden? On September 12 at the Toronto Film Festival, at least, the vote on that referendum may have been closer than any other outside the Sunshine State. According to Toronto-based reviewer (and City Pages contributor) Mark Peranson, the Day After audience of Western journalists watching Godard's playfully un-American Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love) mistook their pens for assault rifles after shouting down the enemy onscreen. "Whoever thought film criticism ever had the potential to be objective," Peranson writes in the Village Voice's recent year-end survey of movie critics, "should have been in that [screening] room."
Probably so. But would the presence of every "objective" movie lover from Jeffrey Lyons to Jesse Ventura (who took this particular season to proclaim his great affection for Full Metal Jacket) have made any real difference? After all, this was the year when an alarming number of critics and paying audiences insisted not only on supporting escapist fare at the expense of more challenging material (that happens every year), but on attributing that preference to the need for national recuperation. Such a cure presumably involves our swallowing the fact that we simply shouldn't question certain things: whether Tom Brokaw ought to continue being regarded as a newscaster and not as an award-worthy actor; the consequences of making the hero green and the jackass "black" in Shrek; the merits of bloody revenge both onscreen and off.
Come to think of it, war always requires majority capitulation to "what has to be done"--and so do most war movies. The "You are there!" action in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (due here January 18), for example, all but commands consent to its own soldier's view of war as stated early on: "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that other shit goes out the window." Exactly: This was the year--in film and otherwise--when a lot of shit went out the window.
While some of us (including those whose combat experience is limited to Splatball and Sam Fuller films) might feel a lot more comfortable trying to deal with shit (and often failing in the attempt), I suppose it's not a criminal act to choose the opposite approach. I mean, if Rex Reed wants to write that the fate-fueled Serendipity is "Just the kind of movie we need more of now!" then that's his right as...um, an American--just as it's Miramax's right to use such an obscene quote as that to promote the New York-set trifle it scrupulously scrubbed to exclude anything that might remind us of what had happened the month before. But that doesn't mean that I'm not going to exercise my own right to call both acts obscene.
Speaking of my own critical subjectivity, displayed rather flagrantly below: There are reasons why I love some of the films on my Top 10 that have very little or nothing to do with "great cinema," just as there are reasons why you wouldn't dream of seeing In the Mood for Love six times (or is it seven?), as I have. In fact, some of the films I love most remind me that everything has a reason--one that's rooted in an infinite array of personal choices and circumstances rather than, say, in fate or magic or special effects. And that some of those reasons can't easily be known, or known at all.
One of the things I do know about my Top 10 is that it's full of American movies--more so than in years past. So, too, I know enough about what I don't know to allow for the possibility that my preferences might even be the product of "the new patriotism," as critic J. Hoberman phrased it while sampling the Yankee flavor of the Voice poll.
Still, on a certain level, I do know what I like. Back in August, writing about the Eighties retrospective at Oak Street Cinema, I confessed that, even as a kid during the most culturally and politically escapist decade in U.S. history, I never preferred evasive movies to difficult ones. ("Chalk it up to the romantic gloom and doom of adolescence," I wrote, "my own not least.") I recalled that my favorite movie in 1981 was Brian De Palma's Blow Out, in which an obsessive sound engineer (John Travolta) uses the death wail of the woman he loved as the perfect scream in a sleazy slasher flick--and then is forced by his job to listen to it again and again. The allegory was unmistakable even to a child: The most seemingly frivolous work is built, often ruthlessly, out of very real pain.
Twenty years later, my own obsessive work, at least as I see it, compels me to observe pain as well--and then to observe that this activity is something that the majority of Americans seem eager to avoid. In fact, the key distinction in culture these days, it seems to me, isn't between "art" and "entertainment" so much as it is between work that acknowledges pain (and politics) and work that doesn't. Which is to say that a lot of the movies I saluted most enthusiastically in 2001--and, for that matter, in 1981--may be American, but they're not exactly "American."
1. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Not since the most ambitious work of Kubrick and Scorsese have the style and theme of a film so strongly matched its maker's hyperobsessive methods. After two years spent in painstaking deliberation of everything from the title to the inclusion of a sex scene, Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai delivered this deeply sensual and profound tale of two married neighbors in 1960s Hong Kong who discover that their spouses are having an affair--while the jilted pair's own love remains (perhaps) unrequited. Should they or shouldn't they? The overripe array of reds, golds, greens, purples, and pinks in the mise en scène is enough to make you swoon. And yet every cut, every camera movement in the film seems to draw the director, his characters, and his audience into a kind of shared lament for the infinitesimal decision that has just been made and can never be made again. It's the sexiest movie I've ever seen--and the saddest.
2. IN THE BEDROOM. We must locate the ones responsible for these senseless acts and bring them to justice. Right? For his first film as a director, Todd Field adapts an Andre Dubus short story called "Killings," and he adopts the author's manner of drawing the maximum amount of symbolism out of a tale of terrible loss and impossible choices. Field's relentless attention to signs and symbols (the title actually relates to the catching of lobsters, believe it or not) is the perfect corollary to that stage of grief when the mourner finds precise and painful resonance in everything from love songs to license plates--not to mention movies. The point of In the Bedroom, made acute by recent events, is that there's no such thing as a senseless act--that explanations for "the unimaginable" are limited only by one's desire, or courage, to find them. And that succeeding in understanding hardly helps to lessen the hurt.
3. WAKING LIFE. Richard Linklater's eye-popping cartoon talkathon-cum-head trip is a triumph of interwoven form and content, a sneaky and perhaps even revolutionary smuggling of ideas into the commercial cinema, and, from where I sat, the first bona fide alt-film blockbuster since Pulp Fiction. The scene of Wiley Wiggins's character watching a movie about movies--and eventually floating into the movie he's watching--may be the postmodern cinema's ultimate hall of mirrors. But on a purer level, Waking Life, with its ultra-flared colors and pulsing figures, is beautiful enough to make you weep--and not from grief, for a change. Particularly in relation to the dead-end conclusions of In the Mood for Love and In the Bedroom, Linklater's magical film reminds us that in dreams (and sometimes in movies) we may recover what is lost.
4. MULHOLLAND DRIVE. And then there are times when dreams are not enough. Befitting the seismic ruptures in both its narrative and its heroine's psyche (not that there's any real difference between the two), David Lynch's most resonant representation of psychosis seemed to leave everyone who saw it feeling split between his first and second reactions. Me, I'm haunted by my own initial description of the film (after a single screening at Cannes) as a "tongue-in-cheek T&A thriller" that gave me "a guilty grin from start to finish." What was I thinking? The guilt, I see now, derives from the illicit pleasure one takes--consciously or not--from the spectacle of a woman's systematic humiliation and eventual collapse. (It's the semi-secret appeal of most any film noir, not to mention porn.) It's Lynch's ultimate point--consciously or not--to say that Hollywood is founded on granting such pleasure to some at the expense of others who couldn't dream their way out of a living nightmare if they tried.
5. GHOST WORLD. No haunted-house movie, this is a spookily insightful ode to self-aware teen-girl geekdom--the horror of the title referring to the supernatural vacancy of Starblockbusterandnoble monoculture and those hollow souls whom it possesses. If you're not already a cultural critic by hobby or profession, Ghost World bids to turn you into one, as everything in the frame--the cake-scarfing of a pudgy preppy at the big dance, the very special valedictory speech of a teen car-crash victim--exists for the heroine's merciless comment and, eventually, ours. And yet, like Enid Coleslaw herself, the film eventually dares to drop its defenses, deepening as it shifts from evoking sympathy for the misanthrope to saluting the bravery of those who find beauty in others' flaws.
6. EUREKA. At 225 minutes (sans intermission), this Japanese road movie-cum-Eastern Western can't keep the viewer's mind from drifting toward matters unrelated to what's onscreen: the utterly arbitrary nature of the standard two-hour film length, the comparative fraudulence of concise character studies, the exceedingly tender condition of his ass. It's the direct opposite experience of the Hollywood one. And yet if John Ford had been allowed (or inclined) to wander Monument Valley with the Duke for nearly four hours of real time, he might have concocted something like Eureka, whose laconic searcher suffers a debilitating trauma before taking to the road to find...himself. Like In the Bedroom, the film aptly characterizes grief as an interminable condition.
7. OUR SONG. Director Jim McKay's return to Girls Town territory mitigates the serious risk of redundancy by being an even better and more courageous movie--and that's no faint praise. Shot vérité-style in 16mm, and following another trio of working-class high school girls (Melissa Martinez, Anna Simpson, and Kerry Washington) through their everyday lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, it's as convincing as any doclike drama ever made. As Our Song owes its realism in no small part to the nonprofessional actors, McKay's opening "film by" credit is a list of several dozen members of the cast and crew--a startling antidote, like the movie itself, to the egocentric insularity that permeates so much of American independent cinema. Could this be part of the reason why, a full two years after it premiered at Sundance, the film has yet to open in Minneapolis?
8. STARTUP.COM. Not just an uncannily prescient portrait in microcosm of what buried the Internet boom, Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim's fly-on the-wall documentary is the most scathingly funny work of nonfiction since Roger & Me. And in this case, the victims deserve it! Succeeding by virtue of their subjects' failure, the co-directors put their money on a sure thing--that is, on the imminent undoing of a pathetic pair of twentysomething Web hustlers--and watch the bet pay off big time. Having howled uncontrollably throughout each of four or five viewings, I'd assess the value of entertainment here as nearly equal to what I lost in the market in 2001. Nearly.
9. HAPPY ACCIDENTS. Between Vincent D'Onofrio's genial alienisms and Marisa Tomei's sex-in-the-city jitters, this sci-fi-inflected romantic comedy from writer-director Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland) certainly isn't lacking for over-the-top Method. So it helps immeasurably if you happen to love the actors. (I do.) But where any romantic comedy (or romantic relationship) depends at least a little on chemistry, Happy Accidents is more about the considerable effort required to stretch that chemistry across time and space. In fact, the word fate--this genre's convenient excuse for contrivance--is never once mentioned.
10. THE KING IS ALIVE. No less a disaster movie than The Towering Inferno (and likewise predicated on the spectacle of beautiful people perishing in the most appalling ways imaginable), this last gasp of the Danish Dogme movement follows a bunch of privileged Western vacationers who get trapped in the infinite oven of the Namibian desert and decide to expend their remaining energies on staging an off-off-off-Broadway production of King Lear in which everyone plays the Fool. That the sole audience member for these self-pitying shenanigans is a native Namibian (Peter Kubheka) who watches silently from his desert shack (and periodically narrates the tragedy in voiceover) suggests the perspective that was conspicuously missing from so much "comprehensive" disaster reportage--just as recent history turned the movie from a good one into a great one.
The Rest of the Top 40
(in order of preference)
Any of these gems would have made my Top 10 in a less remarkable year: Under the Sand; Werckmeister Harmonies; The Pledge; The Circle; Beaver Trilogy; The Gleaners and I; Amores Perros; Cure; Memento; Va savoir; Series 7; Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.; Sexy Beast; Audition; The Day I Became a Woman; Hedwig and the Angry Inch; My Voyage to Italy; Baby Boy; The Vertical Ray of the Sun; Tape; Monsters, Inc.; Trouble Every Day; Lumumba; Spy Kids; The Road Home; Fighter; Keep the River on Your Right; Gosford Park; Ocean's Eleven; and Bully.
Better Than You Heard
These ten got a pretty bum rap, critically and/or commercially: Brother; The Fast and the Furious; The Golden Bowl; I Am Sam; Jeepers Creepers; Made; Osmosis Jones; Shallow Hal; Pootie Tang; and The Wash.
Musts to Avoid
Granted, I didn't see Tomcats or What's the Worst That Could Happen? These ten were egregious enough:
A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. So you don't agree that Steven Spielberg's latest display of birth envy is a chintzy-looking bore? Wanna fight about it? My robot can beat up your robot.
BUBBLE BOY. Disney's would-be wacky tale of an immunodeficient teen who pursues the girl of his dreams while wearing a germ-free bubble suit produces, among other things, the worst unintended metaphor of a movie year that was full of unintended metaphors. Hollywood is a plastic bubble, to be sure--but that doesn't excuse the filmmakers for not getting out more.
FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. Studio movies are artificial enough without what Columbia Pictures billed as "the first HyperReal computer-generated feature film." What Is Cinema? author André Bazin isn't just turning over in his grave; he's dropping a quarter in the coffin in hopes of virtually kicking Aki Ross's ass.
JOE SOMEBODY. The economy class of made-in-Minnesota movies has always drawn humor (or "humor") from the most pathetic variety of emasculation--something about the less-than-towering appearance of our skyline from the vantage point of either coast, I'd venture. Here, a wimpy corporate peon whose 12-year-old daughter sees him getting "bitch-slapped" by a beefy co-worker takes revenge--while our state's reputation suffers its worst beating since Fargo.
THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE. More notoriety for Minnesota--or is that less? The Coen Brothers' empty exercise in old Hollywood pastiche slaps together black-and-white "noir" atmospherics and the usual misanthropy in a manner that makes one long for the relative livelihood of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. The Coens' ponderous tale of a Santa Rosa barber was widely praised for its dark humor, but here's what's really funny: All those scissors on the set and still the shaggy-haired siblings couldn't clean themselves up for Cannes?
MEGIDDO. Those terrorists may have made Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage run for cover, but this Christian-funded vision of apocalypse now--culminating in the image of U.S. tanks and troops battling "evil" in the Holy Land--held firm to Providence Entertainment's divinely determined release date of September 21. The lesson: God budges for no man.
MOULIN ROUGE. At a time in film history when actual celluloid stands as endangered as original music in a musical, the corporate-jukebox aesthetic on display here bodes well for the fully digital cinema of the future. When beleaguered celebs like Nicole Kidman would rather not drive to the set to make their movies, they'll be stored on the hard drives of super conductors such as Rupert Murdoch, and double-clicked to duet with other virtual stars for a song.
MY FIRST MISTER. Leelee Sobieski plays a multiply pierced goth-punk chick who strikes up a close companionship with a bland, politically conservative, socially skittish, and terminally ill clothing salesman (Albert Brooks). Anyone who can stomach the premise (or the casting) gets what he deserves.
SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK. As sloppy as The Brothers McMullen, but lacking the excuses that come with a $25,000 budget, writer-director-actor Edward Burns's latest stab at romantic vérité contrives a ludicrous documentary device in order to allow more jump cuts than you'd find in a grade schooler's camcorder reel. Though the auteur's press kit has the nerve to name-drop Antonioni, his self-described "weird experiment" is only odder than Woody Allen circa 1992 for how much it reeks of cheap cologne splashed on unwashed cojones. (Don't ask.)
SUMMER CATCH. This teensploitation sandlot romance strikes out even more miserably than the sort of junior-high wiffer who'd want to catch it for pointers on how to score during that last, painful week of summer break. I'd rather catch crabs than catch it again.
You Must Remember These
In another great year for local repertory and festival programming, the (many) standouts included: the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Jewish, and LGBT fests at U FILM; "New Asian Currents" (e.g., Platform), "Women With Vision" (e.g., Caesar's Park), "A Look Apart," "Before the Revolution," Jung (War), La Libertad, and the Agnès Varda and Coffin Joe retros at the WALKER; ASIAN MEDIA ACCESS's "Chinese Film Showcase" at Metro State; "SOUND UNSEEN" at Oak Street and the Bryant-Lake Bowl; "Undercinema" and "DV-Cinema" at the DINKYTOWNER; The Man Without a World, the Twin Cities Polish Film Festival, and the 70mm series (e.g., War and Peace) at THE HEIGHTS; Stroszek, Falstaff, Hampton Alexander, and "Films by Joseph Cornell" at CITY CLUB CINEMA; Series 7, Cannibal Holocaust, and Elvis: That's the Way It Is at THE UPTOWN; Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine and Fighter at THE PARKWAY; Storm Over Asia at THE CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; IFP/North's "Cinema Lounge" at BRYANT-LAKE BOWL; De Palma's Scarface at THE MALL OF AMERICA; ATOMIC SHOCK THEATER's "Guerrilla Drive-In" series in the parking lot of the Grain Belt Brewery; The Doll Squad (with Ted V. Mikels in person) at THE BROOKDALE 8; "Flaming Film Festival," "Fringe Film Festival," and "Women in the Rejected Chair" at INTERMEDIA ARTS; "Who Grieves for Them?" at THE BABYLON GALLERY; Laura and The Passion of Joan of Arc at THE MIA; RED EYE's movies-and-music series in Stevens Square Park, and the Walker's in Loring Park; and Petulia, Weekend, Trade Off, Lumumba, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, "The Heart of the World," "Cinema 80," "Curated by Jean-Luc Godard," the Eric Rohmer and Budd Boetticher retros, and, natch, "Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival" at OAK STREET.
The following dozen Minnesotans (current or former) screened worthy indie work in 2001: John Akre and Trevor Adams (8500); Matthew G. Anderson (Twin Cities); Lisa Ganser ("Janestown"); Dean Lincoln Hyers (Bill's Gun Shop); Lu Lippold (The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall); Tom Schroeder ("Bike Ride"); Tara Spartz (I Hate Babysitting!); Jon Springer ("Heaven 17"); John Swon (peter); Jim Taylor (Run Some Idiot); and Bill Weiss (Now Hiring).
Ten to Watch For (or Hope For) Next Year
Having graced the film-fest circuit in 2000 and 2001, these variously marginalized gems would require only distribution to crack my Top 40 in 2002: Christopher Munch's The Sleepy Time Gal; Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También; Jia Zhangke's Platform; Chris Smith's Home Movie; Bruce Wagner's Women in Film; Manoel de Oliviera's I'm Going Home; Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love; Arthur Bradford's How's Your News?; Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo; and Abbas Kiarostami's ABC Africa.