Pseudonym and Euonym
468 · 15 January 04
In music, it's my standing policy that for your top-ten list to be meaningful, you need to have heard a hundred new albums that year. This is arbitrary, not to mention arrogant, but I think the idea is basically valid. List-making is a silly enterprise at best, but if it's going to of any significance at all, it ought to involve real selectivity, and ten percent seems like a useful quantification of what I mean by "real" in this context. In movies, maybe ten percent is asking too much, or maybe it just seems that way to me because I spend so much more time on music than movies. But if we double our permissiveness for movies, and say that you have to have seen fifty movies to earn a top-ten, then that's essentially a movie a week, and I'm prepared to stipulate that anybody who sees a movie a week all year ought to be able to make a top-ten list.
I didn't see a new movie a week last year. My life changed, and movie-going plummeted way down my priority list. I'd already seen only half as many movies in 2002 as I did in 1998, and in 2003 the rate halved again. I saw thirty-one movies, so by my own math I deserve only a top-six list, and my attendance was haphazard enough that I wouldn't even claim that. There were far too many important movies I didn't see, by any standard of "important", for me to implicitly equate the ones I missed with the ones I didn't love. But obviously this is no great loss. I'm not a film critic, even in the incredibly limited sense in which I'm a music critic. I just like movies.
And oddly, seeing fewer movies didn't result in my liking proportionally fewer movies. In 2003 I didn't see a single new movie I would characterize as Awful, and only two I called Bad and one OK. Since I started keeping a list, in 1997, I've seen a steady average of about sixteen movies a year I noted as Very Good, and even with a sample size of less than twice that, I again saw sixteen I liked that much. So I don't deserve a top-ten list, and what follows is not one. I have no idea how many movies there were last year that deserve your attention more than any of these. But I saw a bunch of movies I liked, and here are ten I particularly recommend, in order of my random enthusiasm.
Down With Love
I didn't see a more frivolous movie all year, but Down With Love approached its frivolity with such astonishing glee and invention that I felt happier watching it than I did during any other hours in a theater. This may be the smartest brainless movie I've ever seen, and my favorite secret ballet since Roxanne. Renee and Ewan glide through it like guilelessly precocious children in their parents' party clothes, the production design makes the original Batman look like Down by Law, and Renee's reveal-all speech slots into my all-time honor roll of great movie moments somewhere in between the brain-fever finale in Soapdish and Jessica Stein's excised "We don't click" self-analysis. I'm not sure we've ever depicted the human capacity for playfulness more purely.
Les Invasions Barbares
A bitter man gathers his cattily flawed friends to bear witness to his final withering failing-grade self-assessment and punctuating death. This sounds abjectly depressing, and it can't help too much that it's a character sequel to a seventeen-year-old movie that already reliably produced blank looks when I listed it as one of my favorites. But it's a movie about unheroic people called upon to do heroic tasks unheroically, and thus a vitally human document of how real people survive as long as they do. We're supposed to aspire to die with dignity, but maybe it's harder and more honest to die as we live.
From the makers of eighty minutes of close-ups of bugs eating come ninety-eight minutes of close-ups of birds flying. This is less a movie than an exhibit of motion photography, but it takes us into a world people have never been able to enter before, and as absurd as this probably sounds, I feel genuinely grateful that I am alive in the time when we began to devise these ways to escape ourselves.
The Return of the King
Gratefulness isn't usually the emotion that assembles lists, but my second gratefulness in movies last year was that I was alive to see The Lord of the Rings done justice in movies. You can't actually film writing, of course. The media are not isomorphic, so inspiration must substitute for translation. Given that structural constraint, though, Peter Jackson came closer than I felt any right to hope or demand. Quibbling about the plot changes and character tweaks misses the point: the books are a reference-standard of world- and legend-creation in writing, and Jackson's movies are now a corresponding reference-standard of the same epic impulses in film.
All the Real Girls
As quiet as The Lord of the Rings is loud, David Gordon Green's second movie leaves me suspecting and hoping that he will be another director I count on like I count on Hal Hartley. All the Real Girls is far closer to a movie rendition of Raymond Carver's understanding of human frailty than the jump-cut plot chaos of Short Cuts ever was, but if Carver's genius was to hear, in the tiniest echoes of dissipated dreams, the remembered potential that produces action in the apparent absence of hope, then Green traces back and reconstructs the last heartbreaking nights before lost souls concede their fate, maybe looking for what adheres to the insides of lives even as they empty.
Lost in Translation
A cross of sorts between All the Real Girls and Yi Yi in emotional geography, this is a collection of captured glances across the void that opens between youth's fear to step into a life in front of us that we don't recognize, and age's helpless feeling that the current of our own life has carried us out of it. There aren't a lot of better movies about loneliness, and even fewer with the courage to not pretend to solve it.
Children's stories are important to children as ways of describing the tests that growing up will entail, but maybe even more important to adults as checks of whether we remember the difference between the basic things we know and the trivia.
The Triplets of Belleville
Imagine Brazil redone as a silent melodrama by Guy Ritchie, or The City of Lost Children hand-drawn by Gary Larson on a plan by Mervyn Peake, or Nick Park adjudicating concept custody in a Dalí/Escher divorce suit.
Pixar movies are fun, I think, because they remember that animation is a tool for storytelling, instead of story being a way to justify drawings as a basis for product tie-ins. But their movies are important, I think, because they chart the state of the historically radical notion that storytelling tools are subject to technological progress. If the Academy Awards were organized by artistic purpose, rather than superficial genre or distribution format, Finding Nemo would belong to the same Portraits of Other Worlds category as Winged Migration. But then it would be a pity that only one could win.
It's good to watch people try to be good at something for no practical reason. It's sad that there aren't as many routine opportunities for this in adult life as there are for children. It's profoundly tragic that the hyperactive kid with the robot voice is not playing Harry Potter.
The next six: American Splendor, Bad Santa, Bend It Like Beckham, Raising Victor Vargas, Rivers and Tides, Talk to Her.
The others I liked: American Wedding, L'Auberge d'Espagnole, Dirty Pretty Things, Holes, The Hours, The Italian Job, Love Liza, Master and Commander, Nowhere in Africa, Pirates of the Caribbean, School of Rock, X2: X-Men United.