Promise in the Year of Election:
The Movies Make a Comeback.
Movies are political. No more so than this year. And no,
I'm not just talking about The Passion of the You-Know-Who
and Fahrenheit You-Know-When. Even dumb movies like
Harold and Kumar and Meet the Fockers seemed to have an agenda.
And I don't think that's bad at all. Art is supposed to be
political--in most cultures, artists are the greatest voices
in politics. Hey, I'm not saying that Martin Sheen is Solzenitzen,
but writers and artists are thinkers--and moralists. In America,
we laugh when Brad Pitt comes out for Stem Cell Research because
he's a tabloid star. And yes, I do think it's laughable when
Britney Spears endorses the President. But I often don't understand
the cyncisim directed toward celebrities who take up causes.
Why does everyone hate Bono? Because instead of sitting on
his arse, he actually does something with his fame, fortune,
and stature? Why mock Hollywood's devotion to liberal charities?
Because they're rich and stupid? Or is it some cynical, shallow
mask of our own insecurities about doing nothing, or ironic
detachment that somehow absolves us from giving damn about
things outside of our own little worlds? True, the vacuousness
of the celebrity culture can lead to Sean Penn going to Iraq
to look for WMD. But art can be an inquiry into great moral
questions. And yes, movies can do that too--even big Hollywood
movies. On scales large and small, this was a year when movies
had something to say, and we should respect that, rather than
just dismiss it all as trash. I had a great time at the movies,
even though this wasn't the greatest of years personally.
Here's what made me laugh and cry, and more importantly, think.
10. The Low Brows: Anchorman, Harold and Kumar
Go to White Castle, and Meet the Fockers
Every year the Filmsnobs say this: Comedy gets screwed. Everyone
says they love comedy, it's harder than drama, blah blah blah,
and then it gets no awards and virtually no recognition on
top ten lists. Fuck that. A really good low brow comedy deserves
a spot in the top ten, and this year, three really cracked
me up. A low brow comedy really makes me laugh when it has
larger ideas that prop up the jokes. Take Meet the Fockers,
for instance. Here's a movie that doesn't need to give a shit.
I hated the first one because it had exactly one joke: DeNiro
is Alpha Male; Stiller is Beta Male. But it still made steamer
trunks full of cash, and they could throw any piece of shit
at the screen and it would stick to the tune of $150 million.
But Meet the Fockers actually has ideas. It taps into the
collective post-election anxiety of that 48% of the country
that didn't vote for ShrubCo and mocks tight-ass, paranoid
Red State assholes. Meet the Fockers tells the "Family
Values" voter that over-parenting isn't the only way
to raise a well-adjusted young adult. For that, it has my
respect. Greg Focker isn't John Walker Lindh, and the Fockers
aren't destroying the country. How can they? Look at Dustin
Harold and Kumar comes to us from the director of Dude, Where's
My Car? You know you've seen it on HBO, and go on, admit that
you laughed. Here, Danny Lerner takes the Stoner Comedy and
makes it into a statement about second generation immigrants
in MTV America. Kumar's dad might be a doctor, but his ambition
is not to be Doogie Howser--it's to be Neil Patrick Harris!
Review of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
As for Anchorman, I really don't think enough people understand
what makes Will Ferrell so damn funny. He is the beleaguered
Gen X male. In Old School and Elf, he mines this generational
emasculation to give his characters that little extra depth
that lifts them from funny to hilarious. Frank the Tank and
Buddy the Elf are pathetic, yes, but they're also touching
because they try so hard to be "manly" when they
clearly have no idea what that is. Ron Burgundy is a response
to that: A caricature of the ridiculous macho of the last
generation of flabby, scotch-drinking, Old Spice wearing men
who were men because they didn't give a damn--that's what
made them attractive, if only to themselves. Want more Will
Ferrell masculinity issues? Check out the trailer
for Kicking and Screaming, where Ferrell plays a maniacal
Soccer Dad who recruits no less than Mike Ditka to help him
with his ten year old's team.
Review of Anchorman
9. Desperate Housewives (Third World Division):
Maria Full of Grace, Osama, and Hotel Rwanda
The great power of movies is to show a world through other's
eyes. We hear of great atrocities on the news and read about
them in magazines, but even the best reporting rarely brings
the humanity to a story that art can. Hotel Rwanda is a Schindler's
List-type story from the East African Genocide of the early
nineties. For those isolationists who don't think America
has a moral obligation to stop atrocities in far away lands,
here's the movie for you. And for those of you who want to
"seal off the borders" and lock up all illegal immigrants
because it's your America, give Maria Full of Grace a try.
America is the land of opportunity, where we reward ingenuity
and risk, and few are more ingenius and riskier than Maria.
And finally, for those of you peace-nik liberals who think
the Afghanistan War was simple war-mongering, rent Osama.
Osama is the first and only film to come out of Afghanistan
post-9/11. It's sort of Boys Don't Cry of Kabul, where a girl
pretends to be a boy to avoid the torture and slavery of being
a woman under Taliban rule. Osama shows you the rituals of
extremist Islamists--for instance, the priest who shows boys
how to purify themselves after nocturnal emissions. Not included
is Moolaade, the African female genital mutilation movie,
which I haven't seen yet. I'll save that for a little light,
rainy-day matinee, I guess.
8. Blockbusters Achieving the Art: Spider-Man
2 and The Aviator
Here's the deal: Just because a movie has bunch of big stars,
some special effects, and makes a lot of money, it's not necessarily
a mindless spectacle. Here's what you do: Take a whole pile
of money, give it to a director you can trust, and then just
go let him make the damn movie. The two big budget blockbusters
that reached higher than the rest came from Sam Raimi and
Martin Scorcese. I reviewed Spider-Man 2, and as for The Aviator,
check out my Oscar Bait recap for why we're going to screw
Review of Spider-Man 2
7. Death With Dignity
The Sea Inside is the story of Ramon Sampedro, a bed-ridden
quadripeligic who wages a fight to die with dignity from his
bed. This is a Spanish movie, which tackles the euthenasia
question differently than how us American liberals tend to
argue it. We corner the issue and frame it in stark moral
terms: If someone lives in unspeakable pain, it's cruel not
to let them die. The counter is a religious argument, and
immediately the conversation descends into circular, either/or
theological questions. The Sea Inside addresses the issue
outside the usual dichotomy. Javier Bardem plays a man who
has full command of his mind: He writes and paints, engages
in philosophical conversation, discusses opera, and is well
enough to launch a crusade for his right to die from his bed.
His ability to argue for his right to die is precisely the
argument against his right to take his own life--he's not
on life support, so what kind of precedent would be set for
those who have his same mental faculties and want to continue
to live, but would be pressured by burdened family members?
The director, Alejandro Amenabar (Abre los Ojos, The Others),
argues that the man's imagination and vitality is in itself
torture. He constructs sequences that recreate Ramon's imagination,
flying over hills and diving into lakes, contrasted with the
bed-ridden Ramon, who can only lie still and listen to the
waves crash against the shore. There's another American movie
that tackles this issue this year that will win Best Picture,
but I'm telling you, this is a superior film.
6. (Not Really) Anti-Americanism: Control
Room and Dogville
Control Room is sometimes known as the al-Jazeera movie.
Which is true--it documents how al-Jazeera has modelled itself
as the Fox News of the Arab Street. And any movie in which
Fox News is the villain is not necessarily anti-American,
in my book. It also contains one of the most poignant statements
about the bridge between our world and theirs, and the value
of human life.
Review of Control Room
Dogville gets a similar rap. Here's the deal, folks: Lars
von Trier is putting you on. He's the godfather of Dogme 95,
in which he convinced a bunch of pretensious Dutch filmmakers
to eschew music and unnatural lighting. So what's he do? He
makes a musical with Bjork, which he covers with thirty different
cameras. He "sets" his movies in America, but has
never been there and doesn't even pretend that his movies
look like America. For goodness' sake, he added the "von"!
All the man knows is the European reaction to America. So
what's he do, post Iraq War? Lars makes Our Town on a barren
soundstage with tape marking where buildings are supposed
to be, takes Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and stages a brutal
thirty minute rape sequence, and lets you walk out of the
theater to images of poverty set to David Bowie's "Young
Americans"--after three hours of mind-numbing cinematic
brutality posing as a bare-bones deconstruction of the American
myth. My friends, this has to be a reaction to shrill, European
anti-Americanism. It must be a joke. Granted, JimmyO and I
were well into a twelve pack halfway through Dogville, but
it's so far over the top, it has to be a joke on all of us.
Remember, Lars "von" Trier is nothing if not putting
you on. It's the second funniest film of the year.
5. Devout Athiesism: Touching the Void
The old maxim is that there's no athiests in foxholes. In
deep Himalayan crevasses, however, there's been at least one.
This is a combination documentary and acted account of two
friends climb of a big mountain. One is forced to cut a rope
and let his friend slide to his death, lest they both fall.
But the friend survives. He doesn't credit God, only chance.
Touching the Void is a parallel account of their physical
journeys up and down the mountain, which is poetically parallel
to the existential journey as well. PBS showed this one for
free earlier this year, but if you haven't donated your fifty
bucks and got your yearly tote bag, look for it on the rental
4. This Time, It's Personal: Badasssss!
Multi-layered, complex, and metafictional. Mario Van Peebles
envisions his dad's no-budget opus Sweet Sweetback's Badassss
Song as the black Easy Rider--in fact, his opening scene is
Melvin, played by Mario, on a motorcycle with the star and
stripes helmet. In Mario's telling, Sweetback embodies the
black counter-culture: politics, racism, sex, and violience--a
stick of dynamite and a lit fuse. To Mario, though, Melvin
is certainly no hero: he's so self-obsessed he contracts gonorrhea
and uses his compensation by the DGA to buy film rather than
penicillin. Mario films Sweetback, literally, as Melvin's
shadow. In turn, we see that this dark side of black culture
was an evil--perhaps a necessary one, but evil all the same.
There's so much more going on in this movie--we haven't seen
this level of skill ever from Mario, and that includes New
Jack City. It's mult-layered and deeply personal, worth watching
a few times. Mario may hate his dad for making him star in
that sex scene, but he ultimately honors the old man's legacy
by fleshing out all aspects of his film, the man, and the
man's place in his life. It's like nothing that's ever been
3. Answered Prayers: Before Sunset
One question hovers over any great movie: Will they or won't
they? Before Sunrise makes an entire movie of the question,
and then asks it again. In the sequel, we get the sense that
Jesse and Celine's chance meeting in Paris is a mixed blessing.
Theirs is a Cupid and Psyche story: The two can only be in
love while in the dark--they both fear reality, what would
happen if they see each other in the light. The myth is kept
aloft by deceptively smooth direction by Richard Linklater,
who narrates the film by passing his characters in and out
of tunnels, onto boats and over bridges, the setting of sun
building tension in both the audience and the characters.
I always hoped there would be a sequel, but now that there
is, I'm tortured by having to wait for the third.
Review of Before Sunset
2. Cosmetic Psycho-Therapy: The Eternal Sunshine
of the Spotless Mind
Probably the best movie of the year, but sticking with my
political theme, I'm going to put it here and save the top
Review of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
1. Drawing Distinctions: Kinsey and Team
America: World Police
Time Magazine beat us to our original idea, which was to
name The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 as co-films
of the year. I didn't like either movie, but they provoked,
which is what movies are supposed to do. And in an election
year, what is more representative of the Red/Blue divide?
But here's the deal: Movies are supposed to provoke, true,
but The Passion and F9/11 simply preach to the choir. Kinsey
and Team America are deeper, better films because they take
that Red/Blue dichotomy and slice it wide open, exposing the
default views of both sides.
Look to the two sex histories Kinsey records toward the end
of the film. Red Staters see Kinsey as a sinner who promoted
child molestation (William Sadler''s scene with the ten second
masturbator). Blue Staters see Kinsey as a hero, as in Lynn
Redgrave's scene. Bill Condon's movie shows us that the actual
man lay somewhere in between, and that we have to make choices
about what's moral and what's not based on his work--it forces
us to draw some lines, and asks that conservaties draw theirs
farther left, and that liberals might want to re-think moral
relativism. Kinsey himself was not a heroic crusader against
theocratic sexual mores, but perhaps a monster who nonetheless
exposed the moral hypocrisy of the ultra-religious. And in
the process, both the Right and Left are asked to consider
their default stances: On the Right, if homosexuality really
is common, especially in the natural world, how can you say
that you're going to outlaw it? And on the Left, where exactly
do you draw the line on permissive sexual conduct, because
Kinsey himself clearly crosses it somewhere. Kinsey doesn't
just provoke, it questions, which engages the audience on
a more personal level.
Now for Team America: World Police. I know what you're thinking,
but I agree with my KCFCC colleague Robert Butler (he has
to hate that): TAWP might be the Dr. Strangelove of our generation.
That's a movie in my top ten of all time; how can a similar
film not be ranked this high? The justification lies here:
This year marked the most important presidential election
of my lifetime, which was decided partly on religious/sexual
issues addressed in Kinsey. But it was also decided by perceptions
of the War on Terror. Virtually none of the serious journalism
on the War on Terror sounds anything like what the Republican
and Democratic parties talk about when they talk about the
War on Terror. The Neocon Lighter Military, Sweets and Flowers
approach is total bullshit, but half the country bought it
without reservation. But then there's the peacenik Left, who
submarined the anti-Iraq War movement by turning it into a
peace protest, without offering solutions to dealing with
the madmen who threaten to hold the civilized world hostage
How the hell did the country divide itself in two and buy
both these loads of shit? Team America: World Police gives
the best answer I've heard. TAWP proposes that America has
been so warped by the ubiquitous influence of Hollywood movies
and pop culture, that when politicians tell us the War on
Terror is going to be short and sweet like an action movie,
we naturally believe'em. We're Team America, FUCK YEAH! Or,
if Hollywood actors tell us that there should be peace, even
though they don't really understand the complexities of geopolitcs,
we buy that too. It's all a show for our entertainment, but
also to manipulate without really winning our hearts and minds
on any honest terms.. Parker and Stone show us, literally,
the strings being pulled. That, my friends, is the politcal
power of movies. I laughed until I cried because I know they're
right. In a year dominated by dishonesty in politics, this
is the movie with the clearest vision of the truth.
Review of Team America: World Police