Composing a list of the year's best films is one of our favorite indulgences--a time to right everyone else's wrongs, as well as to marvel over just how many movies we've watched. For my part, though, this pleasant ritual was more difficult than usual because this year I could barely remember a single movie I'd seen before Sept. 11. So I began poring over the lists of releases, as well as festival selections, trying to forget the lost hours of too many bad movies while summoning up the movie hours in which I had been very happily lost. It worked: I rediscovered films I'd loved before this year was violently cleaved in two.
At the time, I didn't know what I would choose; now, however, after having read the parsimonious reviews of two of the year's best features, I realize that what's burrowed under my skin more deeply than usual is the refusal of many American critics to look at a film as more than the sum of its plot and that miserable excuse for their own aesthetic judgment, "sympathetic" characters. That a film's images make as much meaning, sometimes more, as its story and dialogue seems a simple and obvious point. The experience of watching a movie is both transitive and intransitive--there is the actual moment of watching it and the experience of reflecting on it later, when you replay the film in your head and the images blur and connect with the ones already there. Some films, of course, don't require much meditation, but others demand that we look at the way characters move through the frame and the way scenes connect, in order to comprehend the whole. It's certainly possible to not like the way a film looks, but you have to actually look first.
To watch, then, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaumsand not understand its style, what one reviewer dismissed as "eye candy," is to miss not just one of the crucial points of the movie--the cost to the children of the family's mythology--but one of the truths of film itself. Similarly, to watch Michael Mann's Ali and not see how the director makes meaning out of his breathtaking imagery, out of music, montage, even different shades of black skin, is to completely miss the movie and its meaning. The first 10 minutes of Ali are among the finest in any film of the past 10 years, and it's telling of Mann's brilliance that this sequence is essentially wordless. The film opens with Sam Cooke singing to swooning women and somewhere else a young black man running in the dark. Finally, someone speaks--a white cop yells to the young man, "What you running from, son?" Everything you need to know about the film exists in this scene, in the way the women writhe for Cooke, soon dead, and in the way the cops shout to the runner, who just keeps going. At this moment, everything connects--the soul-stirring music, the ecstasy of the audience, the beauty, charisma and sexual vibrancy of these men, as well as the perils of living in an America where to be a black man running in the night must mean you're running from something. Barely a word of dialogue has been spoken, and none is needed.
Weekly film writers' top movies of the year: Manohla Dargis: Ali (Michael Mann, USA); Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Ford Coppola, USA); Faithless (Liv Ullmann, Sweden); The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France); I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal); In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/France); Intimacy (Patrice Chereau, France); Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, USA); Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (Claude Lanzmann, France); The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA). Ella Taylor: Time Out (Laurent Cantet, France); Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, Japan); Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili, Israel); Éloge de l'Amour (Jean-Luc Godard, France); Gosford Park (Robert Altman, USA); Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, USA); The Believer (Henry Bean, USA); L.I.E. (Michael Cuesta, USA); Fighter(Amir Bar-Lev, USA); Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, USA). F.X. Feeney: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, USA); Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, USA); Simon Magus (Ben Hopkins, U.K.); In the Bedroom (Todd Field, USA); Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, USA); Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Mexico); Faithless (Liv Ullmann, Sweden); The Anniversary Party (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, USA); Memento (Christopher Nolan, USA); The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA); With a Friend Like Harry (Dominik Moll, France); In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/France); Snide and Prejudice (Philippe Mora, USA). Hazel-Dawn Dumpert: Ali(Michael Mann, USA); Enlightenment Guaranteed (Doris Dörrie, Germany); Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, USA); Hedwig and the Angry Inch(John Cameron Mitchell, USA); In the Mood for Love(Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/France); The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring(Peter Jackson, USA); Mulholland Dr.(David Lynch, USA); Rat Race (Jerry Zucker, USA); Together(Lukas Moodysson, Sweden); We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll(Penelope Spheeris, USA). Paul Malcolm: Roof to Roof (Ara Corbett, USA); Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, USA); In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/France); Together (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden); The Believer (Henry Bean, USA); Trembling Before G-d (Sandi Simcha DuBowski, USA); Cure(Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan); Eureka(Shinji Aoyama, Japan); Amores Perros(Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico); Ghost World(Terry Zwigoff, USA).
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