Thats Great, That Sucks*
The Best Films of 2004
1) Kill Bill: Vol. 2: Tarantino 101
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was the most expensive, intelligent, graceful, bemusing, thoughtful, loving, referential, thematic, and fully realized music video ever made. Is it a bad thing, when our most innovative director makes a two-and-a-half-hour music video? Well, it’s better than our best music-video directors trying to make movies. None of them have Tarantino’s grasp of, never mind ardor for, plot structure, pacing, character development, shot selection, narrative cutting, or cinema history. Music videos teach directors about the startling image, the evocative moment, the anti-narrative cut, how to generate momentum without a story, and innovative camera moves/special effects; Tarantino has all these wired. But videos also teach directors to worship their own cockroach-like attention spans. Tarantino spins a story over the long haul, for good or ill.
If Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a music video, then Vol. 2 is most expensive, intelligent, graceful, bemusing, thoughtful, loving, referential, thematic, and fully realized mix-tape. Its virtues are the virtues of the mix-tape: the hipster-geek’s evangelism, perfectionism, and obsession with telling minutiae; the connoisseur’s ecstasy in the face of that perfect segue; the thief-turned-composer’s understanding of how the fifth song (or scene) resonates with the twentieth and vice versa; how the mix-master’s glee lures us into the narrative of the mix and, when it becomes too apparent, pushes us into a colder, less involved appreciation. That glee also makes the mixtape easy to dismiss as a collection of someone else’s ideas without seeing the originality that links them.
Situationist Guy Debord called Godard “a child of Marx and Coca-Cola.” No matter how much Asian martial-arts Tarantino cannibalizes, he remains a child of Godard and Sergio Leone. Like Leone, he’s obsessed with visual form and willfully slow pacing and shows—in his own idiom—great stylistic rigor. Like Godard, Tarantino adores color, camera movement, mocking his own movie, cinematic references, and abrupt shifts in tone or pace. Like both, Tarantino loves to watch film, he loves to hear film spool through the camera, he loves the images it produces: You can feel how enthralled he is with shooting throughout Kill Bill. And, like Godard, Tarantino doesn’t give a fuck, and will toss his rigorous style overboard in one second for a joke, a violent effect, or to amuse himself at our expense.
Tarantino’s the only man on the planet to elicit human, believable performances from Uma Thurman, Pam Grier, and David Carradine, so clearly he’s a genius with actors. The disappointments are, of course, his eighth-grade sense of what constitutes transgression and the curious fact that his pictures have no metaphorical depth. Not visually, not in the narrative, not in the characters’ situations. All that style and not a molecule of content (music videos rear their ugly head). Yet so many images and moments that linger so strongly.
Hey—remember back in July I wrote that “Zhang’s an artist and his only true mode of expression is sincerity”? You don’t? Good. Because the opulent, aggressive emptiness of House of Flying Daggers proves me so wrong. Still, Hero merges wire-fighting special effects and visual metaphor, high and low, mechanics and poetry, like no other picture, ever. Since Zhang’s now riding the dumb-ass blockbuster train down a one-way track, I suggest we all DVD-up on Hero and savor.
3) The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: Tiny Zen Conceits
Wes Anderson is a mannerist and a formalist; he’s one arch dude. His archness is literary—it’s an authorial voice. This makes him not much of a cinematician. His primary visual orientation is the tableau. As befits a WASPy upper-class southerner, Anderson’s tableaux are (William) Egglestonian. And, like William Eggleston, Anderson’s primary gift is for capturing the essence, and using that essence to comment on the absurd social context of the object, the moment, the person, the location, or the gestalt he’s just captured the essence of.
When Anderson shoots Bill Murray’s condom-like red ski hat, that hat becomes the platonic ideal of all red hats, a ridiculous vanity, a commentary on branding, a little joke on Bill’s character, and a tiny nudge-nudge wink-wink to the audience. That we don’t know why we’re being nudged nor what to make of the wink only underscores the quote marks Anderson puts around almost everything. Shining through all this mockery and mannerism is a tenderness that appeared only fitfully in The Royal Tenenbaums. This tenderness is Life Aquatic’s saving grace.
Pedro Almodóvar is the one filmmaker in my life whose work I just don’t get. I can’t tell a good Almodóvar film from a bad one, and I can’t suss what he’s after. But I do feel a saint’s compassion, an overflowing love of all humans in all their misshapen humanity. Neither Tarantino nor Zhang seem vested in compassion, particularly. But Anderson, for all his quote marks, seems driven by it, and emotional generosity, the yin to his intellectual astringency’s yang, makes his work profound. Anderson’s compassion for middle age resonates so much more fiercely than, say, Martin Scorsese’s wet dreams of moneyed, gilded youth gone wrong.
Anderson and Tarantino are singular, original visual stylists, who somehow get the backing to do what they want. As Tarantino always seems to go too far at some point, as he wants to break his own spell, so Anderson’s style is a constant push-me-pull-you. The story takes us over, the style pushes us away. Is this a trend or something? None of the best movies this year were wholly sincere (well, the Ramones movie, maybe). Those that strove the hardest for sincerity (like The Aviator) left us more on the outside looking in than all this supposedly alienating mannerism.
Anderson’s high-wire act remains aloft on the strength of his extraordinary taste in music and the (absurdist) delicacy with which he deploys it. So much soothing sweetness emerges from David Bowie gently sung in Portuguese. But Anderson, as in Tenenbaums, shatters his hypnotic hold with one spectacularly wrong song at a critical plot turn. He turns self-indulgent and show-offy when WASPy understatement was required. His bad judgment’s off-putting in the moment but makes the film more accessible, somehow less of a shiny, perfect object. And you have to love a picture that cops the closing credit sequence from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and casts Bud Cort (Harold and Maude, Brewster McCloud) as a “Bond Company Stooge.”
4) The Incredibles
This was the year I—and most of my cinema-aware friends—finally gave up. We quit going to big Hollywood movies and quit believing anything good anyone had to say about them. Which kept me out of The Incredibles until a rainy day in Miami Beach with nothing else in the theater. It’s such a relief to come out of any blockbuster feeling that you weren’t egregiously insulted every minute. And that relief seems to confuse some critics into thinking a movie’s worthy when it merely isn’t vile. But The Incredibles hasn’t a single dead spot, is charming, astonishingly unstupid, makes no vapid plays for hip cred, and is cast with resonant awareness for the emotions of the story. Plus, all the urban landscapes, cars, and homes come straight out of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle and the beach from Doctor No.
Beat Takeshi the neo-classicist. Who more unlikely or better suited for the role?
(See Meyer, “Two Lone Swordsmen,” Rail, July 2004.)
6) Enduring Love
That rarest thing, an unembroidered, accurate adaptation, perfectly cast (Samantha Morton, Rhys Ifans, and Daniel Craig), true in tone, pacing, context, valence, and—with Ian McEwan’s novels, this is no easy feat—creepiness. Accurate adaptations of McEwan are so resoundingly creepy they drive away the attention they deserve (cf. Paul Schrader’s disturbing and criminally underseen The Comfort of Strangers). McEwan specializes in those moments when politeness, especially English politeness, leads to doom—when holding the proper form blinds his characters to the lethal urgency of civilization going bye-bye. As with Tarantino and Anderson, director Roger Michell’s visual style draws attention to itself but still expresses the emotions of each scene with old-school cinematic discipline. Even though all three films are modernist and self-referential, their visual approach nourishes the narrative; the motivation for every edit and every shot lies in the story.
7) End of the Century—The Story of the Ramones
There’s only one problem with that Metallica documentary everyone thinks is so great: it’s about Metallica. Despite an inescapable crudity—the Ramones prove not exactly genius monosyllabs, there’s little contemporaneous footage of the early days and not nearly enough Joey—here is the true arc of lived-out rock and roll: Nerd-dom, alienation, practicing in one’s room, inspiration, honing a style, commercial acceptance of a sort, endless brutal routine, crippling, incessant mutual loathing...death. Who knew Dee-Dee was a fount of deranged common sense or Johnny such a pig?
8) The Manchurian Candidate
Wit, political satire, commentary on the pervasiveness of TV’s preference for high-tech extravaganza over reportage, and one blindingly awful performance/hopeless miscasting at the core (Kimberly Elise as Denzel Washington’s kind-of girlfriend). Director Jonathan Demme prefers an old-fashioned post-Beat notion of hipsterdom. He likes that little hipster wink at the genre conventions he gleefully undermines. Maybe he proved a hair too hip for the room.
Meryl Streep follows Demme’s lead and creates one of the most believably (avec hipster winking) sinister moms since Leopoldine Konstantin in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. And not even Leopoldine, for all her infantilizing of her adult son, could make your testicles ascend like Meryl leaning over greedily to blow her boy. It’s some shameless shit.
Demme turns incongruously against his own aesthetic for the final third, slipping into Brian De Palma-land while sacrificing if not exactly realism, then narrative credibility. Even so, why did this subversive, stylish gem tank? All that yak about the original omits one key fact: it wasn’t that good. The original was over-the-top madness, with a visual style more Twilight Zone 1950s TV than worthy piece o’ film history. Demme kept the anarchy and found a consistently intelligent visual approach. Maybe nobody wanted to see Denzel helpless and confused, never mind wielding an assassin’s rifle. Good on Denzel for so going against his brand.
9) Maria Full of Grace
Ice Cube called Boyz in the Hood “an after-school special with cussin’.” Well, Maria is a really, really good after-school special with cussin’. Its apparent cultural authenticity overcomes the necessarily schematic plot, and the sense of a society coming undone lingers despite the almost happy ending.
10) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring
Only one season too long.
*Thank you: The Shemps
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.