Dec 9, 2010

BEST FILM of 2010: Inception

1. Inception A
The Social Network A
3.Toy Story 3 
4. The Kids Are Alright B+
5. The Town B+
6. The King's Speech B
7. Tiny Furniture B

8. The Fighter B

9. True Grit 
10. Another Year B-
It’s been a great year for movies that bulge the forehead and tickle the cranium, crossword puzzles like Inception or Shutter Island in which Leonardo di Caprio tries to work out if life is but a passing dream. That mood of solipsism is the prevailing one in American movies right now, what with the release, last week, of Darren Aronofsky’s latest head trip, Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman’s ballerina does battle with a possibly imaginary rival who may or may not turn out to be a projection of her deepest, darkest fears. Hollywood has not forgotten how to shred our nerves, boggle our eyes and fuck with our heads. But as we approach the end of this first year of the new decade, American movies would appear to have forgotten how to move us. What does it say that the most touching film out of Hollywood this year was Toy Story 3, whose release in July was the occasion for numerous press reports puzzling over the sight of fully-grown audiences weeping over a bunch of brightly-colored animated toys? Were they mourning their own lost childhoods? A Proustian rush brought on by the smell of Barbie-Doll plastic? Most of the films aimed at the heartlights of adults, on the other hand, have fizzled at the box office. Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, a somnolent drama about the afterlife featuring Matt Damon in an array of muesli-colored knitwear, seemed to have already passed over to the other side, where it presumably met up with Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones to commiserate over the fate of the supernatural tearjerker. That is how we take our weepies, these days, cross-bred with other genres, or heavily disguised, as if embarrassed by more direct appeals to an audience's emotion. In almost any other era Love and Other Drugs, a love story about a slick pharmaceutical salesmen who falls for a young woman with stage one Parkinson’s, would have played a four-ply weepie. Instead it came on like a rom com on steroids, super-sexed, erection gags protruding — James L Brooks in the Age of Apatow. Even so, it struggled to make much of a dent against the Harry Potter juggernaut.

“We’ve suspended the willing suspension of disbelief,” Zwick told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times. We seem to have given up that relationship, that almost hypnotic engagement, with the characters up there on the screen. It’s hard to point to those movies and single out a performance. ‘That was really exciting the cg was wonderful, okay so the script wasn’t very good and the performances were not good but I really had a good time’. It’s a new phenomenon. At the end of the day what is being served?”

There's a touch of fogeyishness to this complaint — a

younger audience is what is being served, of course, in much same way that the lragely female audience of the 1930s and 40s sharpened the instincts of Hollywood producers to fashion such classics as Jezebel, Casablanca, A Star is Born, Now Voyager, so the majority of the studio’s manpower, ingenuity, talent and technology is being laid at the feet of the under-8s. Whether knowingly or not, Pixar have tapped into the exact same vein of silent stoicism that powered along the great weepies, from Brief Encounter to An Affair to Remember. For the toys, remember, can never tell Andy of their secret love. Theirs is a life of Jeevesian devotion, unable to ask for the one thing they desire above all else, which is for him to play with them; when he does their eyes loll lifelessly while we imagine the fireworks within. Instead of Trevor Howard’s stiff upper lip, try Mattel-moulded plastic™.

Zwick's suggestion that

new technologies — cgi, 3-D, digital projection — have changed the way we watch movies feels more accurate to me. The medium is changing from a third-person medium to a first person medium, dependent not on empathy between the audience and characters they see on the screen, but the more upfront thrill of vicariousness. As David Edelstein wrote at the beginning of the year in New York magazine:—

“Subjectivity is everywhere in movies now, from the limited vantage points of Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity to the narration-heavy Up in the Air. Only a decade ago, first-person voice-overs were rare, a stern taboo in the lectures of venerated motivational screenwriting guru Robert McKee. Then Charlie Kaufman mocked McKee (played by Brian Cox) in the self-deconstructing Adaptation, and all at once, it seemed, you couldn’t get away from garrulous narration — I went, I thought, I felt, I saw, I blah-blahed. Films became like memoirs. Like blogs."
This is having, I believe, a profound effect on the psychological make-up of the industry’s storytellers — what Martin Amis would call the “feeling tone” of Hollywood. Old school empaths like James L Brooks and Steven Spielberg are an endangered species. The only two A–list American directors who seem able, or even interested, in unzipping the emotions of an audience these days are Clint Eastwood and Ang Lee, their skill at so doing deriving from their own innate emotional reserve, in Lee’s case because the Taiwanese are an emotionally reserved people, and in Eastwood’s case because he is, well, Clint Eastwood. I can remember staggering from the final scene of Million Dollar Baby barely able to see the traffic through my mask of tears, my only comfort the thought that when Dirty Harry cracks, the world’s male population can reach for the hankies without shame or censure. I have hopes that Scorsese might yet pull something off with Hugo Cabret, but if early reviews of James L Brooks's new movie are to be believed, this once-great master is now permanently stuck the marshlands of the rom com. Hollywood auteurs these days come in two flavours; wan ironists like Anderson and Coppola or beetle-browed brainiacs like David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky, who relaxed his gaurd long enough to deliver one knockout punch, with The Wrestler, but is now back to detailing the exact length, depth and breadth of his dark side. The same goes for Fincher whose Social Network, thanks to Aaron Sorkin, gives us the most vivid picture of human beings in a Fincher picture to date, but still packs all the warmth of a block of dry ice. "You have a responsibility for the way you make the audience feel, and I want them to feel uncomfortable,” Fincher has said. "Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything's okay. I don't make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything's not okay." The wonder is that he still thinks there’s a battle to be won. The mainstream he grew up hating has all but disappeared. I don't know when he last went to the cinema, but it’s not exactly raining On Golden Ponds out there. Look at the winners of the Best Film Oscar in recent years The Hurt Locker, Scorsese’s Departed, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men — and you will see plenty of hard, flinty, rigorously unsentimental choices, and only two, Slumdog Millionaire and Brokeback Mountain, that made any kind of emotional claim on their audiences at all (Correction: and of course, Brokeback lost, an event so traumatic I appear to have repressed all knowledge of it). Is it any wonder that audiences sneak off to get their emotional fix with movies like The Blind Side or Crazy Heart? It’s rather like what happened to the sale of alcohol under prohibition. If Hollywood’s A-listers neglect the emotional demands of the audience, the audience will go to the B-list, or if that fails then the c-list. Movies like The Blind Side are not happen when you give into the cheap allure of Hollywood schmalz. It’s what happens when you don’t.


  1. With regard to the Coens, Raising Arizona was warmly sentimental, and did move me, and I have no doubt that's why it remains my favorite. Of course that movie is also old. By some standards.

    I've expressed my deep sympathy with your overall stance before, but contrary to popular belief, I can take cynicism and violence. I just can't take any more incest plotlines.

    Should I send a cheery line to David Edelstein to mention that some blogs are in third person? I suppose not. I get the vague sense that when he compares a movie to a blog, he may not intend a compliment.

    Finally, I do believe that Brokeback Mountain lost the Best Picture Oscar to Crash, an event I remember because I was in a room full of the most pissed-off film bloggers you ever saw in your life. They were all swearing a blue streak, and in first person.

  2. My God you're right about Brokeback. The loss must have been so traumatic I blanked it! Will change.
    Point taken about Raising Arizona. There's actually a moment in Fargo I find quite moving, too, when William H Macy comes home and sees the damage done to the bathroom by the kidnappers he paid and you see a look on his face, a sort of awful penny-dropping compassion for what he just put his wife through. It may not exactly rank with the death-bed scene in Terms of Endearment, but I do remember it as a moment where I felt something other than the wicked glee I feel through most of their films.

  3. Ah, you forgot Crash (a good move, I hear) and I forgot Fargo--far less excusable. In addition to the scene you mention, surely Marge Olmstead-Gunderson alone keeps the movie from excess morbidity and cynicism. As I recall, she even gets the last word, and it's about her imminent motherhood. Do you feel even slightly inclined to strike the Coens from the Dark at Noon cohort now?

  4. *Sometimes you just have to be a little happy-go-lucky that way.

  5. When I saw The King's Speech last week the theater--a smallish screen at the Regal 14--was near-full with men, in pairs or alone, all weeping and sniffling and clapping. Clapping mid-movie! Definitely my most emotional movie-going experience in a year that, I agree, didn't have all that many.

  6. Nice list. I loved Inception and The Social Network.

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