This is my last film column for Crisis. I’m closing up shop in order to grapple with two daunting tasks that will take up much of my time for the foreseeable future. (One is my biography of Louis Armstrong; the other, “Sightings,” a column about the arts in America that I’m writing for the new Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal.) In addition, though, I find myself less interested in writing about film, not because my love for the medium has diminished but because American filmmakers are now making so few movies worth seeing. These things happen in the arts—ballet and modern dance have also been going through a similarly bad patch—and rather than continue to rail against the self-evident each month, I’ve decided to till greener pastures.
What makes me especially sad is that the first few years of this column (which I started writing in 1998) were a wonderful time for film in America, a time that now seems to have passed. It was my good fortune to review a great many first-rate movies during that period, and my privilege to write about them in an unusual way. When Deal Hudson invited me to cover film for Crisis, he told me he was looking for something more than conventional criticism. What he wanted, he said, was a critic who would locate the films he saw in the wider context of American culture—and do so with an eye toward their spiritual aspect, be it explicit or implicit. Rarely has an assignment proved more deeply gratifying.
So instead of repeating one more time my sour-apple thoughts on what’s happened to Hollywood and why, I thought I’d take my leave of you by reprinting excerpts from my reviews of what I believe to be the 15 best American films of the past seven years. (To this list I would also add five foreign films: Bright Young Things, Croupier, The Dreamlife of Angels, Look at Me, and Topsy-Turvy.) Most are now available on DVD, and I hope this brief trip down memory lane will inspire you to look at some of them.
Thanks to the vagaries of the alphabet, the list begins with the very first film I reviewed for Crisis and ends with my favorite of the hundred-odd films I’ve written about in this space—happy accidents both.
• The Apostle (1997), written and directed by Robert Duvall
“Hardly less impressive is Duvall’s intuitive grasp of the concept of redemption. Despite his good works, Sonny [a Texas evangelist who kills his wife’s boyfriend in a fit of drunken rage, then flees to the bayou country of Louisiana to start a new church] isn’t let off with a speeding ticket at film’s end: Instead, he surrenders meekly to the state police, and we see him working on a chain gang as the credits roll, fervently preaching to his fellow prisoners, who respond with equal (and startling) fervor to his impassioned cries of ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ Anyone still inclined to dismiss The Apostle as a cosmeticized version of evangelical Christianity will likely have his mind changed by this scene, which leaves no doubt that while sinners can do God’s work through God’s grace, there can be no redemption without repentance—a notion as alien to Hollywood as the idea of sin itself….”
• Barbershop (2002), directed by Tim Story
“It’s no secret that blacks as a group, for all their celebrated propensity to vote Democratic, are nonetheless far more conservative than whites on most social issues. On the other hand, it’s one thing to sift through poll data and another thing to see it flickering on a movie screen. To be sure, the world of Barbershop seems at first glance an alien place, peopled by unfamiliar actors with names like Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, and Eve. Their accents are different, their slang is different, their music is different. (Ice Cube is a famous rapper turned movie actor.) But by film’s end you have come to understand that the hard-working patrons of Calvin’s barbershop want pretty much what you want out of life, know how to get it, and have no patience with the irresponsible wastrels who are stopping them from realizing their modest middle- class dreams….”
• Election (1999), co-written and directed by Alexander Payne
“The trailer presents the film as a light-hearted confection about a high-school election, and teenagers, predictably enough, have been jumping at the bait, along with an alarmingly large number of easily gulled critics. The New York Times, for example, pronounced Election suitable for ‘ages 13 and up’ in its ‘Taking the Children’ column: ‘Older children will want to see the movie, which casts a sharp satirical eye at student and adult alike. It is high school, after all.’ Don’t believe a word of it. Though Election is about children, it is not for them. Stripped of its teen-flick camouflage, Payne’s second movie is a deadly serious, joltingly frank indictment of the spiritual emptiness of middle-class life….”
• Ghost World (2000), co-written and directed by Terry Zwigoff
“Thora Birch, a raven-haired 19-year-old who plays Enid with a heartbreaking combination of cynicism and fragility, also appeared in American Beauty, and Ghost World may seem at first glance to echo that smug film’s unearned contempt for suburban life. But American Beauty offered easy answers to loaded questions (that’s why it won so many Oscars—Hollywood only gives prizes to movies that tell us what it wants to hear), whereas Ghost World is a movie without any answers at all. That is the source of its pathos. Like every teenager, Enid longs to be shown how to live, but the ghostly adults who drift in and out of her unhappy life offer her no counsel. Instead, she has been set adrift on the sea of relativity, looking for a safe harbor on a coast without maps….”
• High Fidelity (2000), directed by Stephen Frears
“A Gen-X movie about the acceptance of life’s limits—who’d have thunk it? This probably explains why High Fidelity, which received the most uniformly enthusiastic reviews of any American film since L.A. Confidential, has performed no better than adequately at the box office. I’m forever reading about how the members of Generation X are deeply disillusioned when it comes to matters of the heart, and I believe every word: precious few of my under-40 friends are in love, much less married, happily or otherwise. (Small wonder that they speak of ‘being in relationships,’ not falling in love.) High Fidelity portrays their lives with dryly funny precision, which is doubtless why they aren’t flocking to see it….”
• The Incredibles (2004), written and directed by Brad Bird
“I’m not sure when the word ‘subversive’ became an accepted term of critical praise, but the central conceit of The Incredibles really is subversive, and in an unabashedly conservative way to boot. For not only are Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl [the animated superheroes of The Incredibles] dismayed by the postmodern culture that refuses to recognize their excellence, but the whole film is built around their family life, which is as conventional as an episode of Father Knows Best, though far from insipid. Bob and Helen Parr (as they’re known in mufti) are as devoted to one another as they are to their children. In fact, I can’t think of the last time I saw a film in which an old- fashioned nuclear family was portrayed so affectionately, and with so little irony….”
• The Last Days of Disco (1998), written and directed by Whit Stillman
“One of the most thought-provoking aspects of The Last Days of Disco is the unobtrusive manner in which it shows how organized religion has largely ceased to be a part of upper-middle-class American life—although it is omnipresent in the script, slightly out of focus but nonetheless unmistakable for those with eyes to see. Churches are forever popping up in the background, but no one ever speaks of them, much less goes into one to worship; one character admits to believing in God, but his confession is explained away (or is it?) as a symptom of manic depression. In the last scene, Stillman’s chastened children march off to adulthood as church bells toll softly in the background: the meteorite has struck at last, destroying the last redoubt of their youth and leaving them to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives….”
• Lost in Translation (2003), written and directed by Sofia Coppola
“Any number of things could have gone wrong with Lost in Translation, starting with the obvious one, but it seems never to have occurred to Coppola to allow [Bill] Murray and [Scarlett] Johansson to sleep together. Instead, they steer clear of the ‘natural’ denouement that would have wrecked their lives (and the film) beyond repair. It occurs to me that the restraint with which Coppola portrays their mutual attraction might well have come more easily to a female filmmaker, but whatever its source, it makes for a film that is adult in the true sense….
• Next Stop Wonderland (1998), co-written and directed by Brad Anderson
“It is, I suspect, not coincidental that Next Stop Wonderland contains no nudity and no sex scenes, an unusual omission for a film about dating in the 1990s. The point, I assume, is that Erin [the heroine] knows sex without love is meaningless and degrading, a notion so radically heterodox that only an independent director could get away with putting it in a movie. Therein lies the significance of Next Stop Wonderland. You don’t have to spend much time talking to Gen-X women to get a feel for the havoc wrought in their lives by the sexual revolution, which purported to put them on equal terms with men but in fact has stripped away the mystery that makes romantic love possible. Simply by taking romance seriously (for there is nothing more serious than comedy), Brad Anderson has arrayed himself unequivocally on the side of the angels….”
• Out of Sight (1998), directed by Steven Soderbergh
“George Clooney is an escaped con on the run who gets romantically entangled with Jennifer Lopez, an FBI agent who is assigned to hunt him down. Never were two prettier people cast in two less likely parts. But the chemistry is right, the dialogue (by Scott Frank out of Elmore Leonard) bacon-crisp, the direction stylish, and the supporting cast exemplary (the marvelous Dennis Farina is used much more effectively here than in Saving Private Ryan), and you get to spend the last 20 minutes trying to figure out whether Clooney will do the right thing, and whether Lopez will shoot him if he does. The point, of course, is that there is a right thing for Clooney to do, and that he—and we—know what it is. In the age of postmodernism, such clarity is only possible within the stylized context of a wisecrack-encrusted genre movie….”
• Panic (2000), written and directed by Henry Bromell
“Panic, Henry Bromell’s first film, is the story of Alex (William H. Macy), a melancholy family man who falls in love with Sarah (Neve Campbell), a bisexual teenage temptress whom he meets in the waiting room of his psychotherapist (John Ritter). As if that weren’t more than enough of a midlife crisis for one man to handle, it seems that Alex is having troubles with Michael, his boss, who is also his father (Donald Sutherland). This is where the not-quite-comedy comes in, for Alex and his father are hit men, and Michael decides that it is time to indoctrinate his young grandson (David Dorfman) into the family business at the precise moment when Alex decides he wants to get out of it. What sounds in the telling like a lazy cross between American Beauty and Analyze This turns out to be a powerful, perfectly cast study of what happens to ordinary middle- class Americans when the signposts of morality are removed from their comfortable lives, peopled with desperately sad characters and ‘funny’ only in the flinty exactitude of its social observation….”
• The Sixth Sense (1999), written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
“The Sixth Sense is not overtly religious—otherwise, it wouldn’t have become a hit—but its spiritual underpinnings are not extraneous to the film’s phenomenal success, which seems to have taken its producers by surprise and is by all accounts the result not of paid publicity but the kind of word-of-mouth enthusiasm no money can buy. My guess is that a goodly percentage of its viewers, whether they know it or not, are reveling in the rare opportunity to see a movie that accords with their own convictions; most Americans, after all, believe in God, heaven, and hell, and while I have no information as to Shyamalan’s own religious opinions, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are not dissimilar. This may explain why The Sixth Sense has replaced The Blair Witch Project at the top of the box-office charts: All other things being equal, a film about something is more interesting than a film about nothing….”
• Spellbound (2002), directed by Jeffrey Blitz
“Jeffrey Blitz, the director, used the National Spelling Bee as a vehicle for exploring the varied lifestyles of eight interesting boys and girls, thus engaging the viewer all the more deeply in the drama of which one would win. And while contemporary documentaries tend to be ideologically heavy-handed, Spellbound made its points by stealth, a refreshing approach. I was particularly impressed by the way in which Blitz walked us through the daily life of an engaging black girl from Washington, D.C., without ever underlining or even mentioning the fact that there were no grown men in her life at all—no father, no grandparents or uncles, not even a teacher. Instead, he left it to us to connect the dots….”
• The Station Agent (2003), written and directed by Thomas McCarthy
“Like Lost in Translation, The Station Agent is noteworthy for the fact that its principal characters don’t sleep together—a credibility-wrecking hole into which a lesser writer-director than Thomas McCarthy would surely have stumbled. Instead, he takes it for granted that friendship can be as interesting as romantic love and allows us to watch as his lonely characters are brought back to life by the not-so-simple act of getting to know another person. And while we are also shown some of the difficulties of Finbar’s life as a dwarf, McCarthy never makes the fatal mistake of soliciting our sympathy, much less allowing The Station Agent to degenerate into a head-banging sermon on tolerance. Peter Dinklage plays Finbar in a straightforward, unmanipulative way, and his plight is all the more compelling for the lack of sentimentality with which it is presented….”
• You Can Count on Me (2000), written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
“Lonergan’s directorial debut [has] a novelistic richness that defies the simplifying art of the pitchman. To say that it is about Terry, an immature drifter (Mark Ruffalo), and Sammy, his stay-at-home older sister (Laura Linney), orphaned in childhood and desperately lonely as young adults, is to convey nothing of the moral complexity of Lonergan’s script, which pays the viewer the compliment of not making his mind up for him. Terry is never romanticized and Sammy is never treated with condescension: they are both treated as human beings, deeply flawed but not without virtue….”
Nor were these the only movies I liked in my crisis years. I also have warm memories of About Schmidt, Being John Malkovich, The Cooler, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State, Guinevere, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Lilo & Stitch, The Limey, Lovely and Amazing, Magnolia, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Pi, Ripley’s Game, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Sideways, Sunshine State, Talk to Her, The Tao of Steve, The Whole Nine Yards, Three Kings…but every list must have its end, and so, alas, must this column. My heartfelt thanks to all the good people at crisis who made it possible, and to those of you who found my reviews worth reading over the years and wrote to tell me so. May you continue to find joy—and seek truth—on the silver screen.