Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
January 2004
2003, U.S.
director: Peter Webber

There's something to be said for a movie whose most sensual moments involve the piercing of an ear and the removal of a bonnet — just a bonnet — from the head of a woman who always dresses in layers. But as Girl With A Pearl Earring demonstrates, it's hard to make a convincing movie about an artist. It's not easy to understand, much less depict, why and how an artist creates, and translating the creation itself to a very different medium is tricky at best.

It's easier to avoid all those complications and instead seize on a concrete element of the artist's life for a simple, irrelevant story — about his love life or, say, his love life — illuminating nothing but basking in the glow of Art with a capital A. This movie goes one step further by telling the entirely fictional story of how Johannes Vermeer might have painted his most famous work. At the end of Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, a pietà unexpectedly takes form and sheds new light on the movie's themes, but Girl With A Pearl Earring attempts to do the opposite, to shed new light on the painting that takes form at its conclusion. It seems like a fun project but also a pointless one, especially if the story only intends to skim the surface of its subject. In one scene, a character is talking about one of Vermeer's paintings, but he's shot such that his shoulder obscures the topic of his speech, and there you have the movie's priorities in a nutshell.

Based on a novel, this is the first feature by Peter Webber, and even if it doesn't attempt to understand Vermeer, it does show a mastery of its own visual arts. Every frame looks stunning, as if Webber and his crew surrounded themselves with Vermeer's paintings and adopted his palette for the glowing yellow faces of the people dressed for tea and the deep blue suits of the men on the sidewalk, both of which subtly echo the dialog. The imitation ends with the movie's use of the frame, which is purely cinematic. Scarlett Johansson plays Griet, a servant girl in Vermeer's household and eventually the subject of the painting that shares the movie's title. At one point, Griet is quietly setting the dinner table. The frame around her expands to include Vermeer, played by Colin Firth, who is watching her work. Then it expands again to show Vermeer's mother-in-law watching Vermeer watching Griet, with his wife situated in the middle. His wife asks for help with her necklace to refocus his attention, and failing that she snaps at Griet, asking her if she's quite finished setting the table. This scene may not say much about Vermeer as an artist and it may not be very subtle, but it's a visually graceful summary of the movie's dramatic triangle.

Although she plays the movie's title figure, Johansson is often slinking around in the background. When Vermeer takes Griet's hands to teach her how to grind the ingredients for paint, she draws them back abruptly. He's gone too far. The movie benefits greatly from Johansson's gift for understated delivery, but she's less assured in this demure, largely non-verbal role than she was as a modern young woman in Ghost World and Lost in Translation. Some of the fault probably belongs to Webber or his editor for cutting so haphazardly among Johansson's three main facial expressions — open-mouthed awe, eye-darting nervousness, and furrow-browed curiousness. As Griet is forming her opinion of her new employer, the shots jump from one expression to another, making it difficult for us to get a handle on her thoughts.

Uncharacteristically, Johansson occasionally over-emotes, such as when Griet is confused about optics or caught looking at her master's work. It's very important to be able to convey surprise in a movie where people walk into rooms and surprise each other daily. The few times that someone is alone in a room without being startled from the rear are all the more surprising for the lack of intrusion. When Vermeer's patron is frustrated by the slow progress of the painting he commissioned, he says "One day I'd like to go up there and surprise him in the act!" Go ahead. Everyone else is doing it.

As a drama about unrequited romance, the movie works well enough. The most tensely sensual scenes are the ones with the least potential for sex, and although Griet has the eye of every man in the story, the movie refuses to entertain a torrid affair between Vermeer and Griet, preferring instead to leave her as an enigma. This is commendable in a sense but also somewhat contradictory: the movie is trying to explain away the mystery of Vermeer's painting, but it still hopes to claim some of that mystery for its invented characters.

This capsule also appears in print in Paste Magazine #9, April/May 2004.
Posted by davis | Link
2004, U.S.
director: Patty Jenkins

Serial killers in the movies surely outnumber serial killers in real life. Our movies gaze at these characters with a unique fascination, like they hold the secret truths of the universe, like they embody our shortcomings as a people, full of sadness and rage, cast out of our midst for failing to meet the rigid requirements of our society.

American movies seem just as fascinated by the working class insularity of America's middle and southern states, and it's not unusual for a movie to meld the two fascinations and sit transfixed before attractive young actors who don the accents, the clothing, and the killin', lovin', runnin' ways of the southern outlaw, whether it's Brad Pitt in Kalifornia, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers, or Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands. Despite the high-minded implication of movies about serial killers — that we need to understand the deviant among us to better understand ourselves — these stories are usually more like freak shows than social commentary. Fritz Lang's classic M set the bar in 1931 by examining the workings of a society and the ironies of a culture that wants to rid itself of a cancer that it may have created, but M is the rare exception.

To its credit, Monster, the feature film debut of writer and director Patty Jenkins, aspires to that ideal. It's based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos, but it's no freak show. It truly wants us to empathize with its main character and not rush to judgment against her, and it undermines a basic assumption of the genre — that killing is a male tendency left unchecked — since the killer here is a woman, played by an unrecognizable Charlize Theron. Aileen's violent tendencies seem more like the survival instinct of a cornered animal than an innate thirst for blood.

The movie has a clever structure: it establishes a connection with the character before she becomes a killer, and even when she does start pulling the trigger, her evolution is gradual enough that the emotional ties with the audience aren't severed immediately. She kills first in self-defense and later out of vengeance, eventually killing innocent people as substitutes for the men who've hurt her throughout her life. As a result, the killings are increasingly painful to watch, because at some point we have to detach ourselves from Aileen after we've built up a desire to see her overcome her obstacles. Her transition into a serial killer is as smooth as the one the real woman may have gone through in rationalizing her actions.

It's a narrow line for the movie to walk. While Monster doesn't justify Aileen's murders, it does seem to know why she committed them. The first problem with the explanations, however, is that they're too simple, compressed neatly into the movie's first few minutes, a breathtaking synopsis of Aileen's formative years. And the second is that they're selectively applied; the filmmakers show a great deal more sympathy for the killer at the story's center than for her girlfriend's aunt. The killer was created by abuse and circumstance, but the aunt apparently sprang from the womb as a repressed racist.

The movie also makes minor villains out of the people who eventually lead to Aileen's capture. It concludes with a damning telephone call, replayed for a jury, and Jenkins presents the call in an elegant montage that revolves around Theron's pained face, but as emotional as the scene is it upsets the balance by leaning so hard on Aileen's girlfriend Selby, played by Christina Ricci, for helping the police. Selby, it seems, should have been more like Aileen's saintly friend Tom who tries to help her evade capture, but it's a strange form of saintliness that allows a killer to keep doing what she does best out of sheer pity.

Much will be made of Theron's performance. As a beautiful actress, she disappears completely into a less beautiful person. Instead of relying solely on makeup, she maintains a raw physical presence — a gait, a stance — that looks like the product of a hard life on the streets. As impressive as this transformation is, it's likely to spawn more discussions about acting than about the topic at hand. With breathless desperation Theron looks like a woman fighting for air as she spirals downward, but the movie would be stronger if the other characters didn't fall so clearly into two camps — they're either for her or against her. Selby is ambiguous enough that the character seems underdeveloped, but by the end we know just which camp she belongs to, which makes the movie ultimately seem less interested in studying its protagonist than winning support for her by showing her persecution.

This capsule also appears in print in Paste Magazine #9, April/May 2004.
Posted by davis | Link

Speaking of truly independent cinema, look no further than this week for an excellent example, described in a post about a forgotten but relevant piece of American movie history.

I hadn't heard of Salt of the Earth, but after reading Doug's post I immediately looked it up at Netflix. It wasn't there. I've been doing an experiment, lately. If something isn't at Netflix, where I usually rent my DVDs, I look it up at GreenCine, a similar service to which some people are defecting for a better selection. I've never rented anything from GreenCine, and so far, not being a huge fan of anime, I haven't seen a big difference in selection. But here's one: they have Salt of the Earth.

I believe this experiment is easier to perform for someone who's already a member of Netflix; last I checked, Netflix doesn't allow non-members to search their database.

In the pre-DVD, pre-home-delivery days, I'd use San Francisco's Le Video as a nearly sure-fire way to find fringe videos. But their DVD collection is spotty.

Posted by davis | Link | Comments (2)
2003, Australia
director: Sue Brooks

I admit that I lost patience with this movie very early on. Sandy, played by Toni Collette, is constantly exasperated. She rolls her eyes, sighs, and throws up her hands in scene after scene. It's her standard response to the slightest imposition. It's a wonder she has any friends at all. Even less likable is the walking stereotype of a Japanese businessman who she's supposed to escort through the desert. If I'd been a little more patient with its annoying characters and their limited problem solving abilities, I think the preposterous contrivance that follows the setup still would have lost me, or the one after it. If neither of those had done it, then certainly the final one would have, the one that's supposed to carry the last lethargic half hour, when the music kicks in and we're expected to give this movie and its selfish characters an emotional validation that's entirely unearned.

Japanese Story elides character development that it can't credibly display, and I can't begin to guess how Collette mustered such a performance for a movie so obviously beneath her talents.

Posted by davis | Link

You can get a head start on the New York Times Magazine by reading A.O. Scott's short piece on independent film online. He mentions Peter Biskind's new book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, and if it's half as riveting as his Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, it'll be a page-turner. Bulls was trashy and chaotic, but for some reason it's fascinating to know the kinds of stunts that people pulled to get movies like Easy Rider made, and the book truly feels like a head-shaking snapshot of a unique time in American movies, a period that's probably over-discussed but still chock full of stories.

The irony of the independent movement is how fine a point its biggest proponents need to stand on; a tip in any direction and they become part of the problem. My favorite quote about this is from my indie hero, Jim Jarmusch, in an interview with the Guardian some time back. Here's his comment about Miramax's virtual failure to release Dead Man in the U.S.:

I felt that Miramax did not keep their word to me. I'm not bitter, and I did not expect Dead Man to be a commercial success. But I wanted it handled in a classy way. And it was handled, as one critic put it, with tongs by Miramax. I don't want to go into the whole thing, but Harvey Weinstein and I had problems with each other about him keeping his word to me. Because he bought a finished film; and then wanted me to change it. This was insulting to me and, ultimately, I felt punished — because I didn't do what he wanted, he didn't distribute the film in a classy way. But that's all business: I don't hate Harvey Weinstein. I just approach the world with a different code than he does.

(The bold is mine.) Different codes, indeed. The saddest thing about the success of the pseudo-independent filmmakers is that their codes don't seem to be all that different from those of the big studio guys. Here's to filmmakers like Jarmusch who stand their ground.

Scott's piece in the New York Times Magazine ends with this:

Worst of all, the public — often led, I'm sorry to say, by movie critics — finds itself seduced into judging the success and failure of films according to the criteria of industry bean-counters rather than according to artistic merit. What was the first-weekend gross? What was the per-screen average? How did it perform against expectations? Like the political discourse, the cultural conversation is increasingly dominated by horse-race reporting, which, entertaining though it can be, ultimately threatens the only force able to preserve the always precarious artistic quality of movies, music and all our other down-and-dirty and exalted pleasures: an independent audience.

For similar reasons, as election politics are revving up I'm imploring as many people as possible to get their news somewhere besides TV. Did you see The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this week? On Wednesday they had a very funny (and depressing) montage of clips from what must have been a dozen major TV news programs talking about the horse race. Not issues, not substance, but who's going to whoop whose ass, who's out, who doesn't have a chance, and how far so-and-so has slid because he didn't "look" presidential. Discuss!

Why does the efficient market sometimes seem as slow as molasses? People will get tired of this — these movies, these talking heads — I'm sure of it.

Posted by davis | Link

Since I tend to throw the word "contrarian" around with reckless abandon, I was interested to see Armond White bristle at the use of the word in a recent interview:

I?m not a contrarian at all. I don?t accept that term, and don?t like when it?s applied to me either. Probably that means that more people will apply it now than ever. I believe what I believe, and I respond to movies the way I do, which is typically not the way most people respond. And it?s not the way most people respond because I think I care, and most people don?t. Most critics, and probably a lot of viewers, could take movies or leave them. I care about cinema. I think it?s important. I take great pleasure from it. And I don?t think I?ve ever said anything about a movie out of meanness or indifference. A good movie can help you to understand your humanity better, and others? as well. And it?s not a matter of being contrary. There?s a lot of garbage out there! And it irks me when garbage is praised as something else, so I feel like I have to say so.

(Via GreenCine Daily.)

Posted by davis | Link

Sometimes your brother and his wife will adopt a baby. Sometimes that process will take longer than expected, holidays will be extended, plane tickets will be ripped up, reprinted, sometimes days will move at a week's pace, or is it vice-versa?

Sometimes the 10-month-old will arrive and you'll spend time high-fiving the little guy while the family sits in a circle and grins at his big eyes.

But not very often. In such cases, your little knickknack of a web site will grow stale because who needs it, in such cases. Operations that don't involve leaving the house will continue, but updates will slow to a trickle.

But then eventually you'll get back home to a stack (let's say column) of mail and have a real itch to see some movies, which you will scratch, let's say today, and things will gradually, slowly, ever so gently get back to normal, except that the pictures of the guy with the tiny palms are plastered all over the bulletin board, which I guess is normal now.

Thanks for your patience. To the theatah...

Posted by davis | Link
Readers who ordered a Hollow Chocolate Orson Welles through our online store will be saddened to learn that our alert, uniformed attendant, Ray Elliott, left three entire cases of the product near our storeroom's radiator. Therefore, we cannot in good conscience fulfill these orders. If you were hoping to take shipment by Valentine's Day, we sincerely regret any inconvenience that this may cause. Your credit card will not be charged.
in other news
Due to unforeseen circumstances, we have an unusually large supply of Solid Chocolate Humphrey Bogarts and Solid Chocolate Benicio Del Toros that we are offering at half the usual price. Don't hesitate to take advantage of this offer, as these items are hot.
Posted by editor | Link | Other Corrections
minor correction
A clerical error has unfortunately affected our analyses of two recent movies. We praised director John Woo for his unprecedented turn toward the serious in Cold Mountain, his elegant movie about a Civil War-era romance. Our reviewer was disappointed only in the way Woo relied on his most hackneyed trademarks late in the movie, staging a Mexican standoff and prefiguring a character's death with birds, substituting crows for his usual doves and planting a dove in a church as a red herring. We also lambasted Anthony Minghella for expanding on the success of his plane crash movie by making a futuristic thriller filled with a variety of ridiculous crashes. While the two men have clearly influenced each other, we aim for precision and must therefore point out that Minghella directed Cold Mountain and Woo directed Paycheck, not vice-versa. We've replaced every ink cartridge that contributed to the error.
Posted by editor | Link | Other Corrections

The digital revolution of cinema is well underway, but for some reason I'm still shocked that a movie as beautiful as Cold Mountain was edited in an off-the-shelf piece of software that runs on a personal computer. The movie was shot on film and scanned into a computer, and the negative was created from the digital scan.

At last year's San Francisco International Film Festival I attended a seminar on making movies yourself, on the cheap, and one of the panelists (whose name I can't remember), likened the digital video revolution to the desktop publishing revolution of almost two decades ago: for a while, you saw a lot of bad newsletters. I can use the same software that Walter Murch is using, but I, it goes without saying, am no Walter Murch.

In an interview on Apple's site, Murch says this:

I remember Al Pacino saying that what guided his performance of Michael in The Godfather was the idea of an imaginary spotlight always trying to find him, and that he was always trying to evade it. So I believe no matter what the discipline — acting, editing, or whatever — these ?meta-strategies? will give your work an extra depth and resonance, if you are lucky enough to find them. And if the material itself is rich enough to support them in the first place.

The audience doesn?t have to be consciously aware of them — in fact it is better if they aren?t. This seems paradoxical: why expend the effort for something that is not going to be directly perceived? It?s probably something like the effect of harmonic overtones in music. If a violin plays the note "A," we are consciously aware of the note itself, but there is a whole array of harmonics that comes along with the note, and these overtones are what gives each violin its particular tone. They allow us to distinguish an oboe from a violin, and in fact even to distinguish a Stradivarius from a fiddle.

The Godfather script gave Pacino the lines of dialog, but it was his ?meta-strategy? — those harmonic overtones — that told him exactly how to say them, and with what body-language.

One strategy I worked with on Cold Mountain was the idea that Inman was actually killed in the battle, and that it was his ghost — a ghost who doesn?t know he?s dead — who goes through all these adventures trying to get back home. It?s contradictory, of course, because the Inman we see is a solid physical being who interacts with everyone he meets. But the overtones of that idea are always hovering around the edges of each scene, informing in subtle ways where the cut points are, what reaction shots we used, and so on.

He sees the use of editing software as pragmatic: he had more concurrent editing stations than usual, used a laptop to show rough cuts to the director on location, and burned DVDs for the producer who was thousands of miles away. Comparing the software systems to "linear" physical ones, he finds only a couple of shortcomings, but I think they're evident in TV and, increasingly, movies:

I think there are only two areas where something is missing. When you actually had to make the cut physically on film, you naturally tended to think more about what you were about to do. Which — in the right proportion — is a good thing to do. The cut is a kind of sacramental moment. When I was in grade school they made us write our essays in ink for the same reason. Pencil was too easy to erase.

The other "missing" advantage to linear editing was the natural integration of repeatedly scanning through rolls of film to get to a shot you wanted. Inevitably, before you ever got there, you found something that was better than what you had in mind. With random access, you immediately get what you want. Which may not be what you need.

The pace of editing in most movies these days drives me nuts. We get a sacramental moment every three seconds.

There's more good stuff in the brief interview. It's fitting that the guy who did the audio montage for Coppola's The Conversation should so often refer to editing, and film in general, in musical terms.

Posted by davis | Link

I suppose I did more than watch movies in 2003.

I liked The Jayhawks' Rainy Day Music, Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, and the new albums by the Black Keys and Fountains of Wayne. I dug the White Stripes live at the Warfield — Jack White always puts on a good show.

I enjoyed the documentary-in-book-form about Saturday Night Live called Live from New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller and the not-so-recent novels Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. I enjoyed the even-less-recent short story collections Will You Please Be Quiet Please by Raymond Carver and The Stories of John Cheever, which I've not yet finished.

On TV I watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart pretty much daily, but the only primetime television show that I've seen lately is the new Fox series Arrested Development, which makes me laugh out loud. I'm not sure if they can keep up the pace, but so far it's like a Wes Anderson movie, only more manic, and it's episodic in a way that only TV shows are.

The discovery of the year for me, though, may be Internet weblogs. It's strange, because you start to feel like you know something about the authors of these blogs, even though you've never met them. Even my friends' blogs tell me things about them that I didn't know until they started gibber-jabbering electronically.

Three weblogs in particular are daily must-reads for me, although I've never met their authors in person. Rather than give inadequate descriptions of their sites, I encourage you to read them for yourself:

Thank you all for pointing me to books, movies, music, and articles that I never would have found on my own. And thank you for your insight.

Posted by davis | Link

A list of favorite movies seems to strew mediocre debris in its wake, second-rates, wanna-bes, flawed, failed attempts to claw into the Great Top Ten of Perfection. Only it doesn't, that's the thing. Each year offers movies that scratch my brain in ways that I don't exactly enjoy but can't exactly ignore, either. How about a List Of Seething Troublemakers That Snicker When The Top Ten Tries To Turn Off The Lights On Its Way Out The Door?

Such as:

  • Dog Days — Ulrich Seidl's slice of suburbia is disturbing, ugly, and embarrassing, but it's also beautifully shot, oddly compelling, and has something to say, most of the time.
  • Divine Intervention — I'm not sure I've ever seen the Middle East conflict portrayed as weird, comedic/romantic vignettes. Maybe it goes awry, and maybe it meanders, but because of this movie I now think of neighbors dumping garbage into each other's yard when I read the newspaper.
  • Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary — Guy Maddin retells Bram Stoker's vampire story as a silent, black-and-white, color-tinted ballet. Just because it's ballet doesn't mean no one gets impaled.
  • Runaway Jury — When's the last time you enjoyed a courtroom drama? When's the last time a movie based on a John Grisham novel kept you guessing? This guilty pleasure is surprisingly cynical about our justice system — in a good way — despite the preachy anti-gun ending.
  • Intolerable Cruelty — Maybe it's not the best movie the Coens have ever made, but each of those rapid-fire conversations between George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones is worth replaying on video one day.
  • Shattered Glass — This movie doesn't analyze the problem of plagiarism enough, but movies about liars are fascinating, anyway, and movies that accurately portray the mechanics behind the news — in a riveting way, no less — are worth our time.
  • Bad Santa — I can't figure out why a foul, surly, drunken man in a Santa suit cursing at kids is funny, but I laughed all the way through this movie. I don't know if it says something about me, or my inability to understand my own sense of humor... whatever, man. Elf is funny for 45 minutes or so, but Bad Santa is good to the very end. But don't take the kids. Or grandma.
  • In My Skin — Gruesome and cerebral, Marina de Van's debut isn't easy to sit through, and it's even harder if you try to take it as anything resembling realism, but as a metaphor for identity, art, and social interaction, it's a real brain teaser. De Van also cowrote François Ozon's Under the Sand a few years ago, which I enjoyed a lot more than his Swimming Pool this year, despite the presence of Ludivine Sagnier.

How about a list of movies of which a single viewing was insufficient for me to understand them:

  • Demonlover — Olivier Assayas is a troublemaker. The way he blends his characters' interior and exterior lives in Demonlover, and the way he repeats portions of his narrative after scrambling some of its elements, reminds me of the tricks he pulled in Irma Vep. In both movies, he breaks the narrative down to the point that it's hard to say what the story actually is, even though you can see actors doing things on the screen. In Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung is a cat-like thief. You could say that's the story. But it's repeated several times: she's an actor remaking Les Vampires, she's a woman sneaking into a hotel room, she's a figure in the dailies from the movie, she's the woman giving interviews, she's the figure in an avant-garde version of the remake. Bizarre. I can't begin to say anything about what he's doing in Demonlover after only a single viewing.
  • Millennium Mambo — I was thrilled to learn that this movie had a brief theatrical run at the end of the year in New York and that it may go elsewhere, too. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's movies always require repeat viewings for me, and Millennium Mambo is no different. I've seen it once, but all I can tell you is that he makes effective use of music, associating styles with locales and temperaments; that I love the image of the faces pressed into the snow beneath a row of movie posters, faces that are sure to melt; and that everything about the movie is gorgeous, from the slow-mo opening to the color palette and compositions. On the other hand, the characters seem a little one-note and I'm not sure what I think of the way he describes an episode, then shows it to us, and then drops this pattern part way through. Of course, I'll see it again. The Hou events of the year for me, though, were 1) the release of a beautiful box set of his early-80s movies on DVD and 2) the news about his homage to Ozu, a feature called Coffee Time, completed in 2003 and due out in 2004, fingers crossed.
  • Pistol Opera — I caught this one on DVD after reading Rosenbaum's praise. Suzuki's movie should be viewed as a double feature with Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1. I suppose seeing it again might help me understand the plot, but I'm not sure understanding the plot is all that necessary. Colorful set pieces and highly stylized killings are plenty for occupying the mind, although Suzuki seems less interested in pacing than Tarantino, whose movie is more exciting.

I know there's room for one more short list. How about a list of movies that use heaps and heaps of technical mastery for a story so violent, exploitative, and pointless that the net result is worse than worthless, it's maddening:

  • Irreversible — I read somewhere that Gaspar Noé has called this his Eyes Wide Shut. Even if he was kidding, I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that.
Posted by davis | Link

Well, 2003 has come to a close, so it's time for Errata's first ever year-end list of favorites. I'm limiting the list to 8 instead of the traditional 10, because this site was only open for 9 and a half months. We need rules, you see. Rules that involve math.

One more rule: I'm not going to tell you which movies I didn't see, a sort of hedge. Because, you know what? However many movies I saw this year, it's a fraction of what was available.

Let me explain.

I'm surprised by the number commentators who, in early December, compiled a "best of" list with the caveat that the third Lord of the Rings movie would "probably" be added, too. After they see it, of course, a mere formality. Hey, it's my dream come true. An even larger number of critics said, "Here's my list, but I still haven't seen X and Y." I have two problems with this: 1) It furthers the misconception that any of these lists is complete, that anyone — anyone — who writes about movies can see even a simple majority of the movies that played in theaters in the U.S. this year, and 2) it implies that of the hundreds of movies the critic didn't see, X or Y in particular have a good chance of getting into the top 10, which means the critic making the hedge evaluates movies based on some criteria outside the movie itself. Context is one thing, but going through the motions is another.

I myself am tempted to put a caveat on my list, because holiday travel has prevented me from seeing the new movie by one of my favorite filmmakers, but so be it. That's the breaks, man! Definitive, schmefinitive. These are my ideas, that's all. These are my "favorite" movies (relative), not the "best" movies (absolute). Picky, picky. Time to put my taste on the line.

So in no particular order, here's what I really liked this year:

  • The Son — An astounding number of movies are driven by a mindless thirst for vengeance, but Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne made a movie that looks squarely in the face of that thirst. Maybe I said that this list was in no particular order, but I put this one first on purpose. Nothing's more profound than simple observation of complex human beings.
  • Bus 174 — and also The Same River Twice, Capturing the Friedmans, Stevie, and documentaries in general. Not only were there a large number of decent documentaries in theaters this year (including Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, Daughter From Danang, Power Trip, Spellbound, Stone Reader, My Architect, A Decade Under the Influence, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, and Winged Migration), but the documentary form seemed to seep out of its bounds into fiction films like Blackboards, Russian Ark, Hukkle, Sex is Comedy, Ten, American Splendor, and In This World. Leni Riefenstahl died this year, and Night and Fog appeared on DVD. Pumping Iron played in San Francisco as Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California, and Tupac: Resurrection played at mainstream theaters across the country and was advertised on MTV. Documentaries thrived, despite the flood of reality programming on TV. Apparently movies are still doing something that TV is not. Here's Dave Kehr on the year's documentaries, writing in The New York Times.
  • Friday Night — Even if this is my least favorite of the Claire Denis movies that I've seen, a general unwillingness among critics to delve beneath this movie's surface makes me think that it deserves a good trumpeting. Denis is a master of subtlety and has the uncommon ability to hide her technique in plain sight.
  • Lost in Translation — Sofia Coppola builds an unusual story around enormously likable characters, and Bill Murray has never been funnier. If I were compiling a list of the year's funniest movies and a list of the year's saddest movies, this one could be on both. I like that.
  • Dogville — Lars von Trier made another of his poor-downtrodden-waif movies, but the extra layers of irony kept me thinking throughout, and I left the theater with a fair bit to chew on. I didn't want to like this one, but I confess that I did.
  • The School of Rock — Here's how to make a mainstream movie without looking like a sellout: pay attention to the character details. Here's how to make a genre movie feel brand new: pay attention to the character details. There's no reason in the world that Richard Linklater and Mike White needed to construct a distinct personality for each of their two dozen characters, but they did, and it was funny and cute but most importantly funny.
  • Elephant — Gus Van Sant's Columbine recreation is hypnotic and bizarre, but its worth is proven by the discussions that it motivates. It actively exposes the questions we ask ourselves about why school shootings happen, but it answers none of them.
  • Yasujiro Ozu retrospective — I bumped Oasis out of this list to make room for arguably the most significant cinematic event of my year, the opportunity to see a couple dozen of Ozu's movies. This retrospective made its way from Berlin to New York to San Francisco and Berkeley, and I hope it goes on from there. Here's Matthew Plouffe on the retrospective, writing in Reverse Shot.

Next: a list of the year's provocations.

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