MY TEN FAVORITE FILMS OF 2002
(First Posted in 2003)
Many years ago, William Shakespeare had a greatx grand daughter who wrote wonderful essays and novels as well as critiques, diaries and letters. Let’s call her “V.” Since V was writing at the turn of the 20th century, her work was heavily influenced by two cultural trends: the emancipation of women in politics and the turn toward “modernism” in the arts. When we think of V now, we think of her as the first self-consciously feminist author in English literature. She gave shape to the inner voices of women everywhere, but she was also a humanist who created compelling male characters, understanding full well that, for human life to endure, we can’t have one without the other.
Across the sea, another branch of Shakespeare’s family produced a son. Let’s call him “M.” M became fascinated by V’s work at an early age, and towards the end of the 20th century he wrote an homage. M lived in an era of hype, and after his novel won an important prize, it was optioned by Hollywood and turned it into a film. But a curious thing happened along the way. All the women who might have contributed to the creative effort were eliminated from the team (or maybe never even invited to the table), and the male producers, the male screenwriter, the male director, and the male composer ended up making a tremendously moving film about… a man. This man, a poet, is obsessed with the women in his life (including V), so the film has several strong women’s parts played by top notch actresses.
The ironic result? In a year which brought us a rich mix of quality output from talented women directors and screenwriters around the world, we are being asked to applaud as “feminist” a film which was created by men. The mostly male film critic establishment is pushing this film as their “feminist” candidate in the midst of their overblown accolades for all the alpha males and boy wonders. As the Oscar race draws near, all the genuine women’s voices have already been eliminated, and V, alas, is rolling over in her grave.
V wore herself out in the attempt to first find and then establish her voice as a woman. She will not rest in peace until we can convince her that her lifework still has meaning. Her daughters drew strength from her voice, and their daughters fight on. In that spirit, I dedicate my “Ten Best” list to V, and I call it “A List of One’s Own.”
1.) “Chicago” – As a general rule, women love musicals. This is no doubt a reflection of the fact that most musicals have very strong women characters (if only to balance the voices), & the form itself encourages the expression of emotion. But the translation from stage to screen is perilous, & even the best movie musicals have aged badly. (Be honest: we all cringe now when Natalie Wood opens her mouth in “West Side Story” & out comes Marnie Nixon; we suffer every time Liza Minnelli leaves the Cabaret, forcing us to endure tedious scenes with Maximillian & Natalia before she’ll sing again; we doze
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through the ups & downs of the Arnstein marriage in “Funny Girl’s” second act, etc, etc, etc). Along come Rob Marshall & Bill Condon, & all problems are solved. They enfold their drama within the musical numbers; all the details of plot & character are defined by the styles of the songs as well as by their lyrics (the “Torch Song,” the “Bawdy Song,” the “Hobo Song”, the “Eleven o’Clocker,” etc). The pace is perfect & the audience grows giddy. I could go on & on about both technique & theme (modern life as vaudeville) because I believe that the more you know about “Chicago” the more you will love it, but suffice it to say here that I sincerely believe that “Chicago” may well be the best movie musical ever made (& yes, I’ve seen them all).
2.) “Sunshine State” – “Mrs. Dalloway” is a kaleidoscopic novel filled with dozens of characters who pass “point of view” from speaker to speaker like players in a basketball game. The person who first brought this narrative style to film is Robert Altman, but the director who continues to perfect the technique is John Sayles. (Too many of Altman’s characters degenerate into “types,” whereas Sayles’ characters are almost always fully realized “individuals.”) Those of you who’ve actually read “The Orchid Thief” already know that Susan Orlean spends a good portion of her book musing about the role Florida plays in our national mythology. Did Sayles himself read “The Orchid Thief” while drafting this screenplay? I don’t know, but I’m willing to lay bets that his producer/partner Maggie Renzi did. So if Charlie Kaufman’s masturbatory fantasies bored you (as they did me), this is one place to look for a real adaptation of “The Orchid Thief.” If Kaufman had bothered to show us scenes of Laroche at work with his ghost orchids, we would have caught him in the very act of putting “nature on a leash.”
3.) “Talk to Her” – Pedro Almodovar’s film has four main characters, two men and two women, but unlike Daldry & his friends, he never pretends that the women are the subjects in his film. First of all, they are both coma patients. But the point is made explicit in a critical flashback scene. Lydia says to Marco: “We need to talk.” Marco nods in assent, then they get into a car & drive away. When the car arrives at its destination, Lydia says again: “We need to talk.” This time Marco says: “We’ve been talking for an hour.” Lydia says: “No, you’ve been talking.” Marco is dumb-struck. He promises they will talk later, but later never comes. I love this film precisely because it captures the way men sometimes objectify women, especially beautiful women. The two male characters are both in love with “Sleeping Beauties,” & this love is as magical & hypnotic as a fairy tale.
4.) “The Fast Runner” – Living in the 20th Century, both V & M take time itself as a major theme in their work. In both novels, clocks are always ticking. Big Ben becomes a character, calling out the hours leading up to Mrs. Dalloway’s party. “The Fast Runner,” on the other hand, takes place in a world without time as we know it. In this cold Arctic universe, even the sky provides few clues. Zacharias Kunuk’s debut film is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Leave all your assumptions about “psychology” behind & enter a mythic realm.
5.) “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing” – Jill Sprecher directed this film, & she also wrote the screenplay with her sister Karen. Although the cast is about half the size of the “Sunshine State” cast, it succeeds as a similar kind of “human chemistry” experiment. The characters are achingly real and their various dilemmas are heart- piercing. The whole is knit together by a subtle piano-based soundtrack (by Alex Wurman) infinitely more effective than Philip Glass’ bombast in “The Hours.” Here at
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last are the voices of V’s granddaughters. I expect great things from the Sprecher sisters in the future!
6.) “Blue Crush” – Back to “Adaptation” again, most critics congratulate Kaufman for his approach. No one could really be expected to create a faithful screenplay based on such discursive work anyway. (Orlean is primarily known, after all, as someone who writes “New Yorker” kinds of things.) Was I the only person who noticed that someone else actually did it? Kaufman presents Orlean as a person with no passion of her own who feeds off the passion of others, but in fact, Orlean does have a passion: her passion is to seek out “tiny masters” (her words) & capture their essence in print. So John Laroche collects orchids, & Susan Orlean collects personalities. Lizzy Weiss took an Orlean article (“The Maui Surfer Girls”) & turned it into the most genuinely feminist film of the year. Like V, Lizzy is proud of the work women do in the real world (in this case, cleaning up the trashed hotel rooms of oblivious tourists), & she is equally proud of the way most women support the dreams & aspirations of their friends. I’ve watched “Blue Crush” 3 times now (twice in theaters & once on DVD), & I still find the ending as thrilling as watching Sarah Hughes win the gold metal last year at the Winter Olympics. I only wish I could show this film to V.
7.) “The Kid Stays in the Picture” – This is Robert Evans’ riveting first-person narrative about his life as a Hollywood mogul. You don’t have to believe everything he says in order to find it full of fascinating insights into the inner workings of “the dream machine.” Evans is a master of American mythology, casting himself as a Jewish Jay Gatsby. From my perspective, the most important thing is to acknowledge that somehow both Francis Ford Coppola & Roman Polanski created towering works of genius when they worked with Evans (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part 2,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” & “Chinatown”), & neither of them did so without him. You do the math.
8.) “Frida” – Every woman I know loves this biopic about the work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo & her muralist husband Diego Rivera, and most of the men I know love it too, so why did MIRAMAX spend so much money hyping the dreadful “Gangs of New York” & so little money marketing “Frida”? Who knows. I am warning all of my friends: if
you hear a loud piercing scream on the morning of February 11 , that will be me
mourning the fact that Julie Taymor will not be a candidate in this year’s contest for the “Best Director” Oscar. I understand that everyone wants to give the award to Scorsese & for that reason alone critics everywhere have been bending over backwards to find redeeming value in a film I frankly thought was worthless. But in my opinion, no director this year was more creative & imaginative than Julie Taymor. If she’s not even nominated, then you’ll all know more than you probably want to know about the current state of the “celluloid ceiling” in Hollywood.
9.) “Secretary” – If “Talk to Her” is a modern day “Sleeping Beauty” then “Secretary” is “Cinderella.” Both films rely on lush soundtracks that immediately clue us into the fact that we have entered the realm of fairy tale. Both films begin with ballet sequences featuring women with astonishing physical grace. Both films end in the triumphant glow of hard-earned romantic love. The main difference, of course, is that the subject in “Secretary” is a woman; the narrator’s voice belongs to Lee (superbly played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Many male critics have claimed that “Secretary” is an anti-feminist film, but I’ll match my credentials on this particular subject any day of the week. And here’s a third orchid connection: how does Lee know that she can trust Mr. E. Edward Grey with
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her secrets? Watch her watching him tend his orchids & you’ll understand why she allows herself to bloom in the light of his gaze. Like “Blue Crush,” “Secretary” is the collaborative union of a male director & a female screenwriter. What beautiful babies these two couples have produced!
10.) “Monsoon Wedding” – Mira Nair’s film is “Sunshine State” with a New Delhi twist. The two films are similar in structure (both have huge ensemble casts) & similar in theme (how can people honor the traditions of the past as they plunge headlong into the technology-driven future). Both films also end by urging us to live “morally wakeful” lives, that is, learning to take responsibility for our own decisions & doing what we can do on a personal level to make the world a better place. Both films have one more thing in common: while they can be enjoyed, with some effort, first time through, they each get better & better the more times you watch them.
Ten additional films that didn’t quite make the cut:
“25th Hour,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “Italian for Beginners,” “Mostly Martha,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Read My Lips,” “Satin Rouge,” “Skins,” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”
Five films by women directors &/or women screenwriters that did not make my list: “Lovely & Amazing,” “Me Without You,” “Personal Velocity,” “The Piano Teacher,” & “Tully.”
© Jan Lisa Huttner (1/31/03) – Special for Critic Doctor. Reposted with Permission.