Note: For a complete list of my favorite films of 2010, please visit my wholly deficient list over at criticWIRE.
Obligatory Repetitive Introduction
In the past, in lieu of ranking movies and being held hostage by the dissonance between the film release calendar and my own experience of the ebb and flow of filmgoing, I have listed my favorite cinematic experiences of the year. I want to get back to that; as the way in which I get to watch movies and talk about them continues to diversify, as the idea of cinematic experience expands to multiple devices, formats, cities, communities, I think this list is here to stay. The age of the theatrical release calendar is dead for me; we’re living in a new time, where the movies can be found in every area of life, from online conversations to your home entertainment system, the back of a car seat to a projection screen at a restaurant, your phone to a portable tablet. So, I am going back to my old model, probably for good; over the next ten days, I’ll be posting my Top 10 Cinematic Experiences of 2010. Not necessarily films (although sometimes), these are the experiences that defined my year in film culture. Subjectivity alert!
3. Greenberg at The Burns Court Cinemas
There are strains of thinking among some critics and many members of the moviegoing public that go something like this:
I am going to the movies to enjoy myself, to be entertained by characters and stories that are fun and moving, escapist extensions of the social sphere in which I live.
I am going to the movies to be moved and uplifted, to find stories that show me a world outside of my own experience but which I find accessible and which provides a sense of moral uplift, a happy ending, catharsis.
Nothing wrong with that. Most people do not attend the movies to explore the narrative storytelling style of this filmmaker or that, the acting technique of this actor or that, and most do not care to examine movies as pieces of art. Most don’t like to leave a film with a feeling despair. Ask almost anyone what they think about a movie and, like anything else, they will answer with a general statement of affinity or distaste; “I liked it!” or “I didn’t like it...” The pause as they read your face (“Is it safe to give this person my opinion? Do they share my opinion? Am I right about this movie? Will I offend them?”) tells you all you need to know about their confidence in their assessment.
As much as people deride critics for the perceived gulf between a professional’s understanding of the art of film (which varies wildly between critics) and popular taste (which, generally speaking, does not vary much at all), having an in-depth conversation about movies with anyone, even if we only examine and compare our “feelings” about a film and put aside the complexity of critical language, is almost impossible. More and more frequently, thinking about movies at all, not our experience of them but our critical thinking about them, is boiled down to whether or not we have the capacity to read a film, to look at it on multiple levels; craft, story, performance, theme, cinematography, philosophy, politics, aesthetics. The better we can read a movie, examining it while experiencing it, the better, I believe, our personal ability to find enjoyment in having our minds, our opinions and our tastes challenged.
Which is not to reject the role of the personal in our assessment of which films we like or do not like. If anything, my own critical approach to movies is tied directly to my life, to my experience of movies and going to the movies. To pretend otherwise, to say that the values and tastes I apply to my thinking about films are somehow irrelevant to my assessment of them seems dishonest to me. This annoys a lot of people, but I can’t help it; it is who I am. While others are drawn to academic language or the idea of objectivity in their analysis of a movie, I am drawn to the model of the memoir and essay; no work of criticism of any kind has felt more right to me than Philip Lopate’s Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, a book I cherish not only for its great writing, but for giving me permission to unapologetically think about movies through the lens of my own experience (and inspiration to try to be half the writer that Lopate is.) Which is to say that, for me, film criticism is a form of self-reflection. I don’t believe that movies don’t make an argument or that what they say and how they say it is somehow subjective, but my thinking about movies is framed by who I am, the boundaries of my own experience and beliefs, and to deny that fact is useless.
In March, I walked into The Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota, a small, shocking pink cinderblock building with crummy projection and worse sound, to watch Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s much-derided portrait of an curmudgeonly forty-something man named Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) who finds a modicum of consolation in his confused feelings for a young woman named Florence Mar (Greta Gerwig). When the lights came up, the older audience began grumbling and I don't think it ever stopped; Greenberg never really caught on with audiences. Despite all of the chatter against the film and all of the arguments I read where people complained that they couldn’t like the film because they thought Greenberg was a jerk, I loved the movie and I completely related to Stiller's character, unable to grow up, trapped in his tastes, his personal history and the choices for which he was wholly unprepared as a young man having shaped the rest of his life.
No movie has described my generation in this way, aging and torn, disgruntled with the state of things and our own powerlessness to shape the culture, finding refuge in an underground state of existence, helpless against the corporate world we’ve always hated, nostalgic for a time when we could feel hopeful. With a healthy dose of self-hatred that manifests itself in lashing out at any possibility of happiness and suddenly, Greenberg was describing something real, a character I felt I knew; complicated, problematic, troubled. Throw in Greta Gerwig’s honest, natural performance as Florence Mar (one of my favorite performances of the year) and the evocative cinematography by Harris Savides (calling to mind the 1970’s Los Angeles landscapes and light in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye) and I couldn’t help but be moved by the film.
As I looked around at the vitriol being spewed against the movie, I realized that so much of it felt like an extension of a generational critique that has been going on for decades; no one likes my generation except for, maybe, my generation (and maybe not even us.). We don’t generally share the values of the selfish "Boomers" that came before us or the earnest so-called “Millenials” who followed us. So, when I heard so many of them critiquing the film by saying how much they hated Stiller’s Greenberg, how they resented being asked to spend time with an unlikable character, I took it personally. Don’t think it was a trend? First, the Millenials:
“To be fair, Stiller is not the only problem with Greenberg. The character, developed by screenwriters Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is, at his finest moments, awkwardly charming. At his worst moments, Greenberg is an insensitive, overly critical, overgrown teenage boy who seems to judge everyone in his life and reject all criticism of himself.” -- Rachel Charatan, Tufts Daily
“Noticeably uncomfortable at an eight-year-old's birthday party complete with parents, but nonchalant at a teenage rage despite being in his forties, Greenberg lacks the protagonist characteristics with which audiences seek to identify. Greenberg, becoming increasingly puerile throughout the film, tailspins while the audience expectantly awaits the redemption and reformation of character that sadly never comes.
Greenberg is a wasteful, weak, and wandering film that lacks structure and a worthwhile title character. Chalk this one up as a scrawl that reeks of egoism and self-indulgence. “-- Reid Huyssen, The New Hampshire
How about the critics?
“Despite their age difference and wildly contrasting temperaments, the two begin a tentative romance, but since Greenberg treats Florence with roughly the same consideration and respect that Hitler showed to Poland, any sort of happy ending looks as if it’ll be exceedingly hard-won...but it’s still impossible to buy (or stomach) her continuing interest in him after, for example, he abruptly ends a date by saying, “That’s the stupidest anecdote I’ve ever heard,” and walking out the door. Maybe people that pathetic really exist, but I don’t care to see them celebrated.” --Mike D’Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly
“A.O. Scott in the New York Times calls Roger a "walking challenge to the Hollywood axiom that a movie's protagonist must be likable." He should have waited until the box office figures come in, which are pretty anemic-looking, but let's say he's right and that Roger is interesting without being likable. I don't find him so, but I'm willing to grant that others will. Still, I'm inclined to think that such interest as there is is not so much in him as it is in the shadowy presence of the therapeutic culture, of which he is the creature. He is forever saying things like, "I'm not one of those preening L.A. people who expects everything to be about them" when, as we instantly realize, that's exactly what he is. But the potentiality for humor in such self-ignorance is, in my view, strictly limited.”-- James Bowman, The American Spectator
So, y’know, unlikeable.
Ultimately, what made me rank Greenberg in the top three of my cinematic experiences this year was not only that I really liked the movie, but because of the galvanizing impact it had on my self-confidence, my belief in my own taste, in the way I read films and how much I love and depend on life, experience and empathy to guide me. I think most of the world got Greenberg all wrong, I think many people refused an honest reading of what the film is about in favor of making a personal judgement about a character, about what they “like.” If there wasn’t a reasonable conversation to be had about the movie in most instances, well, Greenberg reminded me that the best that I can do is be honest with myself.
#10 Twitter! Argh!
#9 Jury Duty
#8 Otherwise Unavailable
#7 The Social Network at NYFF
#6 The Home Consumer, Finally
#5 And Everything Is Going Fine... At Slamdance
#4. Post Mortem at The New York Film Festival