Sideways, Ray, The Incredibles …. The Best and Worst Movies of 2004

As far as I can determine, 2004 seems to be neither the best nor the worst year for movies, at least as far as the proportion of good (low, as always) to bad (high, as always) is concerned. Of course, the technology keeps changing-often to the consternation of the Luddites among us-and there’s also that mindless nostalgia for an idyllic past, in which all the bad movies have been mercifully expunged from memory. After all, I’ve been in the year-end 10-best business since 1958, when Jonas Mekas graciously allowed me to share his “Movie Journal” column in The Village Voice with my 10-best list, which I’m now ashamed to remember failed to include both Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. But that was 46 years ago, and I very much doubt that I will be around 46 years from now to second-guess my Top 10 lists for 2004. So with little fear of afterthought and without further ado, here are my considered preferences for the year past:

English-Language Pictures

1. Before Sunset

2. Sideways

3. Ray

4. Dogville

5. Kill Bill: Vol. 2

6. Hotel Rwanda

7. The Aviator

8. Finding Neverland

9. I § Huckabees

10. Collateral

Foreign-Language Pictures

1. The Motorcycle Diaries

2. Intimate Strangers

3. House of Flying Daggers

4. Moolaadé

5. The Sea Inside

6. Maria Full of Grace

7. A Very Long Engagement

8. Fear and Trembling

9. Rosenstrasse

10. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring

Nonfiction Films

1. The Five Obstructions

2. Born into Brothels

3. Persons of Interest

4. Fahrenheit 9/11

5. Bright Leaves

6. Tarnation

7. Going Upriver

8. Orwell Rolls in His Grave

9. Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin

10. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Films Other People Liked and I Didn’t

1. The Passion of the Christ

2. Bad Education

3. Vera Drake

4. The Assassination of Richard Nixon

5. Hero

6. The Incredibles

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

8. The Phantom of the Opera

9. Notre Musique

10. Million Dollar Baby (sorry, Clint, I’ll explain next week)

Runner-Up English-Language Films I Liked: The Merchant of Venice, Kinsey, Closer, Garden State, Spanglish, The Mother, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, The Woodsman, Danny Deckchair, Spider-Man 2, De-Lovely, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Friday Night Lights, Mean Girls, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Japanese Story, Seeing Other People.

Runner-Up Foreign-Language Films I Liked: Twilight Samurai, Secret Things, Since Otar Left, I’m Not Scared, Facing Windows, Almost Peaceful, The Syrian Bridge, Turn Left at the End of the World, It’s Easier for a Camel, Bon Voyage, Son Frère, Dolls, Strayed, Infernal Affairs, Story of the Weeping Camel, James’ Journey to Jerusalem, The Return, Spring Time in a Small Town, Zhou Yu’s Train, Goodbye Dragon Inn, La Vie Promise, Zelary, Love Me If You Dare, Zatoichi, After Midnight, Reconstruction, Goodbye Lenin.

Just for the record, my acting choices for the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics were as follows:

Best Male Performance: Jamie Foxx, Ray; Paul Giamatti, Sideways; Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland. Best Female Performance: Julie Delpy, Before Sunset; Laura Linney, Kinsey; Kate Winslet, Finding Neverland. Best Supporting Male Performance: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways; Peter Sarsgaard, Kinsey; Michael Madsen, Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Best Female Supporting Performance: Virginia Madsen, Sideways; Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Jodie Foster, A Very Long Engagement.

Other Noteworthy Male Performances: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (go figure); Jude Law, Clive Owen, Closer (what’s with all the badmouthing of Mr. Law just because, through no fault of his own, a half-dozen of his non-lovable characterizations were dumped on the anarchic marketplace at the same time?), Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda; Leonardo DiCaprio, Ian Holm, Jude Law, John C. Reilly, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin; The Aviator; Fabrice Luchini, Intimate Strangers; Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Stellan Skarsgard, Dogville; Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Kris Marshall, The Merchant of Venice; Dustin Hoffman, Finding Neverland; Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers; Gaspard Ulliel, A Very Long Engagement; Javier Bardem, The Sea Inside; Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, In Good Company; Adam Sandler, Spanglish; Martin Landau, The Aryan Couple; Liam Neeson, Chris O’Donnell, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Kinsey; Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Red Lights; Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De La Serna, The Motorcycle Diaries; Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Schwartzman, I § Huckabees; Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Collateral; Kevin Kline, Jonathan Price, De-Lovely; Gerard Depardieu, Bon Voyage; Jeff Bridges, The Door in the Floor; Rhys Ifans, Danny Deckchair; Michael Gambon, Being Julia; David Carradine, Kill Bill: Vol. 2; Tobey Maguire, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2; Billy Bob Thornton, Friday Night Lights; Kevin Bacon, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Benjamin Bratt, The Woodsman; Clive Owen, Malcolm McDowell, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead; Jean Reno, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Hotel Rwanda; Ethan Hawke, Before Sunset; Zach Braff, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Garden State; Jay Mohr, Seeing Other People.

Other Noteworthy Female Performances, though fewer in number than their male counterparts, were no less lacking in quality: Lynn Collins, The Merchant of Venice; Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts, Closer; Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Birth; Annette Bening, Juliet Stevenson, Being Julia; Miranda Otto, Danny Deckchair; Sandrine Bonnaire, Intimate Strangers; Kim Basinger, Mimi Rogers, Elle Fanning, The Door in the Floor; Zhang Ziyi, House of Flying Daggers; Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace; Isabelle Huppert, La Vie Promise; Lindsay Lohan, Mean Girls; Gong Li, Zhou Yu’s Train; Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby; Anne Reid, The Mother; Toni Collette, Japanese Story; Kerry Washington, Regina King, Aunjanue Ellis, Ray; Katja Riemann, Rosenstrasse; Belén Rueda, Lola Duenas, Mabel Rivera, The Sea Inside; Sandra Oh, Sideways; Paz Vega, Téa Leoni, Cloris Leachman, Shelbie Bruce, Sarah Steele, Spanglish; Kirsten Dunst, Rosemary Harris, Spider-Man 2; Scarlett Johansson, Marg Helgenberger, Selma Blair, In Good Company; Natalie Portman, Garden State, Ashley Judd, De-Lovely; Sylvie Testud, Kaori Tsuji, Fear and Trembling; Carole Bouquet, Red Lights; Naomi Watts, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert, I § Huckabees; Emmanuelle Béart, Strayed; Juliane Nicholson, Seeing Other People.

Merchant on Film: Still Unkosher

Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice, based on the play by William Shakespeare, has been rendered as capably as one might have wished, considering that Shakespeare’s unedited plays are much too talky for the cinema, and the blatant anti-Semitism of this play makes the project extremely problematic for post-Holocaust audiences. And make no mistake: The Merchant of Venice emerges in Mr. Radford’s adaptation with much of Shakespeare’s objectionable stereotyping of Jews intact, despite the well-intentioned cutting of jokes about Jews not eating pork, and the solemn warnings that even Jews converted to Christianity, like Shylock’s daughter Jessica, have no chance of going to Heaven. There are even some seldom-noticed racist gibes against blacks in the original text of the play. So what is to be done about Shakespeare, the supreme writer in the English language? Is The Merchant of Venice to be banished to the libraries and the classrooms, never to be performed by actors onstage and onscreen?

This would seem to be the preference of Harold Bloom, the most lucid Shakespeare scholar of our time:

“I end by repeating that it would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play. So shadowed and equivocal is The Merchant of Venice, though, that I cannot be certain that there is any way to perform it now and recover Shakespeare’s own art of representing Shylock. Shylock is going to go on making us uncomfortable, enlightened Jew and enlightened Christian, and so I close by wondering if Shylock did not cause Shakespeare more discomfort than we now apprehend.”

And there you have it. There is something forever ambiguous and unresolved about The Merchant of Venice that makes it unactable, unplayable and unfilmable except in bits and pieces. After all, whose play or movie is it-Portia’s or Shylock’s? It’s certainly not Antonio’s, and he, not Shylock, is the titular “merchant of Venice.” But why does Antonio place his life at risk by borrowing 3,000 ducats for three months from Shylock so that his “friend” Bassanio can be disburdened of his debts in order to marry Portia? What sort of bond is there between Bassanio and Antonio that can explain the latter’s perpetually doleful countenance? And why does Antonio agree to surrender a pound of flesh if he is unable to repay Shylock in the allotted time?

Earlier in the film, Antonio is shown spitting on Shylock. In the play, the incident (unstaged) is only recounted by Shylock; by showing it vividly onscreen, Mr. Radford apparently intended to strengthen Shylock’s eventual motivation for revenge against his abuser.

But no juiced-up motivation can make a contemporary audience root for Shylock to succeed in gaining his revenge against Antonio. For one thing, Antonio hasn’t been demonized sufficiently to make him a hateful victim. He has acted out of friendship, conceivably even homoerotic passion, in getting himself into this predicament, whereas the supposedly avaricious Jew, Shylock, rejects offers from Portia and Bassanio for a sum many times the 3,000 ducats owed him to call off his cruel revenge against Antonio and all Christians. And in sticking to his guns with the Duke of Venice, Shylock ingeniously argues that the legal contracts of Venice must be upheld to protect the property rights of Venetian slave-owners, including the Duke himself. Neither Shakespeare nor Shylock are thereby marked as kind-hearted abolitionists before their time, or as critics of Christian hypocrisy in Venice.

Yet the sheer power of Shylock’s prose blows apart the courtly comedy poetics of the play and movie to produce a curiously confused genre piece, in movie terms. This is so even with the fortuitous casting of Al Pacino as Shylock and newcomer Lynn Collins as Portia-particularly in the gripping trial scene, in which Mr. Radford devises camera movements to convey a relentlessly encircling Portia seeking to overpower Shylock with her rhetoric, while he remains virtually immobile but defiantly obdurate. Ms. Collins’ eloquent expressions of bemusement behind her almost laughably transparent disguise as a male jurist are the high points of her performance.

In a series of exculpatory forewords, the film seeks to place the anti-Semitism in Venice in its historical and sociological contexts. But for the anti-Semitism of Elizabethan English audiences, one must go to Shakespeare scholars for information on the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, of Christopher Marlowe’s zestful caricature of the satanically Jewish Barabas in The Jew of Malta, and of Shakespeare’s early rivalry with Marlowe. Ron Rosenbaum has written passionately and knowledgeably on these matters in his attack on Mr. Radford’s protestations of reducing or eliminating the anti-Semitism in the original text.

Still, what are Messrs. Radford and Pacino to do with Shylock for contemporary audiences? If they try to “humanize” him, they are betraying Shakespeare, whose genius must remain inviolate, if only on the printed page. If they are “faithful” to Shakespeare, they can be accused of pouring oil on the ever-raging flames of anti-Semitism. In my more measured view of the commercial realities of making Shakespeare movies at all for largely uneducated audiences, Mr. Radford’s adaptation is to be criticized most strongly for its weakest points as romantic comedy: in the visual slighting of the three caskets (which so beguiled Sigmund Freud) and the ironic vaudeville of the missing rings on the fingers of male lovers who had sworn never to remove them. These two subplots were borrowed by Shakespeare from two separate Italian stories, and they operate independently of each other to fashion a narrative pastiche characteristic of so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, especially in the period of his dark comedies, with their distractingly dire melodramatic contrivances.

Then again, for whom is Mr. Radford’s film intended? Certainly not for hardened anti-Semites, but rather for Mr. Bloom’s “enlightened Jew, enlightened Christian.” In any event, Shakespeare remains too marvelous a histrionic challenge to remain unperformed, even with his casual bigotries, both racial and religious, and his casual nationalist xenophobia that turns Joan of Arc into an outrageous (though amusing) slut. As Leslie Fiedler once observed, whereas Montaigne greeted the period’s discoveries of new, strange societies in the Americas with a generously respectful curiosity, Shakespeare in The Tempest reduced these discoveries to the almost subhuman scale of the brutish Caliban.

With Mr. Pacino, Ms. Collins, Jeremy Irons as Antonio and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio aboard, Mr. Radford has steered his cinematic craft through stormy seas to safe harbor with the aid of the fully unfurled sails of the English language. Ms. Collins is the biggest surprise of the film, and she is splendid, but Mr. Pacino, Mr. Irons and Mr. Fiennes profit in their characterizations from the intertextual dividends of all their previous incarnations on film. Mr. Pacino, in particular, makes his Shylock an outgrowth of his poetically paranoid Michael Corleone persona.

A New York Classic

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), from a screenplay by Paul Schrader, deserves another look and listen for its audacious projection of urban angst. Robert De Niro is a subversive force in the person of Travis Bickle, a terminally deluded, sexually frustrated and violently moralistic loose cannon. Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) supplied the movie’s score, the last before his death, and Michael Chapman’s cinematography showed what Times Square looked like in the days before its Disneyfication. Mr. De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Joe Spinell and the director himself (as a sadistically giggling cuckold) are all genuinely memorable. Playing now through Jan. 11 at the Film Forum.