At the risk of alienating however many readers we have left, I'd like to begin this final post at the same place I left off, with the creation sequence in The Tree of Life. I know, I know: Enough with Malick, already! I understand. But, please, give me a chance, because I think this story is worth sharing, and it might be appreciated more by the film's detractors than by its orgasmic fans.
I saw The Tree of Life at the theater four times last year. Not once did I see it on a particularly big screen, and in fact the theaters got smaller each time. The last time I saw it, in its final week before it left Washington, DC, The Tree of Life had been relegated to a theater with just three rows super-close to the screen and then two rows even closer than that. I sat in the back row, and in front of me sat a group of about eight people - coworkers for the most part, it seemed, plus one or two significant others.
Because the theater was so small, and because I was now very familiar with the movie, I inevitably glanced in the group's direction to see how they were responding. Once I did, it was hard to look away. From right to left, the gang of eight ran the gamut from enthralled to befuddled to disgruntled - or so I deduced by the frequency with which they shook their heads and the amount of the movie they endured before walking out. Four of them went the distance and lingered through the credits. Two of them nearly made it to the beach sequence before bailing. And the other two left about midway through the childhood sequence, with one of them pausing on the way out to whisper to the group's ringleader: "You're a cruel, cruel man."
To borrow a phrase I read on Twitter today, it would be tempting to typecast those "premature evacuators" as intellectual lightweights who want their cinema no more adventurous than a fast-food hamburger, and maybe they were. But whatever its inspiration, their nonstop fidgeting made it clear that those who didn't "feel" The Tree of Life weren't rejecting what was happening on screen so much as they didn't think anything was "happening" at all.
As someone who is deeply moved by Malick's intimate epic, their reaction confused me. Nothing happening? Why, in the creation scene, everything is happening! And yet at the same time, I understood. Because, the truth is, that night I didn't strongly feel The Tree of Life either, not even during the creation sequence.
The problem wasn't that I'd become desensitized to the movie's awe. The problem was that the awe was actually missing. Yes, technically, this was the same movie I'd seen the three times before, but there was one big difference: the volume wasn't cranked to 11. The sound wasn't so low that the uninitiated would have noticed; Sean Penn's mumbling was hard to hear, sure, but it's that way by design. But during the creation sequence, when the spindle of light appears and "Lacrimosa" is supposed to be blaring with the kind of volume that something as enormous as the creation of the universe demands, the theater walls didn't tremble, and thus my soul didn't either.
See, there's a reason that The Tree of Life's Blu-ray edition begins with a recommendation that you "play it loud," because, sure enough, that night, with the score perfectly audible but not colossal, my favorite scene didn't feel like a religious experience at all. Instead, it played like pretty pictures set to music. A vacation slideshow. A screensaver.
In that moment, I saw the movie the way its detractors do. I was on the outside looking in. And I hated it there.
I wish I could say that's the only time I felt that way in 2011, but of course it wasn't.
Sheila has beautifully described her powerful reaction to Melancholia, but as much as I was moved by the first half of the film - including that terrific scene with the paper hot-air balloons - and Kirsten Dunst's performance overall, there are parts of Melancholia that I felt thudded like a lead balloon, either at the time or after the fact.
For example, where the movie's fans see triumph, heroism and/or redemption in the movie's conclusion, when Dunst's character builds a fortress of sticks to "protect" her nephew from the oncoming cataclysm, I see nothing more than resignation and basic human decency, which is honest, sure, but not overwhelming. Meanwhile, as the months go by, I find I'm increasingly put off by the now relatively famous scene in which Dunst's character sprawls naked in the light of the doomsday planet. It's a beautiful image, no doubt, but it doesn't make sense to me: If Melancholia (the planet) is a symbol of depression itself, then there's nothing alluring (never mind arousing) about it. And if instead the planet is the deus ex machina that Dunst's character has been longing for, a deathly means to end her depression, that doesn't work for me either, because thoughts of "the end" provide relief for the depressed, not euphoria.
And then there's War Horse, which, according to my earlier anonymity exercise, Dennis thinks would benefit if freed from Spielbergian expectations, while I think it's been given the benefit of the doubt precisely because of the legend attached. War Horse is a fine movie, don't get me wrong, and I was sporadically moved by its emotions and imagery, in particular the first shot of the saddled horse sprinting through the forest after its rider has been gunned down, and the scene in which Spielberg tactfully hides the execution of two runaway soldiers with the passing sweep of a windmill.
But even setting aside the opening act that channels The Quiet Man and the closing sequence that channels Gone With the Wind, which make for some of the sloppiest emotionality in Spielberg's career (and that's saying something), I couldn't escape the feeling that Spielberg was committing the same mistake that The Help was (somewhat fairly, somewhat unfairly) lambasted for over the summer, because even amidst tragedy War Horse wants everyone to be having a good time.
It's fair to point out that Spielberg made War Horse as a family film, and thus the horrors of World War I needed to be mostly sterilized; I get that. But think of how powerful that scene with the British and German soldiers working together to free the horse from the wire would be if Spielberg had dared to convey the warring parties as distinct tribes, rather than presenting WWI like a minor disagreement among one sprawling European family that everyone knew would blow over with time and a few shootouts.
And, yeah, Jim, what about We Need to Talk About Kevin? I can't think of a single movie from 2011 that I found so penetrating and so silly in equal measure. I had the great fortune of seeing this movie "cold" (and if you don't know a thing about We Need to Talk About Kevin, skip the rest of this paragraph), and over the first 20 minutes it provided a thrilling experience, as the elliptical storytelling and Tilda Swinton's transfixing yet enigmatic performance invite us to puzzle out this broken woman's past and present trauma. As a portrait of parental guilt, regret and ultimately unbreakable love, this movie is profound. But the other half, with the crazed problem child who seems to be maliciously fucking with his mother's sanity before he's even out of diapers? It's a joke. And whether it's an intentional joke or not - I honestly can't tell - it cheapens what might otherwise be a cutting examination of parent-child dysfunction.
There are other movies that did well on critics' year-end best lists that failed to register with me. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives seared some powerful images into my brain, but it never touched my soul. A Dangerous Method engrossed me as I was watching it, but by the time I was home from the theater the effect had worn off, never to return, and Jane Eyre, similarly, vanished from memory like a ghost. And so on.
But this is how moviegoing works. In the big picture, on the widest of screens, it's good to be on the outside every once in a while, because it makes coming inside feel so much better, like being invited into a friend's home where a fire is burning and chocolate chip cookies are baking in the oven on a cold winter day.
Although The Tree of Life was in my crosshairs in 2010, often it's the surprises that warm us most. Warrior was a surprise for me, and in a way Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was, too, because I never could have predicted how emotional I'd find it on second viewing. And so I wonder what I would have thought of, say, The Arist had I gotten to the movie before its Oscar campaign got to me. Expectations can be a bitch, you know.
I say that en route to Dennis' challenge: What movie out of the top 100 do I think deserves to be seen by a wider audience? Well, excluding documentaries, I'm going to go with a movie I name-dropped in one of my previous installments: Blackthorn, the retirement tale of Butch Cassidy. It's a feast for the eyes, includes the best chase sequence I saw all year and embraces its place in the shadow of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without sacrificing its own identity.
Despite its panoramic views, Blackthorn is a small picture, so whether it holds up to expectations, I don't know. But if you watch it, do me one favor, do the movie a favor and do yourself a favor: play it loud.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler and is a regular contributor to Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, coauthoring The Conversations series with Ed Howard. He's also a contributor to Press Play. Follow him on Twitter.
TREE HOUSE #17: STORIES, DREAMS, MEMORIES
TREE HOUSE #16: FAITH LOST AND FOUND
TREE HOUSE #15: MALICK'S GOD, CORNISH'S MONSTERS
TREE HOUSE #14: ACADEMY LEADERS
TREE HOUSE #13: SPIRITS AND INFLUENCES
TREE HOUSE #12: THE MOVIES MUST MOVE US
TREE HOUSE #11: REVOLUTION AND SHOW BUSINESS
TREE HOUSE #10: MESSAGE FROM THE MANAGEMENT
TREE HOUSE #9: WHERE'S MARTIN YAN WHEN YOU REALLY NEED HIM?
TREE HOUSE #8: RARIFIED REACHES
TREE HOUSE #7: BOMBAST, BIG BUDGETS, BREAKFAST BURRITOS
TREE HOUSE POST #6: DISCOVERY THROUGH A SECOND LOOK
TREE HOUSE POST #5: PEDIGREE "BETTER THAN" HYPE?
TREE HOUSE POST #4: CHURCH OF THE MULTIPLEX
TREE HOUSE POST #3: FESTIVAL FAVORITES AND NETFLIX NUGGETS
TREE HOUSE POST #2: AGONY, ECSTASY AND THESPIAN PRIDE
TREE HOUSE POST #1: INTRODUCTIONS AND AN OPENING SALVO