Forgive the negative connotation of the label I'm about to use, but before we go further I think we should admit one thing: as far as cinephilia is concerned, we are the 1 percent.
In saying that, I don't mean to imply that we are the haves in a world dominated by have-nots. Not at all. I mean only to point out that in the universe of movie consumers there is only a tiny fraction that approaches cinema with the same obsessiveness that we demonstrate: not just seeing movies but analyzing them, not just analyzing them but writing about them, not just writing about them but tweeting about them, not just tweeting about them but dialoging about them, not just dialoging about them but reading about them, not just reading about them but reading even more about them, and so on.
It strikes me now that the first blog I ever read - about movies or anything - was Jim's Scanners, which I discovered one day while going to Roger Ebert's site to print off a few of his recent reviews to read over lunch. From Scanners, Jim introduced me to The House Next Door, which at the time was in its infancy, founded by a professional critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, but published by an amateur enthusiast's means - a Blogger-hosted site with the most minimalist design available. It was The House Next Door that, one way or another, led to my eventual connections with Sheila, Steven and Simon, but before that it was Scanners that pointed me to the first bona fide non-professional movie blog I ever laid eyes on, this one, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (which still has the best blog name I've ever come across, and it isn't close).
I knew then that anyone could be a blogger, but for whatever reason I wasn't immediately struck with the feeling that I needed to be one of them. I was already writing about movies, for myself and some friends, but I wouldn't create a blog for another few years. What I did do, though, from that moment on, was read movie blogs voraciously and comment at them frequently. And here's the thing: at the time I assumed every other movie enthusiast did the same.
I was wrong. However much traffic Scanners got then, however much traffic it gets now, it's less than what I would have guessed, less than what it deserves. Sadly, I'm sure the same is true of RogerEbert.com and Metacritic.com, and any other site that would serve as a gateway to endless amounts of thoughtful criticism to anyone who wanted to consume it. As Simon implied, often we 1-percenters wind up writing for each other, and even though I know from experience that there's an engaged audience beyond our 1 percent, I also know that it's only a sliver of the massive pie of available "movie fans."
I don't say this to be a downer but out of a need to report the facts as I see them, because like Steven - like all of you, I'm sure - I would love for the mass audience to be the tree house.
So how does that happen? Two ways, I think.
The first is to spread the good word, which can't mean just preaching on the corner, screaming our views over the din of everyday distractions in the hopes that someone will come along and accept our gospel without skepticism. It must also include listening, dialogue, consideration and openness. At its best, cinema is the purest all-faith church you could hope to find. We don't need to agree about what moves us; we just need to share in the glory that cinema provides. And as the 1 percenters we need to set an example for what cinephilia should be, even when we might not have the influence to singlehandedly create change, as Sheila did with her Iranian blogathon, or as Jim does when he spends multiple posts burrowing into one of his annual obsessions. In this area, thankfully, we can make a difference.
Alas, the other thing needed to bring the mass audience to the tree house is a steady diet of great cinema, and all we can do here is pray. Last week I was clicking around on YouTube and stumbled upon a Comic-Con panel from a few years back in which Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were asked by an aspiring filmmaker if it was still possible to break into the industry the way they did, essentially operating on the outside of the Hollywood system until all of a sudden they were power players within it. Tarantino thought for a moment and then provided this advice: "Make Reservoir Dogs."
"I'm not even being a smartass," QT continued. "That was a fucking kickass movie, alright. You make a goddamn kickass movie and you can take it all over the fucking planet earth. Not America. Not fucking Los Angeles. Not New York. The planet fucking earth. And everyone will know it."
It was an arrogant and self-serving answer, but it was accurate, too, and the same logic applies here, because no matter how much advocacy we provide, no matter how much passion we exude, no matter if we wear our cinephilia as boldly as Tim Tebow wears his Christianity, the bottom line is that if we want the masses to be moved we need movies to move the masses. On the side, we can champion. We can articulate. We can encourage. But for passion for cinema to be deep and pure, it has to be inspired by what's on the screen. Period.
So, at last, what moved me in 2011?
Many things. Over two viewings, I fell hard for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which certainly feels like the most flawless of 2011's great movies - smartly written, thoughtfully shot, brilliantly acted and thick with atmosphere. I also got swept up by the audaciousness of Drive, the gripping paranoia of Take Shelter, the sweetness of Beginners and the vivid exteriors of the under-the-radar Blackthorn. The best two documentaries I saw this year were Senna and Catching Hell (the latter on TV, although it had a theatrical premiere at some point). And Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 took a franchise that I never really cared for and made me care enough to watch the finale twice.
And then there was Warrior. I haven't seen Margaret (so far as I can tell, it never came to D.C.), but with due respect to the truly flawless performances in Tinker Tailor, all I can say is that if Warrior isn't your pick for the most outstanding performance by a cast it can only mean you haven't seen it, which wouldn't be much of a surprise because the mixed martial arts flick lasted in theaters just a bit longer than I'd last in the octagon against Brock Lesnar.
In recent months, Nick Nolte has earned some supporting actor buzz for his portrayal of the estranged alcoholic father of two MMA fighters, and deservedly so: I think it's the best performance he's ever given. But the other actors are just as incredible: Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan, the brothers who share an ability to fight and not much else; Jennifer Morrison as Brendan's concerned but always caring wife; and Frank Grillo as Brendan's supportive coach.
In my review I called Warrior the Heat of fight movies, in large part because like Michael Mann's 1995 crime classic Warrior takes everything familiar about its genre and does it better, and also because it's "simultaneously mythic and realistic, stylized and uncomplicated, violent and romantic, epic and intimate." But what lingers are the performances, which in a movie not afraid to be predictable somehow manage to avoid cliche at every turn.
Of course, the movie that moved me most was Malick's The Tree of Life.
That orgasmic moment I mentioned in my first post? It happened around 3:07 pm ET on Saturday, May 28. (I told you we're the 1 percent!) I was at Manhattan's Sunshine Cinema, having made the pilgrimage from Washington, DC, for the movie's opening weekend, meeting my uncle Ric, who came from Cape Cod, and rallying at the theater with Boone (who'd managed to see The Tree of Life at a media screening with Sheila) and Odie Henderson (who was seeing it for the first time).
The cinematic moment that provided my overcome response is a few minutes into the famous (and, for some, infamous) creation sequence, which begins with Jessica Chastain's mother character whispering to God in the aftermath of her son's death, asking "Where were you?" After a short series of gaseous images, the screen goes black momentarily and then a spindle of light appears, diagonal at first and then turning perfectly vertical as "Lacrimosa" crescendos fervently in the background.
What is it, that spindle? Like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's no definitive answer, but in short I believe it to be the miracle of life, the igniter, the mover, which some would say means it's God. Whatever it is, it's the thing that comes before the Big Bang. It's the match the lights the fuse for the explosion of life.
That life includes Jim's dinosaurs, and what do I think that scene means? Well, just like I think the entire creation sequence is meant to answer the mother's question by suggesting that God, or just life itself and all its inherent creation and destruction, was everywhere all along, all the way back to the beginning of time, I think the dinosaur sequence is meant to suggest that the nature/grace dichotomy that's explored in the film can be traced back to earth's earliest creatures.
That's a little on-the-nose for me, and, as Sheila suggested, it's unconvincing besides. And like Jim, I think the final 20-or-so minutes of The Tree of Life are "an embarrassment of cliches," and each time I've seen the movie I've had to cringe my away through them.
But, oh, that moment in the creation sequence! That truly awesome moment!
That's why we go to the movies.
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 #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