Split Decisions: the Critics Speak

Befores and Afters

Intelligence Report

2001 was a year of befores and afters, fractured ego trips and pulsating id riffs. Identity confusion in the form of journeys into divided minds is the latest stage in American cinema's psychic development; to highlight one of many trends, 2001 is when the Dream Factory went off the Deep End. Jettisoning realism for surrealism is the last stage, perhaps, in succumbing to a virtual reality-hyperindustrialized "first world" culture. Mulholland Drive (two films, one mind) and A.I. (one film, two minds) would be the familiar twin peaks of internal divisions—one bearing the psychic scars of Hollywood rejection, the other the psychosis of the formative years. —Mark Peranson

Assuming for the moment that the director of 2001 had indeed invited the director of Close Encounters to take control of his dream project, what could Stanley Kubrick have hoped to gain in the bargain? Would the satisfaction of exposing Steven Spielberg as a narrow-minded peddler of conservative mythology have been enough? Maybe: After all, A.I. is a damn funny movie, albeit unintentionally so. Given that Schindler's List had frustrated the reclusive perfectionist into canceling his own long-planned Holocaust epic, Kubrick fans might like to imagine that his "gift" of A.I. was actually a vengeful ploy to reveal the artificial intelligence of one Steven Spielberg. Alas, Kubrick—as usual—isn't talking. —Rob Nelson

Help the unaged! Aside from the usual Spielberg hatred, critics are denying prizes to Haley Joel Osment because no one respects child actors. But Spielberg has always been a superb director of children, and he gets unexpected delicacy and heart out of Osment, who reveals depth beneath a placid countenance. —Armond White

This is the image in A.I. that to me sums up the team of Spielberg and Kubrick: The fugitive mechas escape to Smut Island or whatever it's called, which looks like the Food Court at a 1970s shopping mall, and Gigolo Joe, the Kubrick figure, is happily pointing out the sights—"Here's where I ply my sleazily robotic trade!"—which would be totally perverted if the sex talk weren't sailing right over the head of little RoboBoy, Steven, who's going, "My mommy told me to look for the Blue Fairy! I love my mommy!" —Justine Elias

Is there a single moment of warmth in A.I. (or Imitation of Life 2001) that isn't undercut by a truly sinister edge? To become human, the ending says, is to commit desperately selfish and solipsistic acts, to expect technology to satisfy one's emotional needs, to play God just to preserve the illusion of normalcy. What could be more chilling than a synthetic boy begging for a synthetic replica of the perfect Spielberg suburban household—needy child, doting mom, no dad—which will disappear the second the lights go out? The house and "humans" are fake; only the darkness is real. —Jim Ridley

Top 20 Countdown

The private thrills and tacit codes of role-play galvanized the year's two headiest love stories: Betty and Rita's dazed, embryonic ardor in Mulholland Drive and the slo-mo tango of denial between In the Mood for Love's Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. In both cases, delicate layers of illusion served only to emphasize the core of implacable sadness—the intrusion of the reality principle was a foregone conclusion. Passion was also linked to performance in Intimacy, which bulldozed its carnal acrobatics to their emotional terminus in a basement repertory theater (and, as an encore, threw in an acting-workshop discombobulation). The year's most visceral mating ritual was even called Audition. Speaking of which, Mulholland's sensational tryout scene was notable not only for the first of Naomi Watts's staggering about-faces but for the director's gnomic recommendation: "Don't play it for real . . . until it gets real." Even before the girls' visit to Diane's apartment (let alone Club Silencio), his words hinted at the terror lying in wait. In a more literal sense, they also summed up the heartbroken discretion of In the Mood's would-be lovers, tremulously rehearsing last goodbyes in a desolate back alley. —Dennis Lim

Truth be told, I'm kind of tired of In the Mood for Love. Then again, I have seen it six times. —Mark Peranson

If Sartre had been a filmmaker, he could have made Memento. The monomaniacal protagonist, bereft of short-term memory, inhabits a world without time—in other words, No Exit's version of hell—where character and audience alike are left to helplessly contemplate what has already happened. Maybe Jean-Paul would have sewn up some of those plot holes, but they only collapse the narrative if you assume that this definitively unreliable narrator doesn't have a few gaps in his story himself. —Jessica Winter

Memento was this year's film equivalent of The Corrections, or maybe the Strokes. By the time you got to it, the hype was so overwhelming (or was the popular response so positive?) that you had to hate it—and ended up coming off as an elitist in the process. —Mark Peranson

The Emperor's New Clothes Award: to Memento, in which the hero, who can't remember anything before the previous 15 minutes, keeps informing people of his "condition." That's sure what I call backward plot construction: ass-backward. —Charles Taylor

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