The American Dreams

Patriotic Critics Boost Gross Domestic Product

Mulholland Drive is no lost highway. David Lynch's voluptuous phantasmagoria created a critical consensus, if not quite critical mass. Mentioned on over three-quarters of 57 ballots in the third annual Village Voice Critics' Poll (with 10 first-place votes), Lynch's reconfigured TV pilot was clearly the movie of the year.

Lynch, moreover, won handily for best director and, somewhat incredibly, for best original screenplay as well. Even more gratifying, no performance approached his hitherto unknown star, Naomi Watts, who had more than twice the number of votes and mentions as her nearest competitor, Charlotte Rampling (for Under the Sand, #13). Compare Mulholland Drive's dominance to the close finishes of previous Voicepoll winners: In 1999, Being John Malkovichnarrowly beat out Topsy-Turvy, with the latter's Mike Leigh named best director; in 2000, Beau Travail(only 31 out of 55 ballots) barely edged Yi Yi, whose Edward Yang easily took best director.

Lynch's comic and sexy, surreal and self-reflexive, thrilling and ludicrous exploration of the Hollywood dream factory was almost as much fun to write about as to watch—particularly on a second or third viewing, at which point it appears to be something like Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.except with the dream coming first. But where was the audience? Released in early October and gone by Thanksgiving, Mulholland Drive grossed a paltry $5.4 million, although Universal Focus has since rereleased it on the strength of its several awards.

The consensus continues: The Voice poll runner-up, Wong Kar-wai's romantic reverie In the Mood for Love, was cited on nearly as many ballots as Mulholland Drive and was the most popular choice among the dozen or so critics who snubbed the Lynch film. (Only 20 ballots failed to cite both movies; there were scarcely any that did not mention one or the other.) Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World (#3) and, to a lesser degree, Christopher Nolan's Memento (#4) placed well on the strength of numerous mentions; by contrast, Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (#5) was cited on fewer lists, but those who liked it really liked it. A.I.'s five first-place votes were more than any other film's save the top two. (The highest mention-to-point ratio in the top 40, however, belonged to Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, which, cited only nine times, still placed #14. Tarr himself came in third for best director.)

More groupthink: Mulholland Drive and In the Mood for Love were voted best film and best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle, whose members amounted to less than 13 percent of the Voice pollees. (Participating critics were drawn mainly from North American alternative weeklies, online publications, and film journals. Those few daily or mass-market critics invited were either Voice alumni or veterans of the New York Film Festival selection committee. In either case, we figured, they were survivors of a particular sort of baptism under fire.) Indeed, the critics polled here agreed with the NYFCC in the voting for best supporting performance (Steve Buscemi for Ghost World), best cinematography (Mark Li Ping-bin and Christopher Doyle for In the Mood for Love), best documentary (Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I, #15), and best first feature (Todd Field's In the Bedroom, #7). The L.A. Film Critics Association gave awards to In the Bedroom and The Gleaners and I, while naming Lynch best director. In short, there was a remarkable agreement among critics this year. Audiences, on the other hand, saw something else.

Unlike 2000, when not a single U.S. production placed in the Voice top 10, 2001 was a very American year. Evidence of the new patriotism? Richard Linklater's Waking Life (#6), Field's In the Bedroom, and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (#8) were bunched together behind A.I. (The Royal Tenenbaums, Film Comment's "film of the year," would surely have ranked higher had the magazine's staff not apparently elected to boycott the Voice poll.) Two foreign entries filled out the list—Jafar Panahi's The Circle (#9) and Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl (#10), feminist films both.

Still, as corn-fed as the top 10 might be, A.I., the lone big-budget extravaganza, would have to be considered a commercial disappointment, with domestic box office receipts of only $80 million. So, too, eight of the remaining nine films (although admittedly In the Bedroom, which has just rolled out, has strong Oscar nomination potential). The one movie on which critics and audiences appeared to agree was Memento, which grossed over $25 million—more so far than the other eight combined.

Any trends to glean? Writing last fall in Film Comment, Phillip Lopate linked Mulholland Drive and In the Mood for Love as examples of an evolving amalgam of movies and pop music that can be revisited in theaters, or ambiently experienced at home: "The languid, seductive rhythms, the unresolved, circular, less-than-overbearing narrative, the sexy actors all contribute to a kind of personal, open-ended fantasy, or pornography, or yearning." Waking Life strikes me as a less successful attempt at the same fusion, as does the glitzier Moulin Rouge (#11), and even Memento. They could also be characterized as experimental "movie-movies," non-linear exercises in sensual spectacle.

The primacy of American movies in the poll seems suggestive of our current subjectivity—all the more so given the ongoing stampede toward comforting fantasy. In the real world of mega-million-dollar blockbusters, this is exemplified by The Lord of the Rings (#23), Monsters, Inc.(#32), Shrek(#38), and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (not even one vote). In the more rarefied realms of professional moviegoing, Mulholland Drive, Waking Life, and Donnie Darko (#16) are all predicated on dreams and visions. Fat Girl has a suspiciously dreamlike ending. The caustic Ghost World could be considered a critique of fantasy, and A.I. could as well, albeit an inadvertent one (the robot child longs to find "that place where dreams are born"). In the Bedroom might represent the reality principle were its vengeance-is-mine ending not the most bizarre fantasy of all. That leaves The Circle—the poll's highest-placing foreign film after In the Mood for Love—as the year's most critically admired social critique.

Speaking of fantasies: The top three undistributed films were Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home (shown at the New York Film Festival), Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo (nixed by the NYFF), and Jia Zhangke's Platform (which placed first in this category last year). Perhaps some dreamer will pick them up next year.

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