Lost in America

Bill Murray's Star Vehicle, Gus Van Sant's Double Comeback, and the Year of the Documentary

America must be coming back. The Take Five winner is Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, listed on just under half of the 84 ballots solicited from alt-press movie critics in the U.S. and Canada, finishing just ahead of Gus Van Sant's Elephant. This is the first year that both top films in the Voice's annual survey have been made in U.S.A. Last year, Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven topped Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También; in Take Three, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (the most decisive winner in poll history) finished ahead of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love; in the all-foreign Top 10 of 2000, Claire Denis's Beau Travail edged Edward Yang's Yi Yi; and in the first poll, Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich narrowly beat Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy.

Lost in Translation and Elephant are both in the tradition of smallish, off-Hollywood movies—although their individual appeal is clarified by victories in other categories. That Coppola's sophomore effort was largely appreciated as a star vehicle may be deduced by the Bill Murray landslide for Best Performance. (He had more than twice the points as runner-up Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean, which failed to get a single vote.) That Elephant was understood as brilliant filmmaking may by deduced by Van Sant's convincing win as Best Director over The Return of the King's Peter Jackson—his victory garnished with an additional three points for his direction of Gerry (#20)—as well as Harris Savides's clear win over Lost in Translation's Lance Acord for Best Cinematography.

Both Lost in Translation and Elephant were recognized by the New York Film Critics Circle. (Elephant won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last May; Lost in Translation is likely to garner a few Oscar nominations, with Murray already a favorite to win.) Take Five's big surprise was the popularity of the mainly French-language demon-lover, which finished a solid third. Olivier Assayas's hilariously self-reflexive exercise in cybergame aesthetics and image circulation was widely derided at Cannes in 2002 and passed over by the New York Film Festival. The movie always had a few strong, initially beleaguered champions; clearly, its five-minutes-into-the-future ambience and just-below-the-radar American release (complete with judicious trimming) lasered in on at least an alt-critical audience.

Elephant (#2 Film, #1 director, #1 cinematography)
photo: HBO Films/Fine line features
Elephant (#2 Film, #1 director, #1 cinematography)

Critics hailed (and disparaged) 2003 as the year of the documentary, and Take Five is the first Voice poll in which a doc cracked the Top 10. Indeed, there were two: Andrew Jarecki's they-said-who-said tale of suburban pederasty, Capturing the Friedmans (#4), and Errol Morris's Robert McNamara portrait, The Fog of War (#6), newsworthy items both. The Son, from Belgium, an austere Christian thriller directed by the Dardenne brothers, finished an unexpected #5. American Splendor, based on Harvey Pekar's underground comix and Capturing the Fried- mans' rival as summer counter-programming, finished #7, tied with more straightforward superhero fare, The Return of the King, just ahead of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 (#9). No previous Lord of the Rings installment landed in the Top 10 (The Fellowship of the Ring was #23 and The Two Towers #29). Even more striking, so far as trilogies go, was the failure of The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions to rate even a single vote—a stunning double rejection that, if one could multiply nothingness, would place them in the cosmic void somewhere below Gigli. (Back in the day, The Matrix placed a respectable #16 in the first Voice film poll.)

Nearly as surprising as demon-lover's popularity was that of Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures, which edged Clint Eastwood's Mystic River for the #10 spot by a fraction of a point. Although the movie's title refers to a Taoist poem, it could also be describing itself. Set in a provincial Chinese city, Unknown Pleasures is a movie by an obscure director that received an extremely small release and still finished ahead of the year's most heavily promoted art movie. That Jia has been recognized, at least by some North American critics, as a major new filmmaker is confirmed by the presence of Platform, his belatedly (if barely) released masterpiece, at #15, as well as by his showing in the Best Director category—tied for fourth with Eastwood, Tarantino, and Assayas.

Those critics who voted for Platform felt extremely strongly about it. Jia's epic analysis of '80s China had the highest Passiondex© of any movie in the Top 20. (The Passiondex© is derived by dividing a film's total points by the number of its voters and then multiplying this average by the percentage of those voters who ranked it first.) Measuring the intensity with which critics championed a particular film, the Passiondex© distinguishes between those movies that have real partisans and those that are consensus choices typically filling out the lower slots in a critic's list.

Thus, the Top 10 ranked by Passiondex© would yield the following results: Elephant (2.166), The Return of the King (2.122), demonlover (1.920), The Son (1.398), Lost in Translation (1.330), Unknown Pleasures (1.099), The Fog of War (0.971), American Splendor (0.967), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (0.477), and Capturing the Friedmans (0.407). Lost in Translation's slip to #5 shows that many critics liked it moderately; Kill Bill's low index suggests the jury will be out until the movie is revealed in its entirety next year; Capturing the Friedmans' pathetic index reveals that it is a movie that received wide but perfunctory praise.

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