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.

The lay of the land really shifts if one applies the Passiondex© to the Top 20. Here Platform reigns supreme with a hefty 4.472, followed by Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever (3.273), Jim Sheridan's In America (2.540), Mystic River (2.444), and only then, Elephant, The Return of the King, and demonlover, with Van Sant's other film, Gerry (1.742), slipping in ahead of The Son to leave Lost in Translation at the bottom of this recalibrated Top 10. That Lilya scored so well on the Passiondex© may be a tribute to its youthful star Oksana Akinshina. Indeed, Akinshina came in #14 in the Performance category, behind Zooey Deschanel (#10) of All the Real Girls (#43) and Scarlett Johansson (#11) in the all-important race for gamine of the year.

At what point does passion shade into something more irrational or willfully obscurantist? There is no way to quantify this, but my own rule of thumb is that to be Passiondexical, a movie must have a minimum of three voters. (One is a loner, two make a codependent relationship, but three constitute a political cell.) If the list were open to all movies with at least three votes, the results are positively cultish. Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, the real Kill Bill and real #62, would rool as #1 with a colossal 7.778, followed by Platform, Lilya 4-Ever, Lars von Trier's Medea (#70, 3.267), the Christopher Guest comedy A Mighty Wind (#53, 2.813), the Hugo Chávez doc The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (#57, 2.563), In America, Mystic River, Elephant, and The Return of the King. (At #12 on the cult list, with 2.028, behind Whale Rider, would be my #1 film and Take Five's #34, Peter Watkins's La Commune: No matter how I cook the books, I can't get it into the Top 10!)

As always, the poll is full of mysteries. Why would anyone vote for The Last Samurai, and who expected 21 Grams to wind up a lowly #40? Why did Capturing the Friedmans finish ahead of The Fog of War, which beat it for Best Documentary? And why did Best Supporting performer Peter Sarsgaard swamp his competition (92 more points than runner-up Hope Davis) for his role in Shattered Glass (#48)? Was it respect for a versatile character actor or a bunch of journalists saluting his portrayal of a testy, righteous editor?

Speaking of journalism, the poll's single most important category is Best Undistributed Film, resoundingly won by Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn (cited by an amazing one-third of our voters). Previous winners include Platform—twice listed before its inspirational breakthrough this year—and Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home, subsequently picked up and #14 in Take Four. We'd like to show Tsai's mordant comedy about a haunted Taipei movie house next summer at BAM; we'd like it even better if we don't have to.

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