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Look Back in Anger

The Big Studios Provided Chagrined Moviegoers With Major Disappointment

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N01

Footballed unto numbness, turkeyed beyond bloat and yet not quite unconscious, my girlfriend and I staggered to a video shop early Thanksgiving evening -- well, I staggered, she glided. Like millions of Americans in those circumstances, we thought a movie would be the perfect ending to an excellent day. But I had a professional agenda as well: Since my job attendance record this year had been somewhat spotty, I looked for a chance to catch up on some of the important films I missed while I had my nose buried in a book project.

I knew what I wanted. Nothing rigorous. I didn't need to be provoked, challenged, disturbed -- not with that much tryptophan loose in my system. No, I wanted to be entertained. I wanted from Hollywood what Hollywood has sold the world for almost a century: a solid piece of fun, well crafted, bright, adventurous, and whether I remembered it tomorrow or next year wasn't the issue. The issue was: Would it take me while it was on screen? Like any moviegoer, I yearned to be seduced and pleasured.

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I must have prowled the racks for an hour, and indeed I found exactly what I wanted. It took me places, made me feel love, deceit, redemption, showed me a woman I yearned for and a man I yearned to be, and sent me to bed refreshed, as if I'd just had a fabulous vacation. And here's the cool part. Jean loved it, too. It brought us together, didn't drive us apart (as my choices -- Japanese, lots of sword-fighting -- usually do). We agreed for once: That's entertainment in the grown-up sense, a vehicle that fused glamour, wit, beauty, comedy, love and a cool city in one sleek package.

Alas, the movie in question was made in 1953.

William Wyler's "Roman Holiday," with Gregory Peck and the very young Audrey Hepburn, is not a great movie, but it's a great Hollywood movie. It felt like it lasted 20 minutes, and yet when it was over, the sun had set and it was time for Letterman.

That's the good news: They used to know how to make 'em.

Here's the bad news: They forgot.

You can look at the release schedule for 2004 and the sad reality soon announces itself. This was the year Hollywood crashed and burned.

That's not to say there weren't a very few good movies. The best seem to have been made in Asia, however; and of the American entries, the best were made in spite of, outside of, far away from or were irrelevant to Hollywood. They were indies or semi-indies, made by people who knew Hollywood didn't offer what they wanted. If they got a little Hollywood money, they took off for the hills and made their films far from the eyes of accountants and studio creative executives.

What's going on? Is this radical? Is this a worse year than last year or the year before? Those were pretty bad years too, come to think of it. But this year, a few unique conditions may have contributed to the general wreckage strewn across the landscape.

For one thing, the industry was too obsessed with politics and the holy crusade of keeping President Bush from returning to the White House. Too many movies had an ominous political undertone as this or that deep thinker advised us of their serious concerns. The brain-dead "Manchurian Candidate" is one such bad picture. Really, who needed this dim remake of a classic? Oh, Jonathan Demme, the director, and that's all. Another was that awful stormy-weather movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," about the world ending in flood, snow, earthquake, tornado and bad dialogue.

Or possibly the town was too obsessed with CGI, looking for new ways to computer-paint robot armies hellbent on conquering Earth, as in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" or "I, Robot," or ancient battles among computer-replicated armies, as in "Troy" and "King Arthur." Haven't they realized we've reached the robot and battle threshold? How about monsters of ego, how about Iagos and Long John Silvers and even Goldfingers, for crying out loud. After all, you just need a script and an actor, not $9.2 million in software.

Perhaps the people running the business are too young. I understand that the youth market is the more reliable audience today, and that young executives would know it better than old executives. But there's still something to be said about the acquired wisdom of age, experience and taste. How nice to see a movie made by someone who knows who won World War II. Maybe it's the youth-exec phenomenon that explains the profusion of ever-drearier yet more witless comedies like "Jersey Girl" or "Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London" or the excrescence known to Planet Earth as "Raising Helen."

Or perhaps the big-hit mentality has completely taken over; that one giant hit makes careers, buys not second homes but third, fourth and fifth homes; means you always get your phone calls returned and that you can always get work . . . well, "always" in the sense of "until October." Still, you become a player by greenlighting a hundred-million-dollar picture and you stay one by greenlighting another. Who can blame them if the dollar signs de-IQ the boys and girls? "Troy" comes to mind, as do "Alexander" and "The Alamo," but you don't need old-fashioned battles to lose a ton of dough. What about "Ladder 49" and "Exorcist: The Beginning"?

But what do I know? Obviously, nothing. I'm no player. I'm at this end of the business, not that end, and that's where I'm content to stay. The one time I tried to work that end, a long story not worth telling, I failed miserably, so clearly I know nothing.

For whatever reason, a systemic breakdown or the random drift of molecules in the universe . . . Lord, did the American movies of 2004 stink.

It wasn't until March 19 that a good American movie even opened. Up till then and for a long while after, it was just, you know, biz as usual. The distinctive "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" saw light of day that month, from the pen of always interesting Charlie Kaufman, and it was the first film that could be said to be so original that it failed on the strength of its brilliance, not its banalities. Though it had major stars (Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey), it was as far from computer-generated and teen-friendly as possible: How on Earth do you pitch a story about a machine that wipes out love memories to make pain go away, except that the mind-wiped lovers always find each other and begin again? Even with Jim Carrey starring, the only pitch could be "The guy who did 'Being John Malkovich' and 'Adaptation' wants to make another strange movie."

Meanwhile, our vaunted Best Directors were uniformly disappointing us. Spielberg's "The Terminal" was a little better than okay, even with Tom Hanks aboard. M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" was a major embarrassment. Like, who didn't figure out the big twist by Minute 34? "Spider-Man 2" wasn't as good as "Spider-Man," and most who saw it forgot it by lunch the next day, but it was a little bit better than all right.

Possibly the most ridiculous entry of a major studio was "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," heralded as a major breakthrough; it turned out to be not a parody of a '30s aviation adventure serial but an actual '30s aviation serial! And whose bright idea was that? Oh, the guy running the deep fat fryer at the Encino Mickey Dee's? Figures.

Another American delight that cost one-hundredth the doughnut budget of "Sky Captain," and was easily 200 times as entertaining, was "Napoleon Dynamite." Hmmm, a movie with no "elements," as they say, nothing but talent and energy, made for a lot less than a single million in, of all places, Idaho? Why, it's unthinkable, but thank God director Jared Hess and star Jon Heder missed all the meetings and just went ahead and made their movie.

Then there was what I thought the best American movie of the year: again, small, unheralded except among the cognoscenti, completely out of the Hollywood mainstream. This was Alexander Payne's "Sideways," the story of a grumpy, self-loathing oenophile who goes with a buddy on a tour of California's wine country and has to confront his own failure, his repression, his deep sense of regret about his life. Paul Giamatti starred, brilliantly, and the movie was small, sad, human . . . and oh so funny.

Still, taken as a whole, the really big news this year seems to come from Asia. Four Asian movies offered the combination of sweep, glamour, excitement, grit and guts that used to be the standard product of Hollywood.

The first of them, Yoji Yamada's "Twilight Samurai," had the look and feel of a late-'50s western, sturdy of story construction, intimate of emotion and psychology, fast and vivid in action and dramatically satisfying. Then came another Japanese picture, Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman," a fabulous big-scale entertainment of a sort that H-wood seems so unable to produce. The story, based on a long-running movie series, followed a blind masseur with extraordinary sword skills as he cleans up a town with the usual suspects -- corrupt officials, angry sword slingers, bandits and prostitutes. It was followed up by an Asian picture even bigger, wider and deeper: Zhang Yimou's "Hero," which, while politically problematic (it seemed to be pro-Mao, an odd tone for a man like Zhang who'd gotten in much trouble with the regime), offered exactly the kind of big-movie thrills the American industry had turned to their computer screens to replicate.

Then Zhang came out with what I believe to be the year's best picture, not merely big and stunning but romantic and compelling at the same time, a fusion of action and romance, of love turned sour and vengeance unleashed, of youthful heroics as driven forward by a great star performance (Ziyi Zhang, call your agent), called "The House of Flying Daggers."

Surely America's industry bottomed out at Thanksgiving, when a double whammy of Oliver Stone's stultifying, stupefying "Alexander" was released, along with the nasty and nonsensical "Christmas With the Kranks." Audiences to Hollywood: Drop Dead. Everybody needed a medicinal dose of "Roman Holiday" to come back from that lost period.

As things now stand, only two American films can redeem the already lost year. But last time out, Martin Scorsese came a cropper with his beloved "Gangs of New York." Can he recoup his and Hollywood's reputation with a biopic on Howard Hughes, "The Aviator," starring the unlovable Leonardo DiCaprio? (Hint: yes.) Then there's the eccentric Wes Anderson, last repped by the delirious "Royal Tenenbaums." He checks in with a second dysfunctional family opus, "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," which is set underwater, among other places. Let's hope Wes delivers.

And let's hope next year is better.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company