100 American Movies to Save: Preservation (2004-2010)

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

The VillageM. Night Shyamalan2004Narrative feature
A Place of Our OwnStanley Nelson2004Documentary
“Lazy Sunday”Jorma Taccone2005Short
Man Push CartRamin Bahrani2005Narrative feature
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the RoomAlex Gibney2005Documentary
Borat! Cultural Learnings for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of KazakhstanLarry Charles2006Narrative feature
When the Levees BrokeSpike Lee2006Documentary
The King of Kong: A Fistful of QuartersSeth Gordon2007Documentary
Wendy and LucyKelly Reichardt2008Narrative feature
“Double Rainbow”Paul “Bear” Vasquez2010Short

It’s poetic, to say the very least, that smart moviegoers panned The Village when it came out. It was not what people wanted after the pretty literal outings they’d had with The Sixth Sense and Signs. Audiences and critics didn’t want a movie which made text what the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes subtext. A movie made after 9/11 where the characters are so horrified and grief-stricken that they wish they could go back in time to a world where it never happened? I’m not habitually a big Shyamalan defender, but the vitriol about this The Village, his most visually pleasing film, is mystifying to me.

Almost a decade before The Avengers was released and Earth’s mightiest heroes stopped 9/11 in its tracks, Shyamalan came to conclusion which is a lot braver than “What if the guy who made himself a flying gun could have stopped the terrorists?” The conclusion that The Village comes to is that you can’t really hide from your grief, that the world which took so much from you will continue on regardless of your consent to its continuation. It doesn’t make any sense that the adults who raised their children in a clearing in this state park would have believed that the fiction could continue indefinitely. Nor does it make sense to run so completely from your grief that you become an entirely different person. There aren’t many blockbuster films with the basic assumption underlying The Village: we must hurt.

Later in the year, I plan to write about A Place of Our Own in more detail as a counterpart to the much inferior Welcome to Kutsher’s, a movie that I nonetheless think about multiple times a week. Suffice it to say for our purposes that Nelson tells the story in A Place of Our Own of his childhood and his adulthood through the lens of a Black summer community at Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s one of the most adroit films I’ve ever seen, landing exactly on the target that Nelson aims it at. At under an hour long, it never threatens to overstay its welcome, and Nelson doesn’t have to overstate the history of Oak Bluffs, nor does he have to wallow in his family’s unhappiness in the wake of his mother’s death. Oak Bluffs, even when he comes back with his father and his own family over the course of a summer, is haunted. Everything is touched by the fact that his mother, who made the place feel alive and welcome and home, is gone. Everything is touched by the fact that his father, who all but disappeared from his life for years but who is at Oak Bluffs with him now, struggles to communicate with him about the past. Everything is touched because his siblings are basically out of his life, either too distant or too bellicose to keep up with. Nelson has a deft touch that almost no documentarian working today can match. He never pedals too hard, never gasps for breath. A Place of Our Own is most obviously about the historical significance of Oak Bluffs, but the “our” of the Nelson family is the one that breathes so much sadness into the film.

I didn’t think much of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island guys had done a far better tribute to the Beastie Boys many years before, a two and a half minute short that probably did even more for YouTube than Saturday Night Live.

“Lazy Sunday” is still funny, even though nothing can compare to the excitement of being a fourteen-year-old with the barest sense of SNL searching frantically for a way to watch it. Honestly, seventeen years later what stands out most about this thing is that the line about hitting up Yahoo Maps to find “the dopest route” is the least musically convincing as well as the least convincing line about life in the mid-aughts. I used Mapquest. I know other people who used Mapquest. I’ve never met anyone who used Yahoo Maps. So much of audiovisual Internet comedy is present in this short. Purposefully clumsy editing and photography for humor, though I have to say that the zoom in on Samberg as he holds up a box of cupcakes is genuinely a great shot. Referential, almost backbreakingly so, but always certain to make sure you’re in on the joke with visual explainers. A spectacle of the mundane, the relatability of “Does anyone else really like Magnolia Bakery?” Samberg, Schaeffer, Taccone, and Parnell have learned those lessons of Seinfeld and predicted the world of viral content. What none of them could have guessed is that by the standards of 2022, “Lazy Sunday” is probably twice as long as it needs to be. People would have moved on to the next TikTok before the first chorus.

A second Manhattan movie, which wasn’t on purpose, but which also stands as a precise opposite to “Lazy Sunday.” Man Push Cart is an exemplar among American movies about recent immigrants, a category which is significantly less present in our cinema than you’d expect. (I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t think it’s naive to think that this idea of people trying to make it in the United States, something that basically everyone in this country can connect to in some way, is ripe for more moviemaking opportunities.) Man Push Cart sums itself up pretty neatly, but there’s a richness in the film because of its characterization. Your average white American still tends to think of immigration as his or her ancestors came to this country: tired, poor, huddled. That doesn’t adequately align with so many people who come to America now, who have the ability to do so because they’ve made money or been successful in their native country. Ahmad’s story, a Pakistani rock star who comes to America and sells coffee and breakfast food out of a little cart, is a fitting one. It matches so many Americans who come here and cannot jump into the life that allowed them to come to America in the first place. And the anxiety of the film, when Ahmad meets someone who has heard of him and then gets strung along by that more comfortable person who never really extends help to him, is palpable.

Meanwhile, if you’re Ken Lay or Jeffrey Skilling, America is a lot easier and a heck of a lot more fun than it is for the Ahmads. Would Lay or Skilling have even noticed a cart like his if they were wandering around Midtown?

At this point in my movie life, I’m sort of tired of Alex Gibney. I can’t imagine how he feels, given how many documentaries he’s part of within a year; the dude must be exhausted. I’ve seen about ten of his documentaries at this point, and only Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room really rises to the occasion as a really good doc. Gibney’s got a weakness for painfully obvious needledrops and unnecessary stock footage that detracts from the overall message, but enough of that is whittled down in Enron that a potentially opaque story becomes quite clear indeed. Before the recession hit the American economy and blasted everyone’s life into smithereens, Enron was a fascinating scandal because it must have seemed like the exception more than the rule. Gibney, who makes a specialty out of freaks and cheats (Jack Abramoff, Elizabeth Holmes, Scientology, etc.), has found his best muses in the amoral ghouls of this energy company which only knew the goal of higher profits at the expense of literally everything else. As far as I’m concerned, Enron remains a strong point of insight into the mind of the hypercapitalist than any of the many economic downturns and scandals which have succeeded it. If you look at the firms and banks which were totaled and then bailed out and then went back to what they were doing before, you still see the ghostly aura of “man, we didn’t mean to do that” on them even if they don’t deserve it. Enron, which designed a methodology to deceive literally everyone without actually making anything of service, epitomizes the mindset of today’s economic leaders better than any company in recent memory.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that Borat epitomizes much of anything. I mean, the fact that there was a sequel to this where Sacha Baron Cohen was literally Borat again proves above all else that a lot of people, including Rudy Giuliani, weren’t adequately online in 2005 and 2006. Wasn’t it nice when “being online” just meant that you knew that Borat was coming to theaters and it was going to be quirky and strange? Fourteen-year-old me should have treasured that feeling a little more while he was trying to pay Internet homage to Andy Samberg and adequately mimic his favorite lines from the Borat trailer. (I still do a pretty mean “Please, come see mah moviefilm. If it not success, I will be execute.”) What Sacha Baron Cohen accomplishes in this movie, in scenes like the rodeo or the ride from the frat guys, is the same awkwardly thrilling feeling we all get from watching the cast of Cats wander through the rows of the Winter Garden Theater. Here’s a guy who’s dressed up in ludicrous fashion, moving and speaking in ways that feel totally strange to us. The scattered world of Kazakhstan, as presented in the opening and closing of the film, is as oddly scaled and filled with garbage as the scenery of the Jellicle Ball. Or maybe he’s Dirtbag Mary Poppins, practically pervy in every way, coming when the wind changes and only leaving when we don’t need him any longer. Borat seems primarily like a way to show what kind of idiots our red-state brethren are, and I guess that’s a big reason why it gained the popularity it did from our coastal friends. The red-state idiots that Baron Cohen finds are, to be clear, big stupid. Making fun of them is entertaining, and getting a rise out of them is just as good as letting them talk. But Borat also has to be read as a kind of challenge to the smug liberals who get off on these kind of revelations. It’s a lot of fun to watch this like you’ve paid to be at the zoo and gawk at the animals licking their nuts, but…why is that kind of entertainment so satisfying? It’s just meanness, a quality that Sacha Baron Cohen has always been remarkably good at extracting from people.

One of the great pleasures i had in putting this list together was in deciding which Spike Lee movie I was going to include. Lee currently has four films in the National Film Registry, and they’re even fairly close to the four I think I would have chosen if they’d given me carte blanche: Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, She’s Gotta Have It, and 4 Little Girls. When the Levees Broke is one of the only movies about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and I mean that literally. There are shockingly few movies about Katrina, a natural disaster and human disaster without parallel in America this century; it makes immigration look like underdog sports teams by comparison. When the Levees Broke is not immune to some of Lee’s more awkward inclinations, like his openness to conspiracy theory which includes the bombing of the levees around the Ninth Ward. What I really love about this movie is that it made me think about Spike Lee differently when I thought I knew him. When the Levees Broke made me wonder if I’d been giving Lee enough credit for his emotional intelligence. I’d always been drawn to him at his most analytical, even when that analysis is touched with unmatched humanism: Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, obviously, as well as Clockers and BlacKkKlansman. It’s when the humanism doesn’t ring so much as clang, as in Mo’ Better Blues or Crooklyn, that I get a little more skeptical. But it’s clear that Spike is looking at the people of New Orleans and seeing what I think people still fail to comprehend past some news coverage. He saw New Orleans and saw individual pain and suffering in the midst of societal failure and infrastructural collapse. I said in my last entry in this series that 9/11 was an example of the world ending, but When the Levees Broke is about a genocide in the Deep South. Watching the people outside and inside the Superdome, the people dragging their belongings and pets and families to some semblance of safety in the midst of the worst week of all of their lives, would crack stone. Seeing people relocated to other parts of the country, disappeared away from a culture that sustained them, is almost worse. Lee does all of this with so much grace and understanding, qualities that even his supporters don’t adequately find in his work.

There’s some amount of grace in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters as well, although I dunno that Seth Gordon really needs to extend as much grace as he does to these neckbeards.

This is definitely one of the most watchable documentaries I’ve seen in the past couple years, even though it’s well short of greatness. What I’ve always admired about The King of Kong is its incredible understanding of masculine group dynamics, the way that loyalty is built among those groups. The men of The King of Kong are sad little creatures, and it’s not because they’re nerds but because they’re intensely protective of their incredibly small fiefdoms. This happens with guys about like, sports and stuff too. The world that these men protect, the world of arcade games which no one makes anymore, just feels completely insubstantial. And yet these guys see a nice family man who spends a lot of time in his garage with an arcade game from 1981 as a huge threat to them because he’s not part of their clique. Eventually the guys on the inside make a big show of magnanimity to Steve Wiebe once he proves that he’s a legitimate player and not some kind of crass interloper, but like, can you imagine how these guys would act if a woman said something about what they were doing? Anyway, Gamergate.

Wendy and Lucy is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen, and it’s not just because Lucy the dog disappears for most of the film, only to find a new family who can actually take care of her. (The poor dog. My heart breaks about dogs anyway, but Lucy is just such a good dog and I want the best for her but I don’t want her to lose her person…) One of the saws about poverty that just doesn’t travel enough is that it is prohibitively expensive to be poor. The example that I’ve heard which best explains it is about having to buy cheap shoes which don’t do much for you rather than a solid pair of boots which would actually protect a person’s feet. Wendy and Lucy is a film about a person who wants to go to Alaska and do brutally difficult manual labor for the paycheck, but who can’t even get out of the continental United States because everything she has, excepting the dog, is just a cheap pair of shoes. The car dies. Replacing it is an absolute impossibility, but fixing it is just a version of impossibility that comes with more expectation. Wendy shoplifts badly and gets caught by people who intend to make an example out of her rather than trying to figure out what’s happening with this woman who’s obviously in trouble. (Christianity, not subtly but not stupidly either, pops up.) Everything about Wendy’s situation is a misery, a hopelessness. People are kind to Wendy more often than not in this town that she gets stuck in. Men like the mechanic or the security guard at the grocery store try to give her a leg up when they can, or at least do what they can to be kind about how much crap she’s mired in. None of that solves anything, that. Personal charity and kindness have no weight when the world around Wendy has decided she’s going to fail, to lose everything in this podunk hamlet in the Northwest, still many days of driving away from her humble goal.

One of the reasons I never really got onboard with the shaky cam trend, a reason that should probably rate higher on my list of grievances with the form than it does, is because you don’t actually get the sense that the camera and the individual are one. The camera is just a camera in that marker of forced reality, but it’s not a person. In “Double Rainbow” the camera and the person are one. That is Bear Vasquez moving his camera back and forth, seeming to swivel his whole body this way and that to catch, to mirror the arc of those double rainbows. That is Bear Vasquez peering closer at the parabolas as he zooms in and then zooms back out again. His joy is humiliating, which is why this became a meme before people were even saying “meme” all that often. Shame on us for not embracing that joy a little less sardonically. There, in this beautiful place, looking over a vista that John Muir would have pondered in his heart, the sun hammering on the clouds in such a way that it creates these two matching rainbows, both of them so incredibly clear and lovely even in 144p, Vasquez shares a moment with us. He opens up to us, lets strangers into his mind and into his home, and we see the double rainbow in just the way he took it in. It’s a home video in the purest sense of the form, a short film which follows his thoughts from gratitude and awe to about ten seconds of inquiry. “What does this mean?” he asks at one point, and while I personally don’t think this is about meaning, per se, the fact that he’s driven to such a question only emphasizes the beauty of this moment that he’s living in. This video has fifty million views on YouTube today. That means we’ve seen God secondhand fifty million times. I envy Bear Vasquez that he got to see a two-ringed God in person, and I am thankful that he wanted to share that with us.

4 thoughts on “100 American Movies to Save: Preservation (2004-2010)

  1. What a gorgeous note to end it on. Certain YouTube-based creators like Jon Bois and Kevin Perjurer are arguing for greater recognition of their work as films rather than just content, and making great cases for it. But “Double Rainbow” really is a wonderful example of how even a much-memed home video can capture a sensation that nothing else could, at least not in the same way with that intimacy and spontaneity.

      1. I look forward to that!
        If you enjoy Bois’s work, may I also recommend BobbyBroccoli? He also uses the Google Earth animation approach to visual storytelling, but focuses on trends and incidents from the history of particle physic research. I started with the three-part saga of Jan Hendrik Schön, “the man who tried to fake an element” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfDoml-Db64&t=1115s), and I would also recommend the America’s Missing Collider trilogy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivVzGpznw1U&t=2018s).

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