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Come ona Tree House (of Life)

Git on up in here! Dennis Cozzalio is our host for the second annual Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule Movie Tree House -- and you're invited, too. Join returning Tree Housers Dennis, Jason Bellamy, Sheila O'Malley and me, and welcome Simon Abrams and Steven Boone to the lofty branches, where we have been discussing such life-and-death matters as...

The art and science of year-end list-making (from Dennis):

As of January 2012, it's a chore for me to recall anything but fragments of images from The Tree of Life beyond that wonderful sequence in which the oldest boy's growing up amongst his two younger siblings is compressed into a beautiful visual essay about the way a child might see the surrounding world. It seems to me it is with this gaze that Malick most clearly relates. Unfortunately, a child's focus is also all over the map, and that too is a feeling I get from "The Tree of Life." So am I crazy in having to admit that I have higher regard for "Your Highness" or "Captain America: The First Avenger" or "Troll Hunter" or "Contagion" than I do for "The Tree of Life"? You tell me.

In compiling my list for the year I also had the strange experience of having my expectations for how that list might look at the end of the year scrambled and significantly altered by three very different movie experiences, two of which I just happened to have on the same night less than two weeks ago....

The acting! (from Sheila):

My "way in" to films is usually through performance. That is no secret. You can have the most beautifully framed shot, but if the acting isn't interesting or engaging, I can barely remember the movie. To give you an example of how far I take this, I honestly felt that Rob Corddry should have been nominated for something for his performance in "Hot Tub Time Machine" in 2010. If I were Queen of the Universe, he would have gotten a Best Supporting nod, at least. That's some of the most alive acting I saw that year, hands down. This year, I felt the same way about the entire cast of "Bridesmaids," Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy in particular. The detail of those performances, the underlying subtext of each character's through-line, the interactions, the improvisation ... all of that made "Bridesmaids" the feast of Acting Glory that it was. These are the movies I remember, that I will watch again and again.

Remembering the little (but nifty) things in 515 movies seen in 2011 (from Simon):

Too often when people make lists of the best films of the year, they ignore all the smaller parts, performances and ideas that impressed them. The empirical need to classify, however subjectively, one's own absolute favorite films is understandable and a compulsion I totally get. But how about that one scene where the butcher in "The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman" cuts a horse in half with his cleaver? The movie's not exactly a keeper. But I crack up just thinking about that scene.

Or how about "Scabbard Samurai," a movie that hasn't yet been released theatrically in America but was produced in 2011 and is surely one of my favorite films of the year? I mean, yes, I love "Film Socialisme"'s capitalist conspiracy theory hoohaa and "Take Shelter"'s gutting penultimate scene and wow, how about "Love Exposure," folks, the best film by a filmmaker most Americans hadn't even heard of until somebody said, "Jeepers, lookit this 4-hour tribute to Christ-like boners and finding divinity through perversion!"* [...]

*That kind of sums up my taste in movies, incidentally.

Cultural pollution (from Boone):

I sense in critics in general a dependence upon and automatic deference to whomever is this year's buzz or big spender. Even in the most coolly analytical reviews I sense an undercurrent of fear of missing the boat, of losing relevance in a media climate that now moves faster than light. That's what all this constant Tweeting is about. Even snark directed at absurdly bankrupt studio product has the character of counterintuitive studio PR. To gripe that "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" is trash is one thing. To say that the studio which produced it is as unconscionable a polluter and exploiter as Walmart (my words, not White's) is a whole 'nother 'nother. Few who wish to earn some kind of living at film criticism are willing to go quite there.

But why? Is there really so much to lose at this point? Do we need to cooperate with the studios so readily in order to produce commentary someone other than our aunties might read?

Or is the general sentiment that these corporate entities rest so deep in the culture that we can't cut them loose without severing some vital cultural artery?

Critical complicity (individual and institutional) in Hollywood hype-mongering (from Jason):

That said, Steven, I think you're right that critics (and other engaged cinephiles) are as susceptible to the Hollywood hype machine as the average moviegoer. The hype factory affects not just which movies win awards but, long before that, which movies enter the discussion forum to begin with, en route to being entered into countless Netflix queues later on. And while this unfortunate reality inspires you to dream of a world without the ballyhoo and the "bargain" matinee prices that are anything but, it inspires me to think of something just as unrealistic:

What would our cinematic discussions look like if movies were released anonymously?

The niche-ification of movie culture (from me):

Let me start off by saying that never before in my 40-or-so years of professional and non-professional year-end movie-list-making can I recall so little of interest from the major Hollywood studios. While several of my favorites were produced or distributed by (semi-)autonomous "dependents" (Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal; Fox Searchlight, a division of 20th Century-Fox; Sony Classics, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment), when the year was up I had only one serious studio candidate for my top films of the year, and that was the Columbia Pictures release Moneyball. (And if you've read about how that one eventually got made, it was more like an indie directed by Bennett Miller and protected from executive interference by the star/producer clout of Brad Pitt. Some of Soderbergh's planned, but studio-vetoed, improvisational freshness remains.)

AND, I threw out this challenge, which I extend to you as well. Watch this dinosaur segment from "The Tree of Life" and tell me how you interpret what you see:

* Yes, the headline is a Rosemary Clooney reference -- George's aunt, Nick's sister and Der Bingle's co-star in "White Christmas."

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