The Best American Movie I've Seen in Five Years
A few Saturdays ago, I woke up at 6:30 - which is not unusual for me. While my women slept (until 9:30), I watched Do the Right Thing for the first time in at least 10 years. It was just as powerful as I remembered it.
What made Do the Right Thing a great film (instead of a good film) was its recognition that human behavior is complex and that difficulties can arise when different races are joined in a tense setting. When Mookie, reacting to the death of Radio Raheem, throws the trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria (where he worked), the audience was divided between those who asked "what the hell was he thinking?", and those who shouted "fight the power." When Mookie returns the next day to collect his pay from Sal, the film ends without clarity. Will Sal rebuild in Brooklyn? Will Mookie and Sal reconcile? Are Mookie and Sal friends? Were they ever? What does it mean when Sal says that there is going to be "another hot day" in Brooklyn?
Yesterday, Mrs. Duf and I went to a wonderful lunch here, then crossed the street to see Crash. Crash is the best American movie I have seen in at least five years. Like Do the Right Thing before it, Crash recognizes that easy discussions of race fail to do the subject justice.
Crash is set in modern day Los Angeles and just about every ethnic group is represented. While Do the Right Thing dealt with black and white relations, Crash considers the whole racial terrain: African-Americans, whites, Latina, Hispana, Persian (at times misunderstood to mean Arab or middle east), and Asian, and even adds class issues as well. The film leaves you wondering if you know any of the characters or their motivations. Will they align with stereotypes or defy them? Sometimes it is both, and that, in part, is the genius of the film. What can we guess about the black man in the Lincoln Navigator? What about the Latina or Hispana man installing new locks at the District Attorney's house? What about the Persian man who owns a mini mart or the two black men walking down the sidewalk "looking like UCLA students?" Is a bad cop always a bad cop? Is a good cop always a good cop?
Crash has a wonderful script which uses its central metaphor well and convinces you to believe the coincidences that compel the characters to "bump" into each other from time to time. It's well directed by Paul Haggis (a Canadian no less) and beautifully shot, and benefits from absolutely superior performances, most notably from Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock (yep, I'll stand by that), Thandie Newton [sigh! and a thousand times sigh!], Matt Dillon (I'd nominate him), and a really, really, really touching and outstanding performance by Michael Pena (Oscar worthy times two). Pena (who is featured on the outstanding movie poster) is a star in the making, believe that. There is no bad performance in the film, and Brendan Fraser, Tony Danza, Shaun Toub, and Bahar Soomekh (the second most beautiful woman in the world) also stand out.
I always want the memorable American films of the year to be about something. There is so much to discuss here. Our favorite films tend to steer clear of substance. And while I recognize the inherent value of films that seek to entertain (LOTR, Harry Potter, Independence Day, etc.), I prefer films that challenge and films that reveal. Something about America is revealed in the challenges presented by Crash. It does not chicken out. In fact, part of what makes it difficult to watch is that is doesn't hold back. Racism in all it's ugliness is right there in your face. There is a temptation to give an overly-glossy, shiny-happy ending (the movie Collateral was perfect/excellent until the last 15 minutes when it chickened out and became very average, almost forgettable - I kept wondering what Collateral would have been like if either Luc Besson directed it, or if they didn't send it to test audiences to mess it up, or it was produced in France or Germany instead of the U.S.), but Haggis avoids it, and the film is all the more powerful as a result. Like Do the Right Thing, it leaves you wondering what is going to happen the next day.
I can say little more without ruining the film for those who will see it. I'll conclude by saying that I will hype this film as much as I can. I wish all Americans would see it, and, like its powerful predecessor, I wish it would inspire a oft-needed (and now as much as ever) conversation about race in America.
Run, don't walk, to see Crash.