Sunday, January 15, 2006

Party Crasher, or the Axman's Annual Top 10 Party and Me

Happy anniversary, baby! Last night marked my fifth year as an attendee at Sean Axmaker's annual Top 10 party (I was first invited by Jeff Shannon). Every January, we get together to go through our top 10 lists, starting with number one and working our way down to 10. Who are "we"? A cadre of Seattle crit-types, some of whom write for daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, and the like. Then there's me. I don't really fit in, but I'm honored to be included, since I write mostly for the Web (Amazon, siffblog), various alt-culture pubs (Resonance, Tablet), and local non-profits (SIFF, NWFF).

As usual, I put my list together in October. I made a few tweaks since then, but not many. Since that time, all the major publications and most of the major awards groups have made their choices/nominations as to the best films, performances, etc. I suspected I'd be out of step with the masses--but not to the extent that I was. Just as my music list consists almost entirely of independent releases, my film list consists almost entirely of independent productions. This is what I like, where my head is at, and all that jazz. Consequently, some of my choices may seem precious and even trivial to some (that seemed to be the consensus regarding Me and You and Everyone We Know). Well, I stand by them--especially Thumbsucker, my number one pick.

To their credit, no one made fun of me for reserving my top spot for a film that failed to earn the accolades I hoped it would (I was chastised, instead, for including the more respectfully received Constant Gardener). At Sundance, Thumbsucker, like Miranda July's first feature, was one of the fest's most buzzed-about US indies. Upon its release, the reviews were generally positive, but its run was fairly brief, and by the end of the year, it had been virtually forgotten. In the Village Voice film poll, for instance, it doesn't show up in the top 100, while some of the titles that do are inarguably execrable. In the list of top performances, newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci, the film's lead, doesn't show up at all. For my money, he makes the movie. ("What an expressive face he has," my mom noted after the screening. You said it, sister!) Justin Cobb, who changes dramatically throughout the film--several times, no less--represents a perfect fit between character, actor, and director. It's too soon to say whether the kid's gonna be one of the greats. No matter; he's got one exquisite performance under his belt, and that's more than most actors can claim.

So back to the Voice poll. In the list of top 100 directorial debuts, Thumbsucker does make an appearance--at number 100. Talk about damning with faint praise! But there's a silver lining to this dark cloud in that three supporting performers were recognized: Tilda Swinton (who also got the nod for The Chronicles of Narnia), Vince Vaughn, and Keanu Reeves. Kathleen Murphy described the New Age character played by the latter as a "construct"--and she's right--but Anna Pacquin's nymphet is just as much of one in The Squid and the Whale. Reeves, at least, changes into a recognizably real, if less likable human being by the end of Thumbsucker (Pacquin, on the other hand, simply slips away when her work is done). In any case, all deserved the recognition. To that list, I'd add Vincent D'Onofrio, as Justin's dad, and Benjamin Bratt, as a fallen TV star who enters the Cobb family orbit.

Which leads me to my Thumbsucker defense. It isn't a review, just an explanation as to why the film was significant to me. I may never be vindicated in my belief that it was one of the year's best, but I can't imagine I'll be changing my mind anytime soon.


Why Thumbsucker? Because first-time director Mike Mills, by way of author Walter Kirn, manages to squeeze a number of ideas, both big and small, into a surprisingly elegant vessel. Because the film depicts the closest mother-son relationship I've ever seen that isn't ultimately revealed as controlling, kinky, or otherwise sick. Because the adults in Thumbsucker, all of whom relate to minors as peers, are not unmasked as pedophiles or worse. Justin's mom speaks to him as an adult; as does his offbeat orthodontist (Reeves), his dorky debate coach (Vaughn), and his mom's star patient (Bratt). Of course, he isn't an adult and Justin doesn't always live up to their expectations, but he's shown more respect than your average teenager, both on and off-screen, and I found that refreshing. Because everyone in the film makes mistakes, but even the character who comes closest to being the "bad guy" (D'Onofrio) still earns our sympathy--even though he doesn't change. Because the film contains one of the funniest scenes of the year. "With a spoon!" is the key line, but context and Bratt's priceless delivery are everything. Because Justin represents every normal guy with a dirty--if harmless--secret who becomes the family scapegoat because it's easier to blame an embarrassing idiosyncrasy than to take responsibility for one's own failures. Because, by the end of the film, Justin is still a thumbsucker.


With that, here's Sean's Party Recap and Results:

The Axman’s eighth annual Top Ten Party (Critics Edition) was convened at the cozy Queen Anne abode of Richard Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. My co-hosts for the evening were also responsible for the fine Italian meal that preceded the lists. I was, of course, suave and elegant and downright resplendent in my second-hand tuxedo and black fedora.

On hand were (in order of presentation) Jim Emerson, Andy Wright, Kathy Fennessy, Richard Jameson, Tom Tangney, Dave McCoy, Kathleen Murphy, Robert Horton, and me, Sean Axmaker. Jeff Shannon had mechanical problems and couldn’t make it; his list was emailed and read by Richard. Tom Keogh had to cancel due to illness and Keith Simanton was not able to appear.

The toasting began at 7pm sharp and the lists about 7:30pm. The first round went over three hours. It got faster, but some had to leave before it was over, which was sometime after 2am (see what happens when Keith isn’t there to move things along?). Coincidentally, that was about the time we gave up trying to get a fire going. (Quote of the evening: “Poke it hard, Robert!")

What follows is the compilation list of films. There is no “weighting” of points (as in the Village Voice list), merely a simple hierarchy: a first place pick receives 10 points, a second place pick nine, and so on to a tenth place pick of one point. (I toyed with weighing the lists and even did an alternate vote count, but this method tends to bring out more interesting results.) This has no official standing or bearing on anything. It’s just interesting to see the critical mass of this particular gathering. Usually this list is unveiled at the end of the evening, but everyone was heading home so quickly that I had no time to put it together at that time, so I unveil it for you now.

In the largest non-violent protest this event has seen, everyone abstained from including MILLION DOLLAR BABY for their lists. Or maybe everyone just figured it was overhyped by this time. Regardless, I followed suit and took it off my list as well. A large contingency slipped in their “real world” number one pick THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA at every opportunity and made noises about CACHE as well, both of which are set to open in Seattle in the next two months. Had they been eligible, they would surely placed high on the compilation list, even though many of the invitees had not had an opportunity to see them.

Only one film was the Number One pick on two lists, KINGS AND QUEEN, and it appeared on no other lists (discussion revealed that only a fraction of the group had seen it), and two Number One picks showed up on no other lists -- THUMBSUCKER and PALINDROMES.

1) A History of Violence (53 points, 8 lists, 1 “Best Film” pick)
2) The Squid and the Whale (49 points, 8 lists, 1 “Best Film” pick)
3) Grizzly Man (41 points, 7 lists)
4) Brokeback Mountain (38 points, 6 lists, 1 “Best Film” pick)
5) Munich (35 points, 6 lists)
6) Good Night, and Good Luck. (32 points, 6 lists, 1 “Best Film” pick)
7) 2046 (26 points, 4 lists)
8) Keane (24 points, 1 “Best Film” pick)
9) Head-On (23 points, 1 “Best Film” pick)
10) (tie) Kings and Queen (20 points, 2 “Best Film” picks)
Capote (20 points, 4 lists)

Other films on multiple lists:
Murderball (16 points, 2 lists), Hustle and Flow (14 points, 3 lists), Mysterious Skin (13 points, 2 lists), Breakfast on Pluto and Nobody Knows (12 points, 2 lists), Look at Me (9 points, 2 lists), Broken Flowers (8 points, 4 lists), King Kong (7 points, 2 lists), Batman Begins (3 points, 2 lists)

Thumbsucker and Palindromes received Number One picks but were on no other lists
Moolaade and Oldboy received Number Two picks but were on no other lists

Note: Thumbsucker image from

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