Tense movies feel more tense to me now. I figure it's my kids doing it to me, making the stakes of tragedy higher and more personal. That's just short of a cliche - my wife and I had a memorable (for us) disagreement years ago with my sister-in-law over Life Is Beautiful, which she said she could not enjoy because she was a parent. At the time, we felt we were being patronized in that "you don't understand, but you will" way - like we were being told we couldn't feel or didn't have fear. It wasn't that movies didn't get to me back then - Shadowlands, just to pick one example out of many, still haunts me in some ways, nearly a decade after I saw it, and I don't know if that film affected that many people so much. But I squirm in my seat a lot now when certain peoples' lives are at stake in movies. So perhaps, in the end, my sister-in-law was right. I guess I need to see Life Is Beautiful to have a better idea.
I also think I have been writing longer paragraphs since my kids were born, but that's something to be examined another day. (In all seriousness, I bet Ken Arneson has the mind to explain it.)
In any case, United 93 isn't proving to be such an aberration for me now. Babel nearly drove me straight to a bar even though I saw it at 10 a.m. on a weekday, Fur had me racing home to hug my family on a Friday evening, and even Cars ... no, just kidding, Cars was fun. But now, you can add Little Children to the list. It's a great title for a film that is so humbling - so many of us, no matter our age or status, are all so young and vulnerable. It's a film that really made me feel nervous for its very real characters, and you know, that's rough when you live in as much fear as I do of what you could lose.
Unlike Babel, which practically suffocates almost tortures, with its grimness, Little Children lets you breathe just enough to keep you hopeful in its midst. Unlike Babel, events in Little Children don't seem quite so contrived - they are the product of human frailties rather than a stringing together of misfortunes around the world.
The third act of Little Children, if I can go all Syd Field for a moment, is structured about as well as you can dream of. In my writing, third acts were often my downfall - I feel I could set up situations but struggled to bring them home. I kept expecting that my characters would take me there naturally, but they just let me down. (Yeah, I know, blame them.) But Little Children has every element converge tautly and seamlessly - conventional thrillers have nothing on this picture. The movie certifies longtime actor Todd Field, who previously helmed In the Bedroom, as an absolute powerhouse director. (Field shared screenplay credit with Tom Perrotta, who wrote both the novels that Little Children and Election were based on. I didn't read those, but my wife says the Little Children movie was better than the book.)
And by the way, wait 'til you see what Kelly Leak's been up to. I don't know that there's anything that would tickle me more at the Oscars than the sight of Jackie Earle Haley getting his name read among Best Supporting Actor candidates. It's a longshot pragmatically, but he has to be considered.
So now my top three is a top four. I'm a little torn about what to put on top still. I can pick tiny things wrong with Little Children, insignificant in the grand scheme of things (and I forgive it for trying to sell me on the idea that Kate Winslet isn't beautiful), but which nevertheless make me want to keep The Last King of Scotland up top. (None of the eight critics charted in Entertainment Weekly give Last King higher than a B+, so again, I need someone to point out to me what the movie's lacking.) But Little Children may stick with me longer as time passes.
For now, it's Last King, United 93 and Little Children in my top three, Little Miss Sunshine fourth, and a spot open for a No. 5. I can imagine seeing two movies before the nomination period is over that I like better than Sunshine, but I have trouble believing the first three will fall out.
I do have several more to see, though. (Next up: a screening of Stranger Than Fiction on Tuesday.) I've had my new job at Variety for a month now, and I have to tell you, it's been something. The people I work with really, really know their stuff - so you really have to bring your A game every day. Those aspirations, those imperatives, combined with a love of movies that had been laid dormant for the past four years, are why I feel like Augustus Gloop in the Chocolate Factory. There's this fervor in me now to taste everything, to stuff myself on all that might be relevant. Thank goodness Oscar season doesn't mix with baseball season, or I might go down the chute.