Tuesday, January 08, 2008

THE SLIFR TOP 11 (+ 10) 2007 YEAR IN REVIEW


About a third of the way into Mary Roach’s delightful and fascinating book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, the author takes a typical comic-relief aside during an examination of an article in a scientific journal:

“Meanwhile it’s business as usual on the facing page, with dysentery expert W.S. Dawson holding forth on fecal sampling—whether it is preferable to ‘introduce the swab’ into the rectum or to take a specimen directly from ‘the motion.’ *

* I’m trying to work out how this makes sense as a noun meaning ‘the product of a bowel movement.’ This is not Dawson’s personal euphemistic misstep; the usage persists in medical writing today. Should you have had the misfortune of visiting a web page called the Constipation Page, you will have seen the phrase, ‘the motion or stool is very dry or hard.’ Perhaps this is why the term ‘motion pictures’ was replaced by ‘movies.’ Now that I see it on the page, ‘movie’ would have been a far better B.M. euphemism than ‘motion.’ I’d love to chat, but I need to make a movie.”


The notion of a super-huge, convulsive bowel movement taken not only by Hollywood but the film industry at large is probably a mental image that more than a few critics, to say nothing of paying customers at the box office, have familiarized themselves with in years past. My memory of the entire decade of the ‘80s, with some notable exceptions, seems like one long painful dump into the annals of cinema history. And even though the past few years have been markedly better, there were still plenty of us who take the time to compose these year-end round-ups who just couldn’t resist the opportunity, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, to complain that it has been the business of mediocrity as usual at the box office, at the studios and on the festival circuit. But not so 2007. This year has been so good that I’ve had even more impetus than usual to try to catch up with as many films as possible, and that is the more than reasonable suspicion that what I’m chasing after might actually be worth catching. Last year it was hard for me to get too twisted up about missing out on the likes of Apocalypto and Miss Potter before it came time to hunker down and write about the year. But this year I have tried, and failed, to make time for No End In Sight (currently in my DVD player), The Orphanage, Persepolis, Romance and Cigarettes, Into the Wild and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly among many, many others, and this year it kinda hurts.

But it is the nature of my particular role that I am not privy to the completism of the average film critic. That was true when I wrote this column last year, and it is even more so this year—time is more precious than ever and the amount of it I can devote to seeing films and writing about them is increasingly rare. Vicarious enjoyment, and the vicarious thrill of seeing someone else articulate their feelings about a film, are two of the reasons why Internet access to writers like Jim Emerson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Kim Morgan, Manohla Dargis, David Edelstein, Peet Gelderblom, A.O. Scott, Larry Aydlette, Edward Copeland, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Campaspe, David Bordwell, D.K. Holm, Kimberly Lindbergs, Walter Chaw and even Armond White remains as important to me (perhaps more so) than ever. And even though the quality of this year’s crop of films (especially those bottlenecked at the end of the Oscar-consideration season) was especially good, I saw about 15 or so fewer new releases in the calendar year than I did during the same period in 2007. This is why I feel like context is such an important part of the year-end game for me. I don’t want to pretend for even a second that what I’m writing here is in any way a comprehensive, all-encompassing look back, because there is plenty I’ve yet to experience, and plenty I will have missed altogether that might have put a new and/or different slant on how the year fell together for me. It’s why I don’t even feel comfortable at my particular station making statements like “the best ---- of the year!” (And that’s aside from the fact that even for a critic who’s seen 200 movies in a year, a statement like that tends to tell the reader a whole lot of nothing about the actual subject at hand.)

As I am still press-pass-less, I’m still forced to be as choosy as I can be about the films I laid down my hard-earned cash to see—which is another reason why I think of 2007 as especially stellar, because those choices were a hell of a lot easier to make this year. (The most difficult thing was deciding which of five or six likely terrific movies to see in an evening, when I could only choose one.) And again, many of the choices I make with my green have a lot to do with the tastes of my daughters who, though they are not as movie-driven as I was at their ages, still do love the experience. I would love to trade my Shrek the Third and Bee Movie for, say, Redacted or Gone Baby Gone at this late date. But I wouldn’t touch Ratatouille or Hairspray, two of their favorites of the year, and mine.

Still, the list of films I missed this year that I regret not being able to talk about in any meaningful or interesting way is, of course, far longer than I would like it to be. So if and when you hear me speaking of the best performances of the year, or the best anything, just remember that I have not yet seen any of the following, and use that information to color my choices any way you choose:

Movies I Would Have Liked to See in a Theater (And In Some Cases Still Might): Across the Universe; Amazing Grace; American Fork; Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters; Atonement; Beowulf; Blood Car; The Brave One; Breach; Bridge to Terabithia; Charlie Wilson’s War; Colossal Youth; Diva (rerelease); The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Eagle vs. Shark; Firehouse Dog; Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days; Fracture; Freedom Writers; Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird; The Golden Compass; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; The Heartbreak Kid; Helvetica; Honeydripper; I Am Legend; In the Valley of Elah; Into the Wild; Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains; Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten; Manufactured Landscapes; The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters; The Kite Runner; La Vie en Rose; Lady Chatterly; The Lookout; Mr. Bean’s Holiday; Mr. Brooks; Nancy Drew; No End in Sight; The Orphanage; Persepolis; Redacted; Romance and Cigarettes; Rush Hour 3; Sicko; Spider-Man 3; Starting Out in the Evening; Syndromes and a Century; Terror’s Advocate; Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; War; We Own the Night; Year of the Dog and Youth Without Youth.

2007 Releases In Which I Have Virtually No Interest:
Aliens vs. Predator; Requiem; Atonement; The Bucket List; Charlie Wilson’s War; The Great Debaters; I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; I Think I Love My Wife; Lars and the Real Girl; The Last Mimzy; Lions for Lambs; National Treasure: Book of Secrets; Next; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End; P.S. I Love You; Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?

Movies New To Me in 2007: Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933); The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950); Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971); Crime Wave (Andre de Toth, 1954); The Crimson Pirate (Robert Siodmak, 1952); Day for Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973); Doctor Bull (John Ford, 1933); Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962); Holy Smoke (Jane Campion, 1999); Les Miserables (Richard Boleslawski, 1935/Lewis Milestone, 1952); Madame de… (Max Ophuls, 1953); Monte Carlo (Ernst Lubitsch, 1930); Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965); Pigskin Parade (David Butler, 1936); Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933); Pretty Maids All in a Row (Roger Vadim, 1971); Revenge of the Cheerleaders (Richard Lerner, 1976); Redheaded Woman (Jack Conway, 1932); Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964); Sans soleil (Chris Marker, 1983); The Seas Beneath (John Ford, 1931); The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951); Trog (Freddie Francis, 1970); Twelve O’Clock High (Henry King, 1949); Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931); When Willie Comes Marching Home (John Ford, 1950)

Movies On Deck For My DVD Player: No End in Sight; Stroszek; Aguirre: The Wrath of God; Trouble in Paradise; 49 Up; The Lives of Others; Zodiac: Director’s Cut; The Dam Busters; Malena; Diabolique; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; Rocco and His Brothers; Greetings; What Lies Beneath; Perfume: The Story of a Murderer; The More the Merrier; Inland Empire; When a Woman Ascends the Stairs; Play Dirty; Robinson Crusoe; Pulp; Performance; Memories of Murder; Idlewild; Incident at Loch Ness; Dust Devil: The Final Cut; The Killing of Sister George; Decoy; The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia; Superbad (Unrated)

So it goes. (And by the way, I’ll miss you, Mr. Vonnegut.) As always, the movies I’ve missed, whether I’m interested in them or not, whether I’ve even been sufficiently aware of them or not, outnumber those I’ve seen. But this year has been so rich for discerning filmgoers that I’d much rather celebrate the treasures I know than fret about what slipped past. As I did last year, I’ve decided not to limit myself to a strict 10—I never do, even if I say I’m going to, so why not just drop the pretense? Instead, I’m going to allow myself, in tribute to the bounty of the year, a Nigel Tufnel-esque top 11, but with 10 more to grow on at the back end. And also as I did last year, I’m going to try to make connections, however tenuous, between those films on my list that I feel share thematic concerns, attitudes or sensibilities, films that might afford some extra illumination when paired up with others on the list, however dissimilar they might at first seem. Just another parlor game? Perhaps. But to me it’s also another way of acknowledging how organic and genuine the wonders, the joys, the out-and-out masterpieces offered up in 2007 really were. The destructiveness of obsession; the cults of celebrity and death (sometimes the same cult); the making of an artist; what qualifies as art; the desperation of survival; nationalistic mistrust; the fearsome slipperiness of personal identity; passionate vengeance; the ineffectuality of family; how fatherhood, religion and unbridled capitalism are inextricably intertwined; ecological satire; and the ebullience of song and dance—it’s all there and more in the 11 films that topped my year. The left-over second tier is composed of 10 more movies I loved but couldn’t stand to leave out in the cold. Some of them, like There Will Be Blood and The Darjeeling Limited, are still seeping into my consciousness. A week or two later and either or both of them could find their way into my top 11. Movies like Eastern Promises, Control, Away from Her and Bug would, in a lesser year, be instant contenders. (But 2007 is the great movie year it is because of the presence of wonderful movies like these, so there’s your conundrum for you.) Hot Fuzz turned out to be so much better the second time round than my exhaustion-tainted memory of it allowed that I had to find a place for it on principle alone. And movies like 3:10 to Yuma, Sweeney Todd and The Mist are a big part of why I started loving movies in the first place. So, to make room for ‘em all, the equation is a simple 11 + 10. In any casino in the world, that’s blackjack, my friend-- 21. You, me, everyone who went to the movies this year, we’re all winners.

(WARNING: The following review is no respecter of spoilers!)


NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel begins with an emergence out of what could be primordial blackness onto a quiet, foreboding landscape and into a series of shots (brilliantly infused with intimations of cruel beauty by the shadows and light of Roger Deakins) that suggest, even as we begin to see traces of man-made technology—a tin windmill, a barbed-wire fence—a time before our own modernity. This brief, chillingly beautiful sequence of still imagery is not the season’s only direct nod to Kubrick’s Dawn of Man (Paul Thomas Anderson treads this ground as well), just the more subtle and suggestive one. This is the old country, God’s country, the country which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) looks back on in the haunted narration that opens the film, a country that had no place for the kind of ghastly, mindless violence that fixates Bell—“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.” Yet it soon becomes clear that what we’re seeing is not the old country, where Ed Tom’s father and grandfather wore the badge of the law as well and the morality of law and order was allegedly more clear-cut, but a time far more akin to our own—1980, to be precise—where the sheriff has to come face to face with the kind of perplexing, unstoppable evil that has driven him to the brink of exhaustion and resignation and loss of faith, an evil hardly exclusive to this time.

Ed Tom’s instance on the level of crime being something new and unfathomable is akin to assertions we’ve been telling ourselves as a country for at least six years now, and really a whole lot longer than that. Yet what the movie is showing us, mournfully, poetically, through its visual language and its spare dialogue, are the ways in which these horrors are in no way new. They are woven into the fabric of the country. The perpetuator of the evil the film concerns itself with—a cold-shot killer with an near-unpronounceable name (Anton Chigurh, played with bracing dedication to his character’s unknowable stare, and not without pitch-black humor, by Javier Bardem)—may only occupy the world for the length of time it takes to carry out his hired task; Ed Tom intimates that he may be a ghost, and if he is he’s one that rides from the blood-splattered canvas of the film’s glorious Panavision frames directly into the sheriff’s subconscious (more on that in a second). In his relentless pursuit of the money stolen by a two-bit schemer Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), whose sense of morality is usually about two steps behind when it ought to kick in, Chigurh operates according to an unwavering code of extermination itself marked by self-determination. More than once, the people at his mercy are given chances to save themselves, by the call of a coin or the answer to a simple question (“Do you see me?”)


But when the movie, after eliding over events that would be crucial in anyone else’s Western genre-based crime thriller, settles in for three scenes that set up the rippling chill the movie leaves you with beautifully, it becomes clear that the McCarthy and the Coens are after deeper cuts than the usual cycle of violence and resolution could provide. The first is a conversation between Ed Tom and a man named Ellis (Barry Corbin), a deputy who served with Ed Tom’s father who tries to reason against Ed Tom’s recession away from the vile horrors his job routinely exposes him to. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” Ellis warns, not as a comfort but as an apocalyptic reality check. “It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” (Corbin’s spectral presence here is a shivery tonic, miles from the quirky mannerisms of his work on Northern Exposure.)

The second is Chigurh’s expected/unexpected conversation with Moss’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), during which she refuses the coin-toss that could save her life. The novel apparently makes it clear Chigurh has murdered her, but viewers of the film are spared not only the act, but evidence of it as well. As he makes his way from the scene, he unwittingly creates another, his escape from which seems to add credence to Ed Tom’s feeling that he moves among us but make not exactly be of us. Chigurh leaves the film hobbling down a suburban sidewalk and the film lap-dissolves to a shot of Ed Tom, now retired into the antiseptic confines of his tiny kitchen. And as the lap dissolve takes place, the effect is that of Chigurh, the principal demon of the film, walking directly into Ed Tom’s head and disappearing. That’s why the ending of the movie is so simply perfect. As you see Ed Tom sunken into the removal of himself from the world, which he earlier assented to being part of, closed off in his breakfast nook while outside the ageless hills and plains, with their scars and blood and corpses (hidden and revealed) the same as they ever were, he relates the dream that woke him the night before, the dream of his father, somehow still alive, carrying a flame that he would take with him through the dream of death to prepare a place for his son. And suddenly the movie’s themes of the constancy of violence expanded in my head with a rush of connections, tangible ones to what has happened before, and what we’ve seen and not seen (particularly the murders of Moss and his wife), as well as to feelings half dormant about the way men like Ed Tom, and men like we in the audience, willfully and often recede from experience in order to survive it.

No Country For Old Men has a terrifying lot to speak to the lies we tell ourselves within the mythology of this country. The grim experiences Ed Tom has had that have made him reconsider his life within the law may have gotten increasingly stupefying—the death-row refusal of the murderer to repent, and his claim that he would kill again if allowed his freedom—but that in no way validates his appraisal of the times becoming appreciably more amoral during his career as a lawman. It reminded me a lot of those specious claims writers like to routinely make about watershed moments like the Charles Van Doren scandal, the occurrence of which somehow marked the point where America allegedly lost its innocence. It’s total bullshit, of course. What the writers (and the film reviewers who trotted out the same cliches when reviewing Quiz Show 13 years ago) really mean by “loss of innocence” is, the moment when it became clear to anyone who cared to see that the TV-fed notion of American sanctity of intent and behavior wasn’t true. It’s not as if the revelation of Van Doren’s indiscretions were somehow a ticket for the rest of us to suddenly start misbehaving and loosening our morals. As for America’s innocence, it’s hard to truck with the notion of a country built on slavery, genocide and sustained systematic economic and social oppression as having much of a claim to anything coming close to it. No Country for Old Men resonates with the strains of mythology we’ve built up as a nation in order to close our eyes and hope that when we open them, Anton Chigurh will have walked away from the coin toss, advising us not to put our lucky quarter in our pockets, for fear of mixing it up with our loose change and turning it into just another quarter. Which it is.


I talked about the movie expanding in my head during Ed Tom’s final monologue, and when I think back on that experience I think of a pair of matching shots that connect Chigurh and Ed Tom, two characters who come close to a physical confrontation near the end of the film but who never occupy the same physical space as one another (more evidence for Ed Tom’s spectral case). They come separated by several minutes, and both occur as each character takes his turn sitting quietly on Llewelyn Moss’s couch, long after Moss and his wife have fled. Chigurh sits on the couch, in front of a opened bottle of milk (Do we see him drink it? I don’t recall), and when the angle reverses we see him reflected in the screen of a television that is not on, against a window through which the bleak landscape of the small Texas town provides a flat, uncommenting backdrop. Later, when Ed Tom and his deputy arrive at Moss’s trailer in reticent pursuit of Chigurh and discover the milk “still sweatin’” on the coffee table, Moss unknowingly sits on the same couch and is seen reflected in the same TV set, staring forward, the blistering plains calling out with whispered, ephemeral clues. And Ed Tom does take a drink. However we frame our experience, the film seems to say, it is but a variant of the experience all men, and all the ghosts they may or may not conjure to explain the mysteries that beat within their own hearts, have had since the first time one of our ancestors beat another one over the head with a thigh bone. The truth of this assertion can come up on us like a pickup truck full of killers in the moments before dawn, their vehicle floodlit and fiery and relentless, like the dog they unleash moments later. (One of the most brilliant editing decisions in all of NCFOM is that brief shot of the dust kicked up by the truck as Moss tumbles down the hill toward the river, backlit and roiling like the smoke and heat waves curling off some satanic beast.) To crib from Glenn Kenny, No Country for Old Men is a you-know-what-sterpiece that just keeps expanding in my consciousness, like that crumpled wrapper that Chigurh leaves on the gas station countertop—sinister, evocative, bleakly funny, mysterious and apparently endlessly fascinating, a token of the insistent, random power of evil and what Warren Zevon once called the vast indifference of heaven.
(Listmates: Zodiac, Jesse James, Black Book)

More essential reading (and listening) on No Country for Old Men:

A roundtable podcast featuring Elvis Mitchell, Glenn Kenny, Jim Emerson, Jennifer Yamato and Harry Knowles

Glenn Kenny’s well-described assessment of the film’s last half-hour.

A link to what one reader called an “embarrassment of riches” in regard to commentary and thought about No Country for Old Men at Scanners.

Point Blank: Matt Zoller Seitz’s compelling consideration of the film’s theological implications, and a whole lot more.


ZODIAC (David Fincher)
An investigation into a murder spree that paralyzed a city, an investigation with no ending, becomes a film about obsession: the obsession to unmask a killer, of course, but also about obsessive detail, puzzles, tangles of clues, endless dead-ends and how the relentless pursuit of some kind of truth derails the lives of those of the investigating police officers and reporters played by Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal, themselves as much the victims of the Zodiac killer as those dead bodies given to his credit. Fincher virtually redefines the police procedural and stymies those in the audience expecting another garish splatterfest from the director of Se7en by creating a film that, for all of its digital (and digital video) meticulousness, has the grimy, shaggy, organic inquisitiveness of a movie made during the era it depicts, the early ‘70s.
(Listmates: No Country for Old Men, Jesse James, I’m Not There)


THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (Andrew Dominik)
The birth of celebrity culture and dime-novel mythologizing as seen through the many prisms of Dominik’s Malick-influenced Western landscapes, where the countryside dwarfs its inhabitants and yet no one seems to care—the world boils down to the twisted mental landscapes of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his starry-eyed sycophant, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who soon learns the burden of existing in the shadow of his hero, and then the price of his own notoriety. The movie plays out largely in frames within frames—doorways, mirrors, windows, imperfectly rendered panes of glass—which help Dominik achieve an impeccable, precious period atmosphere, but also suggest the difficulty of ever getting a clear bead on the fascination of a vicious criminal for a society whose hunger for heroes was ever and remains indiscriminate. (Listmates: No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, I’m Not There)


SUPERBAD (Greg Mottola)
This mind-bogglingly profane paean to the penis, and the unexpectedly tender ties between two high school guys who happen to sport 'em and obsess over 'em, reaches the rarefied air where Freaks and Geeks once reigned. Director Greg Mottola transcends the teen movie comedy with ease and a subtle, surprisingly tender hand, as one night in search of booze and babes spirals off into giddy comic highs and emotional grace. And the funk soundtrack, at once anachronistic and sublimely revealing, is a brilliant counter to the lame singer-songwriter shenanigans of another more self-consciously generation-defining comedy currently making the rounds. Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) rotate in a world where they know a whole lot more, mostly about sex, than their bodies or minds are prepared to act on, a world where their awareness of Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking and YouTube and iTunes have made it possible for the dweeb to create his or her own self-glorifying scenarios, ones that don’t have to rely on the blatant stereotypes of Revenge of the Nerds. What’s great about movies like Animal House, Dazed and Confused, and now Superbad is the coexistence of dorkdom and cool. In Seth and Evan, and of course in McLovin', the two are joyously fused. (Listmates: Grindhouse, Hairspray)


RATATOUILLE (Brad Bird)
With its gorgeous, near tactile Panavision Parisian cityscapes, exquisitely timed comedy, considerations of what makes an artist—not everyone can be a great cook, but a great cook can come from anywhere-- and its nimble, surefooted narrative-- the movie is so confident in its magic that it never once wobbles at the notion of our seeing rats in control of a restaurant kitchen—- Brad Bird’s latest triumph not only secures his own position as one of the great American animators, but one of its best storytellers as well. After the relative misstep of Cars (good movie, but clearly not up to company standards), Ratatouille restores Pixar’s head-swimmingly improbable track record for quality. They have proven that animation need not condescend to children, and that a successful appeal to adults lies not just in estimable technology but more importantly in the simple belief, expressed with eye-popping imagination and energy, that a rat can make brilliant soup. (Listmates: I’m Not There, Grindhouse, Hairspray)


I’M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes)
Todd Haynes’ fantasia of the six lives of Bob Dylan strikes me as one of the best biopics I’ve ever encountered precisely because of the way it resists almost every narrative cliche of the genre and splinters the myth of Dylan into the multiple personalities that fans and writers—and of course Dylan himself—imposed upon the enigmatic singer-songwriter. Haynes explodes his own methodology here too, finding a way to break down and reassemble his usual hermetically sealed narrative stunt work with something resembling uncut empathy and respect for the ambiguity at the center of the persona around which all the Dylan personas orbit. The contradictions about Dylan inspire Haynes as a director, as does the music, of which there is a bounty. The performances do as well. Much has already been made of Cate Blanchett’s uncanny Pennebaker-period Dylan, slender, elusive, arrogant and intuitively connected to the tensions within the singer who broke molds more out of restlessness than design. But stay tuned to Richard Gere as Dylan’s Billy the Kid, roaming an apocalyptic Peckinpah landscape in search of the end of the world, and guided by the floating, unforced influence of Haynes’ eye, which in these segments itself seems possessed by the spirit of Robert Altman. (Listmates: Jesse James, Zodiac, Hairspray, Grindhouse)


BLACK BOOK (Paul Verhoeven)
I can’t think of a filmmaker other than Paul Verhoeven who could have pulled off the feat of telling this epic adventure of a Jewish woman who survives a Nazi bombing in the Netherlands and becomes involved in the Resistance, whose plot to have her infiltrate and seduce a relatively sympathetic German colonel takes several unexpected, duplicitous and life-threatening turns. In Verhoeven’s view, no assumptions can be trusted, and the context of world war is no place to expect alliances and philosophies to hold water. The director’s unflinching nihilism is the perfect tincture to inform the world which keeps slipping out from underneath the feet of his heroine. And in Carice van Houten we see the sensuality of that heroine swirling amidst the flinty determination that masks her true allegiances from forces that continually buffet and exploit her. Van Houten’s is, for me, the female performance of the year, and Black Book is an unashamedly thrilling and, yes, erotic tale of wartime intrigue that is unlike any I’ve seen. (Listmates: Rescue Dawn, No Country for Old Men)


THE HOST (Bong Joon-Ho)
Ecological disaster kicked into high gear by American arrogance and ignorance, and perpetuated by an unquestioning media-driven consumption of government disinformation, is the canvas on which Bong’s heart-pounding and ultimately tragic comedy-thriller plays out. A freakishly large, carnivorous mutant tadpole, the result of thoughtless chemical pollution, makes itself known to the citizens of a South Korean river city, and when the daughter of a shiftless concession stand operator is abducted by the creature the man bands together with the rest of his dysfunctional family to try to save her. The director’s facility with juggling tones makes for some bizarre, frightening and unsettling set pieces, but the movie never loses its soul to cheap thrills or the mechanics of a jolt. The spirit and resilience of children reverberates throughout The Host, even within the persona of that man-child father, and by its terrifying, agonizing finish the resilience of adults is put to the test as well. (Listmates: Superbad, Grindhouse)


GRINDHOUSE (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie)
Ultimately, who besides Bob and Harvey Weinstein really cares that this super-indulgent paean to drive-in-era schlock was not the across-the-board hit it was hyped to be? That it was made at all is some kind of miracle, and anyone who imagined it ever could have gained the ardor of a huge popular audience must have the whiff of delusion about them that might make them prime Hollywood producer material. The real glory of Grindhouse is in its conviction of the guiltless, redemptive pleasures of B-movie trash. From Rodriguez’s near-transcendent zombie parody Planet Terror, to the spliced-and-diced faux trailers (Wright and Roth’s are the peak), to the fully transcendent, pedal-to-the-metal Godardian pleasures of Tarantino’s perfectly realized slasher/chick flick Death Proof (which must have had the old guard at Crown International Pictures salivating with lustful envy), Grindhouse is Exhibit A in not only movie geek love but also the Ratatuoillian concept that great art can come from anywhere. One only hopes that the Weinsteins, having now soaked the DVD market with individually released extended versions of each film, will see fit to follow their own lead in the Japanese market and release the original, self-contained theatrical version. (Listmates: The Host, Zodiac, Superbad, Ratatouille)


RESCUE DAWN (Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog informs the true saga of Vietnamese prisoner of war Dieter Dengler (a magnificent Christian Bale), a German pilot whose story he previously told in documentary form in the film Little Dieter Needs to Fly, with his singular brand of poetic naturalism and sensitivity to the black heart of nature. Dengler’s story is inspirational in the most wrenching sense—Herzog spares no agony, and his actors, including Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, look as though the shoot was its own authentic brand of hell, but they get to the heart of Dengler’s experience, and more importantly his unwavering determination, without sentimentalizing it or ladling on unbearable platitudes. The movie understands and even subscribes to the kind of patriotism born of Dengler’s horrific situation: Dengler sees in the hostile Southeast Asian landscape a reflection of his adopted country, one mired in a “conflict” of questionable motivation and murky prospects for victory, a place where he locates an unlikely measure of redemption worthy of his intense desire to survive. (Listmates: Black Book)


HAIRSPRAY (Adam Shankman)
John Waters always considered his original 1988 Hairspray as his most perverse movie-- a PG film from the man who made Divine's snacking habits a household horror, and largely it’s a pretty wholesome affair. The movie of the Broadway musical version stays true to that spirit--sharp and irreverent, but also squarely in favor of some ideas that, even in 2007, are still (unfortunately) in need of being termed as progressive, ideas like positive body image, integration and (gasp) a little innocent miscegenation. The performances are all top notch, especially Travolta, who I couldn't imagine being anything but horrible when I saw the trailers, Michelle Pfeiffer, newcomer Elijah Kelley, Nikki Blonsky, and James Marsden as local pop music icon Corny Collins. And the music is both exceptionally catchy, sharp of wit, and exceptionally performed. The cherry on top? Waters himself gives the movie his blessing via a cameo appearance as "the flasher next door" who happily prances past Tracy Turnblad as she belts out the film's opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore," just before hopping a garbage truck to school. It’s a sublime and satisfying movie—I loved it, but not quite as much as my daughters who, after two times in the theater and now endless exposure on DVD, can sing and shout every ebuillient word.
(Listmates: Superbad, Ratatouille, I’m Not There)

And then there were 10 more…


EASTERN PROMISES (David Cronenberg)
The inverse of A History of Violence, it features a performance by Viggo Mortensen that outdoes his work in the previous film for sheer muscular artistry and, yes, balls.


CONTROL (Anton Corbijn)
The spectral trajectory of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis informed by Sam Riley’s riveting star turn and an apparent pipeline to the kitchen-sink dramatic spirit of Lindsay Anderson.


THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Brilliant, maddening, misshapen, never less than riveting. Is it less or more than the sum of its parts? Only time will tell. But there is still Daniel Day-Lewis, unshackled and roaring.


SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (Tim Burton)
Swooning Grand Guignol musical may not satisfy purists, but it is emotionally devastating and ripping in arterial spray, not to mention bearing the Sondheim seal of approval.


AWAY FROM HER (Sarah Polley)
Polley’s debut feature is astonishing in its empathy for a woman slipping away (Julie Christie), but even more so for the agony of the husband left behind (Gordon Pinsent).


THE DARJEELING LIMITED (Wes Anderson)
Anderson is still Anderson, but the robust feeling that had slowly seeped out of his post-Rushmore films is back in spades. Perhaps the director’s most expressive visual work, as well as the movie which best illuminates and realizes his favored theme of the separation between father and sons .


BUG (William Friedkin)
Were it not for Carice van Houten, my Oscar would go to Ashley Judd, surely the year’s bravest actress, for traversing the paths of madness with such commitment and frightening verisimilitude. And the movie itself is genuinely harrowing.


3:10 TO YUMA (James Mangold)
The most unexpected of treasures—a western colored not by the postmodern work of Clint Eastwood, but instead memories and methods of the genre in its most vital era, the same period—the ‘50s—from whence came the original version that this thrilling picture equals.


HOT FUZZ (Edgar Wright)
Not quite up to Shaun of the Dead, but a brainy send-up of testosterone-fueled Hollywood action movie tropes nonetheless. Wright’s movies have genuine affinity for their targets, as well as an unerring sense of character that deepens even the silliest comedy bits.


THE MIST (Frank Darabont)
Perhaps the year’s most chilling surprise. Darabont dumps the mawkish sentimentalism of his previous Stephen King adaptations in favor of a brutal depiction of the breakdown of a society of survivors holed up in a supermarket and surrounded by a mist that masks the onslaught of some seriously vicious creatures. At times lumpy but never less than riveting, with a nihilistic conclusion that matches the finish of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead shot for horrifying shot.


Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis Runner-up: Viggo Mortensen

Best Actress: Carice Van Houten Runner-up: Ashley Judd

Best Director(s): Joel and Ethan Coen Runner-up: David Fincher

Best Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men Runner-up: James Vanderbilt, Zodiac

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Runner-up: Harris Savides, Zodiac

Best Editing: Roderick Jaynes (Joel and Ethan Coen), No Country for Old Men Runner-up: Job ter Burg, James Herbert, Black Book

Best Musical Score: Anne Dudley, Black Book Runner-up: Robert Rodriguez, Planet Terror

Academy of the Underrated: Black Book, Rescue Dawn, Bug, The Mist, Black Snake Moan, 1408, I Know Who Killed Me

Academy of the Overrated: There Will Be Blood, The Savages, Michael Clayton, Enchanted, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Bourne Ultimatum, American Gangster, 300, Juno

The Gigli Memorial “Keep Moving, No Apocalypse Here” Award: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Year’s Biggest Surprises: Hairspray, the degree and frequency with which Marisa Tomei appears nude in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Waterhorse: Legend of the Deep, the frequency of laughs in Balls of Fury, and the fact that I liked The Darjeeling Limited and Hostel Part II at all.

Favorite DVD Bonus Feature: “The Fuzzball Rally,” Hot Fuzz

And ain’t it funny how Life Imitates Art (Thanks to Robert Hubbard for this one.)

My Seven-year-Old Daughter’s 2007 Movie Yearbook (In Her Own Words):

BEE MOVIE: Lots of yellow in it! And bees! It made me laugh a little bit—not as much as Ratatouille.

THE CRIMSON PIRATE: I loved the funny action scenes. I never knew pirates were so funny! I liked the captain, but his buddy, the one who didn’t talk, was even better. It was so colorful! I didn’t know old movies could be that good!

ENCHANTED: Was the most hilarious movie I saw this year. In the beginning, it looked like a beautiful cartoon. It didn’t look as pretty when Giselle came out of the sewer into the live-action world. Prince Edward is really good. He was Corny Collins in Hairspray.

FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER: Very fun and full of superheroes, bad guys and action—more interesting action than usual. It was interesting to see how the Fantastic Four worked together. But Silver Surfer turns out to be a good guy—I liked to watch him surf. But he was sad too.


THE GAME PLAN: Very football-ish. Some parts are funny, some are sad, but I really liked it. The movie has a big guy in it—Daddy says his name is the Rock, but I don’t think I believe that. He doesn’t look like the Thing from Fantastic Four.

HAIRSPRAY: Lots of singing! Funny! My favorite songs are “Without Love,” “Ladies Choice,” “Baltimore Crabs” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” My favorite character is Penny Pingleton. I’ve seen it seven times!

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2: Same as Hairspray, but different characters and songs, and different people in it too. Zac is very cute! I have two posters of Zac on my wall. Troy and Gabriella are the best couple.

MEET THE ROBINSONS: Cute and very silly. It had lots of color.

RATATOUILLE: Great! Lots of cooks in it! The one who cooked best was Remy. Problem was, he was a rat. It didn’t bother me to see all the rats in the kitchen. I liked when they kidnapped the health inspector guy. Very, very hilarious! Kids like me love this movie.

THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING: Scary, and it had lots of violence, but I could handle it. I don’t remember much else about it. It’s not so good as most movies.

SHREK THE THIRD: Very funny. All of the characters were so hilarious. Puss ‘n’ Boots is my favorite. It had a very creative look.

SURF’S UP: Lots of penguins and surfing. I liked it better than Happy Feet because the characters had bigger eyes and they were cuter.

TRANSFORMERS: Lots of violence, but just a little bit of blood. Good robots—the cube starts out big and gets small. I liked it when the girl makes the guy take off his clothes and he has Superman undies on.

UNDERCOVER KITTY: Loaded with cats and meowing. I liked Miss Minoes—she was stylish and pretty.

Favorite Shout-outs of the Year:

From cinephile par excellence and all-around good guy Andrew Grant, who mentions me in the same breath with some pretty heady company during this insightful interview. Thanks, Andrew!

From Film.com, some nice props—looks like the decision to stand pat on the title was a good one!

From The Guardian blog all the way over in the UK-- finally, my muckraking ambitions recognized!

In going about filling out the latest quiz, excellent blogger Cinephile has some mighty nice things to say before he posts his typically astute and thought=provoking answers.

Two from Kim Morgan: words and picture.

And last but certainly not least, Ed Gonzalez in the Slant magazine blog saying nice things about my defense of a movie he hated.

Finally, The Dregs of 2007 (in descending order):

300 Neat-looking and all, but if this is the future of filmmaking, I may have to learn to read. Gerard Butler channels Brian Blessed to ever-diminishing effect.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age The essence of overwrought, a giggle-worthy mounting of British history directed as if it were low-end Hammer horror
Bee Movie, Shrek the Third Dreamworks Animation continues its assault on family entertainment with these two deadening, smart-ass joke machines. Where’s the story?
Shoot ‘Em Up This pallid, cacophonous action movie send-up overstays its welcome by about 90 minutes, despite the allure of marquee hotties Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci, which should be resisted at all cost. In a world where Hot Fuzz exists, this looks even worse.
The Hills Have Eyes 2 Pity they forgot the brains, however. (And I’m not counting the ones spilled on the floor.)
Southland Tales Someone get Richard Kelly some hack work, quick!
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising People tell me this is based on a worthwhile book, but as a movie its yet another failed attempt to capitalize on the Harry Potter/Narnia box-office avalanche. Hyperactive, yet leaden.
Even Money Mark Rydell returns to the director’s chair for this mawkish Crash-esque tapestry of clichés and bad acting revolving around the evils of gambling. Kelsey Grammer gets my vote for most perversely inconsistent character voice of the year as a gimpy detective with a fake nose.

…and the year’s worst:


Juno No, I’m not trying to be edgy or perverse or deliberately out of step with critical consensus. This smarmy comedy plays like the second coming of John Hughes, Voice of a Generation (just not his own), and I realize that for some people that’s a good thing. But in fashioning this tale of a self-possessed, though searching 16-year-old (the titular Juno, played by Ellen Page) who gets pregnant by her best friend Paulie (Michael Cera), flavor of the month screenwriter Diablo Cody shovels a lifetime of what are surely Diablo Cody obsessions and pop culture references onto a very slight frame of a character, all in the name of speaking for, or to, the MySpace generation. Trouble is, does every one of her characters have to sound like Diablo Cody, freshly minted pop culture avatar-- that is, all exactly the same? (Please, name me one 16-year-old girl who would ever reference Soupy Sales. Just one.) Cera escapes this fate by simply relying on his inimitable line delivery and dazed personage. But everyone from Juno, to Juno’s best friend, to Juno’s incredibly understanding, level-headed, straight-outta-Neil Simon parents, to that damned pharmacy clerk (“This is one doodle that can't be un-did, home skillet”) smirks and jabs and delivers the very snappiest, post-Buffy dialogue with relentless and unflappable dedication. The script reads like it’s meant to be reprinted whole hog under the IMDB “memorable quotes” tab (and a quick look there reveals that it practically has been.)

Juno’s dialogue is quotable, all right, and the picture is currently charming a lot of people, but the quippier-than-thou attitude critically undermines the heart of the picture-- what Juno decides to do with the baby-- which practically sits up and begs to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the picture uses the pregnancy in the same way it cranks out the quotable dialogue—for wham-bam short-term effect. The movie, in adopting the same blithe attitude toward the central dilemma as the main character does, skips over any intimation of what pregnancy might really be like for a girl Juno’s age. Instead, we get chapter stops (“Fall” “Winter” Spring”) and cuts to Juno waddling along, a little bigger than before but just as assured and unaffected. Consequently, we’re also less than moved when she confesses to her dad upon revealing the pregnancy that she really doesn’t know what kind of girl she is. How truthful this little moment of self-confession is meant to be. Too bad it’s surrounded on all sides by evidence that Juno, geek goddess, is the only character who does know exactly what she is. The same unearned, unmodulated attitude permeates the entirety of the film. For Juno, and Juno, pregnancy boils down to yet another accessory, an emblem of the character’s ultimate outsider status which the film uses as a weapon (in a particularly nasty scene in which Juno and her stepmother shout down a radiologist for asking sensible questions about her pregnancy) as much as for instant sympathy.

When the pregnancy is over, Juno and Paulie are brought together, the pregnancy now just a blip as life goes on and the two serenade each other while the camera pulls serenely away toward the end credits. And speaking of music, it’s only severely disingenuous that a movie whose main character name-checks seminal punk rockers like Iggy and the Stooges and holds them up as a barometer of everyone else’s taste in music would eschew that very punk rock at every turn, instead making room on its soundtrack for Mott the Hoople, the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking with You” and, to use my friend Kim Morgan’s word, twee singer-songwriters like Belle and Sebastian and the ubiquitous Kimya Dawson. (Maybe Juno’s director, Jason Reitman, surmised that Iggy might put off a goodly portion of the real-life Junos and their 18-to-25-year-old brothers and sisters who have spare change to spend on the soundtrack album.) Juno is well-acted, especially by Cera, Jennifer Garner as the coldly sympathetic yuppie wannabe mother who, with her immature husband (Jason Bateman, fine in a thankless straw-man role) enters into an agreement to adopt Juno’s baby, and even Ellen Page, whose performance will be cherished in exactly the measure that one can tolerate her character’s chirpy smugness. But it’s a supremely self-satisfied and insular movie that doesn’t shed 1/50th of the light on what it is to be a teenage girl, much less a pregnant one, that Superbad bathes its raunchy, angry, blindly horny little bastards in.

But don’t take my word for it: Juno has been chosen by no less than smart people like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris as the best movie of 2007. I don’t know what to say about that. However, I do know that the somewhat less cerebral Rex Reed recently said of Juno: “These are people of all ages who are way down at the bottom level of maturity, but the snappy, new wave dialogue and a sprightly cast that considers suburban insanity as normal as an addiction to nasal spray and one-calorie breath mints turns Juno into an incendiary comic spree. Think A Date With Judy on crystal meth." Come to think of it, Rex Reed might just be the ideal audience for Juno; that little knocked-up icon of individuality talks just like he wishes he could. Glad you enjoyed it, Rex. As for me, it’s one new-wave-dialogue-dotted doodle I can do with-diddly-out, home skillet.

Finally, for further reading on the year just past:

The Slate Movie Club

The 2007 Village Voice/L.A. Weekly Film Poll

Armond White’s 2007 “Better Than” List

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s last year-end list?

Matt Zoller Seitz on Paul Thomas Anderson

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy’s Moments Out of Time 2007

MSN’s Top 10 List Roundup featuring Jim Emerson, Kim Morgan, Sean Axmaker, Dave McCoy and many more.

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And as a wish for a peaceful new year in 2008, here’s something a friend of mine shot earlier this year outside of the memorial on the site of Hiroshima bombing. He relates being overwhelmed by the enormity of the history and the emotion, the clarity of realizing the ghastly horrors that were visited upon the citizens on the very spot where he was standing. And as he walked away from the site, he was besieged by a group of first-grade students assigned to interview gaijin (foreigners) and overwhelmed again, this time by the sweetness of these children, so happy and inquisitive in the shadow of this most devastating event. I leave you with this short video clip, one that I hope conveys a sense of hope for the future we could all do well to tap into in the hopes of a better year to come.

Have a wonderful new year, everyone.

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UPDATE 1/9/2007 10:21 a.m.:
My friend Larry Aydlette has pointed me to one of the more recent edition's of Roger Ebert's Questions for the Movie Answer Man which has some direct relation to the ongoing conversation about Juno:

Q: On the strength of your naming Juno the best film of the year, I just took it in at my local googleplex, and I was a tad disappointed, even though I largely agree with your review. I was distracted to the point of annoyance at the implausibly hipper-than-thou sentences zipping out of the lips of Juno's characters. Juno was hip. Juno's friends were hip. Juno's parents were hip. Even Rainn Wilson's character, the guy behind the counter at the store, was hip. Only Jason Bateman's and Jennifer Garner's characters seemed to be spared this indignity, probably to make some obscure point about the evils of yuppiehood.A wise reviewer once wrote: "I have a problem with movies where everybody talks as if they were reading out of an old novel about a bunch of would-be colorful characters. They usually end up sounding silly." Well, of course that reviewer was you, and the movie was Raising Arizona. So can you explain why the affected English bothered you in one but not the other? -- C. Morris, Noblesville, Ind.

A: Your local "googleplex"? We discourage that kind of hip coinage around here. Isn't "movie theater" good enough? Although you have caught me in a contradiction, I would argue that the dialogue in Juno mostly works because Ellen Page sells the tone so convincingly. She wins us over. Think of Diablo Cody's words in the mouths of Page's contemporaries and you cringe. Yes, her parents talk that way. Where do you think she learned it? As for the drugstore clerk, and her best girlfriend, it's as if she affects the linguistic weather when she enters a room.

And here is Felix Vasquez of the Bronx, N.Y.: "This movie has divided audiences around the Internet. Some love its cute and intelligent way of addressing teen pregnancy, while others hate the pop culture quip-dialogue and put Diablo Cody through the ringer for it. Yet they never seem to complain when Tarantino or Kevin Smith use the exact same sense of dialogue."


When Larry sent me the section of the column I wrote a response back:

“I would argue that the dialogue in Juno mostly works because Ellen Page sells the tone so convincingly. She wins us over. Think of Diablo Cody's words in the mouths of Page's contemporaries and you cringe.”

I don’t buy this precisely because she didn’t win me over. If she had, I don’t think I would have had the problem with her character that I did. Of course she may have adopted some of her charm from her parents—her dad does even claim genetic pride in her quippishness at one point—but she’s amplified and expanded on it partially as a way of setting herself apart from those who can claim an influence because it gets in the way of her imagining herself as such an original. The movie wants us to accept her the way she sees herself, and that ain’t good enough for me, especially when she does seem like everybody else in the movie, except for those yuppie parents.

“As for the drugstore clerk, and her best girlfriend, it's as if she affects the linguistic weather when she enters a room.”

Now, there’s a stretch!

“Some love its cute and intelligent way of addressing teen pregnancy, while others hate the pop culture quip-dialogue and put Diablo Cody through the ringer for it. Yet they never seem to complain when Tarantino or Kevin Smith use the exact same sense of dialogue."

Well, I don’t know if I’d buy the comment that it’s the exact same dialogue: I don’t remember either Smith or Tarantino ever writing from the point of view of an affected, sassy, geeky outsider 16-year-old girl, and I think that does make a difference. I will say that I did think about this comparison, though. For me, the shine has worn off of Kevin Smith—he’s a cottage industry, and he’s just gone back to the well too many times. At this point I would say yes, he’s in the Diablo Cody camp. Tarantino, however, is a filmmaker as well as a writer, and he’s up to a whole lot more than just trying to get people to buy the pizzazz coming out of his character’s mouths. It does make me cringe a bit when Jungle Julia calls Stuntman Mike “Zatoichi” as a way of saying “Can’t you see it’s raining outside?” (Even though she’s seen in an apartment decorated with old film posters, sensibility imposed by Tarantino or not, that would at least explain why or how she’d make such a reference-- still waiting for that Soupy Sales explanation for Juno, however.) One of the many good things about Tarantino in Death Proof is that he’s beginning to recognize that he may be making references to a pop culture that is now officially closed off to the most recent permutation of the film generation—that scene with Stuntman Mike trying to impress the girls with his career working for Robert Urich is funny and poignant precisely because of this. But finally, for me with Tarantino it comes down to one of Roger’s oldest adages, which he trots out again in his response here—the difference is that Tarantino makes me care, Diablo Cody (so far) has not. If that’s a generational thing so be it, although I don’t think it is, if Ebert and Sarris’ reaction to Juno can be counted as evidence.

Thanks, Larry, for pointing me, and us, to this. Now, about Superbad... :)

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UPDATE: January 21, 2008 12:49 p.m.: Lots of interesting discussions abounding on the Internets about Juno these days. I haven't kept up with them all, obviously, but two excellent ones can be found here at Scanners, which considers the movie in light of the phenomenon of the backlash, and The Man from Porlock, whose author, Craig, posts an illuminating article about those scenes in movies involving fringe characters that attempt to incite an audience's yahoo reflex and uses the Juno ultrasound technician beat-down as a starting point.

64 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

First things first:
My memory of the entire decade of the ‘80s, with some notable exceptions, seems like one long painful dump into the annals of cinema history

Great line! That sums up my feelings on the 80s to a tee.

Secondly, I very much want to see The Great Debaters so I'm sorry to see you have no interest in it. I love period movies anyway (1930s) but I also love historical movies and Denzel Washington, who has never failed to impress me.

Thirdly, I'm glad to see, like Bill and myself, you have an appreciation for over the top acting when done by a great actor. I'm speaking of Daniel Day-Lewis and I just can't wait to see his performance in There Will Be Blood. I said here before that overacting by a bad or mediocre actor is painful to watch but by a great actor it is a thing of beauty (Charles Laughton, Gary Oldman) so I was a little dismayed that Jim Emerson was so put off by it (and if you read this Jim, glad you're feeling better).

Finally, I think you do a great job with your review of NCFOM. I can't wait to see it again on DVD where I can pause, FF, rewind to my heart's content and view certain scenes again and again. The first scene I might shoot to is Woody Harrelson's last scene with Chiguhr. Boy, he plays nervous/terrified well in that scene. And of course that final conversation with Corbin - Damn I love that scene! It's just amazing.

Great write-up on the year Dennis. I wish I had time to do the same but since you're here why bother? You've got it covered for us.

Nick Schager said...

Dennis,

Thank you, thank you, thank you for that write-up of Juno. You simply couldn't be more on-target, especially with regards to the discrepancy between Juno's supposed love of punk rock and the film's use of twee singer-songwriter dreck...

Nick

Hedwig said...

Love the write-up, especially your analysis of No Country. The image of Chigurh walking right into Ed Tom's head... and you're right, the world doesn't get more evil, and thinking that is just false nostalgia.

Also, I think you've finally convinced me to see Black Book/Zwartboek. I know, I'm Dutch and it's kind of a disgrace that I haven't yet, I just was put off by the nth WW2 movie. Sometimes it seems that's all people can write/make movies about, especially here. But your lavishing so much praise on it that I guess I'll just have to get over my hang-ups.

pacheco said...

I'll read your post thoroughly when I have more time, but after skimming, I want to say THANK YOU for acknowledging Black Book. I think it's so underrated. An interesting, entertaining, and as you said, erotic epic. I loved it.

bill said...

Boy, America sure sounds like a lousy place!

I'll stop. Or try to. Anyway, good post, and worth the wait. I was interested to learn that you more or less share my opinion on both "The Darjeeling Limited" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead". I think I liked both of them a little more than you did, which means I loved Anderson's film enough that it's near the top of my own list, and didn't actually dislike Lumet's film. I was disapponited in the latter, though, and would like to hear more of your thoughts on both.

Also, what's this Gahan Wilson film?? I knew nothing about it. And do you know anything about the Harlan Ellison documentary, which I believe is playing in your area? Or at least has played in your area?

Other things: Ashley Judd was phenomenal in "Bug", as was Michael Shannon. I had some problems with the film (what was up with the scene with the doctor? There's something going on there I couldn't put my finger on, but I know it didn't work for me the first time around), but it, and "The Seventh Continent", were the two most unnerving movie-watching experiences I've had in a while.

I bought "Black Book" based on all the raves. Haven't watched it yet...

psaga said...

Huh-huh-huh. You said "annals"!

(I so look forward to reading this post throughout the day!)

Larry Aydlette said...

First off, Dennis, I have one word for you, my friend: Fiber. You know, I was eating lunch when I started reading this post.

I had never considered the Dawn of Man sequence at the start of "No Country," so thanks for that insight.

I think you have completely lost your mind on "Superbad," which I think is the most prophetic title of the year. You nail Diablo Cody (and perhaps rightly so) but I'd take to task Seth Rogen and all these hermetically sealed boy-men and their equally unbelievable dialogue. Jonah Hill is supposed to be an idiot, but somehow, much like Darren McGavin in "A Christmas Story," he works in profanity the way a painter works in oils. And the long, boring cops segment KILLS the movie. And all this Michael Cera swooning has me utterly stumped. It's all spinach, and I say to hell with it. On any level, "Juno" is a much better movie than "Superbad," and while I share your reservations about Diablo Cody's script, I think the actors elevate the material, as does Jason Reitman's direction. "Knocked Up" is clearly the superior movie of Judd Apatow's 2008 trilogy, and one of the best movies of the year, but I'm now convinced after seeing "Superbad" and the boring "Walk Hard" that Apatow may be the new Lorne Michaels, for all the good and bad that implies.

Oh yeah, your daughter is right about Bee Movie. Boy, the Seinfeld backlash is worse than the Diablo Cody backlash.

I think that should get us warmed up for Oscar time, eh?

Cinephile said...

Hey Dennis--
Thanks for the shout-out! Your kind words mean a lot. And thanks for the thought-provoking review of Juno-- I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but the intelligence and thoroughness of your dissection is certainly a bracing counterpoint to all the critical love it's getting.

And yes, Superbad is fabulous.

Bemis said...

"The movie has a big guy in it—Daddy says his name is the Rock, but I don’t think I believe that. He doesn’t look like the Thing from Fantastic Four."

Brilliant! Glad to see your daughter's thoughts making a return appearance. This is a wonderful read all around, and I suspect my eventual top 10 will bear a lot of resemblance to yours. And while I didn't hate Juno (the performances carried much of it for me), you beat me to the punch on the punk/twee disconnect, which pretty much sums up everything wrong with the movie (I also cringed when Juno declared Two Thousand Maniacs "way better than Suspiria - foolish girl).

blaaagh said...

Wow, Dennis, you've sure inspired me to see some of the ones I missed! Great reading--thanks. Sorry I missed your call last night; I promise to ring you back when I'm 1)not at work and 2)semi-coherent. Mrs. Blaaagh was happy to have a chat with you, though.

Robert Fiore said...

First things first, No Country for Old Men (or as I like to think of it, Terminator 4) definitely makes it clear that Moss's widow has been killed, with a very deft touch. Next time you watch it, notice that before leaving the house Chigurh checks his boots for blood. Believe me, that woman is as dead as Tony Soprano.

I enjoyed the movie, but I had trouble taking it completely seriously. For starters, I had trouble buying Killy McGee as a character. I could accept a character who is a criminal for the opportunities it gives him to kill people, and I could accept that such a person could be proficient and methodical (I understand that successful serial killers are often highly intelligent). What I couldn't buy is such a person being a Donald-Westlake-Writing-as- Richard-Stark professional criminal, or that the executive suite mobsters portrayed in the film would employ a loose cannon like that. The other thing is, it seems to me that if a criminal has murdered a sheriff in a sheriff's station there would be an awful lot more urgency about capturing him than is shown in the movie. In real life the law enforcement community takes those things personally. In No Country the reaction seems to amount to I think to be taken completely seriously a thriller has to win the viewer's confidence by putting its melodrama in a framework that is true to life, which I'm not sure No Country has done.

My favorite movie of the year was Sweeney Todd. The trailer was almost like one of those spoofs you see on You Tube where they make a musical look like a horror movie (though Sweeney is of course both), and I feared that it would be excessively Burtonized. These fears were unfounded, possibly because the original followed the standard theme of a Tim Burton movie: It's the story of a sensitive artist and the girl who loves him. My least favorite was The Golden Compass. I've been in bus station toilets that stink less than that picture. It's not the badness of artistic failure, it's the badness of setting out to do things wrong by design. The most depressing entertainment event of 2007 was the apparent demise of the Deadwood finale. The most depressing entertainment event of the young 2008 is the demise of George MacDonald Fraser last week. Daniel Day Lewis would have made a great Flashman.

bill said...

Robert - I didn't know Fraser died. To be honest, I thought he'd passed some time ago. Anyway, it's a coincidence, as I just read the first "Flashman" book a couple of months ago.

Have you ever seen the film "Royal Flash" with Malcolm McDowell? If so, is it any good?

Filmbrain said...

Very interesting list, Dennis. Happy to see Bug and Superbad (both of which were on my shortlist) get some McLovin.

Your smack-down of Juno is spot on, though I wouldn't list it as the worst film of the year. I've saved that spot for The Darjeeling Limited. Smug, thy name is Anderson.

Finally, you really ought to give Charlie Wilson's War a chance. I walked in expecting to hate it, and was tremendously surprised. Hoffman's introductory scene is, next to Daniel Day Lewis in TWBB, the best performance of the year. Too bad I didn't catch it in 2007.

Peter said...

I'm glad to know you've introduced your daughter to Burt Lancaster. Are Flame and the Arrow or Trapeze up next. Hopefully, when she's a little older, Cattle Annie and Little Britches will be out on DVD.

You might also want to consider Jacques Tourneur's Anne of the Indies (Region 2 DVD) with Jean Peters - a classic girl pirate film.

Robert Fiore said...

Royal Flash was one of the great cinematic disappointments, particularly considering who was involved (Fraser himself as writer and Richard Lester directing, both coming off the Three and Four Musketeers movies). It comes off as overproduced and lifeless, but the biggest problem was casting Malcolm McDowell as Flashman. It's not the easiest part to cast because the actor has to be credible both as a coward and cad (to the audience) and as a hero (to the people around him). McDowell I'm afraid just came off as a weedy little creep. A critic at the time the film came out noted that it would have been better if Alan Bates (who plays Rudi von Sternberg) had been Flashman. Back in the 70s Fraser said the ideal man for the job would be John Cleese.

bill said...

Cleese?? That might have been great, I don't know. Something about his physique seems wrong, but he certainly would have been hilarious.

The thing that surprised me most about "Flashman" was how truly horrible the character was. I thought he was going to be one of those lovable rogues, who does a lot of bad things, but who you can't help but like. No, he was a scumbag. Mind you, I really liked that, and the book; I was just surprised.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hey, everybody! Happy new year! Thanks for chiming in on the list and the year. (And please don't stop now!)

Jonathan: I don't doubt if the opportunity presented itself I would see The Great Debaters. It's just the movie I'm least interested in during a season already packed with things I want to see and may likely miss. So "virtually no interest" in the case of this movie, and Charlie Wilson's War, should be, I suppose, read as "not enough interest." (And, truthfully, I'm a bit tired of Denzel Washington's dour dignity after American Gangster.)

Nick: My pleasure (I think!) :) You know, Epic Movie is clearly a "worse" movie than Juno, but Juno is the movie that profoundly bothered me on several different levels, and it's the one I found most inexcusable in 2007. So rather than saying virtually the same thing I said about last year's worst movie, Date Movie, I went for the higher-profile target. And it's profile is getting higher-- the movie is, I suppose not too surprisingly, shaping up to be a huge hit.

Hedwig, Pacheco: I'm really surprised that more people didn't talk about Black Book, even on their second-tier lists and honorable mentions and all that. I know my enthusiasm for Verhoeven has skyrocketed over the past couple of years, but really, I figured this one would make more of an impression. And writing about it, even in such a truncated fashion, has really whetted my appetite to see it again.

Bill: I loved The Darjeeling Limited, and I am utterly surprised about that. It has that recognizable Wes Anderson visual symmetry and everything else sytlistically in common with The Life Aquatic, a film I found embarrassing, and The Royal Tenenbaums, which I felt was amusing but a real come-down from Rushmore. But what it taps into felt much more organic and real to me, even as the station that wonderful train comes from must surely originate in Fantasyland. As for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, I can see how some people who would go ape for it, but I just felt that the direction was a faint echo of the pulpy naturalism of Lumet at his best-- Dog Day Afternoon, The Anderson Tapes, Network, Q&A or even a piece of delightful trash like Guilty as Sin. I kept wondering if there was a feeling that jumbling the chronology of the events might make the film more of a teasing entertainment, because it really didn't illuminate much about the characters for me. And frankly , after a while I found the escalating horror of the film's situations to be too unpleasant, though that could easily be chalked up to my own mood when I saw it. However, I loved Finney. Hoffman was good too-- Was it just me, or did he seem to be taking on the physical appearance of David Huddleston, the Big Lebowski, in this movie? Hawke was fine as well. And I was forever grateful for Marisa Tomei, for being naked for the first 45 minutes, of course, but also for being so damned compelling with what could have been a very stock character throughout the film. (Peet will love her for not covering herself up in bed in that actory way that absolutely NO ONE does in real life.)

Oh, and that Gahan Wilson doc I discovered while poring over the thousands of movies in the 2007 IMDb listings. I probably has only played festival circuit at this point, but let's hope that it's good enough to get picked up by someone, or that it ends up on PBS or somewhere else soon. Wilson has always been one of my favorites.

psaga: Hey, I never even thought of that!

Larry: I don't think Seth (Jonah Hill) is supposed to be an idiot, just ridiculously single-minded, and the movie both celebrates his creatively obscene worldview and playflly skewers him for it too. Michael Cera, with his dazed deadpan, may indeed turn out to be
a one-trick pony (the diminshing returns he wrings from it in Juno are the first evidence of it), but he's a perfect foil for Hill's cock-and-balls relentlessness, and I find the movie's teasing out of the homoerotic undercurrent of their friendship-- how it's recognized, acknowledged by them, and then hastily papered over the next morning to be insightful and hilarious, not to mention true to form, at least in the hell-yes-I'm-straight circles I used to run in when I was in school. I wish we could debate this more during Oscar Talk, but I suspect Superbad won't be in the running. (Juno will, though, I'd bet...) Oh, and I did love Knocked Up too-- it just barely missed the cut (#22, I believe). I was prepared for the hilarity and insight of that movie, but I was not prepared for how deep it cut with the Paul Rudd/Leslie Mann relationship, and how painful it was. There were scenes in that movie that made me feel like I should be laughing, weeping and wincing all at the same time.

Cinephile: I've gotten e-mails from people who have told me in no uncertain terms just how personally meaningful Juno was for them-- and I'm talking 50-year-old men, not 16-year-old girls-- so obviously it's not a movie that can just be dismissed out of hand. I hope my review didn't come across that way. It was my intent to engage with what the movie was and explain why it didn't work for me. But frankly, I got MUCH more depth of feeling and genuine emotion from those e-mails (and I thank those of you who sent them for expressing yourselves so well) than I ever came close to getting from the glib wisecrackery of Juno.

Bemis: I read your comment to my daughter, and she beamed with delight. I think she likes this whole having-a-wider audience deal! And you're right: I'd totally forgotten about that silly assertion that 2000 Maniacs is better than Suspiria. Yeesh.

Blaaagh: There are conspiracies afoot to get me on an Amtrak in February. I will keep you posted. I hope you see Black Book. I can imagine you scouring eBay for a great Carice van Houten pinup afterward!

Robert: I recall Chigurh cleaning the boot, and I guess I just wanted it to be a meaningless gesture, holding out some hope (even though I knew in the back of my mind there was none) that Carla Jean's refusal to flip the coin might have made some difference. And I hadn't considered your point about the urgency of investigating a sheriff's murder. I'm not sure if it makes a difference for me in how I see the movie working on its themes, and I know it didn't affect me in watching it because it never occurred to me. But I have been thinking about your observation in the larger context of what the scene is there for in the first place. Chigurh has no more reason to kill the deputy than he has to shoot at the bird on the bridge. I suspect he's allowed himself to be captured in order to test himself in terms of his ability to escape from a seemingly inescapable situation. If this is true, it still has no bearing on "reality" in that Chigurh would have no idea whether or not he would be alone in the station with the officer in order to successfully carry out his experiment. I looked at this scene as the best way of introducing the thoroughly unstoppable nature of Chigurh's murderous motor-- it is, as a whole, no less believable in real-world terms than the fact that the sheriff's department doesn't flood the countryside with officers in hot pursuit. But I think it works in the slightly otherworldly way that Chigurh is addressed in the film on its own terms.

I'm glad to hear your enthusiasm for Sweeney Todd. I loved it too, and was equally happy that it seems to have survived its dodgy ad campaign and turned out to be a terrific movie. The moment when Bonham Carter sings the song during which she realizes she must kill the boy is one of the year's most powerful. And I'm also glad I didn't use my free coupon to see The Golden Compass. Now if I can just avoid it on DVD...

And thanks for the info on Fraser and Flashman. I remember seeing Royal Flash as a kid, but it made very little impression, which must mean something because I was primed for it after Lester's Musketeers films.

Filmbrain: I'd love to read your thoughts on The Darjeeling Limited, especially since I loved it so unexpectedly. And I will, on your recommend, see Charlie Wilson's War. You're the first person I trust who has said it was worth seeing. I have such a lifelong aversion to Mike Nichols-- I think The Graduate is, Anne Bancroft's brilliance aside, quite an underfed and unconvincing movie, the definition of "of its time," and I can't think of another movie he did besides Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that I felt had much life in it all, filmmaking-wise. (I have yet to see Angels in America, however.) I'll let you know how it turns out for me! (Oh, and thanks for the DVD!)

Peter: I tell you, watching The Crimson Pirate with my daughter has to be, alongside that Pretty Maids All in a Row/Revenge of the Cheerleaders double feature earlier this year, thhe most wonderful film-watching experience I had in 2007. I was so happy that she was digging it the way she was. I have looked into The Flame and the Arrow-- that one reteams him with Nick Cravat, right? And it's directed by Jacques Tourneur just like Anne of the Indies, which I don't remember ever hearing about. But if it's got girl pirates (for her) and girl pirates played by Jean Peters (for me!), then I say, thank God I bought that all-region DVD player last year! Thanks for the advice! We're gonna have some fun, she and I, in 2008, methinks!

Edward Copeland said...

I'm glad to see someone besides me take issue with Juno. Overall, I liked it much better than you did, thanks mainly to the ability of the cast to sell the material and the third-act twist, but I agree that the dialogue is just way too precious for its own good.

bill said...

"...The Life Aquatic, a film I found embarrassing..."

Man, I just do not get that reaction to "The Life Aquatic". You're in the majority, but I still don't get it. Have you watched it again? I've noticed that a lot of people begin to warm to it the second time around. Personally, I think it's Anderson's best film.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I have not seen it again, Bill, but I did promise my wife that I would, so I might as well promise you I will too! And it's true, my best friend, who was quite indifferent to it the first time, felt much less so when he saw it the second time. But what am I gonna do about that stack of DVDs in my living room that I haven't seen yet?! :)

Simon Crowe said...

The fact that you consider the moralistic and inappropriate questions of the ultrasound tech to be reasonable are a clear tip that your judgment of Juno is out of whack. There's no context in which that character's behavior wasn't out of line, but I'm guessing her views echo your personal beliefs.

You also repeat the already-tired line about Juno and MySpace/Facebook, though neither of these sites is mentioned in the film and there's no indication Juno's family even owns a computer. (Juno has CDs, not an iPod) I'm sure it will come as a great shock to you, but there are a few million teens out there not glued to the computer - they're reading, forming bands, volunteering, watching old movies, etc. Juno works because it gets teenage behavior right - beneath Juno's sarcasm there's vulnerability, uncertainity, and at times she's even a little annoying. News flash: Teens are smarter, more frightened, and generally more interesting and complex than we give them credit for.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"The fact that you consider the moralistic and inappropriate questions of the ultrasound tech to be reasonable are a clear tip that your judgment of Juno is out of whack. There's no context in which that character's behavior wasn't out of line, but I'm guessing her views echo your personal beliefs."

Simon, perhaps you could substitute "sensible" (the word I used) for "reasonable," or maybe you could just say "concerned," which is what I think the ultrasound technician shows in the scene, unsolicited, inappropriate or not. (It is my own experience with technicians in this situation too, and not just the ones at my wife's side, although if one ever did say something inappropriate I bet I could be a lot more civil about it than the Juno Force.)

However, the fact that the characters respond to her inquiry the way they do seemed quite in line with a long tradition of scoring points off of the supposed insensitivity of peripheral characters in order to validate the point of view of characters who are clearly far more justified, at least in the movie's mind.

As far as my own "beliefs," I'm guessing you're guessing about how I feel about teen pregnancy. Well, let's just say that I feel, I suspect, however you want to put it, that the whole experience is a lot more profound and life-altering , even if one gives up one's baby for adoption, than Juno seems willing to let on. But just for the record, I'm a pro-choice voter who would not, for many of the same reasons I suppose Juno does not, choose abortion if I were faced with that choice (though each situation presents its own context). I am a father of three children (two of them are still with us), and I've experienced both the difficulties of young people raising children at an early age and young people choosing abortion
in my own family. Strangely, if Juno had engaged me on any level where I felt it was honestly concerned with what those experiences were really like, I might not have disliked it so much. But then those damn kids who I just don't understand (I'm old as hell, you know) would probably still talk that writer-speak that made me want to run to the nearest library and gobble up the first example of how people (not just teens) really speak that I could find.

"News flash: Teens are smarter, more frightened, and generally more interesting and complex than we give them credit for."

Absolutely agreed. Now give me a movie that shows that and I'd be-- how do the kids say it? down with that.

bill said...

Yeah, that stack of unwatched DVDs is a real pisser. I have one, too. Speaking of which, does that list of "movies on deck" mean that you've never seen "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"? Knowing you to the degree that I do, small thought that degree is, I find that very odd.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

No, I've seen it several times, but in the wake of There Will Be Blood and, mostly, No Country for Old Men, I've had a hankering to revisit it somethin' fierce. Add to that the jones I'm Not There gave me to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid again, and 2008 is already shaping up to be a very Peckinpah new year. Now, if only MGM would put out a letterboxed DVD of Convoy...

bill said...

I happened to watch "Bring Me the Head of Etc. Etc." again recently. It's so good, and along with "Straw Dogs" I feel it's Peckinpah's best.

And damn it all to hell, I need to see "There Will Be Blood" RIGHT NOW! It hasn't opened in my vicinity yet, and I am going absolutely mad waiting for it to get here. Even the people who hate it seem to concede that there's nothing else like it. Limited release can kiss my ass!

Sorry...it's been a long day for me.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

No apologies.

I hope you let me know what you think of TWBB. I saw it a week ago and it's still percolating, insisting that I think about it. It's a fascinating movie.

bill said...

I will definitely let you know. I'm hoping next Friday will be the day.

JJ said...

Hey

I was a crew member on The Game Plan, and I want to say: your daughter's review was the best I've ever heard, and in and of itself made the entire production worth it.

Thanks!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

JJ- You just made my daughter's day (and you did mine a pretty big favor too)!

I took both daughters to see it at a drive-in, and not only did they like it, but it overcame my own preconceptions as well and we all had a very good time. Thanks!

Robert said...

Ya know, your daughter's film commentary is better and truer than most professional critics'.

bill said...

Dennis, I just looked up "Undercover Kitty" on IMDb, and I see that Carice van Houten is in it. Tell the truth: you picked that one, didn't you?

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill, one of the movies I'm talking about in my popcorn post you commented on is TWBB. I'm seeing it at the AFI theater on Sunday. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy I can hardly wait.

bill said...

I hate you, Jonathan Lapper!!

Jonathan Lapper said...

I hate Thomas Kincaide.

Editor A said...

Your daughter's movie yearbook was awesome! It was great to hear someone else's take on High School Musical 2, since I have so few adult friends who have seen this masterwork. Just kidding about the masterwork, and I saw it in the line of duty at work. Those sing-along lyrics on the DVD? You can thank me! Whoo-hoo. I also loved the Game Plan Rock/Thing line, and "It's not so good as most movies" for that Seeker film. I like the explanation about Ratatouille being something kids like. I had gotten all mixed up with all the adults writing reviews of these CGI films! Hey, are some of those movies R-rated that you're bringing her too?!?

Phillip said...

Dennis,

The 80's were terrible, so terrible that we now have a photo copy of photo copies in the film that is "Juno". The heart at the center of Juno tries so hard to be different from those films that it circles back around to the worst Hollywood saccharine, which it seem like in it's writing it tries to avoid, but in it's direction it embraces for attention. That's the biggest flaw of the film I think. You have a director that doesn't want to go full steam ahead and show this character for who she is, and probably doesn't even understand her himself. In stead she's an adorable problem child.

One of my biggest gripes was also the fact that they played none of this hard-core punk music the characters seemed to like. It goes back to the central problem above. For the love of all heaven and hell, if a film can't embrace what the main character likes, how are we as open minded audience members supposed to?

If people want a real eye opening tale of a young woman trying to find out who she is, with enough heart, cleverness and beauty to spare, go see "Persepolis". No doubt that the young women of today will connect more with a tale of a young Iranian woman than a "quirky" pop culture spewing chickadee.

Dennis, I will say that there are a lot of young people out there right now that try really hard to be what Juno tries to be. There is some reality going on in the film. The problem is that I find this youthful fascination to be incredibly false when I see it in person. Diablo and Reitman seem to miss this fact in their unwillingness to deconstruct the character in the face a life changing moment.

All that said, I enjoyed a lot of the movie due to nicely timed comedic performances.


I'm always more interested in the next top 10 because it strays a bit from the typical movies people choose. "The Host" was outstanding.

And you should catch up on "Charlie Wilson's War" some times just to see Hoffman take the stage.

"Aguirre" is one of my favorites. You should take the time to add "Idiocracy" to your dvd viewing list. Not a brilliant film, but it's incredibly funny. Mike Judge crafted a sharp little satire a lot of people would appreciate if anyone had seen it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Philip:

"The 80's were terrible, so terrible that we now have a photocopy of photocopies in the film that is Juno. The heart at the center of Juno tries so hard to be different from those films that it circles back around to the worst Hollywood saccharine, which it seem like in its writing it tries to avoid, but in its direction it embraces for attention."

I agree with you, Philip, that Jason Reitman's direction is as square as Cody's dialogue is strained and hyper-clever. It really did remind me of those John Hughes movies (the ones directed by Hughes as well as the ones by stand-ins like Howard Deutch), where everything in the environment screamed "knowing nod to the swell angst of today's feather-haired youth," but the directorial attitudes and general filmmaking were as conservative as a Dean Jones Disney movie. (Only with Hughes it was either a cynical split to service all element of the marketplace or, as some, including me, have wondered, evidence of a split personality and/or refusal to grow up.)

I can't wait to see Persepolis. As I was walking out of Juno there was a giant stand-up for it in the lobby of the theater. I immediately began to wonder if Persepolis, in its own unique manner, might overlap with Juno in some of its concerns, at least in terms of representing the mind of a teenage girl, albeit amidst harrowing political circumstances that Juno would naturally be unconcerned with. Of course, Persepolis stands virtually no chance of reaching the kind of mass audience that Juno is grabbing. But then what was that Godard quote about the more popular a film is, the less good it is? It's moments like these in film history when the selective snobbery of a comment like that sounds awfully reasonable.

"I will say that there are a lot of young people out there right now that try really hard to be what Juno tries to be. There is some reality going on in the film. The problem is that I find this youthful fascination to be incredibly false when I see it in person. Diablo and Reitman seem to miss this fact in their unwillingness to deconstruct the character in the face a life changing moment."

There's a pretty good string of comments over at Jim Emerson' site regarding all this (it's all
here
.) I particularly like the comment, as relates to your point, from Ken Lowery:

"It's been ten years since I've been 16, but I'm around teenagers plenty, and they only think they're that clever -- in a way, the dialogue in Juno is wish fulfillment. Teenagers are, to be kind, awkward idiots."

Fritz follows soon after with this:

"I taught high school from 2003-2005 - I've observed plenty of modern teenagers interacting with each other. They don't speak anything like the kids in Juno. Ken's right - the thing that can be simultaneously endearing and infuriating about teenagers is that they think they're that clever, but they really, really aren't."

And then Jim himself caps it with the point I was trying to make earlier re Superbad:

"Ken, Fritz: That's such a great point. What I find so funny, and endearing, about the kids in Superbad is that they're nowhere near as clever or cool as they're trying to be. As in the moment I quoted, when an overexcited Evan (Michael Cera) sputters: "It was pimp. I'm like -- I feel like a pimp right now. Like one of those pimps."

Finally, Philip, I will give Charlie Wilson's War a shot. I've just heard too much about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and you're now the second smart person to recommend it to me.

As for Idiocracy, well, it seems we have the same taste in movie comedy!

Piper said...

Thanks for including Grindhouse. This was a great idea that I wished would have been marketed better.

I thought Eastern Promises was good, but feel that Cronenberg is losing himself in these past two movies. I felt a handful of directors could have done this movie.

And right on with Juno. The more people talk about how much they love this movie, the more I hate it. It says a lot about the state of movies that when a movie is just okay, people praise it for being the best of the year.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Piper, I was kind of surprised, I think, by Grindhouse's relatively weak showing across the board on top 10 lists-- those who loved it really loved it. It probably has to do with the bounty of great movies that were eventually released in 2007 squeezing the movie out of a lot of top slots. I also wonder if not being able to see it in its non-torn-asunder form on video had anything to do with it. (Most of the people who do top-10 lists probably did see it theatrically, though.)

"It says a lot about the state of movies that when a movie is just okay, people praise it for being the best of the year."

That's what I find so strange about a lot of the critical praise surrounding Juno. Maybe most people don't dislike it as intensely as I do, but I would think, especially given how many genuinely great, engaging, unusual and/or powerful movies that did come out in the past year, that Juno would be more of an obvious sore thumb sticking out than it seems to be for some.

What was that old Doris Day tune? "Say Levee?"...

Jonathan Lapper said...

You're thinking of the duet she did with Zeppelin, "When the Say Levee Breaks."

Dennis Cozzalio said...

That's a much better duet than the one I remembered she did with Lionel Richie, "Say Levee, Say Me."

Headquarters 10 said...

Spot on about, JUNO, Dennis.

Joseph B. said...

Dennis, great list and so glad you put The "Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" on there. It ranks at the very top of mine. I just hope more people discover this masterpiece on video in a few weeks.

bill said...

Dennis, I saw "There Will Be Blood" yesterday. It's difficult to form any coherent thoughts right now, but when I lef the theater I thought it was fascinating, flawed, and filled with great moments. Today, it's strengths are growing in my mind.

One complaint I've heard that drives me nuts -- and this "criticism" drives me nuts whenever I hear it -- is that the movie had no "point". I think they're frustrated the film focuses on an oil baron and a religious fundamentalist, but doesn't play like an allegory or a metaphor. And if that's the case, clearly there can be no point, right? It can't just be a story about these people. One of the things that I think is so great about it is that it is very specific. Plainview, to me, represents nobody but himself.

In an interview I read yesterday, Anderson talked about all the allegorical ideas pretty much falling away once they began production, because they realized it was really about Plainview, and Eli, and H. W. as people, and that crazy ending plays out the way it does because those characters' lives led them to that point.

See? Not very coherent or illuminating! I guess I still don't really know how to talk about it. I do know one thing, however: I did not hate it.

John S said...

How many serial killers or hitmen act or talk like Anton Chigurgh?

How many execs at Unocal or Standard Oil talk or talked like DDL in TWBB?

How many groups of guy friends dry hump each other when their friends talk to girls (as in Knocked Up)?

How many typical boys, even gay boys, compulsively draw penises in public?

Why is Juno held to a different standard than these fanciful films with male protagonists?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Joseph B.: I was grateful to see it pop up on other people's lists too! But there must be a lot of cinephiles (who else even SAW it?) who don't cotton to this movie-- I heard someone at the American Cinematheque last week bash Jesse James with a bat constructed out of Sam Fuller hardwood. ("Sam would've made that movie better and in half the running time!") Well, there are plenty of lyrical westerns that Sam Fuller, a great director, either would have made differently or not at all-- I can't make the jump that suggests that because these films aren't done in Fuller's raw, immediate and economical style that they're no good or less than good. That makes about as much sense to me as criticizing a piece of pie because it's not a turkey sandwich.

Bill: I just had a discussion with someone who was completely derailed by the ending of There Will Be Blood, who went with it all the way to 1927 and then felt P.T.A. couldn't figure out what to do and ended it in a masturbatory fantasy of vengeance and humiliation. He didn't buy the allegorical possibilities of Plainview either, and was disappointed, as have several others I've spoken to, that the character didn't seem to have an "arc," that Plainview is as relentless in his pursuit of madness as he is for oil from beginning to end. For me, the movie works best on a mythic, allegorical level, but it also seems kind of limiting to see it only through this prism. I guess this means I'm ambivalent like you, and I would agree with your final thought. I'm not sure still, after several weeks, what to make of it, but I know I was compelled and fascinated and I want to see it again.

John S.: The boys of Knocked Up seemed pretty well delineated and realistically frightened to me. But then, my friends and I were a bunch of dry-humpers who wouldn't have flinched at coming up with wildly elaborate penis art, if we'd only thought of it and/or had the talent to come up with anything as wild and disturbingly funny as the drawings in Superbad.

But I think we can only make comparisons of the lingusitic characteristics of serial killers, or the demeanor of obsessed oilmen, and then draw parallels between them and Juno, when there comes along a movie about a psychos and hit men convention, or a wild weekend-long boardroom meeting where corporate bigwigs reveal their innermost selves. Then we'd have lots of examples drawn from the same set of writer/director sensibilities and could make judgments as to whether the writer/director views these types as individual human beings or as one monochromatically conceived idea of what that type is, spread out over several different roles. Otherwise, you're comparing characters from one movie to a characters from another movie, not considering one movie that portrays an all-encompassing vision of teenagers, their parents and the cold world around them in which everyone does sound exactly alike. Who are we to compare with Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men who resides in the same movie?

bill said...

Dennis, I can see being derailed by the ending to "There Will Be Blood", and, to be honest, I very nearly was myself. One of the things that saved it for me initially was the very last line/shot of the film, which I think is just about perfect.

Now, thinking about it, I can't help but think of it like the ending of "No Country for Old Men", and would ask those who hate the ending Anderson chose this question: How SHOULD it have ended? I'm not really saying the ending we have is the only viable one, but Anderson went in a direction completely unexpected, and did so without sacrificing believability, at least not that I can see. It's a loony ending, no question, but can people really not see those characters ending up like that? I can.

As for viewing it as an allegory, the movie certainly invites that reading, but as you say that's also very limiting, and ultimately boring, as far as I'm concerned. Another complaint I heard from people who seemed to want straight allegory is that, if Anderson wanted it to play that way then wouldn't it make more sense for Eli and Plainview to be partners in some way, as opposed to enemies? To which I have to say, yes, if the movie were boring and not very smart, I suppose that would make more sense. But Anderson saw them as people. Horrible people, maybe, but people, and Plainview is one of the most complex and fascinating characters I've seen on screen in a long time.

Finally, part of me thinks that my growing admiration for the film might come from the fact that I really, really wanted to love it, and that I won't know my true opinion until I've seen it again, which most likely won't be until I see it again on DVD. But I do know that none of the major objections I've read about "There Will Be Blood" really wash with me. So if it doesn't completely work, which I may eventually decide it doesn't, I can't yet figure out why.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Blogger just ate my original comment. Shit! I'll try again.

"Part of me thinks that my growing admiration for the film might come from the fact that I really, really wanted to love it, and that I won't know my true opinion until I've seen it again, which most likely won't be until I see it again on DVD."

Yes, absolutely. And I hope I don't have to wait to see it again on DVD, but that there might be another theatrical screening in store at some point.

One of the things about the ending that I find troublesome is not the tone or the shift toward madness, (What other direction has Plainview been heading for his entire life?) but the treatment of Eli. If the movie were to continue as an allegory, then it might be that he and Plainview join forces and form some sort of unholy alliance. But it loses some power for me when we find out that Eli is a fraud. When Plainview publicly renounces his sin during the baptism, we know it's a cynical ploy to get him into position so he can continue amassing oil and property. (In fact, I imagined while watching the film that what Plainview inaudibly whispers to Eli after the ceremony was a hearty "fuck you.") But when Eli is brought to his knees in the bowling alley, he's asked to renounce things he never truly believed to begin with. At this point the movie's scope seems radically reduced. It seems to me the film could have been richer, more acute regarding character, and even wiser in terms of how religion and politics are often actually fused at the geopolitical level, if Eli "saving" himself meant going back on things that he truly did base his entire life upon. Without that, the revelation of his shallow demagoguery comes off like P.T. Anderson lining up to be the latest director to shoot organized religion in a barrel-- "Yep, they're all phonies! What's new?"

(I think I said all this better the first time, but it's all atoms now. Dammit.)

bill said...

That's a great point, and that was actually my biggest problem with the ending, as well. I'm not sure I agree that Eli never believed, but I still agree the seeming ease with which he was led astray was just too easy, maybe even a cop-out. Still, his greedy side was always there, just as Plainview's madness and violence were always there. The ending just throws both men's worst characteristics in sharp relief.

Regardless, I can't shake the idea that Eli's turn is just too sharp, and is the movie's biggest drawback. If anything saves it, it's Paul Dano's performance. My understanding is that he was never intended to play Eli, only Paul, and found himself with the role pretty much at the last minute. Not only that, but he has to go up against Daniel Day-Lewis in almost all of his scenes. I thought he did a remarkable job.

There's so much else to love about this movie. And even if the movie doesn't completely work by the end, as I said to my wife, you have to admire one thing about Anderson: He'll end his movies the way he thinks they need to end, and damn everything else.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I just put my own thoughts up on TWBB on my blog and for myself I think what Daniel says to Eli after the baptism is something along the lines of, "It may take years but I will repay you for this." After all, he makes it clear to more than one character that he takes revenge ("I'll take back my $500 and much more" "I'll come to your house while you're sleeping and slit your throat").

And he does repay him - boy does he repay him! And then, you know, he's finished.

Jonathan Lapper said...

By the way, I nominated you for Best Entertainment Blog (and of course voted for you). Kimberly too, for Pop Culture Blog. Rick Ryan nommed me for Pop Culture. So go check it out. You're already in the double digits my friend.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Oh yeah, here's where you want to go: http://www.bloggerschoiceawards.com/blogs/show/38802

C Morris said...

Great post -- I particularly like your comments about JUNO: I agree with virtually everything you say about that film.

I'm the author of the letter you quoted in your first update, the one to Roger Ebert from his Answer Man column. I just thought I'd point out that Ebert edited my letter a bit (no doubt so he could focus his response to a single point of discussion). In my original letter I also mentioned the scene with the ultrasound technician as being disturbing and unnecessary. Ebert, as you may recall, in his original review of JUNO, said the film had no unnecessary scenes -- in my letter I directed his attention to this scene as unnecessary and without story value. He didn't care to comment about that, though.

I agree that his responses were a bit weak -- she affects the linguistic weather when she enters a room? As for Kevin Smith, Tarantino, etc, I agree that they have similarly affected dialogue -- particularly Smith, who like Cody also likes all of his characters to sound the same. But Tarantino (and the Coens, in Raising Arizona) slide by, in my view, for two reasons: one, because different characters speak differently and two, because the universe of their films is cartoonish and doesn't appear to be trying to represent the real world.

I don't care much for Kevin Smith's films, but I agree they have the same problem. The difference there, though, is that nobody's calling any of Smith's films the best movie of the year.

Anyway, love the post. Keep up the good work, eh?

Febrifuge said...

Dude, if you're going to trot out Ebert's adages in defense of your point, then you have to live with the main one: you need to review a movie on its own merits, not on the basis of what you would have done differently.

You say the central question of Juno, which "practically begs to be taken more seriously," is the question of what to do with the baby. Both Cody and Reitman have been quoted extensively as saying that's actually not it at all.

The script ignores (I wouldn't say "defies") a lot of the Robert McKee-style screenwriting "rules" which have resulted in so many cookie-cutter stories. For that alone, it deserves at least some respect... in fact, I think that's what audiences are responding to: it just feels different, and different is good. It's not Citizen Kane, but it does what it sets out to do, and it sets out to do something just a little unusual.

There's a valid discussion to be had about what that says about the state of contemporary movies. Is it refreshing, or just plain sad? ...But that too is outside the realm of reviewing this one movie.

So while I think you have a lot of good analysis, I also think you're guilty of reviewing Juno more on the basis of what it isn't than what it is; on what it doesn't do more than what it does; on the cultural phenomenon or whatever you want to call it, rather than the movie itself. Even if it didn't work for you, it wasn't funny, it wasn't clever, and it wasn't touching, there's still no way it was the worst movie of 2007.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

“You need to review a movie on its own merits, not on the basis of what you would have done differently. You say the central question of Juno, which "practically begs to be taken more seriously," is the question of what to do with the baby. Both Cody and Reitman have been quoted extensively as saying that's actually not it at all.”

Febrifuge: It seems to me I spent a lot of time talking about what I didn’t like about the movie based on what it is. The visit to the abortion clinic. The decision to give the baby away. The interviewing of the parents. The hesitation over whether the yuppies are the right people, given what Juno finds out about the husband (that he's just like her!) I don’t know-- the question of Juno’s decision regarding the baby seems like it ought to be pretty central to me, and superficially speaking it is.

But the gravity of what is in real life a difficult situation and series of decisions is undercut by Juno’s (and the movie’s) flippant attitude, which is why it offended me that the movie treats her condition as little more than a nonconformist fashion accessory. It poses a series of questions and then keeps the character and the audience off the hook by not following through on the logical extensions of these questions that would pester Juno in any thoughtful treatment, comedic or not, of the premise. It’s a fizzled sitcom version of a real and important and interesting subject, one that is most supremely interested in making the audience “feel good.” We do get the one scene with Dad in the hospital room, where he says to his daughter post-birth, “Don’t worry, you’ll be back here someday,” and then it’s back to life with Paulie, even more well adjusted than before and all because of a declaration of love for a person who seems barely more than a cipher, a joke in high-riding gym shorts, a screenwriter’s concoction. Why, it’s as if that little nine-month belly bump never happened.

But if these questions are not central, you’ve confirmed my point that Juno doesn’t really care about the pregnancy any further than it can illuminate Juno’s outsider status and give her material for more smug quippery. If this question isn’t central to Juno, then what is? (You never elaborated.) Maybe it’s the indefatigable teen spirit and sass that Juno is supposed to personify? Or is it that quirk trumps character at all costs? (The hamburger phone and that delightful bit of business with the Barcalounger would seem to support this theory.) And as Eli Roth proved extensively last year, despite all evidence of wildly proliferating DVD commentaries where every genius gets his say, I'm not sure I care to hear more of Cody's backstory, or Cody or Reitman's answers to puffball interview questions about the movie. There are lots of exceptions to this, but it seems to me the writer and director are often unreliable authorities for evaluating their own work and what’s actually up there on the screen. They can tell you all about their intentions, but there’s often a pretty wide gap between intentions and results.

“The script ignores (I wouldn't say "defies") a lot of the Robert McKee-style screenwriting "rules" which have resulted in so many cookie-cutter stories. For that alone, it deserves at least some respect... in fact, I think that's what audiences are responding to: it just feels different, and different is good. It's not Citizen Kane, but it does what it sets out to do, and it sets out to do something just a little unusual.”

Of course originality is an admirable goal, and different can be good. It can also be pretty bad, as Southland Tales so amply proved. Simple coloring outside the lines is no indicator of quality. And I think the only way you could see this movie as “a little unusual” is if you’d never heard of John Hughes, the oeuvre of whom is as shaky a template on which to build a life-confirming comedy about the way teenagers really are that there ever has been.

Oh, and thanks for addressing me as "Dude." It's been a while! :)

Febrifuge said...

Heh - you are very welcome. I'm 37, and a professional, and can't stop using the word "dude." It's a known software bug, so I'm glad you appreciated it.

But if these questions are not central, you’ve confirmed my point that Juno doesn’t really care about the pregnancy any further than it can illuminate Juno’s outsider status and give her material for more smug quippery. If this question isn’t central to Juno, then what is? (You never elaborated.) Maybe it’s the indefatigable teen spirit and sass that Juno is supposed to personify? Or is it that quirk trumps character at all costs?

I agree that the pregnancy isn't the story; it's the engine for the story. That doesn't mean it's only cosmetic, but it's a good point that once she blimps out, she's physically as much of a freak as her hyper-literate My So-Called Life brain makes her. And she's forced to think about who she trusts, and who she cares about.

As to the central question: It's about the difference between acting grown-up and being grown-up. The movie knows Juno the character is full of crap, but she's 16! Therefore, she gets a ton of slack. She's seen as cute. Exactly like the kids in John Hughes movies; exactly like the kids in American Pie movies are NOT.

It's valid to say she's not cute, or that she gets too much slack, but it feels like some are opposing the very idea of a whip-smart female counterpoint to the profane geniuses in Superbad - as though they'd prefer a movie teen pregnancy to have a lot more crying and wailing. I figure we've seen that lots of times, and so the idea that it's possible to have a "major life event" take place and yet not completely alter every fiber of a young person's being is kind of cool.

Mark, on the other hand, is also full of crap, and because he's north of 30, it's a lot less okay with the movie that he cling to his snarky-cool bullshit. Vanessa in her way is putting way more effort into playing the adult role than into living her life; by the end of the film she winds up much happier, in a messy house, having removed the stick from her butt.

And Juno doesn't survive unscathed, either. Her folks are uncommonly awesome for this kind of movie, but then real life teen girls get through this experience all the time, with varying degrees of success. By the end she realizes that Bleeker is not just her puppyish "dick in a jar," he's a decent guy who genuinely loves her no matter what.

And that's not the most original story in the world, as it turns out, but it does get there through a route that might be expected to go other places. I liked it.

It seems as if people are pissed off because it's not as detached and artificial as Napoleon Dynamite, or as sappy as some Anne Hathaway vehicle.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Febrifuge: Thanks for writing in and keeping me on my toes. I always appreciate comments like yours, especially when they avoid degenerating into snide name-calling and the like. I hope you’ll keep coming back. Have you considered taking the quiz? I’d love to read your answers.

“The movie knows Juno the character is full of crap, but she's 16! Therefore, she gets a ton of slack.”

I’m not sure the movie knows it. What bothers me as much as anything about the dialogue is the degree to which every other line is like a tryout for the definition of a new super-teen vernacular. It doesn’t sound like dialogue, it sounds like the screenwriter constantly one-upping herself. I do like your idea of the movie being more about the difference between acting grown-up and being grown-up. I just wish it had chosen a more interesting way than tipping over a straw man like Jason Bateman’s character in order to explore that theme.

”It feels like some are opposing the very idea of a whip-smart female counterpoint to the profane geniuses in Superbad.

I’ve heard that charge before about the movie’s detractors, and all I can speak to is my own reaction, which is: I’d welcome a teen girl equivalent to Superbad, but I just don’t think Juno is it. (Remember that picture called The Sweetest Thing that was supposed to be the Farrelly Brothers from a female perspective? That was the closest thing I can think of, and it was a real dud.) Superbad is all about the crass, hilarious behavior of a trio of uber-nerds who somehow have no idea that they are, despite their porn-imbued view of sex and imagined adult behavior, as naïve and clueless as they are. Yet the movie gets at the core of honest emotion and plainly homoerotic foundation of their friendship and ends up saying a lot more about young male bonding than I think Juno ever gets at on its own terms about its titular character or the teen world she revolves around. If anyone actually makes a movie that’s as smart about girls in that way as Superbad is about boys, I will be the first in line. (Did you see Mean Girls? I haven’t, but I’ve heard from some that it might be more in line with what we’re imagining here.)

Grover said...

Why does the pregnancy have to be treated as such a grueling situation, though? Juno knows she's not ready to be a mother, wants to give up the baby for adoption, and her parents support her in that decision. Is this not an acceptable premise? The family in Juno - quirky, loving, and supportive - reminded me of the Vanderhof/Sycamores in You Can't Take It With You. The reaction to and handling of Juno's pregnancy may not be realistic in the sense that it's not the norm, but that's as far as I'd take it.

I'd go on but I have the tendency to come into these things after the threads are pretty much already dead, so I think I'll hold off to see if there's any more life in this conversation...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Grover: I’d trade “grueling” for some meat in the story about how the experience of carrying a child somehow affects or even changes this girl and maybe even the family too. The way the movie has it, getting pregnant is about as profound an experience as strapping on a baby belly or carrying a ten-pound sack of flour around for a couple of weeks to get the idea of one’s “responsibility.” And once its over, it’s over.

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