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.
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.
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... :)
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.