Tuesday, January 01, 2008

BEST AND WORST OF 2007

Okay, it’s pretty obvious that this blog has degenerated into little more than a convenient repository for these yearly Best and Worst lists. I mean, crikey, no posts since March of ’07? Norman Mailer, the Great Man of Letters, passes and not even a peep from the peanut gallery? What’s my friggin’ problem?
 
The problem is every year I tell myself I’m going to cut down on my massive movie intake. I hold out for the first few months of the year, and then, like a crackhead who needs the pipe, find myself running to the nearest multiplex to plunk down my hard earned for the cheap high that is the first-run release.
 
Well, this year I may finally keep my resolution. Now that pristine Hi-Def home viewing has entered my life, I find less and less reason to hit the streets for what I can get at home, often better presented and without the risk of social disease that comes with modern moviegoing.
 
I’m talking about cell phones, people. Seriously, this shit’s a pandemic. And it’s not just the talking anymore. It’s the texting and the little blue lights that constantly pop on all over the theater when people are texting like a flurry of retarded, ADD-riddled fireflies. Honestly, do you really need to let your cousin in Saskatoon know what you think of The Simpsons Movie, like, right now? And it’s not just in the multiplexes where you expect your fair share teen-text pajama parties the next aisle over -- it’s the arthouses too. I’m talking about the idiot with the BlueTooth earwig blinking constantly in your periphery when you’re trying to get your Paris Je T’aime on.
 
In short, 2008 promises to be a year filled with outdated, untimely, and predominately home-based viewing choices. If I do happen to post, expect a lot old stuff…obscure Japanese yakuza flicks, catch-up binges of Herzog, Antonioni, Louis Malle, not to mention that entire solid gold box set of Twin Peaks I’ve got to get through. Either that or just check back in January 1, 2009 to see my addiction laid bare all over again…in another one of these damnable lists. Enjoy!
 
THE BEST
 
10.) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
If you can get past the obvious Terrence Malick hero worship going on stylistically in this epic western character study (even down to the soundtrack), there’s lots of cinema gold to be found in these thar hills. And a lot of it, surprisingly enough, from Casey Affleck. This beautifully photographed film about one of America’s first celebrities, Jesse James (as played by Pitt), and one of its first celebrity stalkers, Robert Ford (as played by Lil’ Affleck), is a western in its period dress only. Where it truly succeeds is as indictment of the sickness that is modern-day celebrity culture but with jangling spurs subbing for snapping paparazzi.
 
9.) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
What happens when the musical and horror movie genres cross-pollinate? Not surprisingly, lots and lots of blood and lots and lots of singing. But what is surprising is that the bastard offspring of those two dubious mothers could complement each other so perfectly. I’d pretty much lost interest in director Tim Burton since Ed Wood, but this material was tailor-made for his baroque, dark comic stylings. He takes to it just like a little goth fish to black waters.
 
8.) No End in Sight
This is the Iraq documentary that all Republicans feared…and that every damn one of them needs to see. Non-partisan, dealing only with hard facts, not a trace of liberal whipping boy Michael Moore within a mile of this thing. In other words, no excuses this time, ladies and gents, just a devastating, detailed account of the myriad policy fuck-ups that have led us to where we are today…namely, a quagmire possibly more devastating than Vietnam. This movie separates itself from the pack of other Iraq docs by not even bothering to question whether the war was ever justified in the first place. It keeps its focus narrower, taking the war at face value, and then showing you step by step how it’s been a botched job from day one…tragically, with no foreseeable end in sight.
 
7.) Superbad
The most balls-out funny movie I’ve seen since Borat. But there was something else going on here, a kind of generational thing…admittedly a generation which I’m probably too old to really be a part of. What is it now anyway? Generation Y? Generation Z? Or have they started over at A? My first thought coming out of theater after the laughter died down was: “I think I’ve just seen this generation’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, its American Graffiti, or at the very least its Porky’s.” As for what generation that would be, I’m entirely clueless.
 
6.) Killer of Sheep
I’d been hearing for years that this little black and white indie from the early 80s was “the best student film of all time.” Well, believe the hype. There were no copies of this available for years until the UCLA Archive put together an exceptional print release earlier this year (and more recently, a supposedly very good Criterion Collection DVD). Basically, a series of vignettes and slice of life moments from a South Central neighborhood loosely centered around a worn-down neighborhood meatpacker. Lots of great moments of kids cavorting around crumbled buildings and littered streets. I have to wonder if David Gordon Green saw this before George Washington. Both great movies. Similar tone, different locale.
 
5.) Michael Clayton
A very solid legal thriller that could easily and comfortably coexist with some of the great paranoid political thrillers of the '70s (All the President’s Men, 3 Days of the Condor, etc). Other than that, I’ve forgotten why I liked it so much. All I know is, George Clooney can seem to do no wrong with the projects he picks these days.
 
4.) Knocked Up
Of the two accidental pregnancy movies of I saw this year (Juno being the other), this one was the better by far and pulled off the more amazing feet…being so funny that it made you forget that its entire premise is completely implausible. I’m sorry, but I have trouble buying that a twenty-something beauty like Katherine Hiegl, who wants to be an on-camera E! Entertainment reporter no less, would A) ever hook up with a dude like Seth Rogen for more than a night B) want to take his seed to term and C) not even consider the abortion option given the fact that she’s not religious and, did I mention before, wants to be on-camera talent in the entertainment industry! Yet, despite all of that, I somehow found myself pissing with laughter and forgetting I was basically watching geek-male wish-fulfillment at its finest. Note Bene: Don’t see this movie on a first date. Yes, it’s romantic in places, but the threat of condom breakages and pregnancy tests will hang over the remainder of your evening like a dark specter.
 
3.) There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Blood is the last movie I saw in ’07 and without a doubt the most thoroughly original. For this reason, it’s still rattling around in my brain like a dirty little peanut, one that I haven’t quite cracked. This aspect alone earns it a place near the top of the list. That and the fact that I think PT Anderson may have managed to completely reinvent himself all within one 2 ½ hour movie. It’s classical storytelling but in a strange, new way dealing with BIG THEMES (unchecked greed, ambition etc.) and maybe going a little deeper and darker than precursors like Citizen Kane were able to go. Daniel Day-Lewis makes for a perfect tour guide into the pitch black heart of frontier oilman Daniel Plainview. And Paul Dano of Little Miss Sunshine fame ably holds his own as the teen evangelist with whom Plainview goes head to head. The ending will most likely give one pause (crap, it’s still giving me major pause), but I’m not sure yet if that’s because it’s so good or so bad. Let’s discuss in 2009, shall we?
 
2.) Into the Wild
I’ve always wanted to like Sean Penn as a director, but his previous ponderous acting exercises like The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge never quite gelled for me. This movie is the first one where everything seemed to click. Based on the best seller about a ‘90s college graduate who cuts up his credit cards, donates his live savings to Oxfam and abandons his car in the desert to roam the country 60s-style, this movie feels like its from another time all together (granted, a much more idealistic one). Sure, it’s beautifully shot and superbly acted (Emile Hirsch is friggin’ amazing carrying virtually the entire movie on his backpack). But like any great movie this one is also very troubling in the questions it raises. Must one do something near suicidal to have a true authentic experience these days? And if Christopher McCandless hadn’t accidentally died on his strange trek into the wilderness, would it still have been as “important” or just been another forgotten barroom anecdote. “Oh yeah, that’s the summer I hitchhiked across the Pacific Northwest into Alaska without money, food, map or accompaniment. Man, I tell ya, I was a nutty kid back then.”
 
1.) No Country for Old Men
It’s probably no surprise that my number one of ’07 is the Coen Bros’ No Country. I saw this sucker twice, and I still argue that it’s in their top five films sandwiched in with Fargo, Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. The suspense in this movie is airtight, right from the very first frames, on par with anything Hitchcock did. And mark my words, Javier Bardem will win the Oscar for Best Actor or Best Supporting. I know people had problems with “loose plot strands” at the end, but that’s the way it was in the book and, for me, it’s completely justified by the internal logic of this movie. The Coens brought their A Game again and delivered the movie we’ve been waiting since weathering Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. And the fact that they could pull off two long leisurely Texas phisophizin’ scenes (very true to the book) back to back at the very end of the movie when the plot had wrapped itself up is a testament to the power they hold over their audience. A few people screamed out “No!” at the abrupt fade to black at the end of the movie the second time I saw it. Well, I say, “Yes, Joel and Ethan, yes!”
 
HONORABLE MENTION
 
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
At age 83, director Sidney Lumet still has the goods. Not to mention Marisa Tomei, at age 43. Besides that, some top-shelf acting by Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The script’s a solid down and dirty film noir but nothing you haven’t seen before. And there is some needless non-linear time-jumping. However, it’s the unapologetic acting and directing that makes it all seem bakery fresh.
 
Charlie Wilson’s War
Very well acted and sharply written. My only qualm may be that it’s a little too funny for its own good and therefore slighter than it could have been. Yeah, this may the guy who effectively ended the Cold War, but he also armed Osama bin Laden in the process. The movie “kinda sorta” acknowledges this through a Phillip Seymour Hoffman monologue near the end but in a way that seems more of a wink and a nod than anything else. Good flick, but perhaps some missed opportunities here.
 
Sicko
I had some problems with the whole “Let’s Go to Guantanamo Bay To Get Healthcare” gimmick, but other than that there’s no arguing that Michael Moore is one of the few dudes making important movies about the country’s most important topics. He respectably dials down the “let me entertain you while I educate you” impulse from Fahrenheit 9/11 (though maybe still not quite enough). But the movie is at its effective best when he steps aside and just lets the people tell their HMO horror stories. Of which there are many.
 
The TV Set
I like this movie because it makes my life easier. Now when someone asks me -- “How come you would never want to write for major network television?” -- I can just hand them a copy of this movie. It explains all. A depressing but funny depiction of creative compromise after compromise after compromise in the TV industry where projects routinely become distant echoes of what was intended and writers become hollow six-figure shells of the “artists” they once wanted to be. David Duchovny is pretty good as said shell. Not to mention Judy Greer (Arrested Development) as his agent.
 
Zodiac
Points must go to David Fincher for making a serial killer movie where you know from the outset that the killer will never be found and yet find yourself still completely riveted. And don’t get me started on the period San Francisco art direction -- love those newspaper office color schemes! But Fincher knows it takes more than just bell bottoms to make a quality ‘70s movie. By focusing on the investigation tore the lives of the three men investigating it apart instead of the unknown killer, he transcends his own great work in Seven and the myriad imitator serial killer movies that followed it.
 
THE WORST
10.) I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
I saw this on DVD simply because I was shocked to find out that it was written by the same guys who wrote Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, three very excellent movies. I was not shocked to discover that THIS movie, however, sucks eggs. I can only hope that their paycheck bought them two very nice summer homes…and that they will retire to them post haste to write something watchable next time out.
 
9.) Rescue Dawn
I won’t say that this is the movie where Werner Herzog sold out. I don’t think it’s possible for that guy to sell out. But I will say that I think he got a little too close to subject here and lost some objectivity along the way -- a danger with any biopic that intends to celebrate a real life person. This movie is curiously bland for Herzog, not a far cry from that spate of Chuck Norris/P.O.W./Missing in Action movies that hit in the mid-80s. Except you know Herzog made his actors run around in a real jungle instead of a Hollywood backlot and eat real maggots instead of gummy-worm grubs.
 
8.) The Walker
Another favorite director of mine, Paul Schrader, made another mess of a movie this year. This one starred Woody Harrelson as a gay Southern escort to rich Washingtonian women whose politician husbands no longer want to play with them. It’s supposed to be a kissing cousin to Schrader’s American Gigolo, but ended up more of a red-headed stepchild. Good acting against type by Woody, lots of witty, Tennessee Williams-caliber bon mots all wrapped up an incredibly ineffective and lethargic murder thriller plot.
 
7.) Ocean’s 13
Thirteen IS an unlucky number. Enough already. This franchise is a dead horse that’s been flogged too many times. Even competent Soderbergh direction and Al Pacino grandstanding can’t save it now.
 
6.) Redacted
Oh, Brian DePalma. How do thee continue to disappoint me? Let me count the ways. Mission to Mars, Snake Eyes, Black Dahlia…and now Redacted. Your intentions are good on this one -- show the images of the war that the media refuses to. But your execution is poor -- couching your argument in a lame faux-documentary narrative that recalls the worst parts of Casualties of War. Maybe you should have just stuck to a straight documentary. I’m pretty sure there’s enough bad stuff going on over there that you don’t need to fictionalize or even dramatize it. I admire the attempt, but honestly, Dee-P, you’re making it hard for me to remain a fan.
 
5.) Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End
It was free of charge…and a still sucked. But I’m the idiot three times over now for sitting through this junk again.
 
4.) 300
Dudes in bronzer and loincloths yelling inane jingoistic patter at each other while spilling lots of slo-mo digitally enhanced blood. This is a Ronnie James Dio video without a sense of humor and, more than likely, very questionable politics, though it’s hard to tell with all that sound and fury CGI coming at you.
 
3.) Smokin’ Aces
Post-Tarantino posturing ten years after it stopped being cool. And a cluelessly self-important twist ending thrown in for good measure. There was one funny scene in the whole movie involving a little kid on crystal meth with nunchucks. That’s about it.
 
2.) Grindhouse: Death Poof
Blah, blah, blah…Vanishing Point…blah, blah, blah…Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry…blah, blah, blah…Insert Obscure Film Reference Here. All talk and five minutes of action make Quentin a dull boy. Yes, there were hot girls uttering the unlikely Tarantino-speak this time around, but that just made it harder to bear. I thought this was supposed to be a exploitation movie, not another Tarantino gab-fest. Somebody needs to stop reading their own press and step foot out of Hollywood or, at the very least, take a lesson from the first half of the double feature -- Planet Terror. At least that was some scuzzy fun.
 
1.) Shoot ‘Em Up
Everything big and bad and dumb about America and mainstream American moviemaking in general can be found in this movie. What’s worse, the jackass director at the helm of this dreck revels in it knowingly as if to say, “you know you like it, moron, eat it up good.” Violence for violence sake. Shooting two guns because it looks “cool.” Wasting the talents of 3 perfectly good actors -- Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, and Monica Belluci (the only 3 reasons I saw this crap). The scenery-chewing nudge-nudge wink-wink one-liners fall dead quicker than the nameless videogame bodies that stack up high throughout this movie’s 90 minute run time. Just because you knowingly serve up shit with a wink does not make it any less shit. This is filmmaking as fast food. Expect massive diarrhea to follow.
 
DISHONORABLE MENTION
 
American Gangster
You’ve seen it all before and done much better. The rise and fall of an American gangster…Scarface, Goodfellas, dare I say Blow. The only fresh angle in this story was how Denzel’s kingpin got the drugs into the country (give you a hint, it involves body bags). And they don’t even mention that until the last five minutes.
 
The Heartbreak Kid
My main problem with this remake of a great Charles Grodin/Elaine May/Neil Simon ‘70s comedy is that they killed a lot of the comedy by trying to make Stiller’s character more likable (I’m guessing studio notes were involved). In the original, Grodin is undeniably a prick because he cheats on his wife during their honeymoon. Sure, his new bride is kind of a nightmare, and he’s cheating on her with a young Cybil Shepherd, but the movie still presents him unapologetically as a hopeless prick. Here they attempt to skirt “the prick factor” by making Stiller’s new wife so out of left field that there’s no way you could ever fault him. Sometimes more likable = less funny. A lot less funny. Should’ve kept him a prick.
 
In the Valley of Elah
There’s a lot of good stuff in this little seen Iraq war murder mystery by Crash helmer Paul Haggis, most of it due to Tommy Lee Jones’ excellent performance. But then the heavy-handed Biblical references creep in along with a club-you-over-the-head-with-a-message ending that’s so forced and painfully telegraphed that you’re reminded, “Oh, yes, this is the gentleman that brought us Crash.”
 
Juno
The most aggressively cute movie I’ve seen in a long time. And the most overwritten. But it’s getting a lot of press because the screenwriter used to be a stripper. Hollywood loves a juicy backstory so expect to see much more of Diablo Cody for a long time to come. I had the same problems with this movie that I did with something like Garden State…it’s pre-fab “indie” with the attendant wall-to-wall alt-rock soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some very fine acting in this by Ellen Page, Michael Cera and Jason Bateman, not to mention a few nice story developments. But the limp direction by Ivan Reitman’s kid and the too-eager-to-please screenplay makes much of it unbearable.
 
Live Free or Die Hard
First, we run to this computer room and blow some stuff up real good. Then we run to this other computer room and blow some more stuff up real good. Then we...I think you get the picture. Better than Die Hard 2 and 3, but still a far cry from the classic original.
 
SUPERLATIVES
 
BEST BATH HOUSE FIGHT SCENE
Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg knows that you need more than just a simple eye gouge to make fight scene disturbing. You also need to make one or both of the participants naked. Very hard to watch…but in a good way.
 
MOST ALUMINUM FOIL EVER USED IN A MOVIE
Bug – William Friedkin got a lot of undeserved flak for this movie. It’s got some genuinely creepy stuff on par with some of the scenes in The Exorcist and Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon act their paranoid asses off. By the time you get to the scene where they cover their entire motel room in aluminum foil to keep out government-controlled radio transmissions, you’ll be feeling a little buggy too.
 
MOST INANE DIRECTOR’S CUT EVER
Blade Runner: The Final Cut – I defy you to tell me the difference between this release and Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut a few years back. When it’s gotten to the point that you’re changing one or two shots to promote the 5 disc DVD release, aren't you just screwing with us? Really, are you just screwing with us now?
 
MORE FUN THAN A HOLOCAUST MOVIE HAS A RIGHT TO BE
Black Book – Dutch director Paul Verhoeven picked up a lot of bad habits during his long stint in Hollywood. Namely, the need to Entertain with a capital E! He can’t even do a serious, small Holocaust movie anymore without a few explosions, several lurid beaver shots, and more plot crammed into this 2 and a half hour flick than an overflowing Elizabeth Berkley bustier. Not that I’m complaining about any of the above.
 
CHINESE HEIR TO THE PECKINPAH THRONE
Johnny To - With the stateside release of Election, Triad Election, and Exiled, I have quickly learned to appreciate this masterful Chinese action director and eagerly await his next new one. Exiled especially owes a heavy, heavy debt to Peckinpah. It’s basically The Wild Bunch set in the world of Chinese gangsters but not in the gratuitous fanboy way that you might expect.
 
BEST FIRST HOUR OF A HORROR MOVIE
1408 – This movie was close to perfect for the first hour. The set up was straight-up Twilight Zone and all the good things about Steven King. Then they had to bring the effects in. I don’t even remember what it was now, something to do with a tidal wave in the motel room? If they had just kept us locked in there with Cusack in that room without the CG-trickery as he steadily went more and more insane, this could have been something approaching Polanski’s The Tenant. Instead, it became Perfect Storm at the Super 8.
BEST BOB DYLAN OUT OF SIX
I’m Not There - Everyone will tell you Cate Blanchett as the Early Success Dylan. And she will undoubtedly score an Oscar nod because that’s one of the first rules of Oscar -- whenever someone plays the opposite sex Oscars come a rainin’ down hard. But for my money, it’s the little black kid playing Woodie Guthrie Dylan…or whatever his name was in that thing.
 
MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2008
Movie? Who has time for movies? Haven’t you seen the promos?! “Crime is up. The drug trade still rules the corners. The next election consumes every politician. And McNulty is drinking again.”
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get in the know with HBO. Over and out.

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