So, the past few years? Not so great cinema-wise. But this year? I'd already seen four of the flicks on the following list by March, and instead of struggling to figure out ten films I really liked in 2007, I actually had trouble narrowing down the list for a change. Now, I'm not talking the American Film Institute list of 100 greatest movies of all time, here. I'm not even talking my own Top Ten list from 2001 (hello, Royal Tennenbaums, Ghost World and Mulholland Drive)! But there weren't nearly as many dead spots in my filmgoing calendar in 2007, and my overall enjoyment-to-popcorn ratio was up, with the following flicks restoring my battered faith in the entertainment industry (before the Writer's Guild strike brought the whole thing to a grinding halt).
WILDCARDS: (potentially worthy movies unseen by moi in 2007): Enchanted, There Will Be Blood, I Am Legend, Romance and Cigarettes
And now, the Top 10 I did see:
Yes, I know...in the real world, Katherine Heigl's gorgeous entertainment reporter probably wouldn't end up with Seth Rogen's poor, good-natured stoner, even if he did get her preggers. And Lord knows movies are nothing if not starkly realistic, so I can understand that paricular criticism by Knocked Up's detractors. But somehow, this light summer comedy also got labelled reactionary propaganda by the P.C. crowd because it dared to depict a woman having a baby instead of marching right down to Planned Parenthood and getting a "shmasmorshin." Take that, patriarchy!!! Because, after all, smart, right-thinking ladies NEVER fall for inappropriate guys or risk career for family or stray from Women's Studies Department-approved modes of gender-appropriate behavior, and certainly NO ONE should ever laugh at the sacred yoni or the crude, sophomoric barbarism of maleness (or anything, really, in these troubled times). But somebody's gotta keep the former cast members of Undeclared and Freaks & Geeks off the streets, and writer/director Judd Apatow's done a great job highlighting the scruffy charm and laugh-out-loud comedy chops of his growing repertory company of wise-ass regular guys and sharp (or in the case of Charlyne Yi, stoned) funny ladies. Yes, Apatow's movies are mostly raunchy fairy tales (like Waitress for dudes) and his world is primarily a boy's club...but it's a world I recognize, and the underlying decency and humanity of its inhabitants makes it a club I'm happy to join.
HELL ON WHEELS
If, on the other hand, you prefer more XX chromosomes in your cinematic DNA, then I highly recommend Hell on Wheels, an astonishing documentary about the girl-powered rockabilly roller derby revival that sparked in Austin, Texas and spread across the nation. Director Bob Ray captures the birth and hilarious, harrowing growing pains of the Lonestar Rollergirls, an all-female, D.I.Y. enterprise that transforms from weekend lark to serious business when big money and crippling injuries raise the stakes of a burgeoning start-up on wheels, leading to shattered friendships (and fibulas) and a fiery schism between two factions of fiercely independepent entrepeneurs. Short skirts + third wave feminism + breathtaking banked track action + Marxist/capitalist tensions + a fascinating cast of characters & a kick-ass soundtrack = one of the can't-miss movies of 2007.
2 DAYS IN PARIS
I've been an Adam Goldberg enthusiast since Dazed and Confused, but if you don't appreciate the actor's neurotic, hyperarticulate humor, then 2 Days In Paris may not be your cup of Pernod. On the other hand, even Hebrew Hammer haters may find themselves charmed by Julie Delpy's performance (in a movie she wrote and directed) as the distaff half of a bi-national couple facing relationship meltdown during the titular 48-hour period. After all the France-bashing in recent American culture, it's interesting to see Delpy's warts-and-all depiction of The City of Lights, and her lived-in, heartfelt insights into love and family breathe fresh life into the ill-used romantic comedy genre.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Yikes! I mean, just LOOK at that image of Javier Bardem as the soulless, unstoppabe killing machine Anton Chigurh, one of the most instantly iconic characters in recent cinema. My sense leaving the theater was that Chigurh represented the relentless, implacable inevitability of death, yet while the Coen Brothers' gratifying, long-awaited return to form (and Tommy Lee Jones' Oscar-worthy performance in particular) can be viewed as a powerful meditation on mortality and evil, No Country For Old Men is, first and foremost, a masterpiece of suspense, marred only by a couple of glaringly illogical plot contrivances.
Another somewhat controversial pregnancy comedy, leavened by the womb cred and dazzling talent of its screenwriter (Diablo Cody, if that is your name) and star Ellen Page (a Thora Birch for Generation Y or Z or whoever the MTV demographic is these days), Juno is a love-it or hate-it proposition, depending on your tolerance for gently hepped-up style, characters and dialogue like, "This is one doodle that can't be undid, Home Skillet." I went into the theater prepared for an overdose of precious twee, but after making a conscious decision to just roll with the film's hamburger phone sensibility (and soundtrack), I was pleasantly surprised by the tender heart beneath the hipster veneer, the sharp characterizations, the hilarious dialogue and the way director Jason Reitman somehow manages to explore fresh terrain in the tired old teen comedy genre.
Like All the President's Men (which this movie was likened to by numerous critics) or JFK, Zodiac is conspiracy porn, a pointillist rendering of past events comprised of thousands of tiny dots of information that can be combined and recombined in endless variations by obsessed investigators searching for the needle of truth in a haystack of facts. Unlike most crime dramas, where the clever detective follows a clear line of clues straight to the murderer, director David Fincher dramatizes all the painstaking research, legwork, backtracking, doublechecking, self doubt and, ultimately, disappointment of three men who tried (and failed) to apprehend California's mysterious Zodiac killer. Yet for all the false starts and dead ends, the movie is never unsatisfying or dull. Instead, the deliberate, naturalistic tone and pace only heighten the suspense, reawakening our desensitized palettes to the horrific pain and shock of real-world murder.
THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS
There's usually nothing less interesting than watching other people play video games, but this documentary by director Seth Gordon raises the stakes and eventually gets you rooting for its underdog protagonist like he's Rocky Balboa stepping into the ring with Apollo Creed. The King of Kong tells the story of unemployed family man Steve Wiebe, a likeable sad sack seeking a tiny measure of personal fulfillment (and Guiness Book immortality) by racking up history's highest score on the world's hardest video game: Donkey Kong. Along the way, Wiebe runs afoul of the reigning Donkey Kong champ, a hot sauce mogul named Billy Mitchell who goes to astonishing lengths to protect his record (as well as his sovereignty over a fascinating retinue of bizarrely loyal geek minions). Weird America in all its glory...be sure to check out the real deal before the inevitable Ben Stiller/Will Ferrell remake!
THE DARJEELING LIMITED
I still haven't seen "The Hotel Chevalier," a (by all accounts great) short companion film that preceded The Darjeeling Limited at some (but not all venues) during its theatrical run, and I'm still a little ticked off at Wes Anderson for that...but considering how much I hated The Life Aquatic (after loving The Royal Tennenbaums and Rushmore), I was just happy to see one of my favorite directors back in fine, peculiar form with this dreamy, visually gorgeous tale of three newly fatherless brothers grieving their way across India in search of the inscrutable mother who abandoned them. Lighter and funnier than its synopsis would indicate, the film is nevertheless steeped in quiet melancholy (personified by the mournful, meta presence of Owen Wilson, pre-suicide attempt) and a hopeful fatalism that more or less mirrored my 2007 mood. Great soundtrack, too.
GONE BABY GONE
And speaking of a return to form...forget The Departed (and especially forget Mystic River): ne'er-do-well native son Ben Affleck's directorial debut is the best of the recent gritty Beantown noir mini-genre and the best Boston movie, period, since Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha (and that was more of an Allston movie, anyway). Gone Baby Gone gets just about everything right: the accents, the attitude, the places and the faces (especially Jill Quigg, who jumped off the screen in a small part even before I knew she was a genuine Southie native, drafted into acting for the very first time). Beyond authenticity, the film (based on a Dennis Lehane novel) provides all that other stuff I like in movies, too, like interesting characters, unpredictable plotting and thematic issues of loyalty and morality that stay with you long after the closing credits. Plus, it's great to see Amy Ryan (Officer Beadie Russell from the all-time classic inner city noir, The Wire) as the train-wreck druggie mom of a missing child, in a career-defining performance that can only be described as wicked pissah.
A LAWYER WALKS INTO A BAR
Number ten is always tough, because whatever goes here knocks something else off the list...eminently worthy works like Michael Clayton, The Savages, Ratatouille, etc. But whereas those movies were all fine genre offerings, A Lawyer Walks Into A Bar was a little more unique: a hybrid between non-fiction competition flicks like Spellbound and more traditional documentary filmmaking that intercuts between established attorneys discussing their oft-maligned profession and a diverse and compelling group of young (and not-so-young) hopefuls preparing for the California Bar Exam (allegedly the hardest in the U.S. -- we're talking Donkey Kong hard). The movie gave me a much better sense of how friggin' difficult it is to actually become a doctor of jurisprudence, and how easy it is to take the American legal system for granted...but the real drama of the movie grew from my rooting interest in the wannabe lawyers and the reality show-style suspense surrounding their ultimate success or failure.
MENTION: The TV Set, Waitress, 28 Weeks Later, Pirates of the
Caribbean: At World’s End, Paris, je t'aime, Ratatouille, Harry Potter
& The Order of the Phoenix, Summercamp!, Superbad, Hannah Takes the
Stairs, Michael Clayton, American Gangster, Before the Devil Knows You’re
Dead, Margot at the Wedding, Show Business: The Road To Broadway,
Lynch (one), The Savages.
MOMENTS/PERFORMANCES: The astonishing Alexander Payne/Margo Martindale
section of Paris, je t'aime, Marley Shelton, the trailers and the
Robert Rodriguez section of Grindhouse, Tilda Swinton in Michael
Clayton, the nude trumpet duet in Hannah Takes the Stairs, the
late lamented Adrienne Shelly in Waitress, Alicia Keys in Smokin'
Aces, Christina Ricci's wardrobe in Black Snake Moan, 2005's
Motel (which I finally saw this year), the Beatles section (and Jenna
Fischer's lipstick) in Walk Hard, evil Sarah Silverman in
Someone To Eat Cheese With, the spider-pig song from The Simpsons
Movie and the screening of Texas Shorts at SXSW 2007 featuring...Babycakes.
MOST DISAPPOINTING: THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
sure, it was funny...but it wasn't South Park: Bigger, Longer
& Uncut funny. It wasn't even "Marge vs. the Monorail"-era
funny. After ten years of writing, The Simpsons Movie seemed no better
or worse than an above-average episode of the show drawn out to feature
length. And, aside from the aforementioned "Spider-Pig" theme, where
were the musical numbers?!?!
BETTER THAN IT HAD TO BE: SMOKIN' ACES
that Madonna keeps Guy Richie's cajones in a vault at the Bank of London
and Quentin Tarantino's gasbaggery has flared-up to chronic levels (I mean,
good Lord, Death Proof would have been about ten minutes long if
some brave editor had dared to cut every scrap of verbal diarrhea), there
aren't too many directors cranking out gun-slingin' demolition derbies
like Smokin' Aces anymore. The formula is relatively simple:
combine a dozen or so intersecting/doublecrossing thieves/assassins/lawmen/etc.
with a simple Maguffin and a zillion rounds of ammunition and overheat,
then sit back and see who survives. Like KFC chicken, it's not good
for you and you'll probably regret it later, but sometimes you just gotta
MOVIE I SAW: PREMONITION
So bad I actually used it in my online UCLA Extension screenwriting class as an example of how NOT to write a movie. To wit: "If a character’s motivations don’t make sense in a scene, it’s usually because their arc is flawed, unclear or inconsistent. In the 2007 supernatural thriller Premonition, for example, Sandra Bullock plays a woman who somehow gets out of synch with time. One day she wakes up and her husband is dead. The next day she wakes up and he’s alive. Eventually, she concludes that she’s experiencing the days of one particularly fateful week out of order...yet even after this realization, she still has trouble keeping the days straight because she never thinks to buy, say, a watch with a calendar function. Why? Because if she did, it would disrupt the lazy plotting of the screenplay. Bullock’s character is meant to be an intelligent suburban housewife...but in this case, character consistency was subordinated to the demands of a badly structured plot...not that audiences seemed to mind, given Premonition’s relatively strong box office. Yet, for the sake of argument, let’s presume that a clear, well-constructed script with characters who behave in comprehensible ways is generally preferable to a random, confusing muddle!"
MOVIE I DIDN'T SEE: LICENSE TO WED
Just three minutes of this utterly fake and contrived movie in trailer form was enough to induce vomiting, so I can't imagine what happened to the poor bastards who actually sat through the whole thing. Seriously, Robin Williams must be stopped...his next movie is called The Krazees, for Christ's sake! THE KRAZEES!!!! Also: John Krasinski needs a new agent, post-haste.
no particular order: Lost (even though it aggravated the crap
out of me at least 50% of the time), Best Week Ever, The Soup,
Fiji, The Sopranos (especially those kick-ass final minutes),
Love, Kid Nation, The Office, the incredibly great new
series Mad Men and, finally, Kathy Griffin: My Life on
the D-List...R.I.P., John Griffin, and here's hoping they have wine
boxes in heaven.
PERPLEXINGLY AWFUL: JOHN FROM CINCINATTI
The one good thing I can say about this show is that, for a while, it was, at least, a fascinating train wreck. I watched for half a season trying to figure out whether the whole bizarre mess was, in fact, some kind of elaborate put-on...but eventually I just gave up and found something better to do with my time. Now, seriously, Milch...get back to work on those Deadwood movies!
no particular order: Family drama ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith,
nostalgic evocation of the '80s SPY: THE FUNNY YEARS by Kurt Andersen,
Graydon Carter & George Kalogerakis, baseball geekery FEEDING THE
MONSTER by Seth Mnookin, show biz geekery BOFFO! by Peter Bart,
paranoid geekery THE TRAVELER by John Twelve Hawks and Erik Larson's THE
DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, a great non-fiction tale of serial killing
and the Chicago World's Fair.
only stepped inside two theaters this year...once for the charming off-Broadway
show MISSING and once for the recent Boston production of LA
BOHEME...who knew opera could be so entertaining?
2007 theme song: "Sad Little Fat Man" (or whatever David Bowie calls that mean little ditty from Extras).
Song of the Year (and potential 2008 theme song): "No One" by Alicia Keys. As Bob Dylan says, "There's nothing about that girl I don't like!"
Runners Up: "Chocolate Rain" by Tay Zanday, "My Humps" by Alannis Morissette.
Very Drunk, Very Talented Artists of the Year: Amy Wino & Lily Allen
Album of the Year even though it came out in 2006: Beck, The Information.
of the Year: The Darjeeling Limited
TH-TH-TH-THAT'S ALL FOLKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!
YOU IN 2008!