Monday, May 10, 2010
Memories of the Turn of the Century in Film, Part IV: 2006/2007
The fourth part of this series about the 00's takes a precarious turn into the discussion of films while focusing on the years 2006 and 2007, which produced many films that were more than worthy of debate. These two years, for me, represented the creative peak of the decade with some of our best filmmakers releasing their greatest works. As I briefly mentioned at the end of the last part, I had decided what the subjects each part of this series would be at the beginning of this year. I have written about the state of the filmmaking community coming out of the 1990's, the deterioration in behavior of movie audiences and, in the previous part, how we have redefined what film is in the digital age. So, of course, one unavoidable topic is how the discussion of films has changed. The 00's was the decade when film criticism moved almost entirely to the internet.
Why do I approach this with some trepidation? First off, it seems like every other day, a new piece about the death of film criticism (let's call this DOFC, for short, from this point on) gets written, as well as the inevitable and sometimes angry rebuttals. A lot of this debate centers around the fact that many film critics are losing their jobs, which makes this subject even more touchy. Another thing is that critics have become increasingly thin-skinned with regards to, um, criticism. To make delving into this subject more of a losing proposition on my part, I am one of those amateur bloggers often described in DOFC articles whenever critics want to dismiss the idea that any asshole can open up a blogspot account and be taken seriously when writing about movies.
Let me start off with a few statements before I, as an asshole with a blogspot account, go down this path, some which I have articulated when I first started this blog a year ago. I have no interest in becoming a paid film critic. I prefer to make a living with what I do now and, to be honest, I cannot imagine even paying my bills writing about movies. I would never even refer to myself as a critic, as the term narrowly defines what I am trying to accomplish with this blog. So, I do not exactly I have any personal stake in this when I discuss this, as I am tackling this more from a reader's point of view. I now ask that you forgive me for what I have to do now.
I want to kill film criticism, as we have defined it for so long.
Now that I have everyone's attention, let us remember what film criticism was before the internet became so prominent in our lives. When I was growing up, my exposure to film criticism were reviews in the local newspapers and watching Siskel & Ebert on television. In college, I became more exposed to critics who wrote for weekly or monthly magazines. As someone who was actually seeking this out at the time, I look back and think about what limited exposure to different points of view I had back then. While there were certainly great writers who produced some insightful criticism back then, the form of the movie review, for the most part, was generally the same. Siskel & Ebert were seen as the most groundbreaking simply because they brought what was previously reserved on the page to television, where many tuned in to watch them discuss or fight over movies.
Obviously, the internet saw its first film sites in the 1990's, most notably with the likes of Ain't It Cool News and its ilk. Over time, considering how movies were being geared towards younger people, the discussion of film began to shift from print to the web. Of course, this has been the source of much animosity between those who started their careers in print to a newer wave of film writers and critics whose careers were defined only by their work on the web. If you thought that the Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris feud from way back was rough, then imagine that multiplied several times over, as we now have regular tussles not only between the print and web critics, but amongst all the different factions of writers on the web. You see, the internet allowed everyone to debate more freely. At the same time, many film writers felt the need to battle each other in public (mostly in their articles, but now often on Twitter) without offering anything enlightening for those not interested in the inside baseball perspective of Film Critic Land. They often felt the need to form little gangs of groupthink in public debates and recreated the opening of "Gangs of New York" but with words instead of clubs. There are the bitter print guys in one corner and the fanboy websites in another corner. There are those who write their own blogs for no money also getting into the fray. Serious film critics band together to fight critics they consider frivolous. These are even broad strokes, as giant factions break into smaller factions and then alliances shift. Perhaps, it is less like "Gangs of New York" than the television show "Oz".
From my perspective, I have a real difficult time siding with anyone on this. As much as I certainly respect much of the film criticism I have read in print, I cannot wholeheartedly agree that it was superior in every way. In fact, I generally believe that the notion of the superiority of all modern print journalism has been a bit of a myth over the last couple of decades. Back in the day, there certainly was more attention paid to fact checking and hard news. But, over time, the corporations that owned the newspapers began to show their influence on the type of news being presented. Important stories were ignored, while gossipy nonsense was given front page credibility. Newspapers were competing with 24 hour cable news, which had its own share of dubious journalistic practices. Anyone with an ability for critical thinking would start to consider that perhaps the news we read and saw was compromised a bit.
As far as the superiority of print film criticism is concerned, we have to remember that critics like Rex Reed or Armond White have been employed in print for the entirety of their careers. White, in particular, seems to have a problem with coherent sentence construction that you would think someone with his "experience" should have mastered by now. We also have to acknowledge that the more we define criticism as merely reviews that tell us whether we should see a movie or not, the less open we are to the possibilities of discussing movies in the 21st century. Intelligent articles about movies used to be written on typewriters and now they will be conceived on iPads. It is about the intelligence the writer brings to the table.
Some may take this as a cheap shot against print critics especially when they are losing their jobs. That is not the case. I certainly have a great deal of empathy towards anyone in any profession losing their jobs. However, what I do resent a bit have been the endless DOFC articles, simply because they come across as more than a bit narcissistic and self-pitying. The economy is bad for everyone. It has been a struggle for myself to find employment in the last year and a half in my line of work. The thing is that hardly anyone in any other profession has the forum to complain so publicly and frequently about their misfortunes. While I may consider writing about film important, in the big picture, most people perceive getting paid and writing about film to be a relatively privileged gig even if we all know it does not pay that well. (Thanks to DOFC articles, some over-sharing freelance critics have revealed how much they get paid per review.) The reality is there is going to be a ceiling of empathy for whatever critics lose their jobs, as brutal as that may seem.
What I do not get is the hostility directed by print critics at those who write on the internet. Even more so, I do not understand the further derision by those employed by movie sites at those who open up a blog account and write about movies for free. The phrase you often hear is, "On the internet, anybody can be a critic." Yes, the internet has changed film criticism as we know it. Like everything else, it needed to evolve despite that many critics have responded to this with a great deal of kicking and screaming. What employed critics and writers do not seem to understand is what their place is in the big picture. I had mentioned earlier how newspapers and 24 hour cable news became more compromised in their journalistic practices because they ultimately served corporations. In the aftermath of the bullshit we were being fed on a daily basis culminating in the cheerleading news coverage that led to the invasion in Iraq during early 2003, we saw sites popping up on the internet whose main purpose was to fact check the national newspapers and cable news channels. While I am aware that every news site carries its own bias even on the web, I can also say that the ability to read more sources and understand more points of view on the internet has resulted in me becoming a better informed person. I may have more bullshit to sift through, but I feel I can figure out a closer approximation of the truth, as opposed to depending on a couple of my local journalistically compromised newspapers. A system of genuine checks and balances is a good thing, is it not? So why not consider that the more independent voices out there are needed to counterbalance, say, the mostly useless softball reviews from movie sites that greeted a mediocrity like "Avatar"?
Roger Ebert recently wrote an article calling our present time the golden age of film criticism and I suggest you read it, as I am going to make some of the same points as well. Reading pieces about film on the web has opened up so many possibilities about criticism if you are open to redefining what it means. I can honestly say some of the most groundbreaking and thoughtful criticism has come from those who created their blogs from scratch and who are not paid a dime. They do it not just for the love of film, but the idea that they are worth discussing and thinking about. These are writers with no restrictions on the lengths of their articles and are free to express any opinion they feel without any editorial hand. They are not restricted to writing about whatever Hollywood dictates to be released each Friday. They could write about older movies or devote articles to certain aspects of the filmmaking craft or a filmmaker's recurring themes. Of course, as with any art form, there is a great deal of sludge to get through to read the great stuff, but the best writing is some of the most intelligent I have read. Click on any of the links on the right side of the page. Then click on the blogs they link to and tell me that these writers are not serious about their passions and their craft.
The internet has democratized the voices we consider when thinking about movies. One would think that the internet is a medium that gets more people to embrace the act of reading involving and challenging pieces would make every critic embrace it. We have to move on from believing that writing about film is merely expressing an opinion. That is why I never refer to myself as a critic or even embrace the term "film criticism" that much. Just because someone has a paid gig spouting opinions about film does not mean they know a whole lot. I am sure some will counter than getting a degree in film studies or filmmaking qualifies certain critics to write about it, but I can tell you from first hand observation that when I went to NYU in the early '90's it was very possible for someone to get a degree in film or cinema studies and know very little about it.
You gain a knowledge about film by watching them, opening your mind to its possibilities and thinking critically about what is projected on the screen as well as outside of the movie theater. As Charlie (voiced by Martin Scorsese) says at the beginning of "Mean Streets", "You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." I do not seek writing about film that reaffirms my opinions, as much as pieces that make me think and especially demonstrate the ability of the writer to make their argument. It is about what you say, but just as important, how you say it. I also believe the writers who always show a willingness to learn and explore, as opposed to those who present themselves as all knowing bordering on dictatorial, are often more persuasive.
What may bother some about where film criticism is going is that the internet forces this to be a discussion via the comments sections. Some may use this aspect as an easy way to bash what film discourse on the web represents. I will be honest that I believe much of it is pretty deplorable. I am not going to sugarcoat this. Take a look at the discussion boards on Ain't It Cool News, CHUD, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB or whatever other sites like these and, 95% of the time, they are populated by illiterates with serious arrested development problems hiding behind fake names to say things they would normally be punched in the face for in real life. I would add that I believe the quality of writing on those sites or, in the case of Rotten Tomatoes, a site built on the idea of critical consensus, will attract human sludge. But there are plenty of intelligent, if sometimes heated, discussions to be had on movie blogs online and it is usually where the most thoughtful writing can be found. By now, we know how the AICN and Rotten Tomatoes-like idiots operate and we can just simply ignore them instead of letting them define what discourse can be. They are the Teabaggers of the online movie world and represent the unserious of our society. I believe in the First Amendment and think they have the right to say what they say. I also have the right to mock them openly, dismiss them as overgrown children and then completely ignore them. Meanwhile, the rest of us adults can talk in the next room and get something accomplished.
There are plenty out there who are passionate about the movies or any other aspect of our culture. We have the technology to make it easier not to just communicate easier with one another, but to share ideas. Although I reiterate that I understand that film critics are facing hard times (something that I nor probably anyone else can offer any solutions for here), what is important to me is that the discussion of movies continues to live and that the smart people out there work to have a better discourse whether we are talking about movies on the web or, you know, in a bar, on the phone, or a few people on a street corner.
So, yes, I think we need to kill film criticism as how we defined it, so that we can expand how and what we think about when we talk about the movies. If we have redefined what films are and how we watch or make them, then it is not asking much that the institution of film criticism and discussion evolve itself. And, with that, I have performed my voodoo ceremony for film criticism to rise from the dead and become something else, so that I hopefully will never have to bring up this subject again (except when you see how it ties into the final part of this series) and we can continue talking about the movies.
In terms of the quality of films, the years 2006 and 2007 were the pair of years I was most looking forward to writing about in this series. It represented a reawakening for some of our filmmakers, as well as some of the more searing commentaries on American culture in the decade, often with stories set during different periods in our history and using them to comment on the world we live in today.
(In Order of Release Date in US, if applicable)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (dir. Park Chan-Wook, scrs. Park & Seo-Gyeong Jeong) (released April 28, 2006)
Of course, I was going to include the final part of this brilliant trilogy in this series, as I did the others. I will say again that it was quite an achievement for Park to have three different takes on the same theme without ever once feeling any movie in the trilogy was a retread of the other. This film actually presents the central character, Geum-ja Lee (played by Yeong-ae Lee), as the most justified of all Park's protagonists, but does not withhold any examination of the morals behind her vengeance. Framed many years back for taking part in the murder of a child, Lee is released from prison and plots to kill the English teacher Mr. Baek (played by Min-Sik Choi) who forced her to take part in it. Not only that, she loses her daughter, who she gives birth to while incarcerated.
This set-up is not all that far removed from "Kill Bill", but what sets this film apart is that Park turns around our feelings about Lee's revenge. Her actions, particularly the gruesome final half-hour when she involves the parents of other children Mr. Baek killed in an elaborate ceremony of vengeance, also call attention to how disturbing this entire plot is. It feels as if Park wants to let us know that even in the circumstances where the deck is stacked in your favor morally, revenge is not something that will ever truly bring satisfaction.
This is the most sensual of Park Chan-Wook's trilogy, from its beautiful opening credits scored with baroque music to its final moments staged amidst lightly falling snow. Images from this film will stick with me for a long time.
United 93 (dir. & scr. Paul Greengrass) (released April 28, 2006)
Though it was often characterized as the first film about the events on September 11th, as one of the few who saw "Bloody Sunday" before this, I always felt both films were companion pieces to each other. Greengrass resists editorializing directly on events. (Though he does call attention to how those in the lower rungs like the air traffic supervisor assume leadership when those higher up seem to have gone missing.) What he does brilliantly and, I admit, with a certain level of discomfort, is recall the anxiety of the unknown that day. Usually, most films that recall a true-life past event tend to shape the material in a way that suggests the unexpected was inevitable.
This is a movie about different people trying to find out what is happening and, for those on the plane, trying to figure out what to do about it. Many of us have forgotten the confusion we all felt that day. The last half hour of the film is particularly unrelenting in its tension. It chooses not to present the actions of the passengers on the plane as some act of patriotic heroics, but more like a group of people relying on their survival instincts to make one seemingly futile attempt to overtake the terrorists and regain control of the plane. The final shot of the film when the ground is seen coming closer and closer in the cockpit window left me speechless when I walked out of the theater.
There have been complaints about Greengrass' directorial style, but there was never any moment in this film where I did not lose sense of the cinematic space or was confused by the quick-paced editing. I certainly understand why many approached the film with trepidation or avoided it altogether, but I believe it does more justice to the events of that day without reducing it to the pop culture reference, as it has been so many times since then.
The Proposition (dir. John Hillcoat, scr. Nick Cave) (released May 5, 2006)
This brutal Australian western was one of the more overlooked films of the decade. Scripted by musician Nick Cave, it has such an elegant structure and explores what may seem like cliched ideas about family and violence and turns them into intriguing moral quandaries. There is a no-bullshit feel to the entire film. Violence is often quick and ugly. Dialogue is spare. The widescreen imagery refuses to prettify the landscapes too much. The characters, at one point or another, reveal their most violent tendencies whether acting on their own or through others.
At its heart, it is about gang of criminals comprised of three brothers. Little information is delivered about their relationships with one another, but the gestures and body language reveal so much. Danny Huston's work as Arthur Burns is truly chilling, while Guy Pearce does so much with so little. John Hurt has two memorable scenes and makes the most of both of them. In addition to his fine screenplay, Nick Cave also delivers one of the more original scores for a western. The final scene is haunting, as you feel that sometimes the only ones who can stop dangerous people are those from their own family. I have a feeling that "The Proposition" may be one of those cult films that will gain in reputation as years go on before it is accepted as some kind of classic for its genre.
Letters from Iwo Jima (dir. Clint Eastwood, scr. Iris Yamashita) (released December 20, 2006)
I know that year-end Oscar-bait Clint Eastwood films have invited plenty of snarky comments, but "Iwo Jima" actually did fully deserve its praise. Though meant to complement Eastwood's other Iwo Jima film, the forgettable "Flags of Our Fathers", this one holds up on its own. I still find it fascinating that one of the most iconic American directors chose to tackle the Japanese side of the story. It helps alleviate some of the sentimentality that creeps into war movies when a director tells a story from his own side of the war. Eastwood's film treats the characters simply trying to do a job that most of them do not believe in.
There is also an intimacy to this story. The battle scenes are not turned into large-scale set pieces and nearly the entirety of the movie takes place with soldiers holed up in caves, occasionally making dangerous trips outside. From early on, you can read on the soldiers' faces that this will be a losing battle. One of the more memorable scenes involves several of the soldiers exploding themselves with grenades when they realize they lost a strategic area. More so than most other war films, it makes you question what it was all worth.
Not enough credit has been given to Ken Watanabe, who plays General Kuribayashi. I find it fascinating to see a character who does not believe in fighting the war, but still does so effectively out of loyalty to his country. Watanabe's final moments as he tries to die with some honor skirt with sentimentality but just narrowly avoid it. Whenever I watch this, I tend to forget Eastwood directed it, which makes me wonder why he keeps releasing year-end movies that constantly tout their own importance when "Iwo Jima" shows that his directing style can be quietly effective.
Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, scrs. Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby) (released December 26, 2006)
The first aspect anyone talks about "Children of Men" is the virtuoso filmmaking, which, without a doubt, blows me away with every viewing. A thinking person's action movie, large sections of the film are told by Cuaron's favored long takes, sometimes with the aid of nearly invisible CGI manipulation. What I believe is more of an achievement is that this is one of the more pure examples of what true visual storytelling is all about, something that has been missing from 21st century cinema. What Cuaron does so effectively is show the world that these characters live in and then force the audience to pay attention to the details in every shot. Movies today drive me crazy alternating between stretches of visual noise and clunky exposition. Every shot in Cuaron's film matters.
Beyond the filmmaking, I have to admit that its depiction of both the authoritative government and the self-defeating terrorist groups resorting to non-constructive tactics was one of the more spot-on takes on 21st century discourse. It is Clive Owen's Theo, who has become disillusioned and apolitical who emerges at the reluctant everyman hero of the film. He is the only person who seems remotely concerned about the pregnant girl's health and safety. One of the running visual cues in the film has every animal from kittens to a deer drawn to him as if he were the last reasonable man on the planet.
This is one of the more immediate futuristic films. It is not hard to imagine the world imploding as in the film, if say, we continued with the self-destructive and nihilistic mentality of the Bush years. Yet, it is a movie that is not just of its time, as I believe it takes only a few missteps to wind up at a place where we are locking refugees up in camps. Or, I guess, we can just go to Arizona right now to see this happen.
Pan's Labyrinth (dir. & scr. Guillermo del Toro) (released December 29, 2006)
"Labyrinth" is the spiritual successor to "The Devil's Backbone", but this was the film that let the imagination of Guillermo del Toro run completely free, which perfectly suits the subject matter. The story of a young girl, Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) living in fascist Spain years after the Spanish Civil War, it is about the true nature of rebellion whether it be through action or guided by the life of the mind. Del Toro suggests that the act of rebelling is inherent in children and should be encouraged throughout their lives, as opposed to adults, who seem either too beaten down by the circumstances to stand up for what they believe in or who turn into power-hungry bullies like Sergi Lopez's Captain Vidal.
Guillermo del Toro is an odd case as a director. When you feel that he is passionate about the material without being forced to cave in to Hollywood demands, there is rarely a director more visually assured and in control of his storytelling. Like Peter Jackson, del Toro has such an affinity for the creation of memorable creatures which he then treats with the same care as his human characters. Though his fables are about children, he chooses to tell stories about kids forced to grow up under trying circumstances. Like another movie I will talk about, it ends with one child sacrificing themselves for a younger child. Somehow, amongst all the cruelties of the world, a young girl maintains her morality and spirit, choosing not to let her fascist stepfather dictate her existence.
Black Friday (dir. & scr. Anurag Kashyap) (released February 9, 2007)
Every now and then, I want to bring some attention to a movie that I am sure few have heard much about. In fact, I believe the only reason I heard about was when Matt Zoller Seitz named it the best film of 2007. Since I cannot imagine this movie is that widely available (the Netflix DVD I watched it on looked a couple steps above bootleg quality), you can watch the entire movie on Hulu right here. This is about a 1993 bombing in Bombay and the investigation into finding all the conspirators. It turns into a procedural though told with a very alive sense of filmmaking, reminding me of Michael Mann's approach in his best films.
Then, about halfway through, the movie changes direction and reveals not only how the terrorists pulled off the bombing, but the motivations of its main architect, who had injustices carried out against his village. The movie is effective in showing the two perspectives to this event, while not shying away how both sides of this conflict result in violent attacks that leave many killed. It is one of the more fascinating films directly about the mindset of terrorism, as well as the fervor that results from trying to bring them to justice. It basically lays out a messy cross-section of motives and counter-motives, in which neither side is willing to give.
Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, scr. James Vanderbilt) (released March 2, 2007)
The viewing experience of "Zodiac" has been described as being inside a file cabinet, which probably best illustrates why I love the film so much. This film goes through every exhaustive detail in the investigation of the Zodiac killer, who terrorized San Francisco from the late '60's through the '70's. Like "Memories of Murder", the investigation is hamstrung by limitations of the technology. One of the most memorable sequences depicts Anthony Edwards doing a great deal of phone jockeying to coordinate sharing evidence with the police departments of other counties, all of it being sent by mail because no one has fax machines. There is also the lack of advanced forensic technology, as well as dealing with unreliable evidence.
The investigation leads to dead end after dead end, slowly destroying the spirits of the three central characters: a cop, a reporter and a cartoonist-turned-amateur sleuth (respectively played by Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal) as the mystery of the case leads to their own lives coming apart. There is one obvious suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, who all but gives the police every reason to suspect him. Yet, all the evidence against him is circumstantial, leading to even more frustration.
Wrongly labeled a serial killer movie, this is a movie about how obsession consumes those who want answers. What makes this an intentionally frustrating film is that the solution is never provided. Sometimes, those of us looking for the answers because we want to right the wrongs in the world will never get their satisfaction. We will become like Robert Graysmith sitting alone at home sifting through papers trying to make one connection that will solve the mystery and not realizing that he has driven everyone close to him away.
The Host (dir. Bong Joon-Ho, scrs. Bong, Chul-hyun Baek & Won-jun Ha) (released March 9, 2007)
Calling "The Host" a monster movie does not do it any justice. It also happens to be a dysfunctional family comedy/drama, an action movie, science fiction and a satire. Bong Joon-Ho is an expert at mixing film genres not only within the same movie, but sometimes within the same scene. The first monster attack outdoes most action sequences we see in current Hollywood films. Yet, this is not a special effects-driven film. He invests each of the characters with a great deal of heart even when they threaten to become caricatures. There is also a great deal of social commentary, directed at both the South Korean and U.S. governments for being responsible for creating the monster.
I remember watching this and "Pan's Labyrinth" within days of one another and found it odd that both have similar endings involving the fates of the little girls. "The Host" ultimately becomes about how the girl's family comes together to destroy the creature after the government has not only failed, but also seems to be causing more damage to its citizens. We learn that it is best not to rely on the government when it clearly does not have your best interests at heart. I wrote more about "The Host" in this article.
Once (dir & scr. John Carney) (released May 16, 2007)
This was one of the few low-to-no-budget independent films that actually struck a chord with me in the decade. Amidst all the complex visions on display in other films, this one made me appreciate the modest aims and heartfelt execution of a very simple story. A film told through songs and awkward, real-feeling conversations, it is the story of a broke Irish guitarist and a younger Czech woman who also happens to play the piano. Nearly every scene managed to conjure up emotions about the nervous first steps of a relationship, showing these two characters get closer and then push each other away just a bit.
What I greatly appreciated about the movie was how well the not-so-veiled emotions of the characters are expressed through the music they make together. Take that early scene when they visit a music shop and slowly warm up to each other while playing a song together. Yet, few words are exchanged. It is all in the music and their facial expressions. It is also important to note how the film does not discount the realities of the world in its ending. Sometimes, you may have feelings for someone, but you still cannot quite leave older relationships behind even if they are not the best choice you could have made.
Ratatouille (dir. & scr. Brad Bird) (released June 29, 2007)
This was the Pixar film that seemed to forget to aim itself at children. Brad Bird, who was actually a last-minute replacement as director, took the story of a rat who wants to be a cook and not only turns it into a movie about being an artist, but manages to argue for the importance of criticism. Set in Paris and featuring some of the most lovely imagery that Pixar has produced, Bird continues to further develop his themes from "The Incredibles" about the talented being allowed to thrive in a world of mediocrity. Remy, a sewer rat, gets separated from his rather uncouth family and friends and winds up at a restaurant eventually becoming the top cook by controlling the lowly dish washer like a puppet.
Obviously, there will be the complaints aimed at all Bird films that he is elitist or is promoting the idea that it is okay to look down upon anyone who is not gifted. It may be a lot about how one sees the world and whether they tend to think mediocrity does seem to rise to the top. I think a lot of this went over children's heads because they have yet to experience even a fraction of the disappointment adults have when they figure out how little merit matters in the world.
Bird leaves the final moments of the film to a speech by the food critic, Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole), who talks about the importance of discovering the new and original and how talent can come from any person. I do not think that is necessarily elitist, as much as hopeful that art will continue and last if you are willing to be open-minded to what your perception of an artist is.
Exiled (dir. Johnnie To, scrs. Kam-Yuen Szeto & Tin-Shing Yip) (released August 31, 2007)
Hong Kong director Johnnie To usually makes films at the rate of about two per year, a one-man factory of filmmaking, almost always elevating what would feel like stale genre material in most other hands. This film is a semi-sequel to To's "The Mission", though he has denied that despite both films being about a team of five hit men played by four of the five actors from the earlier film. Plus, the back story established at the beginning of "Exiled" happens to be the story of "The Mission". To's direction is always assured in its compositions and pacing, but this film has a surprising amount of heart and display of camaraderie that makes it more than what Joe Bob Briggs used to call "gun-fu".
Beginning with a drawn out build-up worthy of Sergio Leone that leads to a massive shootout inside a very small apartment, "Exiled" consistently makes odd left turns with the opening sequence resulting in no deaths, but all the participants having a genial dinner with each other. To moves from inspired set piece to another, while still allowing the small moments and interactions between the members of the team their time. It is a film with great action and humor, while also making the concept of a code of honor amongst criminals more believable than it usually is in this genre.
Into the Wild (dir. & scr. Sean Penn) (released September 21, 2007)
While I admired Penn's work as a director on both "The Indian Runner" and "The Pledge", he took a huge step forward in this film engaging our emotions and becoming a stronger visual director. It is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, who rid himself of all his belongings and hiked across the country before finally staying in the Alaskan wild where he was found dead months later. Much of the debate about the film has been about one views McCandless as a true free spirit or someone who was both reckless in his ways and unnecessarily inconsiderate of his worrying parents. While I believe McCandless was certainly way over his head with his ideas of living amongst nature, I cannot help but admire the urge to get rid of the belongings that trap us in a routine existence.
Emile Hirsch gives a terrific performance, having to carry the entire 2 1/2 hour film on his shoulders, while the rest of the cast in their bit parts make vivid impressions, particularly Hal Holbrook who does great work in the final half hour of the film. The cinematography does an effective job at depicting both the beauty of nature and the harshness of the wild. This was the first film that I detected a great deal of warmth from Penn as a director, as well as a great deal of affection for both McCandless and every other character whose lives he enters briefly. Despite showing the parents warts and all, he also allows them moments when they begin to realize that many of their actions may have pushed away their son.
Sometimes, I wonder if this film felt outdated to most, as it wears its idealism on its sleeve and believes that it is possible to break free from a life of conformity. Penn's film struck a chord with those of us who have gone increasingly exhausted with consumer culture, as much as we struggle a great deal with wanting to take part in it. Whether McCandless was a fool or not, he was, for a very brief period, free.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. & scr. Andrew Dominik) (released September 21, 2007)
Despite starring one of Hollywood's biggest stars in one of his best performances, this was one of the most bizarrely under-seen and barely released films with a relatively sizable budget. It was actually inspired casting to have Brad Pitt play Jesse James, as this film was surprisingly one of the few in the decade to deal with the obsession of celebrity culture. Robert Ford idolizes Jesse James, devouring all the stories told and written about him until he is given the chance to join his gang so that he can shadow all of his moves first hand. Casey Affleck gives a borderline-creepy performance that is also quite sad depicting a character who spends his entire life wanting what James had: fame and the ability to instill fear in others.
"Assassination" has some of the most beautiful cinematography by the always inventive Roger Deakins. Nearly every shot seems like a painting of an idealized memory, working against the message of the film which reminds us through Jesse James' crimes that this was not someone worth devoting a great deal of time admiring. Just because he had gotten away with so many robberies making him some sick version of a folk hero, it does not mean that we should forget that he was and would always be a psychopathic killer.
While the tone and pacing of the movie recalled Terrence Malick for some, outside of the hand in the weeds shot, I always considered "Assassination" to recall one specific film: "Barry Lyndon". In both, the central characters attempt to achieve a new status by basically destroying others' lives and then realize notoriety and social status is not all that it was cracked up to be. When he shoots Jesse James in the back of the head, Robert Ford becomes the 19th century version of a reality show contestant. He becomes famous for dubious reasons and is unable to accept all the derision directed at him because of that.
Michael Clayton (dir. & scr. Tony Gilroy) (released October 5, 2007)
"Clayton" was one of the rare times when a filmmaker succeeded in delivering an old-fashioned Hollywood drama, which almost makes it seem groundbreaking. George Clooney gives his best performance in the kind of role Harrison Ford should have been doing years ago. Plus, there is strong supporting work from both Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. It is a simple morality tale with Clooney playing a "lawyer" who spends all of his time doing the dirty work of a top firm and fixing messes created by clients or, in this instance, the main defense lawyer who grows a conscience in the middle of litigation over whether the chemicals in a weed-killer causes cancer.
Right from the beginning, Gilroy sets a sinister tone embracing the darkness of offices as if Gordon Willis had come out of retirement to shoot this film. Whenever any scene or moment threatens to be showy, the director shows he is more interested in the calculations each of the characters make. Each of them are smart, but show varying abilities in handling and solving problems. You can see the characters thinking at all moments, recognizing clearly whether they are panicking or are a few steps ahead of the game.
The ending of the film is a textbook example of how to make a genuine audience-pleasing finale. A simple confrontation between two people in a lobby, where Clayton resorts to his instincts as a dirty work lawyer finally in the service of something decent. I love how the film ends with a man sitting alone in a cab trying to come to terms with what happened and what he did, a slight smile creeping across his face when he realizes he was capable of having a soul.
No Country for Old Men (dirs. & scrs. Joel & Ethan Coen) (released November 9, 2007)
There has been a great deal of discussion about this film which I consider to be the Coens' masterwork. Adapted very faithfully from Cormac McCarthy's novel, the Coens add little touches that improve on what is already top notch source material. Every sequence is a study of great filmmaking from the opening sequence that depicts Anton Chigurh (played by an unexpectedly menacing Javier Bardem) killing a police officer, a chase at dawn with trucks and an unrelenting dog, a conversation at a remote gas station that nearly ends in death, and a shootout at a hotel that then continues onto the street. Despite all the mayhem I described, this is the quietest film the Coen Brothers have ever made, which makes these sequences all the more chilling.
Of course, objections have been raised at the turn the movie takes for the final half hour, which always puzzles me. Some people ask that movies be more original, but when this avoids the usual good vs. bad confrontation thriller finale, then some of those same people get upset. The final half hour is when the movie moves from being a great thriller to something that will stick with you for a long time. We ponder how right it is for anyone to steal money. We think about how the changing world corrupts the values of the past or even consider if the world has always been sinister from the beginning. We contemplate whether there is a greater hand guiding the actions of the story or whether the characters control their own fate by their moral judgments.
While the performances are uniformly great, I consider Tommy Lee Jones' work a bit under-appreciated. We realize at the very end of the movie that it was mostly about this character who remained mostly on the periphery of all the action, as he begins to admit that he is scared of the world around him and that age has made him more powerless to do anything about it. All he can do is think about his dreams where images of his father haunt him. Then, he wakes up.
The Mist (dir. & scr. Frank Darabont) (released November 21, 2007)
Some of us need to overcompensate for beloved films that have been mercilessly beat down by a good percentage of critics and audiences. You cannot quite prove that a movie like this was not given a fair shot without resorting to making assumptions about the integrity of others' opinions. Yet, I also cannot help but recall how Frank Darabont has been tarred with the sentimentality accusation for so long, though his best movies tend to feature long stretches of brutality before those points are reached. What also bothers me is that the '00's were notable for producing the most repulsive horror movies that were actually more about torture, while "The Mist" went unappreciated.
After watching "The Mist", I felt Darabont understood horror movies. The black & white version of the film (which I recommend as the best way to see it as it suits the low grade special effects, as well as the mood) could easily pass for something made in the 1950's. Like Bong Joon-Ho's "The Host", he also demonstrates that a movie about monsters does not literally have to be a movie about monsters. While a group of people are stuck inside of a supermarket trying to fend off creatures, the real evil that lurks is human nature, as embodied by the bible-toting Mrs. Carmody (played by Marcia Gay Harden in the role she was perfect for). In one of the most important movie quotes of the decade, Ollie the clerk (played by Toby Jones) states so succinctly, "As a species we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?" How many horror films can come up with something that insightful?
One cannot go without mentioning the ending which makes you feel like you were gut-punched. Sure, as any other Darabont film, it is quite manipulative but in a way that does not insult my intelligence. You are left stunned and watch the end credits roll while asking yourself repeatedly, "What is wrong with people in this world?" Actually, this same paragraph applies to our final film as well.
There Will Be Blood (dir. & scr. Paul Thomas Anderson) (released December 26, 2007)
It was the one-two-three punch of "Zodiac", "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" that made 2007 the shining year of the decade for me. Before "Blood", it was obvious that Paul Thomas Anderson was someone with an abundance of filmmaking talent, but also had a bit of trouble letting go of his influences. While "Punch-Drunk Love" was the first step away from that, "Blood" was the film that made me believe that Anderson made that giant leap that other directors of his generation seemed too afraid to make. Though this film was dedicated to the late great Robert Altman, he finally learned to emerge from the shadows of his favorite directors.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance as the now-iconic character Daniel Plainview, who embodies so many contradictory characteristics that I wonder what movie those who call him a "great villain" have seen. While Plainview is misanthropic and has great difficulty showing proper affection to his son during trying times, he is far from evil. In fact, compared to the huckster preacher Eli Sunday, Plainview is at least honest and has quite an effective bullshit detector. Unlike most others, I always interpreted his final scene with his son H.W. as his admittance that he failed as a father. He would rather his now grown son stay away so that he does not get infected with the same bilious personality as his adopted father.
If anyone wanted to make a case that Eli Sunday was a great villain, I would certainly second that notion. Wearing a George W. Bush-like smirk at times and having little to no shame in hiding behind religion to justify his greed and hypocrisy, he is a pretty despicable human being. I am quite surprised that the film was not protested against by religious groups, as it seemed to me one of the most damning statements against organized religion of recent times.
While Paul Thomas Anderson has always been assured in his direction from his very first film, he comes up with some great images here while also adopting a more classical approach. This was the first Anderson film where it did not seem as if he was showing off his abilities to pull off elaborate shots. It was also his willingness to take chances with the material that blew me away. Like some other films previously mentioned, there were many complaints directed at the last hour of the film. It was actually Ethan Coen's reaction to "Blood" that made me think he understood it better than others, when he proclaimed that it was hilarious. We end with a final confrontation between a lying preacher and an embittered alcoholic oil man, a true battle of the futile for the 21st century. Revenge is deservedly served to the false prophet, but it is still a petty victory for the capitalist. We're finished, indeed.
Not quite yet. There is one more part to this series. Movies have not quite been the same for me since the finale of "There Will Be Blood" unspooled. The years 2008 and 2009 bring us closer to the present, which also makes me contemplate the future. The final part of this series will have less movies to discuss, as I cannot help believe that we have been in a bit of a rut during this time. (And this year in movies has not gotten any better.) It makes me begin to consider how we all need to evolve, the audience, the filmmakers and the critics, to get us out of this creative slog that has happened concurrently with the world's economic meltdown. We need to think differently and we all know that generally scares the shit out of most people.
So, I leave you with a preview of our next part with this appropriate clip from an otherwise forgettable film...