29 December 2007

List #4: Questionable Praise

What’s perhaps more indicative of a person’s best of or worst of any given year is where they feel the general public has been mistaken. Certainly, frat boys and soccer moms galore will scoff at my pick of 300 for the worst film of the year (if you need proof, I believe Maxim magazine named it the best film of the year… that says it all). There are a number of critical bandwagons that always end up puzzling me, even if it doesn’t outright offend my sensibilities. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild was easily the most over-bloated junk of the year (hence it’s placement on my worst of the year list), but it was hardly the sole offender of a clusterfuck of a year where the only real agreement seems to have been that Cannes had a pretty phenomenal crop of films this year (No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to name a few). Here’s nine films (consider Into the Wild your tenth) that perplexed this reviewer as to their wild critical praise.

I’m Not There – dir. Todd Haynes – USA
I’ve been a long-time fan of Haynes ever since I got my hands on an edited VHS copy of his Poison. Haynes never really seemed to adhere to what most people would expect of him; after all, what would you have really expected him to follow Poison with anyways? There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll never top the brilliance of Safe, but even with his haughty ambition in I’m Not There, I think I wanted something more than I got. Haynes has always been a visual director, though I wouldn’t say his films are necessarily from the same spectrum. Yet… I’m Not There feels like his best attempt to throw everything and the fucking kitchen sink into something that’s, well, a mess (purposeful or not, it’s still annoyingly untidy). You have Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, , Don’t Look Back (naturally), and even Haynes’ own Velvet Goldmine. And what do you do with all that? I’m afraid I’m going to have to toss it back. I don’t usually like to spit upon others’ interpretations of films (unless, of course, you thought Into the Wild was painted with the stroke of God), but I think most of the praise for I’m Not There comes from looking really hard and trying to find something that’s really not there (no pun intended). Certainly, though, if you rummaged through someone’s messy house you’d likely find a stray twenty-dollar bill or maybe a great vinyl somewhere within the wreckage. I just don’t see why you’d want to find out.
The Savages – dir. Tamara Jenkins – USA
I always find the need to defend myself when I refer to something as “boring.” My definition of “boring” probably doesn’t mirror the general consensus; to go back to Haynes, I don’t think Safe is boring in the least (though I’m sure many would beg to differ). The Savages bored me to sobbing tears. It was the sort of boredom that would make most equate to watching paint dry. I’m serious. Laura Linney’s character, when discussing her as-of-yet-unwritten play, constantly begrudges her brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman), making sure he doesn’t think it’s terribly bourgeouis, and I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t Jenkins voice coming out on the screen, shaken and uncertain as to whether anyone could muster up an ounce of caring for what might as well have been a pipe slowly rusting. Yeah, sure, the film was smart, unsentimental (thank God), and well-acted, but none of that added up to something I’d want to sit through again.
Margot at the Wedding – dir. Noah Baumbach – USA
What bothers me most about Margot at the Wedding was what preceded Baumbach on his way to another bitter tale of intellectual malaise. The Squid and the Whale was just wonderful. Absolutely fantastic, and yet it was one of those movies a friend of mine described as a film everyone raved about for the two weeks it was in theatres only to forget about it shortly afterward. And, yeah, that’s probably true. So with Margot, Baumbach needed something that would stick, not something that felt like a day-old coffee pot version of something he’d already made. I’ll watch Jennifer Jason Leigh in fucking anything, so when even her presence fails to hit me in the right spots, my alarm signal goes off. Margot is stale, familiar, and, worst of all, wholly forgettable. Like she does in To Die For and The Others, Nicole Kidman always makes for a great cunt, all tightly-wound with Botox, tin-lipped and viper-tongued. Most of Margot’s detractors complained that no one in the film was likeable, but it was precisely the opposite case for me. No one in Margot at the Wedding was nearly as dislikable as I would deem necessary to hold interest further than the first explosion of words between its snake-y characters.
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone – dir. Tsai Ming-liang – Taiwan/Malaysia/China/France
I’ve never known anyone to casually like the work of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (or his compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien, for that matter), as their films seem geared toward the most avid of international film aficionados. There’s nothing in the realms of accessible to their agonizing long-shots of, usually, nothing, and that was just splendid… for a time. With I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai has continued this streak, painfully. What seemed like radiance and freshness in What Time Is It There? or Vive l’amour has grown tiresome. He doesn’t really break any new ground with his latest, and for once, I’ll stand by you, the MTV generation, and concur, “this shit is fucking tedious.”
Superbad – dir. Greg Motolla – USA
I’m one of those jerks that usually make for a bad person to ask about films. I’d decided, before seeing either, that I would hate Knocked Up and love Superbad for purely superficial reasons. Firstly, I laughed a grand total of once during Judd Apatow’s sketch comedy-cum-romantic yarn The 40-Year Old Virgin (and I saw that grueling two hour “unrated” version). I also don’t follow the notion that his beloved, cancelled TV series Freaks and Geeks was anything special. With Superbad, the crudeness seemed without Apatow’s signature schmaltz, without that thin message of acceptance that makes me run for the eject button on my DVD player. And it had that Michael Cera in it expanding his life past the criminally-axed Arrested Development where he proved to have the best comic timing of the whole bunch. Unfortunately, my expectations got the better of me, and I ended up sheepishly enjoying Knocked Up and just-about loathing Superbad. I don’t do zany, and I don’t do antics. And for every minute of awkward teenage dialogue about cocks and Orson Welles, there was another nine of zany antics. Superbad is a comedy of errors, and to throw a zing at ya, I made an “error” watching this crap. Yeah, see, that joke was about as funny as most of what I witnessed in Superbad.
This Is England – dir. Shane Meadows – UK
If I had one word of advice for filmmakers working today, I’d say, “lay off the cheap sentimental bullshit.” And I’d say it just like that. This Is England (what a stupid title) is director Meadows’ recounting of his youth during the early stages of the Thatcher regime, and, yet, hindsight for him is less 20/20, more a lousy sermon. I always want to go back to a quote from Bernardo Bertolucci where he criticized the youth of today for not rebelling against the forces that be like his generation did in the 60s (his own auto-fellatio can be seen in The Dreamers). Let’s face it, budding filmmakers, cinema hasn’t changed anything in this world in a long time. And it ain’t going to anytime soon. Therefore, you don’t need to be vomiting up lessons and messages to your potential audience (unless that lesson happens to be that lessons don’t do a damn thing… subversive, eh?). This Is England isn’t a complete waste and probably isn’t even one of the great offenders of 2007, but for garnering an impeccable 86/100 rating on Metacritic (a slightly better version of Rotten Tomatoes), I could have used my history lesson away from the pulpit.
Gone Baby Gone – dir. Ben Affleck – USA
I guess what confuses me most is whether critics actually liked this one or were just surprised that Ben Affleck happens to be a better director than he is an actor, because Gone Baby Gone isn’t phenomenal by any stretch. One of its main detractors, as I discussed in my review for it, was that Affleck chose to cast two primary cast members from the television show The Wire (Amy Ryan and Michael K. Williams), which may very well be the finest thing to grace television screens… ever. Affleck didn’t need the comparisons; in fact, I can hardly muster up any interest in any films crime-related any more after my eyes have officially been opened by the uncompromising brilliance of The Wire. Gone Baby Gone suffers from the Pumpkin syndrome: a film that ends with a bang, almost forgiving the missteps taken throughout the rest of its running time. Almost.
The Simpsons Movie – dir. David Silverman – USA
I haven’t watched anything from the latest seasons of The Simpsons, but general consensus is that, without most of their original writers, the show blows. Like Seinfeld though, when The Simpsons officially signs off the air, it will always be remembered for its high points instead of its low ones. Therefore, it won’t be remembered for The Simpsons Movie, an eighty-seven-minute expansion of what would have been a mediocre episode (despite the return of many of the series’ creators) in the first place. About a third of The Simpsons Movie is hysterical, but you’d really have to rack my brain to recall any of those moments (and I just saw it two weeks ago). Instead we’re left with a missed opportunity, the first (and supposedly last) foray of America’s favorite animated family onto the big screen.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – dir. Sidney Lumet – USA
In my review of Sidney Lumet’s latest, I said something along the lines of “if Lumet chose to retire now, he’d retire on the high note he’d failed to achieve in the past twenty years of his career.” What I said was true; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is probably better than all of the films he’s made since the 90s put together. However, you have to consider that adding Critical Care, Gloria and Find Me Guilty together would result in something slightly better than the last Jennifer Lopez movie. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is one of those films that’s just “fine.” It’s well-acted by PSH, Marisa Tomei, and even Ethan Hawke (I think Albert Finney is kinda hammy here), and I love the kaleidoscopic structure of Lumet’s modern tragedy. And, yet, I still can’t muster up any real excitement for the film. Maybe it’s my loss here, but its universal praise strikes me the same way Gone Baby Gone’s does. Here’s a film no one expected to be good, it ended up being pretty decent, and the praise flew in. See Match Point for another example of a once-great filmmaker who’d been stuck making mediocre films for years, only to come back with something comparatively better with accolades to follow.

27 December 2007

List #3: Best of 2007, Film

... that added confusion as to whether or not I should include films that had yet to receive official US distribution, such as Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy or Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. It also crossed films such as Old Joy and Wild Tigers I Have Known, which were officially released in 2006, only to come to Saint Louis this year. It’s not so much that I’m a stickler for these regulations, but it just adds to confusion once 2008 rolls around as possible best of’s like Ploy and Paranoid Park don’t make the cut (I’ve opted for waiting until next year for Van Sant’s, as it does have an official release date for March from IFC Films). Perhaps though, this is the point of an introduction, to give a roadmap to the reader as to why certain things made the cut and others did not (officially, my #1 of 2006 and 2005, Children of Men and Caché respectively, didn’t hit Saint Louis until after the new year, so the politics of a “Best of the Year” list for film are decidedly murky). Thus, I have compiled a 20 best, which includes those 2007 films without official releases and skips out on the 2006 ones that didn’t make it here until 2007. Notable films that I didn’t have the opportunity to catch before writing this include: 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Juno, Sweeney Todd, Syndromes and a Century, Quiet City, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Persepolis, No End in Sight, Manufactured Landscapes, Rescue Dawn, and Lars and the Real Girl. Here’s the official, revised list of the Best Films of 2007:

1. No Country for Old Men – dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - USA

The American press has caused such a hoopla over the Coen brothers’ latest film that it almost bares no importance for me to say anything further. I vacillated between listing this or my number two, Grindhouse, at the top, but I realized a simple coin toss wouldn’t cut it. I think I only wanted to list Grindhouse at number one just so that my list didn’t look like every other film critic out there, and that wouldn’t be fair. No Country for Old Men is, without question, the finest film I saw this year, impeccable on nearly every level of filmmaking and dramatically shattering in a way all its own.

2. Grindhouse – dir. Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright - USA

Pardon shall never be given to those Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez fans who skipped out on their double-feature. Actually, despite the film’s unfortunate box office receipt, I lean toward feeling sorry for those who missed out on the most rousing cinematic event you could ever ask for, and this is coming from someone’s who’s never liked a film by Rodriguez and could barely muster interest in anything Tarantino did after Pulp Fiction. I refuse to look at Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof as separate entities, because they damn well shouldn’t be. Most of the pleasure of Grindhouse is in their placement, in knowing that after you saw Rose McGowan kill a bunch of zombies with her machine-gun leg that you had a whole ‘nother treat in store with Kurt Russell plowing down hot chicks in his car. But it’s not so much knowing as it is experiencing. The final twenty minutes of Death Proof provide the most intense car chase scene in movie history, not just closing itself perfectly, but concluding more than three hours of trashy cinematic ecstasy. In fact, I don’t want to believe that two other films could compliment one another better than they do in Grindhouse. Grindhouse was a one-of-a-kind cinema blessing that could have never been reproduced on home video, even with the highest level consumer HD (and assuming that the films weren’t annoyingly released separately on DVD without Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Edgar Wright’s hilarious faux trailers). Curse yourself, please, because you really fucking missed out. Full review here.

3. Black Book [Zwartboek] – dir. Paul Verhoeven – Netherlands/Germany/Belgium

After Hollow Man, you too were probably thinking that there was no way Paul Verhoeven could return to your good graces. Hopefully, after Black Book, you couldn’t even remember that he made that awful movie. Black Book is stunning, from start to finish, and probably the most Verhoeven of all of his recent films. For in who else’s mind does a graphic depiction of pubic hair-dying and ripping the top off a woman only to douse her in feces constitute as historical realism? In his lead actress Carice van Houten, Verhoeven finds absolute radiance, depicting her as if she were the most beautiful woman to ever grace the screen, even when he’s dumping literal shit on her. Black Book is the sort of war film for those who found Schindler’s List a bit too morally refined and Lust, Caution a bit too, well, sedated in everything but its sexuality. And for a sleaze-bag who has loved Verhoeven since seeing Basic Instinct as an impressionable youth (including Showgirls, mind you!), you know which vision of wartime peril I prefer.
4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – dir. Andrew Dominik - USA

There’s an unofficial debate among those I know as to whether this or No Country for Old Men reigns superior. It’s not so much a conflict between the classic western versus the neo-western by any means; the argument is pretty straight-forward. The general consensus probably leans toward No Country (even I rank it higher), but that doesn’t diminish the fact that The Assassination of Jesse James is a spectacular motion picture. There are plenty of similarities between the two films as both bring their underlying melancholy to the foreground in their third acts and dispel the notion of legend (or the past, as is more the case in No Country). The Assassination of Jesse James finds the titular legend (Brad Pitt) in the final stages of his life, recruiting a crop of Missouri thieves (among them the astonishing Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, James’ assailant) for his last, unspectacular robberies. Andrew Dominik (Chopper) fashioned an intentional response to that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, opting instead for printing the sad fact of mistaken glory. In many ways, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the companion piece to No Country for Old Men, as both brilliantly feed off one another and, combined, leave a haunting spell greater than any other double feature you might pair together this year (Grindhouse was many things, but “haunting“ wasn’t one of them). Additional accolades should be given to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score, as Cave has finally found his cinematic home in the form of the western (after last year’s The Proposition).

5. Bug – dir. William Friedkin - USA

If Bug proved anything (other than the fact that Lionsgate’s marketing department sucks), it’s that the old standard of atmospheric, creepy horror films has officially been replaced by the slice-’em-up torture porn of the Saw and Hostel films. Yet for those who prefer paranoia to dismemberment, Bug was an utterly unnerving and bleak examination of a woman’s (a brilliant Ashley Judd) descent into complete obsessive terror with the help of a stranger in town (Michael Shannon). William Friedkin walks Bug along a dangerous line between sheer horror and over-the-top mayhem, and to those without patience (mainly the people who bought into Lionsgate’s misleading promotion), it didn’t work. For others like myself, Bug unsettled to the point of cringing and total personal disruption. I was literally shaken and stirred, and formed a return appreciation for Freidkin’s dying brand of terror.

6. Glue – dir. Alexis Dos Santos – Argentina/UK

It would befit the majority of film critics who don’t appear to have been hired by the studios to include, at the very least, one film you’d never in your life heard of on their yearly rundown of the best of the year. To some, it might be out of snobbery that they would do such; a lot of times, it probably is, but I can only defend myself. One would typically assume that someone who wrote about films did so because they loved cinema, and this, usually, would be the case for me. Glue was an accidental Netflix rental, one I hadn’t remembered adding to my queue until it arrived in my mailbox. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with it, as it almost perfectly recalled some of my favorite films of the past decade (Morvern Callar, Come Undone, George Washington). Yet merely reminding me of those films isn’t enough, and thankfully Glue exceeded mere association. Taking place in a rural town in Argentina, Glue depicts the teenage longings of two people, one a glue-sniffing waif of a boy with awesome hair, the other a pretty girl with shy tendencies and dorky glasses. First-time director Alexis Dos Santos paints Glue in kaleidoscopic reverie and perfectly captures the awkwardness of youth in all its miscommunication and pent-up sexuality. Though it got much less attention on the international circuit, I can only hope for great things from Dos Santos, who’s just as impressive a filmmaker as his co-patriot Lucrecia Martel, who received many accolades for 2004’s The Holy Girl.

7. Ploy – dir. Pen-ek Ratanaruang – Thailand

Though it greatly depends on who you ask as to where it falls, Ploy marks a high point in Thai director Ratanaruang’s filmography. It’s high-hurdles better than 6ixtynin9 and Monrak Transistor, and a stylistic commonality with Last Life in the Universe… yet Ploy is such an exceptionally haunting film that I would dare to call it his best (I actually have yet to see his Invisible Waves for the record). Ploy is a dreamy and alternately nightmare-y tale of a married couple, stuck in a Bangkok hotel with a strange, lonely girl. Deceptions and jealousies arise beneath the eerily calm and gorgeous cinematography. If it ever comes stateside (by either Tartan or Palm, I would guess), see for yourself Ratanaruang’s growth as a filmmaker, from once Tarantino-wannabe to Wong Kar-wai heir apparent (after My Blueberry Nights, it appears as if we desperately need one).

8. Red Road – dir. Andrea Arnold - UK

Red Road is a tale of forgiveness, and when you eventually discover that’s what the film’s all about, a true appreciation of it must come from your own amnesty. Conceptually, Red Road is the first entry of Lars Von Trier’s “Advance Party,” in which a trilogy of films will explore, differently, the stories of three prewritten characters played by the same actors (the other two films have yet to be completed). In Red Road, Andrea Arnold, an Oscar winner for her short film Wasp, makes her feature debut with the assuredness of someone whose been in the business for decades. Arnold layers her film with as much palpable suspense and tension that you saw in No Country for Old Men, yet with an air of evocative mystery, as it takes two-thirds of the film for its ultimate “purpose” to be revealed. Its revelation is disappointing, perhaps only in contrast to the sheer rapture of what proceeded it. Your feelings toward Red Road will inevitably come rushing out in its third act, for better or worse, but for my money, I can’t think of another film that captivated me as fully as Arnold did here, and first time actress Kate Dickie, as the central CCTV operator, is astounding. Full review here.

9. There Will Be Blood – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson - USA

My experience with There Will Be Blood was a murky one. I got word that there was going to be a screening directly in the middle of feeding my obsession with the third season of the television show Lost. Naturally, I hadn’t slept much the night before (every damn episode of Lost ends with a cliff hanger!) and wasn’t thrilled to see There Will Be Blood, an adaptation of Upton Sinclar’s Oil!, in the first place. Though I liked Punch-Drunk Love, my feelings for Magnolia and Boogie Nights were tepid at best. As uncompromising as his previous three films were, Paul Thomas Anderson churned out the most ambitious film of his career, a claim I doubt even fans of Boogie Nights or Magnolia will disagree with. There Will Be Blood is such a curious and peculiar film that it’s hard to even recognize Anderson as the author. Though it’s certainly long, Anderson appears to have set aside his pretentious quirks for something altogether fascinating. Daniel Day Lewis is breathtaking here, solidifying his place as the most consistently exceptional actor working today. Equipped with a brilliant score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood successfully managed to take my mind off the mysteries of Lost island and became much, much more than just a fleeting distraction.

10. Once – dir. John Carney – Ireland/UK

I’ve had living nightmares that sounded similar to an outline of Once. As a vast admirer of the golden era of the Hollywood musical, the notion of a stripped bare, un-glorious entry into the genre (with no dancing even) sends chills down my back. I’d also like to see anyone in their twenties not raise their hand when asked whether or not they knew someone who’d pick up an acoustic guitar at the most inopportune time and start to play their sub-Dylan, sub-Young, sub-Ani Difranco singer-songwriter bullshit for an unsuspecting audience. As someone who’s not a musician, the very thought of watching “band practice” makes me want to gnaw at my wrists. Yet… for some reason, Once is just fucking lovely. Its musical scenes (though lacking sequined outfits) resonate with the intensity of watching the musicians perform live. Aside from being added to the list of celebrities who resemble yours truly (a nice change of pace from the usual Anthony Rapp conclusion), Glen Hansard sparks such joyful chemistry with Markéta Irglová that you can’t help but slide your own romantic cynicism aside. Thankfully, the answers in Once aren’t as easy as they might appear, adding its own supposition to the notion “the couple that harmonizes together…”

11. Private Property [Nue propriété] – dir. Joachim Lafosse – Belgium/Luxembourg/France

If you feel the need to make a list of the ten best actresses that have ever appeared on the screen, your list would be incomplete without Isabelle Huppert. Madame Huppert solidified her placement in 2001 with her devastating portrayal of frigidness in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. In the years following, fear set in that The Piano Teacher might be her last earth-shattering performance, but with Private Property, all hope has been restored. As in all her best films, Huppert provides the anchor to a film that probably wouldn’t work otherwise. In Private Property, she plays the mother of adult twins (Jérémie Renier, Yannick Renier, real life brothers, but not twins) who’s ready to cut the chord and live her own life. In the films that followed The Piano Teacher, Huppert often played a parody of her expected role (most effectively in 8 Women, where her Augustine seems taken from the exact same character sketch), but in Private Property, she’s radiant and, believe it or not, equipped with a sense of humor. In many ways, Private Property should have been just a showcase piece for her talent, but director Joachim Lafosse constructs a fascinating piece of familial tragedy, both dramatically alluring and void of incessant melodrama. As a great companion to this, have yourself a double feature of the 2007 thespian delights of Isabelle Huppert, with Claude Chabrol’s Comedy of Power as your follow-up. If you can’t defend her residency on the list of the world’s greatest actress after those, you’re a lost cause. Full review here.

12. Great World of Sound – dir. Craig Zobel – USA

As Mutual Appreciation was my needed reminder last year, first-time director Craig Zobel made his Great World of Sound this year’s sole reminder of the vitality and imagination of the American independent scene. Co-produced by David Gordon Green, Great World of Sound is evocative and moody, all while never condescending its subjects (even when some of them may have needed to be). Both leads, Pat Healy and Kene Holliday, are remarkable.

13. Eastern Promises – dir. David Cronenberg – UK/Canada

For doing exactly what it needed to, Eastern Promises probably should have been my number one for the year. It’s an amazingly effective crime yarn, consistent and stirring. In his second pairing with director Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen is phenomenal, a delicate performance culminating in that breathtaking naked bathhouse brawl.

14. Zodiac – dir. David Fincher – USA

Or, All the Zodiac Killer’s Men. Zodiac was riveting in ways I never expected, particularly coming from a director who’d lost any notion of subtlety after his first big film.

15. Flanders [Flandres] – dir. Bruno Dumont – France

Flanders was a perfect example of reading between the lines. Its story and, in fact, its power lied somewhere outside of the frame, which probably explains why nearly every critic hated it when it was briefly released earlier this year. Dumont doesn’t stray too far from his roots of shock value, but there’s something a bit more human at work in Flanders than is usually expected of him. Full review here.

16. Golden Door [Nuovomundo] – dir. Emanuele Crialese – Italy/Germany/France

The stellar work from the cinematographers of There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and No Country for Old Men overshadowed Agnès Godard’s astounding work on Golden Door, a wonderful fable of freedom and hope through the eyes of a Sicilian family who meets a mysterious English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on their boat ride to the New World.

17. The Orphanage [El orfanato] – dir. Juan Antonio Bayona – Spain/Mexico

Rarely has a horror film been this playful. When searching for her missing son, Laura (Belén Rueda) discovers a world of dead children ghosts in the former orphanage she now calls home. Like Pan’s Labyrinth (director Guillermo del Toro co-produced this), there’s still a level of desperation and cruelty to what’s going on, but it never hinders the lively joy of The Orphanage’s jolty horror.

18. Starting Out in the Evening – dir. Andrew Wagner – USA

Starting Out in the Evening is the sort of film that should have been made in the 90s. It’s a chamber drama/character study of three individuals (Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor) that’s hugely reliant on its dialogue and plot devices (the film is actually based on a late-90s novel by Brian Morton, so this all makes sense). Yet Starting Out in the Evening, the film, breathes new air into this nameless genre of chatty character studies, aided by three exceptional performances, updating its story to something more relevant, more intelligent than it may have been had its incarnation came ten years ago.

19. The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down – dir. Paul Sapiano – USA

Never has a high concept worked so well beyond my own expectations. In The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down, a spoof of educational dating films, the potential “short film” material manifests itself oh-so-brilliantly in its assessment of twentysomething night life. It’s hilarious and absolutely spot-on (you know you’ve found the house party when you see a drunk girl crying on her cell phone on the staircase). I have much anticipation for the film’s upcoming sequel, The Boys and Girls Guide to Being Gay.

20. Joshua – dir. George Ratliff – USA

As one of the most misunderstood films of the year, Joshua was a wholly contemporary horror film tackling the difficult issue of modern parenting. Though marred slightly by expected demon-child clichés, Joshua was unnerving, haunting, and with a wonderfully peculiar ending to match that of Rosemary’s Baby. Full review here.

Special Mention:
Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl falls into a weird limbo category for year. Technically, it was released two days before January 1, 2007, but no one saw it. I suppose it made a small run for Oscar consideration, but like I said, no one saw it. And that's a shame. With an impressive ensemble cast which includes Piper Laurie, Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Giovanni Ribisi, and Kerry Washington, The Dead Girl is exceptionally good, with a surprisngly devestating performance from Brittany Murphy as the titular "dead girl."

Honorable Mentions:
Sicko - dir. Michael Moore - USA
Away from Her - dir. Sarah Polley - Canada
The Boss of It All - dir. Lars Von Trier - Denmark/Iceland/Sweden/Norway/Finland/France
The Cats of Mirikitani - dir. Linda Hattendorf - USA
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - dir. Seth Gordon - USA
Stephanie Daley - dir. Hilary Brougher - USA
Comedy of Power [L'ivresse de pouvoir] - dir. Claude Chabrol - France
Waitress - dir. Adrienne Shelly - USA
The Exterminating Angels [Les anges exterminateurs] - dir. Jean-Claude Brisseau - France
Fay Grim - dir. Hal Hartley - USA/Germany and Broken English - dir. Zoe Cassaevetes - USA/France/Japan [both for Parker Posey's exceptional work]
Zoo - dir. Robinson Devor - USA

More readings:
Best of 2006 [Not revised, by the way]

24 December 2007

List #2: The Horse-shit of 2007

Airbrushed abs, the Ten Commandments, Lindsay Lohan, and a sassy, five-hundred-pound bitch named Rasputia irreverently populate my list for the year’s biggest hams to invade your local cinemas. In some ways, this list is meant to be cautionary, steering you clear of a miserable evening if you happen to pick one of these turds up at the video store. In other ways, it’s combative, in a small attempt at dispelling whatever good things your doofus brother might have said about a few of these (trust me, I know he liked more than a few on this list). I had reservations about the inclusion of a few of these, as I’ve personally provided my own commentary on Snow Cake, which is an example of a film whose awfulness must be seen to be believed. I could go on for hours about how stomach-churning a scene where Sigourney Weaver makes Alan Rickman play a game of made-up-word Scrabbel or how Rickman was probably made fun of for running like a little girl when he was a child… but my words can only do so much. So, in a way, I’m also recommending some of these crap-fests (I laughed a lot more during Snow Cake than I did Hot Fuzz, if you were wondering). Though I didn’t get a chance to see Daddy Day Camp, Captivity, Bratz: The Movie, Delta Farce, Perfect Stranger, Wild Hogs, or Good Luck Chuck, rest assured that these films could hold their candle to those films you already knew were going to blow. I’d also like to extend a few dishonorable mentions to The Namesake, The Brave One, and The Bubble for totally sucking though not hard enough to make the cut. Good luck next year, Jodie Foster! Additional commentary: I'm having second thoughts as to the inclusion of I Know Who Killed Me after reading someone describing the film as a splatterpunk remake of The Double Life of Veronique. Ha! And, even if you disagree with my placement of The Ten, just think I had to include the awful Jessica Alba on the list somewhere, and as I didn't see Fantastic Four, Awake, or Good Luck Chuck, this was my only option. And without further adieu, the worst films of 2007:

1. 300 (Zack Snyder, Warner Bros., R)

It takes a special kind of awful to sit atop someone’s list of “worst of the year” list nine months after its initial release. I spent those nine months incubating my hatred, allowing for passivity to hatch out of me some months later. Such wasn’t the case. Much more than just proving that the success of director Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake had everything to do with James Gunn’s clever screenplay, 300 lowered Hollywood to a new level of stupid. I’ve heard it described as many things (gay porn for soccer moms, a fanboy wet dream, shallow propagation for xenophobia), but all of it just adds up to a glossy pile of manure. For having endless possibilities in filming on a green screen, 300 is remarkably flaccid visually, and haven’t we had countless examples already of why Matrix-style action sequences should have never been imitated outside of that film (including the originator’s two sequels)? Dramatically, 300 is just as uninteresting, as the film’s progression hits dead end when you realize that the “heroes” never actually advance any closer to Persia the higher the body count rises. Plus, how am I supposed to root for the Spartans when Synder makes Persia look so appealing in its video-game interpretation of Caligula? That’s not even to mention that their leader looks as if he were the ancestor of Grace Jones. I could probably provide a DVD commentary for everything that’s wrong with 300 if I could even muster to look at another frame of it again. Ultimately, with that commentary, I’d like to prove that the sum of all of 300’s shittiness greatly exceeds its putrid whole, but no matter how you look at it, 300 was 2007’s biggest piece of garbage. Full review here.

2. The Ten (David Wain, ThinkFilm, R)

The Ten probably isn’t the worst film you’ve ever seen, or even the worst you saw all year, yet it’s astonishing only in how a collection of so many talented people could pull off such a laughless dud. It’s also a pretty bad sign if Winona Ryder is the best thing about your movie.

3. Snow Cake (Marc Evans, IFC Films, NR)

Mystery Science Theater 3000, meet Snow Cake. Well-meaning dramedies about the handicapped come around nearly every year, but seldom do they come in such an unintentionally hilarious package as Snow Cake, which is surprisingly more embarrassing for Alan Rickman whose crusty hauteur “melts” after informing the autistic mother that her hitchhiking daughter died in his car during an accident than Sigourney Weaver who plays the token handicapped in her most over-the-top manner. Snow Cake should be further reprimanded for using several songs off Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People, almost forcing me to never want to hear the otherwise-incredible “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” again.

4. Norbit (Brian Robbins, DreamWorks, PG-13)

On a dare, I sat through Norbit. Out of my own self-loathing, I sat through the whole fucking thing. It was probably the most offensive experience I had all year, and not because the fat jokes and farting spoiled my prudent sensibilities, but that a bunch of white studio execs decided that this could pass as funny. To anyone. On top of not being remotely funny, it’s also a transparent romance, the kind that makes a Meg Ryan film look nuanced by comparison.

5. O Jerusalem (Eli Chouraqui, Samuel Goldwyn Films, R)

Well-meaning historical dramas about tolerance in the face of conflict come around every year too, but few can be as exasperatingly miserable as O Jerusalem. The suffocation of genre cliché always tend to annoy me more when the director has otherwise good intentions. Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog was riddled with a polished familiarity, but it didn’t come close to provoking the agitation this reviewer felt while enduring the formation of Israel through the eyes of two best friends on different sides of the battle. It would be too easy to condemn O Jerusalem for its lousy production values, clumsy acting, or the fact that everyone in the film spoke English (and this was a French production, to boot!). Instead, O Jerusalem crumbles in its hokey melodrama and clueless understanding of human relations. Full review here.

6. The Page Turner [La tourneuse de pages] (Denis Dercourt, Tartan Films, NR)

There’s no way that The Page Turner was meant to be taken seriously. No possible way. It had to be a joke from the French to the USA, I thought. The Page Turner is the finest example of taking every single cliché of your nation’s cinema and placing it on full display for the world. I couldn’t tell if director Denis Dercourt loved or really, really hated Claude Chabrol, as The Page Turner could be seen as either the most faithful love-letter to the renowned filmmaker or the harshest condemnation of an artist I may have ever seen. I leaned toward the former as a film this horrid couldn’t possibly harbor subversive elements of any sort.

7. Boy Culture (Q. Allan Brocka, TLA Releasing, NR)

I had hoped that films with a snarky, self-referential narration would have died in the 90s, but with Boy Culture, director Q. Allan Brocka gives the notion a breath of rank regurgitation in his tale of a hooker with a heart of… something that resembles gold. Who would have thought that a hard-exterior male prostitute, who goes by the name X, could begin to crack when a lonely wealthy man offers him wisdom instead of money and sex? Boy Culture congratulates itself in its acknowledgement of the old, expected stereotypes of queer cinema, only to fall into the trappings of new ones. I think I preferred when my cinematic homosexuals were still doom-and-gloom.

8. I Know Who Killed Me (Chris Sivertson, Tri-Star, R)

I Know Who Killed Me was made three years too early. It really should have existed as another reminder of its fallen star (Lindsay Lohan), instead of being the reason she fell. It’s almost more disturbing seeing the faded promise of a child star than the gruesome dismemberments that take place in the film. Full review here.

9. Black Snake Moan (Craig Brewer, Paramount, R)

Black Snake Moan promised me a sizzler of a good time and didn’t even come close to giving it to me. To set the scene, I woke up on a Friday morning, painfully early, not realizing, “shit, I have absolutely nothing to do today.” Instead of letting ennui set in, I opted to go to an early bird show of whatever opened that week, and, lo and behold, I saw Black Snake Moan. Perhaps due to my lofty expectations of a saucy, exploitive Hollywood picture, I found myself even more bored than I would have been wasting my afternoon browsing YouTube videos. Black Snake Moan was earnest, “meaningful,” and good-natured. Fuck all that noise! My friends tell me that the film really wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be, but here it stands, at number nine, if only for memorably ruining my morning.

10. Into the Wild (Sean Penn, Paramount Vantage/Miramax, PG-13)

Yeah, so, this isn’t a very popular choice, I know, but as I didn’t see Epic Movie, it left room for Into the Wild. The film isn’t so much bad as it is musty; Sean Penn’s ambition has all the staleness of unwarranted self-importance… and it’s nearly two-and-a-half hours of it. There’s an awkward moment midway through the film where Emile Hirsch breaks the fourth wall and smiles directly at the camera. Sorry, but Godard nor Wayne’s World this is, Sean Penn, and I just can’t help wondering if that was his cue to make sure you hadn’t already fallen asleep. If it weren’t for that morning’s pot of coffee, he probably would have found me guilty. Full review here.

22 December 2007

List #1 for 2007

Here's my first list of the year. There'll be at least two more (best, worst) and maybe another (performances), but here are your best new-to-region-1-DVDs of 2007, in alphabetical order. I didn't have the time or patience to annotate the list, so please forgive (I've been catching up on The Wire, which is better than fucking sliced-bread. (Naturally, the Twin Peaks Gold Box would have made the cut, but I disqualified it as everything but the pilot was already available)

Army of Shadows [L'armée des ombres] - dir. Jean-Pierre Melville - Criterion. With Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret. France/Italy. 1969.

Berlin Alexanderplatz - dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Criterion. With Günter Lamprect, Karlheinz Braun, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira, Barbara Sukowa. West Germany. 1980.

The Films of Kenneth Anger: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 - dir. Kenneth Anger - Fantoma. Sets includes Fireworks, Puce Moment, Rabbit's Moon, Eaux d'artifice, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, Invocation of My Demon Brother, and Lucifer Rising. With Anger, Marianne Faithfull, Anais Nin. 1947-1972. USA.

Mala Noche - dir. Gus Van Sant - Criterion. With Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate. 1985. USA.

The Milky Way [La voie lactée] - dir. Luis Buñuel - Criterion. With Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Michel Piccoli, Pierre Clémenti, Delphine Seyrig. 1969. France/West Germany/Italy.

Muriel [Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour] - dir. Alain Resnais - Koch Lorber. With Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kérien, Nita Klein, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée. 1963. France/Italy.

Performance - dir. Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg - Warner. With Mick Jagger, James Fox, Anita Pallenberg. 1970. UK.

Sombre - dir. Philippe Grandrieux - Koch Lorber. With Marc Barbé, Elina Löwensohn. 1998. France.

Sweet Movie / WR: Mysteries of the Organism - dir. Dusan Makavejev - Criterion. With Carole Laure, Pierre Clémenti, Anna Prucnal / With Milena Dravic, Ivica Vidovic, Jackie Curtis. 1974/1971. France/Canada/West Germany / Yugoslavia/West Germany.

Viva Pedro: The Pedro Almodóvar Collection - dir. Pedro Almodóvar - Sony Pictures. Set includes: Bad Education, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, The Flower of My Secret, Live Flesh, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as well as new-to-DVD titles Law of Desire and Matador. With Carmen Maura, Penélope Cruz, Marisa Paredes, Antonio Banderas, Cecilia Roth, Javier Bardem, Assumpta Serna, Darío Grandinetti, Rossy de Palma, Rosa Maria Sardà, Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Javier Cámara, Gerladine Chaplin, Paz Vega, Leonor Watling, Chus Lampreave, Eusebio Poncela, Francesca Neri, Liberto Rabal. 1986-2004. Spain.