Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ocular Optometrical - Vol. 1: Top 10 Movies Of 2007

The movies I saw that I think qualify as 2007 movies:
28 Weeks Later / 30 Days Of Night / 300 / 1408 / American Gangster / Angel-A / The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford / Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters / Black Book / Black Sheep / Blood And Chocolate / Blood Car / Bourne Ultimatum / The Bridge / Bug / Cashback / Children Of Men / The Darjeeling Limited / Daywatch / Death Proof / Eagle Vs Shark / Eastern Promises / Fido / Flight Of The Living Dead / The Good Shepherd / Gone Baby Gone / Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix / Hellboy: Blood & Iron / Hostel: Part 2 / Hot Fuzz / I Am Legend / King Of Kong / The Kite Runner / Knocked Up / Live Free Or Die Hard / The Lives Of Others / Michael Clayton / The Mist / No Country For Old Men / Oceans 13 / Once / Pan's Labyrinth / Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End / Ratatouille / The Reaping / Rescue Dawn / Resident Evil: Extinction / Rise: Blood Hunter / Rocket Science / Sicko / The Simpsons Movie / Spiderman 3 / Sunshine / Superbad / Talk To Me / There Will Be Blood / This Is England / Transformers / Wasted Orient / Wristcutters / Zodiac

I included There Will Be Blood, even though Pittsburgh didn't get a chance to see it until well into January because it, like Pan's Labyrinth this year, will look stupid on a 2008 list. I understand there are economists that have crunched the numbers and have somehow determined that Evan Almighty 2 gets rolled out to every multiplex in the world but a highly anticipated movie by a proven director gets limited release for months. I understand that Wild Hogs made more money than No Country For Old Men. It doesn't sting any less.

The worst list AKA someone owes me an apology:
- Michael Clayton
I like George Clooney's unshakeable Armani-suit-wearing character (see every movie Clooney has ever made) as much as the next guy but this movie was ALL style and zero substance, and the style wasn't even that remarkable outside of a Michael Mann movie. Apparently the story was based on true events but while translating it all to the screen, director/screenwriter Tony Gilroy whitewashed any traces of real malfeasance, inventing a terribly generic conglomerate to inflect some sort of environmental crime on a helpless and nameless community. I get that the focus is on the grey moral space that the titular character operates in, and that the company & crime aren't the focus, but stripping the movie of any context you end up with "some people, somewhere, are doing terrible somethings to somebody and they're willing to kill to cover it up". On top of that, if you have watched any Hollywood-agenda film in the last 20 years, you've seen these stereotypes played out before in cartoons and episodes of Blossom. The final straw is the film's dependence on out-of-sequence scene shuffling to give the movie any sense of tension.

- Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters
I really like the TV show's absurdist humor, but even it's 10+ minute running time can sometimes feel like an hour when the humor gets too juvenile or 'baked.' So the full length movie felt interminable and like some sort of psychological test where you either win for enduring the entire thing or for being smart enough to walk away at the earliest opportunity. If this movie was even passably watchable i'd have loved it simply for the excellent Frazetta-esque poster & the guerilla marketing campaign that got Comedy Central hit with terrorism charges.

- Resident Evil: Extinction
The 1st Resident Evil movie is a really fun action/horror flick with some great boobytrapped haunted house moments and good modern zombie, and it stars Milla Jovovich who i love because she's painfully attractive and she uses that as a pass to have a lot of dorky fun like starring in sci-fi movies and fronting a band. The 2nd installment had an obvious falloff in the quality of the script, with pivotol fight scenes happening simply because the film grinds to a halt and characters are pitted against eachother like a boss-stage from the video game. On the 3rd film, I was still holding out hope for a fun action film with Mila kicking some zombie ass, but instead it's a joyless checklist of post-apocalyptic set pieces, monsters from the game, and characters being Hollywood badasses by delivering their lines with the most dead-eyed monotone they can muster. Still, pit Milla against zombies, and i'll be there again in a heartbeat.

- Rise: Blood Hunter
I feel a little bad putting this on the list because it had no right being good in the first place, and I was kind of taking an outside bet that it could be the sort of fun diversion I was desperate for at the time. I'd just watched the entire run of The Shield and so Rise co-star Michael Chiklis had earned himself a little bit of cache with me as well. All I can say about this mess of a movie is that it must have been a hell of a poker game that put all of this Hollywood talent on the hook for this crap. It's the sort of wrongheaded remedial gorefest that Cristufuh from the Sopranos might coax an unwilling pool of talent into, complete with an abundance of topless Lucy Liu. As best as I can remember, there are a bunch of leather trenchcoat wearing euro-vampires, Lucy Liu is a halfbreed (or something) hunting them down with fancy crossbows, and Chiklis is a cop. There's probably a prophecy in there somewhere too. Yeah, it's that movie again.

- Transformers
I grew up with the Transformers. I was from that generation of kids buffeted from all sides with the toys, cartoons, comics, and puffy stickers. Still, I'd grown out of them a few years before the 1986 animated movie hit theaters, and i wasn't at all miffed that Michael Bay & crew had to change up some of the characters & designs to fit a live-action flick. In fact, I can't fault the effects in Transformers at all. They are spectacular. I thought Shia LaBeouf did an admirable job carrying the film too with a nice combination of innocent and rogueish charm. Once again, the fault lies with the bloated summer-blockbuster script that introduces entirely too many characters and pointless subplots in a misguided attempt to make the film feel epic. If, for every minute the worthless "hackers" were on-screen, the writers had made a halfhearted attempt to figure out the logic of the film's major contrivances and conclusion, we might have had a lasting action classic. Instead we have American Godzilla 2: Mecha Godawful (zing!).

The Best:
10. - Ratatouille
The art design in Ratatouille is jaw-droppingly brilliant. The color design, the lighting, the texturing all works towards a common aesthetic which is then scurried through with astonishing squash & stretch animation. Once again, the technical aspects of a Pixar film are pushing the boundaries of the medium in full support of the finished story. Ratatouille is a tightly structured film too with imaginative twists unfolding naturally in service to very strong themes about the role of work in a fulfilling life. Unfortunately there's something about the story that lacks charisma. I never felt truly invested in whether the rat makes the bougie food or not. I like food, but I'm as happy with a good cheese pizza as I am with an 8 course dinner, so the threat of a bad food critic review didn't feel terribly dire.

9. - The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Casey Affleck's performance as Bob Ford secured this movie it's place. He is fantastic in the role, delivering a performance heavy with mannerisms but never chewing the scenery. He feels genuinely uncomfortable in his own skin and his actions feel properly motivated from beginning to end. In fact, it's my favorite performance of the year. Everyone else in the film did a serviceable job. Sam Rockwell does the Sam Rockwell thing, which I was impressed by in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and enjoyed enough here. Similarly, Brad Pitt wears a crooked grin and talks quietly in every scene, as though the producers & director equated Pitt's charm with that of Jesse James and called it a day, only half fleshing out what made the legendary gunslinger worthy of the history books. Helping to hold the film together is beautiful cinematography that doesn't simply rely on expansive landscapes, but really fills the frame with frozen plains and close quarter gunfights alike.

8. - Sunshine
After Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later & Millions, Danny Boyle had proven himself to me enough that I wanted to see Sunshine knowing absolutely nothing about the plot. I managed to make it to the theater knowing only that it was a sci-fi film and I was excited. I think there is a pretty unanimous consensus that the last 3rd of the movie is a disappointment, and its a mistake that you can see coming from a mile away, but I loved the beginning enough that this movie still ranks no. 8. The visual effects are beautiful, imaginative but based squarely in hard, speculative sci-fi. The cast is strong, and they pull off the cold, detached atmosphere of 2001, making the fate of the human race as much about if they can best impossible odds and whether they're worth saving. It's hard to forgive the shift in tone towards the end, but i will probably watch the 1st half again and again.

7. - Death Proof
I didn't get to the theater for the Grindhouse experience and I still haven't caught Planet Terror (I'm not a very big fan of Rodriguez or Rose McGowan), but I really had a great time with Death Proof on DVD. Seeing Kurt Russell on screen finally allowing himself to play a jerk again was great, almost immediately washed away decades of terrible romantic comedies. Tarantino's dialogue got to me a couple of times, like the weakest white guy you know trying to sound hard in embarassing stereotypical and slightly out of date ebonics, but it still had that propulsive rhythm that keeps the scenes bumping along. Aside from Russel's performance the real joy Death Proof was the live action car chase & stunts. I love a lot of CGI imagery and the way they've blown the lid off of the limitations of fictional worlds, but there's no doubt that they have appreciably deflated a lot of action sequences by removing, even just subconsciously, the immediacy of the threat. By actually strapping Zoe Belle to the hood of a car and launching real automobiles off of ramps, Death Proof delivered the visceral thrills.

6. - No Country For Old Men
It might be a little bit of peer pressure that's landing No Country For Old Men at no. 6, because I have mixed feelings about the film. I love the Coen brothers, and I was definitely looking forward to the movie all year, but I was severely underwhelmed by its plot. A heartless assassin stalking a man who, in a moment of weakness, involved himself in a bit of bad business is not a new plot, & the fear of ammoral super-criminals is pretty much what's keeping the lights on in Texas these days. Throughout the entire running time of No Country, i couldn't stop thinking "I've seen this a million times". Still, at the end of the film I had to acknowledge that I never lost interest. As cartoonish as Anton Chigurh & his employers seemed, Javier Bardem was definitely a presence on the screen. As many times as i've heard Tommy Lee Jones deliver a bit of grizzled, salt-of-the-earth, too-tired-for-this-shit dialogue, it still struck a nerve. I never stopped wanting Josh Brolin to escape & live happily-ever-after. I have to give it up to the Coens & their cast for powering through a trite plot & message with superior craftsmanship.

5. - Superbad
Speaking of trite plots, we've got the highschool dorks desperate to lose their virginities & make those 'best-years-of-our-lives' ring true. There are a few things about Superbad that really hit home with me. First, and foremost, Michael Cera's awkward teen character, used to great effect in Juno & TV's Arrested Development, is amazing, and I can't get enough of it. Secondly, I really like the fact that the creative forces behind the movie didn't feel the need to make a post-modern comedy like Wet Hot American Summer (which i liked), making obvious references to the teen screwball movies of the 70's & 80's, and instead had enough faith in the material to just make a simple, one-crazy-night comedy. Much like Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused, Superbad took a well worn plot and approached it with enough warmth & embarassing honesty to make it fresh again. Judd Apatow has a real knack for casting characters and basically letting the actors play themselves, which is why his television shows "Undeclared" & "Freaks & Geeks" have lasting value even though they also treaded very familiar ground. It looks like Seth Rogan & Greg Mottola paid attention while working with Apatow and adopted this winning formula. I think I hate that Jonah Hill kid, and I'll be surprised if McLovin's Christopher Mintz-Plasse becomes a steadily working actor, but the characters are written to their strengths. They contribute to the movie's laugh-out-loud moments, as well as the mushy parts.

4. - Zodiac
David Fincher is another proven entity. Even his missteps like Panic Room & Aliens 3 are interesting enough to warrant picking through again. Much like No Country For Old Men, Zodiac has a slow, hypnotic pace that leads you by the nose through the dark world of a serial killer, and, like No Country, it's easy to mistake the main plot as being about the boogyman at the center of the screen instead of the characters at its edges trying to stumble through whatever life throws at them in search of a good, honest existence. Watching Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith lose focus on his career & family because some nutjob is sending clues in a gruesome scavenger hunt to the newspaper is painful. You want to yell at him through the screen equally when he's stumbling around a dark basement, vulnerable to attack, and when his wife pleads with him to put down the ransome note for a second and give her a little bit of his attention. The movie has a solid cast that carries the film through a long run time, a few shifts in tone & era, and the unsatisfying realities of the Zodiac Killer case, to deliver a solid, engrossing look at how different personalities deal with what is ultimately a puzzle.

3. - Bug
Director William Friedkin was a force to be reckoned with in the 1970's. The French Connection, The Exorcist, Cruising... were very important parts of the decade's gritty & experimental edge, but in the last 2 decades Friedkin has been quietly releasing nuts & bolts Hollywood fare like Rampage, The Guardian, The Hunted... It's a shame then that his return to tense, paranoid & neurotic material with the adaptation of Tracy Letts' play Bug didn't really capture the audience it deserved. A deglossed, Ashley Judd stars as a barmaid sliding by with a lonely life of waitressing & hanging out at her motel apartment with friends from work. One day a harmless drifter (Michael Shannon) shows up and shares with her his world of government experimentation & surveilance. Together they retreat into the motel room, reinforce eachother's neurosis & fight off the toxic outside world. With the singular setting of the motel room, and the small cast, the movie retains the feeling of a chamber play, and it becomes very easy to accept that there is nothing for Judd & Shannon beyond their door. It left my skin crawling and my grasp on reality a little tentative, much like The Exorcist.

2. - The Lives Of Others
Set in the dusty, cold war era of the 80's, when East Germany felt like a lost continent, surrendered to history, The Lives Of Others follows an artist couple, actress & playwrite, as they quietly buck at the institutional oppression of state-sanctioned theater. The way the bureacracy felt so complete & every word was measured with a fear of reprisal, it was easy to forget that the Minister Of Culture wasn't reporting to Adolph Hitler, and outside of their Stasi-controlled East Berlin, the world was tailgating at Bon Jovi concerts. It's a heartbreaking & tragic film, but it's beautifully realized. The actors all turn in wonderful performances, and the characters are subtly shaded grey, corrupted by the small rationalizations that make life easier. The score is also very powerful and heartbreaking in its own right. It will leave you with a heavy heart but i highly recommend The Lives Of Others.

1. - There Will Be Blood
I'm a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. On all of his films prior to There Will Be Blood, i enjoyed them immensely in the theater & discovered that my affection for them grew with each new viewing. I was looking forward to There Will Be Blood, and, like I mentioned above, sweated through an annoying limited-release schedule, biding my time while critics celebrated it as the best film of the year. When I finally got to see it, stuck off-center & way up-front in a packed multiplex theater, the massive hype still felt insufficient. In spite of all of PT Anderson's previous successes, There Will Be Blood felt like a new level of achievement, something on the scale of Stanley Kubrick's best work. Daniel Day-Lewis is a giant on the screen and well-deserving of his awards for the role. Every line he speaks booms and rattles the sets. Plainview is unquestionably the central character, sometimes threatening to swallow the rest of the production, but the story is a character study and every aspect of the film works in conjunction with Day-Lewis, propping his performance up, making him larger than life. I also loved Dillon Freasier's HW Plainview, the son as awed & threatened by his father as the rest of the world. Impossible to overlook, Johnny Greenwood's score is fantastic, perhaps Plainview's only competition in the film. I enjoyed most of the films I saw this year, but there was no question when the credits roled for There Will Be Blood that it was my favorite.

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