January 13, 2008

MOVIES: Best of 2007 -- the top ten movies

Counting down from #10 to #1:
  • There Will Be Blood -- A spectacularly ambitious movie that doesn't always reach as high as it aims, but damn, you have to love it for aiming in the first place. Gorgeously photographed by Robert Elswit, with the score of the year by Jonny Greenwood.
  • Tears of the Black Tiger -- A melodramatic Thai western -- imagine a collaboration between John Ford and Douglas Sirk -- filmed in lurid pastels. It's a visual spectacle, to be sure, but what's most surprising is how moving it finally is, even as it gleefully wallows in standard plot tropes.
  • Away From Her -- A movie this intelligent and understanding about aging would be unexpected if it came from a director in his 60s; that it came from 27-year-old Sarah Polley is astonishing.
  • The Orphanage -- Standard supernatural thriller elements -- the missing chid, the abandoned lighthouse, the eerie medium -- remixed with great thought and ingenuity. How much more fun it is to see a movie like this, that earns its scares from crisp editing and impeccable timing, than to be gore-fested by something like the Saw or Hostel movies.
  • The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters -- People following their obsessions are almost always interesting, even when their obsession doesn't much interest you. Here's another fine case in point, a rollicking documentary about two men and their attempt to outdo one another at Donkey Kong.
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days -- Not, despite what you may have heard, a movie about abortion. Yes, abortion is central to the plot, but what the movie's about is the dehumanization and the brutality of living under totalitarianism, in a society on the verge of complete collapse. A chilling movie, with superb performances.
  • The Lookout -- Marvelous crime thriller, in which good must face evil with severely limited resources; the joy comes from watching how resourcefully he makes of the resources he does have.
  • Once -- Wistful, romantic, and delicate are not words that normally have me running eagerly to the multiplex, but this movie is a jewel. There's not much plot, and there's no cheap attempt to generate phony drama; it's just a week in the life of two musicians, told with perfect control of style and tone.
  • Juno -- Best ensemble cast of the year, with every actor perfectly in sync with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. Admittedly, the first few minutes are a bit scary (especially that awful scene with Rainn Wilson) and I feared this was going to be one of those Sundance quip-fests that we're cursed with every year, but there's a deep emotional core here.
  • Ratatouille -- A fabulous comedy that is also a thoughtful meditation on creativity, criticism, friendship, and trust. Stunningly animated, and Michael Giacchino's score is a joy.

A few runners-up that might have made the list on a different day: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Breach; Enchanted; Gone Baby Gone; Hairspray; Music and Lyrics; The Nines; Persepolis; Waitress.

MOVIES: Best of 2007 -- actor

A very weak field this year, I thought; so much so that I couldn't even fill out a full slate of five runners-up.

The runners-up I did choose are:
  • Glen Hansard, Once
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages
  • James MacAvoy, Atonement
  • Adam Sandler, Reign Over Me

(Yeah, I said Adam Sandler. You wanna make something of it?)

The finalists:

  • Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men -- This was the performance that kept me watching the movie. Brolin's Llewellyn is both incredibly stupid and remarkably clever, and it's heartbreaking that he never comes to the realization that Tommy Lee Jones does: You can't beat Evil, so you might as well stop trying.
  • Chris Cooper, Breach -- What a shame to see such fine work dumped into the first-quarter wasteland to be forgotten; Cooper and the movie deserved better. Robert Hansson never explains why he betrays his country, but as played by Cooper, he doesn't have to. It's all on the screen -- the arrogance, the wounded pride, the religious obsession -- and we know everything we need to know.
  • Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood -- I am not entirely convinced by the movie's final scene, in which Day-Lewis goes a bit overboard, but the rest of the performance is so magnificent that I'm willing to forgive. Daniel Plainview is, above all else, an orator; every word is precisely calculated for its effect on the listeners. He knows how to read people, which means he knows how to hurt people, and he does so with great joy; it may be the only joy he finds in life.
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Lookout -- How the hell is this guy not a huge star already? A stunning performance a few years back in Mysterious Skin, some lovely work in Brick, and now this. It's marvelously subtle work; Gordon-Levitt makes Chris's brain damage apparent not through the standard Hollywood drooling and slurred language, but in very subtle ways -- a small smile when he's able to remember a joke, the obvious relief when he hasn't screwed up a tricky situation.

And the winner:

  • Gordon Pinsent, Away From Her -- Julie Christie got most of the attention, but Pinsent more than holds his own. It's Grant who's suffering, after all, as Fiona slowly fades into oblivious, and Pinsent captures every bit of that pain without ever begging the audience to pity him.

MOVIES: Best of 2007 -- actress

The strongest category this year, I thought, and very hard to narrow down to five finalists. The winner, though, was an easy choice.

The runners-up:
  • Nikki Blonsky, Hairspray
  • Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
  • Kate Dickie, Red Road
  • Marketa Irglova, Once
  • Keri Russell, Waitress

The finalists:

  • Julie Christie, Away From Her -- The wisest casting of the year; the young Christie is still so iconic a presence that the movie doesn't need to spend a lot of time establishing what the healthy Fiona was like, because our own memories of her fill in those gaps. It's not just a performance about icon, though; Christie's work is lovely, subtle and understated.
  • Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days -- Marinca is asked to play a lot of scenes without speaking, but she's able to communicate so much with facial expression that she's not handicapped by the sparse dialogue. The dinner party scene, for instance, is a marvel; the camera stays on Marinca's face for nearly five minutes. She says nothing while everyone around her babbles on, and she's riveting.
  • Ellen Page, Juno -- In a way, Juno MacGuff is like a slightly older version of Saoirse Ronan's young Briony in Atonement; they're young woman who use verbal dexterity to cover up the fact that they aren't nearly as worldly as they'd like to think themselves. Page gets Juno's bravado and her confusion absolutely right, and her growing realization that there's more to life than a smart attitude is beautifully played.
  • Belen Rueda, The Orphanage -- Even more than Marinca, Rueda is asked to give a largely silent performance; she's on screen alone much of the time, wandering through this creepy old house. Laura's situation is horrifically painful -- accepting the loss of a child -- made all the more difficult by the fact that the only possible explanation seems to be an impossible one. It's a haunting piece of work, and her final scene manages to be reassuring and creepy at the same time.

And the winner:

  • Amy Adams, Enchanted -- The most difficult role in the field, and Adams nails it. Playing a live-action Disney princess trapped in the real world, Adams is just as sweet, innocent, and trusting as a Disney princess would be, without ever becoming too syrupy or cloying. She sings, she dances, she gets the laughs, and she sells the big emotional moments. What more could you ask for from a performance?

MOVIES: Best of 2007 -- supporting actor

A very strong field again this year; it was a tough call to choose a winner from the top five.

The runners-up:
  • Andy Griffith, Waitress
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
  • Elijah Kelley, Hairspray
  • Rolf Lassgard, After the Wedding
  • Alan Tudyk, Death at a Funeral

The finalists:

  • Philip Bosco, The Savages -- I am still haunted by the image of Bosco sitting in the front seat of the car, turning down his hearing aid to shut out the racket of his children, arguing over where he should be dumped until he dies. It's a lovely, sad performance.
  • Jeff Daniels, The Lookout -- Daniels gives us none of the usual cliches we get from actors playing blind. His breakfast-table interrogation of Luvlee is his high point (and Isla Fisher is also fine in that scene) -- two smart people trying to outsmart one another, when neither is quite so stupid as the other thinks.
  • Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood -- Any actor who can hold his own against Daniel Day-Lewis at his largest is doing something right, but it's the baptism scene that most sticks with me. It's both scary and funny, and Dano walks the emotional tightrope with impeccable precision
  • Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma -- Surely the loopiest performance of the year. Foster manages (just barely at times) to stay inside the reality of an otherwise fairly traditional western, with a performance that combines effeminate mincing and psychopathic violence. It's a nervy piece of work, and I adored every bit of it.

And the winner:

  • Vlad Ivanov, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days -- Compare what Ivanov does here to, say, Javier Bardem's work in No Country for Old Men (for my money, a vastly overrated performance). Ivanov gives us Evil, but his Bebe is never just evil, no mere abstract symbol. Bebe is an evil person, and he's recognizable as a person, which makes him far scarier. His negotiation scene with two young women in a cheap hotel is creepier and more chilling than any silly coin toss could ever be.

MOVIES: Best of 2007 -- supporting actress

As is often true in this category, several of my picks -- especially among my runners-up -- were the best things about movies I didn't much like. The winner was a very easy choice.

The runners-up:
  • Taraji P. Henson, Talk to Me
  • Kristen Johnston, Music and Lyrics
  • Anna Kendrick, Rocket Science
  • Melissa McCarthy, The Nines
  • Sigourney Weaver, The TV Set

The finalists:

  • Saoirse Ronan, Atonement -- Surely the hardest role in the film. As the young Briony, Ronan has to balance her great intelligence with a near-total lack of wisdom, her understanding of what she sees from her window with her unwillingness to accept what she sees. She doesn't make a false step; it's a strikingly assured performance from such a young actress.
  • Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone -- I've said it many times: One of the keys to being a great actor is the willingness to be hated, and Ryan certainly has it here. She's such a disaster of a woman -- drug addict, alcoholic, incompetent parent -- that you almost find yourself hoping they don't find her missing daughter
  • Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton -- I'm somewhat perplexed by the great acclaim for the movie as a whole, which I thought was a skillfully made potboiler, but not much more than that. No qualms about Swinton's performance, though; she's fabulous as the insecure attorney for an evil corporation. The scene in which she's frantically rehearsing her lines for an upcoming press conference is particularly fine work.
  • Kate Winslet, Romance & Cigarettes -- Director John Turturro is trying to sustain the wildly overheated emotions of a great 3-minute pop song for the length of a movie, and most of his actors aren't up to the task. Winslet, however, gets the tone perfectly right all the way through. Her Tula is magnificently trashy and flamboyantly vulgar; Winslet's performance is hilarious, a gem of perfect control.

And the winner:

  • Jennifer Garner, Juno -- At first, Vanessa is a cartoon character, the standard uptight yuppie, and Garner gets all of those nights precisely right. She's perfectly cast; I always like Garner best in roles where we get to see that tightly wound surface gradually crumble. It's a performance that feels out of place for a while, because she's the one character who is not tossing about the witty banter. But gradually, Garner brings out Vanessa's humanity, and she's asked to do so in scenes that could come across as terrible sentimental cliches (the mall scene, for instance, where she says "hello" to Juno's stomach). We come to realize, right along with Juno, that one needn't be a pop culture maven to be a decent, sincere, and even fun person.

MOVIES: Best of 2007 -- preliminary comments

I saw about 75 or 80 movies this year, about the same as usual. Potential Oscar contenders that I missed for one reason or another: Into the Wild, The Kite Runner, Eastern Promises, A Mighty Heart (all for simple lack of interest, though I will see them if they actually pick up major nominations), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (I ran screaming from the room when they started sewing his eye shut; I've always been squeamish about eyes), and I'm Not There (it was clear after the first thirty minutes that none of this was going to make any sense if you weren't already a Dylan cult member, which I'm not.

January 10, 2008

BOOKS: The Race, Richard North Patterson (2007)

A left-wing fantasy about a Republican primary campaign; it's all insanely implausible, but there is some fun to be had along the way.

Why "fantasy"? Well, the novel's hero, Senator Corey Grace, is one of those Republicans who exist only in this type of novel. He's a handsome, charismatic war hero; he's conservative, but reasonable, not filled with hate, and willing to listen his opponents; he's disturbed about the ever-increasing influence of religion on his party (and willing to say so). In a short, he'd be every Democrat's favorite Republican, but he'd never be a serious Presidential candidate as a Republican.

He's running against an almost equally charismatic senator, Rob Marotta, who is reluctantly allowing his advisors to pull him to the extreme right in order to win primaries; that's a necessary step because the third candidate in the race is evangelical preacher Bob Christy, whose campaign is built on hostility to abortion and gay rights. These three claw their way to a good old-fashioned (and these days, wildly implausible) brokered convention.

The Race is filled with one implausible character and plot twist after another. There's Corey's sexy African-American Oscar-winning actress girlfriend, a closeted vice-presidential wannabe, a viciously nasty South Carolina primary campaign (OK, maybe that one's not so implausible), characters haunted by assorted youthful tragedies -- it almost begins to play as a parody of a political novel.

But Patterson writes reasonably well, and his characters are a bit more fully dimensional than in most novels of this type. And as loopy at the plot is, it's well-constructed and zips along in lively fashion. It can't be taken seriously as a novel about American politics as it actually exists, but as a visit to a sort of Bizarro America, it's surprisingly entertaining.

January 08, 2008

BOOKS: Best of 2007

These were the ten best novels I read in 2007; the two books posted earlier this week count as '07 because that's when I started them. If the books weren't published in '07, I've indicated the pub date; links are to my original comments.

Giles Blunt, By the Time You Read This (2006)
Jasper Fforde, First Among Sequels
Austin Grossman, Soon I Will Be Invincible
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Steve Hockensmith, On the Wrong Track
Scott Lynch, Red Seas Under Red Skies
Howard Frank Mosher, On Kingdom Mountain
Susan Palwick, Shelter
Cornelia Read, A Field of Darkness (2006)
Jo Walton, Farthing (2006)

Palwick and Lynch were both on last year's top ten, as well, with Palwick narrowly edging out Lynch for my book of the year. This year, Lynch wins top honors, though Haig's ingenious reworking of Hamlet is a close second. I would be remiss not to also mention Palwick's fine collection of short stories, The Fate of Mice.

I don't read as much nonfiction, but these books stood out this year:

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day (which also had the best book jacket of the year)
Ethan Mordden, All That Glittered
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon (2006)
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise

January 06, 2008

BOOKS: The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross (2007)

A marvelous history of classical music in the 20th century. Ross, who is the classical music critic for The New Yorker, has the gift of writing about music that makes you want to hear it -- sometimes even makes you feel that you are hearing it -- and a knack for finding telling stories and anecdotes.

He's particularly good here at detailing the ways in which real world events affected the music that was being written; musical trends were not viewed in isolation, but were thought to have very clear political implications. That was particularly true in Germany and Russia during the Second World War, but as Ross makes clear, American composers of that era struggled with similar issues.

Ross also reminds us that the composers of the 20th century were people; too often, history surveys turn into laundry lists of great works, as if a piece of music could (or should) be heard in isolation from the life of its composer. Ross devotes entire chapters to Sibelius and Britten, and a lengthy section to Messiaen, which do a marvelous job of bringing those men to life.

Would those be the composers I'd have picked to devote full chapters to? Perhaps not, and every reader will no doubt believe that some composers got too much, or not enough, attention. One of the strengths of Ross's book is that it reminds us that every such history is only one way of telling the story; different writers and critics would tell the story differently with different emphases. Ross's version of the story certainly shouldn't be taken as the only way to tell it, but it's a valuable one, beautifully written and marvelously entertaining.

BOOKS: What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman (2007)

A woman, mildly disoriented after being involved in an auto accident, tells the police that she is Heather Bethany, the younger of two sisters who disappeared from a local shopping mall 30 years ago. She refuses, though, to say anything about where she has been or what happened to her and her sister.

There's no evidence to support her story, and the tiny scraps of information she does provide all seem to lead to dead ends. The policeman assigned to the case is skeptical, but can't find any evidence to disprove her story, either.

Lippman's story leaps back and forth from the present to various points over the last thirty years, focusing mostly on the effect of Sunny and Heather's disappearance on their parents; those parts of the book are particularly well done. It's not until fairly late in the book that we actually find out who the mystery woman really is (though I think you'll probably figure it out before Lippman reveals it) and what actually happened to the Bethany sisters.

A fine mystery novel, with rich characters and a beautifully laid out plot.

January 05, 2008

MOVIES: Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)

For most of the way, Atonement is a perfectly fine period piece, elevated above its melodramatic material by some very good performances.

We begin in 1938, on an English country estate where 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is putting the finishing touches on her first play, which she wants her cousins to perform that night in honor of her older brother's visit. As she looks out the window, she sees an erotically charged encounter between her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy), an encounter which she doesn't entirely understand -- or at least, isn't willing to admit that she understands perfectly well. That misunderstanding will eventually lead Briony to make a horrible false accusation that will destroy the lives of all three.

For the second half of the movie, we leap forward to the war, and watch the ways in which Briony's actions (she's now played by Romola Garai) are still affecting all three of the principals. There is a remarkable 5-minute tracking shot set on the beach at Dunkirk; it's an impressive piece of movie making, though I'm not sure that there's much point to it beyond "see what a big set we have, and how many extras."

The central performances range from adequate to very good. Knightley is well cast; she's not a warm actress, but her brittleness works nicely here, since Cecilia spends much of the movie angry at someone -- if not at Briony, then at herself. McAvoy is a top-notch romantic hero, with that veddy British brand of restrained passion; and Ronan is excellent as the young Briony, a girl of great intelligence and little wisdom. (Garai as the older Briony is less effective; the physical resemblance is impressive, but I didn't for an instant sense in Garai the spark of creativity or intelligence.)

Dario Marianelli's score is another of the movie's strengths; it's built on obsession, often repeating a single melodic phrase, rhythm, or even one note over and over, and cleverly incorporating the typewriter as a percussion instrument.

At this point, we get to the central flaw of the movie, and it's a biggie that cannot be talked about without giving away the final plot twist. So if you're among the spoiler-averse, stop reading now.

In the final ten minutes of the movie, we leap to the present day, where the elderly Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave, who is quite marvelous, and is entirely believeable as the older version of Ronan's character) is being interviewed on the publication of her 21st novel. That novel is her version of these very events, but she confesses to the interviewer that she has changed some things to give Robbie and Cecilia the happy ending they never had in life. In reality, it turns out, neither of them survived the war, and the scene we've watched in which Briony confesses her wrongs to them never actually happened.

Now, the unreliable narrator trick is a perfectly legitimate way to tell a story, but for it to play fair with the audience, you have to actually establish that there is a narrator, which Atonement has never done. It is only in the moment of Redgrave's revelation that we realize we have actually been watching Briony's novel, instead of -- as we believed -- an objective version of these events. That's a terrible cheat, and it left me with a sour taste in my mouth that the movie as a whole probably doesn't deserve.

January 01, 2008

MOVIES: Colma: The Musical (Richard Wong, 2006)

After a successful year on the festival circuit, Colma: The Musical had a very limited theatrical release last summer. It's now available on DVD, and you might find it worth a look.

Colma is a San Francisco suburb best known for its absurdly large number of cemeteries; the dead outnumber the living several times over in Colma. Our main characters are Billy (Jake Moreno), Rodel (H.P. Mendoza), and Maribel (L.A. Renigen), best friends and recent high school grads, still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, and all a bit shocked to find themselves missing the routine and structure of school. We spend one summer with these three, and as far as story, you're not going to see anything new. There will be arguments, relationships will change, and at least one will leave Colma for good by the end of the summer.

I don't want to oversell this movie. It is a first film, shot on a very low budget, with an inexperienced cast and crew. The acting and singing aren't always up to par, and there are a few scenes that drag on longer than they should. But Mendoza's songs are often clever -- the opening number, "Colma Stays," is a terrific, high-energy opener, and a drunken barroom song called "Goodbye Stupid" is lots of fun -- and there are moments of genuine beauty to be found here. A lovely ballad called "Deadwalking" finds Rodel and Maribel walking through one of Colma's many cemeteries as the ghosts of the dead waltz in the background; Billy is joined for his final song by a chorus that materializes from the city's notorious fog.

If there is perhaps more enthusiasm on display here than professional-level talent, well, enthusiasm isn't a bad thing, and there is also great joy and exuberance to be found. Colma may not be a great movie, but it's a tremendously resourceful one, and it's hard not to be touched by its sweetness and its passion.
Happy 2008 to all, and many thanks to those of you who visit and read my scribblings! Still a few '07 movies to catch before the Best Of list goes up; one more weekend at the movies should do it.

In the meantime, here's a rare chance to catch a cult favorite: Turner Classic Movies will be showing Otto Preminger's 1968 movie Skidoo on Friday night. It's rarely screened anywhere, and it's not available on video or DVD, so II've never seen it, and have no idea if it's any good or not, but it's reportedly one of the weirdest artifacts of the psychedelic era. The cast list alone is enough to get my attention: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx (as a Mob boss called "God"), Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Arnold Stang, Slim Pickens, Harry Nilsson, Richard Kiel, and Austin Pendleton.