By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
It's that time of year again. Our six critics* don't always (or often) agree, but we've combined their top-ten lists (allowing for ties, including a four-way dead heat for tenth) to pretend that they do. So without further ado, the ten (or 15) best movies of the year, kind of.
1. There Will Be Blood
The Texas tea bubbles up from the ground like primordial blood at the start of Paul Thomas Anderson's turn-of-the-century oil-prospecting epic (which won't open in most parts of the country until January and stars Daniel Day-Lewis). Nearly three hours later, the blood spilling across the floor of a Beverly Hills bowling alley looks suspiciously like crude. In between, we are held rapt by a big, bold, iconic story of the greed that drives some men to greatness and just as often proves their undoing. (Reviewed in this issue.) (Foundas)
2. I'm Not There
Semiotics, symbolist poetry, and Velvet Goldmine are not without their uses when contemplating the intricacies of Todd Haynes' deconstructed biopic — not to mention everything ever written about Bob Dylan. But for this non-Boomer, having lived through none of the era chronicled, knowing little of Dylan's life, and caring not much more for his music, I'm Not There struck me — hard — as an emotional experience unencumbered by historical baggage. (Lee)
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The title of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's Cannes Film Festival prizewinner refers to the length of a pregnancy — specifically, the one a college student named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) seeks to terminate in a midsized Romanian town circa 1987, when Ceausescu is still in power and abortions are illegal. Those who accused Judd Apatow's Knocked Up of being a thinly veiled family-values polemic may find 4 Months more to their liking, but it becomes clear early on that Mungiu is less interested in the life-versus-choice debate than in the way people living in a socially repressive society adapt to circumstance. (Foundas)
4. Killer of Sheep
Poetic in the best sense — the exaltation of bedrock existence through concrete detail closely observed — Charles Burnett's 1977 film about a Watts (Los Angeles) family man making ends meet with a literal dead-end job proved to be the triumph of the year in its long-delayed theatrical release. Uncommercial, eh? Milestone's successful distribution showed that its audience was narrowly focused, all right — to roughly anyone who's ever come home beat and soul-sick from a day at work. (Ridley)
4. Southland Tales
Muddled. Self-involved. Overbearingly ambitious. Insufferable. Funny how the critical mud slung at Donnie Darko on release has the same consistency as the shitstorm that raged against Southland Tales, yet another — how dare he!? — ultra-convoluted sci-fi satire from the incorrigibly precocious Richard Kelly. Southland Tales looks and feels more like life in 2007 than Juno, In the Valley of Elah, and Michael Clayton combined. (Lee)
Obsessed with codes, graphs, symbols, and technology, David Fincher returns the serial-killer genre to its roots. This is a movie for number crunchers, systems analysts, archaeologists of the analog era, and anyone interested in how we came to inhabit the cognitive chaos depicted in Southland Tales. (Lee)
Not just a gourmand rat or a beautifully animated French kitchen but, as with Brad Bird's other work of genius, The Incredibles, Ratatouille makes a witty argument for passion and cooperative excellence. (Taylor)
7. Colossal Youth
In this heroic film by Portuguese director Pedro Costa, a Cape Verdean immigrant named Ventura wanders dazedly between the gutted-out remnants of his former residence in a Lisbon housing tenement and a couple of prospective new ones, crossing paths with a succession of fellow travelers whom he refers to as his "children." Difficult to describe but impossible to forget, Costa's film is like a waking dream. (Foundas)
8. Eastern Promises
Like A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises could almost pass for an exceptionally well-made B movie — in fact, this gangster flick is a dark, rhapsodic fairytale set in a world populated by angels, devils, walking corpses, and human wolves — and most impressively by Viggo Mortensen. (Hoberman)
8. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Cynics will grouse that this isn't as important as Sicko or No End in Sight — when, yeah, it kinda is. Not because Seth Gordon's doc about two dudes vying for title of World's Best Donkey Kong Player in the History of Ever will change the world, but it might just change your life. Who doesn't want to be awesome, even at something totally pointless? (Wilonsky)
9. Regular Lovers
Parisian hotties riot in the street, smoke dope, boogie to the Kinks, fuck, mope, pose, lounge, and stare beautifully at the walls of beautiful apartments in Philippe Garrel's film. This, mes amis, is why cinema was invented. (Lee)
10. Hot Fuzz
Hands down the funniest movie of 2007 — not so much a parody of buddy-picture conventions as an affectionate rehabilitation — Edgar Wright's incredible two-headed transplant of Hollywood cop-socky histrionics onto the tweedy British whodunit was the only balls-out comedy this year with a visual style to match its verbal wit. If only every muscle-headed shoot-'em-up were set in a precinct house with a swear jar. (Ridley)
10. Knocked Up
Come for the dirty words and bong hits; stay for the trenchant observations — no, seriously. Sure, it's the one-liners that linger ("You look like a cholo dressed up for Easter"), but even they barely obscure life's biggest truth, which is: "Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn't last 22 minutes. It lasts forever." (Wilonsky)
10. Manufactured Landscapes
The opener of Jennifer Baichwal's beautiful documentary, a tracking shot that takes about eight minutes to roam from one end of a Chinese electronics factory floor to the other, tells you all you need to know about modern labor, our disposable world, and who will own the global economy. (Taylor)
10. Private Fears in Public Places
Directed with light-fingered mastery by Alain Resnais, now 84 and fully indulging his delight in golden-age cinematic gloss, this exquisite ensemble comedy-drama about the perils of seeking love late in life resembles a Vincente Minnelli musical with the songs elided, leaving only the persistent ache of unexpressed desires. (Ridley)
Into the Wild, Black Book, West of the Tracks, No Country for Old Men, Syndromes and a Century, My Kid Could Paint That, Grindhouse, Offside, Day Night Day Night, Away From Her, Once, Paprika, Lars and the Real Girl, The Host, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Honor de Cavalleria, The Band's Visit, Lake of Fire, No End in Sight, The Bourne Ultimatum, Terror's Advocate, The Savages, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Music and Lyrics
Kick Yourself for Not Seeing These Ten Movies
BY JIM RIDLEY
How tough is it for a movie to find its audience above the din of blockbuster marketing and beyond the clogged distribution pipeline. Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese/Malaysian director regarded as one of the world's greats, had two films in U.S. theaters this year, The Wayward Cloud and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Neither made it far outside the nation's major cities. They weren't alone. From minor hits to complete obscurities, these ten films from 2007 — and others — deserved more attention than they got, either from audiences, distributors, or critics.
End of the Line — Good, unreleased horror movies are not exactly in overstock, so why has Maurice Devereaux's hair-raising subterranean shocker taken so long to surface from the festival circuit? Maybe it's because this sick satiric tale — in which religious zealots conduct their own Rapture with cross-shaped daggers on a stalled subway — pushes sensitive buttons about fundamentalist hysteria. Then again, maybe it's because the movie raises the even-more-subversive possibility that the zealots are right. Either way, this is scary as hell and impressively unrelenting — starting with a strong candidate for the best fright jump since Michael Myers bolted upright.
The Hills Have Eyes 2 — It starts in a mock-up Kandahar with a war room staffed by stuffed dummies; it ends with a besieged peacenik wisely chucking his pacifist ideals in the face of pure fucking evil. In between, outmanned U.S. troops reap the fruit of decades-old government policy — here, desert nuclear testing — in the form of implacable fanatics with the home-field advantage of tunnels and caves. In a year when Hollywood turned Iraq War hand-wringing into a virtual subgenre, no reputable movie caught the country's ideological confusion so fully; its booby-trapped shallow focus seemed shorthand for the perils of a blinkered worldview. This should be playing somewhere near Los Alamos, at a drive-in with No End in Sight.
I Know Who Killed Me — Not even Lindsay Lohan's sojourn in the tabloids stirred up much interest in this marvel of trashy delirium. A pity too: Chris Sivertson's mystifying mood piece about a demure honor student who morphs into a mutilated stripper was sold as torture porn, but it's closer in spirit to a glue-huffing remake of Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique. As psychodrama, it was even more potent. Try finding an eerier metaphor for a child star's uneasy transition to adulthood than pole-dancer Lohan facing her Disney-princess self packed away in a casket.
Joshua — You can't blame new parents who didn't want to waste their one date night a year on a movie that acutely captures the sleep-deprived panic of the other 364 days. For the stout-hearted, though, George Ratliff's masterfully unnerving thriller about a blank-faced tyke (Jacob Kogan) whose mom and dad suspect him of psychological warfare against their new baby creates a mood of imminent doom that anyone with suspiciously quiet tots will recognize. The leads enact the pressures of child-rearing so empathetically — mom Vera Farmiga in exhausted near-madness, dad Sam Rockwell in sex-starved, stuck-in-the-middle befuddlement — that the cumulative chills leave your teeth chattering. It's perhaps better watched at home, with your kids locked safely in their rooms.
Lake of Fire — The year's most criminally underseen movie, Tony Kaye's landmark abortion documentary made a crucial commercial miscalculation: Because it presented both pro-choice and pro-life positions fairly, neither side wanted to see it. A documentary is supposed to reinforce your prejudices, stupid, not challenge them. For anyone brave enough to consider the issue beyond sloganeering and name-calling, though, this staggering doc has the power to tip the undecided either way. And kudos to Kaye for shooting on celluloid — his graphic film may be hell to watch but never to look at.
Manufactured Landscapes — Despite the endorsement of Al Gore, Jennifer Baichwal's visually stunning documentary was snubbed by the same environmental groups that rallied around An Inconvenient Truth — in part because the inconvenient truth of Baichwal's film is that the industrial ravaging of the planet, as shown in Edward Burtynsky's macroscopic photographs, has an undeniable if horrifying grandeur. Can the environment's loss be cinema's gain? Following Burtynsky through China, from one hypnotic science-fiction rubblescape to another, Baichwal challenges us to say no — or at least not to succumb to our sense of awe.
Music and Lyrics — Maybe the year's pleasantest surprise: an intelligent, genuinely amusing romantic comedy, scaled to match the modest ambitions of its hero, "happy has-been" Hugh Grant. Paired with Drew Barrymore, whose tremulous vulnerability has never been more appealing, Grant gave his least shticky and most winning performance in years as a Reagan-era pop idol who gets a shot at a mild artistic triumph after years on the berry-farm circuit. But he has no shame about his limited success, and the same can be said for writer/director Marc Lawrence, who kids '80s nostalgia without meanness or condescension. The cherry on the sundae: delicious pop-novelty pastiches by Andrew Blakemore, Adam Schlesinger, and others, including the deathless "Pop! Goes My Heart."
Paprika — Director Satoshi Kon's anime fantasy — a mind-blower on a Videodrome/2001 scale of sensory and intellectual bombardment — exemplifies more than any digital-animation feature this year the freedom of working in a medium with no physical restraints. With his sleep-troubled film-noir cop prowling the subconscious of a near-future Tokyo, Kon explores the relationship of dream logic to the visual grammar of movies and plays eye-boggling tricks with perspective, distending bodies and boundaries, and looping his nightmare scenarios. And yet, at the movie's heart is a wistful, romantic affirmation of the need for inviolate space where our inner selves can soar.
Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs) — A fake movie snowfall out of Josef von Sternberg's dreams blankets this gorgeous ensemble comedy/drama about the difficulty of forging new loves late in life. Directed by Alain Resnais with a formal rigor and brisk elegance that should shame filmmakers five decades younger, its combination of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design makes it more accessible than Resnais' form-breaking early films of the nouvelle vague era. Even so, it failed to reach the audiences that have eagerly embraced, say, Patrice Leconte's diverting trifles. Too bad: On TV, the beauty of Eric Gautier's cinematography will be diminished though not extinguished.
Urim and Thummim — This memorably odd doc by Dub Cornett and Dancing Outlaw director Jacob Young — the story of three men who claim to have found an Old Testament portal on the 99-cent sale rack at a Madison, Tennessee, Goodwill superstore — made its debut at the 38-year-old Nashville Film Festival last April, wedged between movies as diverse as Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth and David Alford and Robert Archer Lynn's accomplished one-take thriller Adrenaline. Last month, it played the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where no less an admirer than Werner Herzog reportedly dismissed its critics as "retarded." Will you ever see it? The movie itself provides an answer: Stranger things have happened.
Steel Yourself for 2008 With a Look Back at the Year's Best Scripts
BY JIM RIDLEY
The year: 2505. Your viewing choices tonight: an oldie but a goodie — a picture called Ass, a feature-length screensaver of butt cheeks punctuated by the occasional fart — or the hit TV show Ow! My Balls, a connoisseur's compendium of nutsack whacks. Thanks to Mike Judge's Idiocracy, we have seen the future of entertainment 500 years from now, when the world is run by genetically shortchanged knuckle-draggers. And it's, it's... well, it may look uncannily like next year's network-TV slate and major-studio lineup if the WGA writers' strike continues.
This time next year, we may be sitting in front of the tube glued to CBS' What's in Katie Couric's Colon? or watching Celebrity Poker Showdown: The Movie on 2,512 screens. So start stockpiling some of the many films in 2007 that were distinguished by strong, distinctive writing.
The movie of the moment, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, is a model of careful adaptation: It honors the twangy palaver as well as the taut silences of Cormac McCarthy's novel, finding the tough, cold heart of a book that sometimes reads like a classroom assignment in hard-boiled lit. Screenwriting isn't just filling space with words: One of the movie's strengths is its ability to convey the inner workings of taciturn people in mere scraps of dialogue.
By contrast, the garrulous characters in Juno practically gesture offscreen to first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody every time they open their mouths. The movie's early scenes contain an emptied notebook's worth of hoarded quirks, slang, and catch phrases, as if a touring company of Heathers had moved into the 7-Eleven. More impressive is the way Cody flips the script on the adoptive yuppie couple played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, reversing our sympathies for the chilly Garner and catching the juvenile self-absorption behind Bateman's Joe Cool affability.
Given the collaborative pile-on of filmmaking, though, getting a script to the screen with your authorial voice intact is a coup. In that regard, add Cody to a list that includes Aaron Sorkin — whose unmistakable rat-a-tat conversational rhythms convert the weapons stats and anti-Communist chicanery of Charlie Wilson's War into a globe-tilting His Girl Friday — and Noah Baumbach, who hones his gift for verbal vivisection to a cutting edge in Margot at the Wedding. This was the year that Knocked Up's DVD-extra looseness and clubby guy's-guy riffing made Judd Apatow the hottest brand name going in screen humor, elbowing aside effects-driven comedy for the spitballing tone of a writing session.
Only one screenwriter, however, gave a mostly female cast the kind of talky latitude that Apatow, the Coens, and Paul Thomas Anderson in There Will Be Blood allowed their male protagonists — and that feminist's name was Quentin Tarantino. His Death Proof segment of Grindhouse may be the most surprising script of the year, from its bifurcated structure to its deliberate subversion of psycho killer Stuntman Mike's machismo. If the strike has an upside, it's that the battle may give Tarantino, Cody, the Coens, and others lots of time to polish new scripts. The bad news is that we may find ourselves, like the viewers of Ass in Idiocracy, longing for the days of "great films, with plots! Where you cared about whose ass it was and why it was farting!"
REVENGE OF THE NERDS
Judd Apatow's Pretty Good Year
BY ROBERT WILONSKY
Absolutely, unequivocally, this has been The Year of the Apatow: Judd got Knocked Up to the tune of $150 million (at the box office alone); the super-OK Superbad, which Apatow produced, grossed another $120 million, "gross" being the operative word; and at year's end, he walks hard to the finish line as writer and producer of a faux-biopic about a pennies-on-the-dollar Johnny Cash named Dewey Cox. This doesn't take into account the slate of films Apatow has on tap for 2008 and '09, among them the stoners-on-the-run comedy Pineapple Express (directed, no shit, by indie darling David Gordon Green); Drillbit Taylor, a seemingly skeezy take on My Bodyguard, starring Owen Wilson; and Step Brothers, which will reunite Will Farrell, John C. Reilly, and Talladega Nights director Adam McKay. Hence, Apatow's recent crowning by Entertainment Weekly as the "smartest person in Hollywood" — that week, anyway.
Though he's made his name as a hero to the schlubs, Apatow is anything but. A powerful player, he's his own franchise now, setting up kiosks all over Showbizland. It wasn't so long ago, though, that Apatow lorded over a kingdom defined by failure and ruin. The now-familiar narrative arc of his career having been established in profile after profile this year, he has to his credit countless failed pilots, including one starring Judge Reinhold as a more washed-up version of himself; he couldn't persuade NBC to save the critically adored high-school-set Freaks and Geeks or keep Fox from flunking the graduated-to-college Undeclared. He used to send TV critics handwritten pleas affixed to videos of unaired pilots and shit-canned series.
Now, Apatow's the King of Comedy, for better or worse — for better, because you can laugh at the big-screen comedies without feeling cheap and desperate; for worse, because with franchising comes dilution of product. Apatow's already behind the wheel of the yuk machine, spitting out cheap giggles to audiences eager to gobble up anything with his name attached. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which Apatow cowrote with director Jake Kasdan, has its moments — 3.9 minutes' worth, by my stopwatch — but it's little more than a sketch extended way past its breaking point. Superbad, which he only produced but was cowritten by muse Seth Rogen, also could have stood to lose a good 45 minutes. The trailer for Drillbit Taylor's good for a worried shrug, while the four minutes of Pineapple Express posted to the web in December promise more of the same ol', same ol': new and exciting ways to smoke weed, this time with a joint shaped like a cross.
Apatow and his boys (among them Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, and Rogen) need to stop referring to themselves (or thinking of themselves) as the modern-day Marx Brothers. If there's one thing Groucho didn't do, it was show his ass (or somebody else's balls) for a cheap, dumb laugh. Those boys worked hard for the funny.
One gets the sense that Apatow actually runs a little deeper than the shallow numskulls he throws onscreen to see if they'll stick. It's the great secret of Knocked Up that somewhere on the margins of a movie about a pretty career woman inexplicably sticking it out with a doper dude, Apatow actually tells a thoughtful, honest story about modern marriage — the one about how marriages taken for granted will slowly, almost unnoticeably, overdose on a lethal cocktail of boredom, jealousy, and selfish desire.
Apatow has it in him to move this money-minting shtick forward; you can't stay 19 forever, dude (the point of his body of work, as a matter of fact). But for now, 2007's big winner still prefers the quick and dirty giggle to the trenchant observation; he's all about the gag, like the dick drawings in Superbad or the severed bodies in Walk Hard or the pregnant-sex scene in Knocked Up. It's the stupid shit that made him the smartest man in Hollywood. Hope he's smart enough to see past it.
Nonfiction Continues its Ascent on Screen
BY ROBERT WILONSKY
An acquaintance who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq says he has no use for documentaries about George Bush's bungling of the War on Terror. He has not and will not see a single one of the movies made about the tragic consequences of the administration's rush to drop bombs over Baghdad; he has no use for No End in Sight, say, or Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. "Those movies are for you civilians," he says, grinning. "I'm sure they're all 'good' and 'important,' but everyone knows what went wrong — everything went wrong." Then he goes on to suggest that unless folks actually do something with the information laid out in No End in Sight, in which former administration officials cop to their myriad fuckups, well, it's just another brick in the infotainment wall.
Yeah, but sometimes we civilians just need a brick to the head. There was no shortage in 2007 of good documentaries about important subjects: Chief among them was Michael Moore's Sicko, which may not have had the cultural impact of his earlier Bush-bashing but which actually galvanized red and blue believers on the issue of health care — indeed, folks around the country formed advocacy groups in response to the doc, a sure sign they were as infuriated as they were entertained. Also released in '07: Darfur Now and The Devil Came on Horseback, both about genocide in Sudan; The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, about one Iraqi's wrongful imprisonment in Abu Ghraib; and For the Bible Tells Me So, about the Good Book's stance on homosexuality.
In what was one hell of a cinematic dinner party wish list, Jimmy Carter, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, and Karl Lagerfeld all got their own portraits; forthcoming in 2008 is Alex Gibney's Gonzo, about the life and death of Hunter S. Thompson. And earlier this year, a couple of guys knocked out of the park a doc about King Corn, otherwise known as the silent killer that makes everything taste swell as it poisons us to death. You'll never look at a can of Coke the same way again.
Two of the best films of 2007 were docs that played like the stuff of far-out fiction. Indeed, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is, at this very moment, being converted into a narrative feature (so unbelievable is its subject matter that many who saw Seth Gordon's movie about two dudes vying for the title of Donkey Kong champion believed it a mockumentary). Then there was Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That, about a 4-year-old girl hailed as the second coming of Jackson Pollock, at least until Charlie Rose came to town and began tossing around the theory that, ya know, maybe her daddy's the painter after all.
Bar-Lev's doc was perhaps the year's most essential true-life tale, not only because it was a thriller bereft of glib resolutions or because it serves as an excellent corrective for parents who think their kids are geniuses but also because it's the sole doc of 2007 about actually making a documentary. Bar-Lev initially thought he was telling a feel-good story about a cute little girl and her rise to stardom; instead, he found himself on the other end of the lens, wondering whether he'd been duped and why he was even bothering in the first place. By the time the girl's mother accuses him of betrayal, you don't know what to believe — and you don't get more honest than that.
The Year's Best Characters
BY ELLA TAYLOR
Some years, it can be hard to come up with enough stellar lead performances to make an awards minyan. But every year is a good year for supporting roles, and not just because the field has grown so wide since independent film became a force to be reckoned with. Many a savvy character or chameleon actor has built a powerful and lasting career on a solid bedrock of ancillary work without a hint of look-at-me grandstanding. That's particularly true for women — Catherine Keener, Laura Linney, Lili Taylor, Tilda Swinton, to name but a few, and just watch Amy Ryan go this year — whom casting directors might otherwise cross off their lists at the first sign of a crow's foot. The best supporting actors have said there's little more satisfying than working in concert with a well-oiled ensemble. And little more fun to watch, which is why a package deal and a duet top my list of the Ten Best Supporting Actors of 2007.
1. Seldom has an ensemble conspired more artfully and with less ego to help Julie Christie's radiant star shine ever brighter than the Canadian cast of Sarah Polley's Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent flags dismay, anger, grief, and finally quiet devotion while barely moving a muscle as an errant husband trying to cope with his wife's decline into Alzheimer's disease. Kristen Thomson is alternately sympathetic, perceptive, and unsparing as a nurse at the plush facility to which Christie consigns herself, and Wendy Crewson turns in a subtly intelligent performance in the thankless role of the home's briskly heedless director. Crewson's husband, Michael Murphy, plays against his customary chattiness as the all-but-catatonic inmate Christie falls for, and Olympia Dukakis exudes lonely dignity as Murphy's prosaic wife.
2. In Eran Kolirin's gently incisive comedy The Band's Visit, Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai double as improbably coupled strangers thrown together in a one-horse Israeli development town. Their brief encounter reveals two kindly, sensitive souls who temporarily come out of their protective shells — she's a Sephardic slattern; he's a tight-assed Egyptian police officer — and complete each other in ways that leave you wondering whether their night on the town is a missed opportunity or what's meant to be.
3. The often-chilly Tilda Swinton unravels wonderfully in sweat and love handles as the oedipally crippled corporate attorney in Michael Clayton who will do anything for the boss, up to and including serial murder.
4. Don't let Paul Dano's pimply ruin of a face fool you into thinking he doesn't work at playing devious types. His charismatic holy roller in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood struggles to appear pious even as he hungers for riches and power. It's no mean feat for any actor to stay out of Daniel Day-Lewis' shadow, but Dano holds his own, and more.
5. Amy Ryan finally breaks through the helpmeet-wife and bitter-ex roles to play the hopelessly ill-equipped working-class single parent of a child who's disappeared in Gone Baby Gone. Hard but not cold, Ryan's serially defaulting but loving mother complicates all smug definitions of "in the best interests of the child."
6. It's never easy to play back-alley abortionist without sprouting horns, but Vlad Ivanov's cunningly ambiguous, ruthlessly interrogative portrayal in Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days slowly peels back to reveal both a ruthless exploiter of vulnerable young women and just another black marketeer trying to scratch out a living in Soviet-era Romania.
7. Leslie Mann, wife of Knocked Up director Judd Apatow, brings to the controlling-bitch-wife role that makes women squirm a kind of cathartic, rhythmic lyricism so full of hilarious menace, I wished it were me spitting the invective.
8. I can't think of an actor alive who does so much by doing so little with his face and body as Philip Seymour Hoffman does. What a year he's had, pathetic and dangerous in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as a larcenous broker and heroin-head who talks his younger brother into robbing their parents' store, all for love of Marisa Tomei; inaccessible as the tuned-out brother of Laura Linney struggling to care for a senile father in The Savages; and comically explosive as the CIA agent helping Tom Hanks arm the Taliban in Charlie Wilson's War.
9. Meryl Streep. Yes, I know, but here's one superstar who knows how to play second fiddle without commandeering the show. In 2007, Streep redeemed two bad movies: first as the ruthless CIA foreign-operations honcho (Anna Wintour in bad twinsets) who blows off Reese Witherspoon in Rendition, then as her inverse, a liberal veteran journalist in Lions for Lambs firing hard questions at Tom Cruise's presidential wannabe. Cruise wasn't half bad either.
10. And last but never least, Peter O'Toole, AKA Anton Ego, the desiccated food critic in Ratatouille who's seen it all and likes none of it until a bunch of culinary rats converts him, prompting the mea culpa speech that surely all filmmakers who have been burned one too many times by movie critics can recite by heart. Take that, us!
Horror Films Failed to Scare Up Big Bucks in 2007
It was only a couple of years ago that the horror genre seemed newly resurgent, like an undead killer digging himself out of the grave. "Fresh faced" directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Darren Lynn Bousman, and James Wan — dubbed "The Splat Pack" — seemed poised to bring their new takes on terror to the masses in a big way. They succeeded, briefly. But even as some of the movies continued to innovate this year — the campy retro double feature of Grindhouse, the smart satire of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the oddball survival horror of The Mist — box-office receipts plunged so sufficiently that by the end of 2007, obvious horror titles were trying to promote themselves as something else. Rachel Belofsky, president of Screamfest L.A., tried to get P2, about a young woman stalked through a parking garage, for the closing-night show of the fest, but the distributors "kept saying they weren't marketing it as a horror film...They ram a guy duct-taped to a chair into a wall repeatedly. The last time I looked, that's a horror film!"
But as studios scrambled to salvage their horror lineup and adjust expectations, a different sort of scary movie emerged. "I must say that the scariest stuff in terms of new films was encapsulated in Javier Bardem's performance in No Country for Old Men," says Lucky McKee, writer/director of the cult hit May and one of Showtime's Masters of Horror episodes. Indeed, you won't see the Coen brothers' movie advertised as horror, but what else should you call a film about a black-clad, borderline supernatural assassin who wanders Texas blowing holes in people's heads with a compressed-air gun? The Los Angeles Film Critics Association recently bestowed its Best Picture Award upon There Will Be Blood, but as horror fans know, that title comes straight from the lips of Tobin Bell in Saw II — "They must have liked the line!" says Bell, before incredulously asking: "It's contending for an Oscar?"
Even Atonement, the year's big English-accented costume drama awards-bait epic from the director of Pride and Prejudice, features a scene in which an injured soldier's head is unbandaged to reveal a massive gaping wound, off of which a big chunk of broken skull promptly falls. A similar scene in Saw III had audience members fainting just last year. So if moviegoers are still hungry for gore, why haven't they been flocking to the films that traffic in it?
Roth, whose Hostel Part II was, in comparison to the first Hostel, a disappointment (though it made $35 million internationally on a $10 million budget), thinks the scheduling of this year's genre titles didn't help. "My whole argument was, why are we coming out in the summer?" he says. "It was June, and people were in the mood for Oceans 13 and Pirates of the Caribbean; they were just in the mood for summer blockbusters."
Courtney Solomon, president of After Dark films, got stuck with a July release date for Captivity, which was delayed and fared dismally after the MPAA forcibly recalled its controversial billboards and posters. "The movie was originally scheduled for May 18, which would have been the first horror movie out that summer, going head to head with Shrek 3, so we'd have been counter-programming. There were a lot of screens available, and it was perfect timing, [but] because it got suspended by the MPAA, it wasn't possible to go out on that date."
Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing for Lionsgate, which released Hostel Part II and the more successful Saw IV, thinks the wait for a Hostel sequel might have been too long for the general public. "One of the reasons the Saw movies do so well is because they come in rapid succession," he says, adding that Hostel Part II "could have been better-served if it was released earlier."
Hostel Part II and Captivity were also not exactly critical faves, but even horror movies that were well-liked by critics failed to gain traction. What happened to Grindhouse and The Mist? Easter and Thanksgiving opening dates, Roth says, noting that "everyone's with their families... Why did 1408 do so well, and why did The Mist not do so well? They're both supernatural horror movies [and both based on Stephen King stories]. I honestly think it's the weekend." Notably among the movies that did hit were Rob Zombie's Halloween, released at the end of the summer blockbuster season, in August; 30 Days of Night, in October; and Saw IV, on Halloween weekend.
So there's life in the genre yet, as Belofsky is quick to point out: "What happens when a romantic comedy bombs? Are there front-page articles in Variety going 'comedies are dead'? It just seems funny to me that a genre that makes millions of dollars for this industry is the quickest one to get panned."
Solomon, however, doesn't explain away the box-office downturn as just bad timing or the media's genre bias. He thinks it's time to move away from the current trend of "torture porn" — more realistic horror about bad people who torture and kill — since we're seeing enough of that on the news already. Hinting at his company's future, Solomon suggests that "creature horror movies are probably something that people would be more interested in, because we haven't seen a lot of those, à la Alien, in recent times, so a fresh one like that would probably be accepted very, very well." Stay tuned: Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem opens Christmas Day at a theater near you.