CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Best of 2007

I haven't seen enough to give anything close to a Top 10 list for the past year in film. Life often intervenes too heavily, and spending the final 4 months in England, where a movie ticket normally costs $18, didn't help anything. The one major advantage to England was the University Library, through which I've been slowly exposing myself to classics. Add in my new-found love of television and you end up with films I've seen in a theater that I could count on my two hands. I don't mean this as an excuse, only some information before you go biting my head off for not having seen Michael Clayton or Juno, among others.

Honestly, I've been surprised by a number of Top 10 lists I've seen. They don't include the one movie of 2007 that was undeniably perfect. That doesn't mean I would have it on the top of my list, but it's saddening that people feel the need to relegate Ratatouille to the subcategory of animation. I know it seems unfair to say this after it has received so much attention, even placing in the Top 20 of the Indiewire Critics Poll. However, it is the sort of masterly film that deserves our attention as a well produced genre film that we are happy to give a film like Eastern Promises.

Its technical precision is every bit the equal of a film like There Will Be Blood. Those two movies just serve different purposes. There Will Be Blood dares us not to like it. It gives us a protagonist who hates mankind, and it has what may end up as the most bizarre ending of the year. This is catnip to critics, who love to think beyond the box yet simply end up in a different one. Ratatouille is a perfect commercial movie. It gives us a likable underdog hero who only wishes to follow his heart, no matter who stands in his way. Nevermind the fact that it challenges the audience by giving us a hero who cannot speak for the majority of the movie, we are immediately drawn in by Brad Bird's visuals and only later seduced by the all too human characters of Remy and Linguini. Ratatouille also has the distinct ability to mask its actors. By using the voices of Patton Oswalt, Brad Garrett, Will Arnet, and Janeane Garofalo, we get a veritable buffet of comic actors at the top of their game who can sink into their roles without being recognized. Why don't they get as much praise as Daniel Day-Lewis? Probably because Day-Lewis is magnificent until the final act, where he hams it up and stamps his name on the Oscar. He claims the film for his own, while Oswalt and company relinquish control to Brad Bird, who continues to prove that, despite mistakes like Cars, Pixar is moving in the right direction.

I don't mean to say that There Will Be Blood is bad (it's not), merely to point out that there are more commercial films that deserve as much praise as those we love that lay just outside the norm. Critics love There Will Be Blood because it's a film for critics to love. It's challenging and well-made. I could only wish there were more films today with its audacity. But in praising these sorts of films, along with Zodiac and the ending of No Country for Old Men, don't critics forget that there are praiseworthy films which are simply well crafted movies that follow the rules? Where's the praise for Gone Baby Gone? Have people already forgotten Planet Terror in their rush to hail Death Proof as yet another Tarantino masterpiece? It seems a film these days is hated by critics if it plays by the rules, even if it does a good job within those rules. Must we hate Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it ends with a major confrontation and pyrotechnics, even though it makes its showdown is much more interesting and effective than either of Chris Columbus' movies? Where's the love for Hairspray? It was a toe tapping musical and has generally been accepted as a first step towards accepting Adam Shankman as a good director. Why doesn't it get on people's Top 10 lists?

There has been a movement away from films which satisfy the audience. Is this a symptom of films in a post-9/11 world, as so many are eager to point out? Or is it a symptom of critics who don't want to be satisfied? Critics don't merely highlight the films they like. They point readers in the direction of films they think deserve attention. Harry Potter doesn't need the critics' attention. We know it's coming out, and for the most part we know what to expect. But in the clutter of the three-quels and the Transformers of the world, we need someone pointing us to Rescue Dawn or 1408. However, instead of giving a list, I only give one movie. My favorite of 2007.* A musical that's qualified to satisfy.

Romance and Cigarettes is a wonder to behold. Watch the following clip:

As it comes in the film, "A Man Without Love" is the culmination of everything that has come before it. We've already heard the song playing on Nick's car stereo, and Kitty, Nick's wife, has just confronted him with his affair. Now that he feels the pain of the song, he begins singing. This is where the movie reveals its genius. Instead of immediately joining Nick's singing with Englebert Humperdinck on the soundtrack, we are reminded of how alone Nick really is. These two lines before it become karaoke also reveal the mechanics behind the film. We must remember that behind the original version is a person actually singing the song. These are real people with real emotions. That wasn't conveyed more beautifully this year than in those two lines.

The storyline is conventional without adhering too closely to cliches. Nick eventually ends the affair, but he doesn't win back Kitty. This isn't a happy ending, but the film isn't going for that. Its combination of surreal musical numbers with astute melodrama combine to tell a true to life story. I might even go so far as to say that the musical numbers heighten the reality of the drama by portraying what these people think about their situation. Is there any song more appropriate for Kitty's heartbreak than Janis Joplin's "Piece of my Heart"? Why do we need words to express how we feel when these songs have done that job already? John Turturro taps into this idea wonderfully, simultaneously revealing the pop culture subtext to our everyday lives and adding depth to the characters by revealing their true feelings. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for Christopher Walken saying "With other chicks, I'm Barry White. I go to the meat market!"

Romance and Cigarettes is not a traditional movie musical in the way of Hairspray or Sweeney Todd, yet it doesn't force us to question the concept of the musical, as Once did. It was too small to make any true impact, and I find that disappointing. It uses a fairly standard melodramatic premise to better examine the lives we lead and the characters we make ourselves. Christopher Walken's character, Cousin Bo, is ridiculously over the top. He isn't a realistic character by any stretch of the imagination. And yet, in this way, he is real. We all know someone who is too far out there to begin to describe. Bo is the embodiment of that person we all know. In a world full of normal, down to Earth people, we need Bo to remind us that there are people like that.

We need more simple, well-constructed genre movies as much as we need gonzo auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch. That is my great hope for 2008, that we can see more great films which are satisfying and well made. That, and world peace.

*I have decided not to count Silent Light as it is coming out in America in 2008. When it does come out, you can be sure I will be first in line for a ticket and shouting about it on this blog.

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