Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Favorite Things, Part One

Thanks to my guests for writing so well about their favorite things of the year. Now it's my turn. There were several things I didn't get around to this year, most notably -- and most unforgivably -- new novels by Richard Russo and Junot Diaz. But I took in a bunch, too. I spent more time at the movies than I have in years. Sitting down to draw up my list of favorite songs from 2007, I was worried that I hadn't paid enough attention to new music this year, but the list turned out at least as robust as last year's. And since leaving full-time book publishing (for the time being) in July, I've been reading like a madman (though not many things that were released this year). In any event, I'm posting about movies below, various other things tomorrow, and then three particularly favorite things from this year on Thursday.

I'm singling out several movies further along in the list, but it does seem that the industry as a whole deserves some praise this year. In addition to the movies I thought were almost perfect (which together represented the best bumper crop in many years), there are several others I would recommend without reservation: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Savages, I'm Not There, The King of Kong, The Lives of Others. I also had a good time at The Jane Austen Book Club, Diggers, The Host, Juno, The Simpsons Movie, My Kid Could Paint That, 2 Days in Paris, and Knocked Up. And a few terrific performances enhanced otherwise mediocre efforts: Chris Cooper in Breach, Adrien Brody in The Darjeeling Limited, Alfred Molina in The Hoax. And this is with a handful of well-reviewed ‘07 movies having eluded me (so far) -- Gone Baby Gone, There Will Be Blood, Starting Out in the Evening, Grace is Gone, American Gangster, etc.

On to the standout choices:

Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There

Todd Haynes' superficially bizarre but actually kind of conservative take on Dylan just misses my top five of '07. My expectations were pretty low, for various reasons, but I got a real kick out of it. (My full review can be found here.) It's Blanchett who deserves singling out as the Dylan of the mid-1960s, driving the press crazy, cavorting with the Beatles, and maybe losing his own grasp on reality. Her casting was naturally reported as a stunt, and on one level it was, but with an actor of Blanchett's talent, I had a feeling she'd bring more to the role than just playfulness. She did.

Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett's 1977 film, which he made as his MFA thesis at UCLA, got a long-awaited theatrical release this year. I wrote about it elsewhere, so pardon me while I crib from myself: "Filmed in Watts on a shoestring budget, it unobtrusively captures quiet, desperate lives on crisp black and white stock. The most desperate (and quietest) is Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), whose work at a slaughterhouse leaves him increasingly distant and stunned at home. Watching the movie's early, aimless scenes of Stan's young children playing with others in abandoned lots, it was easy to see Killer of Sheep's visual and tonal influence on David Gordon Green's George Washington, and it's likely that many others were inspired by exposure to Burnett's debut, which has the 'hey, maybe I could do that' quality of all great DIY work. Of course, most people couldn't do it, because it's not just about amateur acting and stripped-down plot (utter lack of plot, to be honest). The details are most important, like the slow, silent dance shared by Stan and his wife to 'This Bitter Earth' by Dinah Washington. It's in such moments that Killer of Sheep earns its reputation as an independent masterpiece."

Emily Blunt in The Jane Austen Book Club

This entire movie really surprised me, and I'd recommend it -- I did recommend it, at length -- but in a strong year for movies, it doesn't quite make the cut. But no matter how strong a year it was for exceedingly attractive women in movies, Blunt's at the head of that class. Mercy. (Well, maybe salutatorian to Ms. Tomei -- more about her later.)

Oh, and she was good, too (as she was last year in The Devil Wears Prada). Her character is saddled with a very unlikely marriage, but she manages to make it feel real and painful.

Ken Marino in Diggers

I don't think Marino's performance was the best of the year, but I'm pretty sure it would run away with Best Performance Per Viewer Who Saw It. (The Oscars should get on that.) As Lozo, one of several Long Island clam diggers whose livelihood is threatened in the mid-'70s, Marino is true to life in ways that movies rarely manage or even attempt -- sympathetic, rude, funny, angry, loving ... the list goes on. Diggers takes a little while to get its feet steady, but once it does, it and Marino are well worth seeing.
And now, my four favorite movies of the year in order. I didn't think this was going to turn into a numbered list, but I'm suddenly in the mood:
4. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

The photo at right is of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. I include it only because I couldn't find one of Marisa Tomei that properly reflects her presence on screen in this movie. The closest I came was something like this.

Eighty-three-year-old director Sidney Lumet made an unlikely but undeniable return to form with Devil, the story of two brothers who plan to knock off their parents' jewelry store. It's the kind of movie where the good guy is sleeping with his brother's wife. Full of bad intentions, even worse outcomes, and great use of its New York setting, Devil was the best throwback of the year. With grainier film (and with less narrative hopping around in time), it could be mistaken for something from the golden age of American cinema in the 1970s. And as good as Hoffman is (he was also great in The Savages), Hawke's equally worthy of an Oscar nomination.

3. Michael Clayton

It was a strong year for carefully crafted movies, and Michael Clayton is an example of it. Tight performances from a stellar cast, steady camera work, consistency of tone, edited down to the essentials, with an ending that's completely Hollywood without making you feel an ounce of guilt for lapping it up. I haven't given the Oscars much thought yet, but a Best Picture nomination would only seem right, and I'm not sure Clooney wouldn't be my favorite for Best Actor.

Screenplay and Supporting Actor nominations would be in order, too. As the emotionally unbalanced Man Who Knows Too Much, Tom Wilkinson begins the movie with a voice-over set to pans of an eerily empty office building. He doesn't emerge again for a while, but when he does, he's every bit Clooney's equal.

The movie also features, for nerds interested in such things, a remarkably grown-up Robert Prescott, who played Val Kilmer's nerdy nemesis, Kent, in Real Genius.

2. No Country for Old Men

With artists like the Coen brothers, it's reasonable to fear that early, trailblazing work will be slowly replaced by uninspired, dutiful effort, and the Coens' career arc up to 2007 pushed that fear from reasonable to nearly bulletproof. But No Country stands clearly as one of their best. Fittingly, for such legendarily exacting filmmakers, not one element can be singled out as a weak link -- the acting, writing, cinematography, direction, and sound combine to rivet you from the ominous beginning to the radically understated end. I wrote about No Country at greater length here. I'd say it and the next movie on the list are close to a dead heat for the two best I saw this year, but while Oscar is likely to acknowledge the Coens' brilliance -- fine by me -- the next on the list might be a different story.

1. Ratatouille

Say what you will about Pixar movies, about the trends in animation, about movies that star vermin. The fact is, in a culture increasingly dominated by products for children -- and by that I mean Hannah Montana, yes, but also Deal or No Deal, CSI:Miami, and any number of other things for "grown-ups," har har -- Ratatouille is something that lavishly rewards adult attention. I'm sure kids would get a kick out of it, too, but I'm 33 and childless, and to my mind it featured three of the year's most astonishing scenes. The first involves Remy, our hero, scurrying through underground tunnels and finally reaching a rooftop, from which he (and we) can see the entirety of glittering Paris. It's stunning. The second involves a stuffy (to put it mildly) food critic, who, upon first eating the titular dish, is sent back in his memory to a defining moment of childhood. (My friend Sarah wrote very well about this scene for you last week.) The third comes not long after the second, when the critic -- voiced by Peter O'Toole! -- reads aloud his review of the meal, which review says more about artistry and criticism than most other dozen movies combined.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't let "Starting Out in the Evening" pass you by.
I saw it today and really liked it. Sammy

10:10 PM  

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