Friday, February 8, 2008


The following column is reprinted from the Feburary issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

It’s time for that look back through the cinematic looking glass, time to recall the films of 2007 that stood apart, that were either glimpses of filmic poetry or entertained at a higher level. As a longtime film nitcrit I’ve come to favor (and prefer) movies that are ostensibly commercial films that make it to the mainstream marketplace yet are imbued with artistry, authorial vision, or straight-up filmmaking chops. The list below is in no particular order, only three loose groupings.


There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson kicks his raw and nervy epic off with fifteen minutes of wordless visuals, and then begins to crank up the fevered intensity of this astonishing effort. Buoyed by yet another towering, magnetic, uncompromising Daniel Day-Lewis acting turn, this polarizing film probes deep into the hardscrabble heart of the American dream, a dream corrupted with blood and guts, greed and ambition, violence and impotence. Eschewing formula for imagination and experimentation Anderson manages to evoke the unsettling genius of movies like Citizen Kane, Days of Heaven, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller while still creating his own hypnotic and unforgettable convergence of ferocious sound and fury. It’s an eye-opener, exquisitely scaled and elementally moving-a true must-see.

No Country For Old Men. This is undeniably Joel and Ethan Coen’s most sublime effort, a modern western that utilizes the Coen’s typical wryness, their adolescent penchant for gore, and their film student’s acumen for the form and shape of movie’s past, resulting in a fully formed, quiet little masterpiece. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 2005 novel, the movie floats along on the dirty seeds of vengeance and greed, traffics in the slow ooze of blood, and winds itself around as subversive mediation on the soullessness of the new American west. (Not exactly buttered popcorn for the vid kid generation.) For once, the Coen’s throw aside their own legendary archness and the movie’s central tale of hunting and trapping, although punctuated by the crackle of gunshots and the suddenness of viciousness, becomes memorably marked by the ominous reverberations of silence. For once, style is overcome by facility, and the movie, offering no easy or final answers, doesn’t moralize or judge. The perfectly cast, venerable Tommy Lee Jones, playing his twang like a maestro, brings No Country for Old Men home, a home that the Coen’s superbly demonstrate, is both repellant and void, but impossible to take your eyes away from.

Eastern Promises. Slowly and surely Viggo Mortensen is transforming into the kind of Hollywood acting firmament that we see far too little of in contemporary movies. His persona shifts easily from a square-jawed Midwesterner to a California biker boy to the first born of American immigrants, and he can carry a film with just his looks and his eyes, maybe a few gestures and meaningful glances. Eastern Promises is an exercise in genre that is really about peeling away the edges, stripping away the layers until one is left naked and instinctual. The movie glides along while hinting and probing at secrets and deceptions, and Mortensen’s central figure stands firmly astride it all, mostly silent, occasionally tart, and weirdly civil. It’s a wondrous performance, made all the better but the sheer effortlessness the actor displays.

Zodiac. David Fincher’s ominously prescient look at the unsolved serial killings in the bay area in the late sixties manages to be the type of period film (much like the Coen’s No Country) that belies its time and setting; the movie manages to hypnotically take place in the now of its characters while subtly rendering the details of the period. Fincher also creates a policier that doesn’t resolve itself, and a suspense film that refuses to coasts on the ebb-and-flow rhythm of the genre. While it’s quite easy to cite Fincher and his first resounding effort, se7en, as the inspiration/launching pad for dozens of artless (and heartless) horror, suspense, and snuff films since, his readily acknowledged visual acumen and hardscrabble thematic vision seems to flourish in the larger scope of this particular cinematic tale. Finally, a film where the exploitative violence of a series of killings isn’t the payoff—Instead, Zodiac ‘s pleasures are derived from the intercrossing of textures (time and setting shifts, investigative inertia, characters incessantly yapping and smoking, yet another bloodied body), textures which are both the nuts and bolts and the very backbone of the story’s curdled arc. It’s a quiet, contemplative film, and the more impressive for it, spilling over with the sort of nuance and detail that will stay with you long after having viewed it.

Into the Wild. Sean Penn, working with Jon Krakauer’s 1996 bestselling real life book about the inner and outer journey of Christopher McCandless, winds up fashioning a twisty road movie, one without the expected burst of wild exhilaration or heady meaningfulness that typically characterize the genre. The landscape, captured exquisitely by cinematographer Eric Gautier, provides the film with an occasional burst of raffishness, but Penn the filmmaker sticks tight to the young man’s genuinely heartfelt but generally unfocused and ultimately absurd quest. The movie is part distress tale, part pilgrimage, part eulogy. It’s a profoundly sensual, physical film, unafraid of silence, and peopled with on-the-road eccentrics, sages, and loser, as Penn’s acute eye captures the conflicting vibe of magnificent risk, naïve indulgence, and inevitable doom and gloom, and it will stick deep in yer gut long after the end credits roll.

Killer of Sheep. When Charles Burnett was a budding UCLA film student that last thing he probably thought was that the student film he was cobbling together on 16mm stock, with many unknown and amateur players, and editing in his spare time, would wind up becoming a film school staple. His 1977 student film, Killer of Sheep, finally, deservedly, got at least a limited mass release, complete with a newly restored print and a resolution of the musical/soundtrack issues that have prevented the film from achieving a commercial release so far. Burnett’s movie, a totally original effort set in the post-riot Watts section of L.A., eschews the blaxploitation of the time for a grounded and strangely muted humanism. The title character (played by Henry Gayle Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse, just plods along, as does his neighborhood, and seemingly all of his environment. The film shuns plot dynamics for an incidental feel, and the screen just simmers the with the opaque stock of class structure, refusing to even hint at the politics of oppression, content with just presenting a landscape overtaken by malaise and quiet discontent.

Rescue Dawn. in this bare bones retelling of the tale of American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, shot down in 1966, captured as a POW, who became an eventual escapee. Maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog intentionally adheres to the prison break genre, but is beset with his usual preoccupations; i.e. the harsh beauty of nature, the inherent surrealness of being a stranger in a strange land, while also being yet another exploration of an impossible dreamer. Dieter is singularly inhabited by one of the big screen’s ablest chameleon’s, Christian Bale, an actor who keeps inhabiting characters that stand alone, allowing no connective tissue at all from role to role. It’s a harrowing, fascinating piece, and it fits snugly into Herzog’s estimable cannon.

Michael Clayton
. An old-school thinking man’s thriller that is actually made for grown-ups, a movie about a low level fixer played by George Clooney caught up in the heady world of evil corporations and corpulent lawyers that doesn’t shy away from compelling character development and purposefully avoids the overt telegraphing and obviously cued twists and turns that are part and parcel of most contempo thrillers. The movie’s one iota of predictability is that it sets itself up as a fable of redemption, but writer/director Tony Gilroy’s stubborn refusal to follow a predictable generic path, compounded by his extremely measured (but effective) pacing even calls that into doubt. Once again George Clooney makes a superb career choice.

I’m Not There. Are you ready for film as cubist painting? Or perhaps as a savory collage? Maybe even a sprawling fever dream? Todd Haynes cocky and confident meditation on all things Bob Dylan is also a wacky musical, a biopic, a filmic essay all rolled into one, with six actors (including the sublime Cate Blanchett) taking on the character and characteristics of Dylan’s songs, his personas, and even some of the aspects of his actual history. Risky, overflowing with minutiae, throbbing with clues and suggestiveness, a full blown cinematic allegory, it will not please many audiences, but for those who hitch up for the ride, it just about demands repeated viewings.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. 83-year old Siney Lumet outdoes himself with this family drama masquerading as a crime thriller. Lumet, the man who shaped Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and Serpico (among many others) is a whiz with actors (in this case primarily Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as two sad sack brothers), and unparalleled when it comes to evoking a slice-of-life locales and emotional interactions. The movie’s wind-up and flashback structure only powers it’s bleak and powerhouse finale.

The Host. An astute an ingenious (and absolutely hilarious) monster movie from South Korean director Joon-ha Bong. The movie, hugely popular at home, and an art house hit here, is a kitchen sink juxtaposition of family comedy, digital monster movie, paranoid big-brother-is-screwing-up fable, and a pulpy action banger. The movie flows artfully from somberness to farcical (think Larry Cohen or George Romero meet David Cronenberg), and it fares equally well as a social satire, slapstick comedy, and monster mash. Highly entertaining.

3:10 to Yuma. The western, at it’s best—is as essential an American mythology as we have, encompassing and including the age old debate concerning man-made laws and intrinsic morality and the continual pull between self-reliance and the tug of community, all the while utilizing a stage that features both the pure splendors of open land versus the muscle and sweat fueled swelled pride of towns in their infancy. James Mangold, a filmmaker on-the-rise (Heavy,Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line) seems to understand all this, even acknowledge it, in his newly remade 3:10 to Yuma, a 1957 western helmed by Delmer Davies, both movies as lean and austere as their shared title. While Mangold’s movie doesn’t achieve classic western status (the original was also a minor gem), and it’s extended finale strains the tenants of plausibility, it’s a fine character-driven actioneer and a skillfully enacted western, lithe and acute, a genre remake that manages to be both faithful and astute.

Grindhouse. A throw-back double feature dually dreamed up and executed by fun-loving auteurs Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino, this one does it’s best to re-carve out the good old bad days, and it largely succeeds. Grindhouse is presented and has been conceived as a boldfaced paean to the trashy ‘70’s and it unfolds with scratchy film stock, missing reels, and four downright hilarious trailers, missing reels, and four downright hilarious trailers. The two features, Rodriquez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof both cruise along at 85 minutes, fueled by equal doses of comic brutality, eye-winking sensationalism, and highfalutin copycatting. Both efforts are filled with gratuitous violence, tempered with quasi-redeemable characters, and chock full of purely exploitive razzle-dazzle movie-movie pleasure. It’s a hell of a good time.

The Bourne Ultimatum. When it comes to the modern day suspense thriller, audiences know what to expect- cold war pulp, inflated hokum, all of it typically pumped up and inflated with high tech gimmickry, ‘yippie-kay-yay” dialogue, and a profusion of eye-catching detonations. The Bourne films, including the newest, The Bourne Ultimatum, are sprightly archetypes---agile, resourceful, well-made action films that pack a wallop without subtracting astuteness. As well evidenced by this third entry, the Bourne movies are acutely entertaining, action movies devoid of steroids, and star Matt Damon has grown up to be a convincingly legit central figure. When you come down to it director Paul Greengrass has fashioned a movie buff’s wet dream---clever and subtle yet frenetic and visceral, filled to the brim with a cinematic bravura that seems earned and unalloyed.

Oscar Did Ignore, but You Shouldn’t: Justin Timberlake and Sarah Michelle Geller in Southland Tales, Charlotte Gainsborough in I’m Not There, Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma, John C Reilly in Walk Hard, Michael Shannon in Bug, Don Cheadle in Talk to Me, Catherine Keener in Into the Wild, Steve Zahn in Rescue Dawn, Kerri Russell in Waitress, Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Song Kang-ho in The Host, Jason Batemen in Juno, and less we forget Multi-Taskers:Philip Seymour Hoffman in Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men, American Gangster, In the Valley of Ellah, Grindhouse

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