Saturday, February 23, 2008

Low Res Oscar Week 2008: The Top 10 (1)


Honorable Mentions:

Into The Wild (Paramount Vantage)
The very definition of an honorable mention: a movie I respected but didn't love. A skillfully put together film with a strong point of view that I happened not to agree with. No shame in that. Sean Penn clearly felt an admiration for Christopher McCandless that swelled to the edges of his film. That didn't make the film any less impressive, though it is likely what kept it at "top 12" rather than "top 5" for me this year. But man, it does have a whole lot to recommend it. Beautiful photography, a penetrating score, warm supporting performances, and Emile Hirsch making a leap up the leading man food chain. If only he hadn't been playing such a d-bag.

No End In Sight (Magnolia Pictures)
If you're looking for the reason I'm going to spend the foreseeable future huddled under a blanket in a double-reinforced steel bunker because the situation in the Middle East is so far gone as to have doomed us all, this movie is why. This is why I never wanted to see An Inconvenient Truth. I heard a lot of "preaching to the converted" remarks made about this movie, as a negative; I'm sorry, but that's such crap. The fact that certain aspects of the population won't subject themselves to the hard truths of the war in Iraq unless you sneak a reel into the middle of Transformers doesn't make these movies a waste of time. Even for someone (me) who counts himself as one of the "converted" this was an eye-opening experience. But man, we are so screwed, you guys.

#10 -- Southland Tales (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
I've really been pulling for this movie to make my Top 10, to tell you the truth. Not because I'm such a contrarian (one look at my #1 film will tell you that), but because I feel there should always be a place in one's Top 10 for the all-guilt-aside best time they had at the movies that year. Be that The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Daniel Craig as James Bond, 300 (if that's your thing), or the whole Grindhouse phenomenon (I have a feeling if I'd seen it on the big screen, it may have made this list as well). So it was with Richard Kelly's great debacle. Did I understand every inch of that plot, in all it's purposeful weirdness? No. But I understood enough of it to allow myself to revel in the moments of inspired comedy and unexpected sadness. Jason at My New Plaid Pants was a big help in getting me all the way there with regard to Justin Timberlake's and Seann William Scott's characters, who are pretty much the key to the whole thing. But this isn't the place to start unraveling that particular ball of string. Like I said, I had a ball watching this, plain and simple. Somewhere, on my map of Film Year 2007 is an image of Mandy Moore screaming "Cockchuggin'!" And thank God for that.

#9 -- The Darjeeling Limited (Fox Searchlight)
When I first saw this movie (back when it was getting backhandedly dismissed by the critical mass -- the year-end retrospectives have been much kinder) I said of it that if Wes Anderson wants to keep making the same movie every three years or so, then I'm totally fine with that because I love them. I think I was being too glib about things back then. This isn't just The Royal Tenenbaums in India, despite the similar dialogue rhythms and idiosyncratic production design. All of Wes Anderson's films take place in a certain universe all its own, granted, but he really branches out in this film, both in the emotional places he's willing to go and the emotional states he's willing to lead his characters to. It's never been exactly "happy endings" with Wes, but they always conclude with a wry smile at the very least. Darjeeling ends with something less reassuring, and I liked that. Not that it's this total bummer. It's got everything I watch a Wes Anderson movie for: the distinctive dialogue, the winningly self-absorbed characters, and the design elements that go all the way to the edges of the screen. So long as he keeps making these movies, I'll keep seeing them. ...Well, here we are again.

#8 -- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Paramount)
I've said it before and I'll say it again, this film feels like Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim collaborated on this project from day one -- like one's vision never existed without the other's. It's such a welcome change from the obtrusiveness that characterized Burton's work on the Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movies. As always, I'll make it plain that I had no previous experience with any of the stage incarnations of Sweeney, but I found Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter's vocal limitations not at all the stumbling blocks others did; in fact, I found their performances to be among the film's stronger virtues. As a fan of Burton's movies for a long time -- there's no budging Edward Scissorhands from my list of all-time favorite movies -- I was happy to see what appeared to be the culmination of everything Burton's been working towards, every visual tendency, every narrative theme was somehow leading him to the demon barber. Sometimes things really must work out for a reason, because check it out.

#7 -- The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.)
I didn't anticipate myself loving this movie the way so many other people did. So long. So ponderous. So reminiscent of Malick. But it won me over, bit by brilliantly rendered bit. First came Roger Deakins's cinematography, which was the perfect bait for the hook. Then that pitch-perfect ensemble of outlaw doofuses, starting with Sam Rockwell and moving on through Paul Schnieder, Jeremy Renner, and Garrett Dillahunt. Casey Affleck, worthy of that Oscar nomination, made for a fine envious weasel. And Brad Pitt was the perfect marriage of ideal casting and a performance that knew when Jesse James's stoicism should fall away to reveal the petty human beneath. Bit by bit, my hardened shell was chipped away, by the design elements, the score, the keenly observed screenplay. Chip, chip, chip. "Uncle!" I said to director Andrew Dominik and the film's small but passionate legion of fans. I feel bad There Will Be Blood came along and stole this film's thunder as the "man's man with a brain" film of choice for 2007 (for whatever strange reason, No Country For Old Men never laid claim to that particular crown; Real Men don't like Oscar frontrunners, I guess). A world where Jesse James drinks up Daniel Plainview's milkshake is one I'd want to live in.

#6 -- Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)
Buoyed by three positively stellar performances -- the justly Oscar-nominated Clooney, Wilkinson, and Swinton -- and a screenplay that steered away from taking down Big Pharma (or whatever the People vs. MacGuffin Industries case that sits blurrily at the center of the film) and towards penetrating character work, Tony Gilroy gave maybe the most surprising film of the year. It shouldn't seem strange that a movie called Michael Clayton is, at its heart, a character study about one Michael Clayton, but with all the legal thriller accoutrements running interference, the fact that we end up digging deep into Clooney's character is somewhat surprising. Especially considering it's Clooney, who, however you may have enjoyed him before, hasn't ever really dug deep into any of his characters before. As an added bonus, Gilroy and Swinton teamed up to burrow right to the heart of her corporate lawyer and offer not so much a counterpoint but a woman whose arc takes off perpendicular to Clayton's. That's the key to the film right there, I think, and what puts it above the kind of Law & Order-writ-large label it's been occasionally given.

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