Monday, January 21, 2008


Although the year 2007 was somewhat traumatic for me personally, movie-wise things were marvelous. TCM finally came to Canada, bringing with it a wagonload of films that’ve been on my wish list forever. Not to mention all kinds of wonderful surprises. As someone said to me this year, "TCM – my new best friend". I’ve also loved being a regular contributor to Stinkylulu’s Supporting Actress Smackdown – a fun feature and one that’s allowed me to discover, rediscover and discuss film performances from the past. As well as enjoying the observations of the site’s other commentators. Along with TCM – or, who knows, maybe because of it – my interest in seeing new movies has also been re-sparked. I finally got a computer this year. So I’ve had access to all the internet buzz as well. Alerting me to the fact that 2007 ‘s been a year highlighted by a real upsurge in the number of quality films on offer. With the Oscars almost here, I thought now would be a good time to list my own favorites from the year. So here goes :

My idea of roughing it is getting locked out of my apartment. So I approached this "man against nature" saga with some trepidation. No need. I’m still not planning on buying a backpack. But any reservations I had about "Into the Wild" have all been swept away. Sean Penn’s lovingly crafted film captures the exhilaration of being on the road along with the beauty and the danger of solitude. Emile Hirsch is bang-on as the go-for-broke wanderer – a perfect fit in appearance, ability and commitment. And sufficiently charismatic to carry off one of the movie’s key concepts - that this boy has an indelible effect on the lives he touches. The look and feel of the piece communicates genuine passion. And director Penn coaxes great performances from his supporting cast , all of which helps bring the enterprise to a moving climax, sweeping viewers out of the theatre on a wave of lump-in-the-throat euphoria.

After Ben Affleck’s quietly triumphant return to acting as George Reeves in "Hollywoodland", he’s amped up his reputation even further with a fine directorial debut. "Gone Baby Gone" neatly captures a vivid working-class Boston atmosphere,with gritty dialogue and visuals zeroing in on a cast of characters whose lives are changed forever by the kidnapping of a child. A star-making turn by Affleck’s baby brother Casey supplies a distinct new riff on the less-is-more theory. And while the script offers no easy answers, it does present fine acting opportunities, memorably embraced by Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Amy Ryan.

On the face of it, a Merchant-Ivory style nostalgia piece, but this one’s fuelled by deftly manipulated ambiguities. It’s mounted with period splendor and anchored by an achingly good performance from young James McAvoy. Otherwise, the film’s crucial character is Briony, played by three different actresses as she ages from the wilful child who sets events in motion to the elderly woman who brings things to a resonant and surprising conclusion. For that segment, the powers at the helm brought in the heavy artillery – Vanessa Redgrave. And boy, does she deliver!

A creatively composed film biography of French singing legend Edith Piaf, with an amazing central performance by Marion Cotillard. Words like "astonishing" and "jaw-dropping" occur regularly in reviews of this portrayal. And they’re justified. Cotillard captures the fire, the passion, the restless, unruly, self-destructive streak and – perhaps most surprisingly – the earthy genius. It’s a shame the Golden Globes ceremony was cancelled. Cotillard won – but prospective Academy voters weren’t able to see her out of costume and character. She’s a fresh young beauty – about as far in appearance from Piaf as Meg Ryan. Which makes the transformation all the more impressive. The fantastic make-up helps, of course, but it’s just one of the elements the actress uses to create a genuinely unforgettable performance. Obviously, like Edith Piaf, Cotillard has her own inner flame. As for the film itself, its constant time-shifts have been criticized by some as messy and disorienting. But I think they work beautifully as signifiers of Piaf’s own turbulent life. Especially since - in the midst of the swirl - the movie offers such a compelling central figure.


Unflinching - but not unfunny - "The Savages" follows a grown brother and sister as they come to terms - or try to - with their father's descent into dementia-laced old age. Dad's never been a nurturer. And the siblings themselves share a prickly and problematic relationship, captured beautifully by an acerbic script. None of which makes the long forced march through hospital and nursing home corridors any less messy, exhausting or traumatic. It's a gruelling - and for most of us - prophetic odyssey. I wouldn't change a note of the three principal performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney achieve unbelievable levels of dysfunctional intimacy - brittle and tender and everything in between. Stage veteran Philip Bosco's work as their father is - no two ways about it - devastating - whether angry, muddled or just confronting the frightening fact that he's a catastrophe in progress. Tamara Jenkins deserves massive credit as director and screenwriter. She guides us through a long dark tunnel. And - at the end - more tunnel. But illuminated now by the things we've learned about the Savages and about ourselves.

(6) 3:10 TO YUMA
A solid suspenseful western buoyed by tremendous in-the-groove performances from Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It may not bring back the genre but it’s an admirably put together stand-alone achievement.

Sarah Polley deserves kudos for (a) writing a sensitive screen adaptation of Alice Munro’s novel about an Alzheimer’s patient (b) choosing Julie Christie to star in it and (c) guiding the actress to the most fully accomplished performance of her long and intriguing career. Christie’s incandescent – smart, timelessly beautiful, scared, intriguingly ambiguous and quietly heart-wrenching.

It’s neither the disaster some were predicting or the classic others were hoping for. But it is a worthy film version of Sondheim’s stage play. Tim Burton’s typical visual and tonal touch remains distinctive. But he’s taken a step forward here. Things seem less juvenile, a little more substantial. The orchestrations are wonderful. As for the performances, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter acquit themselves well – acting and singing. Sacha Baron Cohen, Timothy Spall and Alan Rickman are – as usual - tough sells for me. But child actor Edward Landers carves out an impressive niche for himself, providing "Sweeney Todd" with some of its most effective moments – musical and dramatic.

My feelings about this one are a little off-kilter. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. I figured I was in for another "300" – all strident pro-war rhetoric and homophobia. Instead, I got a cleverly reconstituted take on a famously impenetrable literary classic. I want to recommend "Beowulf" – yet I find I must make this proviso. See it in IMAX 3D if you possibly can. The visuals are frankly astounding. I couldn’t get over the ground-level shots of approaching and departing figures, not to mention the extensive and eye-popping action finale. Having seen it in IMAX 3D, I’m reluctant to watch it again on DVD. It does have a surprisingly literate script – and the motion capture images are certainly the best I’ve ever seen. But I’m still afraid a small-screen, non-stereoscopic "Beowulf" will be a severely diminished kettle of fish. But "Beowulf" does exist in IMAX 3D. That’s what I saw. And that’s what I’m ranking as one of the year’s top 10 movie experiences.

(10) JUNO
Show-offy, yes – and maybe not quite as smart as it thinks it is. But it does come close. And frankly there’s too much good stuff here to ignore. Ellen Page has a bright future, but I suspect this will probably remain her signature role. The character – with her slipstream of ultra-quotable dialogue – is already a pop culture icon. Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s become a media darling – and an Original Screenplay Oscar’s a very real possibility. She’s earned it - this piece bubbles with fresh surprises. Nicest of all these, perhaps – the wonderful parts she’s written for Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, both of whom make the absolute most of the material with skills we didn’t even know they had.

Also worth a comment or two:

The atmosphere of insistent dread that characterizes so many Cronenberg films is certainly present here. Yet "Eastern Promises" stands as the director’s most accessible and possibly his most satisfying work.
It’s also a career high-point for Viggo Mortensen – deeply fascinating and so immersed in his Russian mobster role it’s uncanny. The actor’s missed out on Oscar nominations before. But ignoring this performance would represent a real miscarriage of justice. I’ve always thought Mortensen and Ed Harris came from the same gene pool. Those eyes, those jawlines – not to mention the fact that both bristle with the same kind of man’s man charisma. And – of course – they’re both exceptional actors. The two appeared together a couple of years ago in Cronenberg’s "A History of Violence". And I could never undertsand why Harris and William Hurt didn’t exchange roles. I know I’m in the minority here. But I thought Hurt’s awkwardly eccentric performance as Mortensen’s gangster brother was terrible. As one internet pundit described it, Hurt plays it "like a flamboyant drag queen who’s had a stroke." Let’s face it, Mortensen and Harris were born to play brothers. As it happens the pair are co-starring in an upcoming project (with Renee Zellweger). It’s a western called "Appaloosa" and Harris is directing too. He and Mortensen probably aren’t playing brothers. But, whatever the case, it’ll definitely be great to see these two – who’ve both contributed stunning work in 2007 – working together again.

So sue me. I enjoyed it (and I thought the first one - in ’98 - was a yawn). I’ve been slow to warm to Blanchett. For my money, she provided the one sour note in "The Talented Mr.Ripley". And the Oscar for her Kate Hepburn impersonation was just uncalled for. But, you know, she was pretty terrific in last year’s "Notes on a Scandal". And with her second stab at Elizabeth, Blanchett’s totally in control. It’s practically become de rigeur to dump on this project. But – even with the spotlight-chasing splendor of the costumes and sets – Blanchett still maintains full and glorious control of center stage. A tour de force. A lot of bloggers seem to be worried the actress might just grab an Oscar nomination for it. I say she’s earned it.
And a final word of praise for the film’s other royals – Jordi Molla’s King of Spain and Samantha Morton’s Queen of Scots. They’re both eminently and regally kick-ass.

So much is right about this extravagant and rather ingenious fantasy that I’m willing to overlook the overdose of tired Monty Python style comedy and the painfully awkward De Niro performance ( as a swishy pirate). The story moves at a furious clip; it looks great and leading man Charlie Cox is a fabulous find. So, by the way, is Ben Barnes, who appears in the prologue as Cox’s father. And both –as it happens – are now toplining expensive new projects. Michelle Pfeiffer’s wicked witch may fall just the tiniest bit short so far as vocal projection is concerned – but her energy is beautifully pitched and visually she’s perfection. Pfeiffer's taut, almost scary beauty – and the fearless use she makes of it – anoint the role as one of Stardust"’s most memorable features.

Hardly even seen here, this Indian film is a handsomely produced, well-acted exploration of the troubled
relationship between the famous activist and his son. The movie India selected to represent them at the Oscars this year, "Eklavya – The Royal Guard", didn’t even make the final cut. "Ghandi My Father" would have been a much wiser choice. Of particular note in the film is Darshan Jariwala’s exceptional work as Gandhi – to my mind, a far more intriguing creation than Ben Kingsley’s award-laden turn from the 80’s.

Both ambitious films – to me both compromised by crucially misjudged performances. I’ll admit I wasn’t comfortable with the shift in focus near the end of "No Country". But much of that had to do with the fact that I didn’t buy into Tommy Lee Jones’ overly folksy mannerisms. I simply found him an unconvincing spokesman for the critical theme of despair in the face of pervasive evil. I wasn’t that transfixed with Bardem’s intense but one-note villain either – a sort of relentless land-based version of the shark from "Jaws". Kelly Macdonald impressed me retroactively when I found out her southern fried trailer park Carla Jean was hiding a Scottish accent. But I still didn’t buy her last minute transformation into existential debater. Certainly most of the film works very well as a tough, suspenseful crime drama. The transition to out and out meditation on life simply required more – or better - juice than I found in most of these performances. What I did admire – without reservation – was Josh Brolin’s marvelous work as the man in the middle of it all. 2007’s been a landmark year for him. And - for Brolin - the future looks bright.
"There Will Be Blood" is also impressive on many levels. It looks terrific; I love the score. And it definitely hurtles along with a great forward momentum. I’m afraid I’m in that small camp (it does exist, though) of people who weren’t all that sold on Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Daniel Plainview. I know Plainview despises people; I know he doesn’t empathaize with them. So when he addresses them, he’s not relating, he’s just performing. But I guess it’s DDL’s performance of the performance that I find unnecessarily actorish, overblown and unconvincing. Actors can – and do – deliver stylized performances, inundating audiences with acres of verbiage, their characters duplicitous, calculating. And yet they can still sound like characters – not like actors. Peter O’Toole’s over the top but utterly convincing in "The Lion in Winter". Kevin Spacey’s motor-mouth sales-pitches in "The Big Kahuna" are pretty much one big bag of baloney. But he sounds real delivering them. There’s just too much self-conscious artifice dripping from Day-Lewis’ Plainview. Of course, everyone hears John Huston in the performance. But I also sense a visual/ vocal mix of the senior Huston (Walter) and Sam Elliott. Both of these men have done great work. But both have exhibited an occasional weakness for self-conscious, self-indulgent hamming too. Check out Elliott in this year’s gilded turkey "The Golden Compass". Daniel Day-Lewis has power and skill to spare. I don’t deny that. I just think he’s misjudged his effects here – and it undermines the project. For me, the part doesn’t need a different actor, just a different approach. This is, as I indicated, very much a minority opinion. Destined to be drowned out, I’m sure, in a sea of wild applause, when Daniel Day-Lewis accepts what’s looking to be an inevitable Best Actor Oscar next month. Young Paul Dano plays Plainview’s nemesis, Paul Sunday – and I love the ambiguity of the fact that the script never commits as to whether Paul and Eli are actually the same person. Unfortunately, I didn’t really respond to Dano’s (to me) amateurish acting. This is someone who performed memorably as a child in "L.I.E.". Not so much in "Little Miss Sunshine", where he was the least impressive member of a generally over-rated cast. In "There Will Be Blood", he seems to have regressed even further. Certainly he’s unequipped for an acting duel with Daniel Day-Lewis. So with DDL playing to the balcony and Dano way over his head, the dynamic required to make the piece fly never seems to materialize. Still, as I said, the project’s ambitious and the film is accomplished on many levels. A substantial piece of work – but a flawed one.

"Zodiac"’s a painstaking police procedural – far too long and too restrained for its own good. It also misuses some fine actors. Jake Gyllenhaal pretty much flatlines his way through the picture while Robert Downey disappoints big-time with a show-offy "ain’t I cool" turn that isn’t cool at all.
Angelina Jolie immerses herself fully in "A Mighty Heart", incidentally illustrating once more her flair for accents. But in the end this is just another police procedural. Carefully made, respectful to its subject but strangely uncompelling.

I must admit I expected something edgier (and I’m not that edgy). Probably something funnier, too.
There’s nothing wrong with the premise – that each person has to find his own road to functionality – and that it’s better to support people than to deride and ostracize them. Better for them. Better for you.
But "Lars" is surprisingly soft-centred and sentimental, never emerging as a very convincing argument to support its theme. At root, the film itself is rather non-functional. Imagine a Disney movie about a blow-up sex doll. Timid small-town loner Lars sends away for one (named Bianca) and basically embarks on a platonic romance with her. Bianca becomes a kind of Pollyanna glad girl to the whole (inconceivably supportive) town . It doesn’t sound like it would work. And it doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned. Which is not to say the film doesn’t offer some very good acting. Ryan Gosling does fine as Lars – his tics and mannerisms never seem false or actorish. He makes the character live and breathe. It just seems there’s very little air left for the rest of the town. Except for Patricia Clarkson. I didn’t even know she was in it. Certainly her performance hasn’t stirred up much fuss in the press. But I’d rank it as – possibly – her best work. Clarkson’s small-town doctor/psychologist is a fascinatingly original creation – a kind of deeply compassionate deadpan. Tremendously wise and tremendously droll. I don’t know quite how she pulls it off. I don’t think she ever raises her voice. But congratulation to her. ‘Cause she delivers one of 2007’s very finest acting achievements.

A little bit more…

I’ve dealt with "Hairspray" and "Enchanted" in an earlier post. Both have enjoyable elements. Neither’s a classic. Bottom of the barrel items for the year included "The Golden Compass"( a titanic waste of time and money), "300" ( loud and quite offensive), "The Last Legion" (Aishwarya Rai , Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley trapped in an insufficiently funded throwback to 60’s peplum) - and "Sunshine", pretentious tedium dressed up as sci-fi.

And going from the worst back to the best, here’s a breakdown of my


Best Actor
1. VIGGO MORTENSEN "Eastern Promises"
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman "The Savages"
3. James McAvoy "Atonement"
4. Emile Hirsch "Into the Wild"
5. Josh Brolin "No Country for Old Men"

Honorable Mention:
Russell Crowe "3:10 to Yuma"
Christian Bale "3:10 to Yuma"
Johnny Depp "Sweeney Todd"
Casey Affleck "Gone Baby Gone"
Charlie Cox "Stardust"
George Clooney "Michael Clayton"
Gordon Pinsent "Away from Her"
Ryan Gosling "Lars and the Real Girl"

Best Actress
1. MARION COTILLARD "La Vie en Rose"
2. Julie Christie "Away from Her"
3. Laura Linney "The Savages"
4. Ellen Page "Juno"
5. Cate Blanchett "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"

Honorable Mention:
Helena Bonham Carter "Sweeney Todd"
Ashley Judd "Bug"

Best Supporting Actor
2. Ed Harris "Gone Baby Gone
3. Darshan Jariwala "Gandhi My Father"
4. Hal Holbrook "Into the Wild"
5. Edward Landers "Sweeney Todd"

Honorable Mention:
Armin Mueller-Stahl "Eastern Promises"
Jason Bateman "Juno"
J.K. Simmons "Juno"
Michael Cera "Juno"
Jean-Pierre Martins "La Vie en Rose"
William Hurt "Into the Wild"
Jordi Molla "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Harry Connick Jr. "Bug"
Dillon Freasier "There Will Be Blood"
Kevin J. O'Connor "There Will Be Blood"
Sydney Pollack "Michael Clayton"
Ranvir Shorey "Aaja Nachle"

Best Supporting Actress
1. PATRICIA CLARKSON "Lars and the Real Girl"
2. Romola Garai "Atonement"
3. Jennifer Garner "Juno"
4. Samantha Morton "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
5. Vanessa Redgrave "Atonement"

Honorable Mention:
Amy Madigan "Gone Baby Gone"
Catherine Keener "Into the Wild"
Amy Ryan "Gone Baby Gone"
Bhumika Chawla "Gandhi My Father"
Allison Janney "Juno"
Olivia Thirlby "Juno"

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