Reverse Shot's "Two Cents" for 2007

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Two Cents:
Reverse Shot's (Semi) Annual Year-End Awards

Best Unheralded Trend: More Great Films by Female Filmmakers
There Will Be Blood is superb cinema, but in too many quarters that widely agreed-upon climax to 2007 has received an unmistakably manly brand of Great Work exaltation. And as Manohla Dargis observed in her wowed review, “Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women.” But amidst all this testosterone behind the camera, women filmmakers consistently and disproportionately racked up critical plaudits this year, often in feature debuts (and against the usual odds). If it came from a national cinema (say, Romania), this clutch of strong films would be recognized as a “wave” of success: Away from Her (Sarah Polley), Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev), Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran), The Savages (Tamara Jenkins), and In Between Days (So Yong Kim) form a distinct top tier, but don’t write off Waitress (Adrienne Shelly), Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (Rory Kennedy), Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud), Stephanie Daley (Hilary Brougher), Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal), The Namesake (Mira Nair), or Red Road (Andrea Arnold). Would it have hurt to print this observation instead of any one of the evergreen stories about box-office doomsaying, stars acting against type, or new directions in animation? —Nicolas Rapold

goofy01.jpgThe Year’s Most Chilling Movie…
…concerned not aliens, predators, eagles, sharks, nor even wild hogs. It featured a dog, and it wasn't exactly a movie so much as a Disney short gummed to the beginning of National Treasures: Book of Secrets. How to Hook Up Your Home Theater follows Goofy as he struggles to bring his home entertainment standards up to those of his neighbor across the street. We see him drooling over various components and larger and larger televisions at the titanic "Shiny Stuff" store, and follow him home as he clumsily attempts to assemble his new prizes. Gags on large instruction manuals and excessive remote controls ensue. Don't bother asking why Disney felt they needed this fanciless screech of animation to preface a movie that features Nic Cage and a kidnapped president spelunking beneath Mount Vernon and climaxes with Oscar royalty Helen Mirren pouring bottled water on some rocks near Mount Rushmore to reveal a gigantic underground city of gold. If a reaction of a light chuckle and a "now on to the serious stuff" was intended, why did this throwaway leave me feeling optically and mentally molested? I don't know if it dishonors the legacy of Goofy “How To” shorts dating back to the fifties, but it's a minor travesty on its own. Without overthinking the thing, it seems a depressing symptom of sickness that this lust for the best, most expensive electronics is now universal enough to be "satirized" in this most faux-benign of packages. Saddest of all are the barely noticeable BUY, OBEY signs at the store, a pathetic indication that someone on the creative staff actually thought that this short was subversive, and not consumerist propaganda itself. Drawn partially in a new "paperless" digital production style, the look is flat but decent enough, hinting that in fifty years or so digital animation will be able to produce something a tenth as fine as Bambi. Gawrsh! —Justin Stewart

juno_phone.jpgMost Confused Two Minutes in a Theater
Was it just us, or is Juno aka Diablo Cody’s little snide aside about Morgan Freeman not only factually incorrect but also inadvertently racist? It’s admittedly baffling at first when Juno picks up her hamburger phone (which she later outwardly calls her “hamburger phone” to the person she’s talking to, in case we don’t know how deliciously idiosyncratic her tastes are, but I digress) and snarks to her friend, “It’s Morgan Freeman, I’m here to collect your bone.” There were some scattered titters in the audience, but I wrinkled my forehead: You’re trying to tell me something aren’t you, Diablo? Okay, so, collecting your bone…right…okay, sounds like The Bone Collector. Okay, got it, that sleazy thriller starring Morgan Freeman. Wait, wait, a second, Morgan Freeman’s not in The Bone Collector…what gives? I didn’t see that movie, but wasn’t it Denzel Washington, starring alongside Angelina Jolie? Yes, yes, it was. So, okay, does Juno know that? Because she seems to know….you know, everything. All of her other jokes are meant to hit with heat-seeking accuracy, and judging by how much the word “witty” has been thrown around willy-nilly in regards to her debut screenplay, it seems odd that such a gaffe would slip through the sure hands of the new voice of her (my?!) generation, not to mention the keen overlording of director Jason Reitman, whose Thank You for Smoking similarly had the stench of wit (or was that the putrid, rotting stink of fish being shot in a barrel?). I may never know whether or not Juno/Diablo was aware that Morgan Freeman wasn’t in The Bone Collector, but I do know that it doesn’t really matter either way, since it’s either an intentional or mindless racial equation. And oh yeah, it’s not funny, either. —Michael Koresky

Least Appetizingly Titled Double Bill: Feast of Love followed by The Reaping

Hugest Disappointment: The Brave One
Take one mostly respectable celebrity not generally known for irrational behavior. Add one spotty but brilliant director widely noted for thematic coherence. Raise expectations, simmer the anticipatory pot… and then spring this poor man’s Death Wish about a radio show host and her vigilante revenge scheme. Exploitative Alan-Parkerish Central Park attack? Check. Laughably facile recovery and pondering of trauma? Check. Terrence Howard embarrassing himself as a sensitive cop with a pained expression? Check twice. Try as one might, the normal patterns of both Neil Jordan and Jodie Foster are strangely absent here, replaced by right-wing bloodlust and berserk rationales capped with the kind of meretricious “sensitivity” that only Hollywood could perpetrate. Few things can approach the ridiculousness with which Foster stalks her prey, has some second thoughts, does it, and then… has conflicting emotions. (Don’t even ask about the call-in show where she weeps over the responses.) Even law-and-order types will turn away at the ludicrous shredding of victims’ pain for the sake of a flimsy message movie: right or left, nobody gets away clean in this lurid anomaly. —Travis Mackenzie Hoover

Best Action Sequence(s): We Own the Night
It was an unexpected delight to find in this year’s most rigorously heavy classic policier-cum-family drama two of the year’s best, most nimble action sequences. Forget the easy kinesis of The Bourne Ultimatum’s nervous, shaky setups (“They channel the unease of contemporary reality!”), James Gray’s expert cutting and camera placements made We Own the Night’s drug bust gone awry and (digital) rain-soaked car chase burst off the screen. Extra points for rendering the pair almost silently—the forced hush of the drug den is only surpassed in unnerving quality by the constant clack of the windshield wipers that underscores the chase. Bonus points for creating unique visual textures for both—the dealer’s den is a near hallucination, with the drug powder in the air refracting light into a warm heavenly luminosity; the color-drained chase looking at times almost as if it was chiseled from granite. But what makes these two sequences engrossing and wholly successful is that Gray, a real filmmaker, completed the unsexy work required for classical storytelling and provided characters worth investing in, and an airtight narrative that pointed to these key moments without ever allowing itself to be upstaged by them. —Jeff Reichert

shootemup2.jpgPaul Verhoeven Award: Shoot ‘Em Up
I’ve got nothing bad to say about Black Book, but for my money the best Paul Verhoeven movie of this year was Michael Davis’s woefully misunderstood Shoot ‘Em Up, an aggressively retarded, ingeniously of-the-moment satire of Americanism and recent, intensified continuity action flicks. Like Verhoeven’s best American works, it’s a simultaneous handjob for and fuck-you to the type of ambulatory sebaceous glands that would go see a movie called Shoot ‘Em Up, and it alternates between outlandish cartoon set-pieces (Clive Owen’s sharpshooter Smith uses his gun to spin a playground carousel so that Paul Giamatti’s dastardly sniper villain is unable to lock a bead on the baby lying on top of it) and punishing ventures into sadism. If the film lacks the philosophical understanding of a RoboCop or Starship Troopers, it’s nevertheless a lucid interrogation of the fascism of the action hero and the hateful cruelty of what passes for spectacle in latter-day genre-trash. —Brendon Bouzard

Most Gruesome Twosome: Alfred Molina and Lasse Hallstrom
The alliance of Scorsese and DiCaprio may seem ever more unholy (surely, the rumored Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a joke, right?), yet the collaborative working relationship of Lasse Hallstrom and Alfred Molina has, after just two films, begun to seem like a most reliably awful pairing. Though Molina has a tendency toward the sort of eye-bugging character work that makes him a natural for Spider-Man villains and Julie Taymor leading men, Lasse Hallstrom has had an especially magical touch in helping Molina dip into unforeseen reservoirs of pudgy, flop-sweating crapitude. Way back in 2000’s underwear skidmark Chocolat, Hallstrom cast Molina as a pious, pleasure-denying bishop who, climactically giving into temptation, collapses in a chocolate shop’s storefront window, engorging himself on the delights of the cocoa bean, his face a post-rimjob of brown decadence. As if on a mission to top that agonizing display, Hallstrom and Molina teamed up again this year for the preposterous, obnoxious faux biopic of faux biographer Clifford Irving, The Hoax. As Irving’s reluctant confidante and the film’s grating sidekick, Molina is all bloated agony and mewling humility, directed by Hallstrom as if he’s a Mad TV special guest. But perhaps Molina is the true Hallstrom muse: with their glib, wildly wavering tones, they transform human experience into showy, and doughy, burlesque. —MK

Best Double-Dip: Tsai Ming-liang, master of the shock (The Wayward Cloud) and the lullaby (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone)
Worst Triple-Dip: Philip Seymour Hoffman, stretched thinner this year than pulled pork

Quiet Times Award: Quiet City and Into Great Silence
Not Quite Runner Up: Dead Silence
Quiet is the new loud, right? The year’s best documentary and the shining light to emerge from the 2007 mumblecore vintage both conjured drama from silence; Into Great Silence from fanatically adhering to the same the ascetic code as its religious subjects, Quiet City by pushing the regular lapses in twentysomething conversation to the point of near-meaning. Actually, each in their own way becomes among the loudest works of the year—by removing the spoken word from its usual pole position in narrative driving, these films retrain us to listen to those things generally the domain of foley-filler: the creaking of doors and ancient furniture, the sound of an elevated train the distance, footsteps pounding grass. Dead Silence (from the creators of the first Saw) attempted the same kind of subversion—every time its ventriloquist ghost dummy killer (yep) is about to strike, the soundtrack goes quiet. Unfortunately, ventriloquist ghost dummy killers are inherently not scary, and the break in sound only provided the audience a chance to insert their own, derogatory audio track. Somehow, I don’t think audience participation was an intended part of the menu. –JR

charliewilsonswar.jpgWorst Poster: Charlie Wilson’s War
Not that it turned out to be misleading or anything, but this horrific, glossy one-sheet, with two aging Hollywood royals gazing into each other’s eyes with all the passion of narcotized lab rats, was off-puttingly glib and punishingly overlit. To make matters worse, sandwiched in between Hanks’s smug squint and Roberts’ equine gaze is the overly beloved Philip Seymour Hoffman, mustachioed within an inch of his life and peering straight at Hanks as though he’s about to give him, and us, a noogie. Cherry on top: the suspiciously non copy-edited tagline—“Who said they couldn’t bring down the Soviet empire.[sic]” Runner up: That stupid Dan in Real Life poster with Steve Carell gingerly resting his head on a stack of syrupy pancakes. —MK

Worst Trailer: We Own the Night
We Own the Night may work from a template, or if we’re feeling generous, from a time-tested formula, or if we’re being really generous, an essential dramatic framework, but is it really so banal that it deserves this risible, paint-by-numbers hackjob preview? It’s doubtful that anyone outside of the small faction of James Gray aficionados could find themselves tempted to see this late-Eighties cops-and-drug-dealers genre piece based on these three minutes, a prime example of just how much Hollywood distrusts its audiences. The on-screen font, directly lifted from The Departed (in a subliminal echo of that film’s tough, serious-minded, spiritual-brothers-on-either-side-of-the-law thing), spells out the Big Themes (Two Brothers/ Two Worlds!) as well as the requisite serious guy-movie buzzwords (loyalty!); meanwhile the quick cutting images give us all the expected plot points, not to mention the (ultimately, admittedly perfect) distillation of Eva Mendes’ girlfriend character, revealed both in one aurally disconnected exchange (she: “Baby, you could be killed,” he: “It’s gonna be okay.”) and a memorably sinuous, crazily low-lit shot of her walking slow-mo down a narrow hellish-red hallway in a bouncy bustier. Granted, the film occasionally rose above this catalogue of banalities, but when first viewed, my friend and I burst out in guffaws—was this really one of the two or three “serious, adult films” that the studios would be releasing in 2007? —MK

sydneypollack.jpgThe Keep It Comin' Award: Sydney Pollack
Casting directors might disagree on who's right for certain roles, but when it comes to casting corrupt lawerly suits, they are in accordance that Sydney Pollack's the man for the job. His villains don't have to open their mouths for you to know they own a home for every season and there's no moral truism they can't twist and loop if it means profit. It might be that he took his own The Firm a little too seriously, but the notes he took on Hackman, Harris, and especially Brimley on that set paid off if they at all informed Pollack's masterful role as magnate Victor “Just Knocking Some Balls Around” Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, and subsequent rehashes in 2002's incredibly forgettable Changing Lanes and 2007's Michael Clayton. Tilda Swinton carries the load of representing Zieglerian Pure Evil in the latter, giving Pollack's Marty Bach, senior partner in a firm that's in extremely hot water, a chance to color his sleaze with some nuance and even sympathy. Here Pollack communicates corporate ruthlessness with no obvious malice, just a gruff word or two delivered with eyes peering at Michael above lowered eyeglasses. You get the sense that Bach has already considered for himself the complex compunctions troubling Clayton, and shrugged them off like one who doesn't see a conflict in doing one's job. I for one am glad there's no argument on this, and I look forward to many more identical Pollack roles. —JS

Biggest Chore: Planet Terror
I was soon to become an avowed Death Proof devotee, but how could I have know that when, in the 90 minutes preceding it, I was nearly clawing at the theater walls to be let out? Admittedly, the idea of the Grindhouse double bill had something of a built-in high-concept appeal, yet the notion of having to suffer through the latest travesty by Robert Rodriguez (how’s this for a career-long line-up of shit? El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty, Spy Kids (parts 1 thru 27), Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City, and lest we forget, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl 3-D) to get to the new film from Quentin Tarantino is cruel enough to register as some sort of cosmic joke. We all know the kind of company Tarantino keeps, so the pairing shouldn’t have come as a surprise (another QT charity case, the equally talentless, even more noxious Eli Roth, also makes Grindhouse cameos); yet the thought settled in like a warm poison as I nestled into my seat not three minutes after Planet Terror began: I’m about to watch an entire Robert Rodriguez film. After an hour and a half of repetitive, badly executed goo jokes, I finally felt what it must have been like to go to the movies in the fifties, waiting out the agonizing B-movie to get to the A-feature. (And while I momentarily thought I might have overrated Death Proof due to mere proximity to Planet Terror, a viewing of QT’s superb full 109-minute cut, now on DVD, verified its elegance.) —MK

The What the Hell Is Up With The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and All These People Who Claim to Have Seen It Award: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Weighing in at number seven on the indieWIRE critic’s poll, number twelve on the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly poll, and number 24 on the Film Comment poll, Jesse James earned exactly one vote in this year’s Reverse Shot poll, statistically making it 2007’s less politically offensive cousin to United 93. To be sure, only a handful of us felt compelled enough to actually see this 160-minute “revisionist” Western, so perhaps we’ve really missed the boat. Perhaps history will bear out its election as one of 2007’s best films. But when the thing breathes “lugubrious” (being charitable here) from its title to its running time on down, somehow, I’m not exactly holding my breath. –JR

julie_delpy.jpgFilmmaker We Least Enjoyed Criticizing: Julie Delpy
Residual good will for Julie Delpy, following her superb acting and writing in the great Before Sunset, had many of us retracting our knives for our initial reviews on her messy directorial debut, 2 Days in Paris. But let’s face it, the film’s a near embarrassment: glib, screechy, wildly inconsistent in tone, smug in its humor (almost all of which is either kneejerk anti-Americanism or poking fun at the small dick size of Parisian men), and paltry in its offering up of the mind-numbingly mannered Adam Goldberg as a viable Ethan Hawke replacement. Yes, I know, it’s not Linklater and shouldn’t be held up to the Sunrise/Sunset duo—then why does Delpy make it a de facto sequel, with its cribbing of moments from the life of Delpy’s character Celine? Kudos to Delpy for trying to problematize her own romanticized and idealized film persona by adding unflattering touches of neurotic shrewishness, but she goes too far in the other direction, choosing fatalism and potty humor over hope and wit. We’re optimistic for her follow-up though, now that she’s gotten this calculated bit of anti-Sunset sentiment out of her system. —MK

Worst Trend: Slavish Southland Tales worship.
We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Richard Kelly’s second film is a piece of horse shit. And that handful of obstinate critics who tripped all over each other (they know who they are) to play kingmaker on this thing are going to look back at their writings from this year in the same fashion that they’ll look back on photos of themselves sporting stone washed jeans or fades. As my co-editor astutely noted: “Southland Tales is just In Living Color for the 21st Century.” [ED: That’s still overpraising it.]—JR

bug.jpgBiggest Comeback: Michael Shannon
Strange to have a comeback about two years into your major acting career, but after his oddly staccato, tough-guy posturing (in an admittedly impossible-to-play role) in last year’s awful World Trade Center, I was ready to write off Michael Shannon. What a difference a year made: not only did Shannon steal Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead away from a cast of overbaked hams in only two short scenes with his role as a menacing blackmailer, he also created one of the most indelible on-screen characters of the decade in William Friedkin’s impressively overblown Bug. Ashley Judd also convincingly enacted this viscid devolution into psychosis as Shannon’s sickeningly codependent partner, but Shannon literally exploded, reprising his off-Broadway role from Tracy Letts’s play as a war veteran gone buggy with an astonishing mixture of controlled rage, endearing shyness, and spasmic balls-out insanity. It was the performance of the year, even more memorable than Daniel Day-Lewis’s monumental work in There Will Be Blood—incidentally a very, very appropriate alternate title for Bug. —MK

Best Use of History/Best Unnecessary Ensemble: National Treasure: Book of Secrets
I missed out on the first National Treasure, but Book of Secrets was enough to convince me I should go back and give it a spin. I should state upfront that Book of Secrets is in no way, shape, or form a “good” film. Helmed by Jon Turteltaub, produced by Bruckheimer, and written by The Wibberlys, there’s nary an anticipated beat left unhit, or poor pun left unuttered. It’s inelegantly and crassly directed, preposterous to the extreme and only gains watchability at the hands of its unnecessarily strong cast—head treasure hunter Nicolas Cage is supported by Ed Harris, Harvey Keitel, Jon Voight, Bruce Greenwood, and Helen Mirren(!). But let’s marvel for a second at the conceit of these things: They’re blockbusters about American history. It’s American history properly apportioned and packaged for the masses, but however massaged, it never feels manipulated with ill revisionist will. In fact Book of Secrets geeks out enough on history to suggest that (gasp) our nation’s past isn’t the stuff of molding textbooks, but rather might be something that sill influences and resonates on our present moment. If that’s not a radical idea for a blockbuster, then I don’t know what is. And when was the last time we had a Warren G. Harding reference in contemporary cinema? —JR

joshua.jpgWorst Ensemble: Joshua
Whether it was Vera Farmiga’s risibly committed work as a postpartum, Upper West Side madcap mom, a visibly embarrassed Sam Rockwell as a jocular, good-natured dad turned paranoid child-abuser; Celia Weston’s self-parodic, slow-talking crazy-Christian grandma; a grotesque Dallas Roberts as a martini-swilling, limp-wristed gay uncle; a check-cashing Michael McKean as Rockwell’s finger-wagging “get me the report!” boss; Nancy Giles as the most cartoonishly unsympathetic child-welfare worker in film (or human) history; and of course, little Jacob Logan as the umpteenth blank-faced, well-dressed, dead-eyed, contraction-refusing post-Omen bad seed, the cast of the (unintentionally?) hilarious horror film Joshua was one unbearably long lesson in how not to direct actors. Of course, one could argue that with the material, what could they hope to accomplish? Unforgettable image of the year: Farmiga, crouched on the kitchen floor after cutting her foot on broken glass and proceeding to rub copious amounts of blood all over her legs while distractedly reminiscing about a shiny pair of read leather boots she once owned. And it’s only downhill from there. —MK

alphadog.jpgMost Disgusting Fat Suit Worn by an Aging Hollywood Queen: Sharon Stone
Close runner-up was John Travolta, who found it impossible to convey humor, strength, humility, charm, intelligence, or gravity from behind his copious layers of latex. But if anyone actually made it all the way to the hour-and-45-minute mark in Nick Cassavetes's unfortunate, sub-Larry Clark where-are-the-parents cautionary tale Alpha Dog, they would have found themselves face to bloated face with Sharon Stone sweating her way through an impossible task: acting, improv-style, in a direct-address camera interview whilst slathered in what looks like three-hundred pounds of vulcanized rubber. Jiggling turkey neck, blubbery lips, paunchy, sagging cheeks—it’s Stone as Dom DeLuise, manically bugging her eyes and wielding her badly realized fat pockets with post-traumatic insanity. What of course makes this all the worse is that she is actually meant to embody a real person, a mother who lost her child, now transformed into a grotesque, misshapen monster. Cassavetes’s stunning lack of decorum here isn’t much of a surprise coming after the film’s preceding 105 minutes of tedious mock-exploitation, but his film might have squeaked by as a mere dud. By tacking Stone’s Jiminy Glick-esque confessional on to the end, Cassavetes ensured this is one Dog for the ages. —MK

Best Stephen King Adaptation: The Mist
Runner-up: 1408
Okay, so a limited field to choose from, but both films are worth highlighting briefly for reminding audiences that scares don’t necessarily equal gore, and that viscerally rendered torture is actually anathema to creating true fright. These films both seem quaint in the hyper-everything era we’re currently witnessing in horror filmmaking. Look, we’re not coming out all weak-kneed against gore (The Mist features a few memorably cheesy examples) in our fairly unified anti-splat pack stance. What we’re against are horror films in which characters are half-drawn and forced to behave increasingly badly in the service of twisted flimsy ideologies dressed up as cultural critique. The Mist and 1408 both feature actors behaving not unlike real people might when faced with similarly supernatural circumstances. The Mist gets the edge for its fantastic creature design and the allegorical bent wrung from the tensions among its ensemble, but 1408 is worth a look, as it gives John Cusack room (pun intended) to stretch out and play; it’s a rarity in horror in being nearly a one man show. —JR
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