Though Killer of Sheep was disqualified from the voting for the Reverse Shot cumulative top ten of 2007 (as with Army of Shadows last year, we felt lumping it in with new and recent works did it a disservice), there's no movie more deserving of year-end attention than Charles Burnett's great work. Of course, there are other worthy films that many of our writers couldn't let the year end without mentioning as well.
Killer of Sheep
by Nick Pinkerton
In its opening weekend at New York’s IFC Center, it set the still-young theater’s three-day box-office record. For year-end listmakers, it provides the same low liability boon supplied by last year’s Army of Shadows: a certifiable Masterpiece pre-consecrated by posterity. Everybody who dallies in the boutique of film art loved Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep—and rightly so; nodding in unanimity is the only reasonable response to something so obviously astonishing. I could point out that this tendency to elevate retro material above the new only reinforces a tiresome bemoaning of the state of the art, and that coronating one Modern Black Masterpiece doesn’t forgive the dismissal/ condescension with which contemporary black movies are so routinely greeted—but then, who wants to be that guy at the party?
The transmitted image of urban existence in ‘72-’73, when Killer of Sheep was shot, was one of terminal city sickness. Henry Gayle Sanders, the Los Angeles Actor’s Theater veteran who plays Sheep’s semi-protagonist, Stan, was gigging in films like Jive Turkey and Black Godfather, titles that tell you what you need to know about the prevalent representation of black inner city. Burnett shows Watts, not a decade removed from the riots, as a place that’s run-down, but with a pervasive rot that’s fertile, tropical; decay isn’t just decline, but a layer of fertilizer, teeming with new growth (much has been said of David Gordon Green’s debt to Burnett, but I think more of Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas, with it’s garden-like Lower East Side). The director, a product of Vicksburg, Mississippi, raised in a Southern Great Migration enclave in South L.A., has a yawning, essentially pastoral vision. On the world of his youth: “Los Angeles is so urban now, but it used to be full of vast, open spaces. It was rural—like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn! You could see for miles. City Hall was the biggest building. You could see the mountains every day. You could have chickens, rabbits, ducks—anything—in your backyard. It was a great place to be at that time.” It’s appropriate that Burnett’s exemplary 1990 film To Sleep with Anger was, in part, produced by Caldecot Chubb, director of the artistic trust and longtime patron of the photographer William Eggleston; both it and Killer of Sheep refer to the black South with as much specificity and accreted heirloom-memories as Eggleston does the white (speaking of which, everybody missed the boat this year on the quick-flash rerelease of Texas poet laureate Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shooting Match).
The film closes with a contrapuntal edit between a neighborhood woman announcing her pregnancy with footage from the abbatoir where Stan works. A literal reading—like that suggested by Eisenstein’s cattle-to-the-slaughter cutaways in Strike—could support a ghetto-as-killing-floor metaphor, but I don’t think the preceding film backs up any interpretation quite so “America eats her young” easy. What Burnett wants to express is so singular and so private, he won’t denigrate it with simple secondhand metaphors. There are a handful of scenes in Sheep that strain toward purpose the way you’d expect an “amateur” production to: Stan being served an implicit indecent proposal by the flabby white owner of a liquor store, with a bludgeoning cut-in of her caressing hand to highlight the already-obvious axis of the scene. But the vignettes of children left to their own devices, kicking up dust in backlots and battling in industrial railyards, are among the best, most unforced things of their kind ever done (having been raised entirely within earshot of train tracks, I get an indescribable pleasure of recognition in it all). On a nonexistent budget, with a shooting schedule patched together from free weekends, Burnett proves himself a director of background action comparable to Minnelli, fringing everything through his viewfinder with suggestions of other storylines, other lives. The film’s crowded, dense, overgrown, with sly sight gags, including a kid endlessly dumping sugar into his bowl of cereal, cadged, I think, for Peanut’s Kool-Aid mixing scene in House Party. Scenes are entered from unexpected angles (children sail between apartment roofs overhead; a boy warrior peeks from behind a balsa shield), making us work to find our equilibrium, which we just about get by the time the story’s off again.
It’s the landscape of an entire neighborhood, and what Burnett achieves in photographing it is the aim of Virgil, of good personal art: “I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.”
Away from Her
by Kristi Mitsuda
I seldom cry at the movies anymore. Hardened by too many contrived melodramas with swelling orchestral scores, ham-fisted acting, and not a shred of real sensitivity, most tearjerkers leave me stone cold. When I do cry in the dark of a theater now, it’s mostly a result of being overwhelmed by beauty, and sublime cinematic coalescence—a cerebral rather than emotional response; few movies manage to break through the barrier of that critical distance. This is why, months later, I still can’t shake Sarah Polley’s Away from Her: As the film reached its quietly wrenching conclusion, I burst into tears borne of genuine feeling for what felt like the first time in years; strange as it sounds, I’d forgotten cinema could affect me in this fundamental way.
Based on a short story by Alice Munro, Polley’s adaptation captures with searing grace the most unbearably painful of scenarios: A woman (the forever incandescent Julie Christie), stricken with Alzheimer’s, moves to a nursing home where she gradually forgets about her husband (movingly played by Gordon Pinsent) and falls in love with another man. In the hands of a less subtly attuned director, Away from Her might’ve easily been categorized and critically thrown away as a “chick flick” (think The Notebook). Instead, free of the bald manipulations to which such subject matter often falls prey and possessed of a stunning poise, it hits a collective nerve. Polley’s elegant execution and humanistic empathy render her feature debut a rare feat: A thinking person’s weepie. As a composite of an aging love’s complexities and compromises, and rumination upon devotion, Away from Her never condescends to its characters—or audience, for that matter; Polley attends to subject and spectator alike with a tenderness and respect you wish all filmmakers evinced.
by Chris Wisniewski
If Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof benefited from coming second in a double-feature with Robert Rodriguez’s barely competent Planet Terror, it also suffered from its Grindhouse packaging. Grindhouse was an exercise in pastiche and parody, a loving wink at a bygone era that redeployed the tools of Final Cut Pro to the project of aping the shaggy-dog aesthetic inadequacies of a B-cinema past. Who could blame audiences or critics for judging Death Proof on “grindhouse” terms, with its missing reel, its digitally enhanced print scratches, and its self-conscious disregard for the rules of continuity editing? The Grindhouse conceit set the terms on which the film would be understood and evaluated, and the first half of Death Proof plays right into that, as four beautiful, sexy, clever girls become the unwitting victims of a psychopathic, crusty, middle-aged stunt-man (Kurt Russell).
At first glance, Death Proof seems a fitting homage to the grindhouse tradition, a disturbingly violent psychosexual fantasy with a smashingly abrupt back-road climax. At its midpoint, though, the film dispenses with its first four protagonists and its pastiche-y aesthetic. Gone are the ladies—and the grindhouse tricks, and though much has been made of the film’s bifurcated structure, few have noted Tarantino’s sly stylistic switchout. In Death Proof, part two, we meet a new set of ladies—actresses, stuntwomen, models—who jabber on and on in a seemingly endless single take over breakfast. That shot encapsulates much of Death Proof’s under-scrutinized second half: it feels lackadaisical and breezy, but every moment is not just shot with exquisite technical virtuosity but also packed with narrative meaning, establishing character traits and keywords that will return later on. What follows is a rape-revenge narrative reimagined as a thrilling, epic car chase. It is here that Death Proof reveals itself fully—not as parody or pastiche but as a movie about movies, a knowing deconstruction of cinematic fantasy as titillation, orgasm (male, then female), violence, and death, perfectly structured and breathtakingly pure.
12:08 East of Bucharest
by Jeff Reichert
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is certainly hoarding a lot of spilled ink in year-end wraps, and while I don’t want to drop a true Reverse Shot “Get Over It” on what is generally a worthy (if overrated to these eyes) film, I wish some of that verbiage could be charitably donated to another awkwardly named movie from Romania: Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest. It’s generally harder for critics to marshal the same analytical solemnity for comedic works as is usually afforded heavy dramas, and 4 Months was certainly heavy—its well-constructed on-the-ground reportage from faraway, yet so crushingly close 80s Communist Romania pushed all sorts of “serious” buttons: societal repression, feminism, classism, abortion. Bucharest, for its part, reeks of light eccentricity—its first third is largely occupied by the introduction of its oddball principals, and the lengthy public television broadcast at its heart upends the funniest moments of the Apatow oeuvre—at least until its tone shifts completely in the final act. What’s revealed is a meditation on the vagaries of historical memory and a sweeping allegory for the muddled birth of the Romania that exists today. All apologies to the 4 Months camp, but 12:08 East of Bucharest proved itself the more intellectually pregnant of the pair. Luckily, in this year of riches, cinemagoers could have a shot at both.
by Michael Koresky
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are avid Bruno Dumont supporters hiding out at Reverse Shot; the now forgotten, once loathed art-film persona non grata Twentynine Palms still seems to us like one of the defining films of this period. It may be more sneakily influential than we thought possible: even There Will Be Blood seems to owe it something of a debt, with its slow, methodical parched-landscape portraits eventually giving way to unimaginable, id-revealing horror. Many critics, including those who were once fans of his films, believe that Dumont’s work has been in steady, consistent decline since his surprise Cannes triumph with the static, existential L’Humanité—so instantly divisive was that film’s oddly assembled tableaux of frozen villagers embroiled in the investigation of a vile rape and murder case that when its two lead actors won the best actor and actress awards in 1999 they were loudly booed by Croisette attendees. Dumont’s output has been consistently remarkable, in my opinion, each release evidence of a true visionary filmmaker, yet one who precariously walks the line between creating intense, clinical distances from his characters and casting moral imperatives on them—it’s a tricky balance and it’s what turns off many viewers, not sure if they’re watching real characters or merely sketches for them.
Flandres, another contested Cannes winner, from 2006, opened in New York and summarily vanished last spring—long before the glut of underperforming Iraq films. Yet it’s not just the luxury of an earlier release date that makes Flandres seem so much fresher than those films: it’s a genuinely humane, mysterious look at the differences between inner and outer turmoil, one which blurs the line between psychological pain and wartime horrors. The film’s refusal to name the anonymous middle-Eastern country to where its meager Flemish farmers are shipped off may be coy and calculated, but it’s also a smart way of getting us to look past specifics: unlike De Palma in Redacted, Dumont’s agenda isn’t necessarily political, as “hot-button” as the film may seem. War is the film’s setting, and the contemporary world its inescapable stage, yet its main characters (Adelaide Leroux’s Barbe and Samuel Boidin’s Demester), young and unbound by technology, could exist at any point in history; and their dilemmas are not just universal but elemental, essential, and difficult to grasp. The experience of watching Flandres, which is as simultaneously visceral and detached as any of Dumont’s prior films, is necessarily discomfiting, a repositioning of the war film as a reflection of a strictly internal landscape.
by Jeff Reichert
Forget Waitress, forget Juno, forget mumblecore (if anyone even remembers it)—2007’s true little indie that could was most assuredly John Carney’s Once. Of course, Once hails from Ireland, and not the U.S., thus it lost a few points in the cache game, but then again I can’t imagine this movie, so sensitive, well-made and winningly slight, issuing forth from a young American filmmaker in a time when twin poles of bland packaged crassness and anti-aesthetic shoddiness rule the day. Something like a realist musical in which leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (the year’s most yearningly romantic couple) discover love through the creation of music together, Once is a tender process piece with its heart on its sleeve. In almost any scenario this thing doesn’t work: good looking street busker with a fair bit of talent is accosted by a younger Eastern European immigrant who also happens to be a talented musician in her own right, the two cut a demo together, love ensues. A true recipe for disaster, but Carney pulls it off by choosing to cast musicians over actors and ending on a perfectly bittersweet note. Once is so simple and true that its protagonists don’t even need names.