Friday, February 29, 2008
Muriels Sidebar #3: Best Picture Also-Rans
"The bag-of-money movie (always one of my favorite genres) was alive and well in 2008, thanks mainly to the Coen brothers’ brilliant No Country For Old Men, and its overlooked little brother, Sidney Lumet’s forceful, vigorous morality tale, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are mesmerizing as two desperate, down-on-their-luck brothers who conspire to have their parents’ jewelry store robbed. The robbery is doomed from the start (neither of them are even remotely experienced with crime), and once it goes tragically wrong, it’s both fascinating and agonizing to watch them crumble in the days following, in completely different ways."
"The fractured time structure has taken some flak, but I found it extremely effective at slowly peeling back the layers of this family’s still-open wounds like an onion. Even the fact that Hoffman and Hawke look nothing alike becomes a vital part of the story."
"As it winds to an inevitable yet still shocking conclusion, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead takes you on a powerful emotional journey, aided by terrific acting, a riveting script and Lumet’s edgy, no-frills direction. ~ Jason Alley
"A child's overactive imagination, busybody's curiosity, and an observational misunderstanding lead to life-altering consequences in the devastating Atonement. Director Joe Wright demonstrates a remarkable ability to tell stories with the entire cinematic language. From the precise sound design to the sprawling tracking shot of the evacuation to Dunkirk, Wright attends to the small and the large with a masterful touch. Atonement is an exquisitely crafted film bursting with the possibilities movies offer. ~ Mark Pfeiffer
"This year we saw several tenebrous characters, opaque in motivation and murderous in intent, but only one suggested that such darkness could be as close as your own offspring. That's not a new idea of course, but Joshua perfects it by bringing all the small details of a well-to-do New York family into focus -- particularly the exhaustion, physical and emotional, that accompanies a new birth -- except its ostensible subject, who remains an ominous blur, even as the true purpose of his sinister machinations become clear. It's a subtle and terrifying movie, and coupled with an amazing performance by Sam Rockwell as Joshua's father, it's the best of the year." ~ Kent Beeson
"I know it's no longer hip to like Wes Anderson. Or overly hip, I'm not sure. In any case, I went into The Darjeeling Limited waiting to be disappointed, but the movie took me by surprise with its relative shaggyness and -gasp - heart. Anderson knows just how to use Owen Wilson's head and Adrian Brody's long limbs, and while there are some too-precious moments, this movie has been far too easily dismissed." ~ Hedwig Van Driel
"Many critics responded harshly to Peter Berg's The Kingdom last year because the movie's content could easily be written-off as that of an ordinary shoot-'em-up complicated by a timely premise. In truth, the picture was far more complex and downright unflinching than most gave it credit for. The Kingdom works perfectly as both a crowd-pleasing, wham-bam action-flick and a thoughtful commentary on the international War on Terror – an unseemly combination, but a welcome one nonetheless. Capturing an abstract variation of a riled-up war film from the 1940s through an undoubtedly modern lens – shaky-cam and multi-bagillion-dollar special-effects in tow – director Berg and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (who ironically also penned 2007's inept anti-War in Iraq Lions for Lambs) are able to concoct a product that functions both as an adrenaline-pumper and a meditation-piece.
"Framing a fictional C.I.A. investigation around the terrorist-bombing of an American housing compound in Saudi Arabia (which makes for one of the most terrifyingly real scenes of the year), the picture boasts both balls and brains. Sure, there's a lot of clever-if-hollow running around and related hoopla done by its focal foursome – Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman (what a team!) – but this is all presented within a grander, more thoughtful context. The Kingdom is a political-polemic that is very much ahead of its time, carrying a non-partisan agenda but fully realizing the fact that the terrorist enemy that the United States currently faces will fight to The Death and the only way for the U.S. to counter it is to fight back harder. Amidst wonderfully-mounted tension and carefully-constructed action-sequences, The Kingdom forges a path that is entirely original, perfectly balanced, and clearly crowning of the best American film of 2007." ~ Danny Baldwin
“It's clear that Sean Penn found a kindred soul in Into the Wild's rebellious, alienated adventurer, Christopher McCandless. In doing so, Penn has directed his most affecting and romanticized film to date. Immersed in Eric Gautier's gorgeous landscape visuals, Emile Hirsch, as McCandless, packs an emotional and physically draining wallop, as we journey alongside him on his gripping cross-country trek to self-discovery and ultimate tragedy. With a stellar ensemble cast and haunting soundtrack, Into the Wild is one of the most beautifully crafted films of 2007.” ~ Jenny Sekwa
“If anything can be said to be the defining domestic policy issue of our time, it's abortion. This is due in no small part to the fact that it opens so many other cans of worms- religion, science, family, women's rights, and personal freedom, among others. While most films (fiction and documentary) about the abortion debate in America limit themselves by sticking to a particular political agenda, Tony Kaye's searing Lake of Fire- more than a decade in the making- approaches the issue from all sides. Kaye's film is nothing if not comprehensive, covering in its 152 minutes everything from the scientific debate over when the fetus should truly be considered a living being, to the gory details that many pro-choice advocates tend to shy away from while their pro-life counterparts use to draw attention to abortion's unpleasant reality. By examining both sides of the argument, Lake of Fire is neither pro- or anti-abortion, but it's definitely anti-zealot, devoting a good deal of attention to the brutal slayings of doctors who perform abortion, which in the eyes of the film only serve to intimidate other doctors and to create martyrs for the pro-life cause.
"But Kaye never has an axe to grind, instead training his often pitiless yet humane camera on his subjects with a great deal of patience and curiosity. In doing so, Lake of Fire illuminates what may be the only reasonable method of trying to resolve the abortion debate- not shouting, but listening. To take time to hear the beliefs of others with an open mind rather than simply propping ourselves up with our prejudices. To learn to see the complexity of the debate, rather than operating simply in shades of black and white, like children or, yes, zealots. And to try to understand the women- the conscious centers of the abortion debate- rather than simply demonizing them. Lake of Fire- at last, the great film this issue deserves- does all these things and more, which makes it not only the year's best documentary, but its most empathetic film as well.” ~ Paul Clark
"Out of all of the great films this year, I wouldn't have guessed that my favorite would be the remake of a Western, but here it is, James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma. Christian Bale plays a Civil War veteran that puts his life in jeopardy to escort a captured outlaw (Russell Crowe) to a prison train, facing a myriad of dangers along the way, not the least of which is the outlaw himself. Bale is fantastic as the noble man determined to do the right thing, while a spellbinding Crowe undergoes his own moral crisis when confronted with true good for the first time. The final moments are breathtaking, thrilling, and shatteringly poignant." ~ James Frazier
"I think it was in the second half of the movie, where a doctor pulls a bottle of liquor out of a prosthetic leg that had been sitting in a corner when I realized I'd fallen in love with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century. Or maybe it was the cinematography largely made up of long, static, geometrically composed frames punctuated by an occasional dolly shot, the unsettling contrast seemingly promising something horrible just out of frame and putting me in the mind of David Lynch just when I thought I was watching a slightly wry romantic drama.
"Perhaps it was the conversations that would begin and finish offscreen while the camera seemed more interested in something else. Or maybe it was something less technical like the Buddhist monk who wanted to be a DJ, or the dentist who sang Thai country songs, or the surgeon who was squeamish about blood.
"On the other hand, maybe it was the point almost exactly half way into the film where the story seems to reboot, shifting from the country to the city and then starting all over from a slightly different perspective and going off on different but overlapping tangents with many of the same characters.
"Whatever it was, somewhere between the strangest job interview ever and some dance aerobics set to the maddeningly catchy Neil & Iraiza song Fez (Men Working), Syndromes and a Century blew my tiny little American mind. It was like a giant, mysterious road map where the folds were slightly unmatched and I couldn't figure out how it was all supposed to go. Just when I thought it was about to come together, something would go wrong and I'd have to start all over.
"It sounds like a mess, but I loved every minute of it. What does it all mean? I don't know. You tell me. Unattached to logic, but somehow managing to beguile and captivate, it's a fascinating cinematic puzzle that defies easy explanation." ~ Craig Kennedy