Friday, February 29, 2008

Golden Muriel Award for Best Film, 2007

And the Muriel goes to...

(207 points/17 votes)

“The first time I saw No Country for Old Men there was a man in front of me who stood up as the last of the end credits faded and said to his date, “That was good. I’m gonna have to think about why it was good, but it was good.” Over the course of the first few weeks of its release, somehow this brutal, demanding, and elliptical thriller managed to burrow its way into the culture and get people who might not normally take time to seriously ponder a movie to think about what it was up to, what it does, and what it doesn’t do. Questions of “plot,” like who ultimately ends up with the money, soon gave way to richer discussions about thematic strains that wrestle with the enduring nature of human brutality, and the function of genre in light of the movie’s much-debated ending. Well, as the devil-worshiping rocker once said, you can’t always get what you want. There has rarely been a movie that ropes an audience in with the expectations of genre and then so effectively detours them onto darker, more disorienting ground than No Country for Old Men. Nor have there been many as confident as this one is in its storytelling. Joel and Ethan Coen, in adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel, give their audience credit for understanding why scenes that would be climactic, essential scenes in a lesser movie are rendered here in taut visual geography that demands the audience’s attention, or elided altogether. They’ve created a masterpiece that honors the haunted sensibility of the original author and simultaneously reverberates with a pleasure in filmmaking that is strictly their own. Maybe that guy I overheard was simply trying to wrap his head around the feelings the movie stirred up inside of him. Maybe, like many of us, he’s still stirring. No Country for Old Men is haunting that way, and it is itself haunted by fears too pervasive to ever be summed up. It moves like a ghost in a dream, gliding into the deep, dark black of a shared history and an uncertain future.” ~ Dennis Cozzalio

Other praise:

“When Marcel Duchamp and the dadaists started making intentionally nonsensical art, it was a reaction to the world they lived in. It was a way of saying that if World War I is sensical, then we can only be nonsensical. By the same token, the Coens brilliantly hold a mirror back to ourselves. They say: If you want a world that is [all about] money, and that’s all that you trade on, then don’t expect humanity to be found anywhere when you catch hold of your reflection.” ~ Martin McClellan

“For most of its running time, No Country for Old Men works primarily as an uncommonly exciting chase thriller, in which the overmatched Lewellyn Moss struggles to stay ahead of stone-cold killer Chigurh (Javier Bardem). But while first two acts of the film are enough to mark it as the Coen brothers’ best work in years, it’s the final act, which avoids the expected confrontation between Chigurh and Lewellyn in favor of something more philosophical, that the film to another level of greatness altogether. An observer for most of the story, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) suddenly comes face to face with the idea that even if you run from the evil that you fear may be hiding behind one door, there’s no guarantee that it won’t be waiting for you behind another. ‘You can’t stop what’s coming,’ indeed.” ~ Paul Clark

“My expectations going into this movie were enormous, begging to be unmet and disappointed. In the end, they were easily exceeded and I wonder now how I could ever have thought otherwise. I got exactly what I wanted and somehow left the theater with more than I thought possible. Though I have ultimately treasured them all, I’ve never so unreservedly loved a Coen Brothers movie on first viewing as much as I did No Country for Old Men. Is it the best Coen movie ever? Maybe. Ask me again later when the Texas dust has settled and the blood has had time to dry.” ~ Craig Kennedy

No Country for Old Men is the most quietly ferocious movie you'll ever see. I can't stop thinking about the brilliant sound design choices by Joel and Ethan Coen that lift the movie from a simple genre exercise into another level of terror and excitement. In the same way Ennio Morricone fashioned a theme out of creaks, drips and cracks for the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, here we have an entire "score" made out of footsteps, desert wind, breezes through an open window, distant passing trains and simply the sound a man makes when he's contemplating what his next action will be that won't result in his death. All these sounds are heightened because no note (whether dialog or effects) goes wasted, wrapping the viewer in silence and putting us in the same mindset as the characters, where fate seems to be waiting behind the corner.” ~ Adam Ross

“It’s occured to me that, with its understated, handsome style, it could have just as easily been directed by Clint Eastwood at his best as by the Coens. I say this not to echo the common claim that their Cormac McCarthy adaptation announces their newfound maturity - they were always old souls, even when they were goofing off - but to highlight the understatement and economy they bring to every frame of the film. It's an approach that befits their trio of laconic main characters, and grounds the film's apocalyptic vision with a sharp, unsentimental eye.” ~ Andrew Bemis

“Near perfection in every sense and far and away the best film I saw this year. The Coen Brothers cut down on the camera tricks and let the forward momentum of a chase thriller carry the difficult adaptation of a novel with almost zero description and in the process made what may very well be the best film of their heavyweight careers.” ~ Bryan Whitefield

“Not since 2003’s Lost in Translation has a motion picture left me so speechless, so eager to cling onto the way that it made me feel rather than to dissect it into wordy pieces. In fact, I can’t really say what it is about this film that allows me to respond to it in the way that I do… [But] even if I’m not sure of the reason, I do know that No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece. I’ve already seen it twice and all I want to do is see it again.” ~ Danny Baldwin

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Muriel Awards 2007: Best Film, 2nd Place

Oops! Wait, let's try this again...

(187 points / 15 votes)

"There Will Be Blood shouldn't work. With its collision of stark images of a landscape about to be violated, abrasive music and unapologetically large-scale performances, Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth film could have easily been a well-intentioned mess and an interesting curiosity on a developing filmography. Instead, There Will Be Blood achieves a demented harmony and proves its much-debated director as one of our strongest and most original auteurs. For all the filmic influences woven into the film, it's no pastiche - no film in 2007 was so singularly strange, beautiful and disturbing.

"The foundation of the past hundred years as told through the eyes of liars and madmen, There Will Be Blood is unsparing in its dissection of a protagonist that cannot be redeemed or even explained. Anderson is aided immeasurably by his leads, Daniel Day Lewis' silver-tongued Satanic charm complimented perfectly by Paul Dano's perverse preacher (humility has never seemed so menacing), and every role is just as perfectly cast - even the background actors are a perfect collection of faces. The pitch-perfect collaboration extends to the production team, from Jack Fisk's stunning sets to Robert Elswit's painterly manipulation of light to Jonny Greenwood's unforgettable score. Together they make There Will Be Blood an exhilarating,
almost unbearbly tense moviegoing experience, its many dissonant notes held together (as all of 2007's remarkable films are) by the unmistakable cinematic high of being carried by a director with total confidence and the moviemaking genius to match." ~ Andrew Bemis

Muriel Awards 2007: Best Film, 3rd Place

(166 points/16 votes)

“Much has been made of the obsessive attention to detail David Fincher brought to Zodiac, but his brilliance is in how he uses this meticulousness to subvert the expectations we have from a murder mystery. Fincher uses the minutiae of the Zodiac case to illustrate the roadblocks in the way of the case being solved. Time and again Fincher sets up the audience to hope for a break in the case only to snatch the rug out from under us, and it’s not until after the film is over that we realize how much we wanted the Zodiac killer brought to justice. We want the various detectives and lawmen involved in the case to pool their resources, but they’re hemmed in by jurisdictional issues and the limitations of technology. We want Detective Toschi (the great Mark Ruffalo) to toss due process to the wind Dirty Harry-style, but he’s too busy fielding anonymous tips, and besides, that’s not how he rolls.

"Most of all, the film builds a case against Arthur Leigh Allen- and the creepy John Carroll Lynch fills in the rest- but although we want him to be the killer, the evidence ends up being largely circumstantial. After nearly a quarter of a century, the case is more or less back where it started- literally, as the first character we meet is also the last we see- and all the hard work and sacrifice and obsession over the Zodiac case has amounted to little or less to nearly everyone involved. In the end, even Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) can only stare into the face of the man he’s sure is the Zodiac killer with a look that suggests not so much triumph as impotence, and to have that look returned by a man who isn’t even sure why some guy is staring at him.” ~ Paul Clark

Muriel Awards 2007: Best Film, 4th Place

(86 points/10 votes)

“Considering how many fine films were released in 2007, it seems unusual that the most emotionally and aesthetically fulfilling movie of the year should be a cartoon about a hungry rat. But it seems appropriate for the delightful Ratatouille, considering its claim that genius can come from anywhere. Leave it to Brad Bird and the Pixar team, the latter setting themselves right after the noisy debacle of Cars, to take an unappetizing premise (rat! in the kitchen! ew!) and invest it with enough heart, soul, energy and visual beauty to make it a richly satisfying experience -- a soufflé with substance. The defense of careful, quality work in a world overrun and cheapened by cash-grab mediocrity is stirring, as it's obviously a subject close to the hearts of its makers (one can imagine Skinner as a surrogate for Jeffery Katzenberg, trading on the cache of experience in the house of a master to kick start a career peddling bland, empty-calorie crud); what impresses most, though, is the way that Bird uses the American perception of animation as kid stuff to his thematic advantage. With food as his metaphor and Anton Ego as his vessel, Bird puts forth a consideration of the simple loves that start many of us on the road to cinephilia.” ~ Steven Carlson

Muriel Awards 2007: Best Film, 5th Place

(85 points / 9 votes)

"Amidst the talk of Gone Baby Gone, people often forget to mention that its a whodunit. There's a mystery to solve, and the private detective protagonist and his wife pursue the case until its close. But as the audience can attest, it's easy to see why the omission is so frequently made; when was the last time a mystery was so thematically rich and deeply moving, utilizing an impeccable balance of cerebral, emotional, and visceral pleasures? Ben Affleck's directorial debut seems like the work of a seasoned filmmaker; its intimate familiarity with the lower-class Boston setting, the gripping but methodically paced narrative, the seemingly casual elicitation of great performances from an excellent ensemble cast. This suggests not the work of a rookie, but a real pro, or at least someone who paid damn close attention to the way his better directors ran the show.

"The thoughtfully sad and at times angry film addresses the horrors inflicted on children by adults, abuses ranging from neglect to molestation, and just where our responsibility to the young begins and end. The narrative is focused through the eyes of Casey Affleck, who finds himself forced to navigate an array of complex moral dilemmas as the plot thickens. Unlike most mysteries, Casey doesn't use a genius intellect or supernatural talent to leap to impossible conclusions about the case, but figures things out with careful logic, and because he has much more time than we to ponder it. His detective work inevitably brings his sense of justice into conflict with individuals whose own sense of right and wrong is terribly different from his but no less strong, forcing him to make undesirable choices. And although the case is solved, the film ends with a question mark, leaving Casey and us to wonder if he did the right thing, and if not, just what the hell the right thing is. It's a marvelous work, and certainly better than a whodunit by a first-time director has any right to be." ~ James Frazier

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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Muriels Sidebar #2: Also-Rans (Individual Achievements)

Oops! In my haste to post this, I forgot to include one of the submissions. I've posted it at the top of the list. Sorry for the mixup.

Note: I asked this year's voters to chime in on some cinematic achievements this year that they believe got too little love from the voting body at large. Today, I'll be posting contributions from about great performances and other individual achievements, with the best picture also-rans to run tomorrow with the announcement of the Golden Muriel for Best Feature Film. Enjoy!


"The mask that John Carroll Lynch provides soon-to-be prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen during his first major appearance in David Fincher's Zodiac is a slippery, mutating one. Introduced walking toward the break room of the oil refinery where he works and will be informally interrogated, Allen's entrance is one that emphasizes his working-class "normalcy" and simultaneously undercuts it with vague dread. He sits with three Bay Area detectives (Anthony Edwards, Mark Ruffalo and Elias Koteas) and answers questions, coating his body language with a veneer of assumed confusion and concern that quickly gives way to contempt and a kind of taunting confidence, a nutshell profile of a suspected sociopath whose only real avenue for connecting with people may be through gruesome murder. With crossed legs, a tilt of the head, a shaded roll of his eyes and a hint of condescension toward the detectives, he signals the meticulous, impatient, scornful intelligence behind Allen's feigned nonchalance with brilliant economy. Later, Fincher suggests the crossed wires of Allen's interior landscape with a look inside the suspect's filthy domicile, a trailer home littered with trash, weapons, used sex toys and feral squirrels running loose and hanging upside down inside their cages. And when Allen encounters San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a hardware store, unaware of Graysmith's obsession with the Zodiac case, their eyes meet, Graysmith at once recognizing Allen yet not responding, Allen responding with dulled awareness to the fear he senses in Graysmith. And in a beautifully held shot, Lynch heightens that awareness by returning Gyllenhaal's gaze with perhaps the most frighteningly banal stare in the history of crime films. The rodents rage behind those dead eyes and John Carroll Lynch's brilliantly focused work brings Graysmith, and us, as close as we will likely ever come to the arrhythmic heart of the Zodiac killer's true-life horrors." ~ Dennis Cozzalio

"When you look up Tang Wei’s profile on IMDB you might be shocked to see that she only has one credit – Lust, Caution. Most actresses build up a resume of lesser roles before they ever dream of a role for a director of Ang Lee’s status or opposite an actor as well respected as Tony Leung. Most actresses in their first ever screen role aren’t prepared or brave enough to be part of a 157 minute epic set in a sensitive period of their country’s history with sex scenes so graphic they earned an NC-17 rating here and were banned in China. The role itself is a difficult one by definition - an actress playing an actress who then goes undercover to appear to be something she is not. Deception can be a tricky thing to play. You need the audience to see the face you are presenting but also the real face underneath and in this skillful performance both are clearly visible throughout. During the course of the film we witness her character’s complete loss of innocence be replaced with the ultimate disillusionment and it is Tang Wei’s commitment to giving that transformation its full breadth that separated her in my mind from all the other actresses this year." ~ Bryan Whitefield

"His crimes are many. He launched the most dispiriting franchise in movie history. He was responsible for the worst Cary Elwes performance ever, and shit, that's saying something. He shot a 10-second car chase. I'll repeat that. He shot a 10-second car chase. And yet, I come here not to bury James Wan, but to praise him. Death Sentence should've been an abomination, a Death Wish revenge fantasy by way of the Saw films -- a meatgrinder predicated on sick, self-righteous thrills. Yet from the first moments, it's clear that Wan actually gives a damn about his characters and he's going to make sure that when they hurt, you hurt. Most viewers will remember the one-take chase through the multi-story parking lot, with its floating camera and willingness to simply watch Kevin Bacon panic in real time -- it pretty much announces Wan's growing ambition as a filmmaker. But, surprisingly, it's the non-thriller scenes -- a family meal that simmers with unspoken resentment, a heart-breaking spousal conversation on a staircase -- that stuck out for me. It's ironic that the man who helped usher in the wave of so-called "torture porn" is better at moments of humanistic drama, but it just makes me more curious to see what he does next." ~ Kent Beeson

“So it has come to my attention recently that there are many Muriel voters who aren’t convinced that Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in In the Valley of Elah is awesome. Now, I’m guessing that some among you might have skipped the film entirely due to the Paul Haggis factor, which I can completely understand. But for those of you who did see the movie- what gives? In a year full of fine performances in great films, Jones’ turn in Elah was almost certainly the year’s most distinguished salvage job, distinguishing an average-at-best film by virtue of his exquisite, minutely-crafted performance. As a stoic, war-beaten veteran investigating the death of his son, Jones is masterfully subtle, giving a performance full of small touches- look at the way he stealthily grabs his boy’s cell phone, or how he still makes perfect Army-regulation hospital corners on his bed. Even when Haggis gives him big dramatic scenes- a phone call to his wife, the bedtime story he tells a little boy- Jones never strains for effect, making the character feel less performed than completely lived-in, and all the more heartbreaking for it.” ~ Paul Clark

“Perhaps my guilty pleasure this year would be Hugh Grant's performance in Music and Lyrics, but I can't feel guilty about it. Grant's washed up pop star isn't a huge jerk, a womanizer, a hack, or even pathetic; he's a nice guy who misses being on top of the world and desperately wants to go back. I normally can't crack the 15-minute mark on romantic comedies, but Grant's performance made it difficult to turn away, and certainly carried the film.” ~ James Frazier

Enchanted bubbles over with good cheer, due in large part to Amy Adams for the wide-eyed optimism and innocence she brings to her irony-free performance. It's a delight to watch her clean up Robert's apartment with the assistance of rats and cockroaches as she sings "Happy Working Song", Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's affectionate tweak of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To Giselle these pests are just as beautiful as her woodland Andalasian friends. The purity of heart and soul with which Adams imbues Giselle can't help but be infectious.

”When even children's movies tend to favor the crass, it's startling to see someone on screen capable of convincing us that every day really is filled with sunshine and rainbows. Adams may not get as much credit for her acting in Enchanted because it appears effortless, but I'd wager that this is a taller order than awards bait roles that call for portraying inner torment. And she's funny too. Adams parlays Giselle's blissful ignorance of contemporary cynicism into laughs.” ~ Mark Pfeiffer

Anna Faris has been terrific in a lot of forgettable films for the last few years (The Hot Chick and the Scary Movie series) and with [Smiley Face she takes a lackluster stoner comedy and turns it into a sublime piece of performance art. She is front and center in every scene and Gregg Araki wisely just focuses the camera on Faris and lets her loose. She attacks the role with a series of bizarre and perfectly judged acting choices that add up to one of the most impressive comedic performances I have ever seen. Anna Faris is a force of nature in this film and she sells every lame joke in the script with the utmost conviction; never afraid of looking foolish as she stares off into space with her mouth agape or rolls around her apartment with no thought to vanity or good sense. The kind of performance that is usually shamefully overlooked by Awards and critics polls, but I will probably cherish it even more in the long run than Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant work in There Will Be Blood.” ~ Jason Overbeck

Hot Fuzz Co-writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright originally wrote a love interest for Pegg's protagonist, Sgt. Nicholas Angel, before deciding against this and folding much of that character's dialogue into Angel's partner, Danny Butterman; not only did this streamline the plot, it gave Butterman an unexpected emotional resonance. The homoeroticism of the action genre has been underlined many times before but never so effectively, largely thanks to Nick Frost's wide-eyed, nakedly earnest performance as Angel's biggest fan. Frost makes Danny a recognizable small-town type - the overly enthusiastic innocent whose only glimpse of a bigger world has come from the hyperadrenalized action flicks he so adores (his massive DVD collection nearly brought a tear to my eye - attaboy, Danny). Frost never condescends to his less-than-brilliant character, finding real warmth in Danny's attempts to be a real supercop and make his new friend proud. Their relationship is as memorable as the best of the buddy cop movies that Hot Fuzz so lovingly pokes fun at.” ~ Andrew Bemis

Clarence Williams III isn't listed in the credits of American Gangster, and he's only in it for three scenes, but that's all the time he needs to construct a memorable character--and a rebuttal to the movie's central figure, the seventies-style Harlem drug dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) that's more direct and tougher than anything the moviemakers had the guts to include. Williams' Bumpy Johnson, the old king of Harlem, is seen icily watching as his men to dish out street justice to some fool, and exultantly distributing turkeys to the poor for Thanksgiving—a job that, unlike those requiring violence, he prefers to handle himself. Unlike Lucas, a slick businessman who becomes a predator among his own people, Bumpy belongs to a tradition familiar from Don Vito Corleone's beginnings in The Godfather, Part II. He is a capable man who has made his way outside the law, because the socially sanctioned paths to success are not yet open to those like him. Having risen to the top, he offers protection and and other rewards to those the law couldn't care les about, and he revels in the chance to play Santa Claus, just so long as nobody makes the mistake of thinking that just because he's kept his humanity, he's turned soft. But the world those men knew is slipping away, and one day Bumpy leads Frank into an ugly, impersonal new superstore, sits down, says something about how the city has begun to lose its grace, and then, as if he can bear to see no more, simply dies. The movie dies with him.” ~ Phil Nugent

“You really had to be there. If and when the Grindhouse trailers of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Edgar Wright come to DVD, the experience will seem muted to those who saw it in a theater. The wonderful glimpses of the fictional "Don't," "Werewolf Women of the S.S." and "Thanksgiving" were designed for a movie theater setting, where images of a maniacal Nicholas Cage and a vomit-inducing Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece could be accompanied by appropriate cackles and screams. It's questionable if the bookend Grindhouse entrees of "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" lived up to their genre billing, but the in-between appetizers ended up tasting like one of the best theatrical moments of the year.

“While all three trailers (four counting Robert Rodriguez's introductory "Machete") fall under the Grindhouse z-grade banner, none of them share the same ingredients. "Werewolf Women of the S.S." is a surreal vision of a movie that couldn't possibly exist, looking at times like one of Zombie's music videos. "Don't" is the most audience-friendly of the trio, with quality riffs on bad horror movies and even worse trailer gimmicks. "Thanksgiving" has to be the main course, with a handful of cover-your-mouth-and-maybe-your eyes moments that walk the line between honest satire and barf bag gore. In a span of less than 10 minutes, the three trailer directors may have accomplished more of a grindhouse tribute than Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino did in three hours.” ~ Adam Ross

“Am I the only one who looks at Luisa Williams in Day Night Day Night and immediately thinks, "Bressonian model"? In a remarkable, beautifully subtle debut performance as good as any I've ever seen, she manages to convey a world of emotions, from serene determination to existential despair, simply by knowing how to use her face. Her eyes, especially, are intensely expressive and thereby obliterate the need for overt showiness. Like the best work in the filmography of the late French genius, Williams's work exists precisely on the line between acting and simply being.” ~ Steven Carlson

Carter Burwell, No Country for Old Men: Let us take a moment to praise the man who scored the film with no score. Like John Cage and his infamous 4’33”, Burwell was serving a higher calling -- the psychology of the audience. He realized that this was the time when a scoreless movie could make the biggest impact, by crossing expectation. I celebrate this achievement in all earnestness, without irony.” ~ Martin McClellan

Best Lead Performance (Male), 2007

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (142 points/19- out of 20!- votes)

"Day-Lewis' performance is one for the ages. Without a doubt, the ferocity he applies to this hateful man is responsible for much of his acting's power. Daniel savors his misanthropy and competitiveness like a lion feasting on a gazelle. Electrifying as his monstrous moments are, Daniel Plainview isn't all bluster and scenery-chewing. Observe him as he sits back to size up everyone else, as he moves the focus from himself and onto those wishing to negotiate. He could sell water to a drowning man, but his skill is rooted in shrewdness in reading people and spotting their weaknesses rather than just talking a good game.

"The ultimate scene in Day-Lewis' staggering performance comes when Daniel goes through the motions of pleading for Christ's forgiveness. He must put on a show so he can purchase a desperately needed slice of land. There's definitely a bemused quality in how he professes his desire to receive the blood and be cleansed. Yet there are glimpses of the vulnerability that he otherwise never allows to be visible. Daniel may be acting for the congregation, but the brilliance of this scene is how Day-Lewis slips in flashes of the character's acknowledgement that he knows he has not been a good father. It's devastating to witness and devastating for Daniel to feel. The rare soft cell he may have still had will turn hard from this point on." ~ Mark Pfeiffer

"A huge performance that fluctuates from intense theatricality to subtle shading, sometimes within the same scene and sometimes even within a single line of dialogue. The bigger moments have a grandiosity to them that will probably outlive the film's critical darling status and become cliché clips shown in Oscar montage sequences, with Daniel Day-Lewis' work reduced to "I've Abandoned My Child!" and "I Drink Your Milkshake' in the same way Marlon Brando's work in The Godfather and Robert De Niro's work in Taxi Driver have been similarly reduced to shtick. Like those grand performances, Daniel Day-Lewis' work in There Will Be Blood is nuanced and should not be reduced into these mile markers; some of his best work is in the quiet scenes where he confesses his inner thoughts to his brother at the beach or by firelight. It is also a very completely formed character in terms of physicality, showing the trials of Daniel Plainview's struggles through the way Daniel Day-Lewis walks increasingly like a broken Scarecrow, and his voice is also a compelling creation that fits the character's ruthless confidence and assuredness in a way that actually does a lot of heavy lifting for the screenplay." ~ Jason Overbeck

Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises (58/9)
George Clooney, Michael Clayton (37/6)
Sam Rockwell, Joshua (34/5)
Sam Riley, Control (31/5)

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

'Cause ya don't mess around... with God's America.

Earlier today, I came across the following news story on Yahoo:

NASA Takes Aim At Moon with Double Sledgehammer

After I read it, the first thing I thought of was how crazy it sounded. Then I realized I'd heard this story before. Where, you ask?

Today's lesson: one can take offense even when no one means to give it.

When I finished tallying up the votes for Best Lead Performance (Female), I knew the winner would be surprising to many people out there, and as such, would spur a great deal of discussion. However, I was unprepared for the criticism incurred by the original image that accompanied the award. Just hours after I announced the awarding of the Muriel to Carice Van Houten in Black Book, over at Craig Kennedy’s blog Living in Cinema, commenter “Joel” took me to task for my choice of image to accompany the announcement. In Joel’s words:

I also have to mention that I really question the choice of that main image for Black Book. On one hand, it highlights an important aspect of the main character’s struggle throughout the film, on the other it’s an extremely suggestive image that appears to exploit Van Houten’s sexuality as depicted in the film. Out of context, it places Carice Van Houten’s performance in an awkward light.

Surely there was more to her performance than simply being a sexual object for domineering, potentially life-threatening men? I’m not suggesting sexism here so much as that the choice of image seems to reflect that most critics (I’m making no gender bias here) have focused much of their attention on the more purile aspects of Van Houten’s performance. I’ve read many mentions of the indignities her character suffers throughout the movie, and nearly every review makes special mention of the scene where she must dye her pubic hair to gain the Nazi’s trust without alerting them to her ethnicity. It’s a striking moment sure, but it’s curious that the sexuality of the role seems to dominate many reviews when it’s only an aspect of the performance.

Perhaps I should explain why I ended up picking that image in the first place. For some reason, I have a hard time with the photos I try to upload to the official Muriel Awards web site. I don’t know why, but many of the images I upload to the site end up looking blocky and pixilated when expanded to the desired width, and this won’t do on a site that’s trying to look relatively professional. Simply put, my options were more limited than I would have liked. I ended up trying a number of images of Van Houten, and this was one of the few that actually came out looking good.

The other reason behind my decision has to do with the way the image works in the film. Being a Paul Verhoeven film, sexuality is an important aspect of Rachel/Ellis’ character, in particular the way she uses it in relation to the Nazis. Verhoeven will never be confused for a feminist, but the film takes place in pre-feminist times, and as such one of the few weapons the character has is what used to be quaintly referred to as her “feminine wiles.” The Nazi way of life was about power, and the only way she could work her way in was by playing the role of a sexually submissive woman, while maintaining resolve to see her mission through. That’s the message I get from that still- she’s taken the submissive position, but there’s a steeliness to her eyes that tells a different tale.

Yet the point Joel makes about context is important here. Those who know what’s going on can see the iron will behind her expression, but those who don’t only see a nubile naked woman prostrating herself before a man. In a way, this is typical of Verhoeven’s filmmaking style- by confronting us with questionable images, he forces us to confront how we feel about them and ask ourselves why they trouble us so. Joel continues:

It makes me wonder if critics were more inspired by the extremes of repeated debasement levied upon her character as opposed to the depths of her actual performance? These things stand out, but they aren’t the mainstays of acting.

For my part, the aforementioned indignities comprised only a small part of my appreciation for the performance. Much more interesting to me were the moments in which she had to think on her feet in difficult situations. I keep coming back to that small bit in the party scene, in which she’s onstage singing to the crowd, and the despicable Nazi officer Franken cuddles up behind her and begins whistling along. She recoils just the tiniest bit, then a sultry smile spreads across her face as she continues the song. Moments like this are typical of the character, and I daresay of anyone in a similar situation to her, male or female.

Luckily for me, today I was able to find an image (one that wasn’t there when last I looked) from this very scene that actually worked nicely on the Muriels site, so I’ve replaced the offending picture with the one you see now. I think it works just as well for those who’ve seen the film, with the added bonus of playing up the fact that, yes, Van Houten did all her own singing (take THAT, Marion Cotillard). Some might wonder why I didn’t fight the criticism and stick to my guns, but at this point, I think the most important thing is to keep the Muriels fun and free of controversy. If we want to increase our visibility on the Web, we must makes as many friends as we can, and something as insignificant as a picture is small potatoes compared to the goodwill that could be lost should enough people be offended by it.

Thanks for understanding. Two more days of awards, and miles to go before Muriel sleeps.

Best Lead Performance (Female), 2007

Carice Van Houten, Black Book (79 points/11 votes)

"Early on in Black Book, the young Jewish cabaret singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is being hidden from the Nazis by a Dutch family, the patriarch of which insists she memorize Christian scripture for her supper. Later, when that Dutch house has been destroyed, she survives a brutal attack while trying to escape the country and aligns herself with the resistance, using her impish sexuality to infiltrate the defenses of a Nazi colonel and ending up with a job inside Gestapo headquarters. Stein, who now calls herself Ellis de Vries, plays with the sympathies of her Nazi lover, and is herself seduced by his paradoxical sensitivity, which seems a strange comfort in contrast to the often harsh methods of the Resistance to which she is aligned. Van Houten’s brilliant, feather-light touch is similarly at odds with the apparent weight of the situation in which her character finds herself mired. At once a perfect embodiment of the kind of perversely powerful sexuality that is an earmark of a Paul Verhoeven film, the surface pleasures of van Houten’s presence mask deep shades of despair and doubt with which she expertly infuses her character. She knows the ice on which Rachel/Ellis skates is deadly thin, and that the woman must keep her own heart from breaking or collapsing altogether in order to survive.

"But van Houten also allows us to understand the sympathies that allow Ellis’s libido to take over and express emotions and motivations which might in other circumstances lead to a quick death. The singer uses her porcelain beauty and shimmering eyes as brilliant reflectors—the sympathetic Nazi colonel, who shows her his stamp collection like a boy in love, sees what he wants to see, especially about himself, in those eyes. And Carice van Houten seduces the audience with them in the same way-- the shadows floating through her gaze are never entirely hidden. She blooms inside what could have been a simple conceit of flippant sexuality, infusing the act of flashing her gams while riding on a motorcycle past marching German soldiers with touching humanity and barely hidden desperation. It’s a performance of rare delicacy that invites us to shudder with dread at the gamesmanship with which she engages her enemies, all the while encouraging us to register the humor that laces the dead seriousness which marks her every move. In Black Book, Carice van Houten finds the heart beating inside the hunted, and shows us the conflicted soul of a woman who may never rest in peace." ~ Dennis Cozzalio

Ellen Page, Juno (63/11)
Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding (50/7)
Julie Christie, Away From Her (39/6)
Laura Linney, The Savages (38/7)

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Best Director, 2007

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood (116 points/16 votes)

“Job Description: Adapt a 560 page novel written in 1927 into a cohesive, entertaining and preferably money-making movie for a 2007 audience. Coax and coach difficult performances from one incredible but notoriously eccentric Method actor and a 23 year old kid best known for not saying a word. Manage every detail of set, production and costume design on a 2.5 hour period drama about the birth of the oil business shot largely outdoors. Enormous brass balls and 10+ years experience both highly recommended.

“Anyone familiar with Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier work was certainly aware of his considerable talent, knack for pairing the right song with the right scene and his uniquely deliberate visual style. You could almost sense there was a genius in waiting and with There Will Be Blood he freed himself from the neurotic hang-ups of his own original scripts and in the adaptation of a difficult novel found the story canvas he needed to paint an epic masterpiece. The film is visually perfect with a scope and ambition that only a select few would even have the imagination to dream up let alone set out to accomplish. And that is what this film is – an accomplishment on par with the best work of Kubrick, Coppola or Malick. Yes, it is that good. This is a film that will be watched for many years to come and will stand as a testament to an immensely talented director that with his fifth film finally got everything right and lived up to his full potential.” ~ Bryan Whitefield

Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men (112/16)
David Fincher, Zodiac (91/15)
Todd Haynes, I'm Not There (32/6)
Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (23/4)

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Best Cinematic Moment, 2007 (warning: Spoilers!)

Bowling with Eli [final scene], There Will Be Blood (144.5 points/14 votes)

(Note: I had to pull the video clips in this post from various sources online, so sadly this is the best I could manage. Also, beware of spoilers in some if not most of these)

"Many of the greatest movies (Citizen Kane and Nashville come to mind) arrive at endings that one could not have reasonably anticipated yet, in retrospect, seem completely inevitable. The exquisitely demented final reel of There Will Be Blood is a perfect example. For two-plus hours, director P.T. Anderson creates an almost unbearable tension as we anticipate a violent confrontation between oilman Daniel Plainview and faith healer Eli Sunday. When that moment arrives, it is not the cathartic moment of bloodshed we've been waiting for; when the two men meet in the wealthy, insane Plainview's bowling alley, the scene that follows casts the entire film in a darker, more baroque light. The already-classic line "I drink your milkshake!" is more than "Say hello to my little friend" for eggheads, Plainview's weirdly specific metaphor underlining the absurdity of not only these two men but the time and place they are a part of. When violence comes, it is furious but never overwrought, Anderson's meticulous attention to detail - the contrasting red and white walls (reminiscent of the Overlook's restrooms), Eli's anguished protests ("I'm your oldest friend!"), and the quick splash of dirty water on the lens building to an unforgettable final shot - finished, indeed." ~ Andrew Bemis


2. Ratatouille- Anton Ego's mid-meal flashback (96.5/9)

3. No Country for Old Men- Chigurh meets the man from Temple (90.5/8)

4. Eastern Promises- Bathhouse knife fight (76.5/8)

(warning: Rated R for violence, gore, and penises)

5. Grindhouse [Death Proof]- Ship's Mast & resulting chase (69/7)

(part 1)

(part 2)

Finally, as a bonus offering, here's my pick for the best scene of '07: the rainstorm ambush from James Gray's We Own the Night. Sadly, this only received one other vote. What is this world coming to, etc.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Best Supporting Performance (Male), 2007

Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men (126 points/17 votes)

“Descriptive adjectives have flowed like booze when describing this year's most deserved Best Supporting Performance by an Actor: unforgettable, chilling, intense, sociopathic, evil, systematic, terrifying, frightening, magnetic, patient, fearsome, virtuoso, transcendent, flawless… you get the idea. I couldn't think of any fresher, more accurate adjectives myself, so I thought, what better way to honor the brilliant character portrayal of Anton Chigurh by taking an irreverent cue from our 2008 Academy Awards host, Jon Stewart, and kick it with a parody song for the incredible Javier Bardem. A classic song for a classic performance. Feel free to sing along!”

(sung to the tune of "Strangers in the Night")

“Jav-i-er Bar-demmmm
exchanges glances
Jav-i-er Bar-demmmm
coin flips for chances
who'd have ever thought
His hair could look like thattttttt?

Something in his eyes
Is so hynoptic
something in his mind
Is so psychotic
Something in his heart
tells him he must kill youuuuuuuuuuuu

Jav-i-er Bar-demmmm
As Anton Chigurh
He is Jav-i-er Bar-demmmmmm
Until that moment
When he meets the right "friend-o"
little do they know
Death is just a flip a-way
A cattle prodding blip a-way, and

Thanks to Coens' knack
Bardem's been winnin'
Best Supporting Act
for dopest villain

It's been muy bien
For Jav-i-er Bar-demmmmm” ~ Jenny Sekwa

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (53/8)
Chris Cooper, Breach (45/7)
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild (41/7)
Kurt Russell, Grindhouse (40/7)

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Muriels Sidebar #1: Lucas McNelly

One of the original voters in last year's inaugural Muriel Awards, Lucas McNelly unfortunately had to excuse himself from voting again this year, as duties related to his short film gravida prevented him from seeing many of this year's eligible films. However, Lucas didn't wish to be left out altogether, so he sent me the following e-Mail:

"This year I haven't had an opportunity to see many of the consensus best films. As a result, it would be unfair to pretend that my votes would carry the same weight as someone who's done their due diligence. Still, I'd like to contribute, so here are ten films that screened in 2007 either in festivals or via screeners in my apartment that are noteworthy, but ineligible for these awards. Check them out, should you get the opportunity."

(in no particular order)

1. "Avec la Moustache" (Demitri Andrikopolous)
2. "Confusions of an Unmarried Couple" ("The Butler Brothers")
3. "A Catalog of Anticipations" (David Lowery)
4. "I Love You, I'm Sorry, and I'll Never Do It Again" (Keith Snyder)
5. "Maine Story" (Nina Chernik)
6. "Cabbie" (Donlee Brussel)
7. "Partially True Tales of High Adventure! (Murphy Gilson)
8. "Adam Taylor's Dracula" (Adam Taylor)
9. "Crooked Features" (Mike Peter Reed)
10. "Frownland" (Ronald Bronstein)

In addition, he had the following comments about the following 2007 releases:

I'm Not There -- "It all comes together when you realize that Todd Haynes' approach is really the only way you could possibly do a biopic about Bob Dylan--by playing as fast and loose with history as the man himself."

The Darjeeling Limited -- "At what point does the Wes Anderson whimsy start to collapse on itself like a black hole? I'm not sure, but the possibility is closer now than it's ever been. Still, the cinematography just gets better and better."

There Will Be Blood -- "I'm enjoying this new force of nature side of Daniel Day-Lewis, and it's wonderful to find that Paul Thomas Anderson's talents translate well outside of his Valley wheelhouse. I haven't seen much this year, but I know I haven't seen anything better than this."

No Country For Old Men -- "I loved Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls. I haven't seen this, but the trailer looks good and my girlfriend liked it a lot."

Atonement & Juno -- "Both films from directors I really like. Both films I haven't seen yet. Go figure.

Sunshine -- "4/5 of this film was fantastic. The other 1/5 was awful. Guess which part."

Superbad -- "Better than Knocked Up (and funnier too), but it may just be that seeing Michael Cera reminds me of how much I loved Arrested Development. One more thing to ask my analrapist."

Private Fears in Public Places -- "I'm a sucker for films like these, I'll admit it. Resnais does a good job of exploring different aspects of relationships and the recurring theme of falling serves as a beautiful backdrop."

3:10 to Yuma -- "Had I voted, Ben Foster is my Best Supporting Actor. Will they bring him back for 3:12 to Yuma? We can only hope."

Thanks for your comments, Lucas, and best of luck for gravida in the Now Film Festival! Here's hoping you're able to vote in earnest next year.

Best Supporting Performance (Female), 2007

But first, have you all seen this? Pretty cool, I think. Jim even ends the piece by saying: "It's still early in the evening. It must be: They haven't even presented Best Supporting Actress yet..."

Ask and you shall receive. To wit:

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There (107 points/15 votes)

“It's far too easy to dismiss what Cate Blanchett does in I'm Not There as nothing but mimicry. Even if it had been just the mimicry, I think Blanchett would have deserved praise for her daring, not to mention for the precision of her performance. She doesn't just look like Dylan, she moves like him, talks like him, laughs like him. She nails his exterior, down to the unkept fingernails. But her performance is extraordinary because she goes past the exterior and offers glimpses of what's underneath. She manages to capture what made Dylan so fascinating and so seductive in that time, androgynous and off-putting, but magnetic. And most importantly, she lets the audience see -and even feel- just how uncomfortable Dylan was in his own skin. Her Jude is constantly in motion, constantly struggling against definition, frantically wiggling to escape the boxes people tried to fit him into. He's on top of the world, but unlike most characters in biopics he seems aware that there's always a downfall. He's infuriating and impossible to resist. And thanks to Cate Blanchett, he's just as complex as the man he's based on.” ~ Hedwig van Driel

Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone (83/12)
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton (71/12)
Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men (40/7)
Jennifer Garner, Juno (32/5)

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Famous Last Words- Round 2, Week 7

Last week's quote was from Martin Ritt's Hud, in case you didn't recognize it. Here's this week's quote:

“To the memory of that great man who will never cease to exist, I offer my apologies, and wish you all- true and false- a very pleasant good evening.”

What silver-tongued devil could have signed off on such a flowery note? Submit your guesses to this e-Mail address. Remember, guesses are due no later than Wednesday at 11:59 pm. Good luck!

Best Screenplay, 2007

No Country for Old Men [Joel Coen and Ethan Coen] (119 points/17 votes)

“How often do you hear someone say ‘The movie was O.K., but I liked the book better’? Adapting a novel into a screenplay is a tricky business where the writer must breathe cinematic life into pages in a book, yet still maintain fidelity with the original source material. Though images on a screen do not always flow naturally from words on a page, Joel and Ethan Coen brilliantly managed the transition by turning Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men into a feature film.

"A marvel of economy, the screenplay condenses the novel to its essence, captures the wonderful flavor of McCarthy's prose and simultaneously conveys it in the Coens' own unique voice; no casual trick, but a work of supreme confidence.

"Some have quibbled, especially in regard to the film's difficult ending, that the Coens have succeeded more on literary terms than cinematic, but this complaint misses the point: No Country for Old Men is more than just a motion picture, it is a work of art. It follows its own set of rules and it all begins with the superb screenplay which reads as well on the page as it plays on the screen.” ~ Craig Kennedy

There Will Be Blood [Paul Thomas Anderson] (85/12)
Zodiac [James Vanderbilt] (57/9)
Michael Clayton [Tony Gilroy] (35/6)
Ratatouille [Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, and Jan Pinkava] (27/4)

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Best DVD Release, 2007

Blade Runner: The Final Cut- Four-Disc Collectors' Edition [Warner] (24 points/6 votes)

“Most classic films have one definitive edition for their fans to savor, but Blade Runner is a special case. From the initial test screenings to the 1982 theatrical release until now, Blade Runner fans have been challenged and perplexed by a number of different versions of Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir. But a comprehensive collection seemed no more a reality than protagonist Rick Deckard's vision of a galloping unicorn- a comprehensive set of the film's myriad incarnations eluding us.

“That is, until Warner Brothers released The Final Cut, the film's final destination after two and a half decades. Put together by Scott himself without studio interference, Blade Runner purists can now see the film as was originally intended by the helmer. But while that alone was cause for celebration, Warner Brothers also released a four-disc "Collector's Edition" DVD set, a virtual treasure trove of Blade Runner enlightenment. There's the usual bonus features one would expect from an exceptional DVD set, such as screen tests, trailers, and three commentary tracks featuring Scott, co-screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, and producer Michael Deeley, to name a few.

“But fans will be pleased to see a plethora of featurettes, examining the development of the poster (featuring the late John Alvin), the film’s enduring impact and fan base, comparisons with Philip K. Dick's novel, and perhaps most interestingly, Deckard’s humanity (despite what Ridley Scott says, the debate isn’t over). Not to be missed is Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, an inception-to-present documentary of the film's production that at 214 minutes leaves no stone unturned. And it dishes out the goods, from what could have been (an off-world mass grave for replicants) to how it was cast (Ridley Scott pushed for Sean Young despite objections) to Roy Batty’s beautiful dying monologue (Rutger Hauer improvised the best part).

“Amidst all the extras it's possible to overlook the film itself; not only is The Final Cut present, but three other versions as well: the 1982 domestic release, the 1982 international release, and the 1992 Director's Cut. Each of these looks and sounds jaw-droppingly gorgeous. And for those unsure of the difference between the versions, there's a feature about that, too. If that’s not exhaustive enough for you, extra-devoted fans can plunk down some extra chinyen (Blade Runner money) for the “Ultimate Edition,” filled with goodies such as glossy pictures and a miniature spinner, as well as yet another cut of the film- the original workprint screened for test audiences- all in an imitation Voight-Kampf test case. But what should be sweetest of all to Blade Runner fans is the knowledge that without their devoted support and love of this beautiful, melancholy masterpiece, The Final Cut and its superb DVD release wouldn't exist, and the film would be lost, like tears in the rain. “ ~ James Frazier

Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition [Paramount] (22/5)
The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky [Abkco/Anchor Bay] (19/4)
Killer of Sheep [Milestone] (13/3)
Ace in the Hole [Criterion] (12/3)

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Best Cinematography, 2007

There Will Be Blood [Robert Elswit] (118 points/18 votes)

"Perhaps the most stylistically striking thing about 2007's rightfully-beloved critical darling, There Will Be Blood, is its stunning balance of the old-fashioned and the new-age. Tonally and structurally, P.T. Anderson's epic opus is just as classical as it is experimental. Crucial to this equilibrium is Robert Elswit's visionary cinematography, which fully realizes the film's literal vitality and subliminal absurdity. Both through rolling, rustic long shots and intense, brooding close-ups, Elswit's work perfectly captures the essence of what Anderson's screenplay and direction strive for. The viewer is first overwhelmed by the vastness and scope of the piece through Elswit's tinted and vintage view of an untapped American West, only to later be torn to shreds by the accomplished D.P.'s unflinching depiction of the humanity (or lack thereof) of Daniel Day Lewis' corrupt protagonist. Remarkable as the picturesque vistas found in There Will Be Blood are, they pale in comparison to Elswit's sweaty, claustrophobic, roaring shots of Day Lewis' profile, which spill over onto the audience's lap as if to intimidate and anger its members. Much like Anderson, Elswit knows when to make the viewer conscious of his work and when to back off, ensuring that the film is as substantively rich as it is breathtaking, as much a carefully-constructed exercise as it is an improvised experience. Captured through Elswit's lens, There Will Be Blood is nothing short of dynamo." ~ Danny Baldwin


No Country for Old Men [Roger Deakins] (82/13)
Zodiac [Harris Savides] (81/14)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [Roger Deakins] (71/10)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [Janusz Kaminski] (44/7)

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Best Music (original, adapted, or compiled), 2007

There Will Be Blood [score composed by Jonny Greenwood] (108 points/16 votes)

"The opening shot is like a western. You expect to see a lone horse riding around the bend. Instead we have a muscular spider web of glissando strings. It resolves, more or less, to a harmonious chord. And the pick hits the rock and we hear the tang of the hole Daniel Plainview has dug for himself. If I tell you this is no western,
friends, you'll agree.

"Those who complain of There Will Be Blood lacking heart should sit and listen to the soundtrack again. The score is melancholy and complex, halting and both slightly antique and completely modern. Only small portions of low mixed guitar might confuse this work with Radiohead. The rest is pure heartbreaking orchestration that illustrates that you really can take the composer out of the band, and the band out of the composer.

"But most impressively it burned the turns of the tones in my synapses like the ghost of an image on the retinas. When I listened away from the visuals, I was surprised by how much of the score I not only remembered, but remembered well. Like you might remember that favorite song you played every day for a month a few years ago. The one that you still love. The score evoked those ghosts of memory, but not necessarily the ghosts of Plainview.

"Like Eisenstein's theory of montage where one uninflected image placed next to a second uninflected image forms a third idea apart from both of them, Greewood's score stands alone, and then during the movie combines to make something that neither of the visuals or the music could have without the other. Shame that it's ineligible for an Oscar.

"It would win in a walk." ~ Martin McClellan

[songs composed by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova] (75/12)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis] (36/6)
Into the Wild [songs by Eddie Vedder; original score by Vedder, Michael Brook, and Kaki King] (34/5)
Zodiac [original score by David Shire; soundtrack supervised by George Drakoulias] (30/6)

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