Published at: Jan. 2, 2008, 8:52 a.m. CST by merrick
THE AICN-DOWNUNDER ANNUAL 2007
So, we're all done with 2007. The biggest shock? No James Bond movie. You'd think that there'd be some marketing genius somewhere who would kick the whole thing off so they could do a "007 in 2007"-type promotion, but no. And with precious few hours left in the year, I'm beginning to think they won't get one made in time.
Nevertheless, we have much to speak of. Or I have much to type of, and you have much to read of. Either way, I'm going to get on with it now. Below you'll find my rundown of the year Australian cinema had (which gets quite deep), my favourite performance of the year (which is quite fluffy), and the films that disappointed me and the ones that made me jump for the sky.
HOW NOT TO BE ANTI-PODEAN
(Sorry, Kiwis -- I know this column is unfairly weighted towards Australia, but until AICN is ready to fly me back and forth to NZ, I gotta go with what I know.)
I'm not sure whether critics are unfairly geared towards or against local films. I suppose with enough examples, these two extremes could cancel each other out. On the other hand, I should really be talking about audience, but hardly any bothered with local films yet again (the comparison being to the uber-marketed fare from the States). Is this the fault of the audiences or the films? Do films even bother trying to appeal to the mass audience?
GABRIEL did. It was a special effects-heavy film about angels and heaven and hell and sex and violence and all the stuff that the kids watch. Reaction was mixed, ranging from excitement to hate-filled. Either way, people seemed impressed with the fact that this film got made, as well they should be. It was a huge feat to put that thing together. Did audiences care? Some did. The film made half a million, which is well below the decimal point shorthand of Hollywood films, but still pretty impressive for a local low budget flick.
GABRIEL, however, was a spike. An anomaly. Australian cinema is usually dramatic, arthouse, and About Something. LUCKY MILES received a lot of praise, which was odd given it was good. "Good" here means that it was decent, but not mind-blowing. The narrative ambled too much, with pointless segues and unresolved plotlines making the overlong running time seem bloated. Still, the film itself wasn't bad, and a lot of that praise seemed to stem from the fact that it had managed to avoid overtly tripping over its own shoelaces.
Similar things can be said of THE JAMMED. Look, I hate to be That Guy, and if there's a revolution to lift an Australian film from the doom of a straight-to-video release up to a theatrical run and subsequent awards, I really want to be a part of it. The problem is that in order for me to be part of this revolution, I need to love the film. THE JAMMED was another good film that got absolutely felated for reasons passing my understanding. The film about the trade of illegal immigrants in brothels was quite good, and featured some excellent performances, but was hardly the second coming of whatever. It felt more like a public service announcement than a piece of cinema, and on that level I have nothing but respect for it. Beyond that, I was left confused... had I missed something? Certainly, that's happened before. I don't want to rule out my own idiocy in this matter, but I really was paying attention, and if there was something magical there to see, I didn't see it.
THE HOME SONG STORIES, which I believe now has more AFI awards in its collection than does the Australian Film Institute itself, was another case of good intentions supplanting... oh, you know what? To hell with finishing that thought. I'm an utter grinch. Am I one of those critics I mentioned in the opening paragraph? Am I too hard on my own country's output? Perhaps. HOME SONG STORIES was a really good film, and I really enjoyed it. So why -- before I cut myself off at the top of the paragraph -- was I about to focus on its faults? I'm not entirely sure.
I think within the film community (and here I'm including filmmakers, critics, and you guys), there's a deep desire for us to produce greatness. So much noise is made about the fact that we produce great actors, directors and technicians, so why can't they use their greatness here? Why must we export them? That speaks to a State of the Industry discussion that's broader than can be contained in a 2007 rundown (we've had it before, and I promise we'll have it again), so I won't wade hip-deep into it right now.
We want to see our home country produce a film that's really, honestly, truly great. We want a cottage industry that works. It's so easy to sit back and criticise the Hollywood machine, but about a dozen truly great films come out of it every year. If we had twelve very good films in a year, the industry would explode in utter shock.
I really do want to sing the praises of our local films. And I've been doing everything I can to refrain from mentioning WEST, a film I wanted wanted wanted to like so much. You should have seen me in the cinema, glossing over all the garbage elements in the first act and convincing myself that it was all going to come together later. It didn't. The truth is it was terrible, and it's actually painful to write that. I've been told the director, Daniel Krige, is a very nice guy. I've met one or two of the actors, who are also very nice. Add to that the treasonous feelings I get from laying into a local film, and you end up with me not wanting to write a single word about it, because any honest words I write about it will only end up as very, very critical.
2007 taught me one thing about Australian cinema: any criticisms you level at the industry must also be leveled at its critics and reviewers, yours truly included. The easy thing to take from that statement is "Don't listen to critics; just go see Australian films", which is pat and sentimental, and ignores the important role of the critics, which is to recommend the good and steer you away from the bad. So what's the all-important lesson I'm going to leave you with? There ain't one, kids. If there was a simple one-sentence way to resolve this issue, I'd either be lying, or talking about a different industry altogether.
But don't listen to me. Just go see some more Australian films.
THAT GUY'S IN IT?
I usually forget to do this, but I thought I should give a shout-out to my favourite performance of the year. Before I get into it, when did Jason Bateman become the best actor in the world? Okay, maybe not the best, but there was no one else whose name I was happier to see in a film's opening credits. I noticed it in MR MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM, and the sudden jump in attentiveness I experienced when his credit came up. Between that film and his work in THE KINGDOM and his Oscar-worthy turn in JUNO, Bateman was possibly my favourite actor of '07... but he didn't give my favourite performance.
My favourite performance went to James Marsden in the otherwise-well-meaning-but-ultimately-only-okay ENCHANTED. Marsden's prince practically justified the entire movie (I did like Amy Adams, though). This should be proof that Marsden needs a starring role in a Judd Apatow movie. It doesn't even need to be a buddy movie or ensemble piece, either; his smarmy prince proved that he not only has some of the best comic timing instincts of anyone working in film today, but he can easily carry an entire film by himself.
YEAR OF THE THREEQUELS
OCEAN'S 13, SPIDER-MAN 3, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END, SHREK 3, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM... what's with the trilogies, guys? Everyone wanna be Peter Jackson?
First of all, we gotta do the Olympics scoring thing and lop off the top and the bottom. BOURNE ULTIMATUM was the best by a long shot, but it was always going to be. SHREK 3 was the worst by a long shot, but it was always going to be. Within those bookends lies some fairly disappointing efforts.
OCEAN'S 13 made up for the utter car wreck of OCEAN'S 12 (I've tried so, so, so hard to find some redeeming features in that film, but overall it's garbage) and was a really good film, but didn't quite hit the heights of OCEAN'S 11.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3 was a bit of a let-down for me, given PIRATES 2 is, in my mind, the perfect adventure film. I know a lot of you hated it (as I discovered when it made my best list last year), but I leapt out of my seat repeatedly when I first saw it, and it's more than stood up to repeated viewings. PIRATES 3 turned the complex plot of the second film and simply made it complicated and convoluted. Characters betrayed themselves in service of "clever" plot twists, and some genius moments aside (Jack's entrance on the ship living up to the entrances of the last two films; the fight on the ship mast was brilliant), the whole thing was a bit of a mess.
Not as big of a mess, however, as SPIDER-MAN 3. Where did the wheels fall off? Sam, you forgot the lessons of every other superhero franchise: the best way to make your film a steaming pile of crud is to introduce multiple villains. So much for the personal stories of the first two films. We also got treated to the biggest misstep of any major franchise ever: Peter Parker's turn to the dark side. Listen, we are amazed at Spider-man's abilities because Peter's life is grounded in reality. You need that contrast for it to work. Having him break into dance sequences and piano solos -- as much fun as the scene may be out of context -- destroys the film's integrity and loses your audience (and don't bother citing box office receipts, this thing was going to make a zillion dollars if they'd slapped the "SPIDER-MAN 3" title on a print of CENTRE STAGE). I can't think of another film betraying itself so expertly after such a successful run. It was heart-breaking to watch.
Anyway, I'm ranting and raving more than I'd planned to, but this year these trilogies proved that , interestingly, an auteur having total creative control over a franchise is not always a good thing.
THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE YEAR
Not all the disappointments lay in the big budget trilogy cappers. The arthouse world had a lot to answer for as well, beginning with the Palm D'or winner 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS. Listening to the critical reaction to this film was like standing in the crowd as the naked Emperor marches past. Really? This is all it takes to impress you guys? A solemn look at an illegal abortion in an eastern European setting? Wow. In that case, give me five minutes on Final Draft and I'll see you at Cannes next year. This insulting nonsense coasted by on a slow and unfocused telling of a day in the life of two friends, one of whom needs a de-babyfying. Cue lots of pain, a few nasty characters, and a close up of the aborted foetus in order to give the film some "edge". Now collect an award! This is what gives arthouse films a bad name.
The disappointment didn't really affect me all that much, though, given I didn't have anything other than two hours of my life invested in it. I had much more invested in INLAND EMPIRE, the latest film from David Lynch, who is undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers in my life. I've never not loved his work; it's usually just a question of how much I love it. Is it going to change my life like LOST HIGHWAY? Is it going to be total perfection like MULHOLLAND DRIVE? Or will it simply be a work of greatness like BLUE VELVET? I was not expecting nonsense. INLAND EMPIRE is, I'm told, the closest we'll get into seeing what goes on in David Lynch's psyche. Without budgetary constrictions, he was free to shoot everything on DV and pretty much do whatever he wanted. This sounded great in theory, but in practice it was another story. Lynch's films elicit a certain type of fear and dread because of the manner in which they are constructed. That is, they are quite specifically a construct. This is helped by the hyper-realism afforded by shooting on 35mm film. Shooting on DV makes it look like a home video, and nothing could be less appropriate to Lynch's style. I wish he had a budget he had to stick to. I wish he'd been able to focus more. This is stream-of-consciousness rubbish that has no backbone to it, and would be ignored by everyone were it not for Lynch's name. I hope this serves as an experiment for the man, and he gets back to the genius I've come to love him for.
MY FAVOURITE FILMS OF THE PAST YEAR
Okay, the important thing to remember is that, for the most part, I'm going by Australian release dates. I'm trying to be as international as I can (as in, if it came out anywhere in the world, it should be on this year's list), but practicality forbids this. As a result, there are a handful of 2006 films that we only got in early 2007. At least one of these is on this list. Similarly, I've seen a few films that aren't coming out until 2008. At least one of these is also on the list.
I also thought about something I've wrestled with in the past: do I mention the films that almost made the cut? I've decided I shall. These lists should be about celebrating the best of the best, and even though there is something to be said for the exclusivity of a top tier, it's also about recommending films that should not in any way go unviewed.
SUNSHINE - A wonderful and unexpectedly great film that I suspect will be more revered over time.
LAST KING OF SCOTLAND - Oddly, I felt let down that this film was mostly-fictitious, but genius performances and really tight direction make this a superb watch.
THE GOOD GERMAN - It may have been an intellectual exercise, but it was one I loved. Soderbergh is the man.
HOT FUZZ - I was obsessively watching "Spaced" DVDs the other day, and remembering just how amazingly talented these guys are. I want more Wright/Pegg/Frost, and I want it now.
ZODIAC - Fincher does another serial killer film, and doesn't repeat himself at all. A near-perfect film that really surprised the hell out of me.
RATATOUILLE - Pixar is freaking me out. I haven't not loved any of their films (CARS included, haters), and RATATOUILLE had me laughing more than nearly any other film this year...
SUPERBAD - ...except SUPERBAD. A film about teenagers trying to get laid is not only genuinely funny, but also incredibly sweet? A film that will get repeated runs in my DVD player.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN - A powerful film with an amazingly understated ending. Everything about this film was terrific.
THE SIMPSONS MOVIE - Not the greatest episode ever, but still very good. And very funny. It met my expectations, and given how high they were, that's high praise.
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM - If you'd told me after THE BOURNE IDENTITY came out that not only would the sequel be even better, but the third film would be even better that both of them, I'd have either punched you or kissed you. Either way, I'd be overreacting. But this should be a good reason to not make a fourth film: you've hit the plateau. It's a perfect trilogy. Let it rest.
RESCUE DAWN - I came late to the Werner Herzog party (also forgot to bring wine), only discovering him last year with the amazing WILD BLUE YONDER. Turns out he's just as great at narrative movies. A simple and flawless movie that will satisfy both your action movie buddies and your snobby film professor.
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN - Didn't this come out everywhere else several years ago? Either way, we only got it this year. I knew nothing about it going in (I was actually dragged into it against my will, as I mistakenly thought it to be a Dogme 95 film that came out at the same time). What I got was a beautiful, if slightly long, comedy-drama that would play perfectly with Lasse Hallstrom's MY LIFE AS A DOG.
EASTERN PROMISES - The Cronenberg/Mortensen team-ups continue to pay off.
CONTROL - A perfectly-paced film that makes every other musical biopic redundant.
THE TOP TEN
Seriously, you have no idea how hard I'm laughing right now. Every year I get absolutely flamed for something on my best/worst list, and as the credits came up on HAIRSPRAY, I instantly knew what it would be this time. I won't deny I'm taking great delight in the anger I'm stirring up amongst the AICN rabble (yourself excluded, naturally -- you and I both know you're more reasonable than the others), but that's not why HAIRSPRAY is on this list. I wasn't expecting a whole lot going in, and so was surprised when the film turned out to be perfect, start to finish. I know it's oh-so-fashionable to beat up on Adam Shankman, but he did a damn good job on this film. The songs are great, the design is brilliant, and the cast is perfect. (Special note: I felt bad when I kind-of dissed Amanda Bynes's performance in my review of SHE'S THE MAN, because I was actually a little impressed with how much she threw herself into the role, even if she was a bit hammy. I make up for this here. Bynes gave one of my favourite performances of the year in HAIRSPRAY, and didn't get nearly enough praise for it, in my opinion. But I suppose it's hard when everyone else in the film is also brilliant.)
9. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!
I caught this film at MIFF, based on the recommendation of a no-good colleague of mine. Guy Madden made this film, a feature-length film done in the style of a silent movie. Does it get tiring? Not even a little bit. It's actually glorious, and gets better as it goes along. Imagine if colour and sound had never been invented, and film practitioners had been forced to advance the genre using only silent techniques from a century ago. That evolution would see us reach BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! about now, and, consequently, it feels like you're watching a film from a parallel universe. The year's most enjoyable, funny, and captivating intellectual exercise.
8. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Welcome to the first in a series of "Shouldn't that be higher on the list?". Well, it's a personal favourite list, and hey, it made the top ten, so quit your yammering. I found something to love in the Coens' last two films (LADYKILLERS had Tom Hanks's note-perfect performance; with INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, I was able to enjoy the intent if not the outcome), but even so, they were definite dips in their overall filmography. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN feels like the thematic sequel to BLOOD SIMPLE, not just in terms of style, but in its raw energy. Josh Brolin is having the year of his life, suddenly appearing in every damn film I see. And being really very good in all of them. But his work here is career-defining; despite Tommy Lee Jones on the marquee, this film belongs to Brolin and to Javier Bardem. Bardem is the most bone-chilling villain I've seen in a long time, and it's because he pushes the cartoony aspects of his character without becoming a cartoon. Which is, I suppose, what the Coens are best at. It's a film that works on many, many levels at once, and perfects every single one of them.
If you're a screenwriter who wants a director who gets your script, I'd say Jason Reitman is the guy to go to. It's one thing to put a perfect script in front of a camera. It's another to enhance it by understanding every single nuance and ensuring every element is there to support it. It's another to do it twice in a row. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING was genius. JUNO is even better. Ellen Paige is obviously everyone's favourite actress now, and enough had been written about her perfect performance. Same with Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, etc. The only thing I want to add is that hyper-stylised writing is often criticised for its lack of realism. "People don't talk like that in real life!" we often hear. Well, we have enough films that emulate "real life" speak, whether it be out of a desire for realism or just pure laziness, so why not the odd film with style? This dialogue, expertly written by Diablo Cody, has the crackle of a 1950s comedy-drama, but with many more pop culture references. It's the combination of an honest heart with this edgy dialogue that's connecting so intimately with people, myself included.
Less a musical than a film-with-music-in-it (and if you don't know the difference, look up the word "diagetic"), ONCE is non-traditional without being wanky. It's sweet without being saccharine. It's real without being overly kitchen sinky about itself. The music is great, the leads are great, the whole thing is great. Show it to a girl if you want her to fall in love with you. (Fun fact: the second time I saw it, I took a date who turned up drunk and insisted we leave after twenty minutes, so my last statement shouldn't be taken as gospel.)
5. THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Paul Thomas Anderson, take a bow. I've been a fan of all of his films, but this is such a departure from his usual style, I'm not sure if I could have picked him as director if there'd been no titles. From the fifteen/twenty minute dialogue-free opening, to the chillingly personal final moments, this is pure filmmaking. That's a strange phrase to type as it makes little sense when placed under scrutiny, but it's hard to deny the thrust behind it when you're watching a film like this one. I remember the publicist telling us that the film went for well over two hours before it started, but I don't actually remember it going that long. It flows so well, and the life of Daniel Day Lewis's oil magnate is so compelling, the time absolutely flies by. This is the sort of film cinema was invented for. Oh, and if you thought Paul Dano was good as the silent teen in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, wait until you see him here. He gives a performance so strong and so far beyond his years that I had no idea who the actor was at any point during the film. If he doesn't get an Oscar nomination for his work here, then I'm quitting professional football.
4. THE DARJEELING LIMITED
There are two filmmakers working who I suspect are doing it entirely for me. Steven Soderbergh is one. Wes Anderson is the other. Seriously, it's like they start out with the idea "What is the perfect film for Latauro?". And guys, I really appreciate it. According to my own sensibilities, this is a perfect film, and I can't imagine seeing it without HOTEL CHEVALIER at the beginning. From the brain-bending cameo at the beginning, to the trademark Wes-slow-mo shots (I read somewhere that he's afraid that slow-mo style is getting old; don't stress, man, it still works a treat), to a perfectly-cast troika of brothers, DARJEELING never takes a single dip. Before when I was talking about JUNO and stylised dialogue done well? Check that again for Anderson's (and, in this case, Schwartzman's and Coppola's) understated, halting, almost-mistranslated dialogue. I just can't get enough of it, and the day after I saw it I was struck with a form of depression I get after seeing any Wes Anderson film: I am now at at the top end of the longest period of time before his next film. Can I stand the wait? Repeated viewings of DARJEELING should see me through.
3. THIS IS ENGLAND
Who is Shane Meadows? Apparently, I was the only one who didn't know. I haven't seen any of his early work, and frankly the poster didn't inspire much confidence. There's no genre I that turns me off more than the English kitchen sink period drama where everything is sparse and everyone's unhappy and a life of violence and hopelessness is underscored at the end by an even more violent and hopeless event. So what dragged me to THIS IS ENGLAND in the first place? I can't remember. I think because it was the closing night film of the Melbourne International Film Festival, I forced myself to go to the media screening. I shudder when I think I almost missed this film. Yes, it's a period kitchen sink English drama that's underscored with violence and hopelessness... so why in the hell did I love it? I mean genuinely love it, so much so that I'm really looking forward to seeing it again? Simple: all the characters are likable. This isn't some middle class arty director trying to make a gritty film and assuming that all working class people are dicks. Meadows is from this world, and every single character is, to some extent, charming. The gang of teens who feel bad for the kid and try to make him feel better are honestly nice guys, even if they spend their weekends trashing other people's properties. The neo-nazi character who appears halfway through is a genuinely likable guy who honestly believes he's doing the best for his country and his friends. Of course he's charming, that's how he gets people on side in the first place. From start to finish, you're compelled and empathetic because you understand why each of these people thinks they're doing the right thing. It's an utterly perfect film that sets the bar for the genre so high, I doubt there'd be many filmmakers who would even bother in the future.
2. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
Would it take long to get a world-class painter to do every single frame of a feature film? Almost certainly. And it'd be much easier to just hire Roger Deakins. Deakins was the first cinematographer whose name I memorised, thanks to his work on THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Since then, when I read his name on a movie poster, I'm actually reading "This film will look better than anything else coming out this year". It's impossible to overstate how much ASSASSINATION has left the rest of his filmography, as well as every other film ever made, for dust. This is, simply put, the best photographed film ever made. I came out of Anton Corbjin's brilliant CONTROL this year thinking it was the best shot film of the year. Any other year, it wouldn't have any competition. This is poetry on film, and Deakins's name should be shouted as loud as anyone else's. Those "anyone elses" include Melbourne boy Andrew Dominik, who has not made a film since CHOPPER. CHOPPER was brilliant and very well directed, but still didn't indicate that Dominik had a film like this in him. Seriously, I think he spent the intervening seven years injecting himself with some sort of directing-enhancement syrum. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt is one of the few people who could have pulled off Jesse James, and a perfect example of using an actor's off-screen persona in conjunction with their on-screen talent. Casey Affleck is exactly as good as everyone else before me has said he is. The screenplay is flawless. If this much care was given to every film, we would be utterly spoiled.
1. THE FOUNTAIN
At what point did Stanley Kubrick's spirit inhabit Darren Aronofsky? It's hard to shake the comparison. Aronofsky has not rushed from film to film, but has rather taken his time to craft three very different, yet structurally-unassailable films that tackle different genres in different ways. There isn't a shot in any of them that doesn't look like it wasn't given months of thought, there's not a speck of dust that isn't out of place. Sound clinical? I've never seen a film make more people cry than THE FOUNTAIN has. It has a heart, but a heart that not everybody gets. I totally understand why this film isn't popular. The two hardest genres to get right are fantasy and melodrama, and this was a bloody fantasy-melodrama. Right out of the gate, the odds are stacked against it. It's also hard to argue why the film works if you don't like it right off. It either hits you or it doesn't, and I've been surprised -- within my groups of friends -- to see who has connected with it and who hasn't. It's a film that's about our humanity, and what it means, and where we're going, and how we deal with endings. It's too big for me to encompass here, and yet it's so personal that to relate how it directly affected me feels almost invasive. I guess that's what happens when a film hits you square on the soul. We got this film in January of 2007, and it hasn't left me the whole year round. This isn't just the best film I've seen all year; this is one of the best films I've ever seen in my life.