December 21, 2007

Film — Best-Ofs: LEO critics tout their Top 5

Alan Abbott    1) Into Great Silence — A largely wordless documentary about one of the most ascetic Catholic monasteries in Europe. Although I’ve long since fallen by the wayside, there’s something to be said about the ancient, still rhythms of their deeply contemplative life.     2) The Unforeseen — Director Laura Dunn was inspired by a conversation with Terrence Malick to make this breathtaking documentary about the fight for an endangered, edenic natural spring in Austin. Screened at the Kentucky Center earlier this year, it’s a grand, poetic meditation on the nature of man and the environment.     3) Zodiac — This movie is able to sustain its mood for more than two hours without being dull — no mean feat. It’s dark, ominous and hints that evil is ultimately beyond comprehension.     4) The Host — This South Korean film has a thinly veiled anti-American message. The chemical spill that creates the grotesque monster that terrorizes Seoul throughout the film is actually a reference to another American-caused spill on Korean soil. So, it would be easy to see the giant, rampaging monster as symbolic of the United States — you know, the world’s last superpower and largest polluter as well as the seemingly permanent occupiers of South Korea. If that makes you bristle a bit, realize that it’s also just an artfully, sometimes awe-inspiring spectacle of a monster movie.     5) Tie: Meeting Resistance & 28 Weeks Later — “Meeting Resistance” is the best movie yet about Iraq because it challenges your preconceptions about the insurgents. This is not to say that you’ll want to take them out to dinner — it’s hard to overcome the fact that the people interviewed are blowing up American Humvees — but it does explain that these are not Saddam worshipers, but people who understandably fear that we never plan to leave their country. Like Vietnam, the problem is that we and our enemies are fighting different wars. We’re battling for influence in the Middle East. The Iraqis are fighting perceived imperialism.    “28 Weeks Later” is visually innovative, using techniques like night scopes, sniper rifles, security cameras and “rage vision” to capture multiple perspectives. It’s also a smart allegory: A well-meaning but poorly-planned American intervention quickly falls apart when the civilian population turns on itself, threatening to engulf both American soldiers and their homeland. As it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the zombies from the normal humans and their leadership’s game plan completely disintegrates, soldiers stuck on the ground are forced to use ever-increasing firepower.     So, yes, this is about Iraq, too. Paul Kopasz    There were precious few pleasures to be found, cinematically speaking, in the year of our lord, 2007. There were a couple of decent thrillers, a few powerful “serious” films and a number of good foreign entries that no one saw (or will see). There were one or two “blockbusters” that lived up to that much misused sobriquet. For the first time in a number of years, documentaries did not dominate the A-list. Michael Moore’s “Sicko” notwithstanding, it was a weak year for docs, unless one counts obscurities like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” or “Amazing Journey,” two music-oriented assemblies that never made their way to Louisville theaters.    The finest film of the year, for my ticket money, was the Coen Brothers’ startling “No Country for Old Men.” Its astute combination of anger and comedy was very nearly emblematic of the queer cultural malaise that characterizes the end of the G.W. Bush years. That populist anger demanded thrillers and crime dramas, and there were a number of good ones. In some kind of tie for second place were a trio of gems: “The Bourne Ultimatum” was a fast moving, ramshackle bit of entertainment with smarts; “Michael Clayton” was a taught legal thriller that echoed Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict”; “and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” was Lumet himself at age 83 returning almost to the skill level he showed back at the time of “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Prince of the City.”    “Atonement” was a vivid romantic epic, certainly one of the finer films of the year depending on one’s personal taste. Many found it overwrought and far too traditional. Be that as it may, the leading lady revealed herself. Keira Knightley has blossomed from wispy unattainability to flesh-and-blood artistic power.     “American Gangster” was another old school throwback. The dubious stylism of Ridley Scott was more than compensated for by the powerhouse performances of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe (not to mention Wu-Tang rapper RZA and a host of regulars from “The Wire”).    And on this long, slow march through an exceedingly bitter season, we were told by Michael Moore that the U.S. healthcare system was deeply flawed. Not a new insight, perhaps only confirming Ecclesiastes’ warning about there being no new thing under the sun, but valuable still for bringing about a much needed public conversation, one that seems to be having an impact upon the national elections.Sara Havens    1) Black Snake Moan — Forget church or therapy — one way to cure someone of their demons is to chain them to your radiator and play ’em the blues. Sam Jackson and Christina Ricci rise to the top in this raw, gritty, sweaty film.    2) Lars & the Real Girl — A moving but very weird story of human compassion at its finest. So what if our adorable Ryan Gosling totes around a blow-up doll and calls it his girlfriend? Are you going to ridicule or play along? The small town in this story chooses to play along … and they were better people for it.    3) Knocked Up — Izzy gots some comedy chops, who knew? Judd Apatow, apparently. Sex with strangers, accidental pregnancies, loser friends … we’ve all been there, right? Apatow took the most stressful situations in “Knocked Up” and magic-wanded them into complete comic genius. I wonder what would happen if he ever hooked up with Sarah Silverman. It’d be some crazy shit.    4) Year of the Dog — Molly Shannon puts aside her Catholic school girl antics and does a real fine job at bringing the lonesome, apethetic Peggy to life. You can’t help but feel sorry for her after she loses her dog Pencil, the only friend she had in her sorry life. This film proves that Molly is Rhoda no more. She’s got the Mary chops, indeed.    5) Waitress — The quirky characters and delightful, effortless storytelling by Adrienne Shelly made script-writing seem easy as pie. If only it was.Jamie Peters    1) Into the Wild — 2007 featured the best lineup of American movies that I have seen in my 31 years of movie-going. Sean Penn’s directing and writing triumph leads this list of films that have infused American moviemaking with a robust vitality that rivals any annual output of the 1970s.     Penn’s movie deftly counterbalances its youthful exuberance of society-shunning Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) with the wiser, cautionary eyes of the elders he encounters on the road. On closer glance, the film’s sprawling tone reveals Penn’s sharply defined intentions. The final half hour is a tightly braided series of cross-cuts that deepen the film’s characterization of McCandless and lift the film beyond tragedy to a poetic reverie on American individualism.     2) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — This year was characterized by bold final acts, and director Andrew Dominik’s film is no exception. Casey Affleck gives my favorite performance of the year as the creepy-whiny Robert Ford, who achieves the fame he desires by killing his idol and then replaying the assassination for audiences on stage. The film traces a singular character arc as Ford’s twitchy melancholy as a young man ages into a fatalistic sadness. Roger Deakins’ cinematography creates a storybook Western that has some of the most visually stunning images I have seen in modern movies.     3) Zodiac — The third act also catapults “Zodiac” to classic cinema. David Fincher reveals his true theme is not detailing the diabolical smarts of a serial killer, but revealing a free-floating, media-fed evil that permeates modern society. Jake Gyllenhaal’s reporter sifts through endless reports stuffed with facts, and the film ultimately becomes about the obsessive accumulation of data — a fitting analog for the information age, where the truth is much more elusive … and chilling.     4) I’m Not There — Todd Haynes’ bold meditation on Dylan enlists six different actors to play the musician in the various stages of his life. It’s a fittingly clever approach: By shape-shifting his identities to feed his mercurial spirit, Dylan also has established multiple personas that reflect the changing climates of American culture. Haynes and his phenomenal cast (Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger are stand-outs) avoid thesis-film purgatory with a playful spirit.     5) No Country for Old Men — The Coen Brothers create an unshakeable, bleak vision of cosmic evil with a haunting ending that elevates the film to the sublime.  c d kaplan    First, the usual caveats. My deadline was Dec. 12. So there’s obviously no consideration of movies released after that in Louisville. There are always movies that never make it here until the year after their release. Consequently, there are two 2006 releases on my Top 5 list for 2007. In alphabetical order:    1) Across the Universe — I’ve always been of the opinion that fantasy and reality were one and the same during the halcyon days of the counterculture in the late ’60s and ’70s. If you were there and remain cogent, you know what I mean. Julie Taymor’s love poem to the era is all that and more. Including Eddie Izzard vamping his way through a seminal version of “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite.” The film, as was the time, is equal parts romantic, psychedelic, naive, diffuse, political and more fun than we deserve.    2) After the Wedding — What an examination of the family process is this Danish stunner, directed by Susanne Bier. So many plot twists and turns where well-meaning people make decisions that have consequences far different from their purpose. While I’m disinclined to appreciate storyline trickeration, the gotcha here about a half an hour in is delectable.    3) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are brothers who rob their parents’ jewelry store. Then the fun begins. Rare is the film that can evoke realistic familial angst. Octogenarian Sidney Lumet wrings every bit of emotional viscerality from a plot that could have been rendered maudlin. Marisa Tomei again proves she is woefully underused as an actor in a role where she is married to one brother and having an affair with the other.    4) Lives of Others — It is impossible to fathom that a film about the wiretapping of a playwright in East Berlin before the fall of Wall could be worth watching. Let alone so perceptively find compassion, rejuvenation and understanding in such a totalitarian atmosphere. Austere has never been this interesting, palatable and invigorating.    5) No Country for Old Men — Nobody does cinematic artifice like the Brothers Coen. Here they return to the greed and gore that marked their scintillating debut, “Blood Simple.” Josh Brolin is marvelously stupid and in over his head when he absconds with drug-deal money. Javier Bardem is delicious evil incarnate. And Tommy Lee Jones provides a weary moral center for this fable about avarice and its inevitable consequences.