January 10, 2008 | Comments ()

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | January 10, 2008 |


Dec. 25, 2007
To: John Williams, Dustin Rowles

Gentlemen —

This has been a good year for movies. Granted, it seems like I find a reason to fool myself into believing that’s the case every year; I look back on what I’ve seen in the past twelve months and tell myself, “Hey, some of those weren’t too bad, and some were actually pretty good.” But there’s something in the air this year, a kind of cautious optimism in the power and fun and terror of movies that takes me back to those halcyon days of the fall of 1999. As of this writing, I’ve seen 54 films released this year — low by some counts, but for a guy doing this in his free time, it could be worse — and I consider 29 of those to have been either partly or completely wonderful, with some of them surpassing the realm of enjoyable entertainment and arriving instead in the place we reserve in our hearts and minds for the films that will matter the most to us in some small way for the rest of our lives.

For me, movies this year were all about heart, and damn anyone who scoffs or rolls their eyes at that, or at me for saying it. I felt more connected to characters this year than I have in a long time. Even in more traditionally popcorn fare like I Am Legend — great idea, good execution, terrible resolution — I was able to almost viscerally relate to the terror of Robert Neville (Will Smith) seeing his dog, his only companion in the blasted wasteland of the future, run into a darkened building.

But I guess I should get on with the big stuff. We’re here to talk about our favorite movies of the year, and maybe the best, if we can come to a consensus (which seems unlikely). I’m loath to make a list and rank the films in question, since they each seemed to offer something unique, making comparisons both impossible and unfair, but I’ll try and share some love for my favorite movies of 2007 without having anybody feel left out.

For starters, Breach and Sunshine were overlooked in the inevitable shuffle. With, Breach, Billy Ray cemented his place as a writer-director who excels at suspense films where the plot is based on a true story and thus already known, or at least available, to the viewer before ever seeing the film. His Shattered Glass was the best thing Hayden Christensen will ever do (as well as a good journalism movie, which is rare), but with Breach he was working with Chris Cooper and Laura Linney. It would be almost impossible to screw up a thriller with that cast, and indeed, Ray doesn’t. And Sunshine was thrilling and disturbing in equal measure. Danny Boyle does hard sci-fi really well, never letting the effects clog the story and always ratcheting up the tension and human drama with every step.

jonesmug.jpgEnough stalling: For my money, the best films of the year were No Country for Old Men, Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, and Knocked Up. (I have been traveling extensively and thus have been unable to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; I reserve the right to add it later if necessary.) I loved several other films this year: the existential Western of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; the lush period romance of Atonement; the jaw-dropping whimsy of Stardust; etc., etc., etc. But those four I named up top were the best ones for me this year because they crafted the best characters and did the best job at transporting the viewer into their respective universes. No Country for Old Men is the kind of stirring, gut-wrenching drama that first put the Coen brothers on the map, and watching them revisit their old stomping grounds of Texas and murder was pure joy. And so much has been written about Juno — some of it by me, here on this site — that it’s easy to lose sight of the compelling emotional drama at its center. For all its idiosyncrasies, the film is never less than genuine and true when it comes to handling the relationships at its center, and that’s what makes it a great film.

As for Lars and the Real Girl and Knocked Up, they could almost be two sides of the same worn coin. Lars may be a more easily identifiable outcast, dealing with more nuanced and heartbreaking drama, but his film is shot through with the same loneliness that defines Ben, the hero of Judd Apatow’s meditation on twemtysomethings by way of filthy comedy. They’re both adrift, but despite their best efforts to the contrary, they still wind up growing as men, and as people, finding themselves staring adulthood in the eye and, for the first time, not looking away.

Well, this was longer than I intended. What did you two think of movies this year? Was it good for you? John, I know you and I differed on Into the Wild; feel free to take me to school on that one. And Dustin, what was your 2007? This conversation’s pretty wide open, and we’re just getting started.

Dan

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Dec. 28, 2007
To: Dustin Rowles, Daniel Carlson

Compadres,

I don’t think I made it to 54 movies that were released in 2007, but I certainly made it to more than in recent years (thanks partly to writing for Pajiba), and I agree that it was a strong crop. It doesn’t seem that we’re in danger of losing the steady flow of crap that fuels the site’s “scathing and bitchy” mandate — sequels to adaptations of bad TV shows that should have never been made in the first place, lifeless CGI-fests, the career of Jessica Alba — but those spirit-drainers were joined by a conspicuous number of terrific movies.

Like you, Dan, some of the year-end rush has eluded me. I’m also excited for There Will Be Blood. (I thought Boogie Nights was good but overrated, and I hated Magnolia, but in a culture where most “quirky” projects have all the teeth of the local Starbucks, Punch-Drunk Love was a genuine weird-fest, and I loved it, so Paul Thomas Anderson has built up some credit with me.) I’m not seeing Atonement on principle, because even though the reviews are almost unanimously positive, it’s my favorite contemporary novel, and I just don’t see how the movie could be so good that it’s worth mixing the two experiences.

My own picks for the best of 2007, which I’m afraid are pretty conventional, have only one overlap with Dan’s. I enjoyed Juno more than I could have imagined after the first 20 minutes, which I found incredibly grating, but in a strong year its big, moving finish didn’t quite vault it on to my list. I haven’t seen Lars and the Real Girl, and honestly, Dan’s enthusiasm is the only thing that’s making me question that choice and will be what compels me to rent it. The preview made me laugh in the wrong way, and I just don’t see how everyone involved could possibly pull off that premise without embarrassing themselves. Dan writes that Lars is “staring adulthood in the eye,” but it seems to me that “staring sanity in the eye” would be more accurate. But I respect The Carlson, so I’ll give it a peek someday. (Dustin, did you see it? Thoughts?)

I had a lot of fun at Knocked Up, I just fail to see the depth in Apatow that others in our generation seem eager to find. His movies are pretty funny. I enjoy them. They’re also way too long and have too many painfully improvised moments for my taste. (The 40-Year-Old Virgin could have been cut by a solid 40 minutes, which is insane.)

Where we agree is No Country for Old Men. I thought it was brilliant on just about every level. I have small complaints, some of which would involve spoilers, so I won’t go into them here, but it’s a return to form for the Coens and easily one of the year’s top releases.

ratmug.jpgI had the best time this year at Ratatouille, which I found just as expertly made and paced as most Pixar efforts. But where the studio’s other movies have moments of poignancy — like the lovely scene in Toy Story when Buzz figures out he’s a toy — I thought Ratatouille had a sustained emotional strength. An animated rat wouldn’t have been my first guess for the year’s most sympathetic character, but there it is.

Right behind those two, for me, are Michael Clayton and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which are both shot through with cynicism and misery but are so well made that you leave the theater feeling uplifted. And while it wasn’t perfect, I greatly enjoyed I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ high-concept tribute to Dylan.

But it’s true that Into the Wild packed the strongest emotional punch for me. I won’t try to change your opinion, Dan. It seems like you’ve thought about it and just came out at a different place than me. I will say that I was unnerved by the chorus of “spoiled brat” in the comments when I reviewed that one. In my experience, spoiled brats get jobs working for their father’s company and/or try to fill the soul-shaped hole inside by buying more and more disposable crap. Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild, can be described in a bunch of ways — plenty of them critical — but spoiled brat seemed way off the mark to me.

Dustin, I’d be curious to hear your brief take on Sweeney Todd, and not only so you can share some of the heat I’ve gotten for not loving it. Contra many of the assumptions in response to my review, I’m a fan of musicals and have a decent knowledge of them for a 33-year-old heterosexual guy. At least Todd wasn’t the cultural crime that was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but isn’t the Burton-Depp Goth-shtick several years past its expiration date?

Best,
John

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Dec. 29, 2007
To: Daniel Carlson, John Williams

Fellas —

John, I think I’m probably of the mind that the Burton-Depp Goth shtick doesn’t have an expiration date; Depp is supernaturally suited for Burton’s style of filmmaking, and I could watch those two work together for another few decades. That said, while I liked Sweeney Todd a bit more than you — the cinematography was beautiful, the blood was gloriously plentiful, and the performances were stellar, despite the weak singing voices — I agreed with your assessment that the lack of plot and character development ultimately doomed the film (the stage production had more of the latter, but the plot is still melodramatically stolid and predictable).

As for both Michael Clayton and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I have to disagree with you on both counts, John (and, to a lesser extent, with Dan’s review of the former). Clayton featured one of the better performances of the year, in George Clooney, but both movies were too cold and detached for my tastes; they were technically proficient, but they lacked likable or interesting characters and there was nothing in either storyline that resonated with me, while Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Devil was only his third best of the year. I felt similarly about Breach, Dan — like Clayton, it was another unsatisfying thriller improved only by a remarkable performance from Chris Cooper, but not completely saved.

In fact, the Coen brothers schooled both Tony Gilroy and Sidney Lumet in terms of bleak, tension-filled studies in morality. We all three agree that No Country for Old Men was among the top films of the year. The brothers created, in Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, my all-time favorite Coen character, and my favorite scene in any movie this year may have been the simple exchange on the couch between Josh Brolin’s Llewellyn Moss and Kelly MacDonald’s Carla Jean: “Where’d you get the gun?” “At the gettin’ place.” … “You keep running your mouth I’m gonna take you in the back and screw ya.” “Big talk.” It was scenes like that one that elevated No Country above the other bleak thrillers this year, giving us something to emotionally invest in before their grim denouements. I can already tell that this is going to be an unpopular sentiment with both of you, and with our readers, but the thing that kept No Country from among my top three films of the year was the ending. It’s not the actual ending I had a problem with, it’s that it ended there — I was just settling into my theater seat for another half hour of greatness when the bastards jerked those characters away from me. I wasn’t ready. That “leaving you wanting more” feeling can be a great one, or a disappointing one — here, I just found it immensely frustrating. I suspect I may be alone in that respect.

And while I loved both Stardust and the Capraesque Lars and the Real Girl (you really should give it a shot, John — it’s one of those small-town, relationship-focused films I know you love, like You Can Count On Me and Junebug, only there’s a blow-up doll in this one), my top three only differs with Dan by one — I’d replace Lars with Waitress, creating the unwanted-pregnancy trifecta, along with Knocked Up and Juno. Indeed, 2007 was the year of the accidental conception (two were fueled by alcohol, and the other by boredom). Those three films probably resonated a little more with me this year because I saw two of them while my own wife was pregnant (planned), and speaking from that perspective, I’d have to disagree with John’s assessment that Apatow lacks depth. Underneath all the pot and porn jokes, he captured a lot of the nuanced feelings one experiences during pregnancy, though Paul Rudd’s character also struck a chord with me (I would have to agree with a lot of folks, however, in that he gave short shrift to the female perspective). Waitress, on the other hand, successfully captured that overwhelming, change-your-life epiphanic explosion that accompanies childbirth. And while Dan thought that Lars was the other side of the Knocked Up coin, I saw Juno as an alternative version of Knocked Up, where — a decade later — Ben Stone marries an infertile Alison Scott, but never grows up (and props to Diablo Cody for creating a mature, responsible female character who is actually sympathetic, embodied perfectly by Jennifer Garner). Ellen Page was magical in Juno, but I found Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman’s storyline the more compelling one — when Garner took Bateman to task for still wearing Nirvana T-shirts, I felt tiny.

Overall, I tend to agree with both of you that it was a great year for movies, though the stinkers were just as plentiful as in other years — it was a rough spring, summer, and early fall, and the death of torture porn has been a little too slow for my liking. Before I pass it back to Dan, I’d like to ask how you two felt about some of the movies, besides the ones that you’ve mentioned, that fell outside of awards season — I thought it was a lackluster year for blockbusters, but if there was an Oscar for pure awesome, I’d have to give it to The Bourne Ultimatum, and I also think that Zodiac has been unfairly overlooked. Also, what about this year’s performances? The best all year for me may have been Ryan Gosling in Lars and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War. And finally, considering how similar our tastes in movies often run, Dan, I was surprised with how much you liked Atonement. With apologies to both you and John, I thought the movie — like the novel — was no more than a better written version of The Notebook. It didn’t work for me — I thought it was Oscar-grubbing at its finest, this year’s The English Patient or Titanic (minus an hour).

Back to you, Dan.

Dustin

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Guides | January 10, 2008 | Comments ()




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