Sword of Trust
A likable throwback to the kind of rambling, character-driven 1990s indie comedies that the U.S. film industry barely releases to theaters anymore.
The funniest scene in the funniest movie of the year. I think.
Instead of a "ten best list," Armond White makes an annual "Better Than List" which, in principle, I'm all against -- simply because of the formula: He uses a few adjectives and a "greater than" symbol to bash selected movie titles with selected other ones, like Daniel Plainview bludgeoning someone with a heavy object.
Then again, any "ten best list" (or "top ten list" or "favorites list") represents a preference for some movies over some other movies, seen by somebody under certain circumstances during a period of time. And, to not-quite-paraphrase Jean Renoir, "Everybody makes his own rules."
So, perhaps White is really just doing what (I hope) any list-maker does: Making a claim for his/her own critical taste and values, while recommending some movies. That he assumes the attitude of a bully over the approach of a critic or movie lover is, perhaps, not so important. (Quote: "'No Country for Old Men' > better than 'There Will Be Blood,' 'Zodiac.' The Coen brothers hauntingly mythologize Americana, while P.T. Anderson and David Fincher make it morbid, sadistic and self-congratulatory." Is there an inverse relationship between "morbid, sadistic and self-congratulatory" and "hauntingly mythological" -- Americana-wise, I mean?)
But look: Now I'm using other top ten lists to bash White's. Is there no getting around this? I fell ill (think of the scene with the old lady on the street in "The Orphanage") just as I was about to annotate my own 2007 list, after submitting various rankings to critics' polls at MSN Movies, indieWIRE and the Village Voice/LA Weekly poll, each of which had slightly different rules, categories and deadlines. (Then I posted a list in video form in late December). Consequently, I missed reading a lot of other peoples' lists (though The House Next Door and David Hudson at GreenCine, and the folks at Movie City News have put together invaluable lists of lists -- and/or lists of links -- that have helped me in my efforts to catch up, because, as I am fond of repeating, I actually learn from browsing these things).
Oh, yes, and I also posted the 2007 Exploding Head Awards as a kind of top-ten alternative. (Let me add that I have enjoyed no 2007 overview more than Dennis Cozzalio's at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.)
Now, just to wrap up this whole 2007 wrap-up thing, I'm going to recommend some movies and (in munchable blurbs of 150 words or less -- I hope) give you some idea of what I liked about them, without the intention of over-selling them. If I've written more extensively about them, I'll link their titles to a more detailed review or posting.
Two more things before I get started:
* I read a lot of online writing every day (including print publications I wouldn't otherwise see), but I want to mention five blogs to which I am utterly faithful, even though only one of them is updated every day. (Which reminds me: I really need to update my blogroll. There's more good stuff out there than I can possibly even remember, much less keep up with.) Even if I unaccountably forget to visit for a few days, I always catch up with these eventually. Listed alphabetically by URL:
* I neither pretend to have seen, nor feel particularly guilty about not seeing, every movie somebody may consider worthy of consideration (or necessary for disqualification) during the calendar year before I made this list. I don't know how many movies I saw in 2007, or even how many I wrote about. (I've never kept track of numbers like that.) But even the most "comprehensive" accounting is inevitably going to boil down to: Movies I Saw That I Preferred Over Other Movies I Saw But Not Necessarily Over Ones I Didn't See -- Which You May Or May Not Have Seen, Too. And, as "Army of Shadows" and "Killer of Sheep" have shown, it may take another 30 or 40 years to catch up with some of the best movies of 2007.
List of Abstract Semi-Autobiographical Sales-Pitch Blurbs (2007):
10. "Helvetica." All the arguments we have about movies, all the enthusiasms and tastes and dislikes and metaphors, are here in this movie about a ubiquitous typeface. It's around you all the time (with hundreds and thousands of other fonts). You have only to see it, to pay attention to how it figures into your world. I appreciate all the conflicting points of view -- that Helvetica is a form of perfection, overused, corporate, infinitely flexible, idealized, neutral, clean, capitalist, socialist. They're all true, they're all inadequate, but the people in this movie care deeply, and try passionately to articulate why. It's a movie about finding meaning. That's all.
9. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Coming out of this movie, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd been somewhere as tangible as anyplace in memory or geography, even if it doesn't exist outside of the picture itself. The look (much of it as if through an old, wavy beveled window) and the narration place it in the past tense, but I didn't feel that we were looking back at these legendary outlaws through the lens of history, or the sensibility of a nickel book. More like the film itself embodied a ghost, wandering through these landscapes and these rooms where these events happened once upon a time... and are re-enacted again and again for all eternity -- perhaps with slight variations as each of the performers adapts, to wearies of, or chafes against, the role he's stuck in. We watch silently as each self-conscious character imagines himself in other roles, other scenes, that he imagines himself playing better than the one he's in...
8. "The Orphanage." Death is not an abstraction in "The Orphanage." The reason the movie works so well as a horror movie is that it's purely subjective. It's about the experience of this woman, whose son disappears, and who will do anything conceivable to find him. It requires no belief in the occult or the supernatural -- just that you empathize with a mother who will go to any depths to reclaim her lost son.
7. "Superbad." I'm tired of blurb-writing already. Let me just remind you that Michael Cera is a genius: "I even offered to pay for it. It was pimp. I'm like -- I feel like a pimp right now. Like one of those pimps." Cera's awkward, spontaneous, earnest, enthusiastic reading singlehandedly demolishes all the trendy, cutesy, contrived pop-culture "knowingness" that infects contemporary movie dialogue, from the opening scene of "Reservoir Dogs" to the pimp lyrics of "Hustle and Flow" to the first part of "Juno."
Chris Cooper, "Breach." Character as Mystery.
6. "Breach." A sharp commercial thriller, as cunning as "Michael Clayton" and as taut as "The Bourne Ultimatum" -- without chases, stunts or fireworks. Director Billy Ray's similarly icy "Shattered Glass" creates suspense out of the tensions within a human personality -- in this case, another con man who's deeper into his con than anyone can possibly imagine. Character is mystery. It's also one of the few serious attempts to portray a religious American who isn't patronized or embraced or mocked for his abiding devotion to his faith, because his character isn't defined by it, either. (Although, for some, the fact that he's a former Protestant who has converted to Roman Catholicism will itself be enough to mark him guilty of some brand of treason.) Not until the movie is over (echoes of "Zodiac") do we realize we've never been able to access even the most superficial secrets of his character.
5. "Persepolis." “Irritation at and occasional exasperation with the rigid dress code, with the hidebound ideology of the mullahs, with all the dos and don’ts that we were expected to internalize — this made up the substance of our ‘opposition’ to the regime." That's not a line from Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel, "Persepolis." But it might be. (Instead, it's from Zarah Ghahramani's memoir of growing up in Iran during the 1980s, "My Life as a Traitor." Both were born in Tehran: Satrapi was born in 1969; Gharhamani in 1981.) What both girls understand is that a love of punk rock or pink shoes can be revolutionary. Or would that be counter-revolutionary?
4. "12:08 East of Bucharest." The reason I think "Persepolis" and this film are the best political films of the year is because they look at politics as it is lived, not as it is exercised by those who actually wield power. The title refers to the moment when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu fled the presidential palace by helicopter on December 22, 1989. Sixteen years later, a local television station broadcasts a live, call-in debate on the topic: "Was There a Revolution in Our Town?" If a revolution ever really was televised (where does the revolution actually take place, and can anyone see it?), it might appear like this. "12:08 East of Bucharest" contains both of the best tripod jokes in a year that desperately needed more tripod jokes. When you see the movie, you'll know why that matters.
3. "Zodiac." Most good detective stories are epistemological puzzles, and even if the characters don't quite see how the pieces all fit together, the audience is allowed a glimpse of the big picture. Spoiler: Not this one. Think of it as a post-OJ courtroom thriller without the courtroom: Even if you're 100-percent sure you know who did it, that doesn't matter. The case may be overwhelmingly convincing, but it won't necessarily hold up under cross-examination -- and, as we know better now than we did in 1969, the only thing less reliable than circumstantial evidence is eyewitness testimony. (You may be surprised to discover from the Director's Cut extras how much of the movie itself is built from CGI, bluescreen, matte paintings, composites.) "Zodiac" forces you to question what you see with your own eyes, and what you think you've seen. For example: Different actors play the Zodiac, according to the way eyewitnesses described him at the scene of each of the crimes.
2. "I'm Not There." Think of it as an inside-out take on "Zelig." "Bob Dylan" isn't a Nobody, but he creates himself a Somebody out of bits and pieces of other people's legends and his own stubborn creativity. Which is the stuff of legend. An intellectual exercise about the structuring of public identities? Didn't feel that way to me. When Woody Guthrie (a 13-year-old black kid in 1959 who thinks he's living in the Great Depression) fights off some hobos in a rolling box car who are trying to take his guitar ("This Machine Kills Fascists" it says, right there on the case), and he flies out the door and off a bridge, into a river where he's swallowed by a whale... I don't know, what more can I say in a wee blurb? I was beaming in the dark, blessed by visions of Johanna, Jonah, Judas and Joseph Campbell.
1. "No Country for Old Men." I'm far from done writing or thinking or caring about this movie, which had greater impact on me than anything else I've seen in a long time. (Maybe since "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," my favorite movie of 2000-2007?) For now I'm simply going to repeat something I just added to a discussion at girish's ("Films: Evaluation & Value"): "I love ["Zodiac," "I'm Not There," "NCFOM"] not because I can justify that they're 'great' movies (although, to my own satisfaction, I can), but because I find each of them a profoundly moving experience that resonates with the way I see the world.... Just because I'm moved by something doesn't mean I can persuade (or expect) anyone else to be. All I can do (all anyone examining a response to a work of art can do) is to bear witness: I've never seen a movie that more powerfully and poetically conveys an essential, existential fact of human life -- the dilemma of learning how to live with the knowledge of certain death, while knowing you can't stop what's comin' -- than 'No Country for Old Men.'"
Enthusiastically recommended (listed alphabetically): "Bug," Climates," "Day Night Day Night," "Eastern Promises," "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days," "The Host," "Into Great Silence," "Knocked Up," "Lust, Caution" (2007), "Made in America" (final episode of "The Sopranos"), "Manufactured Landscapes," "Michael Clayton," "No End in Sight" (2007), "Once," "Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman," "Ratatouille" (2007), "Red Road," "Rescue Dawn," "The TV Set"...
If you can get past the first 15 - 30 minutes... you may appreciate some pretty brilliant comic acting in "Juno." I think what lames the movie is the over-perky anachronistic pop-culture dialog -- which is exactly what I've always disliked about "Pulp Fiction" (to cite the most obvious example). For me, "Juno" is rescued by some perfectly pitched performances -- all the better when you consider how difficult it must have been to make so many of these contorted one-liners sound like something that wasn't carved in a toilet stall, or scribbled on the back of someone else's Pee-Chee, or thumb-keyed in a text message. (I forgive no one for: "This is one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." Or, for that matter, references to "three little Fonzies" and words like "Correctamundo" in "Pulp Fiction.")
DVD/Theatrical Release of the Year: "Killer of Sheep." Charles Burnette's 1977 UCLA MFA thesis film was in the second (1990) group of titles in the National Film Registry. Now we know why. Milestone Films restored it, cleared the music rights, and released it in theaters and on DVD in 2007, making it the "Army of Shadows" discovery/rediscovery of the year. To label "Killer of Sheep" a "masterpiece" (because of its rarity, the legend that's grown around it over the years, or because it's about black people in Watts) is misleading and, I think, more than a little patronizing. It's a student film, with the defects and deficiencies implied by the nature of that kind of work. It's also a moving, poetic, atmospheric movie -- and not some primitive (now-)period piece that belongs in a museum collection. It's still alive.
A video essay about Mortal Engines, as part of Scout Tafoya's ongoing video essay series on maligned masterpieces.
This is the most purely entertaining season of Stranger Things to date.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...