Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cloverfield Monster Goes Ape-Shit

Digital technology in the cinema has led to digital thinking, which has in turn led the cinema in an increasingly experiential direction: in order for the experience to function smoothly, just the right amount of reality is required. Too little makes the experience too light and too much makes it too burdensome.

Kent Jones

  1. A Metaphorical Repository of Post-9/11 Anxiety

At his own going away party, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) realizes that he may have ruined his last chance to tell the girl of his dreams, Beth (Odette Yustman) his true feelings for her. After she storms off, there is, um, an attack on the city by a giant monster. After the initial onslaught of destruction, Rob gets a garbled phone call from the above mentioned girl of his dreams. She sounds frantic, terrified, and the call cuts out. Rob decides to forge his way through Manhattan to her apartment, determined to rescue her. Several friends accompany him, one of whom, Hud (TJ Miller), has brought along a video camera to film the event. “People are going to want to know what happened here” he says. The pursuit of a loved one who may be in danger is a flimsy but common enough narrative conceit to hang the rest of the film on. We might not entirely buy the physical duress they endure, but hey, it’s a movie. And Hud’s vague assertion on behalf of posterity, while straining credibility, works just well enough to suspend disbelief. But more so than the film itself, which is a reasonably thrilling, modestly scaled blockbuster-in-disguise, I’m interested in a number of questions it raises. Many have already commented on the film’s relationship to 9/11, and I’ll throw my hat in the ring as well. It’s certainly critically acceptable to maintain that the original Godzilla metaphorically encapsulated Japanese nuclear anxiety after World War II. I see no reason to assume that Cloverfield is not doing the same. After the initial series of explosions, a voice blurts out “is it terrorists?” And a shot of a building collapsing in the background, sending a storm of dust, smoke and debris that covers everyone in its path is an image now ingrained in the retina of our society. It seems silly to suggest that the film is commenting on the event, or that it has anything to say directly about 9/11. It does, however, seem likely that the real images of the Towers collapsing are now inescapable when viewing any kind of destruction, whether imaginary or not. Remember the number of critics commenting on the collected 9/11 footage resembling a Jerry Bruckheimer-esque blockbuster (a terrifying example of life imitating art/commerce) A friend conveyed to me his anger that producer JJ Abrams was being coy about the connection between the film and the remembered images it evokes. I suggested to him that Cloverfield, much like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, needn’t try very hard to conjure up the fear and anxiety of that event as it is now a permanent visual touchstone. Indeed, commenting on the destruction in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, critic J. Hoberman commented that “Spielberg must have learned from 9/11 how a building really falls when it collapses”.

2. The Video Image As Present Tense

The film itself exists entirely as Hud’s point of view, who begins the movie by filming testimonials at Rob’s farewell party and brings the camera along to record their trek through an increasingly demolished Manhattan Island (certainly plausible in a society that seems to want to record anything and everything, if only to display it on YouTube). Most critics and theorists seem to acknowledge that the video image is essentially a “present tense” – much like a digital camera, you can instantly view whatever footage you have just shot. There’s no time spent developing film, nor is there any delay between the shooting and viewing of said footage. But more so than just a time based differentiation, there is a pedagogical difference between how we experience the film image and the video image. The video image is simultaneously cheap, lower quality, personal (and therefore amateurish), and entirely portable (by contrast, 35mm film is expensive, very high quality, impersonal, professional, and only somewhat portable). This is underlined by the beginning of the film, the recording of the party. Despite some strained exposition, necessary towards establishing characters relationships and backstories, we have simple encounters that would happen at any filmed event. Some guests mug for the camera, some express their trepidation at being recorded. We have here not just a choice to film on video because it is cheaper, but a bold assertion that the movie is going to begin in the present tense, with a personal/confessional mode, and stay in that mode throughout. This causes something of a rupture in our perceived notions of verisimilitude when the monster comes out to play. There is an inherent contradiction between the traits of the video image and the expensive special effects on display, as well as the lack of dialectic between a personal discourse and genre derived narrative beats. To be fair to the movie, there are moments when such concerns disappeared from my mind entirely, as I just happened to be terrified. No doubt, there are some very effective scares on display here. But the disconnect between a personalized, almost essayistic visual discourse and slam-bam action pyrotechnics leaves one with a question – what do we propose as cinematic “realism” when such forgery is at hand?

  1. Realism

There is a long and vital discourse on the nature of cinematic realism, one that I won’t attempt to summarize here. Nor, admittedly, will I be adding much to that discourse. But it seems worthwhile to at least raise the question of what visual trickery gives us and what it denies us. Andre Bazin, the great French theorist, posited a notion of realism as a new kind of “visual democracy”. American ex-pat Noel Burch found in certain kinds of cinematic realism a political stance, one in opposition to perceived notions of a Hollywood (and by extension bourgeois) style – a trickery that stood in stark contrast to the realities of the world around us. But we don’t seem to have digested such ideas, other than a vague notion that a digital revolution would allow aspiring filmmakers with fewer resources to put their vision on screen (if only a tiny one), or, only vaguely more political, that the modes of production would be put in the hands of the “everyman”. However, with recent films like The Blair Witch Project, Brian Depalma’s Redacted, and George Romero’s upcoming Diary of the Dead, the question is one of legitimacy – or, if you like, authenticity. The video apparatus has led us into an unprecedented age of real time recording – any thought, idea, or action (public or private) can be instantly recorded and placed in an arena of public opinion - online. But there is a disconnect when that off-the-cuff seizing of a moment is replicated as a prefabricated moment, mediated by a screenplay, professional actors, and million dollar special effects. We’ve seen this disconnect before, such as the backlash against The Blair Witch Project when scores of people where shocked that they had been duped into believing that the film was actual found footage (a recorded event, as opposed to a filmed fabrication). Even further back, there is the famous case of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast (perhaps not coincidentally, Welles also experimented with the idea of a film shot entirely from a first person point of view, an adaptation of Hearts of Darkness. Wisely, it was never started and exists only as a tantalizing idea). Ultimately, we are talking about a simulacrum of found footage, a kind of double reverse that leaves us with no footing whatsoever in processing the experience. I’m left with a feeling similar to Baudrillard’s notion that the (first) Iraq war did not happen – it existed not as any kind of functional reality, but as a television event viewed from living rooms.


I saw Cloverfield the day it came out, and most of the preceding ideas, for better of for worse, sprung almost immediately to mind. Perhaps wishful thinking on my part (genius at work?), but also, I suspect, as a response to the film’s viral marketing campaign (for a useful overview, see Ben Walter’s article “A Guaranteed Premonition” in the Winter 07 Film Quarterly). The notion that a film can exist in the spectator’s mind before they see it, or, in this case, even knew the title of the film, is probably the greatest innovation in movie marketing in recent years. The film object is now not only an event (take that summer blockbusters!), but a mysterious game/puzzle that demands time and attention months before the film hits the silver screen. The implication that the value of the film object lay not in its value as art (or even simple entertainment), but a multi-media blitz is nothing new. What is new is the leg work, the time and effort put in by willful participants of this marketing puzzle. What is also new is the notion that this game/puzzle doesn’t actually tell or give the participant anything. To anyone paying attention, the Dark Knight viral campaign gave intrepid players their first glimpse of the Joker months before the first officially published publicity photos. Not the case with the Cloverfield monster (which is barely glimpsed for most of the film, perhaps one source of the audience’s frustration). As Orson Welles learned, there is blowback from such unprecedented manipulation of the “reality index” – the inevitable fallout when a product doesn’t live up to the hype. I’m not usually one to play the numbers game, but it seems pertinent here – after a $40 million + opening weekend, the film managed an astounding 63% drop off in its second weekend in release, going from first to fourth place. While there should never be a dollar value placed on the success of a film as art, it is important to remember that Titanic is the highest grossing film of all time and Zodiac tanked with audiences. But I must admit that a film that places so much value on a gimmick oriented conception and execution should find so few receptive to that gimmick gives me just a hint of faith – faith that word of mouth can hurt an unworthy project and, inversely, help one more deserving.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assts, income, position and prospects. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence within capitalism. He knows nothing else.

Theodor Adorno, as quoted by Nicole Brenez

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are largely all-or-nothing propositions – big, bold statements full of unapologetic sentiment, messy emotions, bravura technique, and enough cinematic quotations to put Tarantino to shame. Hard Eight, his first feature, is his most modest endeavor, a tight little neo-noir with a stunner of an ending. It remains his most generically satisfying film. Boogie Nights and Magnolia introduce Altman-esque mosaics and Scorsese derived tracking shots, along with narrative tangents that lean towards the inexplicable (raining frogs, anyone?). Punch Drunk Love took one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars and revealed the violent neurosis and naiveté behind Adam Sandler’s constructed persona of man-child incarnate. There Will Be Blood introduces something new, while paring away Anderson’s own neurotic naiveté – a big, bold social statement via Kubrikian misanthropy. In different ways, it is as messy and sprawling a film as Magnolia. It’s also the most interesting and aesthetically aggressive American film of the year.
The film opens with a vast, barren landscape. The strings of Johnny Greenwood’s atonal, high pitched score immediately begin to screech (indeed, the mixture of avante-classical music, ala 2001, is the films first and most obvious debt to the master). Cut to a dark pit - a single silhouetted figure swings a pick axe, sparks darting through the darkness. Such is our introduction to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and Anderson has, essentially, already told us all we need to know about Plainviews’ character. Determined, isolated, gritty, not in harmony with his surroundings (the aggressive score), or, perhaps, in perfect harmony with his surroundings (jagged, rocky, deserted terrain, where nothing grows). I’m almost immediately reminded of Dostoevsky’s “Noted From Underground”, and the novellas opening line might be a perfectly succinct description of Daniel Plainview – “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” Indeed, much like Dostoevsky’s underground man, Plainview stands defiantly outside of society, ultimately to his detriment, while simultaneously reflecting that society’s worst tendencies.
Rather than risk the tedium of a plot synopsis, a recounting of the films first section (almost entirely wordless) tells us a lot about Plainview – climbing from his silver pit, he falls, breaking his leg but dislodging a piece of silver at the same time (in an amazing bit of method derived madness, Day-Lewis carries a limp for the remainder of the film). He hefts himself up a makeshift ladder with one leg, then begins dragging himself across the ground. We cut to a close up of a ledger, which Plainview signs, indicating the value of his silver. Plainview relaxes on the floor, smiling, his leg in a splint and a rifle by his side. Cut to a few years later, as Plainview digs for crude oil. While in a pit, a plank falls and crushes the man next to him. Plainview is next seen pouring whiskey into the bottle of the dead man’s infant child. The child is crying, ignoring the bottle. Reluctantly (as a last recourse?), Plainview picks up the child, bouncing it on his knee. We get, in quick succession, glimpses of a violent man (his gun lays next to him), a desperate, greedy, but determined man (he seems to feel little pain, at least when he has something of value to sell), a man of (limited?) conscience (he attends to his dead worker’s child), but also callous disregard and indifference (he only cradles the child after trying to sedate it with booze). In Anderson’s conception, as with Day-Lewis’ performance, Plainview represents the American ideal, along with its dark flipside; a “can-do attitude”, along with “stick-to-itiveness”, the notion of “making something of oneself”, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “never asking for a handout”; capitalism plus rugged individualism would seem to foster a conservative notion of social Darwinism, along with a strong strand of anti-humanism.
Plainview will eventually cross paths with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), an aspiring pastor who wants Plainview’s oil interests on his family’s property to pay for his congregation’s new church. The notion of religion versus capitalism is nothing new, and when Sunday turns out to be as devious, spiteful, and greedy as Plainview, we aren’t particularly surprised. Indeed, the didacticism is almost a turn off, an obvious indictment of hypocritical priests and tycoons who care nothing for the people they exploit – and yet, it works. It works, in no small part, due to Anderson’s matured visual sensibility. His long tracking shots now follow the horizon line, or train tracks, aligning itself with its constructed environment. Anderson frames and blocks his characters in fascinating ways, staging even the occasional tableau framing and letting character movement, as opposed to camera movement, dictate the meaning of a scene. He films several conversations in medium/close up shots, only to shift the camera or a character to reveal someone else in the room who we could not tell was there before. It’s a beautiful visual correlation to the idea that these people can never trust who they are speaking to, nor are they ever aware of who knows exactly what, or what they are willing to admit. The world of the oil prospector is cut throat, and Anderson’s camera constantly keeps us off guard. And while he is certainly capable of filming a beautiful landscape from a distance, it is usually a landscape infused with some kind of potential danger or psychological terror. In one scene, Eli Sunday walks through a field, searching for Plainview. Sunday approaches a giant oil pit, and while walking around its edges, we see the clouds reflected in its shimmering surface. But just as we register the beauty and compositional acumen of the moment, Plainview violently erupts on Sunday, dragging him into the oil pit and beating him mercilessly. Even more than the metaphorical connotation (that they fight in an oil pit is pretty obvious), the re-contextualization of the space from serenely picturesque to a moment of conflict is what fuels the scene.
Not enough can be said about the performances in this film. Indeed, as of this evening, Daniel Day-Lewis has just won a Golden Globe and is on the short list for an (almost) guaranteed Oscar nomination. He is all bluster and brio, fierce and without remorse. But, unlike his Bill the Butcher character in Gangs of New York, Plainview is also allowed quiet, introspective moments. Indeed, it is these scenes of determined work that his character comes into focus - unrelentingly consumed in his acquisition of wealth, power, and especially control; I can think of no other film outside of Michael Mann’s filmography that just shows men at work, the relish in doing a job and perfecting a craft, being the best. And while the film seems in constant danger of spilling over completely into allegory, it is this fierce sense of a physical place that keeps it anchored in the real. It would be absurd to deny that there are grand ideas at play in the film, much as it would be absurd to deny that at no time do we leave a legitimate physical realm inhabited by characters of depth and individuality. Having said that, the final section of There Will Be Blood wallows a bit too much in Citizen Kane-lite as it fast forwards to a broken down, crazy, embittered man, left alone with his own (lack of?) thoughts, drunk and surrounded by a home-as-testament-to-ones-own-greatness. These surrounding empty spaces of a grand home emphasize an opaque psychological/physical space, an empty man left with everything and nothing. As a symbol of absolute power corrupting absolutely, it is shallow but effective. And yet we are left with this performance – every preceding tick, gesture, or look here becomes full fledged monstrousness, a final descent into emotional deprivation as perceived through outlandish overacting. But – it works. Plainview’s final words resonate with multiple meanings: “I’m finished”, said with a slumped gait and an almost relieved, even bored sense of finality. Indeed, the film is over, as well as his conflict with God, as embodied by Eli Sunday, and even his freedom (he’s now killed at least two men). But with nothing left to discover, or buy, or control, he might be referring to his own lust for life.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Top Ten (or 20), Part 2


Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg): Cronenberg presents his genre infused follow up to his most critically acclaimed film, A History of Violence, with this study of Russian gangsters operating in London. In its own way, this film could also be titled after the previous, with cycles of familial violence repressing and obliterating the young. Vigo Mortensen gives his best performance ever - a violent, stoic man who, much like his Tom Stall character, is hiding his true self. A History of Violence asked the question “can a bad man willfully become a good one?” Eastern Promises asks the opposite.

Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso): this strange Argentinean film screened for a week at Facets Multimedia early this year to virtually empty houses. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader gave it a “critic’s choice” blurb, and Nathan Lee at the Village Voice saw fit to write about it twice. Otherwise, it was essentially ignored, to the detriment of all of us. As much an opaque character study as a beautiful road movie, the film follows a man named Vargas, recently released from prison and now seeking his daughter. There is little dialogue, but the film is so ravishingly beautiful as to put to shame Carlos Reygadas’ pretentious, art house pandering Silent Light.

Zodiac (David Fincher): This tale of a particular brand of American compulsiveness and obsession is hyper linear and aggressively compulsive. Zodiac ultimately denies narrative pleasure with its inconclusiveness – perhaps explaining its disastrous theatrical release in early 2007. At least you have a chance to see it now on DVD.

Exiled (Johnny To)

Election (Johnny To)

Election II (Johnny To): If you live in Chicago, 2007 was a good year to be a To fan. His two part Hong Kong gangster epic Election and Election II finally made it to screens, albeit in a round about way: made a year apart (2005 and 2006, respectively), Election II was eventually released first and renamed Triad Election so as not to allude to a previous installment that nobody could see. Far be it for me to suggest that such a distribution pattern is ass backwards (literally) and counter intuitive. I can only imagine that Part II was an easier sale, as the tensions set up in Part I don’t explode until the next film, and violent confrontation sells better than the emotions leading up to them. Exiled took far less time to reach our shores, but despite having the best action scenes of the year (and a good review from The New York Times), it failed to make much of an impression on anyone. The film is a simple tale of loyalty and honor among thieves, with a healthy dose of Leone-esque widescreen mayhem thrown in for good measure. I found the film to be beautiful and quietly moving, although some friends disagreed with my assessment. Regardless of how seriously one decides to take such endeavors, as pure spectacle it is vastly superior to anything coming out of Hollywood, where tripe like Shoot’em Up is all the imagination they can muster.

Couers (Private Fears in Public Places) (Alain Resnais): Perhaps the greatest living French filmmaker returns with a beautiful evocation of a stage bound Paris, where various relationships take flight or crumble. While the film follows sad, lonely people, it is never less than hopeful, and Resnais’ masterful mis-en-scene is breathtaking in its complexity. No one has filmed simple spaces so inventively this year.

Atonement (Joe Wright): Much like No Country For Old Men, I’m (almost) embarrassed to even mention this art house hit, recipient of so many accolades and kudos as it is. But it is a lovely film, full of loss and longing, and well shot by director Wright. He occasionally succumbs to picture-postcard vistas, that most tired period piece motif. But he also gets a lot right, almost never lingering over his own period details or old-time fashion, and the films sound design is impressive, the clacking of a type writer mingling and turning into its own distinct rhythm. While I suppose you don’t need me to tell you to go and see it, it is still in theatres and worth watching on the big screen rather than waiting for a DVD release

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik): Perhaps the most beautiful, and disturbing, piece of American this year (following There Will Be Blood). The Coen Brother’s long time cinematographer Roger Deakins also shot Dominik’s masterpiece, a meditation on a grimy, gritty old west and tortured celebrity worship. Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford is a nervous, jittery little fellow whose unrequited love for Jesse James turns violent after his affections are snubbed. Brad Pitt gives his best (only?) performance since Fight Club, full of charm and venom and quiet repose. This film was as unsuccessful in theatres as Fincher’s Zodiac, although the two films represent ambitious portraits of American failure and depression, microcosms of society turning neurotic and paranoid. I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense that people would rather see National Treasure: Book of Secrets than admit that our pop culture has turned deviant, voyeuristic, and devoid of artistic merit.

I plan on adding (hopefully soon) one more installment to this little list of mine, highlighting a handful of films that played ludicrously briefly in Chicago (read: one screening each) and that have resurfaced on DVD. It has become increasingly clear that DVD is a viable option for foreign film distribution, and the format should be acknowledged as such. So, until the next time...

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Some late night ramblings...

In a bizarre instance of cosmic synergy, I’ve just received in the mail my copy of Kent Jones first collection of critical writings. Much like my hero Jonathan Rosenbaum (although a generation younger), Jones is a critic poised between international discovery and exploration, an unabashed proponent of favored directors (some of whom are his friends), a critical denigration of Hollywood product and it’s cultural/corporate institutions, and an interest in situating films in a personal context (not to be confused with obsessing over the zeitgeist). My fascination, besides the fact that he is one of the finest commentators on film writing in English today, is the unexpected correlation with my own ideas as I struggle to come to terms with this most recent year in filmmaking.
“Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticisms”, while less than six weeks old, has somehow managed to preemptively address the same issues that have overwhelmed me in this year of film. For instance, his second entry concerns the reputation of Hou Hsiao-hsien, a director who’s most recent film “Flight of the Red Balloon” is one of 2007’s finest. Jones mentions Todd McCarthy’s infamous report from the 1999 Cannes Film Festival that attacked certain films and filmmakers for being esoteric and for being, he observes, elitist (a giant no-no with regards to America’s “every-man” approach to culture). Jones concludes his introduction with a simple “what’s up with all this compassion for the common man?” More Jones, regarding the “ever-growing number of filmmakers who have supposedly climbed to far out on the limb of aestheticism, showing callous disregard for their paying customers.”; he continues: “Why would any critic at the end of the century consider a populist litmus test to be a valid tool of the trade, unless they were trying to pitch woo to their readership?” It’s obvious that Jones’ thinking on cinema has influenced my own, and that his concerns are, fairly directly, at the heart of the introduction to my previous (and initial) entry. His introduction begins: “There’s a tendency to slip and slide all over the place in film criticism, between the populist and the exclusive (or “esoteric,” which is to movie culture as “liberal” is to politics), the aesthetic and the practical (meaning: the financial), the sacred and the profane.” This is, or at least should be, at the heart of all our interactions with film – acknowledging the mediums’ dependency on capital (film stock is expensive) while, nevertheless, maintaining the recognition that not all films are produced from the same aesthetic/cultural/economic structures. I’ll go on here to mention Rosenbaum’s best of 2007 list, a glorious fuck-you to anyone who wants to play by the rules and promote (perhaps unconsciously) the same old same old, those well publicized concoctions designed by the studios to win awards and tug at the heart strings. Rosenbaum’s list is almost perversely contrarian, corralling 12 mainstream features into one tied category, while spending the rest of his space on a Jacques Rivette retrospective and the newest film by Argentinean maverick Pere Portabella. My hypothetical challenge to Roger Ebert has been answered, quite loudly, by Rosenbaum.

To further cement my admiration/devotion to Jones, his first chapter is an essay from 1996 regarding Olivier Assayas, and his eighth entry is on John Carpenter, two of my favorite filmmakers. Disregarding this for a moment, and further fueling my suspicion that I’ve unconsciously plagiarized Jones’ book before its publication, is an early entry on the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. It is perhaps the most measured account of their body of work I’ve ever encountered – neither hagiography nor outright condemnation, but a genuine exploration of a specific body of work, warts and all. I sense that what’s most refreshing about Jones’ criticism is his ability to recognize what brings him, as a viewer, pleasure, while not succumbing to that sensation as the be-all end-all of movie-going. What titillates us might also be, upon further reflection, less worthwhile than we first suspect (my general response to Spielberg’s films). I shouldn’t have to mention that the Coen’s “No Country For Old Men” has emerged, unanimously, as the film of 2007. And as much as I appreciate it on its own merits, some of my nagging complaints are addressed by Jones.

My connecting of Kent Jones with Jonathan Rosenbaum isn’t particularly insightful, as they are part of a small clique of critics that have emerged as not only the chroniclers of contemporary film, but how the changing shape of our increasingly technological society is being reflected by those films. Along with Gavin Smith, Nicole Brenez, Mark Peranson, (the late) Raymond Bellour, Quintin, Adrian Martin, Olaf Moller, and others, these are critiques in tune with the changing face of world cinephilia (to co-opt the subtitle of the jointly edited collection “Movie Mutations”), equally fascinated with film preservation and I Pods, Howard Hawks and Pedro Costa, DVDs and gallery installations, Claire Denis and Richard Linklater, John Cassavettes and Orson Welles. It’s a great time to love movies, as long as you don’t believe what the golden Globes are trying to sell you.

I'll be back soon with some kind of an attempt at finalizing my own best-of-the-year list, along with some musings (perhaps ramblings) about the overwhelming experience that is "There Will Be Blood".

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Year End Round Up (Part 1)

The verdicts are in, and in an unexpected bit of critical solidarity, it seems virtually unanimous that 2007 has been one of the best years for movies in quite some time. But look again, as even a cursory glance of a random sampling of top tens would suggest that every critic has picked the same dozen or so films to single out as distinguished products. To be fair, a handful are making my list as well (see below), but the notion rubs me the wrong way for a few reasons. One, there is little examination into the process that allows us, as viewers, access to certain product. When a film is labeled as “indie”, there may or may not be any awareness that the major studios all have “boutique” labels, which cultivate the same kind of brand labeling as any other corporate entity. As critics line up to fall all over themselves heralding a return to “adult” films, they’re still lining the coffers of the companies that spend the rest of the year churning out garbage for teens with disposable income. It might seem churlish of me, but suggesting that a handful of critical and popular favorites have elevated this year above and beyond any other in recent memory seems to suggest an overwhelming lack of critical veracity, as well as any sense of artistic discovery. In Roger Ebert’s recent Sun Times feature listing his top ten films of the year, there was a line up of the usual suspects front and center – Juno, No Country For Old Men, Atonement, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Into the Wild, etc. What was at first mystifying (and ultimately infuriating) was the relegation to a separate, smaller section, a laundry list of animated, foreign, and documentary features. The implications of this, at least to me, are crystal clear – that any films falling within these (very broad) confines can and should be ostracized, existing only to be lumped together and therefore even easier to dismiss en masse. Not only are the explanatory notes significantly shorter, but they have also been printed in even smaller type (to be fair, if one visits the article online, the entire feature is presented as one piece, and the font size is the same; this strikes one as a fascinating irregularity between the printed word and online writing) . I’ll pose a simple question: does No Country For Old Men need any more press at this point? Or would Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye’s epic meditation on abortion and left vs right ideology, benefit more from some free press? The simple answer is that Ebert liked one film more than the other. More complicated is the suggestion that Ebert instead coral the studio product in a sidebar with smaller print type on the bottom of page 13 while presenting the others in the larger article. Seems far fetched, right? And yet we don’t blink an eye when we skim over a list of films we’ve never heard of in the first place.

Far from suggesting that Ebert has ruined movie reviewing, I simply want to raise a few questions. Having done so, allow me to submit that this was, in fact, a great year for movies. I’ll only add that every year is a good year for movies, inasmuch as there’s always something to seek out if one is willing to. In keeping with my contrarian tone, my top ten films of 2007 is more like a top 20, give or take a few. And while no one wants a critic to pile on arbitrary titles, like seeing Casablanca for the first time and deciding it’s the best film of 2004, I do take as fair game any film that an average person could walk up to and buy a ticket for (so festival screenings qualify). In addition, due to the vagrancies of film distribution, movies that played for the first time in Chicago this year could actually be several years old. This does not particularly bother me, as we aren’t involved in some kind of scientific experiment requiring empirical evidence. List making is ultimately a narcissistic activity, declaring to anyone who will listen what our individual taste is and challenging someone to take us to task for it. If such an activity is to have any value beyond this, it should be educational, drawing attention to those innumerable films that inevitably fall between the cracks.

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen): You might assume from my ramblings above that I hated the film, and I must admit that I’m slightly troubled by the almost unanimous praise it has received across the board. And yet it might very well be a thriller for the ages; tough, taunt, remorseless. The performers are uniformly great, and it seems silly to single out Javier Bardem over Tommy Lee Jones or Josh Brolin. The film builds quietly to a metaphysical conundrum, namely, are we becoming more and more soulless? It’s masterful craftsmanship that sneaks up on you. If all mainstream films were this good, it would indeed be a year for unbridled celebration. Just for grins, check out Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum's contrarian assessments at www.davekehr.com and www.chicagoreader.com. It is a fascinating crash course in just how dangerous it can be to suggest that a film that everyone else loves might actually not be that good, even self-flattering.

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa): Costa is perhaps the most singular auteur to arrive since critics latched on to Bela Tarr. After reading about the film for some time, I first caught up with it earlier this year during the Chicago Latino Film Festival. In a fitting bookend to the year, the Gene Siskel Film Center presented a retrospective of Costa’s work in December. He’s a filmmaker in desperate need of a wider audience, and these seem like the first (perhaps tentative) steps towards this end. There’s no denying that Colossal Youth is a difficult film and it seems unlikely to win over the same audience that has made No Country such a hit. And yet it says more about the state of our world (not just the American psyche) than any other film I’ve seen this year. A man visits various residents of a Portugese tenement (he calls them his “children”) who are in the process of being relocated to a newer, more modern state run building. Shot entirely in static, epic length long takes, it is a film that restores individual identities to those that, due to poverty, substance abuse, etc., are no longer a part of proper society. Costa’s camera captures figures in natural light, dwarfed by their man made surroundings, yet struggling to be heard.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien): Hou has been expanding his visual repertoire over his last several features, moving away from static tableau framings and introducing some close ups and more frequent tracking shots (for the best survey of his body of work, see David Bordwell’s “Figures Traced in Light”). Flight of the Red Balloon observes, quite intimately, a harried single mother, her young son, and the Taiwanese nanny employed to care for him during the day. It’s a simple drama about an average family (a friend even complained that it was too simple, leaving him relatively bored). And yet Hou’s camera (aided by frequent cinematographer Mark Lee-Ping) reveals emotions and ideas almost entirely through discrete compositions and movements. The narrative is oblique, even elliptical, but we are left with a beautiful portrait of a family going through everyday life, replete with all the normal joys and sorrows. A much longer piece on the film’s deceptively simple mis-en-scene is in the works.

The Man From London (Bela Tarr): Tarr’s first film since 2000’s Werckmeister Harmonies is perhaps even more demanding than his epic, 7 hour Communist meditation Satantango. I suggest more demanding as he introduces the barest trappings of a noir-ish crime thriller before totally discarding it, leaving the viewer with little to grasp other than his lush, high contrast black and white cinematography. A night watchmen oversees a deal of some sort go sour, leaving one man dead and an unidentified brief case up for grabs. Grab it he does, and off we go on… what, exactly? The film is less about narrative and more about lovingly choreographed long takes that keep individual points of view in constant flux. I’ve only had a chance to see it once, and it’s ludicrous to attempt any real exploration of the film without multiple viewings. Regardless, it’s a unique, beautiful experience, and here’s hoping it finds distribution at some point in the next year. I should add that it took Werkmeister Harmonies several years to gain even the most perfunctory theatrical distribution, and that other than a handful of screenings over the years, Satantango has never had a theatrical run.

28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo): Like all the best horror films, this one is overflowing with political subtext. England has been evacuated after a viral outbreak. Eventually, the virus thought to be contained, habitants are slowly allowed to reenter the country. With equal parts governmental hubris and familial breakdowns, all hell breaks loose and both the infected and civilians are gunned down in an attempt to restore order. I don’t think the correlation between insurgent zombie and innocent civilian needs to be further explicated.

Black Book (Paul Verhoeven): Verhoven’s magnificent return to form follows a Danish Jew (Canice van Houten) falling in love with a Nazi commandant while fleeing the resistance that is supposed to liberate her. In some ways, it is a forceful adaptation of Vonnegut’s “Mother Night”, while also allowing Verhoven to indulge in his own particular brand of violent, sexy irony. Surprisingly, the most entertaining mainstream film of the year happens to have subtitles.

Inland Empire (David Lynch): Lynch reinvents his own oeuvre, perhaps reinventing cinema in the process.

Offside (Jafar Panahi): Young women attempting to attend an Iranian championship soccer match are caught and detained (they can’t be in the stadium alongside the men). At once a scathing critique of an oppressive social regime, it also gradually emerges as a film about strong national pride. Panahi embraces this contradiction, suggesting that one can love their country while still disagreeing with its policies and hoping to make it better. In other words, a must see for the Bush administration and anyone who subscribes to a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. This is humanist filmmaking at its very best.

Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye): an epic documentary nearly two decades in the making, Tony Kaye fields comments from a variety of talking heads, both left and right. It seems a dubious notion to suggest that anything can be totally apolitical, or, by the same token, totally fair. And yet Lake of Fire comes remarkably close to doing just that. It’s a demanding experience – part of its power comes from its epic running time, and there is graphic surgical footage of abortion procedures. There are no real answers here, only a stunning exploration of different values dangerously at odds with each other.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu): Speaking of which, another contender in the Romanian New Wave (rounding out the Death of Mr. Lazarescu/12:08 East of Bucharest trifecta) suggests that denying women freedom of choice is an inherently reactionary political decision. The title of the film refers to how far along a young woman is in her pregnancy, and we follow her and her best friend as they navigate early 80’s communist Romania seeking an illegal abortion. It’s harrowing, to say the least, and yet what emerges as the most hateful aspect of the whole sordid affair is the notion of an oppressed people inflicting pain on each other, rather than the regime that subjugates them.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach): a powerful historical film about the birth of the IRA. It would, in fact, seem that history is doomed to repeat itself, as a group of Irish insurgents tackle the hugely superior British military force bent on occupation and subjugation. Anyone sensing a trend here? I thought so…