4 Months, 3 Weeks,
and 2 Days

or 4 luni, 3 saptamâni,
si 2 zile

Romania

Cristian Mungiu,
director
Could you possibly need more convincing that 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is absolutely vital viewing for anyone who cares about what's happening on the world's movie screens? Was the Palme d'or not enough for you? Did you miss all those critics' prizes? Are you just completely dead-set against the idea of spending two hours watching one woman testily, nervously procure an abortion for a friend who's either so daunted by her dire straits that she can barely consider the implications of what she's asking or else so suffused with narcissism, pregnancy or no, that she cannot be bothered to notice or apologize for the sequential ordeals that her friend is withstanding? If so, that last sentence probably didn't do anything to nudge you into the rental queue for Cristian Mungiu's confident, committed, emotionally overwhelming masterpiece. But I hope you'll reconsider. 4 Months is about an abortion; don't be quick to believe anyone that tries to get the DVD in your hands by pretending it's "really" about something else. But that doesn't mean the film isn't also about Communism, manipulation, friendship, fear, ethical obligations and non-obligations, and those moments in student life when you relinquish your sense that you're just starting to make your way in the world—because you suddenly discover, more often through a life event than through a classroom epiphany, that you've already been thrust into the world, long ago, and you had better start figuring it out. Fast. Because the hunters might be coming already.
Bamako
Mali

Abderrahmane Sissako,
director
I couldn't begin to tell you what Danny Glover, Divine Intervention director Elia Suleiman, and Bamako's own auteur Abderrahmane Sissako are doing playing lonesome cowboys on the West African range in this elliptical but insinuating film, but this I can I tell you: I enjoyed the blend of marked directness, emotional watercolor, and pure enigma that Bamako presents. The directness comes from the public jury trial that dominates the film, wherein competing attorneys attempt to settle whether or not the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are criminally culpable for the thick depression, economic as well as affective, that has gripped Mali and its people. The set-up invites generous swaths of chunky, undramatized, occasionally hectoring rhetoric that would sound perfectly conventional at 3AM on some Air America program about global capitalism, Western arrogance, and their coeval misdeeds. Bamako doesn't get away with everything that comes spilling out of its mouth, even when the messages sound true, but I have rarely beheld a film that seemed so aggressively candid about what it wanted to do and say but nonetheless kept pushing me into delicate, indeterminate states of comic, compassionate, absurdist, and metacritical contemplation of what I was watching. Sissako isn't a master of tragicomic and politically motivated allegory like his West African compatriots Djibril Diop Mambéty and Ousmane Sembène are, but he's willing in interesting ways to bust up his formal and generic frameworks more recklessly than they do and to hail a global audience whom he nonetheless refuses to assuage. Instead, he coaxes us—sometimes lyrically, sometimes like a stern lecturer—to enter and adapt to the life of his village and his characters. It's both inevitable and irresponsible that the bathetic image of Aïssa Maïga crying at her microphone has become the signal emblem of Bamako's poster art and marketing campaigns in the U.S.A. and Europe, but his film is more complex than a dirge for African subjugation, and her warmly sketched performance is one of many things to enjoy in Bamako and to puzzle at, and to catch yourself enjoying, and to make you ask what precisely you are enjoying and puzzling at, and why. Sounds like work? It is, but it's invigorating work, and the film's casual mise-en-scène and lulling rhythms make intellectual cogitation seem like something cool, in both senses, to do in the African shade.
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
or Hei yan quan
Malaysia/China/Taiwan

Tsai Ming-liang,
director
By all rights, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone should be a bit stultifying, composed as it is of a series of very long tableaus in which a laconic victim of street violence in modern-day Malaysia is picked up, cleaned, nourished, and nursed by yet another close-to-inscrutable resident of modern-day Kuala Lumpur. Several of these shots dwell on the half-constructed buildings of the city, the dampness of the air, the jocular humor of tired-looking workers, and the aromatic fumes in a low-end restaurant, where a waitress meets the convalescent man and develops her own enigmatic relationship with him. We're not even sure whether the central figure is really one man, navigating two quiet and curious relationships with the boy and the girl who dote on him, or whether we're followng two dopplegangers, or whether Tsai Ming-liang is having his own fun at the expense of material reality and drawing out an impossible narrative against a background that looks closer to street-poetry realism than almost any other film around. Dialogue barely exists and hardly registers. If you're like me, you'll have a hard time recounting the arcs or the scene-content of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone when it's over, but that sense of evanescence, derived ironically from such seemingly mundane photographs and impressions, seems fully consistent with Tsai's implied intentions, and it's a rapturous experience for the eye and the ear, and it somehow plays like a good, inscrutable joke told by a very soft-spoken but charismatic person.
Lady Chatterley
France

Pascale Ferran,
director
D.H. Lawrence wouldn't seem like an obvious candidate for appropriation by polite heritage cinema, nor for a Frenchwoman's directorial intervention, even if the mind sort of thrills to what Catherine Breillat might make of Women in Love or The Rainbow. Then again, I'm oddly confident of what Breillat would do with (and against) Lawrence's retrograde sexual politics, whereas I was constantly surprised by Pascale Ferran's subtle tenacity at teasing out from Lady Chatterley's Lover an incredibly suggestive, sun-dappled, strong-boned, plausibly tentative, beautifully dressed, carefully paced, unimpeachably candid, powerfully muscled, palpably winsome woman's experience of sexual appetite, without losing the narratives of class and region that are just as pivotal to Lawrence's story as the erotic awakening is. A lovely experience without any of the coy, staid gentility that "lovely" might imply—and yet, viewers looking for a tastefully gorgeous mise-en-scène could hardly have done better with any other movie this year.
Lust, Caution
or Se, jie
Taiwan/USA

Ang Lee,
director
Look, I know I left a few of you wanting more with my admiring but basically dispassionate feelings about Brokeback Mountain, which like so many of Lee's movies still strikes me as standing much too far and too politely away from what he's making a movie about. Heath Ledger obviously thought his way all the way into the mind of Ennis Del Mar, but more often than not, Lee films a polished, framed, and matted presentation of that performance and that script, rather than taking the cliffdive with Ledger and Proulx and filming a leaner, dirtier, more pancreatic movie that Ennis might recognize as his. That's part of why I love Lust, Caution: for once, and perhaps for the first time since Lee sidled up to the Dashwood sisters, I think the protagonist of this film would recognize this story, its energy, and its aesthetics as reflective of her shifting, dangerous, slippery, and highly performative experience. Even more exciting is that, unlike Sense and Sensibility, this script doesn't play to Lee's habitual tendencies toward politeness and "taste." This is as Hitchcockian as Ang Lee is ever likely to get, with slashing colors, twisted temporality, eruptive bouts of violence and desire, and a terrific gift for suggesting the characters' own improbably wry and distanced regard for their own behaviors and predicaments. Though Lust, Caution is equally good when such distance becomes impossible and the choices these people make grow quicker, hotter, more instinctual and threatening. The first Ang Lee movie in ages I'm eager to see again, and not because of what other people have said about it, but because of the stirring, enticing case it made for itself on first pass.
 
Honorable Mentions: Had I not nominated it for three awards
last year, when I first saw it at the Chicago Film Festival, I would be mentioning Apichatpong Weerasethakul's beguiling Syndromes and a Century here and in several other races. Chase that one down. Otherwise, the Romanian flag almost flew twice over this category, in honor of 4 Months and of 12:08 East of Bucharest's savvy, witty, and eye-level deconstruction of how we privately remember and publicly commemorate moments of national history, and how we sometimes experience and possibly manipulate them as "national history" even as they transpire. It's a near-miss from this line-up, but that hardly means you shouldn't still rent it.




Day Night Day Night
Julia Loktev,
Michael Taylor
Through editing, a film can achieve a focused intensity that reviewers inevitably call "surgical" or "stripped-down" or "taut." However clichéd our language, though, there is no diluting the feeling of a movie that has divested itself of everything it doesn't need—and accrued, as a result, a different host of ambiguities and questions that it could not have otherwise have generated. Day Night Day Night enforces quite a few ascetic boundaries even at the level of writing, and though I found writer-director Julia Loktev's original screenplay transfixing and thought-provoking, I know that other viewers worried that the abstracting of the protagonist's backstory and psychology makes Day Night Day Night a blur just where it needs to take risks and elaborate a vision. Say this, though: if you are going to constrict your movie to the register of the tangible and the immediate, you better edit it like gangbusters, so that the manifest subtractions amass a dramatic power that justifies the erosion of context. And that's just what Loktev and co-editor Michael Taylor do: they hold each shot until the physical immediacy of this girl's experience creeps under your skin, but they cut just before the tension becomes contrivance, or the ritual becomes deadening, or the actor supersedes the character, or the emphasis on light, sound, environment, or texture becomes an aesthetic event in and of itself, outstripping the narrative and moral framework of the suicide bomber's last days. They hold us in that bathroom long enough to bristle at the strange incongruity of a girl alone with masked, older men, and enough to sense the implicit pact among the group to hold each other steady in their aloofness. We anguish on the Manhattan crosswalk and in the restaurant bathrooms, expanding these moments and their horrible implications without destroying plausibility or saturating the film with lurid fantasy. We feel the way the city tries to wind around and push itself into the girl, embracing or reclaiming her, and we feel through opposing cuts and sudden jumps how implacably she steels herself against these urban distractions (but not against the simpler call of hunger). We stay with that rote-memorization of fake biographical info until we, too, could give the girl's answers if asked, making it possible to feel how we could absorb what she absorbs, if not do what she does. Or could we?
I'm Not There
Jay Rabinowitz
Through editing, a film can remind us that a cut is like a comma, but it is also like a period, and that periods sometimes finish a thought but they just as often allow the fluid release and continuation of a thought into the next thought. Editing is poetry. Editing tells you how the movie is punctuated and how it scans, which parts ramble and accumulate like a line from Whitman, which parts contract into riddle like a Dickinson shard, which shots or moments rhyme with other shots or moments, when the film obeys a rigid schema and when its guiding consciousness is more like blank verse. Even when cuts exclaim themselves with the sound of gunfire, as they do amid I'm Not There's shooting-gallery portfolio of Dylans, they beg the question: are these images juxtaposed to highlight their likeness, or juxtaposed to underscore their dissonance? Is a cut from one "Dylan" to his enemy, the reporter; or to his soul, the moving train; or to his sporting good, the two-tone capsule drug; or to his blindspot, the neglected wife; or to his land, our land; are these cuts bridges of likeness, claims of rootedness and dependency, or are they plaques mounted in honor of absent or diminished connection? Likeness often wins out in the editing, even as the acting and the shifting mise-en-scène and musical idioms make clear the disjunctures of Dylan's life. Haynes and Rabinowitz, who's been cutting like a natural since Pi and Requiem for a Dream, sometimes lay down a single shot image of one Dylan persona like an isolated sprig upon the field of another Dylan's narrative, and no bigger gesture than that is needed to scent one plotline with the textures and resonances of another. Even more astonishing is how lightly and with what momentum a film this concepty and intellectually ambitious manages to move, in terms of rhythmic and aesthetic momentum, but also of thrumming emotional claim.
Jindabyne
Karl Sodersten
Through editing, a film can belie those old saws that cinema can't slink under skin and inside psychology as well as literature can, and that a domestic drama can't burgeon and resonate on screen the way it can on the page. In Jindabyne, Laura Linney continues her traditions of picking scripts that know just when to say when, scripts that inspire editors to cut or fade or dissolve the scene just when the glimmering kernel of truth or rapport is at risk of growing too obvious. Unlike the crisp, economical theater of You Can Count on Me or the sonic period kaleidoscope of The Squid and the Whale, though, Jindabyne is musically spare and inclined much more toward the eerie osmosis of dissolves than toward the clipped, unilateral reign of the cut. Most of Jindabyne plays out as a series of heaving but diaphanous breaths, but not because editor Karl Sodersten doesn't know how to cut a minor tour-de-force of suspense (like the opening hijack or the near-crisis by the side of a lake). Jindabyne is also full of the kind of pitch-perfect, acid-reflux scenes of marital discord that many movies attempt but usually lose to the jaws of overstatement or overlength. One key to the film's success, in this respect and in so many others, is that Sodersten seldom interjects when a sustained angle or take makes the drama more tense or compassionate or penetrable. Still, what I most prize in Jindabyne are those short scenes, most of them bounded by fades or dissolves, where the impression of first-trimester ambivalence or juvenile uncanniness or a soured outing or a pining loneliness or a jealously guarded solitude are distilled to an essence without need of narrative extrapolation. These images are allowed through careful, gossamer editing to bleed grammatically into everything precedent and subsequent, so that you can't pin down when the central conflict of Jindabyne actually begins, or whom it involves and doesn't involve, or where it's headed or whether it ends, or whether it's always been happening.
A Mighty Heart
Peter Christelis
Through editing, a film can find the world, building tissues and laying down arteries that bind an individual to a collectivity, that give that collectivity purpose and character, that stitch ever-widening rings of groups and collectivities into vision of a globe that isn't just a concept or a notion we have about ourselves. The globe is also a vast and real space, full of crowds and cavities where people go missing and people go looking. Sometimes they disappear into the cut from one sequence to the next, and we don't know where they went. Winterbottom approaches many of his stories this way, with a propensity toward the molar generality over the molecular individual; he's very interested in people, but mostly because they help him shape a new thought about the region, the world, the era at large. Still, one of the feats here accomplished by Peter Christelis, Winterbottom's longtime editor, is that he manages to make Mariane Pearl's home into a mirror of the wider world, cut with the same rhythms and yielding similar energies and tensions to those we see in the streets and offices and chambers of power. Nonetheless, Christelis also aces the more obvious task of making the Pearl compound a domestic cranny tucked away from the baffling, unsteady world outside. More than that, in a film premised on such an exceedingly delicate situation, where having or not having information may lead a person to speak or listen or disengage, but where tact and diplomacy may also influence those choices—and so too will sentiment, loyalty, heritage, and hope, as well as individual personality—Christelis has a huge job set out for him to figure out whose testimony, whose prediction, whose reticence, whose fear, whose reassurance is the most informative at every moment. He must continually decide how to braid or prioritize those tones and bits of information within every scene, as the likelihood of finding Danny dips and surges. Even more extra points for threading the Pearls' own rapport so succinctly and poignantly through the movie, sticking up for the human side of Mariane's loss without milking it for bathos or diluting the larger implications and essential networks of the story. In Christelis' hands, the fleeting image of a literally lost love is more than enough for us to recognize, relate to, mourn, and respectfully, affectionately commemorate.
We Own the Night
John Axelrad
Through editing, a film can shake off every cobweb of genre familiarity and emerge not only as a sterling exercise in honoring a tradition but as a totemic reminder of why that genre exists in the first place. John Axelrad has sliced not just any extraneous fat but even the idea of fat right off of We Own the Night, and without turning the movie into the sort of avowed experiment in pared-down narrative that Day Night Day Night is. Instead, We Own the Night is the best example I can think of among recent movies of a real racehorse movie, which is quite a different thing from a breathless actioner, even a good one like The Bourne Ultimatum. What astonishes about Night is how majestically it stands up there on the screen, all tensile muscle and sturdy bones, stamping the ground and kicking at the gate; it's as forceful and athletic in moments of rest as it is at full gallop. Sure, Axelrad has indulged a few needless reaction shots or expository flashback-cuts (remember this guy you met earlier?), but his handling of suspense is masterful, from that straightforwardly but still brilliantly orchestrated car-chase shootout to the excruciating rhythms of Mark Wahlberg meeting a stranger as he exits a car or Joaquin Phoenix wired and dispatched into the heart of a New York drug ring like a jittery antelope sent into the lions' den. The whole movie works on rhythm, holding some shots a little long and clipping others with confident succinctness, and when Axelrad finds an expression (Eva Mendes' bottled resentment, Mark Wahlberg's shellshocked dismay) or an abstracted location (the wet streets, the tall reeds, the police-station hallway) that expresses everything he needs it to, he lets it do its own work. We Own the Night is termite art in the best Manny Farber sense, and Axelrad's vigilance is a big part of keeping it that way: lean, humble, flexed, insinuating.
 
Honorable Mentions: Tim Squyres played the shifting aesthetic and generic atmospheres of
Lust, Caution fruitfully against each other without sundering the tonal coherence of the piece; he even pulled off one of those start-in-the-middle structures that are all the rage these days without it seeming unduly mannered or trendy. The montage of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is as firm and laconic as Into the Wild's is florid and restless, but they both know just what the movies need; the indefatigable "Roderick Jaynes" sometimes overplays the isolated-proganist trope and squelches the subtler philosophical and character-based beats in the script of No Country for Old Men, but "he" sure files on all pistons when he gets everything right, as in the sequences between Chigurh and the trailer-park proprietress or the gas-station attendant. The editing in There Will Be Blood doesn't bring us all the way 'round to accepting and understanding the finale, and the early storytelling of Deep Water could use a bit more finesse, but both pictures are so staggering at their best that it's hard to even remember the passages I noted as flawed at the time. Further credit to the eerie, out-of-time reality of Zoo, the pop compression and clever juxtapositions of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the accumulating intensity and comic lulls of Black Snake Moan, and the sensitively maintained quiet and flow of Lady Chatterley, which pops to sexual life without losing its steadfast and contextually expressive gait.





Deep Water
Louise Osmond,
Jerry Rothwell,
directors

John Smithson,
Al Morrow,
& Jonny Persey,
producers
Deep Water has had me preoccupied (a sterilized synonym for "distracted" and "obsessed") with the parable of Donald Crowhurst ever since I saw the film in August. The deep water of the title is psychological, sociological, and even metaphysical: the film has enormous, subtly suggested designs on what Crowhurst's story says about social class, about internal and external pressures, about how we remember and forgive the fathers and husbands who leave us, about what sailing is, about what oceans are, about what risk and chance are, about what competition is, about Aristotelian predicaments where winning and losing are the same, tragic, pitiable thing. The movie traces these intellectual, deeply affecting threads into the lives of survivors, the memories of fellow racers (Deep Water revolves around an around-the-world, vehemently publicized sailing contest in the late 1960s), the documents of media supervision and intervention, the public logs and private journals and, in this case, the home-movie footage that are the legacies of a maritime sojourn spent in long, crushing solitude. The reach of the film is wonderful, but the crystallized portrait of Crowhurst is its jewel. He emerges as clearly—in all of his contradictions, all of the ways in which he is inextricable from his era and culture—as Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man or Georges Lopez in To Be and To Have (Etre et avoir). But where those stories, in their very different idioms and registers, record the devotions of their heroes to their lifelong passions, Crowhurst's story is one of being lashed, unexpectedly and even sickeningly, to an almost arbitrary exercise and of watching your life hang in its balance. Gorgeously scored, splendidly edited, and narrated with a mixture of severity and empathy by Tilda Swinton, the Film Heroine of 2008. (Interested readers should check out The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, from 1979; Indiana Jones types, gifted at finding and recovering lost objects, should tell me if they can find The Roaring Forties (Les Quarantièmes rugissants), the French, fictionalized film of Crowhurst's story from 1982, with Les Choristes star and Winged Migration producer Jacques Perrin as the Crowhurst figure and a French-speaking Julie Christie as his wife.)
The King of Kong:
A Fistful of Quarters

Seth Gordon,
director

Ed Cunningham,
producer
Yes, the opposition between nefarious, arrogant, cowardly Billy Mitchell and sweet-souled, family-loving underdog Steve Wiebe is as stacked and, in some ways, as metaphysically simplified as the contest between big bad Kong and hopeful, hardworking Luigi. And yes, from what I hear, the presentation of events here surpasses poetic license in some ways and to some degrees that are hard to justify through the standard lines about all representations being, at some level, fictional. But so they are—I wish some filmmakers weren't so overweening in their organizing narratives and imposed conceits that this truth starts to sound like rationalized cant—and, more than that, not all editorialized stories are created equal. The King of Kong is one of the parties of the year, reveling in the impassioned if wholly immaterial quests and honor codes of classic arcade-gamers, and delving so far into their lore, their knowledge, their idiosyncrasies that we see the world as they do and get excitingly caught up in their debates and preoccupations. The film preserves their dignity while laughing with/at Billy's insane analogies ("it's like the abortion issue") and Walter Day's musicianship and Brian Kuh's petty-courtier way of whizzing around Funspot, NH, gathering information and spreading the mythologies of superior gamers who barely seem to give him a thought. Beyond the human gallery, the editing and momentum of the piece are exemplary, the incorporation of Kong graphics and sound elements is inspired and funny, and the concentration of suspense toward the end is both giddy and overwhelming, leading up to a surprising and perfectly presented series of conclusions. The most fun I had at the movies in '07, both times I paid to see it.
Lake of Fire
Tony Kaye,
director/producer
I suppose I shouldn't be so flummoxed that a 2½-hour documentary about abortion in the United States didn't light the box-office on fire, but in my naïveté (still putting up a solid fight against my disillusionment), I thought the zeitgeist behind Knocked Up and Juno and Waitress and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, plus the general resurgence of documentary features in public discourse if not always in ticket sales, would boost this meaty, important, long-developing film higher in the public regard. I was less surprised that the Oscar branch didn't spring for it, given the legends of Tony Kaye's cantankerousness and his decision to shoot in black-and-white 35mm, but everyone else's loss was at least the gain of that small flock of us nailed to our seats in Chicago's Siskel Film Center, sunk into the ghoulishness with which the most "committed" anti-abortion crusaders have maimed and killed their fellow citizens, and into the ghastly toll of undergoing an abortion or of looking into the dustbins and stainless-steel pans in the clinician's office and discerning tiny heads and tiny feet. Despite all the confrontational material, and despite the pugilistic, feather-fluffing approach of Kaye's fiction-film breakthrough American History X, Lake of Fire does not delight in rubbing our noses in the pain and vitriol (and often both, simultaneously) that lurk on every side of this social, religious, and political battle. The film is candid but not lurid, and Kaye does a brilliant job of making his protracted, repeatedly bankrupted shoot work for the movie, since he's able to cover a much larger swath of the evolving issues and the narrative through-lines than he otherwise would have (and you'd never know from the production values that the project was ever strapped for cash). Impressive and essential—and out on DVD this week.
No End in Sight
Charles Ferguson,
director

Jennie Amias,
Charles Ferguson,
Audrey Marrs,
& Jessie Vogelson,
producers
Do you note the continuing theme of movies that deserved a wider audience? People complain all the time, justifiably, that the American news media editorialize more often than they inform, that they saturate their audience with uncontextualized events and superficial distractions, but it's disheartening to see such a rich counterpoint to all of those trends as No End in Sight be largely ignored by the very audiences who say they want it. Even if No End in Sight fared respectably for a documentary release, it deserved a more prominent pulpit, and even if its strengths are those of compelling research more than aesthetic finesse or daring, the depth and synthesis of the argument about America's grotesque misadventure in Iraq (an inevitable one, according to the film) are valuable and almost indisputable without being transparently obvious. The presentation of facts and perspectives, moreover, is engaging and audience-friendly even without (maybe especially without) the embellishing need to "entertain." This film, not Fahrenheit 9/11, will be the linchpin of future scholarship and syllabi about what went wrong and how wrong it went, and though other films on this roster testify to my enthusiasm for documentaries with a strong personal or narrative point of view, or a loftier imagination about how cinema can be manipulated to augment truths while expanding their implications (I'll return to Iraq in Fragments, one of last year's ten best films, more quickly than I will to No End in Sight), I appreciate the diamond-hard clarity and the generous distribution of voices, many of them speaking from high administrative perches, who deliver the bad news with a modestly reassuring chaser of dawning lucidity and critical distance.
Zoo
Robinson Devor,
director

Peggy Case,
Alexis Ferris,
producers
Of all the documentaries I saw in 2007 (about 20), only Lynn Hersham Leeson's Strange Culture approximated Zoo's ambition with the form, not just conveying a story based on fact but vulcanizing believe-it-or-not fact with theatrical restaging, so as to forge a formal and aesthetic environment that draws out the conflict, the mood of the story. Hershman Leeson is always conceptually interesting but Robinson Devor, the director of Zoo, has done a better, more productively unsettling job of gauging the balance between journalism and embellishment. Since his outlandish subject, a network of men who enjoy intercourse with horses, all but defies direct reportage, at least if Zoo is to be more than tabloid sensationalism or "dignified" portraiture (which is to say abashed and highly qualified), Devor is smart and also brave to craft the film as an immersion in misunderstanding, almost anti- understanding, and in sensory experiences of longing, bafflement, portent, and alienation. While he has the integrity not to confuse the "zoo" men's questions or subjectivities with those of their outside observers, prosecutors, and now, their audience, Devor still communicates the self-divisions and perplexities of all desire, even for those who are doing the desiring, even as they are tugged implacably and indisputably toward unexpected objects, with unchecked appetites. As a series of poetic meditations on the animals, on communities of strangers, and on the rural Pacific Northwest, Zoo only adds to its list of uncanny achievements.
 
Honorable Mentions: Alex Gibney's
Taxi to the Dark Side just misses this list, although it's also just scored the Oscar, so I bet Gibney is sleeping at night. He never quite figures out a way to make the film about the taxi driver, or to poeticize his inevitable absence, but in depth and urgency of information, economy of expression, and force of presentation, Taxi is indelible. My Kid Could Paint That is one of the year's best date movies, combining a sweet kid and colorful art with riddles about the characters' honesty and embedded questions about the ethics of the documentary that will keep you talking all the way through desert and coffee. Into Great Silence, if a bit repetitious and muffled in point of view, evokes a form and degree of religious devotion that might otherwise seem like a glimpse of a different century, and is just as memorable as the wild, destructive devotions, this time romantic and campily presented, of Dan Klores' Crazy Love (full review). Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's An Unreasonable Man offers a valuably rich and contemplative take on Ralph Nader's strange and inflammatory life, even if it's utterly conventional in form, and speaking of unreasonable men, Michael Moore's Sicko starts with some of the strongest, most galvanizing footage of his career before his fantasy, self-serving projections of other countries and his dubious detours into impresario showmanship get the better of a promising and necessary project.





Into the Wild I never imagined this film had more than a few Oscar nominations in the offing, but watching it go from such a low profile at the Globes to leading the pack at the SAG Awards to a mere two-fer from the Academy (for Hal Holbrook and editor Jay Cassidy) has made for one of the loopiest subplots in a generally exciting awards season. And Christopher McCandless, let's assume, couldn't possibly have cared less. I wonder if he even would have liked the movie, not because the film fails to evoke or respect his odyssey (I think it's about as good an adaptation as we could have hoped for), but because the inevitable mainstream apparatus of Hollywood would surely have turned him off, if he even heard of the movie at all. Still, I hope he would have sparked to the players, at least, and I'm glad that SAG turned out to be the movie's biggest banner-carrier, since it's in the human canvas, even more than the natural landscapes, that the elements of surprise, diversity, risk, and conviction really catch fire. Standouts for me were Brian Dierker as the laconic, cheerfully resigned husband of Catherine Keener's mournful hippie; Holbrook, funny and touching upon arrival, and agonizingly vulnerable at the finish; Jena Malone and Kristen Stewart, mirror-images of loyalty to Chris and intimidated affection, who finally can't mask their hurt feelings at the scale of his self-absorption; Vince Vaughn, whose plotline gets truncated but whose rangy, plus-sized frame works admirably in this unexpected context; William Hurt, unlikable but still pitiable as the mystified and eventually heartbroken Beltway father; and star Emile Hirsch, who made me glad throughout the film that the originally cast Leonardo DiCaprio didn't pan out when Penn first geared up to make the film, lo these many years ago. (Ditto on Holbrook subbing for Brando.) The quilt of personality is so animated and eccentric here, without anyone going for "kook," that you feel Chris' attraction to his itinerant lifestyle of picaresque encounters, but you also can't help feeling the loss every time he breaks camp, and the strange blend of jocularity and melancholy that lies like a blanket over most of the country.
Jindabyne Ray Lawrence's preceding Lantana spun a compelling tale of domestic mysteries and treacheries without quite selling me on the freshness of the material, aside from its platform for quietly virtuosic performances. Jindabyne makes a swifter and richer case for itself, and not just because of its lefty-friendly parable about cultural reconciliation (if that's in fact what takes place) or its sickeningly unsettling opening, expertly dispatched though it is by Chris Haywood, sizzling with inarticulate menace, and Tatea Reilly, quick but not quick enough to see what's happening. What loosens and liberates Jindabyne for me, as the story keeps tying and untying the emotional knot at its center, is the invitation to the actors to assume qualities of mystery without walking around looking like they're in a riddles-of-the-human-soul ensemble film. John Howard, playing the stalwart but vaguely world-weary husband of the formidable Deborra-Lee Furness, is as Spencer Tracily plain and true as Leah Purcell is Madeleine Stowily piqued and patient in the role of a tested schoolteacher, hailed more by ancestral allegiance than by the claims of casual friendship. Simon Stone plays a dim but sweet blue-collar tagalong as unfussily as Ursula Yovich plays an incensed mourner, and almost as memorably as Betty Lucas crafts her passive-aggressive but genuinely dismayed mother-in-law. In smaller roles, we meet one nasty coroner and one kind but oblivious minister, and these actors are just as crisp and clear in delineating their characters as the more featured players are. Beyond and also amid all this inspired ensemble work, a lot of weight falls on the two leads, and while Laura Linney will get her full due later in these write-ups, Gabriel Byrne deserves comparable credit for crafting Stewart as such a plausible mixture of tenderness, shame, and bullishness. His simple joy in fishing, doffing his usual sackcloth of mercurial brooding, alters our entire relationship to the men's poor and recalcitrant judgment; the delicacy, bordering on embarrassment, with which he handles a body he shouldn't be anywhere near makes the movie's crucial enigma that much harder to grasp, and to judge. The stifled, almost sweet affection he shows himself in a mirror after daring to dye his gray roots black is almost heartbreaking, and a Stewart who is remotely heartbreaking, even once, is a Stewart that makes Jindabyne more complicated and humane, raising the movie's already rich and dexterous game.
Juno The standard line when praising Juno's ensemble is to extol the cast for pushing their way through Diablo Cody's screenplay, which most accounts insist is even more mannered than Emily Post. And I see that they have a point, but why not see a glass half full of Sunny D and congratulate the actors (and their hardworking, self-redeeming director Jason Reitman) for doing full justice to an ambitious script that, like Juno herself, hides its deepest investments and vulnerabilities beneath an engaging and carefully cultivated veneer. I've already tossed bouquets to Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, and to deft, economical star Ellen Page in the Best Actress Archive. So here is a godo time to thank J.K. Simmons for using those huge blue peepers to peer right into the heart of what his daughter needs—and, more briefly, to know exactly how to grab her attention with a bruising remark about when to say when. His voice sounds surprised to let fly with such a jab, but his face knows just how much this will hurt her. Allison Janney (has she ever not been an asset to a film?) has a great time making stepmom Brenda a comic foil who's well worth listening to despite her peripheral absurdities, though I do wish her sudden upbraiding of a sonogram technician weren't quite so Frances de la Tour in The History Boys, played (and written) more for the audience than the film. But Janney tucks the corners back in and smooths the sheets after making her way through this petulant mess, which keeps Brenda credible and interesting. Michael Cera, playing a different boy from his Superbad character, is flummoxed, then still flummoxed, then tingling with the possibility that romance is dawning, then frightened like a soft-skulled kitten when Juno starts throwing her now-considerable weight around. His variations on delicate bashfulness, tipping into anxious self-defense when provoked, is one of the movie's signal accomplishments. Can't say the same, I admit, for Emily Perkins' "Punk Receptionist" or Rainn Wilson's all-about-me cameo, but quieter third-tier characters like lawyer Gerta Rauss (played by Eileen Pedde) and Cera's modest but jealous and cheerfully hypocritical mom (played by Darla Vandenbossche) keep the Juno balloon delightfully afloat.
A Mighty Heart Only someone who hasn't been following Michael Winterbottom's brilliant career could possibly have imagined that A Mighty Heart would be a star-driven vanity project for Angelina Jolie, and only someone who hasn't taken seriously the depths of Jolie's smarts and political convictions could have imagined that she'd pursue this project with a less generous, far-sighted, fundamentally democratic artist than Winterbottom. I don't mean to imply that Winterbottom has ever been inattentive to his leads, and in the very grand tradition of Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet in Jude, Stephen Dillane in Welcome to Sarajevo, Peter Mullan, Wes Bentley, and Sarah Polley in The Claim, and so many other Winterbottom vets, Jolie constructs a multifaceted, terrifically precise character that is no less specific for seeming so casual and alive in front of the circling camera. She literally illuminates different traits of Mariane Pearl from different angles (head-on, over the shoulder, laid out in bed, tucked into the corner of the frame). Like most Winterbottom movies, though, A Mighty Heart works best as a full-scale circulatory system of finely etched and brilliantly framed personalities. Rather than watch a lonely Mariane weave at her loom, Winterbottom catches the bustling, anxious, colorful, uncomfortably fast, and uncomfortably slow process of tracking a vanished man in a destabilized country. No one checks her or his personality at the door of the Pearl outpost, so we see Archie Panjabi's warm and flexible supercompetence; Denis O'Hare's egotism, mundanely abrasive even as he rolls up his sleeve to help; Demetri Goritsas' team-player modesty, rubbed every wrong way by O'Hare; Irrfan Khan's taut, quiet storm of diligence, fury, and lament; and Jillian Armenante as a no-frills intelligence expert who somehow never seems to accomplish much without breaking her performance of facility, dedication, and experience. Meanwhile, Mohammed Afzal, Daud Khan, and several other actors play suspects or contacts in the investigation, deflecting accusations of culpability even as many of them (no one more than Ikram Bhatti's Sheikh Gilani) uncomfortably feed our suspicions. And then, of course, there's Dan Futterman, included just enought to cement Danny Pearl's legacy of intelligence, candor, and global engagement without donning a sentimental halo.
This Is England Through the first half of This Is England, writer-director Shane Meadows seems well on his way toward making a grade-A film about dispossession (social, political, and familial) and reincorporation, the latter evinced by the highly dubious but undeniably solacing embrace shown toward fatherless, volleyball-headed 11-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) by a loose cadre of tetchy, disaffected youths. Eventually, the film loses its way a bit to overdetermined symbolism and some immature bridges among its themes: sexual rejection leads to proto-fascism, neo-Nazi converts instantly jump ship in the face of racial bigotry, etc. If these schematic designs annoy, though, it's because the preceding film is so bristlingly smart and three-dimensional, nowhere more so than in its performances. Young Turgoose is a real find, expressive and thoughtful, and spontaneous without giving the slightest impression that he is just being himself. Even better are the actors playing the crew who adopt him, particularly Joseph Gilgun as Woody, a leader so natural and affable that he single-handedly complicates the film's tone and politics for the first 45 minutes; Vicky McClure as Woody's girlfriend Lol, who doesn't mistake the toughness of the character for a lack of feeling or a springboard into stereotype; and Rosamund Hanson as Smell, the essentially comic character (but not herself a joke) who initiates Shaun into being what Juno MacGuff would not call "sexually active." The whole band share a marvelous scene where they are upbraided in a coffee shop by Shaun's mother (an excellent Jo Hartley), who suddenly relinquishes her son to this suspicious company in a way that feels strangely plausible and not as 100% foolish as we might think. In some ways, Stephen Graham has an easier part than any of these actors, since we've seen the charismatic psychopath reiterated several times in the movies, and occasionally with more layers and ironies than either Meadows or Graham finds here, but it's still a forceful, dedicated, and frequently inspired piece of work.
 
Honorable Mentions: The inert and terrified girl, the generous but surely resentful friend, the sleazy black market provider who is at least right about needing to protect himself, the boyfriend who can't remotely imagine what he simply isn't seeing, the bristly concierges, the parents drunk on food and memory and self-satisfaction:
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a gallery of sharply etched personas, as direct as neorealist characters but as theatrically precise as the Royal Shakespeareans. In Black Snake Moan, a film that couldn't be more different, a revivified Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci are ably abetted by avuncular John Cothran, sweet S. Epatha Merkerson, and snipy Adriane Lenox in selling Craig Brewer's hothouse redemption song without holding themselves back or cleaning the thing up—and Justin Timberlake, if occasionally effortful in his expressions of envy and shame, nonetheless adds to the zest of the dish (and you can't blame him for not really understanding envy or shame). Hairspray, boxed out of all of my awards just like it was at the Oscars, is a splendid and bouncy runner-up in lots of derbies, and its spry, spirited acting is certainly among them, led by Nikki Blonsky, who reminds us that unflappable gusto needn't be overbearing. Almost everyone in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead risks excess at some point or another, but at the same time, all of the lead players—Hoffman, Hawke, Tomei, Finney, Harris—deserve some credit for the startling tragic majesty of the film's best scenes, and diamond-hard supporting turns by Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, and a perfectly thuggish Brían F. O'Byrne require no caveats at all. Kasi Lemmons proved in Talk to Me that she can govern a bravura star turn of an outlandish character without ditching the rest of the ensemble and without ceding all of her instincts to an unbridled star. She and Cheadle do beautifully by each other, and if the film lacks the bracing uniqueness of Eve's Bayou, the central repertory of Cheadle, Ejiofor, Sheen, Hall, Henson, Epps, and Cedric the Entertainer are even more fluidly orchestrated and beautifully harmonized than the saucy but somewhat freestanding performances of the earlier film. Lastly, Grindhouse here ends its august career as an Honorable Mention for almost everything. In its honor, I'm throwing a lurid fireworks show of colorful affection, particularly for a gamer-than-anyone Rose McGowan and a moist, rattled, but in-on-the-joke Marley Shelton. But Freddy Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, and Zoë Bell also deserve an extra hand. And welcome back to the 5 & dime, Michael Biehn, Michael Biehn! I've wanted to say that for years.






Cate Blanchett
I'm Not There
Cate Blanchett's sequences aren't necessarily my favorite movements in I'm Not There (as I've said before, I'm quite partial to the more daring obliquities of the Gere sequences and the really-not-there self-effacements of the Bale scenes), but there is no question that Haynes gives her the freest rein within his ensemble to elaborate a full characterization. Blanchett, as fascinated by gamesmanship and intellect and technical exactitude as Haynes is, clearly thrives in this context of egghead delirium, and her work is shot through with a lip-licking wit that reveals itself most (and isn't this ironic?) in that inscrutable Cheshire grin that she offers in one of the film's final shots. But the earnestness of the performance—its palpable internal disquiet, its genuine responsiveness to the film's questions about whether eras and audiences feed or eat their artists, and about the consequent ethical demands on the public performer—are clear as early as that first press conference, where Blanchett's darting symphony of sidelong glances and vocal cadences first shows itself as both a stylistic feat in itself and a window, too, into a smart but arrogant but wounded singer-jester-poet, still making up his mind about his own sincerity. Extra points for the pure hits of humor in line-readings like "Look at all these medicines, man!" and for the way Jude/Dylan almost asphyxiates when confronted by genuine challengers, that deranged room-service waiter as much as Bruce Greenwood's BBC reporter.


Deborra-Lee Furness
Jindabyne
Another Jude! The image to the left was the first one I'd seen of Deborra-Lee Furness in Jindabyne, care of Stale Popcorn's ringing endorsement in StinkyLulu's 2007 edition of his Supporting Actress blogathon. Given this snapshot—the bold stare, the accusing finger, the frosty wardrobe and hair, the wine-glass as armature—wouldn't you have surmised that Furness was playing some stone-cold harridan, waspishly making life hard for the female lead like Agnes Moorehead sometimes does in the Sirk dramas or like Patricia Clarkson does in Far from Heaven and Dogville? But Furness, for all of her trenchancy and solidity, isn't playing an antagonist or a snake in the grass, but rather a close friend of Laura Linney's character, with her own range of bitter-pill experiences and conflicted emotions to sort through in much less screen-time than Linney enjoys. "Sort" might not be the best verb for Jude's m.o.; she tends to plow through her moods and attitudes, no matter how paradoxical they are, or how much she encrusts some essential grief and exhaustion with redoubtable displays of strength, cynicism, impressive and even reckless candor. Her tantrums aren't big diva scenes but sharp, contained gusts that nonetheless hint at how much context stays submerged; her style of friendship isn't based on comfort or accessibility so much as honesty and a generous recognition of life's difficulties. She's the first to invoke Linney's postpartum depression as early-evening small-talk or to scold her when she won't relinquish her outrage over recent atrocities committed in their midst. But Furness toughens the film's guiding trope of repressions and their uncanny returns by demonstrating at all times just how vocal, wise, powerful, wickedly humorous, even uncomfortably gruff a putatively "repressed" person can be, and how friendship or at least strategic alliance (Linney's Claire wants allies more than friends, I think) can take more shapes than safe-space confiding and sisterly hugs.


Jennifer Garner
Juno
Those first, faceless extreme close-ups of Vanessa Loring adjusting a French cuff, fractionally rotating a picture frame on a polished tabletop, running her hands all over the surfaces and accoutrements of her ice-cold estate in her Glacial Valley subdivision are obvious emblems of Vanessa's need to clean, to polish, to account for herself, but one worries that they are equally iconic of a film making a big mess of itself. How will it rebound from this kind of anti-woman and anti-bourgeois stereotyping? How will Garner act if her character has already been decided in advance, not just by the film but by every movie that has ever leaned on this paragon of hysterical domestic rectitude to score easy points for the free thinkers, layabouts, and job-quitting, burger-flipping, closer-looking potheads in her midst? Luckily, the script has richer ideas than this, and Garner has even richer ones. She doesn't make Vanessa too comfortable in her home. She doesn't torque herself into a scowl of disappointment, stewing over having to pull all of the weight in the Loring marriage, but she dampens herself into someone with perpetually bruised feelings and shames, wondering why life doesn't give her what she most wants and trying to figure out what she could do to deserve it more. (Does she not deserve it?) Even with Vanessa's language shaved of the wild affectations that mark so much of the Juno script, Garner doesn't mistake the character's relative straightforwardness for dullness, and she stays watchful of every other character in all of her scenes: sometimes for laughs (looking askance at Juno, for more than one beat, after hearing she got herself expelled from the sonogram clinic), but more often for huge empathetic gains (intimidated not only by Juno's reactions but by Leah's, too, as she tries to talk to "her" baby, and confused by the young girls' sarcastic humor). In short, Garner totally Meryls: you get more acting per moment than the script seems ever to have imagined, but it's all in the service of the character and not any kind of bid for attention-grabby effects. Lovely.


Sidse Babett Knudsen
After the Wedding
I didn't see After the Wedding helmer Susanne Bier's earlier films Mifune, The One and Only, or Open Hearts, which I hear were terrific, and particularly so in relation to their performances. But with that single caveat, and having admired Bier's Brothers and, for better and for worse, having done my time with Italian for Beginners, The Celebration, and a generous handful of other contemporary Danish dramas, Sidse Babett Knudsen's work in Bier's Oscar-nominated After the Wedding emerges as my favorite performance in any of them, emotionally rich and sometimes volatile in mood without reaching artificially for the sturm and drang that Dogme films like The Celebration sometimes encouraged (and which one of Wedding's male leads, Rolf Lassgård, occasionally perpetrates). Uncommonly good at passing chameleonically from spritely youthfulness to middle-aged knowingness, Knudsen's flexible handling of mood and her deft complications of short scenes and wordless shots gorgeously build the preliminary mystery of After the Wedding—who among these characters already knows each other, and what is the nature of those relations? They inject even more mystery after the ostensible revelations, because we never know if Knudsen's Helene is eager or terrified to lose her husband, relieved or furious for her daughter to learn a suppressed secret, anxious or excited to observe an old flame re-entering her life, confident or hopeful or nervous or soured about the prospects of what all of this means for her immediate present, and for her possible futures. What a thrill to study Knudsen's face and body language for clues, and to wait on pins and needles for her successive returns to the movie; what a bigger thrill for an actress I'd never heard of, in a film without any real publicity campaign, to make such an impression back in April that I still haven't forgotten her after nine months of bigger stars and Hollywood hype.


Tilda Swinton
Michael Clayton
What could I possibly have left to say about Tilda Swinton's genius in this role, after already extolling it at length in my full review of the film and celebrating its convictions and glories on every blog that I visit? As I've bored everyone in my personal life with repeating for three months now, I was already keyed up by the trailer to know what exactly has just invaded Karen Crowder's consciousness when, seated behind a microphone and giving a carefully notarized interview about who knows what bland-jargon corporate policy, she balks and fumes like a tripped circuit and glances with panic somewhere to the left of the screen. My guess was some kind of public violence, or at least some climactic fifth-act heckling. The answer, though, is that some assistant's assistant has popped in to pass along some mundane announcement. Karen's reaction is just gigantically over-nervous in the context of the moment, but the actress' reaction isn't: Swinton makes Karen an entropic molecule of fear, cast in a role that demands a sangfroid that Karen just doesn't possess—which, by contrast, makes it all the more alarming when Karen does sail through the occasional easy victory, like when she stalks out on a late-arriving Michael for their first rendezvous of negotiations. When Karen's doing just fine, Michael must be doing really badly. But Karen is rarely remotely close to fine, and the gradations of fright, self-steeling, self-coaching, wheedling, visible drymouth and tasteable fatigue, and ironic glades of competence and self-confidence (usually short-lived but not strictly prohibited, because Swinton isn't stupid or ungenerous) add up to the best supporting turn of the year, and possibly the best turn, period.
 
Honorable Mentions: Leslie Mann, for
Knocked Up, was the only other actress who made a serious stab at this roster, and by "serious" I mean comedically delicious, warping and woofing some sisterly defensiveness into her petulant carping and free-range pessimism better than anyone has since Lisa Kudrow in The Opposite of Sex. But, like Furness, she's less invulnerable than she sometimes seems, and, like Swinton, she succeeds against heavy odds at furnishing some credible feminine perspective into an imposingly chauvinistic script. Speaking of dubious gender politics, I don't know what on earth Catherine Breillat thought she was accomplishing with The Last Mistress, in execution even more than at the writing stage, but barely a thing works in the movie except the devilish, salacious, and contagious glee that Claude Sarraute expends in drawing out the central narrative from the relative periphery of the framing-device scenes. Because the movie's French title is Une vieille maîtresse (not Une ancienne maîtresse), I built up some hope that the faunish faux-himbo was going to leap into Sarraute's lap by the end of this turgid mess. Not to be, but I still felt like sending Sarraute a thank-you letter. I'm not saying there weren't more below-the-title actresses who gave a lot to their movies in 2007, but in most cases they enabled the ensemble more than sticking out by themselves, or they succeeded largely through a determined reticence that deepened some facets of their work while qualifying others (see: Laura Vasiliu in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), or they brought vitality and creative rhythms to movies and roles that didn't quite deserve them, and which finally stood in the way of the characters or the performances making enough sense (see: Vera Farmiga in Joshua). A lot of good work, but especially compared to the other acting derbies, comparatively little greatness. But don't let that take away from my final five, who would have made their way to this list even in the best of years.






Jason Bateman
Juno
[Spoiler alert] We often praise actors (and for good reason) in terms of the arcs they manage to describe for their characters over the course of a piece, but there is plenty to be said, too, for knowing when not to play an arc, and my favorite thing about Bateman's performance in Juno, particularly on a second visit, is how not excited he is to be adopting a child from his very earliest scenes. Something about his obdurately casual and delayed arrival to the living room sit-down reads on first impression as performed "coolness," as though he's determined to show how far above all this ceremony he stands, but he's actually just standing candidly away from all this ceremony, hiding his agnosticism in plain sight. Pinched and petulant in almost all of his scenes, without making the slightest commotion or resisting the ability of the right, schlocky Gorefest to put him at ease, it's an admirably crabby, laconic performance that allows the character some measure of integrity for the self-recusing he will eventually demand... and his handling of the semi-seduction scenes with Juno, no matter who you think is driving the semi-seduction, keeps every ambiguity in play. Mark Loring leaves the movie with his narcissism, his convictions (possibly the same thing), and his mysteries intact. Deftly uningratiating work from a charming self-ingratiator.


Garret Dillahunt
The Assassination of
Jesse James by the
Coward Robert Ford
Oscar-nominated Casey Affleck has a stunted, skeletal quality that's effective for this film, and the alternately silly and strained camaraderie among the core of the James gang (Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, and especially Jeremy Renner) offers its share of interest and entertainment. Still, as the doomed breakaway Ed Miller, Dillahunt furnished almost all of the poignancy that I detected anywhere in the first two hours of Assassination, which badly needed some kind of emotional substratum beneath its concepty photography and pose-striking mannerisms. Dillahunt was totally unknown to me before this year; I gather many people know him from TV's Deadwood, and later in the fall, he had a small and less tonally controlled role in No Country for Old Men. But what an impression he makes. His Ed, ungraced with prodigious intelligence, or even the kind of quick wits that would keep him alive when suspicions start to accrue around him, gets marched into the woods by Brad Pitt's Jesse and executed for his role in what looks like a budding mutiny. Dillahunt is the only actor, in my view, to seize his character away from the eulogizing dictates of the photography and the music. Ed's scared, barely contained desperation during that death march puts some organic feeling behind the movie's mythological and philosophical approaches to living and dying, and he makes himself so wounded and pitiable that Pitt's Jesse (a stolid cipher, for me, through most of the picture) almost doesn't want to kill him. The most watchable and memorable of the film's rustic gallery of faces, and the most affecting of its several deaths.


John Carroll Lynch
Zodiac
Yep, I remember him from Face/Off and A Thousand Acres and as the store manager from The Good Girl, but surely, I thought, John Carroll Lynch will go to his grave with the disappointed, mallard-loving, stamp-painting sheriff's husband from Fargo as his uncontested and ultimately marginal cinematic epitaph. But not so, after 2007. Well beyond his engaging turn as the neighbor and mourning friend who wants to be Benicio Del Toro's chum in Things We Lost in the Fire, Lynch quietly but positively owned the pivotal role of Arthur Leigh Allen, the most likely suspect in the confounding Zodiac murder case (full review here). With one hand, he offered the audience a deft portrait of squirrelly, self-revealing prevarication under police inquiry; on the other, he drained his gaze and flattened his expression into a memorable, haunting, almost arrogant rune of unpunished culpability. In a year that ended with O.J.'s despicable memoir of "hypothetical" murder, and—closer to home—with Javier Bardem's implacable but largely conceptual bounty hunter Anton Chigurh, Lynch offered the most unnerving, lived-in emblem of villainy at large, as unpretentious and finely engraved as a 2-cent stamp from Dante's Inferno. Extra points for leaving open this chilling question: if Arthur isn't the Zodiac killer, or any of the possible Zodiac killers, what is he looking so nervous and, later, so gluttonously proud about?


Ion Sapdaru
12:08 East of Bucharest
Speaking of flattened affect, how is it that Romanian actors can permit so little mannerism on screen, can indeed freeze their faces and their bodies for long spells within static shots, and somehow impart a theatrical richness of telepathic implication? Like Ion Fiscuteanu's Lazarescu and his many attendants on the way to Hades, like the terrified clients and oblivious onlookers in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (where he also appears as one of the guests at the boyfriend's dinner party), Ion Sapdaru turns psychical, emotional, even political paralysis into an acting style in 12:08 East of Bucharest. He tightens all of his character's inner screws as he doles out payments to aggravated co-workers and other creditors, as he promises his wife to bring home his entire paycheck before blowing it on liquor, as he upbraids a bartender for declining to serve him, as he attempts to mollify an Asian shopkeeper who has lately been the victim of his inebriated epithets, and lastly—most centrally—as he suffers through a television interview where he doesn't know what to say, either because his lies are rebuffed or because his experience is disbelieved. Sapdaru holds the camera with incredibly little activity, and indeed while assuming morose, combative, and self-pitying miens that should repel our impulse to look at him. But instead, he fascinates, emanating some powerful, unflattering, but accessible truths about the stories we tell ourselves and the unvoiced internal promises that we reprise and re-break from moment to moment in a given day. Extra points for the unbearable mix of humility and humiliation that is activated when the shopkeeper calls the TV station.


Steve Zahn
Rescue Dawn
The architect of kooks and unreliables as early as Reality Bites and as memorably as in Out of Sight and as dangerously as in Joy Ride and as ambitiously as in Almereyda's Hamlet, Steve Zahn dials things way back for his role as a U.S. prisoner of war in a Southeast Asian compound. Zahn's kind but narcotized comportment is shaken back into life (or something like it) when Christian Bale's Dieter Dengler concocts a plan for escape but then hollows out into new levels of despair and immobility once they discover in the verdant jungle a prison as formidable as the one from which they stage their great escape. Rescue Dawn, expertly shot and designed though it is, deserves neither the neglect it was shown by audiences nor the encomiums of its most defensive and overweening champions, but Zahn, at least, can hardly be overpraised. His rapport with Bale calms the actor as well as the character, refocusing Rescue Dawn from a showcase for more Machinist-style method extremism to a study of fraternity and of anxious, inarticulate, but trusting interdependence. When Zahn's Duane seizes the chance that Dieter offers, the movie's sudden thrill of optimism is palpable; as the pair heads into the wild, Duane's faltering stamina and horror of dying are all the more terrible for staying so quiet. Zahn's devastation isn't grandiloquent like Christopher Walken's is, for better and for worse, in The Deer Hunter, and he gives a face to a smartly, compassionately etched personality without violating the essential cloudiness that engulfs more and more of Duane as the film wears on. Zahn also gives a more metonymic face to a certain kind of unknown soldier, as succinct and poetic in his expression of marooned humanity as are the most powerful ensemble performances in The Thin Red Line.
 
Honorable Mentions: Ashraf Barhom excels in a completely unostentatious role as the Arab attaché and interpreter for the CIA squadron sent to get to the bottom of a mortal and political catastrophe in
The Kingdom; reflective when the film is not, attached to a country that the movie keeps holding at a distance, Barhom silently telegraphs an inner battle of allegiances and a constant series of negotiations that the script barely allows him to voice. Martin Compston follows impressive turns as a charismatic teenager in Sweet Sixteen and a soft-spoken friend in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints with his volatile lad in Red Road; minds can dwell in the gutter and still work like a steel trap. Hal Holbrook's wisdom and economy save his role in Into the Wild from generic movie codgerdom, and even from the contours of the standard-issue Sage, but it's Holbrook's awful, piercing woundedness when Chris McCandless abandons him as peremptorily as possible that ensures we don't romanticize the human costs of Chris' decisions, or of Sean Penn's frequently daydreamy approach to pictorializing it. Michael Cera is just right, and admirably distinct from his Superbad character and performance, as the clueless but still perceptive Paulie Bleeker in Juno. John Cothran, memorable heretofore as Morris Chestnut's college recruiter in Boyz N the Hood, puts an undogmatic, hugely appealing spin on the stock figure of the black Southern minister in Black Snake Moan, while Stephen Graham and Joseph Gilgun work equal wonders with possible stereotypes in This Is England. Paul Rudd's touch has rarely if ever been lighter than it is in Knocked Up; he's still funny, but we believe him as a genuine and melancholic reflector on his own lot in life. Irrfan Khan broadcasts intelligence—academic, strategic, and emotional—in A Mighty Heart (where Denis O'Hare, Will Patton, and Demetri Goritsas also acquit themselves phenomenally well) and also in The Namesake. The yearly cornucopia of prodigious, disciplined acting in movies from abroad featured such banner-carriers in second-tier roles as Hippolyte Girardot, affecting but unsentimental as the crippled husband in Lady Chatterley; Tony Leung as the heartless, sadistic target of the spy operation in Lust, Caution; Devid Striesow as a slightly mystifying boss of an even more mystifying and preternaturally resilient financial wizard in Yella; and Bernard Blancan as the obedient but politically awakened commander of an Algerian combat unit in World War II in last year's Best Foreign Film nominee Days of Glory (Indigènes).





Black Snake Moan
Beth Sterner,
Kevin E. Carpenter,
Ezra Dweck,
& David E. Fluhr
The sound design of Black Snake Moan (full review here) is remarkable less for novelty or ingenuity than it is—in common with the film as a whole, and with the writer-director's previous Hustle & Flow—for the literally amped-up and blithely hyperbolic way in which it sells its character conceits, its power surges of tension, comedy, and mood, and its portrait of a Dirty South that is somehow so regressive and limited that it feels punchy and newly discovered. (I'll take Brewer's conservatism-dressed-as-radical-provocation any day over Judd Apatow's, especially since the endings of both H&F and BSM underline the subversion of easy optimism and the durability of perversion instead of a complacent, unchallenged drift into normativity.) But as I was saying: the sound design of BSM plays up the twittering grasses and chirping rusticity of a storybook backwoods cottage, only to sizzle the whole mix to bits with loud, sensual, very nearly palpable quavers and reverberations, especially during Ricci's little earthquakes of libido. Combative dialogue is keyed up to levels that are pure Exploitation Cinema but also dramatically potent, and the various musical explosions, from the opening on the Black Keys' "When the Lights Go Out" to Samuel L. Jackson's climactic trailblaze through "Stack-o-Lee," solidify that strong, engaging stand that Black Snake Moan takes on behalf of excess, absurdity, and the human thrall to sensory stimuli, dubious and otherwise.
Control
Thomas Huhn,
Peter Baldock
Control is already on the right track to position the Joy Division songs so economically, fading them lusciously in and titillatingly out, and often opting for the most lyrically gripping or electrically performed bit of a song over the more instantly recognizable or dramatically "obvious" refrains. Simple shots like the track that follows Ian Curtis to work at the unemployment bureau are promoted to crucial interludes by feeding Joy Division sound into daily life, and not just into concert and studio spaces (though this becomes less the case as the film plays out), and the matching of Sam Riley's live performances with the lip-synched tracks of Ian Curtis himself is masterful enough that many viewers attest that they couldn't tell the difference. The verve and the self-seductions of the New Wave sound communicate brilliantly, and on a skimpy budget to boot.
No Country for Old Men
Skip Lievsay,
Craig Berkey,
Greg Orloff,
& Peter Kurland
I already sang the praises of the foley work in the Sound Effects category, but of course the general austerity of the overall soundtrack only reinforces the crisp, trenchant intrusions of these sudden storms and discrete commotions. Think of how excruciating it is to hear Josh Brolin stuffing that money into the back of that hollow, echoing, sheet-metal air duct, because the silence he disrupts is so total, and yet so realistic. Or how much more desperate is his flight from a sinister, oncoming truck because there isn't a score to detract from the innate terror of panting breaths, crunching sand, flying pebbles, and the revving engine of his pursuers. The actors' speeches also "pop" when necessary from this aurally desaturated world: Kelly Macdonald's sudden onset of philosophical self-reflection, however abruptly directed and acted, still derives some context and strength from the eerie, suppressed void in which she speaks, as does Tommy Lee Jones' more studious recapitulation of a worrisome dream. It's not that a score couldn't have helped; Carter Burwell's compositions for Fargo brilliantly supported a similar canvas of blackly comic suspense-thriller existentialism. But the Coens know exactly what they're doing by keeping Burwell on such a tight leash here and allowing the careful calibration of more local effects to dictate audience response.
Red Road
Douglas MacDougall,
Kahl Henderson,
& Chris Sinclair
Something of a sound team's dream on a small scale, with all those humming video feeds and bleeping buttons in the City Eye station and an entire urban sojourn to follow as Kate Dickie's Jackie stalks someone she either knows very well or doesn't know at all through the nervous sidewalks, gravelly paths, and boisterous apartment parties of a Glaswegian tenement complex. But sound designer MacDougall and re-recording mixers Henderson and Sinclair, working recognizably if less aggressively in the David Lynch vein, expand beyond evocation of mood by keying up the pitch and volume of almost every incidental sound as Jackie works herself closer and closer to the edge of monomania and suggestibility. Non-diegetic whooshes, beeps, and thrums add enervating accents to several scenes, but the team works best in the ambiguous range between the localized and the abstract, as when the rush of wind outside an apartment window or the angry rejoinder of security-buzzer system on a lobby door or the sensuous tides of "The Vanishing American Family" by Scuba Z or even the simple act of sprinting out of a crappy sandwich shop assume a muscular and outsize force, above and beyond their immediate contexts.
We Own the Night
Douglas Murray,
Thomas Varga,
Gary Rizzo,
& Kent Sparling
As confident and scrupulous as all the framings and scene-constructions in We Own the Night, the sound design is an exemplar of compressed and beautifully integrated effects, even when the individual elements carry a high risk of overstatement. Perfect example: Wojciech Kilar's brooding score, which could easily stampede over any number of scenes in your average film if they didn't put up a fight. In We Own the Night, though, the score is perfectly accommodated and indeed complemented by the dialogue that is captured so intimately and presented so forcefully, and by the contextualizing foley elements of scenes like that unimprovable car chase (wind-shield wipers and rain, chiefly). All of these ingredients are so powerfully crystallized in their own right, and so smartly played against one another, that the movie works exactly as the dramatic scenario requires: as a controlled forcefield of collisions or frictions among redoubtable elements. The finale in the tall grass owes some debts to the airstrip sequence in Michael Mann's Heat, but again, the sound mix works perfectly in synch with the images and the cutting to make a thrillingly suspenseful showdown into a psychological battleground as well as a literal fight to the death. Extra points for "Heart of Glass" and the rest of the song score.
 
Honorable Mentions:
There Will Be Blood doesn't obligate itself to the sort of tight formal discipline that We Own the Night does, so while I'm still on the fence as to whether its sonic landscape is sometimes too florid and uncontrolled for the film's own good, it's nonetheless a formidable piece of work. I also loved Into the Wild's movements across a huge aural spectrum from the gamboling epic sound of several of the road scenes to the hushed confessionals by Jena Malone's character. I also admired the smart back-and-forth among songs, instrumental scoring, and local environments. Grindhouse and Talk to Me did a great job blending their distinctive musical idioms and their large-ensemble exchanges with their very different generic projects, and as I indicated below, the purposefully asinine soundscapes of Hot Fuzz, to include the delirious overmixing, is the film's most consistent punchline. La Vie en rose helped turn Marion Cotillard's lip-synched performances of Edith Piaf tracks into persuasive "live" entertainments, playing up the emotional intensity of her deliveries so that the film's own montage-in-heat structural aesthetic made a little bit of sense (maybe not enough), and perpetual also-rans The Bourne Ultimatum and 3:10 to Yuma worked the basic rules of ballistic re-recording and frenetic action-suspense mixing to a very fine point.

Didn't See: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End





4 Months, 3 Weeks,
and 2 Days

Cristian Mungiu
Such a confident script that its governing crisis doesn't even receive an overt statement for what I remember as well over a half-hour. The real kicker, though, is that the conversations up to that point—between two roommates, between one of the roommates and her boyfriend, between this woman and two hotel concierges—are so finely tuned and variously tense that we remember them perfectly once the Big Bomb drops, and everything we have already absorbed becomes flooded with new import and desperation. Then again, you could just as easily say that the genius of Mungiu's writing is that the abortion "reveal" doesn't override everything else that is behaviorally and/or politically fascinating about the testy romantic squabbles, the female friendship tinged with resentment, a ghastly negotiation with a sleazy black-marketeer, and a boisterous and uncomfortable dinner party. Extra points for taking those unanswered phone calls to the brink of bearable suspense. (You can have Anton Chigurh; this stuff keeps me up at night, shaking.) Extra extra points for knowing when to drop the dialogue during most of the last act, and including just enough of it in the final moments.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Kelly Masterson
As with most films that make such florid business of a structural gimmick, in this case the repeated cycling back through the same events from different perspectives, you have to wonder whether the script really needs the trick. I can see the arguments against, but Before the Devil... is so defiantly uncommercial in its refusal to generate a likeable character (or even, in most cases, a halfway knowable character) that I think the narrative loops draw us into a crime and into a family that otherwise might have had us sprinting for the doors. Well beyond the attention-grabby flashbacks, though, I was most impressed by the film's intrepid ambitions in the direction of tragedy, making the exploding family at the heart of the story somehow more august and also more pitiful by treating them as some kind of desperate middle-class House of Atreus. (Now, if only Marisa Tomei's Gina were afforded her own window onto events...)
Day Night Day Night
Julia Loktev
It's the "please"s, the "thank you"s, the "sorry"s, and the "okay"s. Beyond the petulant and fascinating withholding of narrative, motivational, or demographic information about the enigmatic protagonist; beyond the hypnotic austerity of the dialogue and the long, desultory spells of waiting; beyond the incremental tension of listening to a teenage suicide bomber repeat the addresses, phone numbers, and details of a life that isn't really hers; beyond the merciless momentum of her life as she comes closer and closer to detonating herself and who knows how many other people, the shining badge of Day Night Day Night's bravery and counter-intuitive intelligence is the almost pained politeness of its demure central character, negotiating as bashfully but congenially as possible with the sleeper-cell agents who are weighing her backpack down with nails, or with the other set of agents who share a pizza with her as a final meal. The verbal specificity is heartbreaking and chilling. She's a suicide bomber you want to hug, without having an ounce of sentimentality in her constitution, and thus it's all the more unsettling when this creature of timid and careful mien loses all of her most important bearings in the final scene.
Deep Water
Louise Osmond,
Jerry Rothwell
I know a lot of people don't even associate screenplays with documentaries, and many nonfiction films, including Deep Water, don't even take a writing credit. Such credits are becoming more common, though, and for good reason: whether or not the screenplay is a blueprint at the start of a project or a retroactive framework or (most likely) something in between, which is also true of fiction films, every film needs a map to guide its story, its procession of information and audiovisual impressions, its extension and contraction of narrative, descriptive, and expository episodes. And in these respects, Deep Water is just tremendous, charting as clear and suspenseful a course as it possibly could through the seemingly esoteric material of a 40-year-old sailing contest, deepening its sense of character, expanding its thematic riches, and tightening its "thriller" dimensions to a harrowing but also a deeply entertaining degree. The screenplay also does a marvelous job of holding onto some sense of the other sailors' fates and dilemmas, especially that of seasoned French sailor Bernard Moitessier, and though we could have stood to hear more about the homefront drama, the testimonies by Crowhurst's wife and son to which we are privy nourish the film considerably.
Juno
Diablo Cody
[Behold the pathetic straining of a metaphor, and appreciate, by contrast, what good writing actually feels like!] In its embryonic scenes, Juno is a twee riff on Sunny D and hamburger phones, even if a stray remark about "Women Now" hints at a genetic flowering to come. Juno really hits its developmental stride in an exchange of looks and words between the heroine, mid-confession, and her father, mid-astonishment, and by the time this pair visits the more rhetorically subdued adoptive parents that Juno has plucked from the Pennysaver, this film is one healthy, bouncing baby. From the comparable but very different curveballs it throws in relation to the Garner and Bateman characters to the unreadable regard that Cody assumes for Janney's stepmom to the piquant and flavorful and impressively candid scenes between Ellen Page and Michael Cera (no, not every line or even every scene of this movie is overwritten), the movie is a proud gambit in stylization as a means toward intimacy with the characters. Its evolution from a film about a pregnancy to one about the possibility of loving relationships is a gradual and delicious surprise that the script has nonetheless been preparing (gestating!) all along.
 
Honorable Mentions: I really hate to leave out Julie Delpy's script for
2 Days in Paris, which has such a remarkable laugh ratio, especially for a cross-cultural indie comedy, that it's even able to redeem old standbys that I usually dislike, principally the "How many old boyfriends does she have?!!" bit, and the stilted incorporation of the Daniel Brühl character. Still, this thing really hums, and the scene construction is just as lively as the dialogue, to include her unusual decision to mute the volume on the Edward Albee breakup scene. 12:08 East of Bucharest is a more minor film than 4 Months, but it pulls off a great double-dynamic of building toward a tighter and tighter focus while still doing an expert writerly job of putting across all those other subplots in the beginning of the film (like the Santa Claus bit and the onerous repaying of debts). The guiding debate about whether history works centripetally inward from national events to individual lives, or else centrifugally outward, is meaningful and artfully presented, if a bit hard for the movie to move beyond. No End in Sight is Deep Water's best rival for documentary screenwriting; its condensation of a clear, persuasive narrative of the Iraq War's principal failures and moments of self-sabotage is a near-miracle of filmmaking and also of historical rhetoric, particularly amid the generous clamor of voices that surround this central thread. I'm Not There is a wonder of invention at all levels, including the sui generis script, but it is a little chunky, and I do doubt whether it would work as a piece of writing if Haynes hadn't directed and Jay Rabinowitz hadn't edited with such playful and gossamer hands. And lastly, three more writer-directors: The Savages has some great bits (the Linney/Friedman scenes and her private confessions to the Nigerian nurse spring most quickly to mind), and rarely bites off more than it wants to chew. We Own the Night has the right, abruptly surprising script to suit James Gray's punchy, streamlined style, just as Once offers the right foundation for the intimate, improvised life that John Carney and the actor-musicians breathe into it.

Didn't See: The Great Debaters, Honeydripper




Charlie Wilson's War
Aaron Sorkin
Let me make clear right off that I hated the way Mike Nichols directed this script, and I didn't like how Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts acted it, and I don't understand how or why Nichols birdies so often between being such an incisive, against-the-grain director and being such a pushover for fake charm. But beneath the movie's incessant wish to endear Charlie to us or to showcase some ACTING right as it happens, I admired Sorkin's decision to find blithe, self-deluding, high-stakes satire in this case history (instead of the easier route of depressive lament). Without over-relying on his usual pillars of filigreed wit, repeated phrases, and verbal pomposity, he left plenty of room for audiences to consider the push/pull of Wilson's motivations, and the resourceful, well-meaning crusaderism of his motley allies despite their short-sighted and self-interested grasp of events. It's a unique and absorbing feat of "personalizing" history, especially Congressional politics, and if I say out loud, "Robert Altman's Charlie Wilson's War" (starring Michael Murphy as Charlie and Ronee Blakley as the Julia character), the potential and indeed the accomplishments of the script seem so much more obvious. Too bad the epilogue settles for the "We never stick around" meme, when Charlie's scheme was already corrupt for so many reasons from Day 1, but the writing has quite an admirable head of steam built up by that disappointing finish.
Jindabyne
Beatrix Christian
One of two first-time screenwriters on this list who make me wonder what I've been doing with my time, Christian seizes a terrific story that's already been adapted marvelously and famously to the screen and repurposes the tale, with several new characters and new twists on the plot, to suit a very different national and cultural framework. She's so varied in the dialogue and the customary rhythms she supplies to each character that we don't need much exposition, or even very long scenes, which is how she gets away with so many subplots and characters in so little time. More than a dozen scenes are perfect constructions in miniature (the tense beginning of a girls' night out, a showdown between Linney and an acid-tongued mortician, the bonhomie among a group of men at the outset of a fishing trip, a big-group dinner that gets spoiled just as it's getting good, a creepy near-catastrophe by the side of a lake). I don't agree with a lot of commentators who think she ties anything off with sudden reassurances at the end, and she's wise to how race and ethnicity become the flashpoint topics of an event that, at its deepest origin (involving a sick and arbitrarily destructive man, still sick and still at large), had nothing to do with them. Sometimes the cultural allegory is forcibly imposed, but it's worth it for the way Christian captures the naïve relentlessness of the Linney character.
Lady Chatterley
Roger Bohbot,
Pascale Ferran
Who is Roger Bohbot, and where can I write him a fan letter? Having already had a hand in The Dreamlife of Angels, Since Otar Left, and Kings and Queen, three exceptional and exceptionally different contemporary French dramas, Bohbot and cowriter/director Pascale Ferran defamiliarize the well-known trajectory of Lady Chatterley, not least in their very smart decision to adapt the less famous and less phallocentric version of the book. Drawing out and even centering scenes like Hippolyte Girardot's humiliating outdoor failure with his wheelchair keep the piece communal, instead of narrowly investing it in one erotic self-discovery, and the script ends on some interesting obliquities. I almost gave this spot to No Country for Old Men, but where the Coens let McCarthy call most of the shots, Bohbot and Ferran revise Lawrence in key ways while still holding onto (even defending) most of what is special about him.
A Mighty Heart
John Orloff
I remember hearing a lot of surprised reactions when A Mighty Heart dropped and revealed itself as something very different from an Angelina Jolie vanity project, as though she were ever going to co-opt Mariane Pearl's memoir into another Life or Something Like It. With Winterbottom in charge, that worry seemed totally unfounded, but even at the level of the script, debut screenwriter John Orloff plays up the interactive, democratic, sometimes annoyingly diffuse process of trying to locate and protect a single man. Mariane's story is a collective one, and not only in a rose-tinted way, though the script is also smart and sensitive enough to draw out a sense of who Mariane is above and beyond the circumstances of her worst nightmare, and who Mariane and Danny were as a couple, and what they were up to in the weeks and months leading up to his apprehension, and why they took so many risks in pursuit of their ideals and their questions. Great parts for everybody: the script allows the actors to carve the sprawling rescue effort into a coalition of very different personalities, rather than a univocal plot entity that speaks exactly the same way out of several different mouths. The final scenes are, I think, written exactly as they should be.
Zodiac
James Vanderbilt
Unlike Beatrix Christian and John Orloff, James Vanderbilt has had other screenplays produced, but... The Rundown? Basic? Darkness Falls? To call Zodiac a breakthrough is an understatement, and without ascribing too much after-the-fact perspective, it's hard not to feel in a very Zodiac way that this was the obsessive personal project that those other scripts simply paid for, even at the level of the unconscious. (I don't know anything about when or how Vanderbilt wrote this.) The insistence on narrative irresolution, even as the fellow who reeeeally looks like the missing link in the investigative chain keeps dangling before our eyes, is a brave and theme-altering decision, and if the passage of time and the fullness of certain supporting characters (Downey's, Sevigny's) aren't always handled with the deftness one might wish for, the prodigious re-writing of some basic conventions of the serial killer genre commands our respect, as do some perfect stand-alone scenes like Jake Gyllenhaal's distracted first date with Sevigny, or the first interview with John Carroll Lynch, or "the" Zodiac killer's at-first laughable but quickly horrifying confrontation of two lovebirds in a public park.
 
Honorable Mentions:
No Country for Old Men was a close runner-up here, and if it had allowed the characters a little more breathing-room, found a clearer balance between the figurative and the literal (Chigurh as thinking/speaking subject vs. Chigurh as pre-given embodiment of ruthlessness), and put up more of a fight against the Coens' embellishments of style and montage, I probably would have promoted it. In a strange way, I like the script more than the rigorous but flattening direction, but without such confident direction, I wonder if the script would have "popped" quite so much. Anyway: Into the Wild does a good job of keeping the pain of Chris' family and specifically the voice of his sister in constant play, but it could have been a little tougher and more focused. There Will Be Blood is a bold piece of writing that still doesn't quite to commit to all of its characters and trajectories, and as with the juicy and intricate espionage gambits of Lust, Caution, I'm not as convinced as I'd like to be that the script would have survived without such stylish execution on screen. Bug, Away from Her, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford all have their reasons, too, for staying off the short list, though I'm finally a fan of all of them, especially the brazen provocation and enervating momentum of Bug, the odd syntax and figures of speech that gently particularize the world of Away from Her, and the structural coup that reframes the whole point of Assassination... at the very end. And speaking of structural coups, though I found Tony Gilroy's screenplay for The Bourne Ultimatum to be the least interesting in the franchise, I was crazy about the way he seems to have forgotten entirely how the last movie ended, only to bring us up short at the midfilm mark and prove how far ahead of us he's been all along.





Lady Chatterley
François-Renaud Labarthe
As with Marie-Claude Altot's costumes, the production design of Lady Chatterley is so delicate and subtle, even as it works in highly ornate idioms and within a frequently self-fetishizing genre, that an entire emotional and thematic forcefield resonates in almost every shot. The aristocratic manor and the groundskeeper's cottage are beautifully realized interiors, replete with eye-catching detail but not overstuffed with artifacts as these sets often are. Speaking of groundskeepers, the meticulous and textured landscapes are crucial to the film's success, filtering exquisite beauty through a delicately muted color palette (abetted by Julien Hirsch's painterly photography), such that the film almost always feels lonesome and melancholic even when the characters find release. Imagine a whole movie mounted, tended, and dressed with the same sublime touch as the bucolic scenes in Howards End, and you'll have some sense of this gorgeous, quietly rueful spectacle.
The Lives of Others
Silke Buhr
Sure, a drama set amidst the grimmest days of East German totalitarianism is going to veer toward subdued colors and rigid, barely adorned spaces, but The Lives of Others nonetheless executes these predictable impulses to a tee. Even for someone who didn't spring for the film (full review), and who wished that the tonal contrasts had been a little less overdetermined between the sallow and glacial Stasi outpost and the hardwood, earth-toned playwright's apartment, I can't dispute that almost a year after seeing the movie, the architectures of both spaces has remained totally indelible, especially the mixture of clinically severe colors and lines with the almost obscene accumulation of hardware in the Stasi offices and garrets. Isn't it sad, how in those offices and garrets (and cafeterias, and classrooms, and domiciles), errant chips or cracks in the paint and stray bits of masking tape or scrap paper become the reigning signs of life, of human spillage, of time passing? Even spatial proportions like the cramped, narrow hallway that separates the playwright's apartment from the front door of his anxious, complicit neighbor makes a graphic impression that serves the film, communicating how this world of isolated compartments is simultaneously a world of ominous proximities.
Sunshine
Mark Tildesley
I know that what Sunshine needs is to hold us rapt with its gigantic, volatile vision of the sun, and the cinematography and visual effects certainly ensured my awe in that direction—and yet, I couldn't stop looking at the spaceship. Ingeniously re-conceptualized from the reigning clichés of science fiction, blending organic and mechanical elements in surprising combinations and juxtapositions, sleek in a way that builds our confidence in this enterprise, but pre-equipped with symptoms of lapsed confidence and tremendous anxiety (why else have a safe room where you can block out all intruders?), the Icarus II is a floating marvel, and all the more marvelous for being designed and executed on a fractional budget. When the narrative makes its controversial turn into jeepers-creepers horror, and the movie only works to the extent that it becomes a paranoid treatise about the possibility of God and the possibility of Narrative (strange bedfellows, perhaps), thank goodness the colors, accents, and geographies of the spaceship are stylized enough that the Icarus still works as the canvas for an abstract philosophical reflection... and with enough corners and shadows to give the Predator stuff a valuable assist of visual interest.
There Will Be Blood
Jack Fisk
That towering derrick, you know the one, is an imposing emblem of domestic imperialism—why go abroad when you can colonize here at home?—and also an all-too-obvious phallic ode that Daniel Plainview has commissioned in his own honor. More interesting, though, is that earlier, ramshackle derrick made of propped planks and pure optimism that collapses under the pressure of its own task. Jack Fisk's designs keep us attuned to how the machineries of plunder sprang from remarkably rudimentary elements, combining hasty, sometimes cynical logic with real optimism and ingenuity. The materials always look credibly homemade, even improvised (that is, not like the creations of a well-paid art department, or of people who knew exactly what they were building), and in their dark colors and eye-catching details, the pipelines and churches and depots and all the rest of it stand in ornery contrast to the dun-colored ground and the yawning sky. The movie skimps a little in its treatment of the surrounding towns—this isn't a McCable-level immersion in How Things Really Were, or Probably Were—but given that Anderson always has one foot planted in extreme psychological portraiture, it makes sense that Fisk's gifts for period realism (viz. The New World) have been scaled back a little, and inflected with his equal gifts for uncanny contrasts and surreal exaggeration (viz. Mulholland Drive).
Zodiac
Donald Graham Burt
Ever heard the joke about the serial-killer movie where all the tension and danger and fatigue is centered in the newspaper office? Actually, not a joke. In fact, a semi-miraculous achievement. If those desktops and conference rooms weren't so helter skelter with detail and debris, Zodiac (full review) might have looked like a movie that keeps putting its emphases in the wrong place, instead of communicating as strongly and counter-intuitively as it does that this really is a movie about bottomless bureaucracy (which isn't the same as soullessness, because the production design keeps humanizing the space and individualizing the work stations) and about the dispersal and banalization of terror, as the papers and the flowcharts and the manila files and the guesswork pile up to Sisyphean proportions. The evocation of period comes easily to Burt, or at least he makes it seem so, and if he's refreshingly uninterested in turning the 70s into a joke, he's not without a sense of humor—or have you forgotten those electric-blue cocktails? Extra points for taking such care with more marginal locations like Elias Koteas' police station and the plant where the cops interview John Carroll Lynch and the house where Jake Gyllenhaal almost nabs a suspect (or is, himself, almost nabbed by a suspect).
 
Honorable Mentions: This category was especially hard for me to whittle down, both because 2007 presented so many arresting visions and because most of them (to include at least one or two of my finalists) encompassed one or two locations or graphic elements that I just didn't believe. Lady Chatterley, Sunshine, and Zodiac were always the givens, but at one point or another, the other two slots almost went to
Hairspray (a consistent bridesmaid in my first seven categories), Atonement, Bug (love that mid-film psychotic break), Lust, Caution, Grindhouse, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (overly spare in many cases, but the on-stage epilogue is to die for), Ratatouille, Rescue Dawn (a brilliant POW camp), The Aerial, Persepolis, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Never considered for the shortlist but always destined for an Honorable Mention were Talk to Me, Sweeney Todd (striking, but the attic and the basement look under-conceived), Michael Clayton, Black Snake Moan, 300, I'm Not There, Black Book, and The Orphanage.





Elizabeth: The
Golden Age

Alexandra Byrne
Okay, so I did say this: "You wanna festoon your whole movie in indigo ruching and gekko-colored satin, and give Cate Blanchett a sea anemone to wear as a hat, and butterfly nets as shoulder pads? There's something to be said for treating the risible, platitudinous, choppy, utterly unhistorical, and catfighty script as an arbitrary breeding ground for an Elizabethan Xtravaganza." And I meant it. And I also see that, aside from Clive Owen's scrumptiously textured tunics, Byrne rarely gets excited about any other character except Elizabeth. Your first sign that Samantha Morton's Mary is going to die is that she appears to shop at an early modern Talbot's, while Elizabeth is rocking the Christian Dior. So: all of that said. And also: it wasn't a great year for this category. Within those confines, let's admit that Cate's costumes were grabbers, the colors and textures and structures were inordinately eye-catching, and if Shekhar Kapur had any handle on his directing, there's no reason why the Royal History As Bollywood Couture thing for which he has clearly asked (and has clearly received) couldn't have worked. Except the anemone. Because that's just ridonkulous.
Lady Chatterley
Marie-Claude Altot
If you really care about movies and get caught up in the whole best-of bit the way that I and my online buddies do, you often feel silly for genuflecting to old standbys: action movies for Best Sound! pretty landscapes for Cinematography! period pieces for Costume Design! But when a film has clothes as breathtaking and intricate as those in Lady Chatterley and puts them to such strong visual and thematic use, you just can't avoid them. All of that lacing and stitching and clasping and veiling and subtle embroidering and feathering on Marina Hands' outfits is astonishingly wearable, not to mention that the colors and silhouettes and textures somehow don't resemble those of every other turn-of-the-century "costume drama." Moreover, these carefully detailed costumes make her body a site of mystery and curiosity even before the costumes start coming off. When they do, the layers of fastening and unfastening, the looks of the fabrics as they lie abandoned in the dewy grass, and the refreshing possibility of continuity and not just contrast between the Lady's clothes and those of her rustic gardener all add to the luscious visual poetry of the movie.
Lust, Caution
Lai Pan
Those cocked hat brims that slice Tang Wei's face into a seductive, elliptical icon. The gluttonous way in which Tony Leung, for all of his imperious reserve and blazing misogyny, clearly dotes upon his clothes as much as any woman in the movie. The chutes and ladders up and down the social strata of peasant, student, consort, and spy. The garments infuse the film with sensual life, long before things really start steaming up, and without throwing the door wide open to stock images of orientalized fantasy (Tang still has to move, run, think in these clothes, and she has to be able to afford them.) All of this coheres in the brain while also ravishing the eye. These are the clothes that Hitchcock would have picked for this story.
Michael Clayton
Sarah Edwards
So many writers have observed that Michael Clayton seems to master the machinery of studio filmmaking remarkably well, but there isn't a magic sheen sprinkled over the thing. The smooth, efficient confidence of the movie emanates from smart artists like Edwards, who quietly goes about sticking Michael in really good suits and not-so-good ones, and occasionally tying him up in the unflattering black turtleneck and tweedy coat that I'd guess are what's left when he hasn't got any more clean clothes in his closet. The background canvas of corporate cogs dress similarly enough to register the point but not so similarly that the mise-en-scène lapses into overstatement. The assassins are crisp and stylish dressers even when they're necessarily blending into a crowd. And then, of course, there's Tilda Swinton's Karen, with her sweat-stained blouses and voluminous jackets that only erratically fit her—and doesn't she know it. Or does she?
Sweeney Todd
Colleen Atwood
In a more competitive year, Sweeney Todd might not have qualified for this race, because we've seen all of these theatrical Goth accents and dark colors and man-vests and ingénues turned into dolls in so many other Burton/Atwood collaborations. But then Mrs. Lovett avoids "an awful waste" and starts selling the best pies in London, and Atwood quite wittily shows us what a coarse, desperate Machiavellienne would suddenly wear amidst her sudden prosperity. And then, "By the Sea": Sweeney in a striped and full-bodied Edwardian bathing suit. Mrs. Lovett in Technicolor. A series of larks in the middle of an engaging but unilluminating movie, whose cheekiest costume up to that point was Pirelli's chintzy Captain Hook bit (with codpiece), and suddenly the film seems that much more its own creation.
 
Honorable Mentions:
Juno's outfits are a series of treats, from the title character's thrift-shop pillagings to those gold and burgundy track suits, and epitomized by Jason Bateman's bright blue (dare I say, cerulean) sweater that his wife almost certainly picked out for him in order to impress the lawyer and the surrogate, because nothing else he wears even approaches that spoke on the color wheel. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has spare but eloquent costumes, impressively unglamorous and impressively odd-looking once they turn into theatrical costumes; Patricia Norris thus edges out Arianne Phillips' solid work on 3:10 to Yuma and Mark Bridges' on There Will Be Blood as my favorite Western-themed fashion show of the year. All the pastels in Hairspray were delicious fun, though Tracy's black-and-white number in the finale seemed a little on-the-nose. In a more earnest but still playful take on urban 60s fashions, Gersha Phillips finds some terrific prints for the Talk to Me cast, and she helps Taraji P. Henson get some laughs without just courting a stereotype. Some of Ruth Myers' ideas popped in The Golden Compass, especially Daniel Craig's virile but natty professor suits and Nicole Kidman's slightly shaky runway fare, and I loved all the calico knit running around, though the Gyptians were not, collectively, an auspicious achievement. My favorite single garment in an otherwise unremarkable catalogue of outfits was Julie Christie's architecturally interesting and expensive looking off-white coat in Away from Her: you can't quite tell if she looks fabulous in it or if she's being swallowed by it, which is the same paradox the character inhabits on every other plane of the movie. Still, if I were a woman of a certain age, I'd be calling up costume designer Debra Hanson and asking where I could find one just like it.





3:10 to Yuma
Marco Beltrami
When 3:10 to Yuma got rolling, with those spindly strings over low, nervous, expectant bass, and then pivoted into the loud, thrumming, repetitious strains of portent and villainous arrival, I was completely primed for a rich, commercial entertainment, embellishing classic recipes with dollops of contemporary invention. The movie turned out to provide almost nothing of the kind (for which I primarily blame the bland director, James Mangold, and the perpetually disappointing cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael), but the music bravely fulfills the promise of its introductory chords, even after narrative plausibility and visual pleasure have bottomed out. Sonorous, quick, and happy to delight.
The Aerial (La Antena)
Juan Aguirre,
Federico Rotstein
I've already hit the campaign trial for The Aerial in a capsule review and in the Visual Effects category, but here is one more plug: not only does the silent-era conceit demand that the music remain almost constant through the film, but for the same reason of gleeful semi-fidelity to that epoch, director Esteban Sapir actually enlists the composers to supply all of the "sound effects" in the film, whether for the hypnotizing runes all over the TV screens or the whirring back to life of defunct technology or the crunching of shoes on snow or several much less familiar sounds. Plus, since the film is earnest (perhaps too much so) about its political allegory but quite silly (deliciously so) about its surreal story and visual imagination, the music has to hold all those tones in balance, as well as the layers of suspense, grief, mystery, and occasional full-on cabaret performance. Aguirre and Rotstein handle it all marvelously. The time flies by, and if the music were stodgy or simple, it wouldn't. (Here, watch the trailer, already!)
The Assassination of
Jesse James by the
Coward Robert Ford

Nick Cave,
Warren Ellis
Unlike 3:10 to Yuma, whose score emblematizes the film's eagerness to get you chomping popcorn, Assassination... wants to get your noggin working, thinking about the West, about celebrity and sycophancy, about loyalty and sedition, about history and anachronism, about the aging of rebels and the falls into disfavor of yesterday's heroes. The music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, more adeptly than the direction and with more poignancy than Roger Deakins' rather ostentatious photography, manages to assist the movie in its forward march toward the titular climax while also serving as a eulogy for the era, and a sort of eulogy for the genre, and even for the film itself. Capacious and haunting in its sadness, and flexible with its key instruments and motifs, the Assassination score marks a leg up even from the music Cave wrote for last year's The Proposition and could work well as a standalone night at the concert hall.
Lust, Caution
Alexandre Desplat
We don't always admit it, but girl you know it's true: film critics can be softies on our favorites, just like we can be stingy toward our longtime antagonists (which is why I sat there waiting for John Turturro to kill the good, breezy vibe in Transformers, and indeed he did). I offer this as prologue to my experience of Lust, Caution, throughout which I kept thinking about how gorgeous and secretive the music was, "secretive" in the sense that it here flaunted and here submerged its central, most beautiful melodies, and how well it rode the dual thread of elegance and nastiness on which the whole film is premised. And then, as the end credits arrived: Alexandre Desplat! Already one of my favorite composers, and a proven genius within an East Asian idiom for last year's The Painted Veil, but it's nice to know that my awe in this case was earned organically, and not as a spillover from several years of steadily building adulation.
There Will Be Blood
Jonny Greenwood
Quite to the contrary of my experience with Desplat's work on Lust, Caution, I was already such a convert to Greenwood's mad sorcery based on the trailer for There Will Be Blood that it took me a while during the film to realize that the manic cadences and, even more than that, the pronounced modernity of Greenwood's music were distracting from There Will Be Blood as often as they were reinforcing it. I get that the film wants to be contemplated through the prism of how its big ideas (Business, Religion, Oil!, Rapacity) are still rattling all of our cages today, but something rubbed me the wrong way about how the music lays on top of so many scenes without being forced to thread itself into them or grow out of them—similarly to how the camera and even the entire movie are happy to follow Daniel Day-Lewis wherever he goes, rather than making him keep up with them. But the score, like the star performance, is frankly worth following around: they are such volcanic, self-confident, Jackson Pollock-style reifications of the themes and crises of the script that, even having voiced one's caveats, it seems quite the wrong thing to pretend that almost anything else in 2007 touched them for vigor, potency, or uniqueness.
 
Honorable Mentions: I so wanted to salute Wojciech Kilar's tense and brooding contributions to
We Own the Night (do you get the sense that I like low strings and intense percussion?), but in a crowded field of six, Kilar's virtual self-citations from his Dracula and Death and the Maiden scores cost him the spot. I loved how Molly Nyman and Harry Escott fed into the escalating despair and suspense in Deep Water, especially since documentaries often don't try for (or simply can't afford) magnificence in this arena. From a completely different direction, Jacques-of-all-trades Julie Delpy wrote some wonderfully eccentric and flavorful music for her delightful romantic mostly-comedy 2 Days in Paris, which cast a fresher eye on Paris than the admittedly winning and purposefully archetypal music that Michael Giacchino wrote for Ratatouille. Into the Wild and Grindhouse accented their song scores very well, but not enough to qualify as triumphs in their own regard. Lastly, the one tolerable element of Vacancy was the bright, pulpy music by Tangerine Dream's Paul Haslinger, especially effective during those Saul Bass-inspired opening credits. (I would have mentioned Alan Silvestri's work on Beowulf somewhere in here, but while I remember liking it, the fact that I liked it is the only thing I do remember about it.)

Didn't See: Grace Is Gone, The Kite Runner




* Note that I don't care about Original Song Scores (which are often too few in a given year to make it a real race), or even Original Songs (which often feel tacked onto the end credits, or else just lame: yes, I'm talking to you, Beowulf). So, my category recognizes the selection, blending, and deployment of songs across the whole movie, whether or not the songs are original.
Hallam Foe
Matt Biffa,
music consultant
Hallam Foe, the title character played by Jamie Bell (full review here), is all over the place, and he's both comfortable in his squirrely, determined nonconformity and predictably restless to break on through to something else. No wonder, then, that the music choices cohere as a delicious sampler of contemporary, youth-friendly Brit-rock but also keep changing rhythms, idioms, and instrumentations so that you can't get too complacent in any one frame of reference. I especially loved the use of the Junior Boys' "Double Shadow" to communicate escalating pleasure that's also getting a little out of hand, but there's not a bum pick to be found, and it carries the movie nearer than it would otherwise get to the lofty character-study heights of recent fare like The Beat That My Heart Skipped (which also, incidentally, had a sensational song score that I can't seem to find anywhere on disc).
I'm Not There
Jim Dunbar,
Randall Poster,
music supervisors
Partially, my enthusiasm here is about the film's confidence and economy in refusing to air very many songs in their entirety, and almost never in the kind of flattening, ploddingly obvious style of Ray or Across the Universe, where "Dear Prudence" = a song sung to a closet case named Prudence who has locked herself in a bathroom (!). As I was saying, I'm Not There interpolates snippets and traces of its songs, enough to animate a scene and "place" each new version of Dylan; occasionally the film lets fly with an extended number, but always to the summary effect that it stays on track as a speculative inquiry into Bob Dylan rather than a jukebox musical "about" Bob Dylan. Obviously, the choice to include so little of Dylan's own singing is perfectly in synch with the movie's conceits, although it's also savvy that he sneaks in at the edges, no more "authentic" than anyone else. Extra points to the gorgeous, haunting rendition of "Goin' to Acapulco" by Calexico and Jim James, which floods the initially gauzy and austere Richard Gere section with the movie's fullest rush of longing and melancholy.
Into the Wild
Eddie Vedder,
composer, and
Richard Henderson,
music editor
By contrast to I'm Not There's patchwork of multiple Dylans, even more of them on the soundtrack than in the mise-en-scène, Into the Wild makes the equally right choice of making Christopher McCandless listen perhaps overzealously to one voice throughout his sublime and stubborn journey, and because the voice is Eddie Vedder's, howling and hurt but hardly immune to affectation, the soundtrack gives us a perfect atlas for Chris. "Guaranteed" is loping off with all the awards hype, and it's an effective summary statement for the film, but "No Ceiling" and "Hard Sun" work even better, maybe, in the context of the film.
Once
Glen Hansard,
Markéta Irglová,
composers, and
David Donohue,
music consultant
You would have had a hard time convincing me that I'd get as excited as I did about a micro-indie movie about two boho musicians on the streets of Dublin, and a harder time convincing me that I'd fall in love with a soundtrack that incorporates at least one song where said boho musician screams "Lies! Lies! Lies!" in petulant apostrophe to a girlfriend who has wronged him. That junk has been done; we all have the high school literary magazines to prove it. But not only is the song score for Once overwhelmingly better than "Lies"—with "Falling Slowly" and "When Your Mind's Made Up" as easy standouts—the film is also wise, I think, to leave some of the songwriting as unpolished as the camerawork, the acting, and the audio track. These are up-and-comers, still feeling their way, and the rawness, even the flirtations with outright cliché, works for the movie. Some songs, like the opening "Say It To Me Now," work better because they haven't been cleaned up in post-production, and thank goodness at least one movie still knows that we want to hear live recordings, not Jennifer Hudson wailing away in a studio booth that sounds nothing like a speakeasy. (Extra points, obviously, for "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.")
Talk to Me
Barry Cole,
music supervisor
Kasi Lemmons made a beautiful valentine to 1960s radio culture as a truly public forum, awash with great music as well as personality, and with a real possibility of communal togetherness. (That she did this without losing the uncomfortable sides of the Petey Greene character is an extra plume in the film's cap.) In realizing that goal, Talk to Me rides the waves of a lot of great music while scrupulously avoiding almost any wisp of the expected standards. Compare the freshness of Booker T. & the MGs' "Hip Hug-Her" or Otis Redding's "Tramp" on screen to that moment in American Gangster where someone had the inspired idea of dropping Bobby Womack's inarguably brilliant "Across 110th Street" for the zillionth time in a movie. Sometimes, Lemmons and music supervisor Barry Cole even get some sly cultural mileage out of their song choices. Maybe you knew that "Knock on Wood" was a funky street joint by Eddie Floyd before Amii Stewart disco'd the hell out of it for a Top 40 audience in the 70s, but I didn't... and if that difference in idiom underlines a whole political shift in who music was for in Petey Greene's moment vs. a few years afterward, then that's all to the better.
 
Honorable Mentions: Get ready for a lot of
Grindhouse in the next few categories, but as predictable as it finally seems to laud the jukebox kitsch of a Tarantino movie, "Hold Tight" and "Chick Habit" and "Baby, It's You" still worked their magic in that Cinemark auditorium. Juno has some great, doodly songs that work perfectly in synch with the film's mannered measure of distance from its characters; Goatdog is right, I think, to notice that the film is awfully shy about going with the musical idioms that the Bateman and Page characters stump for in the script, but I do think the soundtrack is what Juno might listen to when she's not so busy making sure people know that she "gets" Iggy Pop (and no, I'm not arguing that she doesn't). Knocked Up was even more conservative and market-savvy, I'd guess, filling itself to the brim with Loudon Wainwright tracks that Seth Rogen's Ben and his man-buddies probably wouldn't go anywhere near, but the songs are engaging, and O.D.B.'s "Shimmy Shimmy Ya"—what can I say?—made me really, really happy in the intro. Andrea Arnold's Red Road is a close silver-medalist behind Hallam Foe for edgy, modern Britishisms and convincingly staged party scenes. And since I know you're all wondering about the musicals: I can't go along with Sweeney Todd's jettisoning of several key numbers or its indifference to full-blooded singing, but I will toss a bone to Hairspray, which also takes a whole lotta notes down for its movie cast and makes the berserk decision to keep cutting into the capstone "You Can't Stop the Beat" number... but it's still a merry ride, and the changes to the songbook and vocal keys don't actually spoil (as it were) the meat of the movie, as they so often do in Sweeney.





Grindhouse
Wylie Stateman
I've already plugged Planet Terror in the Visual Effects category and as a Makeup Honorable Mention, and certainly those bursting abscesses and roaring motorcycles and bullet sprays make a strong case for this derby, too. But here is where Death Proof also gives the whole Grindhouse enterprise a lift, not just because I was so desperate by the midway mark of Tarantino's project to hear anything that wasn't indolent, involuted talktalktalk. Boy, did we get our wish with those straining engines, buckling hoods, scary sideswipes, terrified screams, and naughahyde fistfights.
Hot Fuzz
Julian Slater
Rather than get anywhere near the impressive but predictably over-loud work in Transformers, I'd much rather toss a bouquet to the zesty parodies of Michael Bay style to which we were treated by the Hot Fuzz team. Automatic glass doors WHHHHOOOOOOSH open. Keys SLAM DOWN on the tabletop. Car doors ECHO TO THE HEAVENS when they are shut. In a sad irony, Hot Fuzz becomes just as tiresome as a lot of Bay movies (indeed, more than some Bay movies) once it's trotted out its bag of gags, but the intentionally ridiculous foley work remained a pleasure till the end. Or nearly the end.
The Kingdom
Gregory King
Who knows why, but amongst all the action spectaculars that I witnessed this year, the single foley effect that I remember most clearly is the hollow, quiet, surprisingly mundane sound of a grenade landing on the roof of a car, made instantly horrifying by the delayed understanding of everyone in that car about what has just happened. In general, The Kingdom deserved a better commercial and critical shake than it got, even if the movie takes almost 90 minutes to really get started. No matter how postponed, though, the final freeway confrontations and gunfights and fireballs and crunching glass were multiplex-friendly but still scaled within reason, and parsed out well enough that isolated elements still made an impact.
No Country for Old Men
Skip Lievsay
Nothing is scarier than the hissssssspop of that cattle gun. Unless you count the creak of exhausted wood in an old TexMex border hotel, especially when you know who is making those footsteps, and especially when he screek-screeks the hallway lightbulb out of its socket, so that you won't know when he's standing in front of your door, ready to shoot you. No Country's confident refusal of music is a point in the favor of the overall sound mix—and don't worry, we're getting there—but details like these, extending even to gratuitous inserts like that unfurling candybar wrapper or the barks of that monomaniacal dog as it pursues Josh Brolin down a river, should win No Country every sound effects editing award in sight in earshot.
There Will Be Blood
Matthew Wood
If you're wondering what an oil derrick sounds like, not just when it's grinding and whining away several yards above the surface of the earth, but also as it groans beneath the ground, on such a low frequency that it's almost a feeling rather than a sound, and if you're especially wondering what all of this sounds like when the sound effects editor needs these grinds and whines and subterranean growls to double as an expressionist psychological soundscape for the inner rumbles of greed, loneliness, and appetite within the diabolical protagonist... well, here's the movie for you.
 
Honorable Mentions: Blood almost lost its spot to
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which doesn't have to invent any of the Donkey Kong bleeps and boobles but which does work cleverly to lay them out all across the movie, so that we're always, somehow, "in" the game, alert to its inanity even as we are drawn more and more into the personal dynamics between its players. An equally unexpected choice would have been Flight of the Red Balloon, a notably quiet movie except in the delightful interludes when Juliette Binoche's character lends her voice (a spry sound effect in itself, as never before) to a peppy, poppy, ingratiating radio show for kids. And yes, I enjoyed more traditionally apt fare like The Bourne Ultimatum and 300.

Didn't See: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End





300
Mathieu Dupuis,
Chris Watts
Such a heavily post-produced film that almost everything—the "cinematography," the "production design," the "acting"—finally gets absorbed as yet another visual effect. And yet, 300 works this graphic-novel aesthetic much more successfully for me than Sin City did, partially because it affords itself a wider palette and also because the whole film is a sort of portrait-gallery for visual ideas that doesn't ask for audience identification. (These Spartans are a hostile bunch, nearly as much as their enemies, and they are clearly not "real" Spartans.) The combined riffs on old tricks like rear projection, creature models, and digitally proliferated crowds and objects all find a place within the movie's nonetheless distinctive look, and while the film could have been better, I'm intrigued by the sensibility.
The Aerial (La Antena)
Francisco Botto,
Fernando Dominguez
    Sarmiento
A discovery of the Chicago International Film Festival that will hopefully end up with some kind of national distribution, The Aerial is the kind of movie I think Guy Maddin keeps trying to make... which is to say, it's a modern day silent film-as-hammy pastiche, but it's actually fun and reliably inventive instead of disappearing up its own medulla oblongata like the Maddin movies almost always do. The dystopian plot, where the corporate rulers of all media have stolen the voices of everyone alive and are force-feeding them with sugar-packed TV dinners—that is, until an intrepid pseudo-family rehabilitates a broken radio antenna in the mountains—is a silly clothes-hanger for some fabulous visual invention, involving faceless women, high-flying balloons, TV mouths, elaborate cities, and mad-scientist laboratories. Cheeky: most if not all of these effects could have been realized in the actual silent era (check out the films of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber if you're feeling parochial about what silent movies could accomplish with their effects), but holding to that stricture actually frees the movie's imagination, as well as the viewer's good time.
Grindhouse
Robert Rodriguez
From Rose MacGowan's machine gun for a leg to the most deliciously over-the-top blood squibs in memory to those neon-colored vials of Whatever that Marley Shelton is carrying around to the well-rendered pyrotechnics to the intensive effects work required to scruff up the print so "badly," Planet Terror delivers on every bit of the delirious high that this double-feature promised, without remotely requiring that the audience had ever been near this disreputable genre before. Gobs of fun, and by the time the pustulent zombie brigade is in full force, I do mean "gobs."
 
Honorable Mentions: That gargantuan tadpole-waterbug thing in
The Host is a pretty terrific invention, scary and also ridiculous, just like the movie. Sunshine consistently nailed me to my seat, but the imaginative effects were considerably boosted by the inspired production design and galvanizing photography. Beowulf's Grendel is an astonishing conceit, even if it's the only one in the film that really works. I get how complicated and occasionally invigorating the Transformers effects were, but I still insist that the movie screwed up by making the transformations themselves so convoluted that they were hard to even observe: especially since the script and the direction are so obviously alive to the kitsch appeal of the original toys. The animal effects and cosmic "dust" in The Golden Compass were impressive, though the compass itself is badly mishandled (isn't this about skillful deduction, not mystic transportation?) and those flying witches verged on Colorforms. Straying away from the obvious effects-laden pictures, every oil effect works wonderfully in There Will Be Blood, from the suppurating puddles of ooze in the desert to the enormous, flaming geysers shooting straight out of hell.

Didn't See: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Spider-Man 3





Bug
Brad Wilder,
Christien Tinsley
With the superb production design nailing the necessary element of theatrical exaggeration, the makeup team actually plays things pretty muted—which, in the context of Bug, and in conjunction with the committed performances and smart camera placement, still counts as terrifying. Weary, sweaty, exhausted, delirious, maybe or maybe not riddled with bites, tilting heavily into self-mutilation: kudos to Wilder, Tinsley, and their team for scaring us with the disturbing plausibility and psychological implications of this behavior, rather than cheesy spectacle.
Lust, Caution
Kwan Lee Na
Observe the Out Now! image gallery for Lust, Caution and appreciate anew how the makeup keeps track of so many subtle gradations in the Tang Wei character's shifting personae, while also remaining attentive to the diverse looks of the rest of the cast and maintaining a succulent standard of old-Hollywood glamour throughout. This last feat puts Lust, Caution in dialogue with both its historical period and with movies made in its historical period, which reminds us again of how closely braided reality, fantasy, artistry, and subjective memory are at every plane of the film.
La Vie en rose
Didier Lavergne,
Gabriela Polakova,
Matthew Smith,
David White
I suppose your admiration for the cosmetic work in La Vie en rose lives or dies by how much you accept Dahan's and Cotillard's scaled-high take on the character. Let's all agree at least that Piaf was an outsized presence in every sense except physical frame, and even that turned into a pretty outlandish emblem of premature decrepitude. I don't see Cotillard having to act "beneath" or "around" her makeup (like, say, James Woods did in Ghosts of Mississippi) but rather an actress and a makeup team working without a net in tremendous synchronicity, locating for the audience the emotional truths that must have emerged from looking like that, as well as the beating her body took from living so melodramatically. Admittedly, Piaf looks a little like a Fraggle when she gets interviewed on the beach while she knits. But without tremendous support, Cotillard couldn't have pulled off all of those different stages in Piaf's life. This remains for me a smart and indelible achievement—and I haven't said anything about how superbly the Sylvie Testud, Jean-Pierre Martins, and Emmanuelle Seigner characters also were rendered.
 
Honorable Mentions: I love the combo of incongruous Pretty and sweaty Dismay in the Planet Terror segment of
Grindhouse, and even the many offbeat femininities of Death Proof. Black Book is more cartoonish than Lust, Caution but aces that Verhoeven trick of blending cinematic punch with character truth with absurd vulgarity, as does the Eastern Promises team. (Those tattoos are silly, but they still "work" in the context of the film.) Best in show for subtle dramatic work is Michael Clayton, with George Clooney's jaundiced malaise and Tilda Swinton's bad dye job and visible panic. For period fare, the There Will Be Blood cast looks great even if Anderson isn't really interested in the crowds. Sweeney Todd repeats too many Burton creations of the past (Joanna = Christina Ricci from Sleepy Hollow, without looking any less taxidermic), but it's still a memorable vision, as are the frivolities of Hairspray and the fantasy-Greeks of 300. Just don't even get me started on Xerxes or that waaaay retrograde "hunchback."

Didn't See: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End



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