Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Top Movies of 2007: My Man

Because the month of January sucks at running, I'm boycotting the sport for the coming weeks, and placing my allegiances squarely with Hollywood, for whom January is a font of delicious goodness, like one of those chocolate fountains you'll see at wedding receptions and the occasional Sweet Sixteen. Below I document my journey through the Best Movies of 2007 in preparation for the Oscars...

American Gangster will face stiff competition to take home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, but the screenplay is a beauty, telling the story of gangster Frank Lucas and the narcotics cop, Richie Roberts, who tracks him. I'd even call it "taut." More after the jump.

AMERICAN GANGSTER, dir. Ridley Scott

The gangster movie is an octogenarian, and the crime-drama has enjoyed the limelight ever since Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. In American Gangster, directed by Ridley Scott, we have a movie that knows the history of its genre and, by simply treating its audience like it has a brain, manages to ascend beyond the rote, dispassionate craftsmanship that so easily could be its hallmark. It's almost as if screenwriter Steve Zaillian knows that one or two of his viewers might have seen GoodFellas or The Godfather or Training Day or The Departed. I mean, look at that poster: reminiscent of anything?

True, the movie often keeps you at arms-length from the inner thoughts of it dual protagonists -- the honest cop (Russell Crowe) whose personal life is in a shambles, and the crime lord (Denzel Washington) who has banquet-esque family dinners and a happy marriage -- even while inviting you to witness their most personal failings. But Gangster succeeds by setting up these men's storylines in parallel -- beginning with each's formative experiences as a younger man -- and then unwinding them with near perfect pacing, scored by strong dialogue and nice performances all around. Case in point: where most gangster movies have the requisite scene showing the gangster buying off the cops and politicians, this movie has none. Where most gangster movies show the gangster killing off the competition, this movie skips the montage in favor of one encounter of personal significance to the protagonist. It knows we've seen those movies. It knows we know Frank Lucas must have done these things to climb as high as he has.

This economy of exposition allows for storytelling that engages and clicks along so well that the ultimate collision of our two storylines -- the real, emotional climax of the movie -- is entirely satisfying in and of itself, even while containing nothing more than a good, long look, shared between characters.

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