Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Best Movies of 2007: The Forgotten Films

Because the month of January sucked at running, I boycotted the sport, and placed 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. With the Oscars now almost upon us, I must complete my journey through the Best Movies of 2007 in preparation for Sunday's awards...

Today, we take a look at a couple of films that got royally screwed by the Academy. Granted, there are always snubs, and it's silly to get too worked up about them... especially when we've gotten to a point where just about everyone is willing to admit that the Oscars are essentially a giant Prom Queen vote. But the three following movies were really phenomenal entries into the hit parade of 2007, and I will not fail where the Academy has, in recognizing them for posterity's sake...


ONCE, dir. John Carney. Finally, a movie musical I can get behind. Once -- the story of a red-scruffed Dublin busker and a flower-selling-Czech girl -- has the most organic musical numbers of any "musical" yet made, and the music itself is terrific: stuff you'd actually want on your iPod. That's thanks in no small part that the film itself grew up organically from the collaborations of the musicians directing and starring in therein.

In particular, "Falling Slowly" the first song the pair sings together, is the kind of scene you rarely find in your average movie, let alone the movie-musical which is usually content to take your $11.75 because, Hey, we're singing up here and that's enough, right? But "Falling Slowly" is shot and edited in a way that makes full use of the all properties of motion-picture. The shots, edits, and music are strikingly simple - the end result anything but. The song ends, and you are sold on these characters, this music, this movie. Sure, there are rough patches in the film -- particularly a montage or two that serve little purpose other than to beef up the run-time to a more theatrical-appropriate 85 minutes. But when this movie clicks... it sings. [nota bene. "Falling Slowly" DID receive an Oscar nom for Best Song.]


THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, dir. Ken Loach. OK, OK. So this movie came out in 2006 at Cannes. It also won the fucking thing and didn't release in the US until March of 2007, so I would think that qualifies it for the Best Picture short-list. Superficially, this film is so simple, with restrained compositions, and lots of dialog shared in glances. Elegant, is the word, really.

The other side of the coin, though, holds the unflinching brutality of the Irish Civil War which contrasts that elegance, and the natural beauty of the Irish countryside, with bursts of down-and-dirty guerilla action, and the complexities of national (and family) politics. For example, there is a scene in which a room full of Irish patriots discuss the treaty that has been offered them by the British, with sides debating back and forth with such conviction and lucidity that it is breath-taking to watch.

And Loach just lets them talk and talk. It is wonderful - a side of the Irish political history that is all too often obscured behind the discussion of terrorism and religious intolerance. This movie serves as homage to the fact that Irish independence has always been rooted in ideals and ideas. It is that fact which enobles the struggle, and which sets the table for a movie -- and for a staggering performance by Cillian Murphy -- that is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. Cinema at its finest.


ZODIAC, dir. David Fincher. This one actually did debut in 2007. Fincher just got stuck up the ass by his studio when they decided to release this film at the LEAST ADVANTAGEOUS TIME OF YEAR, as far as awards are concerned. Assholes.

Fincher demonstrated great craft in making Seven and the almost intolerable Fight Club. But in Zodiac he finally brings along the thematic big-stick and, paired with that considerable skill, he delivers a real wallop. Great casting in Gyllenhall, and Ruffalo, and Anthony Edwards, and Robert Downey Jr. Great writing, in the way we are drawn to empathize with political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhall) and even come to adopt the same obsession that drives him to risk his family and potentially, his life -- just to know who committed the Zodiac murders.

It is epistemology that drives Graysmith, the movie, and, eventually us, as audience. That may sound boring, and your friends who saw this movie probably told you it was too long or too slow. But the very first scene is pitched in stomach-knotting tension, and the movie sustains it until the very last. If that's not enough to get you engrossed in a movie, then there's no point in your going to the movies anyway. Just as the Zodiac murderer manipulated the police, the press, and the people of San Francisco, Fincher and his film manipulate us with pitch-perfect moods, staging, and performances.

If I ever decide to make a true-crime movie like this, mine will be about how a fantastic movie called Zodiac got totally ripped off by its studio and by its peers. Not a single nomination. That is a crime far worse than anything the Zodiac guy did.

These short blurbs do not even begin to do any of these three films justice. They all deserve rental and/or purchase, as well as a careful and devoted viewing. Yes, I know: I'm a pretentious prick. Did I mention I went to film school?

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