There Will Be Darkness
The year’s best films dip into the bleak side of things — and shine in the light
by Molly Templeton
The first thing I did when I finally put these films in order was let out a huge — and not a little bit surprised — sigh. It didn’t feel like quite such a bleak year in movies until now. Last year my great love was the decaying future; now, it’s the brutal past lined up next to the dark present. (Of course, it’s also an animated rat and a quiet love story.) In truth, the theme here (if there is one) isn’t so much bleakness, as many murders and as much darkness as these films hold; it’s fascination, obsession, fixation, devotion. These characters are fixated on their work, their talents, their futures, their pasts, their own identities. They twist and shift in the gaze of others, be it the look of an admirer, a jealous child, an outsider trying to parse the layers of disguise.
I didn’t put these top ten films together with a theme in mind any more than I grouped as the second ten those that didn’t suit the theme. I made a list, and then I looked at it. And what it said to me was that we’re in a dark and beautiful time (though it’s also a time in which, as Manohla Dargis aptly noted in The New York Times, many of “the finest American directors working now … [make] little on-screen time for women” — but that’s a topic that deserves more space than I have here). There wasn’t an end of year film like last year’s Children of Men that left me teetering on the edge of my seat; instead, there was a spring film that, though it already won an Oscar, was easily the best thing released this past year. There was a lush adaptation of a beloved book and a slow build of films that impressed their images and characters on my mind. Like last year, the last few weeks offered a few new loves, films that crept in under the last-minute deadline to join the club. And as ever, there are the films I sadly never saw. It takes years to explore all the cinematic offerings of one single year, but here’s a start.
1. The Lives of Others
It wasn’t until I found myself comparing everything else I saw to Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s Best Foreign Film Oscar-winning debut film that I realized it was simply the most perfect movie of the year. Subtle performances, precise details, gorgeous colors, a gripping story: this film has it all. Others is a reflection of a time that wasn’t really all that long ago and a reminder of the things, both horrible and astonishing, people will do for what they believe in. The film’s golden year was made bittersweet in July when its star, Ulrich Mühe, died of stomach cancer. When the Oscar memorial runs through faces familiar and less so, look for his serious eyes and remember: This was the man who drew on his past as someone being watched to play the one watching, the one changed by observation as Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) changed by being observed. (Reviewed 3/8/07)
2. There Will Be Blood
If there is a flaw in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic, filthy, distinctly told story of an obsessed oilman, it’s the slight flaw of familiarity: As good as Daniel Day-Lewis is, I felt like I’d seen him do something similar before. But here, Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview has a dangerous and unforgettable foil in Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher. As full of piss and vinegar as Plainview is, Sunday can match him; his pious face and solemn manner can only mask the younger man’s dark heart for so long. Anderson’s long, stunning film is, like The Lives of Others, both of another time and wholly pertinent. When Plainview gives a speech to the citizens of the small California town he’s essentially just purchased, my skin crawls. He promises them everything: education, brighter futures for their children, jobs, improvements to their lives. And every word he says is as empty as the show Sunday puts on while claiming to cure a woman’s arthritis. Capitalism and religion, twined and at each other’s throats: This isn’t a movie from a century ago. This is a movie for and about now. (1/31/08)
John Carney’s intimate portrait of a gentle falling and a glorious shared talent arrived bearing laurels and streamers of praise from those who’d already seen it. Once deserved every word. There are a million love stories in which there’s just no reason for the characters to fall in love with each other, but here’s one in which we see just how they fall into harmony with each other, how their mirrored talents bring out the best in each of them — and how a leap of faith is often required in love and life, even if your last leap found you wounded upon landing. It’s compelling and sweet, and I only hope it wins the lone Oscar for which it was nominated (for the beautiful “Falling Slowly”). (7/26/07)
The story of Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat with dreams too big for his small, furry body, Ratatouille is a joyous, exuberant tale that borrows a few standbys of animated, kid-friendly fare (Remy doesn’t have a mother, like all too many Disney characters, and his separation from and reunion with his human friend are quite familar) while exploring relatively grown-up notions about striving for greatness from yourself and acceptance from those around you. Rats, humans, even critics get their moments in a movie that’s a delight on so many levels that it, like a good book, encourages multiple viewings; it’s as funny, sweet and inspired the second time you see Remy running through the sewers of Paris and the kitchen of Gasteau’s as it is the first. (7/12/07)
5. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
Give yourself over to Andrew Dominik’s introspective, involving exploration of the relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt, magnetic and a little scary) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, reserved and observant). Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography wraps up landscapes and houses, faces and figures, with such clarity and such wide skies that you become certain that somewhere in this country a place exists that is as empty now as it was a century ago. Assassination rewards patience and a willingness to indulge its slightly dreamy tone (emphasized by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ beautiful, haunting score) and meandering narrative. But focus on Ford, who worshipped James only to find he was just another man, and you’ll uncover a story about hero worship and American mythology, about those we reward for standing outside the law and those we resent for changing the course of an unforgettable story.
6. I’m Not There
Todd Haynes’ dizzying take on the life and times of Bob Dylan actually might make an interesting double feature with the previous film — one a fairly straightforward look at a real but mythologized figure, the other a splintered vision of the characters one artist suggested over the years as he reinvented himself in the public eye. Haynes, whose six characters in search of one singular man’s essence are, for the most part, cleverly cast, made a divisive movie that some say only Dylan fans can appreciate while others argue that Dylan fans would be the first to dismiss the film. For my part, I’m a casual Dylan fan who saw in I’m Not There a fantastical work of creativity and inspiration, a cover version whose melody of oddness and poetry is a compliment (and complement?) to the man who stands unseen at the film’s center and whose name is never mentioned. (12/6/07)
7. Eastern Promises
David Cronenberg can’t seem to look away from the darker sides of humanity, and he won’t let his audience look away from some of the nastiest bits, either. Viggo Mortensen’s naked bathhouse brawl is not the sort of jaw-dropping fight that usually gets talked about, all smooth choreography and clever stunts, but a messy piece of work that’s not even the most vicious moment in the film. Set in the underworld of the Russian mafia, Eastern Promises is a story about loyalty, secrets, honor and the difficulty of maintaining one’s character and self in a brutal and foreign world. The ruthlessness beneath the surface of a seemingly kind man and the humanity behind the eyes of a killer are both a shock to Naomi Watts’ character, an outsider to the mob, whose job is to bring life into the world, not to take it out. (9/27/07)
Director David Fincher often makes slick, indulgent films, horrifyingly violent but impressively watchable, but here, with the story of the men pursuing California’s Zodiac killer, he’s restrained and formal — to his benefit. The film’s fantastic cast (this year was full of stellar ensembles) doesn’t hit a single wrong note in the careful, obsessive hunt for the killer — a hunt which may or may not have proven fruitless. Zodiac is a story staring right at futility, at failure and at the damage a singular fixation can have on a life. But it also, as Elbert Ventura points out on Slate.com, comes down on the side of justice done right, done fairly, done methodically. “What makes Zodiac truly — and sneakily — subversive,” Ventura writes, is that “it’s a Hollywood movie that champions due process.” (3/8/07)
Like my number one movie, Atonement is a story about using fiction to change things, though The Lives of Others‘ writer is considerably more successful than Atonement‘s. More than that, I’m unwilling to say. The Ian McEwan novel on which this film is based seemed an unlikely candidate for a successful adaptation; with its quiet yet shocking close, it seemed too psychological and interior to transfer to the screen. But director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton untangled it neatly, and the resulting film, though it sometimes comes on too strong, managed to break my heart completely — not with the story of the troubled lovers, but with the story of a young girl who never grows away from the irreperable damage she did by telling a story she shouldn’t have. (1/10/08)
10. Michael Clayton
If I’m going to comment on the relative familiarity of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood, I should, to be fair, note that George Clooney can do the composed smart guy in a suit in his sleep. But Michael Clayton, written and directed by first-time director Tony Gilroy (who also wrote or co-wrote the Bourne films), plays off that strength, setting Clooney up as the calm, understated center around which less stable characters revolve, chief among them Tom Wilkinson as a lawyer having a crisis of conscience that coincides with his decision to go off his medication and Tilda Swinton as another corporate lawyer who will go to horrific lengths to keep her case under control. Michael Clayton is an elegant piece of work, a subtle thriller that never panders to its audience or slips to let a character tell us what exactly is going on. (10/25/07)
The Bourne Ultimatum Paul Greengrass knows how to make a smart, swift, compelling action film even when the story is familiar from the previous two in the series. Eager to make the most of jittery cameras, smart stunts and a juxtaposition of glossy film and gritty streets, Ultimatum is grounded in Matt Damon’s ability to look totally ordinary yet pull off the extraordinary over and over again. (8/9/07)
Gone Baby Gone A surprisingly deft directorial debut from Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone has almost too much in common with Mystic River, another adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane. But Casey Affleck truly comes of age here, leaving behind his stammering, reluctant younger roles while playing a private investigator for whom the flashy story — the abducted child — is only the beginning.
Hot Fuzz No, it wasn’t Shaun of the Dead. You can only create the rom-zom-com genre once. But this clever send-up and appreciation of action films is its own kind of genius. You just have to be patient. Let Edgar Wright and his all-star cast lull you into thinking it’s a quieter, gentler kind of comedy — until the point at which they, er, stop doing that. Quite convincingly. (4/26/07)
In the Shadow of the Moon There’s a striking humility to the men of the Apollo missions as they tell stories about their lives in this graceful, affecting documentary. As one astronaut points out, one day he was an ordinary pilot, the next a hero, and nothing, really, had changed. Perceptive and charming, simple and inspiring, Moon offers a firsthand look at the uniting qualities of an accomplishment like the moon landing — and a reminder that the rest of the universe is still out there, waiting. (10/11/07)
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters The year’s least likely villain is a restaurant owner and hot sauce salesman from Florida who also, as it happens, long held the world Donkey Kong record. His nemesis, in Seth Gordon’s wildly funny film, is a Washington science teacher whose life has been a long chain of almosts. King of Kong is an engrossing peek at a subculture full of conspiracies and connections, competitions and inspirations. All the better is the fact that the story continues offsceen. Was Billy Mitchell really so negative? Did Steve Wiebe hold the record for a longer period? Watch the movie, then hit Google: There’s enough material out there for a sequel and then some.
No Country for Old Men Every critic — every viewer — has their hangups, and I’ll admit that one of mine is that I tend to be exceptionally hard on movies in which the plot hinges on a main character doing something incredibly stupid. And in the Coen brothers’ latest film, the actions of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) solidly fit that bill. But Moss, though the character around which others revolve, is the least interesting fellow in the mix. What makes the film tick to its surprisingly calm end is the other pair of actors: Tommy Lee Jones as a careworn sheriff and the incredible Javier Bardem as a magnetic sociopath. (11/29/07)
No End in Sight Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the missteps and failures of the Iraq invasion is systematic and sharp, and it takes plenty of time to listen to the men who were on the ground and knew of what they spoke — which happens to be one of the things the damning, incendiary doc points out that the Bush administration failed to do. No End in Sight should stand as a defining document of our era. (9/13/07)
Paprika and Persepolis These are two very different animated films, one flashy with color and one elegant in black and white, one exploring the fantasies, fetishes and hangups of our dreaming selves while the other tells of growing up in wartime and under a repressive government. Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoirs, has literary cachet and undeniable relevance to the present, but Paprika, futuristic and imaginative, might just linger in your memory a touch longer. Both, though, are unmissable pieces of art. (7/5/07; 1/31/08)
Stardust Working from Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ lovely illustrated novel, director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) reinvigorated fantasy filmmaking with this sprawling, sprightly caper of a fairy tale about a fallen star, murderous princes and a young man who’s more than he thinks he is. The Golden Compass may have had the bigger budget, but Stardust has the magic that marquee adaptation sadly lacked. (8/9/07)
Waitress Sweet and tart, Adrienne Shelly’s story about an unexpected pregnancy was the smallest of the year’s three films on the topic — but it had an enormous heart. As the titular waitress, Keri Russell pulled off a performance that buoyed and seasoned the film; her bottomless frustration with her lot in life didn’t get in the way of her affection for her friends and colleagues, or her attraction to the handsome local doc played winningly by Nathan Fillion. This is what a romantic comedy should be. (5/24/07)