Hot Button Archive for January, 2008

Best Of 2007 – The Top Ten

10. The Savages
Tamara Jenkins delivers the most painful comedy of the year with three of the best performances of the year from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as the somewhat estranged brother and sister who need to step up to take responsibility for their severly estranged dad, played by Phillip Bosco.  So bitter… so sweet.

9. Superbad
I Am McLovin. The most significant generational piece of the Apatow oeuvre, directed by Greg Mottola and written by real high school buddies Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg.  Kids haven’t told it like it is – including their ignorance and fears – in a long time.  And as often is the case in Apatow films, he manages to include cross-generational references that make everyone look the idiot… while they laugh up a storm. 

8. Lars and the Real Girl – The heart film of the year that all too many think is a dirty sex romp.  This is a movie about love and community and surviving to love another day.  Ryan Gosling leads a company of actors who are letter perfect, down to Bianca, the real doll who lives upstairs in his brother’s house while her existence allows Lars to move forward in the Grimm fairy tale of his life.   There are those who try to rationalize the film, and the frustration can be immense… but only half as strong as the execs who have seen the film play like gangbusters with audiences only to fail to find an audience at the multiplex.

7. Ratatouille
Brad Bird
threw this struggling project at Pixar together in record time and delivered a film that is both great for families and a home run for adults who share a passion for the better things in life with The Rat.  It’s almost like it is a great programmer from a top artist who was brought in to make the thing work a little better.  Ages like a fine wine.

6. Day Night Day Night
Julia Loktev’s intimate take of a woman choosing to take a city’s life in her hands.  Why is she doing it?  Who is she doing it for?  How could she?  We never quite know… Loktev lets up know only that there is a human being sitting inside the golem that we hold in our minds.  A tiny piece, but one of the most provocative and evocative of the year.

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Best, 2007

The road to a Top Ten list was a little more complicated this year than in year’s past.  For instance, I usually start with my Worst ten list.  But really, I don’t feel qualified to make a Worst 10 list this year.  I just haven’t seen most of the horrible movies this year.
This is not to say that I don’t have films I hated.  It would have to be a tie between Redacted and Evening for the title of Film I Most Loathed in 2007.  But would it be fair to say that either film is the worst of the year?  Nah.  I mean, it’s easy to note that Lions For Lambs was utter crap and a failed effort on so many levels… but its effort was too apparent to dismiss it entirely.  Am I really going to take out my disappointment in Elizabeth: The Golden (Out)rage to that level?  Can I dismiss the occasional charms of Dan In Real Life enough to shred it as the most shockingly derivative and wrongheaded film to come out of the Disney stables in years?  No!  Not when I didn’t see all the other crap out there that may well have pushed these failures to the side.
The big story of 2007 really, in critical discussion, is the Trilogy Of Critical Onanism; (in order of jerk off) The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Zodiac, and There Will Be Blood.
The challenge of this trio, for me, who feels that all three films ultimately fail, has grown as the year has progressed.  It is easy to dismiss one… less easy to dismiss two… and silly to keep dismissing as the third rolls up on you.  Making it harder, on the face of it, is that all three are truly exception efforts on the production side.  And in the case of There Will Be Blood, I have to start with the admission that if I were to pick one act of one film as the very best of 2007, this film’s opening act would win hands down.  And yet…
These films are not exercises in the purely aesthetic that many casually attribute to Tony Scott (the filmmaker, not the critic).  I do think that Andrew Dominik’s ambition exceeded his grasp by no small distance.  David Fincher was, I think, simply after something that didn’t connect with me on any emotional or intellectual level.  And PTA… well… his unwillingness to finish what he starts is the most frustrating aspect of one of our most talented filmmakers working today… and one cannot excuse it as a failure, as he is just too damned talented to not be able to write a third act that fits and doesn’t require supporters to flop about like landed fish in order to rationalize what just doesn’t work.
So why is all this LOVE out there for these films?  Generalizations are forever a bad idea, but my instinctual response is that critics feed on the ambitions and drink in the visual power of these films like hungry survivors of a desert plane crash.  I think there is also an urge to send the message to “Hollywood,” where all three films were funded, that this is product that critics will support and support passionately. 
It’s not that critics are upset that the three films combined will be challenged to pass the opening weekend of Alvin & The Chipmunks… it is, perhaps, more that “they” like the fact that financial success is elusive.  It’s not that No Country For Old Men, which will surely gross more than the combined trio, is not getting critical love.  It’s that praise for No Country is easier than finding a photo of a drunken Spears girl.  Inevitable commercial failure is a perverse enhancement to the pleasure.
Speaking of failure, here is a quick rundown of some of the box office realities of 2007.
There is a reason for distributors to court critics for the support of their more challenging films.  If a critic can deliver just 125 people to theaters to buy tickets, their effort alone could have represented 5% of the gross or more for 27% of the films on this year’s domestic release schedule (140 releases out of a total of 528). 
Sure, there are some crap movies down there, but there are high quality titles in that 27% as well this year, such as Operation Homecoming, Primo Levi’s Journey, The Prisoner, The Protagonist, Quiet City, Syndromes and a Century, and The Trials of Daryl Hunt.  And it even includes the lowest grossing studio film of the year, Warner Bros.’ Rails & Ties, which managed just $22,136 in a 5 screen release. 
Moreover, 229 of 528 films released this year grossed under $250,000.  263 of 528 grossed under $500,000 (minus TWBB, which is just starting its run).  And 292 of 528 under $1m.
So, the entire industry of films grossing over $1 million in America consists of 236 films.  60 films grossed between $1 million and $5 million.  30 films grossed between $5 million and $10 million.  44 films grossed between $10 million and $20 million.  58 films grossed between $20 million and $50 million with just 5 of those from independents (4 of those 5 from Lionsgate). 
That leaves 43 total films to gross over $50 million… three from Lionsgate, all under $65 million total domestic.  Disney had eight, DreamWorks and Warners six each, Universal and Sony five each, Fox had four, New Line had three, MGM had two, and Paramount had one. 
Every major but Disney had a bomb grossing less than $10 million and every dependent but Miramax had at least one miss gross less than $1 million. The highest profile bomb was DreamWorks’ Things We Lost In The Fire, which had an 1142 screen launch… which proves once again that quality is not the first issue with bombs.  Whether you liked that film or not, you must find it silly to compare it to, say, I Know Who Killed Me, which grossed more than twice what this quality drama did.
But back to criticism…
This year, I have 35 films in contention for my Top Ten.  Three of the films were mentioned in last year’s Best column as undistributed films that I would have placed on my Top Ten then.  I am pleased that they were ultimately released, though grosses of $25,317 (for Lake of Fire), $31,856 (for Day Night, Day Night) and $354,812 (for Wristcutters: A Love Story) cuts me to the quick. 
As District B13’s $1.2 million run last year proved, it’s hard out there for an indie… especially when, unlike B13, you have a real challenge in making the argument to an audience for why they want to see the film.  Let’s just say that the 70,000 people or so who saw Lake of Fire and Day Night, Day Night experienced films that stir passion and debate as profoundly as any films they will ever see, before or after.
Oops… slipped into box office again…
My list of Runner Ups

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“It would be difficult to find something made by a human being that isn’t pregnant with a vision of the world. Likely impossible. It’s inherent to existence. It turns out that world visions can coincide with a certain hegemonic idea of what the world is —or not. It’s like when they say that “indie cinema” is intellectual, simply because it does not coincide with a narrative system the industry legitimates. But the industry is as intellectual as ‘indie’ movies. The difference is that one affirms reality, doesn’t call it into question. And not all ‘art movies’ are after that. You’ve got to call reality into doubt. Or better yet, I’d say you’ve got to be suspicious of reality. Because if you’re not, there’s no possible transformation. Every one of us who has done cinema —to speak just of moviemaking— has contributed our perspectives to a vision of the world. A community needs that —lots of perspectives. There will be times when some are valued more than others. But the really important thing is that a lot of different visions coexist. The big task is to facilitate that variety.”
~ Lucrecia Martel

“It’s a film festival’s job—and increasingly so—to create moments of recognition, of enjoyment, of shock, of learning. Not of consumerism. Not of implementing cultural policy. But moments without pretence, unclouded by vested interests, by intervention, by cynicism, by everyday business. Committed to nothing but the thing itself. Under obligation to nothing, to no one, not even to the filmmakers themselves. To basically seek access to a form that does not yet exist, a place no one has been to, a time that has not yet come. ’A form that thinks, and a thought that forms,’ as Jean-Luc Godard has it.”
~ Hans Hurch, late director of the Viennale