No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Will win: The consensus among pundits regarding this year’s Oscars is that, with the exceptions of the Best Actor and Supporting Actor categories, there are few prevailing favorites. Historically, this isn’t really anything new. There hasn’t been a true Secretariat at the Oscars since Return of the King pulled a ’72 Dolphins and went 11-for-11 in 2003. (Of course, it didn’t win Best Cinematography because it wasn’t even fucking nominated. And yes, I’m fairly sure I’m harboring more resentment about that than anyone involved in photographing the movie. Anyway.)
But this isn’t me making an excuse, since I actually feel relatively confident about my Best Picture prediction this year. (And by “relatively confident” I mean I feel like Chris Dudley at the free-throw line as opposed to Ben Wallace, but whatever.) I believe the best tactic in handicapping the Best Picture winner is to look at the other nominations for each of the contenders. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood each have eight nods from the Academy, while Atonement and Michael Clayton have seven apiece. Juno has just four, but this process, unlike the Manifesto itself, is more about quality than quantity. Juno’s other nominations are all in major categories – Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. It can’t be counted out.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of Atonement, which turns out to be this year’s lame duck. Its only other major nomination is for Best Adapted Screenplay; the Academy failed to recognize it for Best Director (which we’ll discuss later) and also refused to nominate either of its lead actors (which we will certainly discuss). Strangely enough, this bizarre development in which exactly four of the five Best Picture selections also receive Best Director nominations is actually Academy tradition. It happens almost every year, including nine of the past 11 (the exceptions are 2005, when all five Best Picture candidates had their directors recognized, and 2001, in which only three did). And in the past 50 years, the only movie to win Best Picture without even receiving a Best Director nomination is Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed. As such, Atonement has as much chance of winning this year’s Best Picture Oscar as the 2004 Red Sox had of coming back from a 3-0 deficit and beating the Yankees.
(Wait for it … O.K., let’s move on.)
Unfortunately, none of the remaining four films can easily be discounted. In addition to receiving Best Director nominations, they’re all selected in their respective screenplay categories (an acknowledgement that is far more crucial to a movie’s chances of winning the big one than a citation for acting). So my brilliant theory about examining the quality of a Best Picture contender’s supplementary nominations and adjusting the odds accordingly has lowered the number of actual contenders by exactly one movie. Fantastic. I feel like I just knocked out Glass Joe in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out – one down, only 13 more advanced fighters to go!
Alright, I’ll knock off Michael Clayton next, if only because it doesn’t seem to be getting great buzz. Furthermore, George Clooney’s remarkable performance could actually work against the movie’s Best Picture chances. Clooney has become such an icon that voters might watch the film and focus entirely on him, essentially ignoring the movie at large (which is a shame, since it’s something of a masterpiece). Throw in the fact that Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton also received nominations for their work in the film, and I think Michael Clayton has inadvertently billed itself as an actors’ movie rather than just a great overall film. So it’s out.
It’s tempting to write off Juno because of its light-hearted demeanor (even if its subject matter is entirely adult), but the movie has acquired such a passionate following that I’m wary of it. Some indie movies are unexpected critical darlings (The Full Monty snagged a stunning Best Picture nomination in 1995), while others amass surprising wealth at the box office (My Big Fat Greek Wedding somehow finished with $241 million, good for fifty-first all-time for U.S. grosses), but Juno, like Little Miss Sunshine of yesteryear, appears to be both. Not only has it been almost universally lauded by critics, but it’s piled up $125 million thus far domestically. Moreover, whether it was due to savvy marketing or strong word-of-mouth, people who notoriously avoid going to the movies seem to have been spurred to see Juno. In a startling occurrence, my buddies Nate and Pat both went to see it – the last movie the two of them both watched in theatres was probably Home Alone. All of this indicates that Juno has come to epitomize the concept of mass appeal.
Interestingly enough, Juno reminds me of the ’07 Colorado Rockies. There’s the budget: Other than Todd Helton, the Rockies’ highest-paid player was Matt Holliday at a bargain $4.4 million (for comparative purposes, Richie Sexson made $15.5 million the same season); Juno’s budget was a minuscule $2.5 million. There’s the late-season push: The Rockies went on a September blitzkrieg and won 21 of their last 22 games entering the World Series; after a quiet start in limited release, Juno appeared in the top five in the box office four straight weeks after Christmas, then stayed in the top seven the next four weeks. There’s the admiration from the media: Commentators couldn’t stop gushing over the Rockies’ small-ball, team-oriented style; Juno’s stellar ensemble cast earned it a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Roger Ebert naming it the best film of the year. There’s the young talent: Rockies’ shortstop Troy Tulowitzki finished second in Rookie of the Year voting; Juno’s Ellen Page has a chance to become the youngest Best Actress winner in the Academy’s history.
But the Rockies didn’t win the World Series. Their charismatic brand of small-ball met its gloriously quick demise at the hands of the high-powered, high-salaried Red Sox, who scored 29 runs in just four games and held the Rockies to a miserable .218 batting average. And Juno, for all its charms, is first and foremost a comedy, and the historical record shows that comedies just don’t win Best Picture. Since 1961, there have only been two: Tom Jones in 1963 (in an astonishingly weak field) and Annie Hall in 1977. As Kevin Spacey said of Keaton in The Usual Suspects, “a man can’t change what he is”. Juno can’t change that it’s a comedy. It’s out.
So, this leaves us with the two heavyweights, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and the tale of the tape reveals astonishingly similar credentials. In terms of the nominations themselves, not only do both movies have eight, but they’re competing against each other in six categories. Other than a slight acting discrepancy (No Country has Javier Bardem up for supporting actor, while There Will Be Blood has Daniel Day-Lewis for lead), the only difference between the two movies is that No Country scored a Sound Mixing nomination, and There Will Be Blood nabbed one for Art Direction. Otherwise, the two films are in a dead heat.
They’re also both technically dramas, but they’re far from similar pictures. No Country for Old Men is a crime thriller. It’s ruthlessly efficient, with a runtime of under two hours and no unnecessary scenes whatsoever. It is calculating and cold-blooded. In contrast, There Will Be Blood positions itself as more of an epic. It’s long (about 150 minutes), with a deliberate pace and multiple extended stretches in which minimal action takes place. There Will Be Blood is an intimate character study of a singular protagonist, whereas No Country for Old Men is far less concerned with character than it is with plot, action, and craft. The question, then, is which type of movie the Academy prefers – the straightforward, hardboiled thriller or the oblique, sweeping epic.
No Country for Old Men may be a technical tour de force, but it’s also one of those movies that’s easy to appreciate but harder to love. It’s an exceptionally well-made film, featuring brisk pacing, sparsely elegant compositions, and a taut storyline, all crisply edited together for maximum forcefulness. But it offers little in the way of an emotional component. After watching No Country for Old Men, I came away impressed, even awed, but not moved. In Wizard of Oz terms, the Academy tends to favor movies that focus on heart more so than brain. That’s why Million Dollar Baby knocked out The Aviator, why Titanic sunk L.A. Confidential, why Forrest Gump outran Pulp Fiction.
But even if No Country for Old Men doesn’t tug at viewers’ heartstrings, it’s virtually impossible not to admire the movie, not just for its superlative technical skill but also its gripping narrative. The same can’t be said of There Will Be Blood, a highly self-conscious film that has the potential to alienate as well as inspire. Some will view the movie as a visionary achievement for its portrayal of an obsessive tyrant, as well as for a series of overpowering images and a colossal lead performance. Others, however, will be frustrated with its leisurely tempo and grumble, as a friend of mine did to me, that “nothing happens”.
That friend was my buddy Jason, and my phone call with him after we each saw There Will Be Blood encapsulated these divergent strands of thought perfectly. The conversation went something like this: He called me and asked me what I thought. I, unaware of how sulky he sounded, prattled on for about 30 seconds about how much I liked it, how impressive it was, how it was a work of refined artistry, how much I loved Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. He listened for awhile in apparent disbelief before finally cutting me off and ranting about how much he hated it. To my recollection, he used the words “infantile”, “stupid,” and – and this particular adjective he repeated often, in a highly aggrieved tone – “boring”. (In my mind, the same could have been said of his thoughts on the movie.) I blinked a few times, told him he was an idiot with no taste, and we hung up amicably.
I like to think the movie has inspired similar conversations between those who would champion it as art and those who seek to ridicule it as trash. Too many movies are casually tagged with the “love it or hate it” label, but There Will Be Blood comes as close as any release this decade to being that type of film. (I suppose the same could be said of all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies; tell someone with a quick temper who’s had a few beers that you really liked Magnolia and you’re liable to get punched in the face.) Viewers will either adore There Will Be Blood for its magnificent ambitions or despise it for those very same grandiose pretensions. There hasn’t been an American movie this polarizing since Eyes Wide Shut.
And this holds for the Academy’s voters as well. Some of them will love There Will Be Blood, while others will despise it, but all of them will at least like and appreciate No Country for Old Men. And that is why No Country for Old Men will win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2007.
(I think. Actually I’m not quite sure. Juno has a hell of a lot of momentum right now. Maybe I should rethink this for a minute. Ah fuck it.)
Should win: Let’s give the Academy credit where it’s due. I spend a lot of time in the Manifesto bitching about the quality of the nominations (or lack thereof), and this year will be no different, but the voters did a hell of a job with their selections for the top honor, and for that they should be commended. In fact, all five of the movies nominated for Best Picture have a place on my own Top 10 List. To put that in perspective, last year only one of the contenders (The Departed) made my year-end list, and the same held for 2005 (Munich). Historically, the Academy and I are as likely to agree on Best Picture nominees as Albus Dumbledore and Tom Riddle on whether or not Muggle-borns should be allowed to attend Hogwarts. So, job well done, formerly stodgy but suddenly astute (but probably still stodgy) Academy members.
As each of the contenders has made my Top 10 List, I’ll discuss them in further detail when I unveil said list shortly. But in general, this surprising clarity of judgment on the part of the Academy poses for me an interesting situation. Since I greatly admire all five films nominated for Best Picture, I can hardly be anything but pleased when one of them wins. I have a preference, certainly – anyone who’s spoken with me in the past several months will know what it is – but should one of the other four emerge victorious, I won’t do anything other than smile, contended in the knowledge that one of my favorite movies of 2007 can now be called a Best Picture winner for all-time. It’s a very odd, very comforting sense of security.
Yet I confess that this feeling is accompanied, paradoxically, by a strange sense of disappointment. This year, for the first time in the seven years I’ve been writing the Manifesto, I can approach the announcement of Best Picture calmly, without worry. This has never happened before. As I’ve mentioned, I watched last year’s Oscar ceremony in a heightened state of suspense, fearful that The Departed might lose and that my soul subsequently be destroyed. But an even more terrifying notion wasn’t that The Departed would lose – it was that The Departed would lose to The Queen, one of my least favorite movies of the year. Such an outcome would have been sheer agony; it would have been the equivalent of the first time Voldemort used the Avada Kedavra curse on Harry, only to have it rebound and turn him into a soulless piece of vapor for the next 11 years. (The Queen isn’t a bad film, mind you. It’s perfectly valuable if you’re looking to buff up on your Princess Diana knowledge, or if you want to watch a splendid performance by Helen Mirren, or if you want to be put to sleep.)
This overwhelming sense of terror has been with me every year, as the Academy, in its insidious ways, always seems to sneak in at least one Best Picture nominee that I view with relative abhorrence compared to the rest. Last year was The Queen; the year before was obviously Crash. 2004 had Sideways, a good movie that would have been a horrible Best Picture winner. The same went for Lost in Translation in 2003, The Hours in 2002, and the wretched Gosford Park in 2001 (a year that marked the inaugural edition of the Manifesto in the form of a rambling, off-the-cuff email to my father bemoaning the lack of nominations for Memento and Vanilla Sky). For each of the past six years that I’ve watched the Oscars, I was terrified that one of the movies just cited would win Best Picture. Other than 2005, it never happened, and I met the announcement of the winner with a profound sense of relief (which was replaced last year by out-and-out exhilaration). When it did happen with Crash, I felt like Scott Norwood after that 47-yarder went wide right.
Only this year, that fear has been removed, and gone with it is any sense of anxiety or suspense. I feel like one of those cocky, bloated Patriots fans who’s literally completely confident his team’s going to win (stupid Massholes) – I like all the candidates, so no matter what happens, there’s no way I can lose. There’s no danger. There’s just peace. But there is also the distinct absence of danger.
(For the record, I wrote that paragraph before Super Bowl XLII. I’m not trying to rub anything in. It’s just a good analogy for how I feel, because that’s exactly how Patriots fans felt. You know, until they lost.)
This makes me think of the New York Yankees. I hate the Yankees. I always have, I always will, and – to answer your stupid, obnoxious question – if God decides to smite me and somehow ships Nomar Garciaparra to the Bronx, I’ll still root for the Yankees to go 0-162 every single year. This is because I derive a disturbing amount of pleasure from watching them lose. Of this decade’s World Series that didn’t involve the Red Sox, my favorite by far was in 2001 when the Yankees were stunned in a seven-game thriller against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Watching the Yankees lose that game on a blown Mo Rivera save remains one of the most memorable sporting moments of my life.
(Mandatory note lest I get branded as a pseudo-Sox fan: I don’t take this too far. If it’s a choice between the Red Sox winning and the Yankees losing, I’ll take the Red Sox winning every time. But if I had a choice – if I were outlining the perfect season – it would involve the Red Sox defeating the Yankees in the ALCS every year. This is why most Red Sox fans felt an odd mixture of pleasure and disappointment when the Yankees lost to the Indians in the ’07 ALDS. The Indians weren’t supposed to beat the Yankees – that was our job. This is also what made the ’04 ALCS so abundantly satisfying. Coming back from 0-3 down was great; doing it against the Yankees was downright euphoric.)
This year, there is no equivalent of a Yankees Best Picture nomination. There are simply five very good movies, and when one of them wins, I’m going to be happy. I just wonder if, while watching the ceremony, I’m going to be at all disenchanted that I have absolutely nothing to worry about when it comes time for Best Picture.
But hey, at least the Yankees aren’t going to win. I suppose that’s something.
Deserving: Ordinarily, this would be the spot where I unveil my prestigious, controversial, mind-numbing Year-End Top 10 List. The only problem is that this year, I couldn’t make a Top 10 List. I had to do a Top 13 list. And since three movies are tied for spot #13, it’s really a Top 15 list. And, like Jacques in Finding Nemo when he couldn’t stop cleaning the fish tank, I am ashamed.
Look, I know that year-end lists are stupid. You don’t have to tell me – I know. I know that it’s fallacious to presume that you can categorically rank one movie as better or worse than another, since our perceptions about movies change over time. (Think about it: If you made an all-time top 10 list when you were 13, then forgot about it and made a new one when you were 23, do you think any of the original 10 films would still be on the new list? Because I get the feeling Ace Ventura: Pet Detective might not make the cut the second time. Not that I’d know.) That’s one of the reasons I don’t quantify movies with stars or any other kind of numerical rating (another reason: I’m a snob and like to pretend I work for the New York Times). Such a process facilitates vulgar comparative arguments along the lines of, “Movie A is rated higher than movie B, therefore movie A must be better”. But movies are far too varied and dissimilar to be evaluated by such crude measures. Different movies appeal in different ways at different periods of time, and rarely will a list that ranks 10 disparate films hold up exactly as originally ordered for any extended period of time. Year-end lists, therefore, are stupid.
(Example: If I could borrow Hermione’s time-turner from Prisoner of Azkaban and transport myself back in time to when I created my Top 10 list for the year 2005, then make that list again, there’s no way Pride & Prejudice is coming in as low as #9 a second time. It’s just not happening. Of course, I’d probably just use the time-turner to re-live Allan Houston’s jump shot against the Heat in Game 5 of the ’99 playoffs, back when watching Knicks games didn’t make me feel like sticking my face in a vat of bubotuber pus. But never mind.)
Year-end lists are also, however, extraordinarily fun, not only to make but to read. There’s something oddly cleansing about constructing a top 10 list – ideally, it forces writers to reflect deeply on their favorite films of the year, which can be a rewarding experience (if, you know, you’re a movie freak and don’t really have much of a life). It can also inspire instructive debates, encouraging arguments among readers (or, in more intimate cases, between reader and writer) about why a certain movie was or was not included. In my mind, anything that promotes ardent discussion of contemporary cinema – whether that discussion is civilized or otherwise – is a good thing. As such, I’m not ashamed of creating a top 10 list, and I will continue to supply such a list for Best Picture every year until either A) Someone pays me not to, or B) I die.
(For the record, a top 10 list is also an effective method of distilling one’s thoughts, thus allowing easy consumption by readers. However, I don’t always view this as a good thing. Given the choice of a scanning numbered list versus reading an essay, most people will select the list, as it can be digested with a quick once-over, whereas absorption of the essay requires considerably more effort. This is precisely why I never provide any sort of summary document accompanying the Manifesto – it would just provide recipients with another reason to ignore my actual writing, and frankly you all have enough reasons already.)
What I am ashamed of is that this year, for the first time ever, I was wholly incapable of limiting myself to selecting 10 films. I’ve always scoffed at critics who have created loopholes in their year-end lists, whether they refuse to rank them in order or consider two movies to be “tied” or employ any other sort of qualification that excuses them from providing a simple list of 10 movies, ranked from one through 10. But this year, I’m a guilty party myself. And so I am ashamed.
Theoretically, it shouldn’t be difficult. Ten is hardly a small number. Mathematically, of the 79 movies released in 2007 that I saw in theatres, I’m permitting myself to include nearly 13%. This should have been simple. But the more I pored over my Excel spreadsheet that details every movie I’ve seen at the theatre since 2004 (don’t even bother to wonder if I’m joking), the more frustrated I became when I tried to eliminate any of the following films. It felt like a betrayal – I enjoyed all of them to such a degree that to exclude any of them from my catalog of prized favorites would constitute an unjust critical backstabbing.
Perhaps this is a good thing. After all, if my top 10 list is forced to embrace 15 films, doesn’t that indicate that 2007 was a year rich in cinematic content? Or does it simply signify that I’ve turned into a softie who doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings? No matter. It is what it is, and if you don’t like it, by all means, create your own – I’m happy to compare and then patiently, condescendingly explain to you why mine is better.
And so, I now present to you the Manifesto’s Top 13 Movies of 2007. As Samuel L. Jackson said in Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts:
13. Juno, Knocked Up, Superbad (tie). Like all great debates in which historians argue that one contender is superior to the other – Joe DiMaggio vs. Ted Williams in 1941, Walter Payton vs. Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, Charmane Star vs. Sabrine Maui in Flesh Hunter 5 – the battle between Knocked Up and Superbad is going to rage for eternity, and it will never be solved. There are, of course, two camps:
In one camp, we have my buddy Ted, whose favorite movie of all-time is Old School. Ted liked Knocked Up but was disappointed by the movie’s ending, considering it to be saccharine and hollow, as well as a betrayal of the movie’s protagonist, a pot-smoking unemployed slacker played with marvelous laziness by Seth Rogan. In Ted’s view, the ending – in which a young adult male only finds true happiness after he gets a job, abandons his friends, and generally emasculates himself in the name of parenting – runs contrary to Knocked Up’s overall ethos, which stipulates that dudes shouldn’t have to apologize for hanging out with other dudes, getting wasted, and possessing no true ambition whatsoever. In contrast, Ted appreciated Superbad for its unrestrained lewdness, its relative lack of sentimentality, and its pure hilarity.
In the other camp, we have, naturally, my father. When my Dad finally acquired Knocked Up via Netflix, he liked it enough that he saw it twice, the second time with my mother. His favorite characters were the two women, played with refreshing honesty by Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann. For my father, the best parts of Knocked Up involved these women’s struggles to find a balance between their inherent desires for intimacy and their acceptance that their partners required certain degrees of freedom, all while coping with the unflattering consequences of their own aging. My Dad appreciated the realism and sensitivity with which these issues were broached, and he viewed the arc of Seth Rogan’s character not as a sign of resignation but one of maturity. When he watched Superbad, however, he couldn’t get past the juvenile situations and the crass dialogue. (This may or may not be because my father has had his pre-collegiate existence wiped from his memory and has vowed never again to expose himself to anything remotely resembling high school, even in the form of entertainment as funny as Superbad. We’ll never know.) He turned the movie off after a half hour, and he hasn’t turned a movie off since Naked Lunch 15 years ago.
So who’s right? Well, my Dad’s a moron for not enjoying Superbad, but it isn’t really his fault – to enjoy that movie you need to have a sense of humor, and he had his removed three years ago after telling the “waiter, my soup is too hot” joke one too many times. That said, I honestly think Knocked Up is a better movie. Its characters are richer, it’s more realistic, and its themes are more relevant, but make no mistake, the movie is still damn funny. The scene where Rogan and Heigl are having sex, only he’s scared of hurting the baby – I mean, that’s some funny shit. The same goes for Rogen’s response when Heigl asks him what he would expect on a normal second date. Don’t let the fact that it has three-dimensional characters fool you – Knocked Up still has a ton of downright hilarious moments.
So why am I still ranking it in a tie with Superbad? Because, quite simply, I had more fun watching Superbad. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. No movie has made me laugh harder and more often in the theatre since Anchorman. It may be utterly disposable (though there’s a shred of character development in there if you look hard enough), but while you’re in the theatre, it provides one hell of a good time.
To this pair of crowd-pleasing comedies we can add Juno, a wry, sharp-edged comedy that addresses several interesting issues, most specifically teen pregnancy but also more generally the struggle of maintaining happiness in long-term relationships, as well as the bond between parents and children. There’s a lot to chew on in Juno, which is probably why it’s been so well-received. The key to its success, other than Ellen Page’s perfectly nuanced portrayal of the title character, is the thoughtfulness and tenderness of Diablo Cody’s screenplay. Cody’s script comes equipped with an incisive eye and an acid tongue, but she never resorts to out-and-out cynicism. Along with the various lacerating observations of life in suburban high school (all of which get plenty of laughs), there are also many lovely moments of pure, honest affection in Juno. The scene in which Juno has a heart-to-heart with her father (the unflaggingly excellent J.K. Simmons) about the realities of love in adulthood resonates with gentle truth, and the moment when Jennifer Garner listens anxiously for Juno’s baby to kick is heartwarming without being cloying. Juno may cloak itself as a biting sendup of suburbia, and it’s certainly smart enough, but it’s actually an earnest, heartfelt picture, and that’s what makes it so easily likable.
And yet … is Juno really that memorable? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an excellent film that does pretty much everything right. It has splendid acting, witty dialogue, strong characters, and a story with several legitimately surprising turns, all navigated with confidence by its director and cast. But you could say the same for Knocked Up, and for whatever reason, that movie supplied for me a more lasting impression. Juno wasn’t as disposable a film as Superbad, but its finer details nevertheless faded from my memory not long after I saw it.
Perhaps this is a function of comedies. I like good comedies because they make me laugh and entertain me, and I will forever argue that the primary goal of going to the movies is to be entertained, as opposed to being informed or educated or anything having to do with some higher abstract sense of purpose. (This is also why cinema is such a glorious art form – its effortless ability to provide entertainment.) At the same time, since comedies are by nature easygoing and pleasant, they are far less likely to leave an indelible imprint, which is what most often prevents a very good comedy from being truly great. Great movies impart upon their viewers a sense of urgency, an insistence that they be discussed and weighed and considered, not necessarily with others but sometimes solitarily. A great movie sticks in my head for a significant length of time after I’ve watched it. That’s something difficult for a comedy to accomplish. It’s happened before – recent examples include The 40 Year Old Virgin and There’s Something About Mary – but it didn’t happen with Juno. And that’s why, for all its intelligence and candor, it’s ranked below the rest of the films on this list.
(But if it wins Best Picture, I won’t be remotely upset. Just so we’re clear on that.)
12. Spider-Man 3. People who don’t know me may be surprised I’ve included Spider-Man 3 on my Top 13 list, given the unjust derision the movie reaped from the majority of the nation’s critics. People who do know me may be surprised it’s as low as #12, given my self-professed adoration for the first two films in the franchise. All I’ll say is that, while I concede Spider-Man 3 does not achieve the level of excellence attained by its predecessors, I was entirely satisfied with the third installment. It possesses all the requisite ingredients needed to concoct a truly enjoyable action picture. And frankly, I’m baffled as to why it’s been so poorly received. After I watched the movie a second time with the Chatham IMAX Club, my buddy Tom (a co-founder) leaned over to me as soon as the credits started rolling and said, “I don’t understand what people are complaining about”.
Neither do I. To be fair, Spider-Man 3 isn’t a perfect movie (unlike Spider-Man 2, which remains one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and is as close to perfect as any movie is ever likely to get). The “Harry gets amnesia” segment is contrived (but relatively brief), the bizarre dance scene (huh?) is overdone, Christopher Young’s score is poorly conceived (he’s a significant downgrade from Danny Elfman), and the Venom villain isn’t particularly interesting once it separates itself from Spidey. Nevertheless, Spider-Man 3 functions as one of the most entertaining movies of the year by combining action spectacle with a story that stays true to its characters. Under Sam Raimi’s vision, the action scenes in the Spider-Man films have always been secondary to the love story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, inhabited effortlessly by Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. The first picture sketches a broad framework: The goofy guy falls for the golden girl, his love is unrequited for years, and when she finally comes to her senses and realizes he’s “the one who’s always been there”, he spurns her, believing that to do otherwise would put her life at risk.
This structure isn’t exactly revolutionary (with the exception of the ending – the last scene of the first Spider-Man remains heartbreaking), but the follow-up fleshes out the details and explores the Peter/M.J. relationship in several unique, intriguing ways. The dramatic crux of Spider-Man 2 involves Peter’s struggle to balance his selfless (and in a sense self-inflicted) responsibility of being a superhero with his enduring personal desire to be with Mary Jane. It’s one thing for Peter to tell himself he’s being valiant in keeping his distance from M.J. in order to better protect her, but it’s quite another when she grows impatient with his evasions and decides to marry the dreamy James Marsden. But after M.J. learns Peter’s true identity (in a heart-wrenching shot of exquisite power), she makes the decision that she can accept the risk. The conclusion of Spider-Man 2 is for the most part exultant, with Mary Jane still in her wedding gown giving her blessing as Peter transforms into Spidey once more and swings off into the sunset, with M.J. watching fondly from her window. But in the movie’s last shot – another Raimi masterstroke – the camera pushes in slowly on Mary Jane’s face, and in her contented smile there gradually emerges the slightest shadow of doubt.
(On the DVD commentary track, Maguire suggests this to be similar to the famous final shot of The Graduate, in which Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross make a triumphant escape from Anne Bancroft and her family of evildoers and board a bus – Ross also still in her wedding gown – only to look around nervously and basically ask themselves “Now what?” as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” haunts them in the background. I had made the same analogy myself and was elated Maguire had done so, only then Raimi spoke up and said he’d never see The Graduate. Nice thought though.)
This doubt comes to the fore in Spider-Man 3, which functions fundamentally as a brilliant inversion of the framework of Spider-Man 2. This time, it’s Peter who seems to have everything going for him: Not only has he finally landed the woman of his dreams, but Spidey is now beloved as a savior rather than feared as a menace. Mary Jane’s life, however, is in relative shambles; formerly the next big thing on Broadway, she’s deemed a hack when she tries to cross over from dramas to musicals. This sudden role reversal is jarring, and Peter’s rosy new outlook on life prevents him from grasping Mary Jane’s disconsolation.
One of the minor amusements of Spider-Man 3 is that both Peter and M.J. act a little bit like prats – she has the nagging tendency to be self-absorbed, while he is often downright blockheaded. But this is also what makes them human, and that’s what’s crucial to the film’s success. The key challenge of any superhero movie is to contextualize its mythology in the form of characters we can relate to and care about. This is why none of the Superman movies is any good – no one, no matter how fanciful, can even remotely imagine what it’s like to be Superman, so the Man of Steel’s personal dilemmas have no connective tissue with the real world. The genius of the Spider-Man movies is that Peter Parker is immediately accessible as a character, and even though his trials involve storybook villains like the Green Goblin and the Sandman, we’re able to perceive them as obstacles in the life of an extraordinary person who simply wants to be ordinary.
This illuminates why a crucial scene set on a bridge is so affecting. The premise of the scene is simple: Mary Jane is forced to lie to Peter and pretend she no longer loves him (trust me, it makes sense in context). It’s a plot-driven sequence, and its essential function is to advance the story, which it does just fine. But it can also be viewed in isolation as a pained conversation between two people who care about each other, one of whom has an agenda she can’t reveal, the other who is caught unawares at this sudden turn of events. It’s a conversation any two people struggling in a relationship might have, and that’s how the scene generates its poignancy. For a moment, the superheroes and supervillains have disappeared from memory, and we’re just watching two people trying and failing to work things out.
Of course, lest jittery action fans be apprehensive, have no fear, as Spider-Man 3 sports its share of astonishing set pieces. Nothing quite equals the spellbinding train sequence of Spider-Man 2, but the inaugural duel between Spidey and the New Goblin is a phenomenal achievement, with its combatants diving and whirling through the air freely, with no visible computer-generated assistance. There’s also the Sandman’s emergence, which I’ll discuss in more detail when we get to Best Visual Effects – suffice it to say it’s one of the most memorable CGI sequences ever conceived. But again, these action scenes – hallmarks of the genre though they may be – exist to support the film’s story rather than overwhelm it. And that’s why Spider-Man 3 is so good.
(Note: It’s possible I liked the movie so much because before the midnight showing started, I wound up talking with a girl who went to BU who just happened to be, A) An avid reader of Harry Potter, B) A Red Sox fan, and C) Cute. We talked about nothing in particular for maybe 15 minutes – needless to say, it was the most intimate conversation I’ve had with a woman since I graduated college. The movie just seemed sort of awesome after that. Of course, it turned out she had a boyfriend. Typical.)
11. Charlie Wilson’s War. There’s a marvelous moment in Charlie Wilson’s War where a CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is bringing the title character (a rascally Tom Hanks) to meet his “weapons expert”. They go to a park where men are playing chess; one of the competitors is actually playing four games at once, and he’s winning them all. Gust pop-quizzes Wilson: “Which of these guys do you think moonlights as a CIA weapons expert?” Wilson stares blankly. Gust continues: “It’s a trick question – it’s the guy who’s playing four games at once. No reason this can’t be fun, you know.”
It’s one of many glib asides in the movie, but it also sums up the tenor of the film perfectly. For a movie that deals with the starkly serious topic of the United States aiding Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen in their fight to repel the Soviet communists in the 1980s, Charlie Wilson’s War is one hell of a breeze, a smart-mouthed, tongue-in-cheek confection of pure indulgence. Not that it trivializes its subject – on the contrary, the movie functions nicely as a lesson in history. According to various authorities, while certain facts have apparently been changed and composited, the overarching story of one politician’s crusade to drive the pinkos out of Afghanistan (only to inadvertently make way for the Taliban, who, er, don’t like us devil-worshipping Americans very much) is generally accurate. I don’t pretend to be a Cold War historian, and I couldn’t tell Nikita Khrushchev from La Femme Nikita, but I’d like to think I came away from the movie slightly more knowledgeable about its subject than I was upon entering the theatre. And that’s a good thing – few contemporary films, even those designed to preach, provide any tangible form of education.
But that education is really just an ancillary benefit of watching Charlie Wilson’s War. The true pleasure lies in the movie’s relaxed atmosphere and sardonic wit. This pertains most of all to the film’s dialogue, which is snappy without feeling rehearsed. Aaron Sorkin is such a talented wordsmith that his scripts always have the danger of coming off as manufactured; some of the rapid-fire quips on “West Wing” are so razor-sharp that they simply seem unrealistic. Charlie Wilson’s War avoids this trap, thanks in large part to the caliber of its cast. The entire ensemble is effective, including a sweetly restrained Amy Adams as Wilson’s assistant and a heaven-sent Emily Blunt as one of his would-be conquests.
But Hanks and Hoffman carry the show, even if neither strays particularly far from his comfort zone. Both actors are very good at playing very smart guys, and they fit snugly into their respective parts, Hanks as the louche but compassionate politician, Hoffman the cynical spy. Not only does the movie achieve its greatest comic potential in the wry exchanges between these two behemoths of screen acting, but as their friendship grows, their dialogue evolves into a natural, brotherly patter. It’s shrewd and intelligent but completely unforced, which is what makes it so much fun to watch. The same applies to Charlie Wilson’s War as a whole.
10. There Will Be Blood. That I enjoyed There Will Be Blood so completely seems to be a bit out of character for me. As someone who has prided himself on being a champion of the mainstream summer blockbuster, I’m also generally wary of artsy films, those pictures that smack of pretension and often seem to have been made for the director’s selfish indulgence rather than for the purpose of entertaining an audience.
And There Will Be Blood is nothing if not pretentious. The writing is pretentious. The music is pretentious. The opening shot is pretentious. Hell, even the font for the titles is pretentious. Everything about this movie reeks of artifice, as though it has been meticulously sculpted rather than allowed to breathe on its own.
But for all its ostentatiousness, There Will Be Blood is also one hell of a movie. It’s an epic in all the right ways (and a few of the wrong ones). It may technically be long, but its portrait of a monstrous oil tycoon is so grimly fascinating that I never once grew restless. Nearly every scene possesses its own sense of mythic grandeur, but rather than become disgruntled with Paul Thomas Anderson’s evident narcissism, I found myself – to my slight surprise – fully absorbed.
I’ll discuss Anderson in further detail when we reach Best Director (don’t worry, we’ll get there), but his landmark moment must be illuminated now. It’s the scene of an accident involving an oil derrick. We’ve already been witness to the derrick’s construction – such an absurd creation, towering over the earth on its spindly legs, glowering at humanity, a wooden magnate signifying greed and corruption and all things evil. I’m not quite sure what happens mechanically, but suddenly and inevitably something goes wrong, and BOOM! Now oil and fire are erupting out of the ground as one, the oil showering the world with its black sludge like Pacman Jones making it rain, while the fire and smoke billow and swirl into the night sky. After quickly seeing to his injured son, Daniel Plainview, the tycoon, stalks out into the night, his face coated in oil, and looks upon the wreckage with immense satisfaction. Many have just been hurt, but you’d never know it from looking at his dirtied face – we’ve never seen him so happy, so invigorated. Spotting a worried associate, he laughs, amused by the other’s weakness. “There’s an ocean of oil under our feet!” he exclaims. “No one can get at it but me!” The camera then turns back to the derrick, now in its death throes, and simply observes stoically as the flames and smoke thicken, a hot-orange fireball of destruction, spreading out to the community at large, to the people who invited this man into their lives in the hope that he was their salvation.
It’s a breathtaking sequence. This is what movies were made for: to show us sights like this. There are others in the film as well, and even if none achieves quite the same potency, it’s nevertheless astonishing how frequently Anderson manages to construct moments of such iconic power.
Yet perhaps the key to the success of There Will Be Blood is that, for all its lofty ambitions and majestic images, it remains firmly grounded in the tale of a single protagonist. Throughout the film, Anderson constantly strives to outdo himself (not to mention David Lean) with his blunt attempts at virtuoso filmmaking, but while his canvas continuously expands in scope, his screenplay remains clearheaded and focused. The movie never loses sight of Plainview as its center, and this simplicity grants us access into Anderson’s universe, so that no matter how excessive his picture becomes, no matter how obvious his vanity, we’re always on board – we’re so mesmerized by Plainview that wherever he goes, we have no choice but to follow.
(Of course, it helps that Plainview is played by Daniel Day-Lewis. But we’ll get to that later.)
9. The Lives of Others. Quick administrative note here: The Lives of Others was actually made in 2006, and it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (a surprise victory over the better-marketed Pan’s Labyrinth). However, it wasn’t distributed in American theatres until after last year’s Oscars took place (I saw it in May of 2007), so I’m forced to consider it a 2007 film.
And it’s a good one. Complex, tense, and haunting, this thriller thrusts us into the oppressive universe of 1980s East Germany, offering us a captivating, unflinching view of life in a tyrannical state. The movie ostensibly focuses on a writer named Dreyman who is at turns naïve, disillusioned, and ultimately desperate to escape. Dreyman’s works are a bit too perceptive to the liking of the government, and he suddenly finds himself the subject of constant surveillance. Meanwhile, his beautiful girlfriend is involved in a exploitative relationship with a vulgar high-ranking minister, who leverages her closeness with Dreyman for his own base desires.
The Lives of Others, for the most part, is not a happy film. There exists in its narrative an extreme sense of despair and claustrophobia, and its would-be heroes live in a world clouded by repression, both ideological and literal. From a simplified perspective, the movie constitutes an Orwellian class struggle between the righteous, free-thinking artists and their captors, the police state that subjugates their freedom of expression with cold, cruel rigidity.
Yet for all its squalid characters and unsavory politics, The Lives of Others is essentially a redemption story, and its true hero is Wiesler, the agent of the German secret police initially determined to expose Dreyman as a security threat. Wiesler – played with exemplary understatement by Ulrich Mühe, who sadly died last year at the age of 54 – at first personifies his government’s silent brutality. He is calculating, dispassionate, and ruthless. (When a student at the academy muses that his interrogation practices may be unjust to the rights of the accused, Wiesler responds by making a tiny check-mark next to the student’s name on the roll call sheet – he’ll remember this.)
As Wiesler conducts his surveillance on Dreyman, however, he becomes at first intrigued, then absorbed. The passion in Dreyman’s life – for his lover, his friends, his art – is completely foreign to Wiesler, whose Spartan existence seems to border on servility. His lone selfish impulse involves occasional liaisons with prostitutes, the coldness of which only further intensifies the gap between Dreyman’s sense of fulfillment and Wiesler’s own emptiness.
A lesser movie would have rendered this disparity into a form of jealousy, thus pitting the gallant Dreyman against the coldhearted Wiesler. But The Lives of Others instead supplies Wiesler with a passion of his own. As he wrestles with his own ideology, he gradually resolves to act as a silent accomplice to Dreyman’s anti-establishment efforts, thereby putting himself at risk of persecution. (Wiesler is essentially the Cold War version of Severus Snape). This evolution is handled with nuance and clarity; Wiesler does not make this decision lightly, and Mühe portrays his character’s realization with delicacy and even doubt – choosing the side of good isn’t easy when your whole life has been spent in service of the other guys.
Lest I be improperly depicting The Lives of Others as a slow-moving character study, make no mistake – this is a taut, engaging thriller, and it strides toward its inexorable conclusion with a fierce sense of purpose. It is also appropriately dark, given its subject matter, but while the film’s melodramatic climax is on the surface depressing – several key players meet their end, and none escapes uncompromised – it is also surprisingly uplifting. Wiesler’s valiant efforts may be in vain, but he’s valiant all the same. It says something for the world, perhaps, when good people attempt to overcome the most dire of circumstances and fight for truth and justice.
(Then there’s the question that I was unable to address last year when evaluating Best Foreign Language Film: Is The Lives of Others better than Pan’s Labyrinth? Tough to say. The German film features characters of more depth and substance, but Pan’s Labyrinth is so richly detailed and wondrously inventive that I probably would have voted for it (you know, if I had had an actual vote). This is not to diminish the accomplishment of The Lives of Others but to emphasize how extraordinary a movie Pan’s Labyrinth is and how strongly I urge readers who haven’t seen it to purchase the Blu-ray and experience its universal appeal. Unless you’re afraid of monsters and therefore lame.)
8. Gone Baby Gone. There’s a school of thought among critics that the majority of Hollywood movies are, as my buddy Mike would say, soft. In their effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, mainstream directors have minimized the forcefulness of their material, so as not to estrange the slightly squeamish. Throw in the obnoxious reality of political correctness and the idiotic mechanisms of the MPAA, and one can almost sympathize with Hollywood making movies softer than Carl Pavano.
Which is what makes Gone Baby Gone so satisfying. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel (the same dude who wrote Mystic River), Ben Affleck’s directorial debut (sort of) is a thoroughly engaging drama, combining key elements of various genres into a suspenseful and often surprising thriller. But what sets the movie apart is its uncompromising sense of grit. This is true most obviously of its locations, which are awash in grime and decay. The film is set in some of the nastier neighborhoods of Boston, which is famously (or perhaps infamously, depending on your tolerance for Affleck’s posturing as the quintessential Red Sox fan) the director’s hometown. Scenes set in seedy bars and ramshackle apartments give the movie a gloomy, baleful realism.
(For the record, I’ve lived in Boston for three years, and little of Gone Baby Gone looked familiar to me. This confused me, until my buddy Pat explained why: “Was it set at the Boston Common movie theatre? Because that’s pretty much the only part of ‘Boston’ you ever see.” Good point.)
But Gone Baby Gone is far from a simple exposé of inner-city ugliness. It’s a spiraling, tightly focused story about a kidnapping and one man’s struggle to uncover the truth while battling his own demons. At first, Patrick Kenzie (played by Casey Affleck, who is, in case you didn’t freaking know, the director’s brother) seems like a standard movie crime sleuth – he’s smart, good-looking, and determined, and you damned well know he’s going to get to the bottom of this business. But despite his movie-star charisma, Patrick doesn’t have trouble getting a little dirty, and an early scene where he pistol-whips a sleazeball eyeing his girlfriend gives us our first look at his darker side. As the movie’s story grows more sinister and its plot becomes more convoluted, that side of Patrick comes to the fore. The movie is violent, yes, but what’s so forceful about Ben Affleck’s filmmaking is that with each violent episode, he thrusts his protagonist further into a moral abyss. Patrick is faced with a number of tough choices in the film, and the ones he makes don’t always typify those of a hero.
That may be because heroes are hard to find in Gone Baby Gone. Most of the individuals who populate the movie – cops and robbers alike – seem morally tarnished and unclean, and while the movie functions perfectly well as a caper (there are several big twists, most of them surprising), it’s equally rewarding as a raw, unflinching take on the evil truths of human nature. There’s a light at the end of this movie, and you can find it if you search hard enough, but it’s hard to find in the midst of such darkness.
(Note: This technically isn’t Affleck’s debut as a director. According to IMDb, in 1993 while at Occidental College, he made a 16-minute short called I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney. I’ve decided not to count that one.)
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Last year, to the disbelief of most readers, I unapologetically declared Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest to be the best movie of the year. My buddy Brian was outraged (to the extent that he cared), damning the sequel as “mediocre”, and his voice echoed that of the majority. Lest anyone think I’m somehow ashamed as a result of such clamor, don’t be foolish – I remain secure in my convictions (or, to steal the most moving line from Dead Man’s Chest, I’m not sorry). Gore Verbinski’s spectacular follow-up to The Curse of the Black Pearl struck all the right chords with me, and it remains preposterously enjoyable every time I re-watch it. Therefore, I had rather high expectations for the third and (hopefully) final installment of the wildly successful franchise. And, as is always the case, these expectations were accompanied by anxiety – ever since the relative failure of The Matrix Revolutions, I always get nervous when one of my favorite franchises outputs another episode. As such, I entered the midnight showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End incredibly excited and also mildly terrified.
I needn’t have worried. Keeping with the spirit of the first two pictures, At World’s End is an inspired achievement, by turns funny, exhilarating, and touching, but above all, entertaining. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has always been predominantly concerned with entertaining audiences, combining action spectacle with wry humor, all captured with an infectious enthusiasm. Whether you find this appealing is of course a matter of taste – some people don’t like seeing flaming undead monkeys fired out of a cannon toward an enemy ghost ship. And that’s fine. Although said people should consider purchasing an imagination.
But I don’t want to misrepresent At World’s End to be focused exclusively on action because that’s inaccurate; in fact, until its rousing climax, the movie has very few action scenes. Instead this picture, more so than either of its predecessors, focuses far more on plot. Featuring a complicated, often confusing storyline, it challenges viewers to pay attention. I believe this to be a good thing – one of the pleasure I had in watching the movie was attempting to follow the never-ending machinations of its dizzying screenplay. Loyalties shift and change throughout the course of the film, with characters switching sides and double-crossing each other seemingly on a per-minute basis, all with their own singular motivations. It’s Dickens filtered through Jerry Bruckheimer.
That said, At World’s End is hardly a weighted-down exercise in procedural storytelling – it’s far too much fun for that. Its plot revolves and diverges with surprising speed, but it consistently maintains a buoyant spirit of optimism and humor. Its dialogue sparkles with verve and originality, and the interplay between characters is natural and jovial. There are so many memorable moments, so many beautiful shots and sharp one-liners, so many gorgeous costumes and bold pieces of music. Nearly every scene hums with such a vibrant vitality that it’s impossible not to appreciate At World’s End for what it is: a grand celebration of the art of movie-making.
And then there’s the maelstrom sequence. Dead Man’s Chest had the “wheel of fortune” as its signature set piece – in that, three men all dueled each other while balancing upon the top of a gigantic spinning wooden wheel while elsewhere three pirates fought off a horde of advancing baddies despite only having two swords between them, all to the sounds of Hans Zimmer’s happily bombastic score. That was cool.
But that gloriously preposterous sequence is downright sedentary compared to its corollary in At World’s End. The maelstrom climax is too complicated and too lengthy to summarize with any efficiency, but here’s a snapshot: Part of it involves a maelstrom (surprise) in which two dueling pirate ships have somehow become locked at their masts, and two lovers decide – while in the midst of dispatching some sort of water zombies that look like a hybrid between Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons and George Romero’s zombies from Dawn of the Dead – that they want to get married, and thus they inform the ship’s captain, who just happens to be a more-or-less-undead pirate himself, and he performs the wedding rites, and all the while the water zombies continue to intervene, only the lovers continuously and emphatically cut down the would-be-wedding-crashers with swift sword strokes throughout the ceremony, and finally they’re officially married, and bodies are flying everywhere, and it’s all capped off with a marvelous kiss that the camera captures in panorama while the music swells into a triumphant orchestral blare, and we are witness to the sights and sounds of love and victory and unfettered joy. (And yeah, somewhere in there, the monkey gets fired from the cannon.)
And that’s the kind of thing that will secure the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise a place in the annals of cinematic lore: a supreme sense of giddiness. These movies feature fantastically improbable action, memorable characters, sly dialogue, and superb special effects, all presented to us with an unrestrained throw-in-the-kitchen-sink spirit of filmmaking. They’re pure fun. And there’s certainly no shame in that.
6. No Country for Old Men. After he saw No Country for Old Men, my buddy Jim called me and said, “Why did the Coen Brothers remake Fargo and set it in Texas?”. Jim was being glib, but it’s important to note that Fargo and No Country for Old Men are two very dissimilar pictures. Fargo is a unique thriller that’s as much black comedy as it is crime drama, and the atrocities it presents are shrewdly offset by the warmth it shows for its lead character, played by Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand. (For the record, Fargo is also, in my mind, just the slightest bit overrated.) No Country for Old Men has much more in common with the Coens’ debut feature, Blood Simple.. Like that film, and like the terrifying serial killer that has become No Country for Old Men’s most identifiable character, it is cold, ruthless, and exacting.
It is also a rare example of an actual thriller, by which I mean that watching the movie is a literally thrilling experience. When an unwitting welder named Llewelyn Moss finds a satchel full of drug money, he initiates a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that quickly builds to an unbearable (but sustained) level of suspense; before long, every scene in No Country for Old Men possesses extraordinary tension. Watching the movie, I was transformed into a state of exquisite unease, constantly asking the question all good thrillers make viewers ask: “What the hell is going to happen next?” If ever a movie can put viewers on the edge of their seat, this is it.
But while the film is surprising in the traditional sense in that it features a plot layered with various twists, its true unpredictability lies in its payoffs. There is a lot of killing in No Country for Old Men, but many of the deaths are sudden, and quite a few take place off screen, even for major characters. And for a movie focusing on a hunter and his quarry, there are very few extended chase sequences (although the scene in the second motel is phenomenal). This is because Anton Chigurh, the movie’s signature serial killer, is so disturbingly good at his trade that his prey stand little chance of surviving for more than a few seconds after he enters the room. (After a bounty hunter learns of Llewelyn’s escape from Chigurh, he muses, “You’ve seen him, and you’re not dead?” in a tone of bewilderment.)
What there is instead is a series of brilliantly conceived duck-and-cover exercises, all observed by the Coens with austere simplicity, as Llewelyn attempts to remain one step ahead of his pursuer. It’s a fool’s errand – he knows it and so do we – but the techniques he employs to stay alive are nothing short of mesmerizing. You know those bad slasher movies where the audience is always grumbling at how stupidly the characters are behaving: “No, don’t run into the dark alley, you’ll get cornered, you dumb bitch!”. No Country for Old Men is the exact opposite of that. Llewelyn may do some unconscionably stupid things (at one point he at least acknowledges this, telling his wife, “I’m fixin’ to do something dumber than hell”), but he also proves to be incredibly smart. For their part, the Coens wisely don’t overtly elucidate most of Llewelyn’s actions – it’s far more satisfying for us when we figure things out on our own. I was mystified when Llewelyn was undertaking such a struggle to purchase some tent poles, until I finally realized with a shock (along with the rest of the audience), “Oh, that’s what they’re for!” (trust me, it makes sense in context). No Country for Old Men is full of rewarding moments like that.
Into this wicked dance of life and death, the Coens try to inject some pathos through the persona of Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff played with acute weariness by Tommy Lee Jones. The world has passed him by, it seems, and he’s struggling to come to grips with his station in life in the midst of such brutality. But just as this is no country for a man like Ed Tom, this is no movie for something as sensitive and ethereal as emotion. No Country for Old Men will be remembered not for its pathos but for its canny ability to manufacture tension, to transport viewers into a quasi-permanent state of suspense. It will be remembered because it’s a thriller that truly thrills.
5. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. If you haven’t heard of this movie, don’t worry, you probably aren’t alone; it was so poorly marketed that it made less than $7 million at the box office and didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. That’s a shame because Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a splendidly well-executed melodrama, kinetic, gripping, and powerful. It’s the simple story of a robbery that is designed to be harmless (the film’s one good piece of marketing was its tagline: “No one was supposed to get hurt”) but goes disastrously wrong, and as a result a merciless swath of destruction slices through the lives of the main characters, until only desolation remains. If Gone Baby Gone was satisfyingly dark, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is pitch-black.
I don’t want to give away too much of the film (although something tells me that if you’re reading the majority of the Manifesto, you’ve either seen most of the movies or aren’t too concerned about spoilers), but I can say that the movie focuses on a family, specifically two brothers (Ethan Hawke and the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman) and their father (Albert Finney, gruff as ever). Disaster of some sort befalls all three, but watching each of these characters descend into moral oblivion, I felt a perverse sense of exhilaration. The events depicted on screen are by no means enjoyable, but they are presented with such unflinching clarity that I became completely immersed. The vigor in this film is so enveloping – in the pacing, the dialogue, even the music – that the viewing experience became one of excitement.
I’m not sure what this says about me as a person. I saw Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead two nights in a row (in two dismal theatres, but never mind that), the second night with my friends Jay and Landis. Afterward, Jay – who is unequivocally a nicer guy than I am – told me he appreciated the movie but wasn’t sure if he really enjoyed it. I was gobsmacked. His attitude, I surmise (I’m sort of speaking for him here), was that it’s hard to truly like a movie when so many bad things happen involving so many bad people. (This viewpoint is exemplified by a thread on the movie’s IMDb message board titled, “Had to Walk Out or Slit My Wrists”.) I suppose that’s true in some cases; take a movie like Saw, which was perfectly well-done but disgusted me – after I saw it I felt like I needed a shower. But the characters in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are realized so fully, and their motives so well delineated, that I didn’t worry about whether or not I liked them. I was too busy being fascinated by them and their horrifying predicament.
In fact, the movie’s relentlessly engrossing nature provides it with an additional layer of complexity: It forces us to consider honestly how we would act in these characters’ shoes. Certainly most of the individuals in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead behave badly, and they receive their comeuppance, but it is difficult for us to condemn them when we’re uncertain how we ourselves would respond. This not only supplies legitimacy and realism to the characters’ actions but prevents us from judging them too harshly.
I’m intentionally writing in vague terms, and for that I apologize, but you’ll just have to trust me that the moral dilemmas posed in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are utterly haunting, as are the consequences that transpire in light of them. Here is a movie that is completely absorbing in its illustration of total despair. It pulls us in, then lets us watch as it shows us its shattered lives. How ironic that the movie’s final shot is a fade to a brilliant white light. It’s as though we’ve been temporarily transported to Heaven, only then we remember that the film’s title comes from a sad Irish toast: “May you be in Heaven half an hour … before the Devil knows you’re dead”.
(Note: One of the delights I had in watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is entirely personal – I went into the movie cold. I hadn’t seen a single trailer or TV spot, nor had I read a review. I knew virtually nothing about it other than that the best movie critic it the world, A.O. Scott at the New York Times, had labeled it a “critic’s pick”. I didn’t even know it was playing in Boston until I received an enthusiastic recommendation from Movie Buddy Katie, who had recently seen it at the pitiful Harvard Square Theatre. Otherwise, I knew zip.
And what a blessing this turned out to be. I’m not saying the movie wouldn’t still have been tremendously enjoyable and affecting had I seen the trailer beforehand, but it was so nice to be wholly surprised by a movie’s twists and turns without having them spoiled for me in advance by a trailer for a change.
So here’s my first question: Why can’t this happen all the time? Why am I forced to sacrifice the possibility of being fully surprised by a movie just by watching its trailer? Look, I understand the function of trailers. Not everyone goes to the movies as often as I do, and trailers are necessary advertising ploys designed to pique prospective viewers’ interest. I get that.
But do they need to give away the whole fucking plot? Of the movies I watched this year, almost all of them revealed crucial plot information in their trailer (with the comedies typically spoiling their funniest lines), while some sneak peeks had the temerity to include scenes from the movie’s final act. Consider the information including in the trailers for the following movies: 3:10 to Yuma’s preview had detailed dialogue from its climax. American Gangster’s spoiled one of its key final shots. Black Snake Moan’s trailer gave away the whole chained-to-the-radiator bit, which would have been downright jaw-dropping if it hadn’t been shown in advance. The Bourne Ultimatum’s preview spoiled the movie’s best line (it was such a good line even my Dad remembered it, and he hadn’t seen the trailer for more than a year – hell, he barely remembered Joan Allen starred in The Bourne Supremacy as well). Even the trailer for No Country for Old Men featured footage from the movie’s last five minutes.
The sad truth is that all of these trailers impacted my ability to enjoy the movie to some degree; I liked all of the above films, but I probably would have liked them a bit more if I hadn’t seen their respective previews. Instead, I was spoiled, and not in a good way. Call it a loss of moviegoing innocence. And to quote President Palmer on “24”, that loss is unacceptable.
Here’s my next question: Can’t we regulate this somehow? The entertainment industry is currently overseen by two of the most obnoxious, outmoded, irrational governing bodies on the planet: the FCC and the MPAA. Can’t somebody form a new committee that regulates trailers, ensuring they don’t reveal any plot twists or important lines or developments that take place past a movie’s 45-minute mark? The trailer could still showcase the film’s key actors and introduce its major plot points – it just wouldn’t completely spoil the entire movie the way the trailer for Cassandra’s Dream did. We could get Ron Howard to run things – the trailer for A Beautiful Mind was perfect (can you imagine watching that movie and already knowing that Nash was schizophrenic?), and I’m willing to forgive him for giving away Apollo 13 (um, in case you didn’t know, the spaceship has a problem). And we wouldn’t let Robert Zemeckis anywhere near it – I don’t care if he makes another movie better than Forrest Gump, I’m never forgiving him for ruining Cast Away for me.
Honestly, I think this idea has legs. Now I just need to mobilize. Jerkoff politicians, if you’re listening, hear this: I don’t care if you’re pro-life, pro-war, or pro-dress code, I will absolutely campaign for you if you vow to crack down on movie trailers. These are my important issues.
Also, if your advice for me is that I should simply avoid trailers, trust me, when you go to the movies 89 times in a year, it’s harder than you think. Although I have done the whole “close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and hum quietly to myself” thing. But never on a date. At least not yet.)
4. Eastern Promises. One of the exceptional qualities of David Cronenberg’s previous film, the 2005 thriller A History of Violence, was that it accomplished so much while doing very little. Quantitatively, there were very few scenes of actual violence (only three or four, depending if you count the son smacking the bullies around), and no moment existed for the overt purpose of advancing the plot. Instead, Cronenberg allowed small scenes between his characters to tell his story – he expanded upon his theme (that violent behavior is one of humanity’s inherent traits) through nuanced conversations and quiet, nonverbal exchanges.
Eastern Promises is more plot-driven than A History of Violence, but it nevertheless exhibits the same overall sparsity, and this is ultimately what makes it so riveting. By limiting the total number of scenes and allowing dialogue to linger and breathe, Cronenberg compels us to be vigilant in observing the behavior of his characters. The appearance of relative inactivity on the surface makes us cognizant of the sinister nature of what lurks beneath, and we unconsciously strain to ensure we don’t overlook any of the film’s many subtleties.
It helps that Cronenberg creates such a palpable atmosphere of doom. Formerly a master of B horror movies, the Canadian director knows how to light a scene to generate maximum dread. Many of the movie’s exterior shots take place on the rain-soaked streets of London, in the dark, shadowy corners that have become infested by the Russian mafia. But even in interiors that seem cheery and safe – such as a restaurant operated by the film’s chief villain, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, quietly terrifying) – unease seeps into the picture’s every frame.
Consider a crucial scene set in that restaurant between Semyon and Anna, our heroine (Naomi Watts, anxious but full of moxie). She’s been led to this pleasant establishment because she found a business card among the belongings of an anonymous dead girl; Anna is hoping to determine her identity. Semyon is all smiles and warmth. He offers her borscht. It’s good. He can’t help her, he says, but he’ll ask around. She mentions idly that she might learn more once she gets the girl’s diary translated. Semyon stops. Ever so slowly, he turns to her, the slightest hint of calculation in his eyes. “She kept a diary?” he asks softly. And there, with a simple turn of the head and a gentle, hushed question, all the warmth floods out of the scene, replaced by danger and fear – we understand this man has something to hide. Very little is said, and yet so much happens.
Such methodical filmmaking might tempt fidgety moviegoers to assume Eastern Promises is slow. It isn’t. It does not move with great haste, but it is utterly relentless. Think of it as the way Darth Vader walks – it may be unhurried, but it never breaks stride, and you know it’s going to get where it’s going eventually.
And when it does reach its destination, Eastern Promises possesses a payoff that is richly gratifying. Ever since the ‘90s double whammy of The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, movies with surprise endings have had the tendency to feel cheap, often cheating audiences rather than astonishing them. Not so here. Following logically from the film’s thoughtful, meticulous buildup, the catharsis it achieves in its final act is well-earned, and we embrace it with admiration and even joy.
If I sound somehow restrained in my praise, that is only because Eastern Promises is such a coolly restrained motion picture. It features no excess material, no fat to trim, and it makes no missteps. It simply tells its fascinating story with economy and precision. And that is what makes it so memorable.
3. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. If I was apprehensive going into the midnight showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, for my midnight outing of the fifth Harry Potter movie I was downright pessimistic. Adapting an 870-page fantasy novel is one thing. Adapting one that predominantly consists of its formerly golden hero alienating his friends, repeatedly having bizarre nightmares, getting inexplicably blown off by his mentor and idol, imagining that he’s become possessed and is unwittingly doing the Dark Lord’s bidding, and generally feeling sorry for himself and acting like a bastard … yeah, good luck with that. Throw in the presence of an untested director, David Yates, and I was about as confident as Scott Sauerbeck facing a right-hander. I was hopeful, of course – I generally don’t show up three hours before a movie holding not one but two jackets in the middle of summer to save seats for my parents and sister in order to see a film I’m convinced I’m going to dislike. I just didn’t think Yates and his crew could pull it off.
Thankfully – and you don’t hear me say this very often – I was wrong.
For what a truly magical film Yates has made! It’s the best of everything a Harry Potter movie can be – lively and colorful yet dark and foreboding, witty and charming yet serious and introspective, boldly epic yet quietly intimate. Best of all, the movie resonates with an infinite sense of possibility, taking place in a universe that is unique but also identifiable. That’s what the great fantasy films do for us – they transport us to a magical, imaginary world that bears all the hallmarks of our own, show us adventures we could never dream of having but are experienced by people we meet every day. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a great movie because it lodges its fantastical events in fundamental, universal terms. The magic on the screen may just be invented, but the characters are very real.
The movie’s technical prowess notwithstanding (and yeah, we’ll get there eventually), the key to Order of the Phoenix’s success is its ability to position Harry as a sympathetic hero rather than a sniveling whiner. The brilliance of the novel is that it dramatically alters the public’s perception of Harry; previously viewed as a beloved orphan and something of a boy wonder, he’s suddenly painted by the media as a liar and attention-seeker. Any 15-year-old would have difficulty coping with such condemnation (which he receives from both his enemies and some of his friends), and J.K. Rowling’s portrait of Harry’s anguish and resultant anger is insightful as well as touching. Yet the most common takeaway readers seemed to have of the novel was that Harry spent much of his time grumbling, wallowing in self-pity, and basically being a git.
Case in point: Four and a half years ago, after devouring the book twice in a week, I called my buddy Nate to learn his thoughts. His exact first words: “Harry kept getting pissed off, man.” Readers – themselves accustomed to a faultless hero – were so annoyed by Harry’s anger that they failed to see it as the logical reaction of a teenager placed in trying circumstances. So that was the challenge for Yates and his team – to illuminate Harry’s mounting sense of frustration without sacrificing the audience’s empathy.
To his credit, Yates doesn’t shy away from the challenge. From its opening shot – a solitary Harry wandering toward a playground, observing with the slightest twinge of sadness children playing with their parents – the first act of Order of the Phoenix presents a Harry who is isolated and alone, cut off from the delights of the wizarding world. As in the book, when Harry is finally reunited with Ron and Hermione, he greets them coldly and with severe bitterness, and his eventual return to Hogwarts is marred with suspicious glances and conspiratorial whispers.
And then there are two lovely scenes, neither of which is in the book. In the first, Harry snaps at Ron after Ron has just defended him in front of his peers; wounded, Ron replies, “I’ll just leave you to your thoughts” with aching softness. In the second, Harry – in another instance of self-pity – grouses to Hermione, “You wouldn’t understand”. The hurt visible on her face, she loyally persists, “Then help us to”.
In each of these moments, a flicker of shame crosses Harry’s face, mingled with the bitterness and exasperation. And that’s one of the key ways Harry in particular – and Order of the Phoenix in general – retains our affection. He knows that his friends are loyal and true, and he knows they just want to help; his regret regarding his own behavior only further reinforces his own fragility, thus deepening our understanding rather than severing it.
The other technique Yates employs to ensure we remain firmly on his hero’s side is to place Harry in the midst of some truly dark times. When he sleeps, he constantly has flashbacks to the awful night of Cedric Diggory’s death, and when he boards the Hogwarts Express, he imagines he sees Lord Voldemort there on the corridor, watching him, waiting to strike. It is impossible not to sympathize with a boy suffering such haunting memories and visions. The appointment of the vile Professor Umbridge, the Ministry hag sent to quell Harry’s reports of Voldemort’s return, only exacerbates Harry’s sense of desolation, and the woman is so foul – and her methods of punishment so reprehensible – that when she persecutes Harry, we immediately and instinctively come to his defense.
All of this accomplishes the crucial objective of establishing Harry’s inner pain and isolation while ensuring we remain steadfast in our support and devotion. And so, when Harry – spurred on by the advice of Luna Lovegood, in another beautiful scene not in the book – finally summons the courage to embrace his friends once again, it is a moment of tremendous satisfaction. This is not because we’re relieved Harry’s finally acting his age but because we’re so deeply invested in his survival – we know that true peril lies ahead, and he’ll need his friends to help him when it arrives. It’s an uncommonly mature first act for a fantasy film, and this depth of character is what elevates Order of the Phoenix from merely entertaining to truly extraordinary.
To be fair, the movie – unlike its immediate predecessor, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – isn’t quite perfect. There are a few scenes where the dialogue lifted directly from Rowling’s pages feels a bit clunky, such as the reaction to Harry’s “screaming fit” early in the film (he’s chastised for shouting, only he doesn’t seem to have raised his voice). And the extended action sequence near the film’s finale features a lot of wand-waving but doesn’t flow as effortlessly or possess as visceral an impact as the graveyard sequence in Goblet of Fire. This is mainly a result of the inherent difficulty in creating a visual representation of magic. Rowling is uniquely gifted in communicating magical combat to readers; on the page, when one of her characters utters a spell, you immediately know what it means, where it’s headed, and what it’s supposed to do. Translating this to the screen is a tricky challenge: How do you film a swordfight without the swords? (Interestingly enough, several people I’ve talked to who haven’t read the books identified the action climax as their favorite sequence of the movie. So go figure.)
But even if the duels between wizards lack proper tangibility, the movie’s finale is salvaged – completely and majestically – by yet another moment that is unique to the motion picture adaptation. Voldemort, bored of dueling Dumbledore, decides to possess Harry. The reason for this isn’t important, and explaining it would involve me enlightening readers about the unique connection between Voldemort’s and Harry’s minds that was created as a result of Voldemort’s misfired Avada Kedavra curse that failed to kill Harry because his mother had protected him with her love so it instead left him with his lightning-bolt scar and rebounded upon Voldemort forcing him to exist only as vapor for 13 years until he finally regained corporeal form at the graveyard at the end of Goblet of Fire. Seriously, you don’t want me to go there.
What is important is the way Yates depicts the possession visually. At first, Voldemort simply disappears, transforming into mist and swirling toward his quarry; then Harry, in sudden agony, begins writhing on the ground, screaming in pain. As Nicholas Hooper’s music highlights a haunting cello, Yates unleashes a furious montage of the battle now raging inside Harry’s head, showing us all the horrible moments of pain and sadness and loss Harry has thus far experienced in his short life. Earlier in the film, Harry – frustrated with his own tendency to lash out – had expressed the fear that he and Voldemort were similar, that he was “becoming bad”, and we see that brilliantly represented here as Harry looks into a mirror, only to see Voldemort looking back.
Then, as Harry appears to be in his death throes, his eyes find Ron and Hermione, and the montage in his mind changes from visions of pain to images of tenderness and levity. We see flashbacks not just from this film but from all the others as well – a hug, a shared joke, a playful snowball fight, all in a marvelous freefalling rush. It is as though every feeling of happiness Harry has ever experienced is encapsulated in this one grand cinematic moment, and it gives him the strength to repel Voldemort, because no being so evil can possibly coexist in a mind filled with such light and hope. “You’ll never know love or friendship,” Harry gasps, “and I feel sorry for you.” And then, the possession has ended, and we can finally release our breath and wipe the tears from our eyes.
It’s an extraordinary sequence, by turns terrifying and uplifting but enduringly poignant. It’s a scene of magic, yes, but it features fundamental feelings of grief and love that are recognizable to any of us, and that’s how it achieves such stunning emotional potency. In a world of talking ghosts and winged beasts, of hulking giants and proud centaurs, our hero’s capacity for love is his most essential quality. Amidst all the creatures and effects, the sorcery and the spells, it is the illumination of this that makes Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix so magical.
(And how many Oscar nominations did the movie receive? Here’s a hint: as many playoff games as the New York Knicks have won since Isiah Thomas took over. This is why I sort of fucking hate the Oscars. And Isiah Thomas.)
2. Michael Clayton. One of the best scenes in Michael Clayton – a flawless movie full of “best scenes” – is a quiet moment between the title character and his young son. They’re driving away from a birthday party for Michael’s ailing father, and they’ve just had an unpleasant run-in with Michael’s black sheep brother, Timmy. Michael (played, of course, by that Hollywood icon, George Clooney) has been alarmingly cold to Timmy, probably for good reason – we hear murmurs of something involving stolen car tires used to buy drugs. Michael’s son, Henry – bright-eyed and perceptive – seems unaffected by his father’s callous behavior toward his sibling, as though he’s seen it before. He’s focused on his book, so when Michael stops the car, he’s mildly irritated. “What?” the boy asks. Michael turns to face his child.
And then George Clooney delivers a monologue of such sudden power that watching it, I was taken aback. I also – and this is perhaps the highest praise I can give Clooney – immediately thought of my own father. Michael’s tone when he speaks to his son is clipped, almost stern, but his words contain such warm paternal affection that they seem to glow; it’s as if he’s steeling himself so as not to gush. “You’re not going to be one of those people who goes through life wondering why things keep falling out of the sky around them,” he prophesies to his boy. “I see it every time I look at you … I don’t know where the hell you got it from, but you got it.”
And that seems to be the best way to sum up the pure excellence of Michael Clayton. The movie simply pulsates with an aura of distinction, a certain quality. I can’t quite say how it has it, but it has it.
Of course, it helps that the movie is pretty much perfect. Part legal thriller, part character study, all mesmerizing, Tony Gilroy’s first feature is just textbook filmmaking. The characters all have shape and dimensionality. The pacing is brisk and absorbing. The acting is exceptional (yup, we’ll get to that in more detail eventually). The dialogue is intelligent, often funny, but never unrealistic. Every facet of Michael Clayton is polished but not mannered – its perfection cannot diminish its vitality.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is its uncanny ability to propel its story while keeping its focus on its characters. The film’s storyline is complicated, and so are its characters, but this complexity is intriguing rather than frustrating. The intricacies of Michael Clayton’s screenplay enrich the experience by drawing us in, and we’re persuaded so easily because we’re so invested in the individuals we see on screen. There are many plot-driven scenes in the movie, and many character-driven ones, but they aren’t mutually exclusive – both advance in concert, acting as complements rather than substitutes.
Consider the scene where Michael finally tracks down his former mentor, Arthur (the unfailingly great Tom Wilkinson). It’s a pivotal moment in the movie’s plot: Arthur has essentially gone off the reservation in the middle of a huge case, and Michael needs to bring him back home before things get messy. But as these two men begin to talk, we gain a sense of their closeness, their past history, and their current distance. The ostensible function of their conversation is to advance the film’s story, but that quickly becomes secondary – what we really care about is their damaged friendship. “How do I talk to you, Arthur? So you hear me?” Michael asks, pained. “Like a child, like a nut, like everything’s fine? What’s the secret? Because I need you to hear me.” The weariness on Michael’s face is unmistakable, and Arthur’s recognition of this – and his subsequent refusal to comply with his friend’s request – results in a scene whose impact is devastating.
Perhaps the only misstep of Michael Clayton is a clumsy marketing ploy – posters of the film sport the tagline “The truth can be adjusted” stamped in block letters over Clooney’s face. Such blunt posturing does disservice to a picture as subtle and richly textured as this. But those who see Michael Clayton won’t have to worry about that. They can simply appreciate the delights of watching a movie so good it needs no adjustments at all.
1 Atonement. The writing of the Manifesto poses to me a grave danger. It involves the nature of praise. Basically, I like a lot of things about movies. That’s why I see so many. I like a lot of actors, and a lot of directors, and a lot of cinematographers. I enjoy the work of a great number of artists currently operating in cinema. Each year, I await any number of theatrical releases with a measure of anticipation ranging from boyish giddiness to fanatical fervor. As such, when I write the Manifesto – a document designed not only to chastise the Academy for its oversights but also to pay tribute to the year’s unheralded releases – I have a fair amount of compliments to bestow, with varying degrees of effusiveness.
The danger, then, is this: To dispense praise with such regularity and such enthusiasm risks mitigating the weight of that praise. If you tell a girl you love her once, that’s meaningful; if you tell her every time you speak to her, it becomes perfunctory. (I mean, that’s what I’ve heard.) Over the past several pages, I’ve used adjectives like flawless, memorable, and magical. Now, I can honestly assure you that I don’t toss out such verbiage indiscriminately – I mean everything that I write, and I simply happened to see some very good movies this year. Nevertheless, I fear that some of my commendations may be viewed as exaggerated, given their high volume within a relatively consolidated space.
My point is not to plead with readers to take me seriously on the whole (although that would be nice). Instead, I only wish to promise that the language I am about to employ in discussing the motion picture Atonement in no way constitutes hyperbole. I mean exactly what I have to say, and that is this: The act of watching Atonement was the most intense experience I have ever had in a movie theatre. When the movie ended, I was utterly paralyzed. It affected me as no work of art ever has. I have never felt anything like it.
Lest there be any confusion, let me stress that I do not believe this to be a good thing – it is a great thing. Movies are wonderful because they can entertain us, yes, but the best movies are those that can not only divert our attention from the banal realities of our world but truly make us feel. I stroll through the majority of my life as a coldhearted bastard, which is generally fine with me, but I also appreciate the value of surrendering myself to something emotionally – the experience of being a little shaken up can be both unsettling and oddly energizing. It doesn’t happen often, however, and it requires the proper agent. Women being too unpredictable and Nomar Garciaparra being too injury-prone, for me cinema is the lone avenue through which such cathartic submission is possible. And Atonement made me feel such acute emotional pain that I can only regard it as a treasure.
Here’s a true story: After I watched the movie and eventually stumbled back to my apartment, I emailed about 12 different people – family, friends, coworkers – imploring them to go see it. My friend Stacy eventually complied and subsequently sent me the following text message: “Just saw Atonement. I hate you and want to die.” I understood exactly what she meant. I immediately called her and confirmed two assumptions: first, that she thought the movie was very good, and second, that watching it consequently made her feel like wandering into oncoming traffic. She may have been exaggerating, but only slightly – I knew, because I had felt the same way.
Don’t you see how extraordinary this is? How many times have you been able to say something like that about a work of art? How can a mere movie – two hours of nothing other than images and sound – generate such feelings of devastation and despair? Such emotional conveyance from a motion picture to its audience is so rare that its transfer is something to be celebrated. We must not take a film that resonates so deeply for granted.
Not that I have much of a choice. Atonement is such a spectacular technical achievement that its every fiber – its persuasive acting, its gorgeous images, its intricate screenplay, its marvelous score, its superb production design – has etched itself so firmly in my memory that to forget it is simply not an option. Rest assured that I’ll be discussing each of these features in further detail (some more so than others, ahem, Best Actress) as we proceed. Suffice it to say for now that director Joe Wright’s overall command of the film – especially for a man directing only his second feature – is nothing short of astounding.
But as with all great movies, the technical proficiency of Atonement exists to serve the film’s story rather than trump it. That story is actually fairly straightforward; for all its delicacy and lavishness, Atonement is a movie of profound simplicity. It’s a love story, of course, and its lovers (victims?) are Robbie (James McAvoy, growing dreamier with every role) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley – nothing else need be said). They “move in different circles” – Robbie is something of an errand boy, whereas Cecilia is a posh aristocrat – but they find passion all the same. Uncovering this is Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan, unbelievably poised). Through a combination of jealousy, confusion, and an artist’s imagination, Briony tells a lie that ultimately ravages the lives of not only Robbie and Cecilia, but her own as well.
That’s it. Three principal characters, one major plot point. But from this simple structure there spirals a fascinating web, with layered, integrated threads involving the enduring power of love, the horrors of regret, and the never-ending quest for redemption. For all its simplicity in terms of plot, Atonement is also richly complex in the delineation of its characters. Briony’s fateful pronouncement may be abhorrent, but she is viewed with such clarity and perspective that her actions are somehow understandable as well as grotesque; as such, their destructive consequences carry even more weight. Briony is an individual with true depth – she isn’t a petty, spoiled little girl but a talented, burgeoning artist whose lively imagination sadly overrides her keen intelligence.
The lead characters also easily defy convention, most notably in the construction of their love story. A lesser movie would have crudely accentuated the social disparity between Robbie and Cecilia, molding them as star-crossed, Shakespearean lovers torn apart by the cruelty of divergent social strata. But Robbie appears to be well-liked by Cecilia’s family, and in other circumstances, a successful union for the two of them may even have been possible. Such feasibility only makes the resultant impact of Briony’s lie all the more devastating.
Then there is the interaction between the lovers themselves, portrayed with such a nuanced combination of hot-blooded ardor and dogged rationality. Most movie lovers are so unquestionably besotted that their adoration takes on an almost fantastical nature; it is not grounded in real-world hopes and fears, and this lack of realism translates to a lack of poignancy. Robbie and Cecilia are truly in love, there can be no question, but a modicum of doubt mingles with their affection. This is most evident in an aching scene in a restaurant where Robbie attempts to remain clearheaded, to Cecilia’s dismay – he’s worried their love might somehow not be real. It’s a concern most normal men would have, and it fortifies the love story with honesty and realism. This apprehension ultimately makes Robbie’s and Cecilia’s shared passion even more powerful.
And then there is the ending. Many movies are sad, and some are legitimately depressing, but the conclusion of Atonement is one of pure agony. This is tragedy in its purest form: all-encompassing, merciless, utterly heartbreaking. Watching it, I felt battered, so forceful was the impact. I was so shaken I did not even have the strength to cry.
Again, I believe this to be a good thing. Of all the movies I saw this year, when I reflect on my various theatrical experiences, the first thing I remember is the absolute helplessness I felt at the end of Atonement. It’s a feeling that lingered with me for days, one that I can still recall effortlessly. It’s testament to the power of motion pictures, that we can watch a movie screen, leave our world behind, and enter another, and that while there we can be altered, even damaged. The best movies are the ones that make us vulnerable, and I’ve never felt more defenseless than when I was watching this film.
The last spoken word of Atonement is “happiness”. That might appear to be an irony, given the uncompromisingly bleak nature of the movie’s ending. But perhaps it’s fitting. Here is a film captivates us, draws us in, and leaves an everlasting imprint on our memory. Happiness may not find the movie’s characters, but for the rest of us, Atonement is nothing short of cinematic bliss.