Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
“Have you seen any good movies lately?” I get that a lot. It seems that people somehow know that film is one of my passions. How about you–have you seen any good movies this year? As 2007 draws to a close, I thought it would be fun to start a Rabbit Room dialog about movies that inspired our respective lives in 2007.
Like finding and raising the Titanic, great art must be tenaciously pursued. Finding the great ones doesn’t usually happen without some advance thought. A random appearance at the local multi-screen cinemaplex doesn’t always yield the goods either. With eighteen choices, one might think otherwise. If I’m staying home, I like Netflix. Their selection is without peer and they don’t charge for late returns. The theater is great, but the convenience of home, a big screen, and a pause button if somebody gets chatty–hey, that’s not all bad. More than once I’ve reflexively tried to pause the theater projector.
I’m also fortunate that in Omaha we have a couple of theaters that specialize in running indie, foreign, documentary and classic motion pictures; the Dundee, anachronistically sporting only one screen, and the newly opened and constructed Ruth Sokolof Theater, a nonprofit organization featuring presentation and discussion of film as an art form. In July of this year, the two-screen theater was opened. It’s located within the world famous Saddle Creek Records development in downtown Omaha. It’s concurrently serves the passionate cineaste and casual filmgoer . It’s a classic partnership of the public and private sector, including donations and support from famous director Alexander Payne, who’s hometown is Omaha.
Several years ago on a test marketing basis, AMC offered a mind boggling deal: All the movies one customer can view for a monthly fee of $18.95. The deal lasted for about one year. It was pretty great. As a consumer, I’m always looking for superb value, and this was surely one of the best I’ve encountered. Honestly–in my case–AMC probably made up their lost movie revenue in buttered popcorn and Diet Coke sales (I know, I know, there is something incongruent about a menu of Diet Coke and buttered popcorn–leave me alone), but I never had to concern myself with getting enough value. After the first two movies, the rest were, uh, popcorn butter.
With all of it’s benefits, the deal did have at least one disadvantage. I saw far more clinkers than I ever had before. With such a flat fee arrangement, I didn’t hesitate to venture into movies I otherwise would avoid. And yes, I could always walk out, and did a few times. Still, more often than not, I unconsciously endured the mind numbing flicker of more duds than I should have. Besides, there’s something not quite right about eating buttered popcorn outside of the theater, you see. Having spent what I thought was so much wasted time on innumerable movie miscues, I finally realized that the junk had a purpose: they made me appreciate the great ones all the more.
Through the years, I’ve developed a sixth movie selection sense involving a weird mishmash of intuition and cinematic elbow grease to lead me to the great ones. No doubt, you have a method for separating the wheat from the chaff yourself. So without further dawdling, let’s take advantage of our respective perspectives–however developed and wherever utilized–and discuss what we’ve seen in 2007.
1. The Illusionist – Man, this one was fun. It features unbelievably compelling performances from Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. Giamatti deserves an Oscar for his performance. That guy rocks the freakin’ Casbah. The rest of the cast is solid. Pure and simple, this is just a great story, told really well. The end twist is the best I can recall since The Sixth Sense. You will see one hundred movies before you notice cinematography this good. The textures and colors are stunning. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to pause the movement just to admire the still frame.
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) – See it! It’s insanely good. It is rated “R” for significant violence and a few cuss words, so if your conscience forbids seeing a movie in that category, please take note. The violence is significant, but I thought was germane to the story. Also note that it’s a Spanish movie with subtitles. If your cinematic tendencies don’t run down that road, beware. But for those that like movies as art and beauty, this one is not likely to disappoint. The movie is faithful to the genre from which it borrows. Fantasy and reality are blended in in a most compelling and unique way.
3. Bridge to Terabithia – It was far better than I expected it to be. The trailers sold the movie as a special effects collage and there is some of that, but I appreciated the way in which the human aspect of the film blended so seamlessly with fantasy elements. Kids’ movies are often filled with things kids would never say or do. This is ostensibly a kids’ movie but will capture the hearts of adults who appreciate beauty, narrative, drama, and imagination. And the dialog is so well-written, you won’t have to roll your eyes when the young actors talk.
One of the really great characteristics of the way this movie was made, is the way imagination and fantasy are fused with the tangible events of any given day. As occurs in the hearts and minds of real people, the fantasy elements are often mingled into the nooks and crannies of their real world. When I was a little boy, I was afraid of the devil. I saw and heard him several times. I know I did. I used to conjure up some unbelievably beautiful worlds by something as simple as roughly rubbing my eyes with my fists. Once when I was sick, I dreamed that there were strings attached to my body, reaching out all over the world to others that could make me well. These kinds of things were palpable parts of my childhood. Whether scary or sublime, the fantasy elements of this movie are real without being cartoonish–just like fantasy weaves its way into the lives of real children/people.
I have not read the book on which the movie is based, so though I expected a twist, because it is telegraphed in kind of a general way, I was still caught by surprise when what happened, happened.
It’s a triple–maybe quad cry movie.
Pain, disappointment, fear, sadness, ache, embarrassment are balanced with friendship, love, kindness, forgiveness, and redemption.
4. Amazing Grace – It isn’t as stark and explicit as Amistad which also depicts slavery, but is an unbelievable story of persistence and courage. There were some truly excellent dramatic performances from the actors involved. The standout performance was that of Albert Finney, the same guy that played older Ed Bloom in Big Fish, another great movie. Finney plays John Newton, the one time slave ship master who converted to Christianity, became an Anglican minister, and of course wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
In trying to recall, I think Amistad is the better of the two by a fair margin, but both projects are good. Amistad was the more obscure story of the two and probably more historically accurate in terms of the story, as I understand it. While Amazing Grace graphically describes the slave trade inhumanity, Amistad graphically shows it.
By the way, after seeing Amazing Grace and reading a few reviews, I learned that one of the producers of this film is actress Patricia Heaton, better known for her role on Everybody Loves Raymond, one of my favorite sitcoms. Like another actor who’s work I appreciate, Jim Caviezel, she has been involved in a variety of projects–in entertainment and otherwise–supportive of causes that benefit children, the poor, and other causes often endorsed by believers. Heaton says, “I was raised Catholic and I’m Presbyterian now, but I’ve always been a Christian regardless of denomination. I believe that Jesus is the way.”
5. Blood Diamond – Leo D. is no Harrison Ford, but he continues to surprise me with his ability to play prototypically macho characters believably. There are good performances all around. I appreciate Leo’s talent in spite of myself. It’s a little embarrassing to say that I admire his work, but I do. In a movie that purposes to expose the atrocities of exploitation, it sure seems like the extras providing the movie violence were being, uh, exploited. Certainly not to the extent of the blood diamond buyers, but exploited nonetheless. Good narrative, redemptive plot, a little too neat and tidy for my taste, but a blockbuster is not an indie film, so we take what we would expect from a blockbuster and be thankful for the little surprises that one wouldn’t expect to observe in a blockbuster.
6. Opal Dream – I loved this movie. I was hard-pressed to find a reviewer that agreed with me because most of them were uncomplimentary, but unfairly, I thought. Yes, the director was a bit literal in his interpretation of the material. It was a narrative that was told in a pretty straightforward way without ambiguity or allusion. I have no problem with that. If there’s a great story to be told, sometimes that’s all that’s necessary.
Faith and hope were highlighted, but I was particularly moved–whether it was intended or not–by the implication that we all have an intense need to have those we love believe in us, despite our sometimes outlandish and unusual quirks. And when one has the compassion to have faith (like the brother, for one) in another, even when it isn’t warranted or deserved–it can be profoundly moving (talk about a wonderful human reflection of divine grace). My tear ducts were opened three times during this film.
7. Copying Beethoven – This movie is probably closer to fiction than the truth, but I loved it anyway. Ed Harris was great as was Diane Kruger. And though the director may have mixed up historical fact, I’d like to believe that Ed Harris nailed Beethoven’s twisted, passionate personality dead-on. Some of Beethoven’s dialogue nearly made we want to stand and cheer:
The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul. Music is the language of God. We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are.
I appreciated and identified with Beethoven as a God-loving and God-fearing man–a man that wanted to please God, but often failed and understood the beauty of grace.
8. Once – I categorize this one as an Irish folk musical. It was filmed in Dublin and received rave reviews at Sundance. It plays as a low-budget indie effort (which it is) and feels more like a movie with good narrative and dialogue than a musical, per se. The music is pretty good. There are some nice tunes, excellent harmony, and decent playing. The movie depicts a struggling singer/songwriter who is given inspiration and courage from a new acquaintance that he meets on the street.
Rather than providing a conventional outcome, we are treated to something more bittersweet, which is all the more reason to love indie films–their lack of convention. My only criticism is that I had a hard time understanding all of the words spoken in the Irish brogue dialect. If you pick it up on DVD, I recommend you consider viewing it with English subtitles.
9. The Spirit of the Beehive – It’s a Spanish film from the 70s, some say the best one of that era. It’s an allegory which is filmed beautifully. Though the landscape and architecture of the buildings are stark and old, somehow it is framed in a way that makes it beautiful. Some of the shots last so long, it’s as if the director is lost in the beauty of the moment and wants us, the audience, to see it for just one moment more, so we might linger in the moment of beauty. There’s something almost romantic with the way the director allows the camera to linger rather than rushing headlong into the next shot.
10. My Best Friend – It’s a sad, but warm French movie about a man who discovers that he doesn’t have any friends. Quite unexpectedly–though he is surrounded by many people–he realizes that he is lonely. There’s some goofy, but fun popular culture in this one. I saw this one at the Dundee Theater.
11. 10 Items or Less – This film is another prime example of why I prefer indie films over studio releases. It’s a relationship film without the element of romance per se. I am intrigued, as I think is director/screenwriter Brad Silberling, with the way in which random people connect.
I travel some and my lifestyle and job require that I spend time in diverse places meeting diverse people. It can be quite a lonely, solitary life if one doesn’t reach out. On a good day, that’s what I do–I reach out to other folks, which can be a source of great joy, fascination, and serendipity. People, their motivations, ideas, joys and pain provide significant fulfillment.
It takes some courage and a little skill to forge a relationship that doesn’t come across as intrusive, yet is sensitive, thoughtful, and meaningful. It’s a challenge to attempt to convert small talk into real talk in what is often such limited time, waiting for a flight at the airport, sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, or standing in a check-out line.
Morgan Freeman essentially plays an actor, not unlike himself, though significantly less successful. The plot revolves around his character entertaining the idea of starring in, interestingly enough, an indie movie. In considering this role, Freeman’s character visits an obscure, ethnic grocery store, ostensibly to do character studies and research. In the way indie films usually go, something different happens: He meets Paz Vega’s character, a cashier in a ten-items-or-less line, and forges an intriguing, spontaneous, charming relationship with her. The two end up spending the afternoon together, though not in a romantic or sexual way.
A lot happens and nothing happens. The events of the day are somewhat routine, not what I would expect as big screen fodder. Nevertheless, the transformation of the respective main characters’ personas (in the here and now) and lives (down the road) is that which lends spice, vigor, and charm to these otherwise forgettable daily events. Humans sometimes behave in utterly horrible ways in an effort to rebuff the very thing that deep down they crave the most; to be touched by another human being.
12. Into the Wild – Please note The Rabbit Room review.
13. Lars and the Real Girl – Don’t let the fact that this is a movie involving a sex doll scare you away. Crude humor, mean-spirited insults, cheap double-entendres or otherwise ugly human behavior is nowhere to be found in this thoughtful gem of a film. Ryan Gosling stars and it’s not anything like one might expect, despite the doll prop. It’s a decent, sweet, kind-hearted movie with a lot to say. If you aren’t the cynical type or you are willing to put your cynicism on hold for a couple of hours, I highly recommend it. I’m shocked that those involved pulled this difficult concept off with such style and grace.
14. No Country for Old Men – Highly recommended. I’m not usually a fan of movies tinged with western settings, but this one was awesome, a simple but great narrative–and plenty to ponder afterwards. The day after I saw the movie, I bought the book on which the movie was based. Contrary to most successful films made from books, much of the film’s action is taken word for word from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Further, it occurs in the same order of events. And it works. The dramatic tension in this movie is not to be missed. Jason Gray also enjoyed this film and wrote a review for the Rabbit Room here.
15. The Kid – Charlie Chaplin from 1921–heartbreaking and unbelievably hilarious. At times, I had a hard time catching my breath because I was laughing so hard. I was reminded–once again–why Chaplin has been so esteemed as a classic filmmaker. Great pathos and wonderful belly laughs.
16. Vernon, Florida – I was led to this one by Richard and Gaines from the Andrew Peterson Message Board. At first, I had a hard time locating it. None of my local video stores carried it. So, Netflix to the rescue. It was at my house in a matter of one day.
It’s a documentary film that is fun and funny. I’m still laughing at the segment from the couple that thought the sand they collected from White Sands Monument in New Mexico was growing, and the turkey hunter–wow–hilarious stuff. These are ordinary (extraordinary) people living in the sleepy little southern town of Vernon, Florida.
I feel somewhat of a kinship with the Director Errol Morris. He is fascinated with people and their stories. In this movie as in most of his others, he proves that “ordinary” people reveal some very bizarre stories when left on camera long enough. The guy is, at best, obsessive. Vernon, Florida was one of his early works (1982). He probably goes a little over the line–sort of like the National Enquirer of film directors–but his work is intriguing nonetheless.
Vernon, Florida is ostensibly a documentary and is gently funny. I laughed at its real life characters, not so much because they aren’t very smart (they aren’t), but because they are fully human. In our real lives, we see people like those profiled in this documentary routinely but rarely see them on screen.
17. Everything is Illuminated – It’s offbeat and took me a little time to get into its flow, but I loved it. It’s an unusual film about a young man’s journey into unknown territory in search of a connection to his past. It’s poignant and thoughtful, but also funny at times.
Elijah Wood plays shy young man, who travels to the Ukraine to tie some loose ends of his lineage together, and contracts with a twenty something Ukrainian man and his grandfather to serve as his drivers and tour guides. Blending language and culture serves as most of the comedy. Eugene Hutz narrates and plays the interpreter between Wood’s character and his grandfather and he largely steals the show. His Ukranian accented, fractured English is wonderful and too funny.
Grandfather says he is blind, but he really isn’t. He wears sunglasses and has a guide dog which he named Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. Absurd circumstantial dialogue and crazy characters, namely the Ukrainians, make this a very funny movie.
I identified with Jonathan (Elijah Wood). He collects things–things to the outside observer that might seem innocuous or meaningless. But to him, they are important because they remind him of life and times that he wishes to remember. I don’t think we should necessarily live in the past, but we often behave as if the past is irrelevant–that places and things that went before don’t matter. To some, maybe they don’t. To me, life’s moments–even those that on the surface might seem innocuous–are often sublime and not to be forgotten. When I was a teenager, I wrote a book which was nothing more than a listing of memories, because I didn’t want to forget. And yes, I still have it.
As I’m writing this, I’m suddenly realizing that Grandpa’s “blindness” is a metaphor for the blindness of his own life, which he repressed, until it was forced to the forefront on the road trip he took with his grandson and Jonathan. Wow, now I want to see the movie again to find out what else I missed.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment of the film that Grandfather’s epiphany comes completely outside the bounds of dialogue. It’s very clear what is happening but it’s never articulated with words.
I feel like I’m groping to try and explain why I like this movie. I guess it’s one that has to be seen to appreciated. It does bog down towards the end and becomes a little muddled and maybe even lasts a little too long. But it’s worth a rental, for sure.
Agree or disagree with these choices, I’d love to read your comments. Most of my choices were shown in theaters in 2007, but some are retro, movies I saw after research or recommendation. Feel free to be governed by by the same criteria, that regardless of when the movie was released, if you viewed it this year, it’s a candidate to be discussed. Have you seen any good movies this year? Let the discussion begin.