Year in Film: Tonight we dine in hell

› cheryl@sfbg.com

Ah, 2007: as of this writing, the five top-grossing movies of the year were three-quels (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), a chunk of Harry Potter’s golden calf (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and the world’s flashiest ad for eBay (Transformers). That the biggest box office hit (Spidey raked in more than $336 million) was also the biggest disappointment is only fitting in a year that was characterized by new heights of hype. Did anyone really like 300 beyond its campy and mockable aspects, or did they just think they liked it because the Internet told them to?

I’ll admit I’m crabby, but I’m a victim of hype as much as anyone else. (The trailer for Iron Man and hell, even just the poster art for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are making me greet 2008 with giddy anticipation.) I probably saw more than 300 movies (including 300) this year, many from the Tinseltown factory — a place that saps originality, force-feeds us things like fat suits and the Rock, and still leaves us frantically panting for more. And when I say us, I mean me. But although the overriding trend for 2007’s mainstream movies was mediocrity and there’s a feeling as December ends that the past 12 months were full of a whole lotta nothing, there were also some thematic similarities worth noting. (Note: there might be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been eagerly awaiting Death Sentence‘s cable debut, you’ve been warned.)

BUNS IN THE OVEN As I noted in my Juno review ("Birth of a Sensation: Ellen Page and Juno," 12/12/07), that film, combined with Waitress and Knocked Up, made 2007 the year the ever-popular celebrity-baby trend jumped from the pages of US Weekly to the big screen. In Waitress an unhappily married small-town gal is impregnated by her surly hubby; she soon falls for the hunky new guy in town, who happens to be her doctor. In Knocked Up a hot, mysteriously single TV reporter decides she’ll pop out the kid of a one-night stand she can barely stand to look in the eye. And in Juno a tart-tongued high schooler — in a family way after an experimental dalliance with her best friend — plucks her kid’s adoptive parents from the PennySaver. Each of these films have unique moments: Keri Russell’s Waitress postbirth epiphany; Knocked Up‘s awkward baby-on-board sex scene; and Juno‘s simple acknowledgement of the fact that abortion is a safe, legal option for women who find themselves unprepared for motherhood. By contrast, check out Romanian import 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, opening in early February 2008. A harrowing look at the illegal abortion trade in that country’s Communist 1980s, it well earned the top prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and contains nary a hamburger phone.

WESTERNS First the pirate movie made a comeback, and now we’ve got all kinds of westerns filling up our eyeholes — including the year’s best film, No Country for Old Men, a contemporary spin on the genre that imagines the Wild West as not just a place but a state of mind. More cut-and-dried was 3:10 to Yuma, which featured good guys, bad guys, shoot-outs, stagecoach robberies, and some seriously old-school hat fetishizing. Harder to classify: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a hypnotic, arty, lengthy study of the western myth from within the myth. The title characters — portrayed in great turns by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck — are neither heroes nor villains, but rather men with guns and very few morals, those they have applying to loyalty, decency, and respect for human life. In short, fascinating.

SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE It’s true, I’m a Charles Bronson fanatic who has often and loudly praised the wonders of the Death Wish films, including my personal favorite, Death Wish 3. So I anticipated the double-decker revenge sandwich of Death Sentence and The Brave One with a certain gruesome glee. Too bad neither movie really rocked it. Death Sentence — directed by Saw‘s James Wan and starring Kevin Bacon — went the distance by offing women and (oh god, no!) children. The Brave One offers a few pleasures, namely that scene on the subway in which Jodie Foster pops a guy for, basically, getting up in her face. Mostly, though, both films spent way too much time showing how their protagonists felt after committing acts of violence: fear, guilt, elation, excitement, or otherwise.

True vengeance films don’t bother with that shit — they start with a grievous act (in Death Wish 3 it’s the senseless killing of Bronson’s military buddy, whose biggest crime is living in a crummy neighborhood overrun with cartoonish gang members) and move right into the payback’s-a-bitch phase. Cops who secretly support the good work of heavily armed vigilantes are also a traditional staple; I don’t think Terrence Howard’s sad-eyed, Foster-followin’ Brave One detective really qualified. I can see updating the vengeance film for these more sensitive times, but — wait, no I can’t. Vengeance films with morals bad. Who needs ’em?

OH YEAH, THAT WAR THING You know when you turn on the news, and you see that story that was on yesterday, and last week, and last year too, about that business going on in Iraq? Wait, you don’t watch the news? Nah, neither do moviegoers, who didn’t give two poops about movies with Iraq war themes (I’m including everything from In the Valley of Elah to The Hills Have Eyes 2 here). I suppose if Blades of Glory can’t heal a broken nation, neither can Paul Haggis.

HORROR IS DEAD I almost forgot about The Hills Have Eyes 2 until I typed it above. There was no singular horror sensation this year, or even a really good sleeper, like 2006’s The Descent. Other releases that underwhelmed the horrorati: 1408, Resident Evil: Extinction, 30 Days of Night, Halloween, The Reaping, Vacancy, 28 Weeks Later, and Saw IV (already in the works: Saw V). As usual, the best horror films were in limited release (The Last Winter) or foreign — spooky Spanish thriller The Orphanage, which pays homage to Poltergeist among others (including The Others), hits theaters Dec. 28.

THE MAGIC NUMBER? This was the year of third sequels, some already mentioned above, of which only The Bourne Ultimatum did anything interesting. The slate for 2008 is pretty much locked in — this time next year, Avatar! — and it’s choked with a fair amount of sequels. Batman, Hellboy, Harry Potter, the Mummy, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Rambo, the Narnia kids, and the Star Trek crew are all poised to lead you back into butter-flavored temptation. Now, I don’t think the fact that a film is a sequel automatically means it will suck: I’m willing to sit through just about anything, because no matter how much crap I see, or how many films start off great and veer horribly off course (here’s lookin’ at you, I Am Legend), I never give up hope for the movies. And if that makes me no better than one of 300‘s digitally enhanced Spartans facing certain doom, so be it. See you next year! *

CHERYL EDDY’S TOP 10

1. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US)

2. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie, US)

3. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France/US)

4. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US)

5. Zodiac (David Fincher, US)

6. Superbad (Greg Mottola, US)

7. The Wizard of Gore (Herschell Gordon Lewis, US, 1970) with Lewis in person, Clay Theatre, Nov. 2

8. Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine, UK)

9. Control (Anton Corbijn, UK/US/Australia/Japan) and Joy Division (Grant Gee, UK, 2006)

10. SpaceDisco One (Damon Packard, US)