Year in Film

Year in Film: Cartooning the war



Oh! What a lovely war! At least that’s the overall tone of the most popular movies reflecting our current conflict, surge, or however we’re marketing it this week as it conveniently combusts so far from all of the happy $3.50 a gallon gas-guzzling Best Buy shoppers, out of ear- and eyeshot on the other side of the world.

Moviegoers have been avoiding Iraq’s realities in droves — this much the producers of The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, and others can attest. This year Americans liked their war with a good dose of comic book fantasy and clearly fictitious spectacle, their tongues teasing the CGI-enhanced teat, preferably attached to the too perfectly uniform six-pack abs on one of those hunka-hunka-burning-Spartan tough-love monkeys in 300.

While Grindhouse‘s bio-experiment rogue troops were banished to fiscal limbo, Hollywood blockbusters like 300, Transformers, and even Beowulf — stemming from comics, toys, and cartoons and steeped in the stuff of a distended childhood — turned out to be the only way Americans would swallow warfare. Fusing digital animation and live actors to produce spectacles that would have made Cecil B. DeMille reach for his next merchandising tie-in, those hit movies tacitly acknowledged the war we’re in and offered candy-colored, action-packed escapism for the inner fanboy and fangirl. Six years into the war on terror, we can’t feel good about imminent outright victory; hell, even the most fervent right-winger realizes, in his or her reptilian back brain and in the dark of the multiplex, that the real-life shoot-’em-ups are depressingly, futilely, infuriatingly misguided. But we still want our war to be a great ride — despite the fact that ambiguous reality finds a way of inserting itself into the metal-crushing, knuckle-skating mise-en-scène.

Picking up the air of suicide-mission doom suffusing 2006 Oscar contender Letters from Iwo Jima, 300 started the year with blood-spattered, heroic fatalism. Like Beowulf and even the tongue-in-cheek Transformers, the Zack Snyder–directed epic, based on a graphic novel by draconian edge maven Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), self-consciously frames its narrative — and its uses as propaganda — from the start by revealing the bard or narrator telling the tale. Here the story is recounted for the distinct purpose of leading the Spartans into battle against the Persians.

Miller may have penned the original comic in the late ’90s, yet it’s hard to read 300 as anything more than emotionally skilled, cinematically compelling, and blatantly racist support for a US invasion of the country most associated with ancient Persia, Iran — little surprise that Javad Shangari, a cultural adviser to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described 300 as being "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture," according to Variety. Certainly, stereotyping is nothing new in the realm of the sword and the sandal, and 300‘s Spartan heroes are pale faced and peppered with accents from throughout the United Kingdom (though not the evilly aristocratic upper-crusty tones pushed by Romans of yore) — a case for multiculturalism and inclusiveness they ain’t.

The film, however, firmly positions these "free" people versus the dark-skinned "slaves" of the Orient, holding their noble defenses against the dusky masses. According to 300, it may be futile to battle the hordes of the Persian empire — tellingly, an imperial array of warriors from Asia and the Middle East that resembles a mindlessly blood-thirsty "It’s a Small World After All" — but dying a good death and fighting for one’s supposed freedom is the right and noble path to take. Freedom is a word that’s bandied about repeatedly here and in Transformers, but it’s obviously the privilege of a select Darwinian few.

Snyder resorts to the ignorant and offensive tact of visually equating the forces of evil and darkness with the dark skins of the Persian forces. And the empire’s pierced, proud, and power-hungry leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) — painted as perverse and ensconced in a polymorphic harem — comes off as a fetishy freak next to the Spartans’ King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who are fiercely straight (judging from Leonidas’s odd and likely historically inaccurate disparagement of bookish Athenian "boy lovers") and, by implication, straight shooting and Spartan-soldier tough. Which isn’t to say there aren’t vulnerabilities in the Spartan armor: Leonidas and his too meticulously CGI-embellished troops live and die by standards that doom the weak and disabled, and when a rejected Spartan hunchback is denied entry into their ranks, the scene is set for their final destruction, one that rhymes with that of Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese Macbeth in Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood.

Able-bodied elite fighting forces take an even more artificial turn with Transformers. Though its production was aided and abetted by the US armed forces, preening military hardware in displays that rival those of the alien robots, the movie nonetheless exhibits a conflicted relationship with warfare that reflects the mood in the country. At moments its scenes precisely echo the visuals of those ubiquitous "Army of One" recruitment commercials; at others it reveals a wariness of its very exhibitionism. It’s no marvel that director Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon) can ape those ads as adeptly as a ‘bot can mimic a sports car: in early 2006 he wrote on the forum, "The military looks like it is going to support the film, which is a big deal in giving the movie scope and credibility. The Pentagon has always been great with me because I make our military look good."

In keeping with that two-way support system and setting Transformers clearly in the Persian Gulf, Bay applies a veneer of salable heroism to his scenes of military machinery in action by battling the nefarious Decepticons and hastily dabs a quick layer of humanism on an identifiable, multilingual, and diverse clutch of everyday grunts. Jon Voigt’s defense secretary makes his share of wrong moves, but he’s no Donald Rumsfeld. This is likely Bay’s most successful film, thanks to the self-mocking humor of the script, which extols the bond between "man and machine." After all, he knows and we know Transformers is all about toys — our hardware versus their hardware — and what makes them go, a.k.a. energy — whether it’s the magical, Energizer Bunny envy-inducing all-spark cube or that oil the film’s military is battling over when it isn’t strafing robots.

The question is, who is to be trusted? Intriguingly, the Decepticons hide in plain sight on Earth by assuming the guise of US Air Force jets, Army tanks, and police cars, while the good Autobots change into civilian big wheelers, trucks, and cars. If a car makes a man, the machines in Transformers are giving out conflicted signals. *


<\!s>Most valuable hair: Javier Bardem’s do in No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US)

<\!s>Most versatile player: Christian Bale in I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US), Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, US), and 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, US)

<\!s>Thug life: Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US) and American Gangster (Ridley Scott, US)

<\!s>Horrific kicks and sick twists: Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, et al., US), Black Sheep (Jonathan King, New Zealand), Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, UK/France), The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea), Sicko (Michael Moore, US),

<\!s>Geek love: Rocket Science (Jeffrey Blitz, US), Eagle vs. Shark (Taika Waititi, New Zealand), Superbad (Greg Mottola, US)

<\!s>Little love: Control (Anton Corbijn, UK/US/Australia/Japan), Broken English (Zoe Cassavetes, US)

Year in Film: Things we lost in the theater


The economy: Apocalypse Now — or at least soon. Iraq: No End in Sight. Israel: "Putting Out Fire with Gasoline (Theme from Cat People)." China, in its role as the principal backer of our colossal national debt: I Spit on Your Grave. Our president: National Lampoon’s Permanent Vacation.

In 2007, as life increasingly resembled lurid or delusional fiction, movies stepped up to the social-responsibility plate and started presenting a franker version of reality.

That is, the movies nobody saw.

The ones everyone did see, in quantifiable box office terms, were Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, the third Bourne and Pirates flicks, a fifth Harry Potter, and … Transformers. In other words, movies whose major reference points are other movies, comic books, and video games. (The Bourne films are refreshingly low-CGI, but they offer only a pretense of institutional critique.) If most multiplex patrons’ level of caring or knowledge about international and domestic politics was turned into a film, it could be titled Whatever-Man 3.

The summer — that silly season of things blowing up and boob jokes — is likely to spread even wider across the calendar henceforth, because this fall and winter offered serious year-end awards-bait stuff, and nobody wanted it.

Europeans have branded this the best year for United States cinema in a long time. But the ambitious, uncompromising two-and-a-half-hour-plus dramas released late in the year — 1970s ambling-epic throwbacks such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Into the Wild, and There Will Be Blood — are against-the-wind efforts. Even intelligent dramas wrapped in easy-access thriller form, like Eastern Promises, Michael Clayton, Zodiac, Rescue Dawn, and Gone Baby Gone, have attracted few takers. (You could deem the long, self-important American Gangster an exception, were it not so derivative. Check out Larry Cohen’s 1973 Black Caesar.)

Commercially speaking, this fall’s glut of somber dramas — including Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Things We Lost in the Fire, Reservation Road, We Own the Night, and Lions for Lambs — collapsed like a row of dominoes. Their failure was variously blamed on an overcrowded marketplace and being pushed prematurely off screens by the latest CGI extravaganzas. Several of them just weren’t good, but even the best expired quickly.

Two films likely to face off for Academy Awards, No Country for Old Men and Atonement, have drawn larger numbers, though in their different ways neither has much to say about the world we live in now. No Country turns a minor Cormac McCarthy novel into a major Coen brothers effort that’s still just a great genre piece at the end of the day. Atonement turns a brilliant Ian McEwan novel into a sumptuous Merchant-Ivory-like affair, muffling the book’s bitter heart.

Every movie that did try to wrestle with our extremely precarious, morally compromised place in the scheme of things basically tanked. Maybe that’s less surprising than the fact that so many filmmakers actually got to make works dealing in one way or another with the current American realpolitik, if only on the relatively neutral, empathetic trickle-down level of grieving military spouses (Grace Is Gone), traumatized soldiers readjusting to civilian life (Home of the Brave), or World Trade Center widowers (Reign Over Me).

The Crash crowd shunned scenarist Paul Haggis’s much better (though not politically daring or even pointed) second film as director, In the Valley of Elah. It fictionalizes a real-life case (Iraq vet Richard Davis’s 2003 murder), as did Brian De Palma’s Redacted, drawn from a 2006 incident in which several US soldiers gang-raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and then killed her entire family. An atrocious movie because of its ill-chosen mockumentary form, loutish tone, and garbled message, Redacted ironically attracted widespread notice due to the loud protestations of Bill O’Reilly and other conservative pundits who proclaimed it treasonous. They didn’t say it was fraudulent — as Republican saint Ronald Reagan once told us, "Facts are stupid things."

Despite the lure of Angelina Jolie and the publicity stumping of her producer–spouse–love slave Brad Pitt, Michael Winterbottom’s more overtly fact-based A Mighty Heart — about kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s murder by Pakistani jihadists — got no audience love. Ditto Rendition, with America’s sweetheart Reese Witherspoon as another agitating spouse with a missing husband, this one an Egyptian-born US citizen imprisoned and tortured by the CIA on dubious terrorism charges.

That the year’s better feel-bad dramas didn’t take off despite their star power is disappointing, if not unexpected. But it truly depresses that Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, the year’s best documentary — and arguably best movie, period — failed to break out despite universal raves. This engrossing, incendiary, genuinely balanced chronicle of how the George W. Bush administration destroyed and betrayed Iraq — and probably doomed everyone to a general fucked-up-ness only global warming might trump — doesn’t even bother indicting the reasons we attacked in the first place. It’s busy enough simply detailing the arrogance and ineptitude that have turned our supposed reconstruction of the nation into a lit match hovering beside the tinder of pissed-off former allies worldwide.

No End in Sight should have been a must-see that marshaled voter-taxpayer opposition to the freaks in the seats of power. It should at least have ignited as much enthusiastic outrage as An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11. But it was an intended bombshell that landed like a softball on Astroturf.

There are a few more politically charged movies in the pipeline, notably director Kimberly Peirce’s first feature since Boys Don’t Cry, Stop Loss. But given the commercial cold shoulder such films have received lately, what can we expect from a post–writers’ strike Hollywood that will be looking to restore its brief income slowdown as safely as possible? Gems like Norbit, Because I Said So, Bratz, Good Luck Chuck, Daddy Day Camp, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Halloween, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, License to Wed, Saw IV, and Wild Hogs — not to mention the three- to fivequels. Even when those movies bombed, they landed softly enough (often redeemed by profitable DVD releases) to affirm the wisdom of sticking to strict formulas.

Escapism: good. Wholesale obliviousness: better. Will there be a 2010 equivalent to 2007’s finest narrative flick, The Assassination of Jesse James (estimated cost: $30 million; domestic gross: $3 million, despite a career-best Brad Pitt)? Not likely.


1. Adam’s Apples (Anders Thomas Jensen, Denmark)

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, US)

3. Colma: The Musical (Richard Wong, US)

4. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, US)

5. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, et al., US)

6. Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, US)

7. The Last Winter (Larry Fessenden, US/Iceland)

8. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US)

9. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, US)

10. Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, Australia)

Year in Film: Number nine — with a bullet


There is something pretty silly, it seems to me, about knocking the concept of the top 10 list. Not in the way that it’s silly to knock year-end awards and nominations, which is kind of like taking the bold position that Joseph Stalin was a prick. No, top 10 lists, being the choices of individuals (sort of — I know I at least can be easily influenced), are not nearly worthless enough for that. What’s silly about knocking them is that doing so requires a denial of the fact that clearly, at some point in human evolution, we were hardwired to appreciate the level of informational tidiness that corresponds to the top 10 list, a smart little package that says unequivocally, "Here’s the deal right here. Now leave me alone." It may not be the best feature of our nature, but by God, it’s ours.

Also silly is the strange assumption that the author or the reader of the top 10 list attaches more importance to it than to the body of considered criticism the writer has composed during the other 364 days of the year. Oftentimes authors knock their lists in their introductions, probably to preempt any charges of presumptuousness or reductionism.

And yet I’m always disappointed when an anticipated top 10 shows up unburdened by commentary, the critic bowing out of delivering some cleverly wrought statement of the obvious. As much as I love the tidy little lists, it is this by-product, this fuzzy mold of qualification growing around the tradition, that, for me, is the real joy of the annual verdicts.

For an undertaking so often characterized by noncritics as arrogant and autocratic, criticism is awfully well saddled with caveats and contingencies, and there are certainly no shortage of self-directed smirks. I used to be terribly impressed by all of this mutinous talk about fuzziness, the perennial anti–top 10 two-step around the idea of inherent artistic worth. But although I’m certainly no less a fan of these pieces than I ever was, I find that these little rebellions tend to lose their sense of urgency as they continue to accumulate. The more of them there are, the more it seems like knocking top 10s is its own charmingly musty, imperfect tradition.

There are a variety of ways to knock the top 10. The safest and probably most respectable is to accessorize such a list with a self-effacing wink, as in this barely registered sigh from a Village Voice blog: "Most of us labor under the delusion that people actually care about what we think, that people will painstakingly scrutinize our top-ten lists and judge us accordingly." (My falsely modest sentiments exactly.) This low-stakes approach can lose respectability, though, with the addition of uninspired aggression, as in Anthony Kaufman’s kvetch from a 2005 top 10 that apparently bullied him into writing: "As I have written before, I believe the process of creating a top 10 list is a fickle pursuit. And ranking films is even more slippery. But in our hierarchical America’s Next Top Model world …"

I hope I’m not sounding snide — I really am a fan. And I don’t want to imply that I think the list-making practice is (exclusively) onanistic. It is, after all, a key component of the system of checks and balances that tempers an artwork’s rise to historical indestructibility. But I will say it’s the element of solipsism in top tennery I’m attracted to, the peek into the part of the critic’s brain that isn’t worrying about the legacy of the films (I never trust all that crusading rhetoric) so much as just getting it right in his or her own head. All of this refining and complicating what it means to produce something so straightforward as a list feels to me like the critic at play. There’s almost a meditative quality to it.

In 2004, Louis Menand wrote an enjoyably snotty New Yorker article about the absurdity of year-end list making, a piece that is practically a list itself of the list maker’s crimes. It bats at the tradition like a toy mouse, playing the game by proudly working out the rules: "In a mass-market publication, a movie list should contain one foreign-language film that few readers have heard of…. Conversely, in an "alternative" or highbrow publication the movie list needs one blockbuster — one film the critic liked despite the fact that everyone else liked it."

This stuff is like the wrapping paper that ends up being way more interesting than the actual gift. I do get excited over the lists, and I do find them extremely helpful in a limited way, but after about 20, I hardly register them and instead head straight for the disclaimers.

Of course, Menand’s piece is hardly self-effacing. It’s closer to the carnivorous end of the spectrum, where the critic doesn’t worry too terribly about the value of listing itself and is primarily interested in pouncing on the bountiful stupidities the activity has incubated. The takedowns of other critics’ opinions are part cultural quality control, part self-serving bullying, and just good clean fun all around.

You can see all three shining through in one of this year’s early and distinguished offensives, carried out on the blog of one of my favorite film sites, Reverse Shot. (The main page can be pretty ornery, but something about the blog brings out the John Simon in the writers, causing them to rip into people with a wit that’s almost pathologically cruel. Their readers regularly tsk-tsk them in the comments section.)

The Reverse Shot attack was directed at Richard Corliss, who’d pretty much painted a target on his face by writing in Time that Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, number three on his list, is the finest film ever made by a black director. "That’s right," Reverse Shot crows, "the ‘finest film … by a black director’ (note: NOT ‘black American’) is the third best movie of the year behind No Country for Old Men and The Lives of Others. Sorry Spike Lee and Ousmane Sembene, you’ve made some good movies, but nothing quite as good as The Lives of Others." A quality blow, though I have to say the same syllogistic scrutiny would likely topple the logic structures of plenty of worthier top 10s than Corliss’s — you can almost see how the whole concept of the top 10 could be discredited with a simple mathematical proof.

In previous years Corliss has also had to put up with smart-ass crusader S.T. VanAirsdale, who’s made a name for himself over at the Reeler site — both for quality control and for bullying — with his annual "Top 10 Top 10s" list, in which he compiles the year’s most inane examples. It’s been a hoot of a bloodbath the past couple of years, and it should be again (no doubt Corliss will make the team in ’07 too — there was a lot to observe in his Time piece). This year’s list wasn’t posted by press time, but VanAirsdale has written that he’s already prepared to take on "the high tide of hype that washes out entire habitats of superb cinema built throughout the year — and start the clean-up." Hyperbolic and a touch messianic, yeah, but the man gives me something to look forward to when I’ve reached my list threshold, so he can go ahead and have himself a little complex as far as I’m concerned. It’s funny, though, that we have opposing metaphors for all of this list talk. He thinks of it as cleaning up, while I see it as reestablishing the mess.

A wise reader of top 10s already knows this mess is implied and doesn’t need all of the attendant eye rolling. But we don’t need Christmas, either.


To avoid condemning syllogisms, the order of the following list is scrambled, and only I have the code. Even the alternates could have been number one. Also, I couldn’t think of a whole lot of movies this year that didn’t bug me at least part of the time, so here is a highly unsatisfying, subjective-like-you-know-your-momma-is (and yet still surprisingly safe) list of what would be the best films of 2007 if I were allowed to have a go at them with my Windows Movie Maker.

1. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US) Minus Javier Bardem’s weirdly praised performance of the same old "enigmatic," blaringly quiet psychopath, and the mariachi band, and the unhelpful car thing at the end.

2. Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Ridley Scott, US) Minus the tonally jarring bits of the score.

3. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania) Minus the reminder of its elusive transatlantic travel buddy, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, still unseen and waiting to be loved.

4. Away from Her (Sarah Polley, Canada) Minus the roles of Marian and the ultrainformative staffer, the lame "clusterfuck" joke, and Gordon Pinsent’s sweater.

5. Superbad (Greg Mottola, US) Minus the stuff that wasn’t as funny as the really funny stuff.

6. 28 Weeks Later (Joan Carlos Fresnadillo, UK/Spain) Minus Planet Terror‘s having already killed off zombies this year with a helicopter blade, diminishing with its curatorial kitsch a set piece that was shocking and beautiful.

7. Zodiac (David Fincher, US) Minus Chloë Sevigny’s reprisal of every 2-D role in Hollywood calling for a disapproving, killjoy wife.

8. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US) Minus the Heath Ledger–Charlotte Gainsbourg Blood on the Tracks strand (see Chloë Sevigny above), the performance of Marcus Carl Franklin, and the vague, uneasy feeling that the movie didn’t really need to be made.

9. Red Road (Andrea Arnold, Australia) Minus the closure.

10. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, US) Minus nothing.


The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, US) Minus everyone’s requirement that it be as brilliant as the show once was.

Once (John Carney, Ireland) Minus the shitty music.

A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, US/UK) Minus the uncomfortable politics of making such a movie.

Year in Film: Western promises


› a&

Though it’s been pronounced dead so often and for so many years, the western lived again in 2007, sprouting like a gnarly weed through a cracked desert shelf. These new-millennium westerns, however, are a little tougher, a little wiser, and more prone to fits of sadness and moments of darkness.

It is said that most, if not all, American presidents since 1952 have screened High Noon (1952), one of the old model westerns, at the White House, and some have claimed it as their favorite movie. Our current cowboy president probably loves it more than all of his predecessors did, and it’s as likely as not that he watched it at least once during the past 12 months. No doubt he, like the other commanders in chief, saw himself in the movie, alone and standing strong against terrible odds with no help at all from cowards and city-bred folk.

Fifty years ago Delmer Daves directed the original 3:10 to Yuma very much in the mode of High Noon, with a single-minded hero, Dan Evans, standing up for a purpose against all reason and despite everyone urging him to quit. He will, come hell or high water, transport the bandit Ben Wade to the title train on time. James Mangold’s new remake sticks close to the original but also departs in significant ways. This time a third character figures prominently in the action, Ben Wade’s right-hand man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), a pale, small fellow with a sadistic swagger and a penchant for exploding into wildly inappropriate violence.

It’s fairly easy to read Charlie’s devotion to his boss (Russell Crowe) as a kind of desperate man love. It’s Charlie who makes the film’s ending something quite different from the original’s hopeful turn. Mangold’s skillful storytelling means it’s possible to enjoy the film purely on the level of a bread-and-butter western, but he also quietly suggests the United States’ headfirst march into the quagmire of Iraq.

Similarly, Jesse James has graced all kinds of classic westerns, but never quite like in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This James is no longer a hero of the people fighting greedy railroad men but now merely a lost celebrity both fascinated by the limelight and weary of its glare. The film deliberately turns up its nose at gunplay and action and instead focuses on the rotting final months of the legend’s life, when the cancerous Ford (a perfectly sniveling Casey Affleck) enters. It plays out like a long, slow chess game, easing through its 160 minutes with a kind of watchful caution.

A typical scene has James (Brad Pitt) sizing up his colleagues from across a table, reading their fears and desires through their eyes and twitches. When the title moment comes, it plays like a transfer of fates, with James deliberately passing on the mantle to his young admirer. But the mantle quickly strangles, and Ford spends the rest of his days forever attached to and defined by that one moment, hated and hounded. This is a western that arrives in David Lynch–ian territory after having passed through Terrence Malick land, and the cowboy’s heroism and self-reliance have dried up along the way.

If Yuma and Jesse James are more comfortable for being based in the past, then No Country for Old Men is something a good deal darker: it’s a modern-day western masterpiece, set in the 1980s, with horses and cowboy hats. It pries open the end of the West and finds despair. The hunter (Josh Brolin) and the killer (Javier Bardem) are both cynical products of the Vietnam War, relentless in their thinking and planning and unable to trust or rest. The sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) is the linchpin, the old man whose country no longer belongs to him and who can’t comprehend what happened to it. It’s because of westerns like these, which examine the genre like grim ghosts presiding over their own autopsies, that so many have pronounced the genre dead over the years.

Even if the cowboy president didn’t fit into this new strain of western in 2007, he did appear — either directly or as a kind of offscreen presence — in a far different kind of film. One could make a case for these as mutant westerns, featuring a bunch of Dan Evanses trying to bring their Ben Wades to the train against all odds and reason: Sicko, No End in Sight, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, The Kingdom, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, and Grace Is Gone. If you look hard enough, you can even see him in the margins of Paul Thomas Anderson’s bizarre, oil-soaked quasi western, There Will Be Blood.

It’s doubtful that any of these movies will be screened at the White House soon. No, the year’s most likely cowboy to push through those swinging doors is none other than Sam Elliot in The Golden Compass, a traditional cowpoke in an unfamiliar setting, complete with "howdy"s and "I reckon"s, uttered among a swirling sea of CGI. More than the other cowboys, the current president could recognize and identify with him: conventional, simple, and perhaps a bit lost. *


1. Inland Empire (David Lynch, France/Poland/US)

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, US)

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

4. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet, US)

5. Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

6. Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, France/Italy)

7. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US)

8. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

9. Bug (William Friedkin, US)

10. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US)

Runners up: 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania), Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning, France/Switzerland/Germany), Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, UK/France), Death Proof (extended version) (Quentin Tarantino, US), Triad Election and Exiled (Johnny To, Hong Kong)

Year in Film: Beauty lies


› a&

Unsettling subjects such as fatality by bestiality and landscapes ravaged by industry might conjure coarse, sensationalist images — straightforward visions of debauchery and exploitation. But if you are Robinson Devor or Jennifer Baichwal, they conjure bittersweet visual poetry: Devor’s Zoo and Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes are two stunning documentaries released this year that cleverly wield visual beauty to convey an apparent distortion in the human relationship with animals and with the environment, respectively.

Just as there are horror films and melodramas that use intensity and abrasiveness as crutches to make transitory impressions on their audiences, there are well-intentioned social-issue documentaries that amplify atrocity in order to shock viewers into caring. Zoo and Manufactured Landscapes are refreshing and poignant for countering this impulse. They are from the school of subtlety — not subtlety of content, but of form.

Zoo‘s opening shot seems to encapsulate its spirit of patient, elegant reveal. A prick of blue light amid blackness slowly expands and comes into focus as the blue-washed tunnel of a mine where the film’s first narrator — Coyote, a paramedic — worked before he made his way to Washington. It is a scene that contains a discomfort vague enough to be missed, as if we are gradually homing in on a world that will prove unpleasant. The mine’s elongated confinement also portends the halls of the grand stable where mischief occurs later in the film. Concomitantly, the music begins as a delicate support and escalates into a complex, slightly unnerving amalgamation of sounds, including those of a computer modem. The use of a computer’s noises of labor is meaningful because it prerelates to one zoophile’s explanation of how important the Internet was to the solidification of the group that is the film’s focus.

It is partially Zoo‘s structure that lends it an air of elegant subtlety. There is a linear story being told, from the online discovery to the convergence in Washington to the main event and its aftermath, but within that conventional structure is a fluid, relaxed traveling between narrators that has a less obvious logic. This befits the visual style, which is a poetic approximation of events rather than a recording of actuality. Bits of perspective from the various players cohere with a pacing and an order that feel carefully calculated to mimic the way in which uncertainty is slowly dispelled and truth, while withholding promises, comes into focus, fragment by irregular fragment.

Zoo glides between members of the zoophile group and a horse rescuer, a radio show host, and a politician, who all — in varying manners — offer commentary confronting the offensiveness of the men’s behavior. The film’s lightness is largely a result of its minimal contextualization and identification of location and character, as well as its refusal of a rigidly organized rise to climax. When the subjects of its investigation appear in the film at all, it is in an indirect manner. Actors fill in for the condemned men, liquidly guiding viewers through events, but faces are unimportant. Voices, which exude a certain ease even when confidence gives way to defensiveness or befuddlement, are the integral thread in the film’s subjectivity. Zoo features the voices of H and the Happy Horseman, two participants on the ranch, and does an exquisite job of extracting bits of anecdote and emotional response that give a full account with very little. There is a wise reticence here, like a conversation between lifelong friends who speak uninhibitedly but with the understanding that all need not be vocalized. The viewer, as if the film’s friend, can fill in gaps and mentally expand on the subjects’ pointed statements.

There are moments in Zoo when harshness or avidness peeks through the mostly even tones of the voices, such as when a local senator declares that animals — like children — cannot consent to sex with men, but this is diffused by quiescent visuals, the absence of a physical presence, and a refusal to linger on or delve further into these objections. Similarly, Manufactured Landscapes skirts a direct and impassioned address of the offense against humans and nature that it depicts and relies more on the awe of imagery and fastidiously selected and placed bits of commentary. Edward Burtynsky, the photographer whose work the film extends and considers, explains that he wants his daunting photographs of dramatically botched landscapes to be left to viewers’ interpretation. The role of the artist is to competently capture and present in a way that encourages discourse rather than to project a prefabricated message or force a critique.

In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal’s vision is consistent with Burtynsky’s. Her video footage of devastation such as that associated with the Three Gorges Dam and gargantuan mounds of e-waste, both in China, is accompanied by Burtynsky’s narration, which contains a rather discreet lament but foregrounds a more ambiguous combination of fact and feeling. A notable difference between her product and his is that hers includes the process of his, so in her film we are able to see that he choreographs the laborers in his photographs. Toward the beginning, he directs the innumerable yellow-clad Chinese workers on the premises of a huge factory, seemingly creating symmetry to convey the atmosphere of this immense and oppressive world. Also, Baichwal uses the clever device of pulling out of a site that Burtynsky photographs to reveal his picture hanging in an upscale gallery. In this way the viewer is delivered a powerful juxtaposition — a suggestion of the conflicted, perhaps ridiculous, consumption of these ironically beautiful photographs by the privileged people who can only relate to the images through their vague complicity in the dusty and oily oppressions of globalization.

It is mostly the visual style — the exquisiteness of the shots — that renders the reception of these films frustrating in a rewarding way; it is a frustration of sensibility and of fundamental sentiments about human nature. Burtynsky briefly comments on the symbolism of the gigantic ships under construction that he photographs in Bangladesh — ships that are built by teenagers who are up to their necks in oil, working in life-risking conditions, and that are used to deliver the oil he uses for his art and transportation. As in other scenes of the film, he and Baichwal enact a subtly sinister symbolism to nudge viewers toward absorbing the absurdity of development without empathy. One triumph of their work is that they slyly fuse concern for the environment (as in alien landscapes blistered with toxins) with concern for fellow humans (as in foreign factory workers who assemble our consumables). Another gorgeous and telling image is of an endless heap of computer parts of various shapes and sizes. It resembles an art installation of some sort, but as the camera slowly pulls out, a gasp forms in reaction to the heap’s vastness, and the viewer learns that the Chinese who rummage for valuable metal are exposing themselves to toxic metals that also make their way into their water.

In Zoo the visual style is more a product of finding a literal representation of the story being recounted and presenting it as a pleasing near-abstraction. Both Devor’s film and Baichwal’s feature a visual poeticism that threatens to detach viewers from the repugnance of reality; but because Zoo is such a cinematic construction, it is particularly susceptible to this numbing effect. So, when it shows a soft-focus, high-lit close-up of blackberries on their thorny vine or a snorting Arabian horse twice framed by square barn windows in the rich blue of evening, it is easy to forget for a moment that the narrators speak of a horse repetitively puncturing his eyes, or of the methods of forced submission.

Because Devor seems to have established a pact with his audience that he will only convey these acts through photo-book semblances of offensiveness, it is especially jolting and seemingly a betrayal when he actually reveals glimpses of bestial sex as the camera pivots around a half circle of flabbergasted witnesses to a video record. Zoo seems to be mocking the audience for wanting this salacious moment, and Devor withholds satiation. He also seems to be playing with the boundaries of effective reveal and withholding and their relationship to juxtaposition. Are these flashes of difficult-to-fathom sex more potent when surrounded by poetic suggestion? Are they a betrayal of the audience, and, if so, are they a meaningful betrayal?

Zoo shares contemplative aerials and slow, smooth pans with Manufactured Landscapes, and these seem integral to the films’ peculiar sort of poeticism. Their aerial views are not the informational establishing shots one would expect from straightforward documentaries, but almost ethereal windings through the air. Rural Washington and a pretzel-like Chinese highway system seem softly haunting, both suggestive of a subterranean depravity of sorts that the filmmakers are hinting toward. The calm control of the gliding camera is more apt to lull than unsettle, but this is counterbalanced by its uneasy turns and a voice-over that, in Zoo, ironically tells of the community’s innocence and, in Manufactured Landscapes, earnestly considers the film’s thematic ill.

Likewise, in Zoo, when the camera languidly pans across peacefully grazing horses in a pasture at night while a horse rescuer describes the profound relationship she has with these beasts, there is a cool, ironic innocence undercutting the otherwise soothing shot. In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal’s memorably interminable opening pan across a colossal Chinese factory serves a more direct purpose, but it also creates the same sort of ironic beauty that runs through Devor’s movie. The grace present in these shots may glaze over the horror they convey for some viewers at certain moments, but the manner in which this grace galvanizes a sense of horror that reverberates deeply and authentically after viewing is more interesting. *


1. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada)

2. Sicko (Michael Moore, US)

3. The Witnesses (André Téchiné, France)

4. Zoo (Robinson Devor, US)

5. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet, US)

6. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US)

7. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/China/Taiwan/France/Austria)

8. Protagonist (Jessica Yu, US)

9. Buddha’s Lost Children (Mark Verkerk, Netherlands)

10. The Other Side (Bill Brown, US)

Super visions: the year in film



The end of each year brings a blitz of polls tabuutf8g the best movies and music of the past 12 months. These monster projects spit up a ton of fun lists, but in terms of science or revelatory truth, they range from suspect to useless. In contrast, the Guardian‘s annual end of the year film issue gives ideas and opinions precedence over bogus math. Antiauthoritarian up through the last second of every December, we’ve discovered that if you collect commentary from a varied group of imaginative people, certain patterns of creative resistance emerge that are a lot more revealing than any number one spot.

This year, for example, it’s apparent that (perhaps spurred by the YouTube boom?) television is on the upswing. Critic Chuck Stephens, Brick writer-director Rian Johnson, and "Midnites for Maniacs" programmer Jesse Ficks all sing its praises, while A Sore for Sighted Eyes, by TV Carnage mastermind Derrick Beckles, a.k.a. Pinky, takes found-footage montage to areas of derangement Sergey Eisenstein, let alone today’s Hollywood directors, couldn’t conceive. Speaking of great derangement: Jason Shamai contributes a pirated-DVD diary that’s one of the best pieces of movie writing I’ve read this year.

The varied new currents of Mexican cinema, surveyed here by Sergio de la Mora, show up on a number of people’s lists of faves. Over the next few years more and more people will be recognizing the visionary talents of a tight-knit community of young filmmakers in the Philippines, including Raya Martin, who contributes to this issue. Alexis A. Tioseco, whose excellent Web site Criticine is in perfect sync with the movement, has written a sharply observant and keenly sympathetic manifesto about it, also included here.

In the United States troubled dudes (analyzed in these pages by Cheryl Eddy and Max Goldberg), bad mamas (well rendered by Kimberly Chun), and fucked-up families (pinpointed by Dennis Harvey) ruled the best low-budget features and worst moneymaking hits. That is, when a visiting journalist named Borat wasn’t giving new meaning to the phrase high grosses by lampooning the ugliest American behavior in the last days of the Bush era.

Locally, some of my favorite films were made by this issue’s cover stars, David Enos and Sarah Enid Hagey, who frequently collaborate and star in each other’s work. Enos has drawn a comic for the issue; it gives readers a hint of the perceptive scrawls and deadpan hilarity that characterize the one-of-a-kind male portraiture in his animated shorts, which often focus on musical figures (The Dennis Wilson Story, Leonard Cohen in Alberta, Light My Fire). Hagey’s movie The Great Unknown features a funny performance by Enos as an undersung auteur. In her Lovelorn Domestic, she lights each scene to create an eerie glow and portrays a silent wife with a giant, beaked head who mercilessly pecks her protesting beloved’s eyes out. If Hagey’s recent movies and Enos’s self-published comics and books (Pock Mark, On the Grain Teams) are any indication, they — along with their Edinburgh Castle Film Night cohorts Cathy Begien and Jose Rodriguez — are just beginning to tap into big talents. Look for them in the future.

Super visions: The Guardian year in film

Cinema 2006: Top 10s, rants, raves and gushes

Johnny Ray Huston’s top 10 viewing experiences

Kimberly Chun on monster moms

Dennis Harvey on fucked up families

Chuck Stephens: cinematic patriot acts

Sergio De La Mora on the further reaches of Mexican cinema

Jason Shimai’s Mexico City pirate diary

Alexis A Tioseco surveys the New Phillipine Cinema

Max Goldberg: A great year for boy-men!

Cheryl Eddy: An awful year for boy-men!

Filmmaker Raya Martin’s Twin cinematic peaks