Monday, December 24, 2007

Looking Back on the Year That Was

Common Themes From '07

The following is the first in a series of posts recapping the year of 2007.

In an especially strong year for films, there was something else in the air. Old familiar faces made a strong return, some genres were brought back to life and the worldview of our presence in Iraq grew increasingly dissident and overpowering in the media. The few ideas listed below were things that stood out in a solid year for filmmaking:

1. 2007 is the year of Josh Brolin- Sure, we all remember him as the cranky older brother dragged into an adventure in that 80's classic, "The Goonies", but '07 saw Brolin featured in four wildly different films. As a crazed doctor in Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror", this was the first hint of something outstanding for him in 2007. Featured less prominently in Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" as the police superior to detective Charlize Theron, there 1 scene together, nonetheless, crackled with intelligence and unspoken trust and hinted at a relationship much greater than their screen time. Then came the one-two punch of "American Gangster" and "No Country For Old Men", proving that lightning can strike four times in the same spot. While his performance in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster", as a dirty police detective, is certainly more flashy than anything else he did this year, its still a performance that felt electric and menacing and not overcooked And he certainly wins the award for best facial hair in '07.

2. The return of the western- Five different films this year place their characters in genuine "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" territory. What's even more impressive is their range of storytelling within the genre. There was the more workmanlike, mainstream efforts of James Mangold's "3:10 To Yuma" and David Von Acknen's "Seraphim Falls" coupled with the dreamy aesthetic of Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" that gave audiences several visual sides to the genre. Then, the Coen Brothers ripped apart the beautiful vistas of West Texas to create a bloody, allegorical tale about good, evil and the progressively shifting landscape of the old west in "No Country For Old Men". It's western roots certainly can't be denied, though its a film that tries its best to hide the cowboy aesthetic. Upcoming is Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood", focusing on the land-grabbing exploits of oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) later this month. The western has been trying (unsuccessfully) to make a grand return to modern movies (remember Kevin Costner's many efforts as well as head-scratching efforts such as "The Quick and the Dead"?) and for the first time, these 5films make a concerted effort to bring back the revisionist heyday of the 1970's.

3. Tommy Lee Jones- Any movie fan knows that Tommy Lee Jones will produce unfaltering performances, but there was something very special about 2007. First, in September his lead role in Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" took what could've been a routine examination of the violence inflicted at home by a disturbed Iraq war vet and turned it into an honest feeling, penetrating character study of a father relentlessly searching for the truth. There's not an ounce of vanity in his performance, not a single moment when he feels like he's grandstanding, and its a wonderful film by a filmmaker who has the tendency to go overboard with maudlin sentiments. Jones kept everything in check. Then, just over a month later, his supporting role that soon turns into the defining personality of the whole movie, Jones embodied the world-weary sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men". Again, his presence feels so natural and unpretentious that its probably sad he'll be overlooked for any major awards this year because he does it so well. Here's hoping Jones has many more roles both behind and in front of the camera.

4. Iraq on Film- The political and cultural outcry has been deafening since early '06, and filmmakers responded with an array of suggestions on film about the Iraq war. From solid documentaries to feature length fiction films, there were certain months when every week saw an influx of war-themed films. Audiences certainly didn't respond, even to well intentioned films such as "No End In Sight", and the market became flooded with 'downer' films about a war that no one cared to see outside of CNN. Still, the idea that a polarizing event such as this can elicit the passion of so many artists is heartening, whether the films themselves were any good or not.

5. The "R" rated comedy- Perhaps the cinematic baby of one group of men (the Apatow crew), the "r" rated comedy made a hearty resurgence. We saw this coming in 2005 after films such as "The Wedding Crashers" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" created box office gold, and it took a little longer than expected to come full circle, but films such as "Knocked Up", "Superbad", "Walk Hard", and "Hott Fuzz" broke onto the American screen with ferocity in 2007. And the positive side to all of this- the Apatow gang has apparently gotten a greenlight to create several more films in '08. Let's just hope they don't wear out their welcome.

6. Bad Distribution Tales- This may be more of a local issue than anything, but one discomforting fact about '07 was the limited release of great films that deserved more of a commercial push. Typically, Dallas is a market that sees a great majority of films released in a given year. They start out small, one 1-4 local arthouse screens then open on larger screens as word of mouth grows. In '07, I noticed a decrease in the amount of screens given to independent arthouse fare. Films such as "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford", "Reservation Road", "Southland Tales", "The King of Kong", "Lust Caution", "Lake of Fire", "Control" and "Rescue Dawn" played on 1-2 screens in deep downtown, failing to make it into larger theaters. I managed to catch a couple of these films, but very few opened outside of limited availability. Add to that fact, all of these films were given prominent trailers and even cardboard standouts in larger multiplex theaters around the Dallas area. Theater chain Cinemark, which dominates the market here in Dallas-Fort Worth with their luxurious, 24 screen megaplexes, often denotes 4 screens per theater to what the call 'CineArts'. While smaller films such as the ones listed above languished on 1 screen in lower Dallas, the 'CineArts' section featured films such as "No Country For Old Men" and "Enchanted"!!!. Even after good word of mouth, these films still went no where. This is the first time I've noticed this and hopefully, it's not a trend that'll continue in the new year.

I'd be curious as to what other trends you movie fans have noticed this year. Be on the lookout for upcoming posts such as performances of the year, my favorites of the year and the annual presentation of my Moments of '07 article, now going strong in its tenth edition.

No comments: