Not my richest year of revival- or repertory-house screenings, which means that even more so than usual, almost all of my most resonant memories arose from first-run releases. Many people look on 2007 as an exemplary year for film releases in the U.S., and I'm inclined to agree, though I seem to have gotten excited about a different slate of movies than most. Still, this is also the rare year when the new stuff I was experiencing in cinemas could go proudly toe-to-toe with the best of what I rented from the world's back catalogue. In truth, though, I just wasn't renting much, since 2007 significantly outpaced any previous year of my life in terms of just how many times I bought a movie ticket. I apparently wanted my 30th year of life to be one big celluloid dream. And why not?
Jan 26, The Music Box, Chicago, IL
There aren't many filmmakers whose equivalents of INLAND EMPIRE I would want to see. Frankly I was amazed how receptive I was to Charlie Kaufman's, which I never imagined he had in him to give, but that's a tale for next time. Anyway, hot-wiring a film from the most raggedy, morbid, undecidable, scarifying transmissions from one's own artistic id is virtually the definition of self-indulgence, but if Lynch were only making movies for himself, then why would I be so alarmed and shaken by them that I left the theater, hopped on the city bus, and cried all the way home? I'm not giving up my diegetic theory about the "story" behind this movie, because I have to have something left over for my academic publishing ambitions, but despite that coy (non-)admission, I think INLAND EMPIRE is even more resistant than Mulholland Drive is to "sense," and I doubt I'd want the film any other way. Maybe the Polish bits could be a tad less opaque. That I'd live with. But as rusted, sharp-edged, and fearsome as INLAND EMPIRE appears during its most confrontational moments, and as hearty as you'd have to be to even film this, assemble it so, and promote it in such unusual ways, it also has a definite house-of-cards quality. With just one less scene, or one altered rhythm, even among the least legible parts of the movie, who knows whether the furious affectation of Grace Zabriskie or those abject hotdog parties in the backyard or The Locomotion or The Face or the sidewalk monologue or "Sinnerman" would explode as forcefully as they do? What if everything's a trigger for everything else? I came back three times, and I harbor a fantasy of reserving a whole night this winter for all the extra footage on the DVD. But I'll have to do it when I've built up some reserves of stabilizing emotion, since INLAND EMPIRE eats that stuff up and spits it out.
Mar 2 and Apr 6, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
Who knew that the ship-shape Evanston moviehouse would start feeling like such a flea-hole, if only because two such proudly disreputable pageant-provocations threw down stakes within a month of each other and dared everybody not to look? Granted, a lot of people didn't look, but I can't figure why not. Black Snake Moan was an absolute corker of not-quite-sleaze, and if I didn't go as far as some in seeing an apotheosis of moral inquiry, I still had the biggest whale of an unexpected good time that I'd had since Crank. As for
Grindhouse, a slip-up on Moviefone had reported it as a three-hour affair, rather than four, so I made myself pretty dangerously late for an evening appointment by refusing to budge from my seat. Ironically, this involved a self-sabotaging show of loyalty to the Tarantino component, Death Proof, which is the part I didn't like; to me it signaled his increasing slide into the kind of self-flattering virtuosity and barely recuperated sadism that came to fuller, evil flower in Inglourious Basterds. I was pretty thrown by just how much and just how long he wanted to immerse us in the terror of those women, notwithstanding the fact that Zoë Bell comes across as the final word in Gals Who Can Take Care of Themselves. And even this was much preferable to all the talking talking talking talking to no discernible purpose in the first, draggy hour of Death Proof. But Planet Terror was a squishy, pulpy, frenzied, and funny bit of merriment, the interpolated fake trailers were a reason in themselves to see the movie, and I was generally amazed at how much stylistic work and jovial wit had gone into making this seem like four hours in a dank dive. Absolute entertainment, and I'm sorry more people didn't catch the wave.
Mar 17, Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, Chicago IL
The title of Zoo turns out to be pulling duty as an adjective, not a noun. People who are "zoo" obtain erotic pleasure from contact with animals. One can scarcely imagine how the four-legged partners feel about this; from the humans' point of view, it can go extremely well to extremely poorly, as in the case that kick-starts and structures the documentary, wherein a man was dropped off at a Pacific Northwest hospital, bleeding to death on the inside, after his intestines were perforated by a horse. I'm sure you can figure out how that happened, though you may or may not want to. Robinson Devor, working different sides of his unusual imagination than I had observed the previous fall in Police Beat, had constructed the most boundary-pushing documentary I had seen in years, less because of the subject matter than because of the oblique, abstract, willfully shrouded way in which he chose and/or was forced to communicate the essentials of this story, and to suggest the extremely perplexing desires that set the agenda for all of these adumbrated interviews, on-screen aliases, confounding testimonies, and darkly lyrical images. I saw it in the theater with about ten people, of whom I seemed to be the only one who had wandered in from Away from Her, still packing 'em in down the hall. Very subdued and furtive mood in the cinema before the lights went down. I expect this is the closest I will ever come to feeling like one of the enthusiasts who congregate like phantoms in Cronenberg's Crash to see something they know they "shouldn't" be looking at, but they can't help being fascinated.
May 25, AMC Empire 25, New York, NY
High time for some lighter fare, though, so after Derek and I jaunt to New York City for the wedding of two dear friends, Nathaniel and I make an evening date to catch Once in the AMC Empire. The movie is so soothing, seductive, charming, and rueful that we're completely in its hands, even as two audience members on the other side of the cinema get into a verbal spat that intensifies until the theater managers and someone with a badge eventually intercede. Still, the Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy is absolutely more compelling than the midtown nutjob who is losing his mind on the other side of the row. Once stayed put from this point forward as my favorite movie of the year, and I was so ecstatic that my one, very rare bit of immediately post-screening awards prognostication came true. "I can't wait to see them sing that song on the Oscars!" I gushed, and though Nathaniel looked at me like I was crazy, and it must be admitted, I've grown so errant as an Academy forecaster that he had every reason to doubt me, I felt in my bones that this one was too good to pass up. However it happened, I can hardly evoke the pleasure of watching Glen and Markéta actually win nine months later, as though our evening at the Empire was the moment of film-loving conception that eventually, right on time, produced a tiny, naked, gold-plated baby.
Jul 4, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
Derek and I are forced to move, again, because our first landlord in Chicago decides he likes our unit so much he wants to move back in himself. It's a blessing in disguise, though, because we find an affordable rental in the Streeterville neighborhood, which in Chicago terms is a little like finding a golden ticket in your Wonka bar. It turns out, of course, that the building had things to hide, and a year later, we were moving again, after the property group announced the sale of our entire building to a boutique hotel chain. But that year, albeit a kind of evanescent mirage, was a grand ol' time of living down the street from the Hancock Building, the old water tower, and Oprah's pad. Also, it was the only time I had ever lived within normal-person walking distance of a major multiplex, and also the first time I had lived less than 100 yards from a beach. (Yes, in the summers, Chicago is a beach town. Seriously.) Right after we moved, before the phone or the internet were even working, Derek had to ship off to visit a friend in New Orleans, and I enjoyed this blissful week of being totally cut off from everything while relishing the comforts of my own home. The apotheosis of that week involved reading The Ambassadors for three hours in the sun in between dips into Lake Michigan (not, to all minds, the most health-conscious choice), and then shaking the sand out of my clothes and padding over in my flip-flops to see A Mighty Heart. As you already know, I love me some Winterbottom, and this one's as good as most of his best. The other effect of living this close to the huge AMC hub is that the bar for what I'll pay to see in a theater gets lowered even further. I quickly learn this the hard way, after taking a chance on the mothy-looking Evening. Very close to a pure waste of money, which is shocking considering the assembled talent, but at least I was home inside of a quarter-hour, contentedly popping something else into the DVD player to wipe all the syrup from my brain.
Jul 21, AMC Pipers Alley 4, Chicago, IL
I leaned over to Derek as the flashbacks and flash-forwards in La Vie en rose started getting totally entropic, and the years became harder and harder to follow. "1492!" I whispered. "1066," he said. "2046," I said. I wanted Edith to keep suffering in the far future, and maybe even the prehistoric past. Barely less funny to me was the way in which the English subtitlers had refrained from translating almost any of the song lyrics, but had helpfully let us know that the captions that said "septembre" or "décembre" referred to September and December. Still, what neither of us understood was that despite our shared bemusement at this rapidly era-hopping film was that we were otherwise reacting in totally different ways. He couldn't believe I had liked it when it was over, and assumed I was kidding. I was just barely less surprised that he'd hated it so much. I've made clear in the past that I think Cotillard is astonishingly vivid, detailed, and emotionally acute at etching Piaf's oscillating levels and contexts of distress, but I even think the film itself works adeptly as a kind of centrifugal storm evoking all of her demons. The movie and the woman are dizzying and relentless and more than a bit histrionic, in a way that reverberates in her astonishing vocal deliveries and her vast portmanteau of stentorian laments. I also think the handheld camerawork and the potentially clichéd color palette of blacks, golds, ombres, and deathly whites come across magnificently. Derek, on the other hand, couldn't take the kitsch, the length, the emotional garishness, the restless frames, and the overall self-seriousness. And he's never let me forget my admission that by the time she's hunched over and talking to that beach reporter about love, she looks kind of like a Fraggle. A notably huge divergence of response, but given how transparent your friends' reactions usually are while watching a film, much less how transparent the larger crowd usually is, I tend to get excited when my viewing partner turns out to have had a decisively different experience than I did of the same movie at the same time, without me so much as noticing. Those are always good conversations.
Aug 15, The Music Box, Chicago, IL
Myth come to life: Milestone Films, God bless, brings out Killer of Sheep for its first-ever theatrical run, and it's as stunning as everybody has always said while the film was notoriously out of circulation. It took me two visits to really absorb how poignant and finely drawn the picture is, because the combo of shoestring realism, narrative elision, and heightened poetic sensibility was not quite what I was expecting. I adore a film that, beyond furnishing a gripping emotional experience, actually teaches me a new way to watch movies, or an entirely new paradigm for how movies can take shape. Killer of Sheep is like Rossellini or De Sica rendered in a blues key and roughed up a little around the edges. Roughed up at its heart, too, as we detect in that long, slow dance to "At Last" that Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore share in their living room, even though we sense that they're hearing the music and its message in very different ways.
Aug 25, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
While Derek hangs out with a friend of ours who is visiting, I take her 15-year-old son to see Superbad. We are both asked for our IDs, to confirm that we're old enough to see the movie without our parents. For those of you just joining this site, I was two months shy of hitting 30. I am happy to take this as flattering, and certainly more memorable than anything that happens to me for the next two hours, unless you count the photography in Superbad being so cruddy that I still can't fully shake it.
Sep 4, AMC Pipers Alley 4, Chicago, IL
If Zoo was a great experience of seeing the documentary form pushed into new levels of effective abstraction and sensual distillation, No End in Sight was about as workmanlike as possible at presenting crisp, clear, but impassioned facts in the shape of a pristine argument. Probably like a lot of you, I always felt that the Iraq War would be and has been an unmitigated disaster, but No End in Sight brought a completely different and authoritatively textured perspective to the dynamics of government, sociology, employment, and national morale across Iraq that deepened my sense of how war came to pass and why this gruesome boondoggle is so particularly complex, pronounced, and self-reinforcing. You can feel that Charles Ferguson is more of a policy wonk and a researcher than a born filmmaker, but that's barely a blight on the movie's lean, candid cogency, and no blight at all on its power. The question holds, of course, why the national media has, for virtually all of the 00s, fallen so egregiously short of this example of historical seriousness, nuanced dissection, and the value of speaking from verifiable facts rather than rhetorical sentiments.
Sep 8, AMC Pipers Alley 4 and Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, Chicago, IL
Here were two more documentaries that worked in different ways, more narrativized for emotional effect and audience identification than a current-affairs exegesis like No End in Sight, and much less formally or thematically daring than Zoo. Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's Deep Water would also rank extremely high on the list of movies that I've recommended most often this decade, even though it's been barely two years since I saw it. The astonishing true tale of an ill-trained English sailor attempting to circumnavigate the globe at the end of the 1960s, hoping heroically and pitifully to save his family from poverty by winning the cash prize attached to this maritime race, is such a corker that just describing the opening beats of the tale to friend after friend, students and colleagues, has been enough to force their notepads out of their purses and pockets to make a careful memo of the title. What took me aback upon seeing it was that its story translates with such remarkable lucidity and prodigious dramatic forcefor me, Donald Crowhurst was the grand tragic figure of a full year in cinema, well out front of Daniel Plainview. I had no trouble reciting the full narrative sequence in order to anyone who asked, even as weeks and months passed. Thank you, Weinstein Company, for burying yet another movie that should have been a surefire hit, at least by the terms of its genre. More visible to audiences and more frequent on year-end best lists was The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which turns out to cut a few major corners in styling the Billy Mitchell-Steve Wiebe showdown for maximum audience delight. But delightful it is, full of dialogue I wouldn't trust any paid screenwriter to devise, and pushed along by a narrative of the haughty tyrant and the decent, damp-eyed aspirant that satisfies tremendously, despite the bluntness with which the film draws its lines and makes evident its sympathies. I am proud to say I started a round of applause at a key moment in the film, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh hour, that spread through the whole auditorium both times I saw The King of Kong. I basically blurted half the plot of this one, too, to anyone who would listen or even half-listen over the next several months. Often you can gauge the best acts of storytelling by your desire to inherit the tale and pass it along as your own.
Sep 28, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL, and CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
Until very recently, the website for my public high school had a link on its webpage to a list of distinguished alumni, and #1 on the list was Chris McCandless, the doomed protagonist of Into the Wild. If you have seen the movie or read the book, you can imagine what a bizarre thing this is for a school to claim about itself, and how much Chris would surely have loathed being so designated, unless he took it as deliciously wicked irony... though "irony" seems not to have ranked strongly on the list of Chris's endowments. I was excited enough about the film to go see it downtown at 10:30am on the Friday it opened. There were about 20 of us in the audience, and we slowly registered varying states of alarm about the man sitting just two rows back from the gigantic screen, who was repeatedly rising from his chair, ambling around, and then re-seating himself, in a manifestly erratic mood. The closer I looked, I could see that he was sticking his hand in the pocket of his sweatpants and then seeming to sniff something out of his palm. A few patrons left, most of whom returned, having obviously notified theater staff. He was taken out by a manager, but then, 10 minutes later, as Chris headed to South Dakota, he returned. Farting loudly, so loudly that even Eddie Vedder couldn't drown him out from full across the room, this guy then turned to face the rest of us, strutting back and forth across the walkway in front of the main bank of seats, and patting himself ostentatiously just above his groin. In movies, this always means that someone is either concealing a firearm or wants you to think he is. By this point, Chris McCandless was working for Vince Vaughn in South Dakota, and I thought, "What would Chris have done in this situation?" I decided he would have stuck around, in the interest of seeing something spontaneous and exciting and "real" unfold. This was as clear a signal as any that the prudent thing to do was to cut bait on the movie. I left, passing some policemen in the hallway, and caught the shuttle up to Evanston. I'm so glad that I go to the movies so often that most of the local ticket-sellers recognize me, so that when I say something crazy like, "I was trying to watch this film downtown, and some guy started snorting drugs out of his hand and play-acting that he was about to shoot us," they respond, "I'm so sorry, baby. Why don't you go in and catch the rest of our show." So I've seen Into the Wild once, except for 15 or 20 minutes in the middle, which I've seen twice, in two different towns.
Oct 6, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
My defining film of the 2007 Chicago Film Festival, the first fest I ever hit full-on, was Esteban Sapir's The Aerial (La Antena), which never secured a theatrical release in the U.S. Even the DVD is only obtainable in a PAL pressing from Europe, which is too bad, since whatever people found charming about Jean-Pierre Jeunet's or Guy Maddin's eccentric experiments, and whatever cosmetic allure and Otherworld kick they located in Pan's Labyrinth or Coraline, I feel pretty sure they would derive something similar from Sapir's trippy dystopian fantasia where no one has a voice (literally) and they're being gorged on cookies that are mass-produced by the corporation that, you know, Owns Everything. The styling as a latter-day silent film is witty, but not in a way that leans esoterically on rarefied knowledge; anyone could get it, even kids, and the movie is full of surreal flourishes like characters with TVs for heads and boys with no eyes. I saw it with Goatdog, with whom I have an infinitely higher success-ratio in movie-watching than I have pulled off with most of my other blog buddies (although if it makes you feel better, Tim and Nathaniel, Mike and I have sat through a whole lot of awful dogs in our Oscar-directed DVD rentals). We both left the theater feeling plucky and propped up by such a pure act of unusual, resourceful creativity, and while I hope The Aerial will in some way or other find an audience, I hope just as much that Sapir has a second try at a feature-length film, and that it has more luck penetrating the commercial market. The whole, sizable audience at CIFF was obviously charmed, and I kept hearing people talk about it over the next two weeks of other screenings. Consequently, though I send Sapir best wishes for future success, there's a part of me that feels admittedly jealous and protective of having had such a rare, invigorating peep at something almost no one else has gotten to see, least of all in a cinema. Please don't think I ever forget how lucky I am to live here.
Oct 12, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
What's strange about film festivals is that you can sit in the audience for a sublime piece of pop-genre filmmaking like James Gray's We Own the Night in its first weekend of release, with only about a dozen other fellow filmgoers, knowing that a Roy Andersson movie or a documentary about marathon runners is playing down the hall to a completely packed house in one of the much larger screening rooms of the same mainstream 'plex. It's like Opposite World, but then, almost every mental association I have with We Own the Night has connotations of Opposite World. Like, why did this movie bomb when it was decently well-sold as an action policier, the kind that usually fares much better even when the reviews are much worse? Then again, why were most of the major American critics so quiet, and why have they only started speaking up on Gray's behalf in the wake of Two Lovers, which strikes me, self-righteously, as a patently thinner work than either We Own the Night or The Yards, which almost all of them brushed off? If there's one mainstream American movie from the last few years that I wish I could convince more people to watch, it's this one. If anyone has recently seen a better-constructed car-chase sequence (okay, it's not quite a "car chase" per se, but it sure feels like one), I'd love to hear about it. And ditto for the ingenious framings, edits, and atmospherics that make so utterly fresh and indelible the entry into the nightclub, the scene of Wahlberg returning with groceries, the scene of Phoenix infiltrating a drug-packing operation, the glimpse of a major character buckling quietly but absolutely under escalating pressure, and the final sequence among the hollow, hay-colored reeds.
Oct 17, Harris Theatre, Chicago, IL
Readers of the past few years will already know the story of my dreamy encounter with Laura Linney at the festival's closing-night premiere of The Savages. I won't reiterate the details here, but I was thrilled for her when her number came up on Oscar-nomination morning, and though I have since seen a staging of Don Giovanni, one of Benjamin Britten's Owen Wingrave, and a Step Afrika concert in the same theater space, for me it'll always be Laura's House.
Nov 17, Facets Cinematheque, Chicago, IL
Lonesome Cowboys was the biggest popular hit that Andy Warhol ever had. It screened in a good number of "regular" theaters in 1968, which serves to indicate just how weird the history of popular narrative film and of American exhibition really is, without having to dig all that far back through the decades. It's unimaginable to me that something like Lonesome Cowboys could advance so far in today's distribution economy, but it's awfully fun to speculate how American cinema might have changed if Cowboys had really augured the kind of major paradigm shift in gender, sexuality, and their iconographic representations that many Warhol enthusiasts clearly hoped for. Viva is total hell on wheels in this one, but like all the Warhol films I've seen (save for Flesh, not officially directed by Warhol), the particulars of the movie are pretty hard to retrieve, even just days after attending the screening. It's more a feeling I hold onto, since almost any time I encounter Warhol's legacy in gallery art, in print, or in film, I wind up having a totally different impression of what he was about, what he might have gone on to do, and what I feel about all of it. Cowboys is largely prankish, but there are sharp edges of permanent loneliness and of misogynist cruelty streaked across it. For a movie that looks so stylistically half-assed and stapled together, for a movie it's hard to even recollect in its specifics, it still serves as quite a think-piece.
Nov 24, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
I'm so glad I defied my early instincts as well as most of the reviews I'd been reading and went to see The Mist, and I'm glad I broke my usual rule against Friday- or Saturday-night movies. Howling with a full, gregarious audience at the movie's absurdities and its obviously fake creature effects was an unexpected pleasure, especially since the film seems in on its own joke, or even a bit metacritical about the complex pleasures of camp. But then, sitting silent and stunned in my seat by the movie's concluding movements was an even more impressive experience. I'm not being churlish or purposefully provocative in saying that the conjuration of hopelessness and existential drift at the end of The Mist packed a much bigger punch for me than what the Coens pulled off in No Country for Old Men, a perfect example of a movie for which I couldn't invent a memory if I tried of exactly when or how or in what mood I saw it. Maybe the bleak convictions of The Mist are more bracing because they exist in such inextricable relation to such an overtly synthetic story and mise-en-scène. It's the surprise of opening a toy chest or a styrofoam container and finding a pistol inside, with your name on it.
Nov 26, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
I'm Not There: I don't have much to say, except that I was there, attending a Todd Haynes movie on the hugest screen and via the clearest projection I'd ever enjoyed for one of his films. When you love Haynes's work the way I do, you're never going to forget that. I know a lot of people found it a bit too eggheady or coldly intellectualized, but what can I say? It played to me, twice in three days, like it was one from the heart.
Dec 19, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
Chicago winters can make you do crazy, almost hormonal things, as if you're a pop-cinema pregnant woman, full of inexplicable urges. There are times when you'll do almost anything to get inside and out of the freezing wind. There are times where you feel so housebound by the same conditions that you just have to get out, all of a sudden, to avoid the strange sense of cabin fever despite living in a densely populated city of almost three million people. Rarely has this climatic problem broken so beautifully to my advantage as when I came home one night from work to find Derek fully dressed, saying, "Let's go see Juno!" On the rare occasions he expresses interest in a first-run movie (though I realize his disproportionate recurrences in this series make this sound like a much more frequent trend than it really is), I know that it usually means waiting much longer than I usually like to, because he doesn't usually care how soon he sees the film, and he doesn't have the kinds of friends I have to whom he's dying to report his specific thoughts on films, or who are likely to poll him for those thoughts. So I was worried about how soon I'd get to see the buzzy burger-phone movie. Half the battle was already won for me by the special Jennifer Garner Exception Rule; because she and Derek were casual friends in college, he's always eager to see what she's up to on screen. Seriously, we almost saw Elektra, and Derek attending Elektra is like, I don't know, Barack Obama sucking down Pabst Blue Ribbon and shooting rabbits on the ranch in Crawford. I'm so glad that December in Chicago got him restless, and I'm even gladder for Juno, one of those phenoms that I guess we're now apparently supposed to hate, or begrudge, or apologize for, as in, "Okay, I admit it, I still like Juno!" The first ten or fifteen minutes make it hard, but once we're past the abortion clinic, all I see as a giddy-colored, adventurously written, cozily scored, emotionally sincere, brilliantly acted, smartly structured movie in which it turns out Juno's biggest question isn't about motherhood but about couplehood: what does it take for two people to stick together? Juno is serious and affecting in the way it poses and builds to this question, and though the past fall has been full of film reviews that take quick, dirty swipes at this character or her vehicle, I think the movie's engaging, artful, and (most of all) earnest portrayal of this often facetious but ultimately uncynical character is a bigger gift than any of the recent stuff for which it's been set up as a relative fall guy. Or fall gal. Whatever. Take your Educations and your Up in the Airs. Please, take them! I'll be on my burger phone, rolling my orange tic-tacs around my tongue, savoring old delights that still, rather wonderfully, taste as salty and sweet as ever.
Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2007 (Chronological):
The Stunt Man, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Life of an American Fireman, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Wise Blood, The Apple, The Wild Party, Married to the Mob, The Big House, Broadway Melody of 1940, Waterloo Bridge, La Jetée, East of Eden, and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
Labels: End of 00s