The Screening Room — Day 1

Our look at the year in movies

Welcome to the Screening Room, Las Vegas Weekly’s critical look back at the year in movies (with a tip of the hat to Slate’s Movie Club for inspiration). Over the next five days, film critics Josh Bell, Mark Holcomb, Jeffrey M. Anderson and Tony Macklin will discuss the best and worst films of the year, and the trends that defined 2007. Check back each day this week for a new installment.


Josh Bell: Looking back on the movies of 2007 to put together my end-of-year Top 10 list and my ballot for the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, I’m inclined to say that it was a good year at the movies, but I wonder if it was just a good year for movies that I happened to see, or movies that appeal to my particular sensibilities. I did see at least two movies this year (Zodiac and No Country for Old Men) that were better than anything I saw in 2006, though, and I think stand up as two of the best films of the decade. And whether it's the whims of personal taste or a real uptick in quality, I think I feel a lot more pleased with my Top 10 list this year than I did last year.

In terms of general trends at the movies, what was this the year of? Was it the year of dreary Hollywood melodramas about the situation in the Middle East (Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, etc.)? Or was it the year of the end-of-the-world horror film (28 Weeks Later, The Mist, I Am Legend)? It definitely seemed like the year of Judd Apatow, which I’m not sure is necessarily a good thing (the amount of false goodwill that must be leading critics to praise Walk Hard is pretty astonishing). After last year, or maybe the year before, was the year of the documentary, this was the year that audiences remembered that they don’t care about documentaries, or at least got fed up with the parade of nonfiction films about the same subject. For me, I saw a number of exceptional documentaries this year (Deep Water, The King of Kong, My Kid Could Paint That, all of which dug into rich, human stories rather than wading into political waters), and even found some refreshing insight in yet another film about Iraq (No End in Sight).

What trends do you think defined the year? What were some of your favorite films, either critical favorites or ones that slipped under the radar? What highly praised movie did you absolutely hate? And do you think 2007 really was a good year at the movies?

Mark Holcomb: I’ll jump in, if only because it gives me an excuse to set aside something else I’m working on that isn’t quite coming together. NYC is under the influence of a sloppy nor’easter, and gloomy Sundays are the worst days to try to write, no question.

Anyway, speaking of gloom, I think any year that included two big-budget, wide-release mind-blowers like Zodiac and No Country for Old Men qualifies as a good one for cinema, if not exactly for the soul. And if there’s any movie trend I detected in 2007, it’s summed up by those two films and a few others (including one from late last year).

I guess it’s a kind of new reflectiveness that obliquely addresses “current events” without being earnest or politically trenchant, a la Rendition or Lions for Lambs (two movies I confess to not having seen), or direct, as with No End in Sight. Zodiac and No Country, like 2006’s A History of Violence and P.T. Anderson’s upcoming There Will Be Blood, engage our current drift into intolerance and barbarism philosophically and poetically (and viscerally), and at this point that’s much more potent to me than yet another specific documentary about how egregiously we’re f--king up the world along with another generation of American GIs.

I’m sure some would qualify that as playing ostrich, including people who hated the Fincher and Coen films. (I found the critical wrangle over No Country one of the year’s more fascinating developments, by the way.) But more then anything I felt drained by last year’s parade of feel-bad docs, and besides—what good is movie entertainment if we can’t rely on it to make us look inward and admit we don’t like what we see every once in a while?

God knows there was plenty of fluff to counteract this year’s existential downers, including the latest slew of Judd Apatow-related product. I got a kick out of some of Knocked Up and Superbad, but more and more these movies strike me as extended episodes of Freaks and Geeks with prodigious use of the word “f--k” and amped-up misogyny. The one exception was Mike White’s Year of the Dog, which may have been the most humane movie all year. Also, Jeffrey Blitz’s Rocket Science, Justin Theroux’s Dedication, and Goran Dukic’s Wristcutters: A Love Story—three indie gems that got the tiniest, briefest of releases—were all funnier and more alive than the collective output of Team Apatow. Like Wes Anderson, Apatow needs new material.

As for well-received movies that I hated, put Into the Wild at the top of my list. I can sort of see what about it appealed to people—Emile Hirsch, mostly, plus the unbridled glee with which it presents Chris McCandless’ trek off of several beaten paths. But Sean Penn’s New Age, woo-woo reading of McCandless’ story is just bizarre (along with I Am Legend, it’s one of two potentially decent Hollywood blockbusters this year ruined by making its protag into a latter-day Jesus), and all but buried the equivocation that made Jon Krakauer’s source material so compelling. Plus, wilderness-wise, the film had less depth than an IMAX extreme-skiing docustravaganza, and it featured lots of painful overacting and fact-fudging to boot. I really don’t get why this movie wasn’t widely panned.

Then again, maybe the gloom has just gotten the better of me.

Tony Macklin: I agree with Josh and Mark that 2007 has been a good year at the movies—a very good year.

But as I am making out my list of the 10 best (favorite) of the year, I’m only confident about the top four choices—No Country for Old Men, Into the Wild, The Bourne Ultimatum and Zodiac.

I also want to include Ratatouille somewhere in my Top 10.

That leaves five spots open, and I am constantly changing my mind about them.

There are more than 10 other candidates—The Lookout, 3:10 to Yuma, Juno (can you guys set me at ease about Juno—is it just a sitcom, or is it a memorable film?), The Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone, The Hoax, In the Valley of Elah, La Vie en Rose, Eastern Promises, I’m Not There and others.

Three movies start badly—Juno, La Vie en Rose and I’m Not There (the Woody opening doesn’t work at all for me—I hate it. It’s cutesy). But each of these three has a powerhouse performance—Ellen Page (Juno), Marion Cotillard (Edith Piaf), and Cate Blanchett, incandescent as the electric-stage Bob Dylan.

Do I go with two westerns?

As to well-received movies with which I wasn’t on board: I thought Michael Clayton was overrated; it had little payoff, and although George Clooney—Kentucky’s answer to Cary Grant—never melts, he’s still basically vanilla.

Atonement struck me as hothouse fantasy. Okay, it has a fancy tracking shot, but I don’t much care about posed soldiers with cosmetic blood. Guilt, grief, and yawns. I know 88% of reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes were ga-ga; but I’m in the other 12%.

BTW, what are the LA “critics” smoking? They chose There Will Be Blood as Best Picture of the year. The first part is impressive but plodding, and then it spins out of control and becomes oily nonsense.

2007 also was the year of some shoddy writing—Feast of Love and The Bucket List suggest that Morgan Freeman should take some time off from narrating.

When I’m in my Hitchcock mood, I love No Country for Old Men. When I’m in my Capra mood, I love Into the Wild (which is Capra with a negative ending).

These two movies give my spirit a much-needed boost. They make it a good year for me. 

Jeffrey M. Anderson: I definitely agree with the general consensus that 2007 was better than both 2006 or 2005, in that I’m happier with my list this year. I’m astounded that critics in general finally saw through all the “issue” films that turned up this year and gave them all the boot. Only Atonement—with its tacked-on “war” message—seemed to slip through, and looks to win some Oscars. And I, too, found that No End in Sight was the end-all, be-all of No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Eastern Promises, all four of which are on my Top 10 list. I was even very happy with the results of the voting of my group, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and I definitely was not last year or the year before.

As usual, the very best foreign films have been overlooked in favor of the year-end releases, the ones that arrive on DVD in voters’ homes. My favorites, the ones on my list, are Offside, Private Fears in Public Places, The Host and 12:08 East of Bucharest. I’m also in awe of the documentary Into Great Silence, which was a hit, but is drifting away in the shadow of No End in Sight.

I, too, hated Into the Wild. I thought it was the most colossally wrongheaded film I’ve seen in a while, quite literally elevating this poor, stupid, pathetic kid to the level of Jesus; he goes around and enlightens everyone he meets, even though the only thing he knows is a little Tolstoy and Jack London. It’s the same story as Grizzly Man, but in that film Herzog looked at his subject with the correct mix of curiosity and pity. And I couldn’t help wondering: If he really wanted to give up civilization and live off the land, why did he settle in a bus?

Finally, I think that 2007 is the year of the Western, with all different kinds to satisfy different tastes: 3:10 to Yuma, Jesse James (the best JJ movie ever made), No Country for Old Men, Seraphim Falls and There Will Be Blood.

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