The Screening Room - Day 2

Welcome to Day 2 of 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). All this week, film critics Josh Bell, Mark Holcomb, Jeffrey M. Anderson and Tony Macklin will be discussing the best and worst films of the year, and the trends that defined 2007. Check back each day this week for a new installment, and click here to read Day 1.

Mark Holcomb: It’s ironic that in the year of the western, the vehicle that got the genre breathing again—HBO’s Deadwood—was killed off for good, apparently through a combination of creative fickleness and network penny-pinching. I would’ve loved to have seen one more season, but then maybe No Country for Old Men did the trick: Deadwood ended with morality as the force of law in reluctant cahoots with bloody capitalism, while No Country effectively chronicles (among many other things) the bewildered demise of the law/morality half of the partnership. Still, I can’t imagine that 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James, Seraphim Falls, or even There Will Be Blood would exist without Deadwood, and it deserved to end on its own terms.

But this is about the year in movies, not TV. Jeff, it’s nice to see that The Host made it onto your list; it’s pretty high up on mine as well. It was easily the best sci-fi/horror movie I saw this year, although there’s so much else going on in it that it barely qualifies for those categories; but, hell, it actually scared me, so why not. Besides, notwithstanding The Mist (which I haven’t gotten around to yet), American horror seems hopelessly stuck in the snuff-slasher rut of Saw, Hostel and the like; nasty, vapid, unengaging stuff. I had some hope for Rob Zombie’s Halloween—as much hope as one could get for such a project, anyway—but he appears to have shot his wad with The Devil’s Rejects. Too bad.

As for foreign films that nobody seemed to notice, Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams and The Method stood out for me, and one or both would’ve made it onto my top 15 list. It’s telling that none of us mentioned The Darjeeling Limited or Margot at the Wedding, both of which were practically tailor-made (or at least tailor-marketed) for year-end lists. Those dudes could take a page from Cronenberg and P.T. Anderson, who had the good sense to get bored with chewing the same food over and over again.

Josh Bell: As a horror fan, I was a little disappointed in The Host—it had too many disparate, conflicting tones for it to completely work for me, although I admit that it’s more exciting than most American horror films are these days (I’m as tired of torture porn as the next critic, even if I will cop to sort of liking Hostel: Part II). I would say that both The Mist and 28 Weeks Later impressed me with their ability to blend genuine scares and dark insights into human nature without resorting to too many buckets of blood.

Jeff brings up a good point about the selectivity of awards-giving bodies and critics writing Top 10 lists, which I imagine we all struggle with to some degree. Many of the foreign and documentary films he mentions never opened in Vegas, and weren’t sent out as for-your-consideration screeners. Even with vigorous use of Netflix, I’ve yet to see a number of films that have gotten great reviews from critics I respect, but aren’t out on DVD yet, or just didn’t fit into my schedule. To put it another way—far more voting critics will have seen The Bucket List than Into Great Silence, for example, but only the latter really needs the extra push. (For the record, I haven’t seen either one, but I know which I would pick if given the choice.) Championing these overlooked films feels like shouting in the darkness much of the time, and the consensus-based voting of most critics’ groups means that even passionate advocacy on the part of one or two people won’t amount to much. Last year I directly petitioned the distributor to send out screeners of The Puffy Chair, a movie I loved that didn’t play in Vegas outside of the CineVegas film festival, to the whole Las Vegas Film Critics Society, and got no response. If a movie hasn’t been pre-selected for awards, it seems, it stands very little chance of getting any recognition.

And speaking of movies that have very little chance of recognition, I wonder what happened to all the momentum for Zodiac? Granted, it was an early-in-the-year release, but it got some of the most positive reviews of the year, and obviously all of us have kept it in mind since then. Personally, I put it at the top of my list, but I haven’t seen it too many other places, and it’s been all but shut out of major awards. Is No Country for Old Men just that much better, or that much of a juggernaut? Or is there really no hope for movies released early on to get recognition at the end of the year? This is a film that died at the box office, and I was hoping that awards might eventually revive it, but it looks like that won’t be happening. Maybe, like Fincher’s Fight Club, it’ll just have to develop a cult following.

Other things to ponder that occur to me from topics we’ve glanced over: Juno—genius or fraud? (Like Tony, I’m still not quite sure.) What exactly qualifies as a Western? (I don’t know if either No Country or There Will Be Blood really falls into that category.) And am I the only person who loved Margot at the Wedding?

Tony Macklin: I really appreciate the discussions we are having. At a time when the endless e-mails I get from members of the Las Vegas Film Critics are superficial and reflexive, I appreciate the reflective, thought-provoking comments from you three fellow critics.

I assume that none of us is arrogant enough to pontificate that our choices are the best, but they may be our favorite/best.

This leads me to try to make a case for Into the Wild, which none of you liked or admired (Mark and Jeff “hated it,” and Josh is not a fan).

One of the things I bring to criticism is that I try to judge whether or not a movie did what it seemed to set out to do. I may comment that it wasn’t worth doing, but I try at least to get on its wavelength. The easiest criticism is to say that the movie is not as one would have made it.

Into the Wild does not try to be a documentary; it doesn’t try to be actual, although it comes from actuality. Into the Wild is not a primer of realism.

For me, the bottom line for the movies I most like is that they are about the human condition. Despite its negative ending, Into the Wild has an optimistic vision about people—BTW, it’s a vision I don’t usually share. Also, Into the Wild is a poem, or at least poetic.

I enjoyed the characters. Each time I thought the movie was about to reach its limit in a scene, it moved to a different scene.

I thought Emile Hirsch did a yeoman’s job of carrying the movie. I can’t think of an actor who would have had more credibility.

The cast was solid. Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, et al. all contributed.

It was edifying to see Vince Vaughn getting a bit out of his usual confinement as a frat boy.

I’m a sucker for Brian Dierker, who actually was a white-water instructor, not an actor. For me, he added a little verisimilitude.

I know he played a sentimental character, but I loved Hal Holbrook. Maybe he was sentimental, but he also portrayed true sentiment for me.

Into the Wild also spoke to my yearning for wanderlust. I don’t wander much anymore, but the movie made me remember and feel the pangs of innocence and exploration (not always wise exploration).

I understand why people love or hate Into the Wild. It’s that kind of picture.

For me, Into the Wild makes a nice human parlay with No Country for Old Men.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: I’m definitely a fan of horror, and though the genre has always had less respect than other genres, it seems like it’s at an all-time low right now. Even those endless sequels of the Universal horror franchises in the 1940s had a kind of fun to them. All these remakes and sequels—none of which screen for the press—seem so callous. Rob Zombie’s Halloween was a serious low point, as was The Hitcher. Last year there was The Descent, which was the best horror flick I’d seen in a while. This year I liked The Host, though it’s more of a “monster” movie than a “scary” movie. The scariest movie I saw was Inland Empire.

Distribution is definitely a factor in our overlooked favorites, especially given that, while The Bucket List will open on 3,000 screens, Into Great Silence probably played on a total of 12, even if it played for months at a time. The big cities get more options, but even here in San Francisco we don’t get movies that open in New York. I managed to catch I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone here in SF; it showed twice, at a museum, whereas in New York it had a regular opening. Same with Syndromes and a Century. But then there are small towns that will be lucky to get something as highly exposed as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

As for Zodiac, I admired it more than I liked it. I definitely thought about it during list time, but I scrapped it. Here was my major problem with it: it points out that the Zodiac killer was a fairly ineffective killing machine. In the years he was at large, the deaths he caused or may have caused add up to a tiny fraction of all the deaths in the Bay Area. But in stepping back and asking this, it nullifies the entire point of the movie. Why were we so obsessed with him? Zodiac is a great police procedural, but why isn’t the movie itself crazier and more obsessed? Because it isn’t, it has the effect of being sluggish over the course of its long 160 minutes. It was also a distinctly un-Fincher-like experience. It looked like an ordinary film. Even his sillier films like Alien 3 and The Game have his unique touch, but this one felt rather bland, like it was attempting to be objective reporting. The movie got great reviews in March when it opened, but I didn’t see anyone asking questions like these.

Finally, what defines a Western: I think it’s anything that uses Western iconography, such as horses or cowboy hats, and deals with the Western’s essential conundrum, which is the battle between savagery and civilization, the end of one and the beginning of another.

TM: Feel free to indulge yourself in whatever horror you can find. I loved Hitchcock’s ability to manipulate us with horror, but these days I get my fill of visceral potency from the slashing bathhouse scene in Eastern Promises. That’s blade enough for me.

Zodiac deals with significant issues. It’s intriguing to look back and compare the days of the Zodiac killer with today. Habeas corpus was and is threatened—even more so today.

We’ve made tremendous advancements in technology—in the movie a character had to go out of an eating place into the rain and a phone booth to make a call. But despite our advances, these days technology is still misleading us and deceiving us.

Fincher may not employ his usual zest, but this movie is symbolic and tantalizing. I could write a paper about Fincher’s symbolic use of color in Zodiac.

Zodiac has a whole universe beneath its surface. It’s a meaningful place to consider.

MH: Zodiac—which is No. 2 on my list—struck me as partly a counterpoint to Seven, if not an outright apology for it. As such, I appreciated its understatement and weird, aggressive ordinariness; it’s practically anti-crazy-and-obsessed. After all the serial-killer-movie junk we’ve endured since Silence of the Lambs, and subsequent (consequent? I won’t go there) resurgence of good old-fashioned Yank bloodlust, it seems both a novel approach and an appropriate one. Besides, Dirty Harry is still the wacko Zodiac-killer movie to beat.

Does the fact that No Country for Old Men was better received mean it’s actually better? (To me, they’re remarkably of a piece.) I suspect timing was everything, especially in New York. You guys are right about the abundance of movies that get real releases here, but the drawback is overload, especially this time of year. It’s ridiculously easy to lose track of what you loved; in fact, when I started compiling my list, I was shocked to be reminded that Zodiac and The Host were from 2007 and not 2006. Sheesh. That said, I count my blessings; I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Syndromes and a Century were both letdowns, but at least I got the chance to be let down by them.

Speaking of movies that barely got distributed, did anyone else catch Dedication? That one really got me, but it came and went within a week even here.

Jeff, nice assessment of what makes a Western. And Tony, I respect your defense of Into the Wild, even if it still strikes me as the kind of movie Chris McCandless would make about himself. But you’re right—it’s the sort of film people either love or hate.

JMA: In defense of the horror flick, I'll give my usual spiel, briefly. The reason it is so popular and so disrespected is that it’s based on a physical response rather than a mental one. The same goes for comedies and erotic films. It’s the basic conflict within every man, between civilized behavior and animal behavior. We try to deny our animal side, so we also deny our physicality, and our responses to erotic, comedy and horror films (in varying degrees, of course). People go because they want that physical response, much like some people love to have a good cry (tears are seen as more noble, however, and more “cleansing,” more “female,” than those other three items, so they’re usually given a pass).

I feel bad that I’m not on the Zodiac bandwagon, but I just can't see it. Tony, I can’t agree with you that the lack of technology in a period piece is meant to be significant. I gave the film a positive review, though, mainly because I found it to be, at the very least, a skillful and impressive police procedural. As for Into the Wild, I found it unbearably arrogant. You mentioned reviewing movies via their emotional truth, but that one had some nasty emotions, as if it were telling me I were unworthy of it subject unless I, too, worshipped him. A critic friend of mine compared it to Forrest Gump. It's a crazy, left-wing propaganda flick, the opposite of Gump’s right-wing bluster.

But No Country for Old Men just keeps getting better in my mind. That’s a tough flick, and I’m very impressed that even the softies at AFI seem to like it. I mean, the hero dies—and dies in such a way that his death is barely acknowledged or even recorded—the sheriff retires after failing to solve the case, and the bad guy gets away (more or less). I saw Moss (Josh Brolin) and Chigurh (Javier Bardem) as two sides of the same coin, both stripped of emotion and carelessness, both experts and constantly on their guard. We learn very quickly that Moss had been to Vietnam, and it’s possible that Chigurh had been, too. But I couldn’t help thinking about those kids who sell the killer their shirt. What kind of future do they have? Will something this dark win an Oscar?

As good as it is, Jesse James keeps bobbing just past it, wanting to take the No. 1 spot on my list. I can’t stop thinking about this amazing film. It’s like a chess game, just watching, scheming and waiting. Interestingly enough, Roger Deakins shot both films.

What did you guys think of Juno? I’m getting all kinds of responses on both sides.

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