Primal Screen

primal1Signs and portents, plus the best, worst and weirdest of the 2007 movie year

What if they gave a movie and nobody came? A lot of theater-owners wrestled with this dilemma in 2007. Box office returns were up this year, since it now costs half your kingdom and your first-born male for a couple of tickets to the multiplex, but the incredible shrinking audience became a factor to reckon with at smaller venues.

Why? While the ever-coveted youth demographic unplugged from their iPhones long enough to punch up box office numbers for mainstream hits like Spiderman 3 and Transformers, increasing numbers of discerning viewers seemed to adopt the mantra: Wait till it comes out on Netflix. Not to knock the little business that could for providing a direct and efficient feed of films into the comfort of our cozy living rooms; as a tool for catching up with vintage classics, recent movies missed in theatres, or films marginally or perhaps never released in theatres at all, Netflix is a modern miracle. As a substitute for watching movies on a big screen, Netflix is a crime.

Movies are conceived for a big, big screen. The best of them can only work their magic if we’re willing to give ourselves up to the enormity of the experience: dwarfed by the image, enveloped by the music, transported into the heart of the story. It’s not the same if you can wander into the kitchen for a brewski or check your messages. Mundane distractions turn the golden cinematic coach into a pumpkin in an instant, and the moment and the magic are lost. We, the viewers, are the ones who suffer. If you wonder why they don’t make ’em like they used to, maybe they do; we just don’t watch ’em the same way anymore. So resolve to go out to the movies more often in 2008. Recapture the magic, and re-experience that primal thrill when the lights go down.

In other movie news this year, Hollywood went to bat against Bush.gov with a slate of furious movies with name-brand talent (Redford, DePalma, Haggis) decrying reckless U.S. warmongering in the Middle East. The bad news is nobody in America went to see them. Are we the people really as apathetic as the numbers suggest, insulated too deeply inside our shopping malls and fast-food trances to pay attention to the suffering in the world? I hope it’s more a case of compassion burnout: Who wants to spend good money to be depressed at the movies when we can turn on the news and be depressed for free? On the other hand, the best intentions in the world can’t make a poorly-conceived film worth watching.

One beautifully conceived, fiercely committed anti-Iraqi war film sailed onto my list of the year’s best movies. Here are my favorite films of 2007, all of which deserve to be seen on a big screen. (Lucky you if you caught any of them the first time around!) I also include a short list of noble failures (They Coulda Been Contenders), and a few titles strictly from Dogville.

ATONEMENT 2007 saved the best for last with Joe Wright’s masterful shell game of a film that begins like a rapturous period romance and turns into something else entirely. An exceptional performance by James McAvoy anchors this adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, an exquisite tone poem on the art of storytelling, the act of seeing, and irredeemable consequences.

THE NAMESAKE This warm, sly, sexy, deeply resonant multi-generational tale of an Indian family transplanted to New York City is told by director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, adapting the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Nair’s love scenes are heartfelt, her comedy fresh, and humane, and her images full of fanciful poetry. Her films may be rooted in the traditions of India but her stories are deliciously universal for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider in his or her own skin.

ONCE Real-life rocker Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play a rockin’ Irish busker and a soulful Czech immigrant making beautiful music together in the streets of Dublin in this wry, gritty, heartfelt and irresistibly entertaining musical drama from John Carney.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH Paul Haggis’ flinty, powerful drama about an Army vet searching for his AWOL son is constructed like a detective thriller and set entirely on American soil, but the shame and horror that is the U. S. presence in Iraq hovers over every frame. Tommy Lee Jones gives a performance of monumental stoicism as the father on a journey to hell and back.

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB Based on the popular Karen Joy Fowler book about a Sacramento book club members reading Austen’s novels who discover the timeliness of her themes in their own lives, writer-director Robin Swicord’s skillful treatment not only adopts a witty Austean perspective through which to view our own modern culture, it’s often riotously funny on its own terms.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE Visionary filmmaker Julie Taymor’s splendid homage to the music of the Beatles and the 1960s is done with entertaining pizzazz, populated with appealing young actors who do all their own singing. It can be argued that Beatles songs require no enhancement, or that the complexities of the social, political, and musical revolutions of the late ’60s are lost as mere background for a silly love story. All true. But as a work of pure unfettered imagination, celebrating a musical canon that was lifeblood to an entire generation, Taymor’s daredevil wit and bracing visual style are breathtaking.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN Joel and Ethan Coen adapt the Cormac McCarthy novel, with its meditations on age, evil and the erosion of basic moral boundaries intact. It’s a tense and disturbing thrill ride, shockingly violent, and laced with macabre deadpan humor. But unlike some of the year’s other nasty thrillers, this one deftly explores larger, more profound human issues beyond the tawdry little story at its core.

STARDUST This cheerful romp of a movie combines a fairy tale quest adventure with an offbeat love story and dark comedy. Director Matthew Vaughn pieces it all together with thoughtfulness, dexterity and galloping rhythm in this lighthearted adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel. One of the year’s breeziest undiscovered pleasures.

3:10 TO YUMA James Mangold’s new version of Elmore Leonard’s pulp western story delves beneath the bloody action for a precision study of vice, virtue and every moral gradation in between—served up by a superb cast that gets the most out of every nuance. The moral drama keeps us engaged right up to the very last shot, while stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale make it a hugely entertaining ride.

ANGEL-A An attempted suicide that becomes an ungainly, but sincere, rescue is just the twisty opening salvo in this marvelously off-center, cheekily engaging grown-up fairy tale from veteran French stylemeister Luc Besson about a petty con and his leggy blonde naïf of a guardian angel. It’s all shot guerrilla-style, in beauteous black-and-white, in an unpopulated Paris where it always seems to be the crack of dawn. Besson has fun with the concept of angel as life coach, yet the story’s poignant underpinning helps the movie soar.

RUNNERS UP: Deep Water; Sicko; Michael Clayton; No End In Sight; Lust, Caution.

NOT SEEN AT PRESS TIME: Juno, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood.


BEOWULF The bloody Old English saga of heroes and monsters gets all gussied up with an original Neil Gaiman-Roger Avary script bursting with demon sex, Biblical sin, Freudian blood-guilt and psychological complexity. But trapped in the motion-capture technology employed by director Robert Zemeckis, the characters never look convincingly human; it’s like the movie is being performed by wax puppets.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD Director Andrew Dominik evidently never heard of the moviemakers’ mantra “show, don’t tell,” larding on so much narration from Ron Hansen’s docu-dramatic book, he forgets to give his movie a life of its own. Worse, the movie devolves into a quasi-mystical Passion of the Jesse, drawing out the over-long story even further, as what’s meant to be the elegiac weight of destiny turns into crawling tedium.

ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE As amazing as the real-life accomplishments were of England’s Elizabeth I, filmmaker Shehkar Kapur feels compelled to dress up her story—to often bizarre effect. It’s a pleasure to see the cool and mesmerizing Cate Blanchett back in the role that made her a star. But crazy camera angles and bombastic music lard on movement and portent without enhancing the story, while Kapur catapults Elizabeth’s already remarkable life into the realm of myth. Entertaining in its over-the-top nuttiness, but don’t mistake it for history.


BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD Sidney Lumet directs this gutsy and violent morality play about nasty habits, stupid choices, and big-time payback. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke act up to their eyeballs as loser brothers who rob their aged parents’ jewelry store, but an effective morality play requires evidence of somebody’s moral fiber to be at risk (see 3:10 To Yuma.) These characters are such deadbeats, there’s nothing to lose but the viewer’s time.

SERAPHIM FALLS There’s a laudable War-is-Hell message in David Von Ancken’s somber tale of violence, vengeance and virility in the post-Civil War old west, but his chase plot is almost entirely unencumbered by narrative complexity. What little moral ambiguity is built into the premise telegraphs its points about the savagery of warfare and the uselessness of revenge all too soon, while revenge-minded hunter Liam Neeson and hunted Pierce Brosnan stray in and out of every possible western cliché.

EAGLE vs SHARK Fans of Napoleon Dynamite might go for this attempted comedy out of New Zealand about a would-be ninja electronics store clerk and the mousy fast-food counter girl who inexplicably adores him. The fatal mistake of filmmaker Taika Waititi is to populate his slight story with characters nearing 30, whose arrested development seems more pathetic than poignant.

GUILTY PLEASURE: THE HOST Amphibious terror spawned by toxic waste runs amok in this kinetic Korean monster movie. Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho homage to the Godzilla franchise of yore, then ramps up the stakes, the thrills and a briskly subversive worldview, slyly retooling the monster movie genre for the era of global warming and reckless U. S. military adventurism.


“Four of you tried to kill me. One of you succeeded.”
— Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, recently recovered from Davy Jones’ Locker, in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

“There’s an excess of manliness in the com center.”
— Rose Byrne as a  deadpan spaceship communications officer reporting a fistfight in Sunshine.

“Reading Jane Austen is a frigging minefield!”
— Maria Bello in The Jane Austen Book Club.

WEIRDEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: INLAND EMPIRE Polish curses, Hollywood sleaze, giant rabbits in a vapid TV sitcom, and a bug-eyed  Eastern European woman warning, “Zere are consequences to actions?” It’s David Lynch; don’t ask, don’t tell.

Film critic Lisa Jensen co-hosts the movie review program CinemaScene, Thursdays and Sundays at 8:30 p.m. through the month of December on Community TV, Channel 27.
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