There’s really no urgency in going to the movie theater anymore. With the gap between screen and DVD release shortening, the motivations for poor college students to drop the cash that could buy two bowls of pho for a movie ticket instead are quickly dwindling. Add to that a flurry of mediocre sequels and remakes, and there’s really no reason to rely on anything except your Netflix subscription.
But there were a few good reasons to get out to your local cineplex, or better yet, your local art house theater. Most notably, of course, was the Coen Brothers’ latest masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, which presented itself as an easy, unanimous choice for best film of the year here at the Bureau (and just about every other media out there). We hope you enjoy our favorite picks from the past calendar year; we guarantee that they’re better than Transformers.
No Country for Old Men
I hate it when people make the “I liked the book better than the movie” comparison. Of course the book is better, but the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men made me actually pause. Is it possible? I can’t say, but regardless, the film is highly notable. No Country is impeccably crafted; McCarthy’s spare, righteous dialogue never comes across as smothering or pushy. Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, is one of the most spectacular villains in recent memory. For The Bygone Bureau Staff, this movie was a clear favorite. But I probably don’t need to talk about that further. Every movie critic in America seems to be ecstatic about it. And they should be. The only critic who takes serious issue with the film is Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader, who complains that the film’s remorseless killings are a cop-out, and thus earns one star. Well boo-hoo: I don’t think anyone else is listening.
No Country for Old Men is a proof that a great film is composed of stringent directing, meticulous editing, and careful writing. On the other hand, Juno is proof that a great film needs none of these things. Jason Reitman’s directing, at times, lacks confidence, leaving several scenes unfocused and visually unalike, while Diablo Cody’s debut screenplay frequently meanders away from its story arc. But the film’s imperfections, like its title character, come off as charms rather than weaknesses. Ellen Page is absolutely endearing (and brilliant) as Juno MacGuff, a sixteen-year-old high school student who finds herself in the precarious conundrum of teenage pregnancy. She decides to keep the child, of whom the father is Superbad’s Michael “Perfect Comedic Timing” Cera, seeking out potential foster parents in the Lorings (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman).
Juno could easily given in to its idiosyncratic nature, but the restraint of both Reitman and Cody that prevent the film from devolving into a more/less shitty Thumbsucker. The characters are eccentric, but never unnecessarily so; the dialogue is blunt and witty, but with too much heart to come across as imitation Wes Anderson. And it’s hard to argue with such a well-cast movie, particularly with J.K. Simmons as Juno’s father, Mac.
In the end, it’ll be No Country that wins the Academy Awards and confirms (or reaffirms) the Coen Brothers as a pair of great filmmakers of our generation. It’s, perhaps, the better movie, but there will always be a place, and should be a place, for films that are unabashedly flawed. There’s something adventurous and daring about a movie like Juno that doesn’t worry about being perfect.
The Bourne Ultimatum
The first action scene in The Bourne Ultimatum is amazing. Jason Bourne’s attempt to save the life of a targeted journalist using a cell phone and cleverness is modern, unique, and incredibly tense. As I sat in the theater, I remember wondering how a more exciting scene could possibly be filmed. What makes Ultimatum truly amazing is that it has, like, four action sequences better than the first. The pace is relentless too, bracketing the action with the least possible amount of plot needed to keep the story moving and to give the audience room to breathe.
I’ve loved the Bourne series from its inception, and it has been delightful to watch each film emphasize the strengths of its predecessor while minimizing, if not eliminating, any weaknesses. Ultimatum is the perfect expression of the series’ philosophy, an action film wound so tightly as to squeeze out the extraneous fluff endemic to the genre. There is not a single unnecessary scene, shot, or line of dialogue in the film; it’s been pared down to its barest essence.
The great action movie debate of recent years is Ultimatum vs. Casino Royale, but, to me, there’s no real contest. Royale sought to ground the James Bond mythos in realism, cutting out all of the gadgety fat and over-the-top sensationalism. But, while Royale is James Bond minus most of the nonsense, Ultimatum is Bond without any nonsense at all. A Bond movie still needs to show its hero flopping around the top of a runaway truck, to involve him in an asinine romance, and to stick him in tedious card game against a villain who cries blood. Bourne’s romance, on the other hand, is subtle and psychologically satisfying, his villain is a smarmy, pencil-pushing nerd we can all imagine as real, and his car chases are remorselessly visceral. In the end, what makes The Bourne Ultimatum so remarkable is that it strips the notion of “action movie” of every negative connotation that supposedly makes the genre so mindless, leaving behind a distillation of raw, untethered energy.
I would like to preface this piece by saying that I’m not a film critic (but I do play one on TV). In fact, I only saw three new movies this entire calendar year. The standout was an animated children’s movie about a rat-chef that turns a gawky, awkward young man into one of Paris’ star chefs by using him as a human marionette. It had everything I (the twice-annual cinema attendee) look for in a film: intrigue, a love story, and vermin preparing food. I could relate to the protagonist. Just like him, I lack normal spatial logic and spend my days running into things, dropping things, and bumbling about in front of potential love interests. The movie was meticulously created. A close examination of the credits reveals that there was a person whose sole job was “Wet Fur Animator.” These Pixar people take animation seriously, and you won’t see any ersatz wet fur in Ratatouille. But you will see a touching story with some great visuals, and it will make you hungry.
Planet Terror (Grindhouse)
Grindhouse was a double feature complete with an intermission and faux movie trailers in an attempt to create a real pulp fiction experience. The films included were Planet Terror by Robert Rodriguez and Death Proof by Quentin Tarantino. If you see this movie on DVD, don’t bother watching Tarantino’s half. The film may have been passable if watched by itself, but the preceding Rodriguez flick Planet Terror completely overshadows it. By definition, exploitation film should be full of blood and gore, but it should also be complimented by beautiful cinematography and witty dialogue. Death Proof stars three women, and to sit through two hours of chick talk written by Tarantino was absolutely painful.
Planet Terror, however, is well worth your time. Robert Rodriguez balances great one-liners, impressive stunts, and gruesome scenes for a truly entertaining experience.