The Darjeeling Limited
This is the most traditional addition to Wes Anderson’s quintet of loser-takes-all fables as films. It’s also one of the most enjoyable. By no means sappy, the film follows three estranged brothers as they struggle to find common ground and forge their own way into the foothills of the Himalayas, hoping to reunite with their long-absent mother. All of the usual suspects make an appearance in Anderson’s film - Anjelica Huston as the spiritual matriarch, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman as socially maladroit siblings and Bill Murray in a requisite cameo. The film’s biggest surprise, however, is Adrien Brody, who apparently has a wealth of comedic capabilities never seen in his previous work, only recently mined by Anderson and Schwartzman’s script.
Shoot ‘Em Up
Not for the faint of heart, director Michael Davis’ over-the-top satire of the blood-‘n-barrel genre was panned by many critics. One’s ability to suspend reality is crucial to the enjoyment of such feats as severing umbilical cords with bullets and taking out 10 men while bringing an ex-prostitute to climax. The plot connection between gratuitous violence and harvesting babies is tenuous at best, but the film works. Davis asks little of his audience in the way of analysis and is never pretentious in paying homage to the action films like “Die Hard” that have so clearly influenced him. Clive Owen is also refreshing as the jaded, “here-we-go-again” hero, his contrived, steely stare evoking laughter rather than fear. What at first appears ridiculous, “Shoot ‘Em Up” is the perfect movie to lighten the pedagogical and moral load other 2007 films attempt to imbue with either plot or script. The fact that we are laughing with rather than at Davis’ creation is a testament to his talent in crafting a simultaneously smart and insipid film.
Director David Cronenberg seems fascinated with the possibilities of a violent and dramatic world colliding with an unassuming and domestic one. His 2005 film, “A History of Violence,” considers how small-town life is disrupted when a diner owner’s past with the mafia returns to haunt his present.
“Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg’s latest film, continues his meditation on those themes and is ultimately striking for how it realizes them on screen. The menacing world of the Russian mafia is presented in such cold and matter-of-fact terms that it hits viewers with great intensity. There are no frills to Cronenberg’s cinema. He’s a stark artist, who appears to give his characters much more leverage over the final product than he ever gives his cinematographer and his editor. That may seem like a poor decision - a film with little variation in terms of angles and editing could play out in bland fashion. But it doesn’t. With Cronenberg’s masterful direction and Steven Knight’s captivating screenplay, “Eastern Promises” is one of the best movies of this year.
Into The Wild
Director Sean Penn thoughtfully transforms Christopher McCandless’ soul-searching journey to Alaska into a poignant film exploring not only youth’s wild abandon, but also its exciting optimism. McCandless, played wonderfully by Emile Hirsch, is a touching character: He’s bright and eager to help others, though he often encourages romantic notions over practical ones.
Penn is eager to paint McCandless as a kind young man. The director shows him bonding with many of the people he meets along his travels, rejecting his mother and father’s materialism while still treasuring his relationship with his sister, and plowing toward his destination with more determination than most college graduates could ever muster. But just as Penn understands McCandless’ strengths, he understands the young man’s weaknesses. He shows him hastily packing up to leave his home, burning the money left in his wallet, constantly reading Thoreau’s “Walden” and trudging full-force into a wilderness he’s never experienced.
The juxtaposition of such qualities endears McCandless to his audience. They will identify with his wanderlust and his faith in people, but they will always wonder: What kind of man would McCandless be today had he survived?
The crime drama has had plenty of limelight in Hollywood - from “Scarface” and “Boyz n the Hood” to the critically acclaimed “The Departed.” “American Gangster,” however, is one of the most realistic and gripping renditions of the world of late ‘60s urban crime and early ‘70s Harlem.
The film chronicles the rise of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) from gangster underling to drug kingpin in the gritty, filthy, garbage-ridden Harlem, as street cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) tries to balance his degrading personal life with his devotion to his job as he rises to lead a team of honest, drug-busting cops.
There’s a lot to be expected from an acting duo like Washington and Crowe, and their performances are top notch. The transformation of Washington’s Lucas from a relatively good-natured nobody to a vicious, cunning drug lord is incredibly believable. Crowe’s Roberts compliments Washington’s character as an honest cop who tries to remain dedicated to his job, even as corruption in the service festers all around him.
Director Ridley Scott has crafted an authentic crime drama with stark realism, and it shows. Garbage litters the streets of Harlem and Lucas rises to the pinnacle of wealth and luxury. Relaxing in a penthouse apartment, he spreads drug addiction and misery throughout the city, while Roberts works tirelessly to bring his empire down.
There is little doubt that “American Gangster” was written with the intent of being a gangster classic, and fortunately, it does not come across as tacky or glitzy.
The Bourne Ultimatum
Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne has so strongly developed over the years that people wait on the edge of their seats to see some new element of his mysterious past revealed. After clearing his name from murder in “The Bourne Supremacy,” Bourne now sets out to discover how he became a classified government killer, even as CIA leader Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) sends a new generation of assassins after him.
Matt Damon brings Bourne’s character to life in a way that foregoes the glamour of characters such as James Bond and gets down to the gritty realism of how spy games are played. There are no wisecracks or cheesy fistfights atop skyscrapers in “The Bourne Ultimatum” - Bourne never even uses a gun on a rival assassin. His cool, collected demeanor gives way to an incredible fighter as Bourne defends himself using a variety of improvised weapons and cars, all the while moving ever closer to his goal of discovering just who he is.
“Ultimatum” also brings in new character development. Joan Allen takes on a stronger role as Pamela Landy, now working with Bourne to unravel the secret corruption of the CIA from the inside, while Julia Stiles re-enters the fray as Nicky Parsons, a logistics agent who not only helps Bourne out of a few tight spots, but also proves to have a surprising connection to him.
“The Bourne Ultimatum” is easily one of the best spy films in years, bringing a likeable hero to the silver screen and concluding a fantastic trilogy of films. The possibility of another Bourne installment is always open-the ending certainly left audiences cheering for an encore.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Filmmaker Julien Temple shot The Clash off and on from their first practices in 1977 all the way up to their American stadium tour and subsequent disintegration. In his remarkable documentary, “Joe Strummer: the Future Is Unwritten,” he is finally able to put this footage to good use. By the end, Temple’s film becomes a fascinating and thoughtful meditation on the role of the artist in society. The Clash’s abrupt rise to success resulted in Strummer’s message often being misunderstood as commercial. Temple handles the years after the band’s demise poignantly, when Strummer sought the anonymity that international recognition had stolen from him.
Unlike a lot of recent music films, “The Future Is Unwritten” is an uncommonly happy marriage of form and content. Temple weaves together audio from Strummer’s radio show, a comprehensive and inherently awesome soundtrack of his music, and interviews from loved ones huddled around a campfire. The result is the best music documentary since Sam Jones’ “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and a fitting tribute to the only frontman that mattered. Forget “Westway to the World”-this is now the definitive film about The Clash.
No Country For Old Men
Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film is certainly not your typical cinematic gorefest. Although it will satisfy some moviegoers on that level, “No Country For Old Men” is more about what it holds back than what it reveals, and more about unbearably tense silences than the sudden blasts of Anton Chigurh’s air gun. Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald and Josh Brolin give excellent performances, but it is Javier Bardem who truly steals the show with his portrayal of Chigurh, one of the most bone-chillingly evil characters to grace the screen in a long time (aided, perhaps, by a bone-chillingly evil haircut). The Coens’ veteran cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is quite the scene-stealer himself, finding the striking beauty that a lesser director of photography would have lost sight of amongst the violence. “No Country For Old Men” is subtle and allegorical, a film that needs to be watched a few times before it reveals its true scope. All this, and it has the most hotly disputed ending of any film this year (you have not experienced the true glory of IMDb message board bickering until you’ve checked out the page for this film - believe me). Regardless, “No Country For Old Men” is a commanding, brilliantly crafted movie that will no doubt go down as one of the Coen brothers’ masterpieces.
Writer/director Judd Apatow has reinvented the American comedy. Fusing crass, slapstick laughs and whip-smart intelligence, “Knocked Up” is a hybrid comedy that effortlessly matches its sardonic wit with warm sentiment. When slacker Ben (Seth Rogen) and career-driven Alison (Katherine Heigl) are dealt an unexpected pregnancy after an alcohol-induced, unprotected one-night-stand, values are questioned and moral dilemmas emerge. Alison and Ben’s anxieties are reflected against the midlife disillusion of married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), establishing a juxtaposition of their respective generation’s priorities and fears. Through skillfully improvised acting and smart, plausible dialogue, “Knocked Up” is not only the year’s funniest film, but also the most insightful dose of social commentary.
-Donny T. Sheldon
I’m Not There
In one of the bravest risks in recent cinema, director Todd Haynes cast six actors - including a woman and an 11-year-old - as alter egos of Bob Dylan. Cate Blanchett, Ben Wishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin and Heath Ledger are all Bob Dylan, but not. Rather than cast the six to play Dylan, Haynes’ characters embody Dylan’s renegade spirit. Blanchett’s gender-bending, mesmerizing performance is the centerpiece of the film. Shot in high contrast black and white, Blanchett’s scenes are surreal recollections of the 1960s that reflect Dylan’s struggles with fame and fortune.
“I’m Not There” boasts a distinct sense of defiance. It is not a formulaic music biopic ? la “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” nor a key to understanding Dylan’s mysterious persona. It is a film as inaccessible and bizarre as it is heartbreaking and visionary. A spellbinding collage of truth, fabrication and ambiguity, “I’m Not There” is the best film of the year.