[4 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It was one of the longest summers on record, and unquestionably the most profitable. Beginning with the first weekend in May and Spider-man’s sweep into thousands of theaters, and ending on the very last day of August with the post-Halloween hissy fits, Hollywood raked in over four billion big ones the past four months, proving once and for all that the moviegoing experience is not dead. The rationale for ‘slumps’ and lazy box office returns is obvious – bad movies and their accompanying vitriolic word of mouth keep potential profits away. Maybe if Tinsel Town could see such an aesthetic forest from its individually marketed and demographically choreographed trees, there would be more imagination and innovation in the artform. Sadly, after seeing the returns reached in 2007, we should be ready for more of the same - blue humor comedies, live action cartoon updates, and sequels, tre-quels, and quadre-quels.
Of the 35 films SE&L sat through this summer – and we did miss a couple along the way (sorry Mr. Brooks, No Reservations, and War) – finding 10 worthy of making the grade was actually not that hard. Indeed, many of the picks practically begged to be mentioned. In general, the determination for inclusion in based on the ‘carry over’ syndrome. If a movie moved us, touched us, intrigued us, inspired us, entertained us, angered us, or surprised us in such a way that we ‘carried over’ that sentiment for days, sometimes weeks after seeing a film, it’s passed an important test. A critic can view up to a dozen movies in a week, and differentiating between them all can sometimes be as simple (or better yet, simplistic) as a gut or kneejerk reaction. But when they remain in your mind, when you constantly find yourself replaying scenes and revisiting ideas that the storyline or characters inspired, it’s an omen that can’t be ignored. They function as mental place cards in a mind overflowing with performances, images, and words. So when SE&L began it’s basic backwards glancing, we remembered the experiences we had during these hot, humid days, and the ones still stationed in our brains got the call up.
For the 10 films selected here, two are going to cause an uproar. Populist opinion – something we tend to sidestep in favor of actual film analysis – has confirmed that a pair of our choices chaffs the average mainstream member of the audience in ways that demand unreasonable retribution. Granted, you may feel free to take umbrage with anything we champion or chide, but this is not some kind of last word consensus on creative spark or motion picture ingenuity. It’s just opinion, albeit one based on a perspective of decades, not mere years, and several thousand, not a couple dozen, film going experiences. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But to quote Monty Python, the automatic nay-saying of someone else’s point is not an argument. It’s mere contradiction. If you disagree, put your opposition where your anonymous messageboard moxie is. Give us your Top 10. Let’s see how they match up.
In the meantime, here’s SE&L’s choices for the Best Films of the Summer of 2007:
Second only to Rob Zombie in poisonous fan boy hate, Michael Bay is not a bad director, just a soulless and scattershot one. Luckily, he finally found the proper project and a warehouse full of computing power to pull off this amazing technical tour de force. Sure, the same old Bay-isms apply: wimpy characterization; overly busy compositions and framing; a failure to connect to the audience on an emotional or esoteric level. Yet Transformers managed an amazing feat. It brought an expert level of surplus spectacle back to the big screen where it rightfully belongs.
#9 Rescue Dawn
Christian Bale is rapidly becoming the best actor in the business, as his stellar performance here definitely indicates. In a season exploding with all kinds of expensive eye candy, writer/director Werner Herzog goes directly for the throat. This is a thinking man’s Great Escape, a typical recitation of the German filmmaker’s main themes – man vs. nature vs. man and his own nature. With equally amazing turns from Steve Zahn and an unrecognizable Jeremy Davis (who definitely deserves an Oscar), and Herzog’s matter of fact filmmaking, this was a resplendent respite from all the popcorn product.
#8 The Bourne Ultimatum
Paul Greengrass does is again – proving that nothing drives high powered action better than a director with a vision. In this case, the handheld chaos created as our hero finally reconnects with his past is beyond belief. Among the many sequences that stand out, Greengrass stages a foot chase across the rooftops of Tangiers, leading to one of the greatest, most brutal fistfights in cinema history. For those who found the second film too kinetic, this one will also blow your socks off. We end up with an excellent ending to a wonderfully inventive espionage franchise.
#7 Hairspray: The Movie
Here’s perhaps the big surprise of the Summer – a mannered musical of the John Waters’ PG classic that had no business being brought back to the silver screen – and every moment of it worked brilliantly. If anyone ever doubted John Travolta’s song and dance chops (oh, what short memories we have), his last act teardown as Edna Turnblad during the final show-stopping number should be reminder enough. Add in the breakout buoyancy of newcomer Nikki Blonsky and Adam Shankman’s old school directorial style, and you’ve got the makings of some fantastic feel good fireworks.
#6 Halloween 2007
In what will be the first of two gasps from the typical movie going mentality, this reimagining of John Carpenter’s slasher epic is not the abomination the Net heads make it out to be. Instead, it’s perhaps one of the best examples of pure horror ever created. Argue over his choices for a young Michael Myers’ backstory, and complain that the slice and dice was too rapid fire and brutal, but that’s the point of this entire film. We no longer live in a slow, suspenseful world. Reality is in your face, as is this amazing movie.
#5 The Simpsons Movie
Since the Web has been predicting the demise of this show since Season 7, it’s hard not to relish in how laugh out loud classic this cinematic stop off really is. Matt Groening and the gang literally stepped up their game when bringing America’s favorite family into the celluloid domain, and the earnest ecology storyline shows that the creators have lost none of their verve. On par with South Park and Aqua Teen Hunger Force in showing how animated television can make the successful transition to a larger comic canvas.
Michael Moore sees the big picture better than any other documentarian working today. Granted, he tends to showboat, and misses minutia for the sake of his stances, but there’s no denying the angle and authenticity of its approach. This is perhaps the most important movie he’s even made, which accounts for the impassioned potshots taken at his fact finding abilities. Just because a discussion fails to mention your particular points, or all other thoughts or theories on a subject, doesn’t make the conversation invalid. Moore is making a much larger statement here, the kind of wake up call we desperately need.
#3 Knocked Up
With this part profane, part poetic comedy masterpiece, Judd Apatow has finally arrived. He’s proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s directly tapped into the new post-millennial form of funny business, a cavalcade of cleverness that draws on any and all humor happenstance to derive its embarrassment of risible riches. But what puts this wickedly witty enterprise over the top is the solid storyline that deals in interpersonal issues and romantic perception with humanity and heart. Destined to reside near the top of the list come end of the year considerations.
Here it is – the second sigh of disbelief from seasoned Summer film fans. As if championing the new Michael Myers wasn’t bad enough, here’s Danny Boyle’s brazen riff on 2001/Solaris via Event Horizon one step away from the top spot. The reason for such a placement can’t be proven in a small overview blurb. Instead, the Trainspotting savant puts his aesthetic prints all over a narrative that asks the season’s most important question – what would you do, personally, to save all of mankind? How you answer says a lot about your reaction to this masterpiece of a movie.
Along with Apatow, Brad Bird confirmed his genius status with this grown up flight of fancy. While The Iron Giant and the well named Incredibles illustrated his animated movie panache, this remarkable tale of a tiny rat and the bumbling boy chef he leads to greatness stands as the summer’s greatest achievement. Not only does the film look fantastic (Pixar, if anything has IMPROVED since Finding Nemo and Cars), but the narrative has moments of artistic bliss that simply blow you away. Destined to be a genre classic, one wonders what’s next from this potent production partnership.
Worth a Mention
Here are a few other offerings that failed to make the big list proper. For whatever reason, their merits do indeed require pointing out:
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Proof that Gore Verbinski is one of the most accomplished directors working today. Love or hate these buccaneer blockbusters, but it takes a rare motion picture visionary to make this kind of cornball material work. Ignore the confusing storylines and simply enjoy its overpowering epic sweep.
Want subtle scares instead of bloody gorno workouts? Think all horror has to be abattoir amplified flesh feasts? This sinister Stephen King adaptation, offering an excellent performance by John Cusack, proves that dread can be accomplished even without a heaping helping of arterial spray.
Hostel Part II
Probably the second most hated movie of the summer, and equally misunderstood. This non-carbon copy of the first film is everything a real sequel should be – that is, a 180 degree reset of the entire Hostel concept. The results are evocative and enthralling.
Sadly, many moviegoers didn’t get a chance to see Andrew Currie’s freaked out social commentary. Using zombies as a symbol of non-conformity and change, and setting the story inside a crass, conservative ‘50s suburbia, this director delivered the allegorical goods.
This one barely missed making the Top Ten, and the reason is simple – the arrested adolescence offered by our pair of misguided policemen. The rest of the movie is magic, capturing how real teens talk in ways that should remind everyone of their own misspent youth.
And now, the bottom of the barrel, the cinematic scrapings that reek of lame scripts, poor direction, bad acting, ill-conceived conceptualizing, and all around motion picture mediocrity. While there are a few films missing from this list (like Lindsay Lohan’s I Know Who Killed Me…how prophetic), the five titles here are representative of the filmic funk that soiled the Cineplex this season:
#5 El Cantante
Jennifer Lopez screams for two hours. Unless its part of some well deserved death throws, it’s not worth it.
Jason Lee does a decent dog’s voice. The rest of the movie meanders between pointless superhero stupidity and uninspired kiddie comedy.
#3 Shrek the Third
Further proof that, once you anthropomorphize something, it’s bound to come back and bore you to death.
#2 Mr. Bean’s Holiday
Physical comedy is almost impossible to get right. Rowan Aktinson’s take on the comic category confirms such a stance.
#1I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
Anti-gay put downs snuggle awkwardly with “can’t we all get along” language. The result is an insult to both comedy and civil rights.