Hot Button Archive for January, 2008

Best Of 2007 – The Top Ten

10. The Savages
Tamara Jenkins delivers the most painful comedy of the year with three of the best performances of the year from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as the somewhat estranged brother and sister who need to step up to take responsibility for their severly estranged dad, played by Phillip Bosco.  So bitter… so sweet.

9. Superbad
I Am McLovin. The most significant generational piece of the Apatow oeuvre, directed by Greg Mottola and written by real high school buddies Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg.  Kids haven’t told it like it is – including their ignorance and fears – in a long time.  And as often is the case in Apatow films, he manages to include cross-generational references that make everyone look the idiot… while they laugh up a storm. 

8. Lars and the Real Girl – The heart film of the year that all too many think is a dirty sex romp.  This is a movie about love and community and surviving to love another day.  Ryan Gosling leads a company of actors who are letter perfect, down to Bianca, the real doll who lives upstairs in his brother’s house while her existence allows Lars to move forward in the Grimm fairy tale of his life.   There are those who try to rationalize the film, and the frustration can be immense… but only half as strong as the execs who have seen the film play like gangbusters with audiences only to fail to find an audience at the multiplex.

7. Ratatouille
Brad Bird
threw this struggling project at Pixar together in record time and delivered a film that is both great for families and a home run for adults who share a passion for the better things in life with The Rat.  It’s almost like it is a great programmer from a top artist who was brought in to make the thing work a little better.  Ages like a fine wine.

6. Day Night Day Night
Julia Loktev’s intimate take of a woman choosing to take a city’s life in her hands.  Why is she doing it?  Who is she doing it for?  How could she?  We never quite know… Loktev lets up know only that there is a human being sitting inside the golem that we hold in our minds.  A tiny piece, but one of the most provocative and evocative of the year.

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Best, 2007

The road to a Top Ten list was a little more complicated this year than in year’s past.  For instance, I usually start with my Worst ten list.  But really, I don’t feel qualified to make a Worst 10 list this year.  I just haven’t seen most of the horrible movies this year.
This is not to say that I don’t have films I hated.  It would have to be a tie between Redacted and Evening for the title of Film I Most Loathed in 2007.  But would it be fair to say that either film is the worst of the year?  Nah.  I mean, it’s easy to note that Lions For Lambs was utter crap and a failed effort on so many levels… but its effort was too apparent to dismiss it entirely.  Am I really going to take out my disappointment in Elizabeth: The Golden (Out)rage to that level?  Can I dismiss the occasional charms of Dan In Real Life enough to shred it as the most shockingly derivative and wrongheaded film to come out of the Disney stables in years?  No!  Not when I didn’t see all the other crap out there that may well have pushed these failures to the side.
The big story of 2007 really, in critical discussion, is the Trilogy Of Critical Onanism; (in order of jerk off) The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Zodiac, and There Will Be Blood.
The challenge of this trio, for me, who feels that all three films ultimately fail, has grown as the year has progressed.  It is easy to dismiss one… less easy to dismiss two… and silly to keep dismissing as the third rolls up on you.  Making it harder, on the face of it, is that all three are truly exception efforts on the production side.  And in the case of There Will Be Blood, I have to start with the admission that if I were to pick one act of one film as the very best of 2007, this film’s opening act would win hands down.  And yet…
These films are not exercises in the purely aesthetic that many casually attribute to Tony Scott (the filmmaker, not the critic).  I do think that Andrew Dominik’s ambition exceeded his grasp by no small distance.  David Fincher was, I think, simply after something that didn’t connect with me on any emotional or intellectual level.  And PTA… well… his unwillingness to finish what he starts is the most frustrating aspect of one of our most talented filmmakers working today… and one cannot excuse it as a failure, as he is just too damned talented to not be able to write a third act that fits and doesn’t require supporters to flop about like landed fish in order to rationalize what just doesn’t work.
So why is all this LOVE out there for these films?  Generalizations are forever a bad idea, but my instinctual response is that critics feed on the ambitions and drink in the visual power of these films like hungry survivors of a desert plane crash.  I think there is also an urge to send the message to “Hollywood,” where all three films were funded, that this is product that critics will support and support passionately. 
It’s not that critics are upset that the three films combined will be challenged to pass the opening weekend of Alvin & The Chipmunks… it is, perhaps, more that “they” like the fact that financial success is elusive.  It’s not that No Country For Old Men, which will surely gross more than the combined trio, is not getting critical love.  It’s that praise for No Country is easier than finding a photo of a drunken Spears girl.  Inevitable commercial failure is a perverse enhancement to the pleasure.
Speaking of failure, here is a quick rundown of some of the box office realities of 2007.
There is a reason for distributors to court critics for the support of their more challenging films.  If a critic can deliver just 125 people to theaters to buy tickets, their effort alone could have represented 5% of the gross or more for 27% of the films on this year’s domestic release schedule (140 releases out of a total of 528). 
Sure, there are some crap movies down there, but there are high quality titles in that 27% as well this year, such as Operation Homecoming, Primo Levi’s Journey, The Prisoner, The Protagonist, Quiet City, Syndromes and a Century, and The Trials of Daryl Hunt.  And it even includes the lowest grossing studio film of the year, Warner Bros.’ Rails & Ties, which managed just $22,136 in a 5 screen release. 
Moreover, 229 of 528 films released this year grossed under $250,000.  263 of 528 grossed under $500,000 (minus TWBB, which is just starting its run).  And 292 of 528 under $1m.
So, the entire industry of films grossing over $1 million in America consists of 236 films.  60 films grossed between $1 million and $5 million.  30 films grossed between $5 million and $10 million.  44 films grossed between $10 million and $20 million.  58 films grossed between $20 million and $50 million with just 5 of those from independents (4 of those 5 from Lionsgate). 
That leaves 43 total films to gross over $50 million… three from Lionsgate, all under $65 million total domestic.  Disney had eight, DreamWorks and Warners six each, Universal and Sony five each, Fox had four, New Line had three, MGM had two, and Paramount had one. 
Every major but Disney had a bomb grossing less than $10 million and every dependent but Miramax had at least one miss gross less than $1 million. The highest profile bomb was DreamWorks’ Things We Lost In The Fire, which had an 1142 screen launch… which proves once again that quality is not the first issue with bombs.  Whether you liked that film or not, you must find it silly to compare it to, say, I Know Who Killed Me, which grossed more than twice what this quality drama did.
But back to criticism…
This year, I have 35 films in contention for my Top Ten.  Three of the films were mentioned in last year’s Best column as undistributed films that I would have placed on my Top Ten then.  I am pleased that they were ultimately released, though grosses of $25,317 (for Lake of Fire), $31,856 (for Day Night, Day Night) and $354,812 (for Wristcutters: A Love Story) cuts me to the quick. 
As District B13’s $1.2 million run last year proved, it’s hard out there for an indie… especially when, unlike B13, you have a real challenge in making the argument to an audience for why they want to see the film.  Let’s just say that the 70,000 people or so who saw Lake of Fire and Day Night, Day Night experienced films that stir passion and debate as profoundly as any films they will ever see, before or after.
Oops… slipped into box office again…
My list of Runner Ups

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon