Thursday, December 27, 2007

Moments That Moved Me: The Year in Movies, 2007

(Warning: Spoilers herein)

Sure, I go to movies to be entertained; but more and more of what I remember at year's end are the films that move me. What I find touching is hard to predict and almost impossible to explain, except that overt tearjerkers almost never jerk my tears: comedies, thrillers and straightforward dramas actually have better odds of catching me with my guard down. That more than a few recent films slipped through my defenses suggests that this was a very good year for them indeed. For 2007, here are The Man from Porlock's Most Moving Movie Moments:

Vulnerabilities
Wes Anderson's most dismissive critics take pains to avoid discussing his mastery of depicting physical and emotional wounds. Although The Darjeeling Limited ultimately didn't work for me, the scene where Owen Wilson removes his bandages and looks in the mirror at his ravaged face has an impact that the rest of the film doesn't quite reach. In contrast, Hotel Chevalier, the prologue to Darjeeling (initially cut from its theatrical release and released on iTunes), sustains this theme through its 13-minute chronicle of the fallout that results when a young man (Jason Schwartzman) is finally tracked down in his Paris hotel by his ex (Natalie Portman), climaxing with a slow-mo tracking shot, scored to Peter Starsedt's "Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)," where Schwartzman tenderly wraps Portman's naked, bruised body in a bathrobe and escorts her outside, past a flower on a dinner cart that functions as a visual motif on how love can sustain itself even as a relationship is crumbling. (I can understand why Portman may have been uncomfortable with the content of her scenes broadcast around the Internet, but she's never been more affectingly vulnerable than she is here.) While Hotel Chevalier is a short film, I see it as an extension of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums between Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow inside a tent, its final shot a vivid reminder of how deeply emotional scars can penetrate even the thickest architecture.

Epiphanies
Against the grain, I thought Brad Bird's previous effort, The Incredibles, was visually ugly and extremely confused in its message. (Tell me again why exactly the speedster son should keep his footrace with the other school children close only to win it in the end?) His latest, Ratatouille, gets a bit mucked-up too with food critic Anton Ego's speech about how mediocre art is more enduring than the best criticism (sure, Brad!), but it sustains the considerable good will it achieves up to then, thanks particularly to the scene immediately beforehand, where Ego (wonderfully voiced by Peter O'Toole) gets served a dish by our intuitive rodent chef -- the kind mom used to make -- that reminds him how he came to love food in the first place.

At the end of a completely different kind of film, the quietly provocative documentary An Unreasonable Man, one of the interviewees postulates that "if your seat-belt had the word 'Nader' on it, or if the warning label on your meds said 'Nader,'" we might see Ralph Nader differently today. It is an epiphany directed at the audience, a way of reminding us that however one feels about the man, his accomplishments have changed our world for the better.

Medleys
John Carney's Once, the best (and first?) movie about the meaning of music in Ireland since The Commitments, is even more affecting by using home-grown songs rather than transporting African-American soul music by way of Roddy Doyle's cultural metaphor. For me, the two most poignant moments forge the creative link between its protagonists (the likable and unassuming Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova): their early guitar-and-piano duet in a music store; and a long tracking shot that follows Irglova around a street corner, singing the lyrics she has written to one of Hansard's songs.

I'm Not There, Todd Haynes's arty exploration of the enigma of Bob Dylan, abandons its (albeit entertaining) avant-garde trappings in the Richard Gere sequence, where we see an older outlaw Dylan happen upon the funeral of a young girl. When another musician sings an elegy to her, the sadness in Gere's eyes has an emotional directness that lends gravity to the rest of the movie and brings its subject's elusive shapeshifting into focus.

Definitions of Marriage
Lord knows the bond between Homer and Marge Simpson has had its share of tenuous moments, none more so than midway through the very funny Simpsons Movie when she discovers his role in threatening the very existence of Springfield. (Naturally, it involves pig feces.) When Homer returns to their abandoned Alaskan hideaway, he plays a videotape left by Marge where she explains in an eloquent speech why her loyalty has been tested. Julie Kavner's voicework has never been better.

In Sarah Polley's Away from Her, another long-term marriage undergoes a different set of challenges when Fiona (Julie Christie), diagnosed with Alzheimer's, enters herself into a nursing home, to the pain and consternation of her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent). Fiona grows attached to another patient (Michael Murphy), while Grant becomes involved with the same patient's wife (Olympia Dukakis); if we are never sure where these threads are going, they remain untied in the ambiguous final scene, when Fiona defines her loyalty to Grant in a moment of seeming lucidity, though its haunting quality comes from the fact that neither he nor we can know for sure.

Definitions of Family
For all the implausibilities surrounding its central relationship, a grating, in-your-face performance by The Next Julia Roberts Katherine Heigl, and what amounts to a traditional view of family, the climactic childbirth scene in Knocked Up remains ingrained in my memory. But the year's most original depiction of the family unit occurred in Bong Joon-ho's The Host. The movie has been praised as a first-rate creature feature, and Joon-ho has earned justifiable comparison to the young Spielberg for his nimble editing, skillful foreground/background Jaws-like framing, and visual gags. (A moment where the hero stumbles onto a barbecue outside of his military/medical confinement is especially witty.) Yet whereas Spielberg has often focused on the abandonment of children and the dissolution of the nuclear family, Joon-ho conveys his belief in the ability of families to reinvent themselves. Maybe it's because we live in a culture where people seem inclined to protect their familial interests with the whatever-the-cost zeal of mafiosos, but few scenes this year moved me more than the ending of The Host, where a father sees beyond his own child to value the life of another.

Confronting Evil
From one scene to the next, No Country for Old Men shows the varying reactions of characters forced to confront killer Anton Chigurh. (It's been quite a year for Evil Antons.) Some understandably cower while others barter, but the ones who linger in the mind are who, like the trailer park manager and Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald), stand their ground. For me, the defining moment of the film is the pause taken by Tommy Lee Jones's Sheriff Bell, mixed with trepidation and resolution, as he stares at the lock cylinder right before he enters Moss's motel room. Many have viewed No Country as a grim, pessimistic work, and maybe it is; but I see something ennobling in a reluctant character who opts to open a door, knowing there's a good chance he might not come back out alive.

Displays of Gratitude
In the novel Gorky Park and a succession of sequels (Red Square being arguably the best), author Martin Cruz Smith has cast a keen eye toward life in Late Cold War Russia and its currently uncertain postscript, which he views as a society fueled by paranoia and lies, yet with seeds of hope embedded within the cultural framework. No movie (certainly not Michael Apted's 1983 dud adaptation of Gorky Park) has successfully captured this distinctive behind-the-iron-curtain atmosphere until The Lives of Others. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a German-born filmmaker with a background steeped in Western culture, the movie features a deft blend of European and American cinematic themes and styles, and is impeccably cast from every potbellied apparatchik to radical artist. Its deceptively simple thesis -- the idea that people are capable of change -- is fleshed-out by Ulrich Muhe's performance as an East German Stasi agent who launches an investigation of a suspected subversive playwright (Sebastian Koch) only to gradually undermine it. Neither Muhe nor von Donnersmarck soft-pedal or overexplain the character, making his transformation all the more mysterious and affecting. What is finally so stirring about The Lives of Others isn't what the agent does but how the playwright chooses to respond to it, in a final scene that, with the emergence of hope from darkness, recalls Smith's concluding line in Red Square: "a matchhead in a well."

9 comments:

Roland said...

Yes indeed, 2007 was a great year for movies which we haven't seen the likes of for quite a while. It was so good we didn't need 3:10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe) or Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) to gnaw on. One item on my wish list for 2008 is another great year for movies.

Craig said...

It was such a good year that I forgot about 3:10 to Yuma, a decent enough Western. I haven't seen American Gangster (the Frank Lucas movie), but I may finally catch up with Bourne Ultimatum tonight.

Martha said...

Your movie selection for 2007 "The Lives of Others" is a good one. It's an example of what happens to freedom when under a dictatorship.

Craig said...

The Lives of Others may be my favorite movie of the year. Each scene juggles a mix of moods, like when Dreyman is unable to tie a tie, and he asks his neighbor, a kind woman threatened by the Stasi not to tip off their surveillance, to help.

Watching it again, I was also struck by how Dreyman at the play reception scene near the beginning is already under Wiesler's surveillance. We're barely even aware of Wiesler's presence until the end of that scene. It's like something out of DePalma only without the director drawing attention to the technique.

Martha said...

I expected the Stasi to reappear and haul his neighbor away when Dreyman asked for tie-my-tie assistance

Are we to assume East German Stasi did not use physical methods in their interrogations?

Helen said...

Craig,
Thanks for this fun list of favorite film moments from the last year and there are a lot of interesting observations here. To me, the film moment you mention that really stands out is the final scene in The Lives of Others. When Muhe's character, Wiesler, tells the bookstore clerk not to giftwrap the book because the book is for him, we know the enormity of what is behind that simple statement. The clerk has absolutely no idea, no idea that the book's dedication is this beautiful message of gratitude and a recognition of Wiesler's heroism, his acts in defiance of oppression, and his humanity.

Craig said...

Martha: Interesting question. The movie actually addresses it briefly in a late scene where Wiesler's boss mentions a student's dissertation that recommends more effective ways than torture to deal with a suspect, depending on their personality type. It makes the movie more of a psychological thriller, though perhaps it also makes Wiesler a tad more sympathetic if we don't see him roughing up anyone.

Craig said...

Helen: Yes, that's probably my favorite scene at the movies this year. Anthony Lane wrote about it beautifully in his review.

Helen said...

Craig,
Thanks for the link to Anthony Lane's review; I was glad to read it again. He makes an important point, I think, that part of the powerful impact of that scene (I couldn't stop crying the first time I saw it) has to do with the fact that you haven't had a strong sense of one individual being the hero and you feel like the main action has ended and the movie is winding down (Lane says he's reaching for his hat and coat). Then come this unexpected climax of the message to Wiesler in the dedication--out of the blue and so many years later--and it is very discrete and coded, but it gives him this enormous gift of validation, of recognition of his role, of his heroism; he's no longer a drone, he's finally recognized as a hero. Lane is right, Wiesler wasn't expecting anything like this to ever happen to him and neither were we. I think it's one of the most moving film moments from any year.