"Bleak" was the operative word as 2007 rounded out to a close. As the awards season -- September thru December -- continued, more and more of the contenders explored nihilistic themes, with little in the way of optimistic hope to balance them. Consider Lust, Caution; Eastern Promises; Before the Devil Knows You're Dead; Atonement; No Country for Old Men; Sweeney Todd -- cinematic downers, all, not to mention the well-publicized slate of box office-failing war movies. And that's just a sampling. No wonder everyone loved Juno -- it might've been the only awards-seeking movie that didn't make you want to go George Bailey and wander near a bridge.
I'd like to take this as a sign that our major movie artists are getting wiser -- that the serious films pander less to happy-ending-seeking audiences and challenge us to face up to our doomed universe. But even as someone who has long accepted this worldview, I've always understood that counterbalancing it with understanding what makes life worth living is important to communicate to people who otherwise live a life in real-world drudgery everyday. My favorite movies have always been unremitting in presenting what I perceive as the truth -- the uncaring universe -- but then using that as a platform to present meaningful insights to what makes us move forward as humans, what makes us look forward to being human, collectively or individually. This doesn't mean giving us a story that sets up a happy ending as a punchline -- it means planting some harsh rules and watching something uniquely exquisite somehow grow out of it.
As the time we live in continues to reveal itself -- via mass media and the internet -- as harsh and dark, our art, our movies, will increasingly reflect the realization that the more we know about this earth, the more hopeless everything will seem to be. This is a necessary increase in perspective, but I believe it's just the first step. The next step is to understand our own innate survival instinct and how to control where it takes us. So the movies that offer insights and truths into this side of human nature can be as dark as they want to be, because the trip will be worth it. Did the slew of bleak movies this year achieve this? Some did, some didn't.
But the additive effect of all these downer films may be that, done right or not, audiences might reject them wholesale and look for their happy endings even harder than ever. And I will even admit to falling into security blankets where I could find them. Just the same, however, I can explore my top ten of 2007 and see that, happy endings or not, harsh truth did form the basis of many of the movies on the list. Yes, even for my number one:
Right, what's bleak about Ratatouille? Well, Brad Bird has so far been consistent in selling an uncaring universe, whether it'd be about governments wanting to blow up sentient robots or a world that has rejected the super-qualities of superheroes. In Ratatouille, the hero's a rat -- something humans want to exterminate. And yet, despite this, Remy pursues his calling to become a chef. It's that heeding of the calling that creates the story's necessary optimistic counterbalance, but there's a condition, and it's important. Bird has been trying to get the message across that not all men are created equal -- a harsh truth, yes, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Gifts and talents should be recognized where they exist. If you think the lesson of the movie is that "anyone can cook," you need to listen more closely to Anton Ego's final review, and also notice that Linguini never ever learns how to cook. There's good hard truth in that.
2. There Will Be Blood
There will be blood, and it will be colored black. Examinations of intelligent, cunning people don't come darker than this, where the protagonist, Daniel Plainview, and his nemesis, Eli Sunday, obey the command of what drives them to the exclusion of conscientious regard for their fellow man. But, even in someone like Plainview, there is subconscious regard -- it exists, or, at least, there's a justice/love reflex in him that allows him to care for an adopted son and bond with a long-lost brother. But to summarize the movie and the character in this way sells the whole enterprise short -- the complexity of character here is deep and not pretty, and it asks us to consider the capacity, good and bad, of the human personality. (Note: I want to say that, technically, There Will Be Blood actually ties Ratatouille for my top movie, but they're so different that they're tough to compare. I've listed Ratatouille as number one, though, because Blood is already making the top of many other lists.)
3. Hot Fuzz
This one illustrates the tail end of what I've been saying -- that people need their escape. Hot Fuzz is an ode to the kinds of movies I've become prone to dismissing -- Michael Bay flicks and easy good-guy-bad-guy action films -- but what I loved about this film involved how well it was crafted to exploit this guilty inner desire of satisfying this lust for formula. In other words, if you're going to make such a movie, why not make it smartly and with good humor, like Hot Fuzz? By creating essentially a spoof (I know, Simon Pegg, don't call it a spoof), Edgar Wright has actually crafted a critical commentary, daring any of us cynics to say we don't inherently enjoy these kinds of stories. We do, Mr. Wright, but we'll take them your way, where you acknowledge our intelligence while you entertain us.
A young woman grows up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, gets sent abroad to study and almost pays for it with her life, then comes back to a country she doesn't recognize, trying to sort out politics, love, family, and responsibility all along the way. Then the movie ends as she leaves home again, but if you're ready to admit that this sounds pretty bleak, remember the real-life epilogue -- the wonderful animated movie you're watching was created by that very woman. Marjane Satrapi faces harshness with art, and that's part of the beauty of being human.
Mind you, I loved Grindhouse in its theatrical incarnation -- the three-hour b-movie-fest punctuated by funny commercials. That was a unique experience, and I hope one day the powers-that-be release a DVD that replicates the movie as I first saw it. After all, it was the juxtaposition of Planet Terror and Death Proof that made each one more fascinating, as they were both different takes on the same idea. Robert Rodriguez gave us the light side with a doomsday scenario that resulted in the good guys surviving with style, while Quentin Tarantino showed us the terrifying darkness of violence we can't control, and that if the good guys did survive that, well, they might take control and fight back. One theme, two aesthetic approaches; one common result, with two different feelings of exhiliration -- the full Grindhouse is practically its own film school.
It's a love story so simple that its protagonists aren't ever even given names -- they are just "Guy" and "Girl." But rather than give its audience the ol' set-up/happy-ending punchline, Once gives us a real-world scenario, with realistic characters who have working class problems, and, perhaps most realistically of all, baggage. Who needs to be reminded that the universe is uncaring when you're already having issues just sorting out your own love lives? But Once never cheats, understands the relative weights of its characters' problems, and delivers its story with one of the most heartfelt, passionate soundtracks ever to grace a movie. When faced with our problems, what's one place we can turn to? Music. Why we do it is answered humbly by Once.
7. I'm Not There
The world is confusing, so often we look for easy answers to life. The glory of I'm Not There is in how it uses one very famous man, Bob Dylan, to illustrate that there are no easy answers. In fact, one of the easy paths people often look for is to be able to define one's self, to follow one path, to see one road to a higher place. Todd Haynes's version of Dylan, played by six different people, confesses that even one person's life is a multitude of paths and definitions. Life is as fluid and everchanging as the film itself. If Dylan figured this out for himself, maybe that's why he's still kicking even today, long after the heyday depicted in this film. He actually makes an interesting contrast to There Will Be Blood's Plainview, who does adamantly define himself to the point of material success but emptiness of soul.
8. No Country for Old Men
I don't think any film was as bleak as this one, a movie that expands ever so subtly to reveal not only that the universe is uncontrollable, but that we'd be foolish to even think we could find the steering wheel. Normally, I'd prefer something as harsh as this to be complemented with ideas about why people carry on, but this one took the opposite route -- it showed how people carried on until they are either defeated or figure out the truth and give up. Ouch. But, you know, there's insight in that too -- we can consider it a warning to understand our instincts first, to understand the odds we're up against, and then act accordingly. No matter what, though, the Coen Brothers' craft in constructing one of the most unnerving recent movies deserves cinema-goers' respect.
What's interesting to me about Nanking is how it up-plays the positive light in its story -- that Westerners used whatever international leverage they had to set up a safety zone in Nanking in order to protect the innocent Chinese citizens from being slaughtered. But even this hopeful ray felt tiny in the face of the atrocious stories of mass rape, military abuse, and murder. So even though the movie is conspicuously constructed to deliver a positive ending, it still feels bleak. But that may work to its advantage -- these days, negative war stories continue to get replayed around the globe, while the possibilities of ensuing heroism seem to be dwindling in the chaos. But if heroism, however overmatched, could arise from within Nanking in 1937, out of simple concern for fellow man, then it should be able to again.
10. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Could there be anything more bleak than knowing that, no matter how you live your life, history will record your deeds the way it feels like, if it does it at all? The Assassination of Jesse James is a fitting end to this list because while most of hope against the odds applies to what we can do while we're still alive, this movie concerns what we can't do after we're dead and gone. Jesse James, criminal, is a celebrated personality; Robert Ford, obeying his own survival instinct, is branded a coward. But the footnote here is that a movie like this exists, showing us a realistic take its subjects, and asking new audiences over a century after the events to re-evaluate things. So hope, and the possibility of maintaining perspective, springs eternal.
Despite the deluge of darkness in films this year, I think it actually turned out to be a very good year. I was surprised by how many movies I found strong, confident, intelligent, and entertaining, whether or not they were downers or lifters. Titles that didn't quite make my 2007 list, but could've argued for inclusion, include: 3:10 to Yuma, where legends may outweigh lives; Away from Her, which doesn't shy from emotional pain; Black Snake Moan, about the urgency in imparting morals even after personal failures; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, illustrating determined human purpose; The King of Kong, examining competitive drive; Michael Clayton, focusing on ambition and repercussions; No End in Sight, a sober Iraq War post-game (or is it halftime?) analysis; and Zodiac, which looks hard at the desire for control and making sense of the universe.
And I wanted to give a special mention to Across the Universe, a movie I admitted being embarrassed to like, but now I wonder why I should've been embarrassed at all. I'm definitely watching it again one day, and looking forward to it. Meanwhile, it was a great year for movie music in general, and that in and of itself deserves commenting upon. From the great opening to the otherwise mediocre Music and Lyrics to the aforementioned Once to the spiritedly goofy Enchanted; from the sublimely funny Walk Hard to the operatic Sweeney Todd to the unbridled ebullience of Hairspray, 2007 might've been the most musical bleak movie year recorded.
Thank you again for reading and have a happy new year.
©Jeffrey Chen, Dec. 28, 2007
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