That's the trouble with being a film critic in a (relatively) small city. We're not a big enough film market to get art-house flicks when they open on 50 or 100 screens nationwide. There have to be about 500 prints of a film floating around before one's sure to land in Spokane. As for press screenings... well, "press screening" is the punch line to a joke about towns like ours made by critics in bigger bergs. They just never happen here.
Because of this little freak of scheduling and demographics, I probably won't be able to see Juno or Atonement or The Kite Runner -- films that have a certain amount of buzz in the best-picture-of-2007 debate -- until sometime in 2008. Trailers and teasers and leaked scenes have me salivating for P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, but that won't work its way around to the 'Kane until mid-January, if we're lucky. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an incredibly well-regarded French-language film by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) that dropped in November, probably won't come at all unless Schnabel lands an Oscar nom.
So them's the breaks for a film geek with no screener potential, a reality I was broken up about for a minute. Then I started taking stock of the films I have seen. "They're pretty good," I thought. "What am I complaining about?" Here are my Top Five.
Historical thrillers have it rough. The ending is already written and the sides are pre-chosen. It's the same with true-crime mysteries. How do you maintain tension when we already know whether or not the butler did it? Worse, how do you keep the audience's interest when everyone already knows the killer never gets caught?
Counterintuitively, if you're David Fincher, you drag the film out for two hours and forty minutes, wrenching up the tension and letting your characters' lives crumble slowly under the pressure. The ensemble cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo) all turn in wonderful performances. It's a great little film that most people seem to have forgotten about.
4. King of Kong
The karmic opposite of last year's blithe Wordplay, which portrayed some of humanity's best elements through the lens of "professional" crosswording --stern-faced competition tempered with a sense of geek camaraderie -- King of Kong is a look at ambition and pride and disappointment through the lens of two very different Donkey Kong masters.
The challenger, a perennial loser, just wants to prove he's the best at something. The reigning champion wants to do whatever he can to insure his record is safe -- even corrupting the judges. It's hilarious, pitiful and heart wrenching.
3. Michael Clayton
The story's taut and whip-smart, but what really elevates Michael Clayton above the average political and legal thriller with a conscience (and there are scads to choose from), is writer/director Tony Gilroy's unflinching characterizations and the way his actors (George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson principally) hit their emotional marks every time.
Wilkinson flails with the bombast of the clinically insane while Clooney has a slow, smoldering crisis of faith. Swinton, who exudes reckless power, is bent by ambition to see just how far she can bend morality.
It's a fine thriller, but a nearly perfect character study.
Where Zodiac is propelled by a tangle of conspiracy and shared memory and Michael Clayton is formed by complex psychology, Once is made truly great by its guilelessness and simplicity. It's a story about a street singer and a Czech immigrant who connect through the process of songwriting.
Glen Hansard isn't the world's greatest actor, but he's a brilliant songwriter. Director (and former band-mate) John Carney's single best decision is to let Hansard and co-star Marketa Irglova play their instruments and sing their songs, capturing the hurt in their voices, the yearning in their eyes and the promise of a kind of life fulfillment in shared creation that neither of them had ever known separately. The message is simple and universal, and that's why I've recommended Once to more people than any other film I can remember.
1. No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers haven't gotten this oppressively dark in a long time (Barton Fink, or maybe even back to Miller's Crossing) and they've certainly never wrestled with a character who's half the juggernaut for pure evil that Anton Chigurh is.
Chigurh (Javier Bardem, much better here than in Love in the Time of Cholera) is an assassin and a force of nature. He's sent on the trail of $2 million in drug money picked up by a mechanic who stumbled upon a gunfight. A town sheriff is on the trail, too, hoping to nab Chigurh before he kills again.
The way the Coens sculpt the action, there's no real climax and thus no denouement, just a little bit of misplaced heroism, a lot of dread and a trail of bodies. The message is simple: Evil persists, but it's the responsibility of good people to stand in defiance of it.