Friday, February 1, 2008

Top Fifteen of 2007: Honor and Fame, This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Western

1. There Will Be Blood

2. No Country for Old Men

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

What can be said at this point by me that hasn’t been said about these films already?

Perhaps this is the first lesson of these writings. When it comes to lists of top films, it’s one part the quality of the film and all other parts opinion. The way something may strike me may not strike you the same way. This is how a movie like Crash can win a Best Picture Academy Award (well, opinions and politics). My own opinion, in that particular case, led me to do a cartwheel out of rage when it was the award was announced. There are eyewitness accounts to back this up.

That said, let’s discuss the films.

It came to my surprise late in the year that my top three films are, in their own way, Westerns.

‘There Will Be Blood’ is both set in the west and the late 1800's (through early 20th century), however not a cow or ghost town is to be seen. This isn’t your father’s Western, that’s for certain. The character of Daniel Plainview is no Gary Cooper; he travels by automobile, even through the expansive desert, and is much too rich and powerful to bother carrying a pistol. Recall if you will, the infamous scene in ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ when they rob a train. Woodcock, the man guarding the safe pleads with them to stop, citing his boss, E.H Harriman’s power and inevitable vendetta against the boys. A vengeance which, (spoiler warning? If you haven’t seen Butch Cassidy, just stop reading this blog until you do) does in fact catch up with them in the end. I see Daniel Plainview very much as that railroad magnate, the kind of man that, no matter how far his interests reach, they all act as perfect appendages of his natural body. Justice is only served the Plainview way, which, as memory serves, is a delicious milkshake.

One final note on the comparison of this western-set horror-drama (Director Paul Thomas Anderson recently reacted to a rumor that his next film would be a horror film with “I thought I just made one!”) to the grand tradition of Westerns past, my singular favorite shot in a film filled with stunning cinematography. In a not so subtle reference both to the Lumiere Brothers’ infamous first exhibited film, as well as Edison protege and creator of the Western genre, Edwin S. Porter, Anderson and his D.P. Robert Elswit have a locomotive pull into the station headed straight at the audience, as young H.W. Plainview, standing alongside it on the adjoining platform, slowly comes into focus.

Simply Magnificent.

When typing out ‘No Country For Old Men’, I accidentally wrote “Old Mean”. A typo which, upon reflection, could have stayed in the title. Much has been said about the film being a “return to form” for the Coen brothers, which I would like to debate in a later article, but it’s certainly a return to excellent film-making. For a more in-depth analysis (and general love-fest) of the entire film, be sure to check out where a group of internet film journalists discuss the film for 75 mins. Since I don’t expect an audio commentary on the dvd (the Coens usually skimp on bonus content), this should serve part of that thirst.

The film with the much ballyhooed ending is, in my mind, the most straightforward Western of the three I’m discussing here. We have heroes and we have villains, and they’re all chasing each other through Texas from town to town, their guns blazing as they go. Except it’s 1980, a full century after prime Western-era settings, and silenced shotguns and cattleguns replace six shooters. Horses are still used alongside cars, which, if you read into the subtext of the film, there’s a clear argument for horses over cars (there’s a tremendous amount of subtext to this film, much of which is discussed in the above podcast, so I won’t run off topic with it here). Our Sheriff in this story, however, isn’t going to take on the varmint head on, because in the end we are meant to realize that you can’t be a part of every war that comes your way. Oh well, I delved into some subtext after all.

If I was to again point out a single shot or scene that epitomizes the great tradition of Western films for ‘No Country’, I would surely jump at the massacre in the desert, except it’s not done on screen. What I am in love with though, is the long tracking shot as Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss tries to escape his hotel (again) from Chigurh. The game of cat and mouse played on a deserted border town street is a thing of beauty. The “hero” and “villain” of our story battle it out in such a way as to almost seem stereotypical of a Western film, shooting and ducking behind whatever possible to surprise each other. The scene also is a particular highlight for the film’s sound design as well, in a film filled with brilliant sound (and almost no music- a comparison to There Will Be Blood surely must come in another post).

Our third film in this trilogy is ‘The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford’ (or as I like to call it, ‘The Assassination of Gerald Ford By The Coward Tom Brokaw... and I’m Gay. If you don’t get it, check out ).

I believe that originally they went with a longer title, but cut it down because it seemed too absurd. This is the most obvious Western in the group; set in the late 19th century, six shooters, horses, robbing, wilderness, etc. Yet the film boils slowly, and one realizes that the same story could have been told in any era, any place. It just helps that we’re dealing with a true legend here of the outlaw Jesse James and his gang of bandits, one of which would come to shoot him in the back while he hangs a picture (try to guess who did it!). There’s no ‘Magnificent Seven’ style banding of outlaws for a greater cause, quite the contrary, and like the other films discussed here, the money is secondary to honor and fame. Shakespearian in its execution, we see a truly universal tale of a king and those who look up to, and ultimately dethrone him.

Traditionally, “Oscar movies” are slow, lengthy dramas so it astounds me how little love this film received. It has two very deserved nominations for Best Supporting Actor- Casey Affleck and Best Cinematography- Roger Deakins (Deakins having been double nominated for his work on “No Country” as well). Deakins cinematography here screams with the beauty of old photographs and daguerreotypes, almost to the point where the film could have been told all in sepia. Truth be told, this would be my pick in the category of cinematography. So many shots in the film ring true to old Westerns, while reinventing in the process. I’d say this film owes a lot to Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’, for the sometimes naturalistic approach to camera and the changing seasons and environments of that early settler era. When Jesse James (Brad Pitt), secure under the warmth of a large black bear’s fur rides out over a snow covered hill headed for information about his gang, a instant parallel is drawn to Warren Beatty’s McCabe and the chase for his life at the end of his film.

And now the rest of the group:

4. Ratatouille

5. Perfume: Story of a Murderer

6. Zodiac

7. Hot Fuzz

8. Atonement

9. Sicko

10. Juno

11. Charlie Wilson’s War

12. Rescue Dawn

13. Once

14. Eastern Promises

15. Sweeney Todd