Movies are like opera to me; the vast expense that goes into their creation far outweighs their cultural value. I don't expect every movie to be Bottle Rocket or Boogie Nights or Raiders of the Lost Ark, three films I consider to be rather perfect in their way, but when $30 million is thrown at any given endeavor, I expect something, you know? I have not seen a romantic comedy since Cameron Diaz's landmark semen-in-the-hair work in There's Something About Mary, and I'm not aware of a good sci-fi or action movie having been produced since Arnold Schwarzenegger took on his most unbelievable role yet as California's governor. Art movies have gone Hollywood with Sundance becoming a brand rather than an outlet, so where does that leave one to go when searching for life in the great American art form?
West, that's where. Somehow in the age of the iPhone and men buying moisturizer, I saw three westerns this year, and while they all had their problems, they proved to be the most satisfying movie experiences in recent memory. Except for There Will be Blood, but I'll get to that.
3:10 to Yuma
Dir. James Mangold
Let's start easy with 3:10 to Yuma. Casting Christian Bale and Russell Crowe as co-tagonists is as inspired as putting Velveeta with Wonder Bread, yet on the right hotplate, that combination makes a simple but delicious meal. Both actors are as wooden as Pinocchio but that is forgiven in a western. Crowe is the masterful thief 10 steps ahead, Bale is the broke-dick homesteader 10 behind, but he lands in a plot to save his dusty acre of the American Dream by escorting Crowe to Yuma for trial. Great train footage, lots of we-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin-you-and-me self-discovery on both character's parts like you get in a western. It is not really a good movie, but westerns rarely are. Ben Foster, Russell from Six Feet Under, is finding himself in the dubious position of being the new Skeet Ulrich as he chews the Utah mountains up as the ruthless but loyal sidekick to Crowe. I didn't even realize that was old hoary Peter Fonda as the bounty hunter until I looked it up. There are red Injuns and loveless railroad barons and a boy that does good- all hallmarks of a great western, so in that respect it is moderately awesome. Like Bale's character, you render a meager sum for sticking through to the end.
There Will be Blood
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
(Ghoulardi Film Company)
I wish the same could be said for There Will Be Blood. It's placement on everyone's Top 10 films of the decade list must be an exercise in wanting-it-to-be-so, because I read those raves wondering if I had in fact seen the same movie. Daniel Day-Lewis is oil wildcatter Daniel Plainview, ruthless and cold and calculating like he was in Gangs of New York, and about as believable. The story has an audacious start when he falls down a well, but unfortunately, he makes his way up to only butcher the lives of his son and those he encounters. Paul Dano is deliciously emo as Eli Sunday, the conduit of God who, on the surface, seems to want to protect his town from exploitation as strongly as Plainview wants to exploit it, but both are only concerned with beating the other. Speaking of beatings, There Will Be Blood is a film rife with excellent bitchslapping scenes (the bitches are all men being slapped by men - the complete irrelevance of women in all three of these films trickles down into who gets the abuse) , but they are too few and far between in the two and half hours bookended by the fall down the well, and superb Kubrick rip-off battle royal at the end. I love Paul Thomas Anderson, I even love Magnolia, and like my friends with whom I saw No Country for Old Men in the theater, all we could talk about after was the trailer for Blood, but there was little delivery. He should've stayed down that well and spared us all.
No Country for Old Men
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
No Country for Old Men is about as good as it got this year. It has a great pedigree, being based on a book by the sanctioned author (Cormac McCarthy) and directed by the sanctioned directors (Coen Brothers.) Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss is the perfect reduction of all us saps, thinking we are going to get away with something while being in full knowledge that the universe maintains its balance, and we peons only serve to grease the wheels. He finds bunch of money and drugs among dead Mexicans and shot up trucks out in the desert, and decides with fatal clarity that he must take that money with him, and run. Javier Bardim as the ruthless killer Chigurh and Tommy Lee Jones as he wizened Sheriff Bell both trail Moss through the waste of the modern American west, standing as the cosmic moral corrective on either side of Moss' foolish hubris offering advice from an air compressor and Andy Griffith pith respectively. It's funny in that bone dry Coen Brothers style, and equally savage in its depiction of the inevitability of fate. It is brilliantly acted, brilliantly shot, brilliantly paced. Perhaps too brilliantly, because the complaint I have about the Coen Brothers is that their films are a little too clockwork, too perfectly done. The business of the universe eating up the weak is messy business, as is clearly stated in the other two movies here, but No Country trumps them by actually mattering as a work of art, which is a noteworthy achievement in the current state of film