2 Days in Paris

Date: March 11
Location: Clifton Living Room

It’s impossible to watch this film and not compare it to Before Sunset. As in Sunset, Julie Delpy (who wrote, directed, edited and even scored this film) plays a romantically-confused French woman wandering through Paris conversing with her snarky American boyfriend. Her parents even return, playing her parents, just as they did in Sunset.

The problem is, just about any film suffers in comparison to Richard Linklater’s classic, so a film that so brazenly mimics it really doesn’t stand a chance. Delpy and Adam Goldberg do their best with the often-clever script, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was with the wrong guy. I had no investment in the romance, and the neuroses grew old rather quickly. The plot was also contrived — Delpy’s character keeps running into old boyfriends — in a way the Linklater film (and its “prequel” Before Sunrise) never did.

I like both of these actors quite a bit and would love to see them (together or separately) in a film that isn’t a blatant copy of one of my all-time favorites.

Margot at the Wedding

Date: March 4
Location: Clifton Living Room

I’m glad movies like this are being made, and I’m glad writer/director Noah Baumbach is interested in making them. I’m just not so sure I want to watch them. It’s talky, raw, darkly funny and (to borrow a phrase I heard from an elderly woman following The English Patient) “very European.”

Nicole Kidman does wonderful work as the deeply flawed title character, a woman who shows affection by mistreating her loved ones. She and Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing her sister, have great chemistry and their scenes feel painfully real. Also memorable is newcomer Zane Pais, playing Kidman’s son, and shining in some achingly uncomfortable scenes. It’s all very well done, but how much fun is it to watch unlikeable people attack each other for 90 minutes? Some, but not a lot.

In the Valley of Elah

Date: February 27
Location: Clifton Living Room

The Paul Haggis Redemption Tour continues. To make up for the atrocity that was Crash, Haggis first co-wrote the screenplay of 2006’s excellent Casino Royale — a strong move, but he was a hired gun so it didn’t quite count. In the Valley of Elah, however, is a full-blown return to auteur mode, and it’s a splendid one. This is an anti-war film disguised as a murder mystery, anchored by a beautifully understated (and deservedly Oscar-nominated) performance by Tommy Lee Jones. Jones is the perfect actor for Haggis. He’s incapable of insincerity. He plays a weary ex-military man, the father of an AWOL soldier, with such grit and dignity that he never becomes a conduit for Haggis’ message. The message is there, no doubt, but it is completely earned. Charlize Theron does nice work as the detective working alongside Jones and small supporting roles by Jason Patric, Josh Brolin (what a year he had!) and James Franco all hit the right note. Once again I’m staggered by how strong a year 2007 was, and here’s the latest example.

Across the Universe

Date: February 22
Location: Clifton Living Room

This goes down as one of the very pleasant surprises of the 2008 movie year. I’d read so many pans of this film that I expected a train wreck, good for some unintentional laughs. Instead I found it to be clever, earnest and lovely. Most of the credit belongs to The Beatles — honestly, how can you go wrong filling a movie start to finish with some of the best music ever committed to record? The versions of the classic songs performed here are wonderful, without exception. Who knew Evan Rachel Wood had such a hauntingly beautiful singing voice? All the performers (most of whom are unknowns) are impressive. And Julie Taymor, definitely one of the finest visual directors working today, pulls out all the stops — the film very much resembles Moulin Rouge in its go-for-broke heart-on-its-sleeve showiness. It has some cornball moments, and the naive kids lose their innocence in the age of Vietnam plot is a bit of a cliche, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Date: February 12
Location: Clifton Living Room

2007 could be remembered as the year of the Western, with astonishing films such as No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood topping critics lists and the Oscars. This gorgeous, meditative tale continues that trend. It’s a shame it was lost in the mix (save for Casey Affleck’s much-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination). I’ve read and heard much criticism that the film is too “slow” — and I can see that, up to a point. It is definitely long, and more concerned with talk than action. But I was riveted from the first frame to the last.

The movie reminded me a lot of the book Manhunt, about the events surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It has a fascinating attention to detail, both of the period and of the circumstances surrounding James’ murder. The events that follow the assassination were particularly fascinating (and new) to me.

Finally, major kudos to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work here is at least on par with his amazing work on No Country For Old Men. Deakins has been nominated by the Academy for both films and it will be a crime if he cancels himself out and the trophy goes to somebody else.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Date: February 5
Location: Clifton Living Room

Over the past several years, there’s been a trend of great documentaries about the incredible competition and fascinating characters found in “geek sports” — spelling in Spellbound, crossword puzzles in Wordplay and now old-school video gaming in The King of Kong. This one could be the best of them, largely because it focuses on a single hero and a single villain locked in a heart-pounding battle for that ultimate prize, the highest score in Donkey Kong. At times it plays more like a work of fiction than a documentary — one player is so clearly the protagonist that the filmmakers even play the Rocky theme to highlight his comeback. It’s great fun, but at the same time I wonder if they didn’t go a bit far. Surely the “villain” isn’t as cartoonish as he’s portrayed here. And isn’t it the responsibility of documentary filmmakers to deliver something close to the truth? That’s a debate worth having, but this is a wonderful film regardless.

Eastern Promises

Date: January 15
Location: Clifton Living Room

What a great year for movies this has been. So great that this powerful, absorbing crime thriller can’t crack my top ten. Viggo Mortensen gives one of the year’s best performances as a driver for the Russian mob caught up in some particularly messy business. Everybody talks about the naked steamroom fight scene, and it is indeed a doozy, but it’s just one aspect of the extraordinary physicality Mortensen brings to this role. Between this film and A History of Violence it seems Cronenberg has found the De Niro to his Scorsese.