Things We Lost in the Fire (Bier, 2007)

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The best film of 2007 no one saw. Danish director Susanne Bier makes her American debut with this intricately human drama about loss and redemption, two themes that often get simplistic treatment from American films. Things We Lost in the Fire separates itself from other movies dealing with tragedy in the modern day suburban family, including downer fare like House of Sand and Fog, by respecting the emotions of its characters.

Bier uses Tom Stern’s fluid hand held images and Johan Soderqvist’s classical score to heighten the complex relationship between widowed housewife Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) and her husband Brian’s (David Duchovny) heroine addict childhood friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro). The two are thrust together after Brian’s tragic murder, both floundering under the pressures of life without the man they both loved. Bier treats each scene with a sincerity for the material, seamlessly building Jerry’s interactions with Brian’s children (Dory and Harper) and neighbors without pandering.

The film is so strong at eliciting feeling from the simple moments: Dory ducking his head under water for the first time, Harper shooting a basketball, or Audrey’s longing for a familiar sleeping position. Even though these people fall apart emotionally, the film never lets them descend into gratuitous disarray.  Berry and Del Toro produce a chemistry which transcends romance and ends up closer to necessity. Both have never been better. By the end, Things We Lost in the Fire leaves you with a sense of strength and appreciation for the process of life, and not being completely consumed by death as the end result.

30 Days of Night (Slade, 2007)

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David Slade’s stylish and incredibly gory tale of vampires slaughtering an entire Alaskan town during a month long darkness starts off strong, showing some intimate and gruesome demises, but gets completely undermined by one of the worst endings in a movie last year. For horror fanatics only, and even then it’s a stretch to find redeeming material. Death by buzz-saw perhaps?

In the Heat of the Night (Jewison, 1967)

A veritable dream team of filmmakers collaborated on In the Heat of the Night, a first-rate drama dealing with the various shades of racism hidden under a small town murder investigation. The cinematic glories on display include Norman Jewison’s swift direction, Hal Ashby’s evocative editing, Haskel Wexler’s hypnotic cinematography, and Sidney Pottier’s young fish out of water Detective duking it out with Rod Steiger’s honest and conflicted Police Chief. When all these components mesh together, as in the superb opening sequence leading up to the discovery of the victim and then Pottier’s classic introduction, In the Heat of the Night becomes more than just a message film.

Irma Vep (Assayas, 1996)

“But the predators on whom Assayas focuses—all working on the film or in the twilight zone of the production’s fringes—are vampires in every sense of the word, nocturnal animals feeding on human flesh.”

– Jonathan Rosenbaum on the characters of  Irma Vep

Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep plays like 90’s version of Truffaut’s Day For Night, a frantic angst-ridden behind the scenes film about the angst-ridden process of film-making. Rosenbaum’s wonderful insights speak to the film’s connective quality between character and subject matter, hinting at the destructive nature of  stress, professional jealousy, and artistic madness occurring on multiple levels. Still, the film feels light on substance even though it’s dealing with complex confrontations between artistic expression and mainstream success. This whimsy that seemingly overtakes Irma Vep stems from Assayas’ determination to deconstruct the seriousness of French Cinema and the global film community’s impressions of his country’s predisposition to creating self indulgent philosophical meanderings. Maggie Cheung’s charming and inoffensive heroine feels slightly oblivious, relishing each moment in transcending ways.

L’Humanite (Dumont, 1999)

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An exercise in extreme patience, Bruno Dumont’s epically slow police procedural L’Humanite paints a picture of psychological instability so grim, so emotionless, one forgets about the heinous crime at its center. Dumont’s fractured protagonist De Winter, the lead detective investigating the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl in rural France, wonders through each scene like a glacial ghost haunting a world which doesn’t care about his existence. Dumont’s pacing will challenge even the greatest proponent of the art film, however, his wide-screen visual approach remains fascinating since it reflects a devastating menace toward intimacy and violence. L’Humanite, for all it’s European film-making aesthetics, uses a drastic, ridiculous, and all together Hollywood twist to put the previous 2+ hours into perspective. Cop out or revelation?

Rendition (Hood, 2007)

A disquieting yet simplistic morality play from South African Gavin Hood about the global ramifications of U.S. foreign policy, specifically a practice entitled “extraordinary rendition.” This particular post 9/11 tactic enables the C.I.A. to ship a terror suspect out of the country to be tortured under a foreign government where human rights become mute. Hood’s three interlocking stories and characters hit dramatic points with little originality or convincing tension for such highly charged subject matter (Reese Witherspoon has more emotional heft in Legally Blonde). But Rendition deals with temporality in fascinating ways, mirroring the viewers assumptions and expectations with that of the characters’ tragic decisions in dealing with love, family, and sacrifice.

Oscar Predictions 2008

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Best Actress: Julie Christie, Away From Her
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Best Adapted Screenplay: Coen brothers, No Country For Old Men
Best Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody, Juno
Best Cinematography: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood
Best Editing: Coen brothers, No Country For Old Men
Best Art Direction: Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Best Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran, Atonement
Best Makeup: Ve Neill, Martin Samuel, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Best Original Score: Dario Marianelli, Atonement
Best Sound: No Country for Old Men
Best Sound Editing: There Will Be Blood
Best Visual Effects: Transformers
Best Animated Film: Ratatouille
Best Documentary: No End in Sight