By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Absolutely, unequivocally, this has been The Year of The Apatow: Judd got Knocked Up to the tune of $150 million (at the box office alone); the super-okay Superbad, which Apatow produced, grossed another $120 million, "gross" being the operative word; and at year's end, he walks hard to the finish line as writer and producer of a faux-biopic about a pennies-on-the-dollar Johnny Cash named Dewey Cox. This doesn't take into account the slate of films Apatow has on tap for 2008 and '09, among them the stoners-on-the-run comedy Pineapple Express (directed, no shit, by indie darling David Gordon Green); Drillbit Taylor, a seemingly skeezy take on My Bodyguard, starring Owen Wilson; and Step Brothers, which will reunite Will Farrell, John C. Reilly and Talladega Nights director Adam McKay. Hence Apatow's recent crowning by Entertainment Weekly as the "smartest person in Hollywood" — that week, anyway.
Though he's made his name as a hero to the schlubs, Apatow is anything but: A powerful player, he's his own franchise now, setting up kiosks all over Showbizland. It wasn't so long ago, though, that Apatow lorded over a kingdom defined by failure and ruin. The now-familiar narrative arc of his career having been established in profile after profile this year, he has to his credit countless failed pilots, including one starring Judge Reinhold as a more washed-up version of himself; he couldn't convince NBC to save the critically adored high-school-set Freaks and Geeks or keep Fox from flunking the graduated-to-college Undeclared. He used to send TV critics handwritten pleas affixed to videos of unaired pilots and shit-canned series.
Now, Apatow's the King of Comedy, for better or worse — for better, because you can laugh at the big-screen comedies without feeling cheap and desperate; for worse, because with franchising comes dilution of product. Apatow's already behind the wheel of the Yuk Machine, spitting out cheap giggles to audiences eager to gobble up anything with his name attached. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which Apatow cowrote with director Jake Kasdan, has its moments — 3.9 minutes' worth, by my stopwatch — but it's little more than a sketch extended way past its breaking point. Superbad, which he only produced but which was cowritten by his muse Seth Rogen, also could have been shortened a good 45 minutes. The trailer for Drillbit Taylor's good for a worried shrug, while the four minutes of Pineapple Express posted to the Web in December promise more of the same ol', same ol': new and exciting ways to smoke weed, this time with a joint shaped like a cross.
Apatow and his boys (among them Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Rogen) need to stop referring to themselves (or thinking of themselves) as the modern-day Marx Brothers. If there's one thing Groucho didn't do, it was show his ass (or somebody else's balls) for a cheap, dumb laugh. Those boys worked hard for the funny.
One gets the sense that Apatow actually runs a little deeper than the shallow numskulls he throws onscreen to see if they'll stick. It's the great secret of Knocked Up that somewhere on the margins of a movie about a pretty career woman inexplicably sticking it out with a doper dude, Apatow actually tells a thoughtful, honest story about modern marriage — the one about how marriages taken for granted will slowly, almost unnoticeably, overdose on a lethal cocktail of boredom, jealousy and selfish desire.
Apatow has it in him to move this money-minting shtick forward; you can't stay 19 forever, dude (the point of his body of work, as a matter of fact). But for now, 2007's big winner still prefers the quick and dirty giggle to the trenchant observation; he's all about the gag, like the dick drawings in Superbad or the severed bodies in Walk Hard or the pregnant-sex scene in Knocked Up. It's the stupid shit that made him the smartest man in Hollywood. Hope he's smart enough to see past it.
The top movies of 2007
by Our Critics
Scott Foundas, J. Hoberman, Nathan Lee, Jim Ridley, Ella Taylor and Robert Wilonsky
It's that time of year again. Our six critics* don't always (or often) agree, but we've combined their top ten lists (allowing for ties) to pretend like they do! So without further ado, the ten (or 15) best movies of the year, kind of:
1. There Will Be Blood
2. I'm Not There
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
4. Killer of Sheep, Southland Tales
7. Colossal Youth
8. Eastern Promises, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
9. Regular Lovers
10. Hot Fuzz, Knocked Up, Manufactured Landscapes, Private Fears in Public Places
Into the Wild, Black Book, West of the Tracks, No Country for Old Men, Syndromes and a Century, My Kid Could Paint That, Grindhouse, Offside, Day Night Day Night, Away from Her, Once, Paprika, Lars and the Real Girl, The Host, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Honor de Cavalleria, The Band's Visit, Lake of Fire, No End in Sight, The Bourne Ultimatum, Terror's Advocate, The Savages, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Music and Lyrics
Kick yourself for not seing these movies
by Jim Ridley
How tough is it for a movie to find its audience, above the din of blockbuster marketing and beyond the clogged distribution pipeline? Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese/Malaysian director regarded as one of the world's greats, had two films in U.S. theaters this year, The Wayward Cloud and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Neither made it far outside the nation's major cities. They weren't alone. From minor hits to complete obscurities, these ten films from 2007 — and others — deserved more attention than they got, either from audiences, distributors or critics.
End of the Line Good unreleased horror movies are not exactly in overstock, so why has Maurice Devereaux's hair-raising subterranean shocker taken so long to surface from the festival circuit? Maybe it's because this sick satiric tale — in which religious zealots conduct their own Rapture with cross-shaped daggers on a stalled subway — pushes sensitive buttons about fundamentalist hysteria. Then again, maybe it's because the movie raises the even more subversive possibility that the zealots are right. Either way, this is scary as hell and impressively unrelenting — starting with a strong candidate for the best jump-fright since Michael Myers bolted upright.
The Hills Have Eyes 2 It starts in a mock-up Kandahar with a war room staffed by stuffed dummies; it ends with a besieged peacenik wisely chucking his pacifist ideals in the face of Pure Fucking Evil. In between, outmanned U.S. troops reap the fruit of decades-old government policy — here, desert nuclear testing — in the form of implacable fanatics with the home-field advantage of tunnels and caves. In a year when Hollywood turned Iraq war hand-wringing into a virtual subgenre, no reputable movie caught the country's ideological confusion so fully; its booby-trapped shallow focus seemed shorthand for the perils of a blinkered worldview. This should be playing somewhere near Los Alamos, at a drive-in with No End in Sight.
I Know Who Killed Me Not even Lindsay Lohan's sojourn in the tabloids stirred up much interest in this marvel of trashy delirium. A pity, too: Chris Sivertson's mystifying mood piece about a demure honor student who morphs into a mutilated stripper was sold as torture porn, but it's closer in spirit to a glue-huffing remake of Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique. As psychodrama, it was even more potent. Try finding a more eerie metaphor for a child star's uneasy transition to adulthood than pole-dancer Lohan facing her Disney-princess self packed away in a casket.
Joshua You can't blame new parents who didn't want to waste their one date night a year on a movie that acutely captures the sleep-deprived panic of the other 364 days. For the stouthearted, though, George Ratliff's masterfully unnerving thriller about a blank-faced tyke (Jacob Kogan) whose mom and dad suspect him of psychological warfare against their new baby creates a mood of imminent doom that anyone with suspiciously quiet tots will recognize. The leads enact the pressures of child-rearing so empathetically — mom Vera Farmiga in exhausted near-madness, dad Sam Rockwell in sex-starved, stuck-in-the-middle befuddlement — that the cumulative chills leave your teeth chattering. It's perhaps better watched at home, with your kids locked safely in their rooms.
Lake of Fire The year's most criminally underseen movie, Tony Kaye's landmark abortion documentary made a crucial commercial miscalculation: Because it presented both pro-choice and pro-life positions fairly, neither side wanted to see it. A documentary is supposed to reinforce your prejudices, stupid, not challenge them. For anyone brave enough to consider the issue beyond sloganeering and name-calling, though, this staggering doc has the power to tip the undecided either way. And kudos to Kaye for shooting on celluloid — his graphic film may be hell to watch, but never to look at.
Manufactured Landscapes Despite the endorsement of Al Gore, Jennifer Baichwal's visually stunning documentary was snubbed by the same environmental groups who rallied around An Inconvenient Truth — in part because the inconvenient truth of Baichwal's film is that the industrial ravaging of the planet, as shown in Edward Burtynsky's macroscopic photographs, has an undeniable (if horrifying) grandeur. Can the environment's loss be cinema's gain? Following Burtynsky through China, from one hypnotic science-fiction rubblescape to another, Baichwal challenges us to say no — or at least not to succumb to our sense of awe.
Music and Lyrics Maybe the year's most pleasant surprise: an intelligent, genuinely amusing romantic comedy, scaled to match the modest ambitions of its hero, "happy has-been" Hugh Grant. Paired with Drew Barrymore, whose tremulous vulnerability has never been more appealing, Grant gave his least shticky and most winning performance in years as a Reagan-era pop idol who gets a shot at a mild artistic triumph after years on the berry-farm circuit. But he has no shame about his limited success, and the same can be said for writer-director Marc Lawrence, who kids '80s nostalgia without meanness or condescension. The cherry on the sundae: delicious pop-novelty pastiches by Andrew Blakemore, Adam Schlesinger and others, including the deathless "Pop! Goes My Heart."
Paprika Director Satoshi Kon's anime fantasy — a mind-blower on a Videodrome/2001 scale of sensory and intellectual bombardment — exemplifies more than any digital-animation feature this year the freedom of working in a medium with no physical restraints. With his sleep-troubled film-noir cop prowling the subconscious of a near-future Tokyo, Kon explores the relationship of dream logic to the visual grammar of movies and plays eye-boggling tricks with perspective, distending bodies and boundaries and looping his nightmare scenarios. And yet at the movie's heart is a wistful, romantic affirmation of the need for inviolate space where our inner selves can soar.
Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs) A fake movie snowfall out of Josef von Sternberg's dreams blankets this gorgeous ensemble comedy-drama about the difficulty of forging new loves late in life. Directed by Alain Resnais with a formal rigor and brisk elegance that should shame filmmakers five decades younger, the film has a combination of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design that makes it more accessible than Resnais's form-breaking early films of the Nouvelle Vague era. Even so, it failed to reach the audiences that have eagerly embraced, say, Patrice Leconte's diverting trifles. Too bad: On TV the beauty of Eric Gautier's cinematography will be diminished, though not extinguished.
Urim and Thummim This memorably odd doc by Dub Cornett and Dancing Outlaw director Jacob Young — the story of three men who claim to have found an Old Testament portal on the 99-cent sale rack at a Madison, Tennessee, Goodwill superstore — made its debut at the 38-year-old Nashville Film Festival last April, wedged between movies as diverse as Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth and David Alford and Robert Archer Lynn's accomplished one-take thriller Adrenaline. Last month, it played the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where no less an admirer than Werner Herzog reportedly dismissed its critics as "retarded." Will you ever see it? The movie itself provides an answer: Stranger things have happened.
Nonfiction continues its ascent onscreen
by Robert Wilonsky
An acquaintance who fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq says he has no use for documentaries about George Bush's bungling of the War on Terror. He has not seen and will not see a single one of the movies made about the tragic consequences of the administration's rush to drop bombs over Baghdad; he has no use for No End in Sight, say, or Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. "Those movies are for you civilians," he says, grinning. "I'm sure they're all 'good' and 'important,' but everyone knows what went wrong — everything went wrong." Then he goes on to suggest that unless folks actually do something with the information laid out in No End in Sight, in which former administration officials cop to their myriad fuckups, well, it's just another brick in the infotainment wall.
Yeah, but sometimes we civilians just need a brick to the head. There was no shortage in 2007 of good documentaries about important subjects: Chief among them was Michael Moore's Sicko, which may not have had the cultural impact of his earlier Bush-bashing, but which actually galvanized red and blue believers alike on the issue of health care — indeed, folks around the country formed advocacy groups in response to the doc, a sure sign they were as infuriated as they were entertained. Also released in '07: Darfur Now and The Devil Came on Horseback, both about genocide in Sudan; The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, about one Iraqi's wrongful imprisonment in Abu Ghraib; and For the Bible Tells Me So, about the Good Book's stance on homosexuality.
In what was one hell of a cinematic dinner party wish list, Jimmy Carter, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer and Karl Lagerfeld all got their own portraits; forthcoming in 2008 is Alex Gibney's Gonzo, about the life and death of Hunter S. Thompson. And earlier this year a couple of guys knocked out of the park a doc about King Corn, otherwise known as the silent killer that makes everything taste swell as it poisons us to death. You'll never look at a can of Coke the same way again.
Two of the best films of 2007 were docs that played like the stuff of far-out fiction. Indeed, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is, at this very moment, being converted into a narrative feature (so unbelievable is its subject matter that many who saw Seth Gordon's movie about two dudes vying for the title of Donkey Kong champion believed it a mockumentary). Then there was Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That, about a four-year-old girl hailed as the second coming of Jackson Pollock, at least until Charlie Rose came to town and began tossing around the theory that, ya know, maybe her daddy's the painter after all.
Bar-Lev's doc was perhaps the year's most essential true-life tale, not only because it was a thriller bereft of glib resolutions or because it serves as an excellent corrective for parents who think their kids are geniuses, but also because it's the sole doc of 2007 about actually making a documentary. Bar-Lev initially thought he was telling a feel-good story about a cute little girl and her rise to stardom; instead, he found himself on the other end of the lens, wondering whether he'd been duped and why he was even bothering in the first place. By the time the girl's mother accuses him of betrayal, you don't know what to believe — and you don't get more honest than that.
Horror films failed to scare up the big bucks in 2007
by Luke Thompson
It was only a couple of years ago that the horror genre seemed newly resurgent, like an undead killer digging himself out of the grave. "Fresh faced" directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Darren Lynn Bousman and James Wan — many of whom were dubbed "The Splat Pack" — seemed poised to bring their new takes on terror to the masses in a big way. They succeeded, briefly. But even as some of the movies continued to innovate this year — the campy retro-double feature of Grindhouse, the smart satire of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the oddball survival horror of The Mist — box office receipts plunged, sufficiently so that by the end of 2007, obvious horror titles were attempting to promote themselves as something else. Rachel Belofsky, president of Screamfest L.A., tried to get P2, about a young woman stalked through a parking garage, for the closing night show of the fest, but the distributors "kept saying they weren't marketing it as a horror film...They ram a guy duct-taped to a chair into a wall repeatedly. The last time I looked, that's a horror film!"
But as studios scrambled to salvage their horror lineups and adjust expectations, a different sort of scary movie emerged. "I must say that the scariest stuff in terms of new films was encapsulated in Javier Bardem's performance in No Country For Old Men," says Lucky McKee, writer-director of the cult hit May and one of Showtime's Masters of Horror episodes. Indeed, you won't see the Coen brothers' movie advertised as horror, but what else should you call a film about a black-clad, borderline supernatural assassin who wanders Texas blowing holes in people's heads with a compressed air gun? The Los Angeles Film Critics Association recently bestowed their Best Picture award upon There Will Be Blood, but as horror fans know, that title comes straight from the lips of Tobin Bell in Saw II — "They must have liked the line!" says Bell, before incredulously asking, "It's contending for an Oscar?"
Even Atonement, the year's big English-accented costume drama awards-bait epic from the director of Pride & Prejudice, features a scene in which an injured soldier's head is unbandaged to reveal a massive gaping wound, off of which a big chunk of broken skull promptly falls. A similar scene in Saw III had audience members fainting just last year. So if moviegoers are still hungry for gore, why haven't they been flocking to the films that traffic in it primarily?
Roth, whose Hostel Part II was, in comparison to the first Hostel, a disappointment (though it made $35 million internationally on a $10 million budget) thinks the scheduling of this year's genre titles didn't help. "My whole argument was, why are we coming out in the summer?" he says. "It was June, and people were in the mood for Oceans 13 and Pirates of the Caribbean; they were just in the mood for summer blockbusters."
Courtney Solomon, president of After Dark films, got stuck with a July release date for Captivity, which was delayed and fared dismally after the MPAA forcibly recalled its controversial billboards and posters. "The movie was originally scheduled for May 18, which would have been the first horror movie out that summer, going head to head with Shrek 3 so we'd have been counterprogramming. There were a lot of screens available and it was perfect timing, [but] because it got suspended by the MPAA, it wasn't possible to go out any more on that date."
Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing for Lionsgate, which released both Hostel Part II and the more successful Saw IV, thinks the wait for a Hostel sequel might have been too long for the general public. "One of the reasons the Saw movies do so well is because they come in rapid succession," he says, adding that Hostel Part II "could have been better served if it was released earlier."
Hostel Part II and Captivity were also not exactly critical faves, but even horror movies that were well liked by critics failed to gain traction. What happened to Grindhouse and The Mist? Easter and Thanksgiving opening dates, says Roth, noting, "Everyone's with their families...Why did 1408 do so well, and why did The Mist not do so well? They're both supernatural horror movies [and both based on Stephen King stories]. I honestly think it's the weekend." Notably among the movies that did hit were Rob Zombie's Halloween, released at the very end of the summer blockbuster season, in August; 30 Days of Night, in October; and Saw IV, on Halloween weekend.
So there's life in the genre yet, as Belofsky is quick to point out: "What happens when a romantic comedy bombs? Are there front-page articles in Variety going, 'Comedies are dead'? It just seems funny to me that a genre that makes millions of dollars for this industry is the quickest one to get panned."
Solomon, however, doesn't explain away the box office downturn as just bad timing or the media's genre bias. He thinks it's time to move away from the current trend of "torture porn" — more realistic horror about bad people who torture and kill — since we're seeing enough of that on the news already. Hinting at his company's future, Solomon suggests that "creature horror movies are probably something that people would be more interested in, because we haven't seen a lot of those, à la Alien, in recent times, so a fresh one like that would probably be accepted very, very well." Stay tuned: Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem opened Christmas Day at a theater near you.
Something to look forward to in 2008: Clint Eastwood's Changeling
by Scott Foundas
The first thing you notice when you walk on to the set are the 300 extras in late-1920s period costume, seated at cafeteria tables in a holding area, gazing up at you in their wool suits (for the men) and cloche hats (for the women) as if all of this were perfectly normal, as if you were the one who had just beamed in from another dimension. The second thing you notice is how completely, utterly quiet the place is. No production assistants madly rushing about. No ringing bells. No one yelling, "Quiet on the set!" — or, for that matter, yelling at all. If you didn't know better, you'd swear they weren't shooting a big Hollywood movie here.
And yet, they are. It's called Changeling, and it's the 28th movie directed by Clint Eastwood, and the first he's made for a studio other than Warner Brothers since Absolute Power in 1997. (The film will be released next year by Universal, where its producers, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, have a deal.) The first time I interviewed Eastwood, in 2004, he discussed his preference for calm and order during production. He had once attended a White House dinner, he said, and taken notice of the barely audible two-way radios (consisting of an earpiece and compact throat microphone) used by the Secret Service agents. Why, he wondered, couldn't that technology be imported to a movie set, to cut down on the incessant screeching and squawking of open walkie-talkies? And so he did just that. But to hear Eastwood describe his process is one thing and to see it being applied something else entirely.
It's mid-November, halfway through Changeling's 35-day shoot, and an upstairs ballroom of the former Park Plaza hotel on Wilshire Boulevard has been transformed by production designer James Murakami into an elaborate replica of the Los Angeles City Council chambers. It's there that a woman named Christine Collins sued the city for damages after her nine-year-old son Walter was kidnapped and a shrewd runaway named Arthur Hutchins, Jr. was returned to her in his place. When Collins protested that the boy was not her real son, an LAPD captain, J.J. Jones, had her committed to the psychopathic ward of L.A. General hospital.
The story is true. None of the names have been changed by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski. They include a wellspring of fascinating but largely forgotten figures from the city's past, including the firebrand Presbyterian evangelist Gustav Briegleb, who helped rally the public behind Collins, and the flamboyant defense attorney Sammy "S.S." Hahn, whose client roster included celebrated hoaxer Aimee Semple McPherson and convicted murderess Louise Peete, and who in 1957 tied two concrete bricks around his neck and drowned himself in the deep end of a Tick Canyon swimming pool.
In Changeling, Hahn is played by character actor Geoff Pierson, best known as the U.S. President in the fourth season of 24, and the scene being shot today is the kind that actors playing lawyers dream of — an impassioned, accusatory aria in which Hahn hurls reams of incontrovertible evidence at the smirking Jones (played by Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan) to the enthusiastic cheers of a crowded courtroom. The extras file in with the hushed decorum of parishioners at Sunday Mass. Then the film's stars, Angelina Jolie (who plays Collins) and John Malkovich (who plays Briegleb), take their front-and-center seats.
After conferring briefly with the actors (including a note to Pierson to speak his lines at a "Preston Sturges" tempo), Eastwood tells the crew, "Let's do this and see how it goes," and they begin — Pierson orating grandly as a steadicam operator follows his every move. When the shot is over, Eastwood mutters a barely audible "Stop" — "cut" being a word, like "action," he avoids at all costs. And with that, the crew begins to prepare the next setup. There is no pause for playback — the ritual on most film sets where the director watches the take back on a video monitor to see if he's happy with it. On an Eastwood set, playback isn't even a possibility, since nothing, save for the image on the film inside the cameras, is being recorded. In another technological innovation, Eastwood and his cinematographer, Tom Stern, have small, handheld wireless video monitors at their disposal that allow them to watch a live feed of a given shot when the cameras are rolling. But as I observe Eastwood, I see that, more often, his gaze is fixed intently on the actors.
All this, too, is part of the Eastwood mythology: He is famous for putting his trust in first (or, at most, second) takes, for sometimes shooting (and using in the finished film) what the actors think is merely a rehearsal, and for moving from A to B with a speed that belies his 77 years.
"You have to choose the crew as carefully as you choose the cast," he tells me during the brief break between shots, which could explain why some of Eastwood's collaborators have been working with him for as many as 25 years. Then Eastwood's in-house producer, Robert Lorenz (who began working with Eastwood as a second assistant director on The Bridges of Madison County), interrupts to get "the boss's" approval on a long-lead Changeling press release about to be issued by the studio. Eastwood looks it over and asks that the words "based on a true story" be removed from the film's synopsis. "The important thing," he says, "is whether it's a good story, and if it's well told." After that, it's back to work, as Eastwood and company plow through the rest of the sequence, finishing the entire day's shooting before lunch. "We do in eight hours what most crews do in 16," says Eastwood's current second AD, Katie Carroll, whose duties, I discern, include walking the perimeter of the set and shushing the extras whenever the noise level rises above a modest din. This, it's hard not to think, seems a very civilized way of going about making a movie.
"I thought this was going to be one of the most difficult things I've ever done, given the subject matter, but instead it's been the easiest," Angelina Jolie tells me, looking even more radiant than usual in her period attire and short bob hairdo. It's now early December, one week before shooting wraps, and the production has arrived at the climactic scene in which Collins confronts convicted child-killer Gordon Northcott in his prison cell on the eve of his execution. It's a physically and emotionally draining sequence, during which Jolie must push actor Jason Butler Harner against a wall and repeatedly ask, "Did you kill my son?" her pleas becoming increasingly anguished until two guards intervene. It is, Jolie says, her "big, Stella Dallas moment."
On stage 20 of the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, production designer Murakami has constructed Northcott's cell, as well as the institutional shower and elaborate series of interconnecting hospital corridors where the final week of shooting will take place. Today there are no extras on set, and the faint chill that hangs in the unheated air seems appropriate to the gravity of the scene.
This turns out to be, by Eastwood standards, a long day, which means that instead of wrapping at four in the afternoon, shooting drags on until 6. At one point, I venture across the lot to the film's postproduction suite, where editor Joel Cox shows me his cut of the courtroom scene. When I return, Eastwood is prepping the last shot of the day (known, in insider Hollywood parlance, as the "martini shot"). I tell him I like what I've seen and look forward to seeing how it all turns out. He shoots me his deadpan, squinty gaze and says, his voice just this side of a whisper, "I look forward to seeing how it turns out myself."
Steel yourself for 2008 with a look back at the year's best scripts
by Jim Ridley
The year: 2505. Your viewing choices tonight: an oldie but a goodie — a picture called Ass, a feature-length screensaver of butt cheeks punctuated by the occasional fart — or the hit TV show Ow! My Balls, a connoisseur's compendium of nutsack whacks. Thanks to Mike Judge's Idiocracy, we have seen the future of entertainment 500 years from now, when the world is run by genetically shortchanged knuckle-draggers. And it's, it's...well, it may look uncannily like next year's network-TV slate and major-studio lineup, if the WGA writers' strike continues.
This time next year, we may be sitting in front of the tube glued to CBS's What's in Katie Couric's Colon? or watching Celebrity Poker Showdown: The Movie on 2,512 screens. So start stockpiling some of the many films in 2007 that were distinguished by strong, distinctive writing.
The movie of the moment, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, is a model of careful adaptation: It honors the twangy palaver as well as the taut silences of Cormac McCarthy's novel, finding the tough, cold heart of a book that sometimes reads like a classroom assignment in Hard-Boiled Lit. Screenwriting isn't just filling space with words: One of the movie's strengths is its ability to convey the inner workings of taciturn people in mere scraps of dialogue.
By contrast, the garrulous characters in Juno practically gesture offscreen to first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody every time they open their mouths: The movie's early scenes contain an emptied notebook's worth of hoarded quirks, slang and catchphrases, as if a touring company of Heathers had moved into the 7-Eleven. More impressive is the way Cody flips the script on the adoptive yuppie couple played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, reversing our sympathies for the chilly Garner and catching the juvenile self-absorption behind Bateman's Joe Cool affability.
Given the collaborative pile-on of filmmaking, though, getting a script to the screen with your authorial voice intact is a coup. In that regard, add Cody to a list that includes Aaron Sorkin — whose unmistakable rat-a-tat conversational rhythms convert the weapons stats and anti-Communist chicanery of Charlie Wilson's War into a globe-tilting His Girl Friday — and Noah Baumbach, who hones his gift for verbal vivisection to a cutting edge in Margot at the Wedding. This was the year that Knocked Up's DVD-extra looseness and clubby guy's-guy riffing made Judd Apatow the hottest brand name going in screen humor, elbowing aside effects-driven comedy for the spitballing tone of a writing session.
Only one screenwriter, however, gave a mostly female cast the kind of talky latitude that Apatow, the Coens and Paul Thomas Anderson in There Will Be Blood allowed their male protagonists — and that feminist's name was Quentin Tarantino. His Death Proof segment of Grindhouse may be the most surprising script of the year, from its bifurcated structure to its deliberate subversion of psycho killer Stuntman Mike's machismo. If the strike has an upside, it's that the battle may give Tarantino, Cody, the Coens and others lots of time to polish new scripts. The bad news is that we may find ourselves, like the viewers of Ass in Idiocracy, longing for the days of "great films, with plots! Where you cared about whose ass it was, and why it was farting!"
THE WAY HE LIVES NOW
As his fourth film in a decade arrives in theatres, the movies' most enigmatic leading man reveals the method behind his onscreen madness
by Judith Lewis
You don't meet the book when you meet the writer," the novelist William Gibson has said. "You meet the place where it lives." A relatively uncontroversial remark about the people who vent their imaginations on the page — no one should expect Philip Roth to sound exactly like Nathan Zuckerman — Gibson's adage applies only rarely to actors. Robert De Niro studied hard and put on weight to play Jake LaMotta, but there was never any mistaking the sighs and hand-wringings and tongue clicks as anyone's but De Niro's; Meryl Streep plays bossy editors and Polish war survivors with persuasive delicacy, but in Letterman's plush Late Night chair, she still tilts her head and laughs just like Sophie.
But Daniel Day-Lewis is another matter. In his current role, as turn-of-the-century oil baron Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis portrays a man so contorted with greed he can barely heave a laugh from his toxic throat. You might expect the man behind the mask to have at least some of Plainview's fire. Or a flicker of that fixed, maniacal stare. Or at least a little bit of that thrust-out lower jaw set hard against the rest of humanity.
But it's not so. When Day-Lewis shows up on the patio of the Hotel Bel-Air one November day for an interview, it's a shock: There are the sharp green eyes, the slightly bent nose, gold hoops hanging in the earlobes where Plainview had little holes. But in this man — the one wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, a mop of curly black hair flecked with gray tumbling over his forehead, great lines swooping up around his eyes when he smiles — there isn't the faintest shadow of Plainview; or of Christy Brown, the writer with cerebral palsy Day-Lewis played to great acclaim in My Left Foot; or of Gerry Conlon, the young Irishman wrongly accused of terrorism from In the Name of the Father. If I'd been impressed with his performance in Anderson's film before, after meeting him, I was awed. When you meet Daniel Day-Lewis, to paraphrase Gibson, you don't meet the characters. You don't even meet the actor. You meet the place where it lives.
How does he do it? This is what I wanted to know about Day-Lewis, more than anything else. More than whether he was serious about becoming a cobbler when he studied shoemaking in Italy, or what he finds in the rare script that makes him say yes to a project, or why he left England 15 years ago to live in Ireland. I wanted to know how it is that a person can disappear so thoroughly into a character that everything about him except for his concrete physical attributes is obliterated. I wanted to know how every nuance invented to express that character — Plainview's compensating gait, for instance, meant to suggest a badly healed broken leg — can appear to the audience as the natural result of that fictional character's own long history, and not as an actor's contrivance.
And to my further amazement, Day-Lewis can actually explain how he does it. He can, in fact, make you think that, provided you had his good looks, intelligence and drive, you could do it too.
"It's a game," he tells me. "It really is. It takes a long time from beginning to end. It's a long and complicated game. But it's a game. And it's fun."
It was more than 20 years ago that Day-Lewis first came to the attention of film aficionados when he appeared as the gay, working-class street punk Johnny in Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette, the same year he played the upper-class twit Cecil to Helen Bonham-Carter's girl with the hair in Merchant Ivory's A Room With a View. That the two films screened in many cities simultaneously gave the public and critics alike a little thrill: Can this really be the same man in both of these roles? "Seeing these two performances side by side is an affirmation of the miracle of acting," wrote a smitten Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. "That one man could play these two opposites is astonishing."
That was 1985, and Day-Lewis instantly became the actor to watch; four years later, the trailer for My Left Foot consisted of little but Day-Lewis head shots and accolades. He disappointed no one: He won a Best Actor Oscar for his humane, heart-rending portrayal of Christy Brown, and there were few holdouts around to say he didn't deserve it. The consummate Method actor, who feels his work from the inside out, Day-Lewis prepared meticulously for the role, slumping himself over in a wheelchair for so many months on end that he reportedly broke two ribs.
It was a big deal, then, that he agreed to appear as the eponymous Danish prince in Richard Eyre's Hamlet at the National Theater while My Left Foot was still in the theaters — a production that was billed as the "Daniel Day-Lewis Hamlet." Though the performance earned him only lukewarm reviews (his Hamlet, evidently, was too sweet and not sufficiently Shakespearean), the production has gone down in history as the one in which, nearing the end of an eight-month run, Day-Lewis burst into tears during the ghost scene and rushed offstage, leaving his understudy, Jeremy Northam, to take over. Official rumor says that Day-Lewis saw the ghost of his own father, British poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, with him onstage. What is certain is that he never returned to theater again.
But he did come back to the movies, in 1992, with heartthrob turns as Hawkeye in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (for which he learned to skin animals, fished, and lived off the land) and as the tortured, empathetic Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, the first of two films with Martin Scorsese. The next year, he did another film with My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan, In the Name of the Father. Once again, Day-Lewis delivered a performance to drop the most cynical jaw: His portrayal of the young, working-class Irishman caught up in the British anti-terrorist legal system of the 1970s is piercingly genuine and specific, right down to the last little self-conscious toss of the head, a familiar gesture among young men of the era clearing long hair from their eyes without using their hands.
Almost never is it feasible, in advance of meeting an actor with a few decades of work behind him, to watch a whole career's worth of films. With Day-Lewis, however, it's possible, because in the 22 years he's been famous, he has appeared in only 14 films; in the last decade, only four. Journalists, particularly in England, have often interpreted this as proof of Day-Lewis's elitism or extremism, but it really only proves that, at 50, the actor leads a relatively normal life beyond movies, with hobbies and a wife and kids. He's married to Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur, whom he met on the set of The Crucible in 1996; together they have two sons, Cashel, five, and Ronan, 9. He also has another son with Isabelle Adjani, Gabriel-Kane, 12, who lives with his mother. "There are more and more things to preoccupy me outside of the world of films," he admits. At the same time, he doesn't completely shut out movies between roles.
"Something that has been suggested on my behalf is that I live an almost bipolar existence, with the public life of filmmaking on one side and a sort of reclusive, almost misanthropic life on the other." (This has been suggested most often in the British press, which has "grossly misrepresented my life," he says.) "But it never appears to me that there's any chasm, any rift, between those two worlds. My life to me contains both the professional and the personal very easily. But because you tend to be written about when you're for whatever reason in the public eye, then they depict you as having left and returned.
"But it's not a return to me. I never went away. I never left myself. I simply need the time I spend not working in films, the time away, to do the work that I love to do in the way that I love to do it."
The work Day-Lewis does begins with meticulous advance preparation, during which he lives as much as he can like the character he's playing. For Gerry Conlon, he tried for three days to sleep in a prison cell; in 1988, while starring as the restless doctor Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he learned to speak Czech; to play Jack Slavin in The Ballad of Jack and Rose two years ago, a movie written and directed by his wife, he and Miller lived apart so he could more deeply connect with the isolation of a dying man perplexed about his family.
Preparing for There Will Be Blood was trickier. Though the film was eventually shot in Marfa, Texas, most of its action is set in Southern California from the turn of the century until the 1920s. Day-Lewis was living in Ireland for the two years it took to get the movie financed — "an environment that was of no help to me whatsoever" — and despite the London Guardian's speculation that the actor, given his penchant for physical research, was "out drilling for oil in his Wicklow back garden," this time Day-Lewis did most of his preparation in his head.
He read letters written home by the "men who were living in holes in the ground," florid letters, "full of sentimentality, full of love and loss." He pored over photographs of the period, "of these lads scooping up oil from the ground in buckets and saucepans and whatever they could take with them before drilling was developed," and of the landscape of oil-rich Southern California pockmarked with oil fields.
"From Bakersfield to Signal Hill to Los Angeles, it was a forest of oil derricks," he says. "Squeezed between these derricks intermittently were these tiny little houses in which people were living their lives, stepping out of their front doors into a quagmire of crude oil just running down the streets. That was the foundation of this city!" He also read up on oil tycoon Edward Doheny (a name he pronounces Do-HAY-ny), who, like Plainview, was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and made his way west to a millionaire future in Los Angeles, although the book on which There Will Be Blood is loosely based, Upton Sinclair's Oil!, is itself only loosely based on Doheny.
"In the end," Day-Lewis says, "no matter what stimulus you can find that belonged to that world, that world that you're trying to imagine, finally imagination is the only thing that's going to take you there. And more than anything else, I had time. I had time, and a quiet place, and neutral surroundings. I've got a room at home where I can really daydream without being disturbed, and I suppose it's there where things ferment." Things like Daniel Plainview's voice, which the actor says came to him in pieces and parts, and recordings from the Dust Bowl and the '20s-era Fond du Lac proved less helpful than his own ear.
"I like to have the illusion that I can hear that voice before I'm able to speak with that voice," he says. "I do use a little tape recorder. I talk to myself a lot. I try without thinking about it to have a sense of whether that voice belongs to me in my new life." For Plainview, "I discarded a lot of ideas that didn't work, and a lot of possibilities. Finally, I just began to hear a voice which seemed to be right. I couldn't make the sounds initially. I could hear them, but I couldn't make them." Gradually, it began to stick: The way Daniel Plainview sounds matters as much as the way he crouches down to marvel at the flames erupting out of a newly exploded well.
"We don't choose our voices," Day-Lewis says. "So within the voice, there's an expression of the very self."
"Do you really want to know about that?" Day-Lewis protests when I ask how he manages to live on set in character. He looks down at his hands and laughs. He has just been profiled in a many-thousand-word New York Times Magazine story by Lynn Hirschberg, which had Day-Lewis on the cover, smiling, nearly life-size; you could see pores. He's reluctant to "gob off" even more about himself, not out of humility or standoffishness but out of a firm conviction that there should be other things to talk about, like what's happening in Pakistan, or Gaza. But like it or not, Day-Lewis has come here to gob off, and Paramount Pictures is paying for the hotel suite, and so he complies.
But not without objections: "The odd thing about this particular period of time is that if you do what you have to do to try to encourage people to see a film you've worked very hard on, it appears, I suppose, as if you're engaged in an orgy of self-promotion. Which really wouldn't be my thing." I get that, I assure him, but still, I want to know: Did he really eat, smoke and drink as Daniel Plainview even when the cameras weren't rolling?
I should mention here that the way Daniel Day-Lewis sounds on the page, uttering these clean, neat, clearly composed sentences right off the cuff, isn't really a fair representation of how he sounds in person. There are "um"s, "ah"s and pauses so long that it's hard to resist finishing his sentences or interrupting him to get on to the next point. He comes off neither overly learned nor haughty, only obdurately sincere, always checking himself to make sure that he means what he says. He interjects the name of the person he's talking to as he speaks, as if to remind himself to treat each new interrogator lumbering through an inevitably dreary day of publicity as an individual. He brightens up when the discussion veers off filmmaking to politics, world events or California State Highway 1. "It's hard driving that coast," says the motorbike enthusiast, who drove the route recently on his way from Los Angeles to a race in Monterey. "Every 200 yards, you have to stop and drink it in."
All this affability makes it hard to believe that, as Hirschberg suggested, Day-Lewis so intimidated an actor on the There Will Be Blood set that Anderson had to replace him with Paul Dano halfway into the 60-day shoot. Day-Lewis seems confused by the story. "When Lynn mentioned that to me, I was genuinely surprised," he says. "I didn't believe it. I'd be very, very sorry if that were true. It appalled me to think that it might be true. It would never be my intention. Apart from everything else, it would be self-defeating to intimidate a colleague I was working with. No matter what the rivalry is, even if it's murderous between those two characters, you're in a partnership, you're in a dance of some kind. And it's absolutely vital that you work together."
It is true that the actor originally cast in the role of the young evangelical preacher Eli Sunday was recast two months into shooting. But Day-Lewis rejects the idea that his process caused the trouble. "I suppose I always hope there's some sort of tacit understanding between myself and my colleagues that I work the way I do," he admits. "I don't expect them to work in the same way. I don't mind what way they work in to arrive at what they're trying to arrive at, as long as it doesn't interfere with me. And I really try not to interfere with them in any way, and only ever encourage them to do what they need to do to find that thing."
When I initially let the topic go, he brings the conversation back. "Just to return to that question," he says, "[the article] also kind of suggested that Leo [DiCaprio, on Gangs of New York] felt the same way about me, and I just don't think that's true. Leo is a very strong, independent, serious actor. He's wonderful. And he knows how it works. He may not have liked me during that time, I don't know. We get on very, very well. I'm very fond of him. I've never discussed it with him. He never suggested to me that I was making his life difficult in any way. And I don't think I was."
"Look," he concludes, "everyone has insecurities. Every single person on the set at one time goes through a moment of black despair about what it is they're trying to do. They're all subject to those weighty questions that seem to press us into the ground sometimes. And it's possible one might be insensitive to the needs of somebody who's spinning off course, because you're taken with a fever, just like all those oil prospectors were — all driving forwards.
"All that I ever hope for from any colleague is that when the collision takes place in front of the camera that there's a recognizable human being there, telling the truth. Speaking, listening, responding. I don't care how extreme that process is."
Dano had already been indoctrinated in the Day-Lewis experience when he played the teenage Thaddius in The Ballad of Jack and Rose ("a boy with a face like a blade," wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times). After There Will Be Blood, he suggests that working with Day-Lewis is far less frightening than inspiring. "I think there's a general feeling about Daniel that what he does is abnormal," Dano says by phone from New York, where he's appearing off-Broadway in The Things We Want. "But I have to say, when you're there with him, it could not make more perfect sense. He's doing what he has to do to give the best performance he can, and he has the nerve and passion and commitment to do it."
It sounds like very serious work, this thing Day-Lewis does, but only when somebody writes about it. "I think I've been my own worst enemy in the past," the actor admits, "judging by the stuff that's been said about me. It sounds as if I'm being kind of dragged in a straitjacket to the set, kicking and screaming, struggling with a sort of reluctance." What almost never comes through is the obvious delight Day-Lewis takes in pretending so thoroughly to be somebody else.
"For my sense of continuity, I suppose I work in a certain way," he says. "But it goes beyond that. It's really about the sense of joy you have in having worked hard to imagine and discover and — one hopes — to create a world, an illusion of a world that other people might believe in because you believe in it yourself, a form of self-delusion. After achieving that, it seems far crazier to jump in and out of that world that you've gone to such pains to create. And it wouldn't be my wish to do that, because I enjoy being in there.
"It all sounds so grandiose, because of course you're surrounded by reminders of the modern world, everywhere you go. Part of the work you have to do is narrowing your focus, continually shutting out, closing off the peripheral vision that would take in the cables and the catering and the anoraks and so on and so forth. But I don't find that hard to do — the power of self-delusion, I suppose — and it's the joy that I find in that work, in inhabiting a world that you've taken such pains to imagine.
"Just like in other kinds of creative work, you get to enjoy that extraordinary sensation of timelessness, that time ceases to have any relevance or importance while you're working. And within that, you experience the loss of the self. It's a temporary thing, but it's a very invigorating thing, the loss of the self. Do you know what I mean?"
I would be lucky if I did, I think — and probably a much better actor.
"It's like you're constantly trying to head off the conscious mind, which will, whether you like it or not, attempt to stay one step ahead of you," he elaborates. "The imagination is on the frontline of the unconscious. And you do whatever you can do to engage that animal part of yourself, that instinctive part of yourself."
These are not tricks he learned in theater school, at the Bristol Old Vic. "The learning of skills and the disciplines and so on and so forth — those just provide a framework to stop you from spilling over into chaos," he says. "But it's very important to live close to the possibility of chaos. Very, very important."
To the question "How did you know Daniel Day-Lewis was right for the role of Daniel Plainview?" Paul Thomas Anderson answers, "That's like asking, 'How did you fall in love with your wife?' I could say, 'Well, she's got a great sense of humor,' but that doesn't describe her. I guess you just have to assume because of Daniel's previous work that he's capable of doing anything."
It also helped that Day-Lewis is not, in the traditional sense, a movie star. "It is very helpful to a filmmaker to work with an actor who doesn't have a personality that is easily accessible in the way that some film stars do. You are that much more at an advantage when creating another world entirely, when creating the illusion of somebody else. It's quite hard to get past someone's personality if it's bigger than their performances."
People will have various opinions about There Will Be Blood. They already do: Though there's a strong Oscar buzz about the film (Day-Lewis will likely be nominated for Best Actor) and some reviewers are ecstatic, others have squirmed in their seats at the film's length (two hours and 40 minutes) and its unapologetic brutality — not violence, though there's some of that, but Anderson's defiant independence, and the film's absolute refusal to throw anyone any sort of feel-better bone. But — and this may be hard to believe — the film gets better the more you watch it. I know this because, after meeting Day-Lewis, I borrowed a friend's "for your consideration" DVD and watched it again, and again, and then replayed scenes over and over just to try to find the actor in the work. I couldn't. Not only that — I would find the world falling away as I watched, forgetting that I was watching an actor. Forgetting why I was watching at all, if not to relive the story.
This isn't only because of Day-Lewis' performance; it's also because of a script that serves him (and Dano) with a character who, for all his darkness, still claws at rising above his cruel beginnings in a way we all recognize. "It appeared to me to come from a very much unconscious self," Day-Lewis says of Anderson's script. "I didn't know Paul at all. I didn't know him as a man. But I knew when I read it that he had already inhabited this world. I think the very best writers do that, in very much the same way that we do it when we're working, or try to. I felt like he understood each and every one of those people that he was describing, and understood the world that they came from. He had taken the seed of an idea and progressed it moment by moment to such an audacious conclusion."
Plainview, were he real, would be among the men of history celebrated on dignified brass plaques and in statues all over the world. "But when you take off their tall hats and long-tailed coats," Day-Lewis observes, "they're just covered in the stuff." Oil, that is.
As are we all. When Plainview strokes the head of his injured boy, or sobs over the found journal of a lost family member, he reminds us that he still belongs to us, not only as a fellow human but as an iconic American. In our cars and planes and heated homes, we all benefit from the oil prospector's largess and pay for his sins every day.
Like many other films this season, There Will Be Blood announces in the credits that it's a "carbon-neutral production," which means that for every unit of carbon emitted during the making of the film, an offset was purchased, probably in the form of a tree. And Anderson, who got the idea for the film when he read Sinclair's book while traveling in London, clearly had a point to make about human greed laid bare in the petroleum industry.
But both director and star insist that There Will Be Blood is neither a political film nor a metaphor for anything. "Parallels are a menace," says Day-Lewis. "For the sake of doing the work itself, we had to set aside, put under lock and key, all our personal feelings about [oil]. Otherwise, we'd have been in the business of trying to teach, which is death to any kind of storytelling."
Still, he laments the proliferation of SUVs in Ireland. In Ireland? With those tiny streets?
"I go to school in the morning with my lad, and I park the car in a lot that's jammed full of SUVs they absolutely have no need of whatsoever," he attests. "Everyone is buying cars. They can't afford houses, so I guess they're buying cars instead. They're everywhere. Perched up in those bloody things, looking down on you, lording it over the rest of us.
"The roads in Ireland are only that wide. They're buying these things you can just jam between the hedgerows. It's madness."
A few years ago, Day-Lewis said in an interview that after decades of self-doubt — decades of asking himself whether, even after an Oscar and all that, he could be useful in the profession — he had finally realized that "Is there any reason to be doing this?" is a healthy question to be asking oneself, enthusiastically and repeatedly.
"It came to me in the form of a revelation," he explains. "When I was a young utopian and still had that conflict, I found it terribly unsettling, because it made me question my commitment to the thing I was apparently giving my life over to. And I worked a lot more in those days than I do now. So it really came as a great relief [to discover] that it was vital to have that conflict, to continually reassess the reason for doing this work, which may well have changed over the years.
"My ambition for many years was to be involved in work that was utterly compelling to me, regardless of the consequences. But I worried a lot as a young man about where such and such a thing might take me; you're encouraged to think that way. You're supposed to build a career for yourself. But there's no part of me that was able to do that. And thank God I was able to recognize it before I sort of went gray with anxiety."
Far from building a career, he now sees himself starting all over each time he determines he can be sufficiently useful to a director and accepts a role. "It's absolutely new each and every time," he says. "For all that you carry with you as you get older — and if you've had the good fortune to work in films that people have seen and in some cases liked, you carry with you the burden of expectation — all that went before is meaningless. Absolutely meaningless. Because you're a baby. From the moment you decide to go to work again, you're a baby. You have to empty yourself if you're going to be any kind of vessel at all.
"I suppose that's the salvation of all of us. With all the kind of grandiosity that surrounds the way of life that actors lead, there's an insistent humility to the work itself, because you cannot do it unless you begin with nothing each time."
The beginner's mind: Some people meditate for a lifetime to find it.
Day-Lewis laughs. "I don't think I've achieved separation from the material world just yet," he says. "The loss of myself happens in a place that's very concrete." Right: in the movies.
The year's best characters
by Ella Taylor
Some years bring few stellar lead performances. But every year is a good year for supporting roles, and not just because the field has grown so wide since independent film became a force to be reckoned with. Many a savvy character or chameleon actor has built a powerful and lasting career on a solid bedrock of ancillary work without a hint of look-at-me grandstanding. That's particularly true for women — Catherine Keener, Laura Linney, Lili Taylor, Tilda Swinton, to name but a few, and just watch Amy Ryan go this year — whom casting directors might otherwise cross off their lists at the first sign of a crow's foot. The best supporting actors have said there's little more satisfying than working in concert with a well-oiled ensemble. And little more fun to watch, which is why a package deal and a duet top my list of the ten best supporting actors of 2007.
1. Seldom has an ensemble conspired more artfully and with less ego to help Julie Christie's radiant star shine ever brighter than the Canadian cast of Sarah Polley's Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent flags dismay, anger, grief and finally quiet devotion while barely moving a muscle as an errant husband trying to cope with his wife's decline into Alzheimer's disease. Kristen Thomson is alternately sympathetic, perceptive and unsparing as a nurse at the plush facility to which Christie consigns herself, and Wendy Crewson turns in a subtly intelligent performance in the thankless role of the home's briskly heedless director. Crewson's husband Michael Murphy plays against his customary chattiness as the all but catatonic inmate Christie falls for, and Olympia Dukakis exudes lonely dignity as Murphy's prosaic wife.
2. In Eran Kolirin's gently incisive comedy The Band's Visit, Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai double up as improbably coupled strangers thrown together in a one-horse Israeli development town. Their brief encounter reveals two kindly, sensitive souls who temporarily come out of their protective shells — she's a Sephardic slattern, he's a tight-assed Egyptian police officer — and complete each other in ways that leave you wondering whether their night on the town is a missed opportunity, or what's meant to be.
3. The often-chilly Tilda Swinton unravels wonderfully in sweat and love handles as the oedipally crippled corporate attorney in Michael Clayton who will do anything for the boss, up to and including serial murder.
4. Don't let Paul Dano's pimply ruin of a face fool you into thinking he doesn't work at playing devious types. His charismatic holy roller in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood struggles to appear pious even as he hungers for riches and power. It's no mean feat for any actor to stay out of Daniel Day-Lewis's shadow, but Dano holds his own, and more.
5. Amy Ryan finally breaks through the helpmeet-wife and bitter-ex roles to play the hopelessly ill-equipped working-class single parent of a child who's disappeared in Gone Baby Gone. Hard but not cold, Ryan's serially defaulting but loving mother complicates all smug definitions of "in the best interests of the child."
6. It's never easy to play back-alley abortionist without sprouting horns, but Vlad Ivanov's cunningly ambiguous, ruthlessly interrogative portrayal in Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days slowly peels back to reveal both a ruthless exploiter of vulnerable young women and just another black marketeer trying to scratch out a living in Soviet-era Romania.
7. Leslie Mann, wife of Knocked Up director Judd Apatow, brings to the controlling-bitch-wife role that makes women squirm a kind of cathartic, rhythmic lyricism so full of hilarious menace, I wished it was me spitting the invective.
8. I can't think of an actor alive who does so much by doing so little with his face and body as Philip Seymour Hoffman does. What a year he's had, pathetic and dangerous in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as a larcenous broker and heroin-head who talks his younger brother into robbing their parents' store, all for love of Marisa Tomei; inaccessible as the tuned-out brother of Laura Linney struggling to care for a senile father in The Savages; and comically explosive as the CIA agent helping Tom Hanks arm the Taliban in Charlie Wilson's War.
9. Meryl Streep. Yes, I know, but here's one superstar who knows how to play second fiddle without commandeering the show. In 2007, Streep redeemed two bad movies: first as the ruthless CIA foreign-operations honcho (Anna Wintour in bad twinsets) who blows off Reese Witherspoon in Rendition; then as her inverse, a liberal veteran journalist in Lions for Lambs firing hard questions at Tom Cruise's presidential wannabe. Cruise wasn't half bad either.
10. And last but never least, Peter O'Toole, a.k.a. Anton Ego, the desiccated food critic in Ratatouille who's seen it all and likes none of it until a bunch of culinary rats converts him, prompting the mea culpa speech that surely all filmmakers who have been burned one too many times by movie critics can recite by heart. Take that, us!