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Monthly Archives: December 2007

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This has been a fantastic year for movies. There have actually been enough great films this year that I had a challenging time deciding what wouldn’t make my top 10, so I went ahead and made a top 15 list instead. I’ve also attached links to the movies that I’ve previously written about.

I live in New Orleans, and (unfortunately) art movies either 1) don’t make it down hear at all (and I usually have to wait until they are released on DVD) or 2) release in the city after January 1 when I’ve already made my favorites list.

So, I’ve missed a good number of highly-regarded films that got a lot of buzz from the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals, but I’ve still seen some great movies. I went through my list of favorites over and over again and decided to have “best” defined as what I want to be most remembered from this year.

Any movie mentioned in any of the lists henceforth should be considered highly recommended. All the films listed under the Miscellaneous Honors category can also be considered Honorable Mentions of the Year.

TOP 15 + HONORABLE MENTIONS & WORST 5

I love all these movies pretty much equally (there is no definite number-one film for me this year), so I’ll list them alphabetically.

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  1. Across the Universe – The most pure fun that I had at the movies this year. Period.
  2. Atonement – It’s a circle, never-ending questions bombarding you while watching the epilogue and after you’ve left the theater. A great work of art with a highly impressive performance from Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan (above).

  3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – Sidney Lumet is a legendary director with a bunch of great movies under his belt, and in his eighties, the man has made one of his best movies ever. (Yes, from the guy who did Network, Fail-Safe, and 12 Angry Men.) Philip Seymour Hoffman is in another completely brilliant performance, and we see action from Ethan Hawke that he hasn’t seemed capable of since Tape. A phenomenal film that grabs you and doesn’t let go.

  4. Eastern Promises – A surprise move from David Cronenberg who has been going in a new direction since A History of Violence two years ago. I moderately liked History (it didn’t feel the same as other Cronenberg movies), but Promises shows he’s still the same Cronenberg with a twist: it’s like The Brood and Videodrome and The Fly, but minus the violence. That sounds like there’s not much left, but those other movies had a heavy weight with them that made them more than exploitation films, and Promises asks some heavy questions (and it even has a little sentimentality at the end) that don’t have a definite answer.

  5. Gone Baby Gone – Ben Affleck has convinced me that he truly is talented and not someone leaching off Academy Award prestige. All the scenes are handled very well, the screenplay is complex but not confusing, and the performances are awesome. (I think maybe Casey Affleck was better in Assassination of Jesse James…, but it’s a tough choice.) A movie I really fell in love with.

  6. Juno – Ellen Page is a stitch, and Michael Cera does some more of his best work since… whatever his last movie was. Juno may come off as a little too witty and precocious to be true or realistic, so her eventually winning me over should be credit to Diablo Cody for making the character so darn likable.

  7. The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters – It’s utterly fascinating to watch these men act like competitive boys (which we all are guilty of doing), and the fact that it’s all over Donkey Kong makes it even more bizarre. Funny, insightful, and inspiring.

  8. Margot at the Wedding – Of the three films that I’ve seen from Noah Baumbach, this is his most mature. Margot is cringe-inducing, eye-opening, and insightful, always fascinating and never boring. Not a lot of critics are crazy about it, but I think it will stand the test of time and will emerge as a forgotten gem later on.

  9. Paris je t’aime – From what I remember, my favorite short was from Gus Van Sant (pictured above), and Alfonso Cuarón and the Coens (among others) did notable contributions. Even though the movie isn’t consistent, the experience of watching the movie still made me feel like I was floating on air.

  10. Pierrepoint: the Last Hangman – I love Timothy Spall: he’s one of the most talented actors working today. He’s breathtaking in his role of a real-life executioner in England. I wouldn’t say the movie has an agenda (it’s not trying to make a point, per se), but I feel what it says comes across very strongly in a natural manner, and the film is an experience you shouldn’t miss for the world.

  11. Ratatouille – Not only is this the best animated movie of the year (haven’t had a chance to see the highly-touted French film Persepolis), but this is the best movie to come out from Pixar yet. I’m convinced that Ratatouille is destined to become a classic alongside the great Disney giants. What I loved most was Brad Bird’s willingness to not follow the obvious Disney clichés (even though I love Finding Nemo, it’s guilty as charged) and let the story breathe on its own. [Note: On the second watch, when food critic Anton Ego takes a bite from the title dish, I almost cried my eyes out.]

  12. Sicko – The best documentary of the year. Some people probably see it as Michael Moore crying wolf and won’t believe what he has to say. He doesn’t tell us what to think (as he has in his other more Riefenstahl-esque works), but he gives an option, only suggesting that universal healthcare isn’t such a dangerous, commie idea after all. He gives the audience a starting point, asking us to do our own investigation if we so choose.

  13. This is England – My first Shane Meadows experience. A local video artist ranks this as his favorite film of the decade. I can’t say quite yet that I would agree, but looking at my list of my favorites from the 2000s so far, I don’t think This is England would be too far from the top.

  14. Waitress -Nothing this year is as sweet of a confection! Keri Russell is precious, Adrienne Shelly is adorable, and Cheryl Hines is even better than when she’s on Curb Your Enthusiasm. When Russell doesn’t go all gooey just because she’s pregnant and sticks to that for the longest, the detail really shines in a year that shows all women melting when they see their ultrasound. (I don’t blame these other female characters, but it’s a nice change of pace.)

  15. The Wind that Shakes the Barley – Ken Loach has wowed me since I saw Sweet Sixteen. He blew me away with this (and Kes, his first film, which I recently caught on TCM). Above all the movies this year, I believe that this is most likely to become a classic that will stand the test of time for a long while.

Honorable Mentions: Black Book, Enchanted, Grace is Gone, The Hoax, The Namesake, No Country for Old Men, Offside, Rendition, Rescue Dawn, Sweeney Todd, Talk to Me, Zodiac

Some highly praised and/or highly anticipated movies I didn’t get to see: 2 Days in Paris, 3:10 to Yuma, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, After the Wedding, American Gangster, Bamako, The Bourne Ultimatum, Brand Upon the Brain, Cassandra’s Dream, Control, Delirious, The Devil Came on Horseback, For the Bible Tells Me So, God Grew Tired of Us, Grbavica, The Great Debaters, Great World of Sound, Hairspray, The Host, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Inland Empire, Into Great Silence, Into the Wild, The Italian, Journey from the Fall, La Vie en Rose, Lake of Fire, Life of Reilly, The Lives of Others, Manufactured Landscapes, My Kid Could Paint That, The Orphanage, Persepolis, The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, Private Fears in Public Places, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Red Road, Rocket Science, Romance and Cigarettes, The Savages, The Simpsons Movie, Starting Out in the Evening, Stephanie Daley, Syndromes and a Century, Ten Canoes, Terror’s Advocate, There Will Be Blood, An Unreasonable Man, The Water Horse

5 WORST

I don’t want to focus on the bad movies too much, because no matter how terrible these films are, you just may be intrigued to go rent them at your local video store. But, nonetheless, you should receive a fair warning so as to know what to avoid. Starting with the worst:

  1. August Rush
  2. Reign Over Me
  3. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
  4. Fred Claus
  5. Blades of Glory

10 MOST UNDERRATED (OR, THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD)

To qualify, the movie should have received more publicity, a wider audience, or more positive reviews from critics. In alphabetical order:

  1. 12:08 East of Bucharest – I had never heard about this until I perused the Top Movies of 2007 list on Rotten Tomatoes. Netflixed it and found it observant, sharp, and charming.
  2. Across the Universe – One of the most fulfilling experiences at the movies this year, and half the critics hated it.
  3. Beowulf – Even the critics who liked it didn’t give the movie it’s due respect, but I found it to be a great adaptation of the poem that I read in high school. The themes of temptation and greed were well rendered. Also, I liked how Grendel and his mother were humanized, an element from the more recent book simply titled Grendel.
  4. The Brave One – Poor reviews, poor box office, but maybe audiences didn’t catch its anti-torture-porn subtext (at least what I perceived to be an anti-torture-porn subtext).
  5. Breach -Chris Cooper is incredible (again), and it’s Billy Ray’s (Shattered Glass) next movie. Need I say more?
  6. The Heartbreak Kid – Was I the only person who liked this? I actually liked it a lot, watching the Farrelly brothers translate the Elaine May classic into their own cinematic language. And the ending is the right level of bittersweet, just as in the original.
  7. Pierrepoint: the Last Hangman – Thank you, Roger Ebert and Jim Emerson. I couldn’t have come across this beauty of a film without you two.
  8. Rendition – The critics were divided, but I thought Rendition was a great follow-up from the director of Tsotsi, and maybe it was even a little better.
  9. Starter for 10 – I saw previews for it in January before Pan’s Labyrinth at the theater, and then never heard about it again until looking through RT’s aforementioned Top Movies list.
  10. Zoo – More interesting than any of the boring talking-heads documentaries I saw all year (like the snooze-a-thons No End in Sight or 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama), yet its controversy was more known than the location of a theater where one could see the movie.

10 MOST OVERRATED (OR, THE ONES THAT GOT TOO MUCH LOVE)

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For the record: I liked a couple of these movies. I don’t think these are necessarily bad. Either people hyped these way too much, or they got way better reviews than they deserved.

  1. 300 – Brutal? Manly? You’re joking, right? No: Takashi Miike is brutal, and the guy who played the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera is not my idea of manly. If Gerard Butler would have stuck needles in his eyes and still do
  2. Away from Her – I loved it at first, but about half way through (when Julie Christie goes to the hospital), the movie couldn’t stay interesting. I can’t even recommend it solely for Christie’s performance, which is nothing short of miraculous.
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Pretentious, empty, and exploitative in the way it takes a true story and sucks the life out of it, whittling it down to a gimmick.
  4. Grindhouse – I liked Quentin Tarantino’s bit, but Robert Rodriguez’s movie was boring and too tongue-in-cheek to not be self-pleasing. I felt like I was being winked at the whole three-plus hours.
  5. I’m Not There – I greatly admire it, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed watching it for 135 minutes. It grows tedious after a while, but to look at the movie objectively, I can definitely see why people are drooling over it. Still though, I can’t recommend a movie to someone that I could barely sit through myself.
  6. In the Shadow of the Moon -I loved For All Mankind. This did the same thing, but with “talking heads.” I hate “talking heads.” (But not the band — they’re wicked cool.)
  7. The Kite Runner -It has “Away from Her”-syndrome, starting off great in the first half. The problem with Kite Runner’s second half is the all-new characters (at least in their appearance), which we have to completely re-invest ourselves into: it’s almost as if it switches to another movie. And the use of the surrogate bully at the end made me mad.
  8. Michael Clayton – Why all the nominations? George Clooney isn’t much different than he usually is. Which I like, but why a nomination for this one? And I can’t believe it’s getting nominated for best picture at the Golden Globes.
  9. No End in Sight -How could this be boring?! All the information is necessary, and people need to hear it. When I saw this at the theater, I fell asleep, and I assumed that I was just tired that day. But when I watched it later, I wasn’t any more enthralled with it, despite it being a treasure chest of glorious facts.
  10. Once – Don’t get me wrong: it was cute and the songs were good and the structure isn’t traditional for a musical. But that doesn’t make it one of the stand-out films of the year.

TOP 5 COMEDIES

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Comedy is probably the most overshadowed genre, even though many writers and actors claim it’s extremely tough to do well.

I found all the following movies to be as hilarious, or more subtle and not so laugh-out-loud, as any great comedy. In order, starting with the best:

  1. Juno – Observant, honest, and (I know I’m playing into a cliché) “real.” One of those movies I can’t say enough good things about. I walked out the theater with a little bit of Juno.
  2. Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story – The funniest movie of the year.
  3. 12:08 East of Bucharest – see Most Underrated list.
  4. Superbad – I didn’t like Knocked Up after a second viewing as much as I did when first I saw it in the movie theater. After watching Superbad again, though, I found it just as fresh and funny and reminiscent of high school as when I first saw it in the summer.
  5. Bee Movie – Not great on a technical level, but an awesome little mood-booster.
    Honorable Mentions: The Heartbreak Kid, Starter for 10

To fans of Hot Fuzz and Knocked Up: I liked both movies, just not enough to make the list.

One final overlooked and underappreciated category:

Noteworthy Documentaries
Helvetica, The King of Kong, Sicko, Zoo

…And that ends my cramming-in of 2007 movies before January 1. I can go back to focusing on older movies I need to catch up on (can you believe I’ve never seen Gone with the Wind, The Rules of the Game, or The Seven Samurai?) in addition to what’s coming out next year.

Can 2008 be any better than this year? Well, that’s the beauty of it all: we just have to wait and see.

Happy Watching, and a Happy New Year!

The pause button can be a beautiful thing. It gives you a chance to got the bathroom and not miss even a frame of the movie. You can even watch it on a whole other day, or any interval of time.

However, Federico Fellini said in his semi-autobiography Fellini on Fellini that he didn’t quite approve of the home video experience. He said that’s it’s not the same as the communal event that happens when going to the theater. He did have a few rules: if you are going to watch a movie at home, for example, he said that you can have popcorn (which is traditionally offered in movie theaters), but don’t sit on your couch and have a plate of spaghetti. He also said that the room where one watches the movie should be completely dark as in a theater because doing otherwise, like eating spaghetti during a movie, would only draws attention to the fact that you aren’t in a movie theater.

And that wascally button with the double bars is a similar distraction. Jim Emerson posted at his Scanners blog almost a year ago about his experience with the evil pause button:

And this is where I finally get to… “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” I did not see it in a theater, and I regret that. Not because it is a “big-screen experience”… but because I had a remote control in my hand, I wasn’t able to submit to it… I paused it a few times… and finally, after more than an hour (and only two hospital visits), I turned it off, promising that I’d give it another shot when I felt more equal to the task. […]

If I’d been in a theater, I would have sat there and gone through it. But because I was in control, it was relatively easy to back away — even though I wanted to submit.

When I first read this post, I thought Jim was just being weak. It wasn’t long until I realized I was having the same problem.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a surprising number of similar experiences during the year. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m one of those trying to watch all the movies on the 1001 list (which I am now retiring), and I’ve paused too many movies that I never finished or were a pain in the ass to finish. (But sometimes, to be fair, I finished them, and I fell in love.) Most of the time, I’m bored and feel like doing something else, but it only prolongs the movie’s end (and, i.e., boredom).

I just recently started Celine and Julie Go Boating, the Jacques Rivette movie that’s over three hours long (well, one of ’em). I tend to get antsy after sitting down for more than two hours (Orson Welles was the same way, I found out), but since I’ve never seen a Rivette film and the movie is supposed to be phenomenal, I thought it’d be worth checking out. I was watching it late at night and stopped it after an hour since I was getting tired. I haven’t played the tape since. The movie is a little whacked out (a bit too post-modern for my tastes), but I’m not going to say anything concrete about it until I’m done with it.

The Lives of Others (I’m confused — is it a 2006 movie or 2007?) was in my DVD player two days ago, and I stopped it to check my e-mail around the 47-minute mark because I remembered I was waiting on an important message. Today, I still haven’t watched the rest of it. And it’s overdue. Dammit.

This also just happened with The Blue Angel. Thankfully, though, I finished it on another day, and I’m glad to report it’s a beautiful film with another performance from Emil Jannings that makes me want to cry.

Should more directors discourage pausing/stopping a movie? I think so. I encourage them. Most of David Lynch’s DVDs aren’t divided into chapters so the movie has to be watched at one time unless you want to restart the movie and do a lot of fast-forwarding, which really sucks (I stopped Eraserhead during the first time that I tried to watch it and learned the hard way). I need more hard medicine like this, or else it’s just going to keep on happening to me.

Now I sound like an addict. Maybe because it’s 10:30 in the morning and I haven’t gotten a wink of sleep since yesterday. I may have to get to work on that now…

[This is another contribution to the Endings Blog-a-thon being hosted at Joe’s Movie Corner.]

Note: Once again, spoiler alert! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Breach was one of the stand-out movies of the year. (I wouldn’t put it on my top-ten, but it’s definitely fascinating). It also has what’s probably the best ending this year. The ending is only about four minutes long, but the set-up and execution are flawless. When I first saw the movie, I sat there and rewound the DVD four minutes over and over again just to see the ending another time. I probably watched it about eight times.

Sure, Zodiac had a killer ending (no pun intended), but it highlighted things that we already knew from other parts of the movie. Breach hints at questions throughout its running time, but in the end, we see clearly now: it’s a real eye-opener.

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At this point, Robert Hanssen (played with great fury by Chris Cooper) has been arrested for being a part of the greatest security breach in U.S. history. In the closing credits, we end up finding out that he’ll spend a life sentence in jail and 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. His partner, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe in a wicked-good performance), is a fellow FBI agent who was planted as Robert’s partner in order to get evidence concerning Robert selling military secrets to Russia.

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Eric enters Robert’s office with an air of nostalgia. He carries a box of his supplies, pictures, and other paraphernalia: this is the last time he’ll see this office. Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney as Eric’s boss) comes in and discusses what’s happened with the case.

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She mentions all the organizations that the Director thanked for arresting Robert, “…but he couldn’t thank the guy we put behind that desk,” of course talking about Eric.

“I didn’t expect them to,” he says.

It’s obvious Kate wants him to stay. She practically begs him. “You’re going to make agent, Eric. It’s set now. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

I’ve always believed that there’s a certain sense of foreboding to that statement (not just in the context of the film). Not uncommon on TV, in movies, and among friends and family, we’ve all heard this phrase maybe at Christmas time or when we get what we want and realize what the price was to achieve it.

“It was,” he says.

“You do know what you did here, right? That was the worst spy in American history that you brought down. Now you’re just gonna walk away.”

“Couldn’t you think of a better time to walk away?” asks Eric. His words almost seem too slick. (Not that it comes off as false, but I think it works as a clichéd set-up, since the last few shots of the movie jolt us by not giving into our expectations.)

She can’t think of a better time. He takes the pen (a memento of Robert’s, who says at one point in the movie, “These are the greatest pens in the word. I would never write with anything else”), and after he clicks it a few times, the soft piano score starts.

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Kate says, “Good luck, Eric” as he leaves. “You, too,” he says. As we hear the door close, she triumphantly nods and smiles.

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Eric walks down the hallway, wearing a cocky smile and nodding cutely.

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No way. This feels way too by-the-book: guy saves the day from the worst something-or-other in U.S. history and acts all humble and cutesy about it, and now he’s off to save someone else. What’s happening, Billy Ray? Can I not depend on you? Are you–?

Well, what have we here?

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A crossroads, a fork in the road, which usually imply making difficult decisions. But what’s so hard about putting a bad guy behind bars?

The elevator dings, and Eric walks faster to catch it. He puts his hand in between the closing doors, and they open for him just as he wished them to. He’s getting what he asked for.

The soft-piano score stops.

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And here, Phillippe makes a face that should convince anyone he’s not the same boy from Cruel Intentions. What a perfect mix of horror, embarrassment, and shame.

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Eric doesn’t know how to act. Should he be proud in front of the agent and guard? Or should he be ashamed that he deceived a fellow human being? He knows.

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“Pray for me,” says Robert. Look at the reddish bags under his eyes. The way that he delivers the line makes him seem even more drawn out.

Eric says that he will, as if it’s his own fault that he has to pray for Robert.

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The doors could have shut during the last shot after Robert asks Eric to pray for him. But from this reverse angle of the previous shot (as Eric says, “I will”), we see that the doors close not on Robert, but on Eric.

I think this ending works so well because it has the audacity to suggest that what Eric did, leading Robert to believe that he could trust Eric (that Eric wasn’t some kind of spy), puts him on the same level as Robert.

Billy Ray loves true stories: he’s also the director of Shattered Glass, another great installment of Ray’s filmography. And just like in Glass, Ray doesn’t care whether or not his film portrays a good guy in a bad light or an antagonist positively. By the end of Breach, Robert seems like a victim, and Eric is the perpetrator.

And on top of that, we get all this from just two smiles, a hallway, and a pair of elevator doors.

What beautiful irony.

[This is my contribution to the Endings Blog-a-thon being hosted at Joe’s Movie Corner.]

Note: Spoilers galore! This is a shot-by-shot study of the ending of The Long Good Friday, the 1980 British mob movie starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Don’t read past the title card unless you’ve already seen the movie or you don’t care about the ending.

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Seeing The Long Good Friday in my junior year or so of high school really did something to me. It’s one of my high school film experiences that affected me greatly and definitely changed the way I look at movies. So I guess you could say it’s one of the most memorable of my late-teens cinematic experiences.

Before I saw it, anyone could have asked me to rattle off a list of mob movies. Not the greatest, not my favorite, just a list of films involving gangsters. I would’ve only been able to mention the obvious and “popular” titles: Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Casino, Carlito’s Way, Road to Perdition, Donnie Brasco… maybe I would have even mentioned The Untouchables (even though I hadn’t, and still haven’t, seen it).

Nonetheless, this was the extent of my knowledge on gangster flicks. I had no idea about Bob le flambeur, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Public Enemy, Rififi, and a plethora of others. There were mob movies just waiting for me to discover them that were without color, with subtitles, with actors I had never seen before, with stories that took a different spin on the whole mob genre. And what really impressed me is that some of these unbeknownst-to-me movies played the usual gangster game — but they did it even better than the so-called “classics.”

So does The Long Good Friday. What separates this from the rest of the pack? An explosive performance from Bob Hoskins (this and Mona Lisa are what made me fall in love with him), the hardcore violence (what externalizes his pain more than seeing him stab someone in the face with a broken wine bottle?) and the idea embedded in the story that a mob movie could be driven not by plot but the audience’s interest in a character.

Yes, the story has the action cranked up to an eleven, but The Long Good Friday is very much a character study of Hoskin’s character, Harold. As brutal and zig-zagging and in-your-face as the movie is, we don’t really get the full dose until we see the ending, which is probably the best element of the movie.

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The “ending” as I define it (right after the violent climax, which leads us to believe everything is settled and over with) begins at about this frame.

Now, a film professor from this past semester suggested that once a character moves out of frame, there is a new composition, and the audience is left thinking about what in this environment he or she is supposed to be looking at. In this shot, the cars do all the directing.

The car in the foreground has Harold and his moll, Victoria (played by the precious Helen Mirren), and there’s a car in the background. Whose? I dunno. At this point, we aren’t asking questions, just curious to see the denouement, what’s left to be tied up.

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Harold’s car makes a left turn, but soon becomes out of sight. The other car turns on its headlights and comes toward the camera.

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We are now focused on this car. But why? We don’t know whose it is, so why do we all of a sudden subconciously care about this car? Is there something we don’t know? Is all this conflict over yet?

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The mystery car leaves the frame, and Harold’s car parks in front of the hotel. His vehicle all of a sudden looks as if it’s out in the open, naked for attack, like a sitting duck.

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“You wait here… I won’t be a minute,” he tells Victoria as he gets out the car. She even seems a little nervous. Can everything be this perfect?

He shuts the door (thus turning off the light in the car and leaving her in darkness) and goes into the hotel.

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Harold walks to the front desk, asking where he can find Charlie (his potential business partner from America).

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Now we’re inside the room, and a tracking shot directs us to the radio, which is reporting about the events that happened during the climax (I don’t want to spoil too much). Someone knocks at the door, as the person on the radio announces their “political correspondent gives you the facts behind the headlines.” An arm enters the frame and turns off the device, as if to silence it.

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The same person answers the door, and Harold enters, looking for Charlie.

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“Everything’s all right,” says Harold, all smile as he enters the room. “All the troubles are over.” Charlie doesn’t seem to be in a good mood, almost as if he is unhappy to see Harold.

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Harold (now he’s not happy) finds out that Charlie is leaving due to all the recent violence: “a couple days that turned out to be another St. Valentine’s Massacre,” says Charlie.

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“But that’s settled,” pleads Harold, “once and for all.” This guy requests a porter and a cab.

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Harold really can’t believe what’s happening before his eyes. “You two can’t wait to get out of here, can you?” He’s a bit offended.

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Charlie becomes sarcastic: “I always react like that to bombs blowing up, mass murders. It’s a hang up of mine.”

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Harold finds it funny that Americans can’t handle the “little problem” between two rival gangs here in Britain.

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Charlie: “…’a little problem.’ Harold, this is like a bad night in Vietnam!”

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“I’ve pulled the plug on them!” says Harold. He’s convinced that he has everything under control.

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“We do not deal with gangsters, period,” says the other guy. “You’re a mess.” Harold knows where they’re coming from, and Charlie tells Harold goodbye.

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Harold bids them adieu, and he tries to take this slap-in-the-face with stride.

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But he stops in the doorway and turns around Columbo-style, almost as if he was ready to say, “Oh, and one more thing…”

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He’s got their attention. They thought they had him under control.

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He’s taken all this very personally, and Harold calls them “wankers” and says how glad is that he hasn’t become business partners with them, considering they’re “in a f***ing coma,” as Harold puts it.

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They try to take this affront with stride since that’s really their only option with someone as pissed-off as Harold, who then mentions the Americans’ energy crisis and their war that they started. Now he is getting personal with them.

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“But us British, we’re used to a bit more vitality. Imagination… The days when Yanks could come over here and buy up [our shit] are definitely over.”

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The guy on the right tries to defend Americans, but Charlie stops him in his tracks: “Shut up, you little streak of paralyzed piss.”

The following series of frame-grabs are part of a dolly shot toward Harold as he gives a speech about what he’s expecting about what he’s doing now, what he believes the future holds: “What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world. Culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than a hot dog. Know what I mean?” Watch how many expressions he zooms through in this short speech. (It’s even more amazing to watch in the movie.)

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“My new deal is with Europe. I’m going into partnership with a German organization–yeah, the Krauts. They’ve got ambition, know-how, and they don’t lose their bottle.”

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Harold offers another cocky, stinging insult, then he leaves. He really thinks that he has everything figured out.

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Harold comes outside, pissed, and signals his car to come pick him up.

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The car ominously turns on its headlights (just like the mystery vehicle earlier) and creeps hither.

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This exact angle on the car holds for about a second or so, but because we are so focused on Harold, we don’t notice in the lower-left corner of the frame that someone is missing in the backseat.

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He eases into the car…

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…and it speeds off.

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Harold is caught off-guard by the jerk of the car. “Where’s Victoria?” he notices.

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This stare and the accompanying electronica music is all we need to answer Harold’s question.

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He looks off-screen at something horrid.

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A thug holds Victoria (Mirren silently screams in such a creepy, desperate performance in these few seconds) in the car against her will, his arm around her neck. It’s a moving shot (following with the movement of Harold’s car), and this active movement really gives this shot its full effect.

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Harold is mad and ready to kill whoever is behind this.

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But he’s too late. A thug in Harold’s car (yes, that’s a young Pierce Brosnan) sits up in the seat where he was hiding and points a gun at Harold.

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Harold realizes he’s screwed and cornered. There is no retribution this time: there isn’t going to be a way out of this.

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The driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror stare at Harold, as if to say, “Don’t move! We got you.”

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Harold is in awe and isn’t quite absorbing everything: all this has come much to fast. The jazzy sax starts playing on the soundtrack, and he tries to piece everything together. He’s very mixed in his feelings: stunned, furious, defeated.

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He even smiles, as if he’s in denial of the situation. He’s probably thinking, “This is a joke, right?” But he’s not getting any answers.

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He winces. He doesn’t like that taste of defeat. And he’s especially frustrated because his questions don’t have the answer that he thought they did: What about his future? What about him and Victoria? Didn’t he have everything figured out? How could he ever be so wrong?

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His face asks again, scared about whether what he believes is true: “This isn’t a joke, is it?” is what runs through his head.

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As infectious as Bronsan’s smile is, we cringe, because this is a joke. But the joke is on Harold.

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In Harold’s face (really, probably Hoskins’ best performance ever), we see how uncomfortable and dead he feels inside. We feel his pain.

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He accepts his defeat in stride. Because there’s nothing he can do. No men to order around. He can’t kill anybody. He just sits there and waits for his future. Now he really wonders about what the future has in store for him.

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This.
*****
Even though the film can’t reasonably cut straight to the credits and must go to black first, the black frame is an integral part of the ending. (The music even stops on the cut to black until the credits appear.) This two-second shot becomes a character not unlike the ending of the series finale of The Sopranos or, if you prefer, words written across a black frame in a Jean-Luc Godard film.

This nonethingness is what Harold feels and what he has to look forward to. Whether you believe in an afterlife of not is a moot point. For Harold, this (this frame, this moment that he’s been defeated, this second) is the end.

About three months ago, Helvetica had a special screening in my city, one night only. I didn’t have high expectations about a movie that seemed to be only about a typeface. But thank goodness Jim Emerson mentioned this movie at his Scanners blog recently, calling it the best documentary of the year. Otherwise, I probably never would’ve checked it out.

Almost instantly, I was pulled into the world of typefaces. I’ve had a very slight intro into fonts since I’ve been working on the college paper. I never realized the importance of the curving of the letters, how the background “held the letters in,” or what the typeface even conveys. Not just Helvetica, but all fonts. Everywhere we go, we see Helvetica, but we see typefaces wherever we are. Newspapers, fast-food menus, web sites, product labels, company logos… and all of these (and more) are written in a particular font to encourage people to feel a certain way. I’m sure this is Advertising 101, but I learned something new.

In one funny scene, a graphic designer compares Coca-Cola ads from the ’50s and today. The older ad had exclamation points, loud colors, and crazy fonts in order to draw attention to itself. But the modern ad simply featured a tall glass of coke, and the slogan is in bold Helvetica at the bottom. “It’s that simple, drink Coke!” says the designer.

And throughout the movie, designers put in their two cents about their feelings on fonts and, specifically, Helvetica, which appears to be the most often used font. But some argue against Helvetica, citing that the use of original fonts in ads or logos are unmistakable because they’re rare: “You can recognize a Marlboro ad from miles away, all beceause of that stupid typeface.”

Even though I don’t think I can call this the best documentary of the year, Helvetica does draw attention to two of its doc contenders. It highlights the main problem with Michael Moore’s (Sicko) work: if parts of his films are staged (of which he’s been accused multiple times), there’s some truth lost, since these components are what make up the truth of his movies. Helvetica has its moments where it seems truth can’t be that much stranger than fiction, but even if parts of the movie were staged, it still has a grip on its truth, the importance of fonts in our world today. It’s like Werner Herzog’s idea of ecstatic truth: he’ll stage a scene in his documentaries that reveal a larger truth about the subject.

Helvetica also reminded me of The King of Kong, the documentary this year about Donkey Kong fandom gone ‘nanners, which also contains some moments that seem too impossible to be true (but they probably are, nonetheless). And, strangely, Helvetica also draws comparison with No End in Sight. Even though the facts in both films are astounding, there’s still the question of re-watching the movie or recommending the movie to a friend. Even though I would clearly recommend Helvetica (and definitely not No End in Sight), around the half-way point, both films seem to drag and lose steam.

So, is there a limit to how much one can take of a movie completely devoted to typefaces? Yes, and no. I’m not big on interviews in documentaries (it feels cheap and uncreative), but sometimes it’s the only way to get particular information, and if they are used well, I’m okay with them. The designers’ monologues, in which the interviewer rarely speaks on-camera, really work in the context of the film since it’s their objective opinion is what matters. It’s also cool to see how they seem to provide arguments and counter-arguments against each other even though no two opposing designers appear on-screen together.

No matter what you think of fonts, you won’t stop thinking about them after seeing Helvetica. The movie is charming, funny, and smart about its compositions.

Note: A few of the designers seemed to be inspired very much by album covers. Two that are featured are both Pixies’ albums: Come Pilgrim and Doolittle. You can’t miss the little dog with the circle around it’s head.