Crime and the movies have gone hand in hand since Edwin S. Porter made “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. So it should come as no surprise that movie theaters were filled with the unlawful and their minions in 2007. But the range and quality was surprising. So let’s review the more noteworthy from last year’s wild bunch, even if, at this point, most of them are destined for screenings in your living room.
“Gone Baby Gone.” An Oscar contender for Amy Ryan’s fiery performance as a mother whose only redeeming quality is her raging life force. “Gone” was generally overlooked by audiences when it was released in early fall.
It’s a nerve jangling, twisty thriller about a kidnap/murder that takes no prisoners in depicting lower middle class life in Boston’s south bay. You rarely get such unvarnished portrayals of social disarray, even in low budget genre pieces, but Ben Affleck’s focused direction translates Dennis Lehane’s dependable novel with true grit.
A key sequence, the cause of much confusion, is repeated a little too often, mainly to present “new” information, but this is a minor caveat; the material stays true to core beliefs about its people. The cast including Casey Affleck, Michelle Monahan, Morgan Freeman. And the inimitable Ed Harris is uniformly up to the challenge. This is the sort of movie where even the smallest roles stick to your guts.
“Michael Clayton.” I think the temptation among critics was to credit Tony Gilroy and George Clooney for getting a smart movie made, then to overlook the more subtle and complex virtues of their good lawyer/ bad lawyer story. Thankfully, the Academy, which generally looks after its own, recognized Clooney’s complex performance as well as writer/director Gilroy’s smart material for what they are: terrific adult entertainment. These days it takes a major star and a proven writer for any studio to get behind material with such a low body count, so we have to be thankful that they persisted.
Clooney is an unsuspecting fall guy in amoral Sidney Pollack’s law firm, Tom Wilkerson is a partner losing his mind, and Tilda Swinton, as the opposition, sweats more than any woman ever in expensive business wear. In the process she becomes excellent competition for Amy Ryan’s Oscar bid. Gilroy ratchets up the tension with equal measures of precision and glee. The last few minutes show us once again, why Clooney is both a movie star and a terrific actor.
“Until the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” I’m not sure what, if anything, this wallow in family squalor amounts to, but its obsessive focus holds you in its grip from beginning to end. Credit that to 83 year old director Sidney Lumet, who delivers every lurid moment with matter of fact, but unflinching candor. The relationship between brothers Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke deteriorates in nano seconds after an attempted robbery of their parents’ jewelry store goes horribly awry. What’s surprising is how many others they take down with them. This isn’t up to the level of say, John Huston’s “Asphalt Jungle,” but those drawn to the dark side will not be disappointed.
“American Gangster.” In any other recent year, director Ridley Scott, writer Steve Zaillian, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, would have swept critics off their feet with this intelligent depiction of a drug dealer who takes his cues from corporate American. Instead they compared it unfavorably to “The Godfather,” or complained about insufficient screen time between the two leads.
But Washington delivered a restrained, thoughtful performance and Crowe, as his nemesis, playing of all things, a homely Jewish detective, gave a new spin to the genre.
“Gangster” isn’t so much an epic, as a study in contrasting personal styles. It’s a tortoise and hare race, vividly observed. And while the high end production values may be a bit showy, and the symmetry of the opposites (honest scumbag cop versus family loyal dope pusher) might have appeared superficially predictable, new and rich details abound. Also, keep an eye out for Ruby Dee in a small, but compelling part as a mom who keeps her mouth shut until she can’t.
“No Country For Old Men.” I wish I could flow with the wave of critical enthusiasm for the Coen brothers latest, I found it a far cry from “Fargo.” In fact I liked “Miller’s Crossing,” another indulgent, but livelier hodge podge, much more satisfying. The first half of “No Country,” meticulously detailed and tense, doesn’t really speak to the second, where the narrative flies apart in a hail of unlikely plot turns. Wily wrongdoers suddenly turn stupid, while robotic killers become psychic.
Tommy Lee Jones provides a stoic narration, a novelistic device that’s supposed to ground the movie with a “theme,” but his part is only tangential. For all the impact he has on events he might as well have been reading off screen. And while graduate student types are likely to proclaim the Coen’s methods as the stuff of art (largely because they so self consciously depart from audience expectations,) don’t believe it.
“Country” will be the cause of much late night babble in dorms and coffee houses, but the results of that are likely to be little more than bleary eyes and missed morning classes. And I know it was taken from a novel. Novels are different.