By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Paul Friswold
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
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-OK 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 co-wrote 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 was co-written by his muse Seth Rogen, also could have lost 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 nineteen 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.
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, 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 between dream logic and 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, its combination of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design 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.
— Jim Ridley
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 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 suggests 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 called 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 4-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.
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!"
— Jim Ridley
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 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.
And yet, they are. It's called The 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 The 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 LA 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 The 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 set-up. 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'" 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 post-production 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."
— Scott Foundas
Some years it can be hard to come up with enough stellar lead performances to make an awards minyan. 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 10 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!
— Ella Taylor
The Way He Lives Now
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' 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' 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, 5, 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.
— Judith Lewis
The top movies of 2007
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 fifteen) 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
*Scott Foundas, J. Hoberman, Nathan Lee, Jim Ridley, Ella Taylor and Robert Wilonsky
2007: The Year in Music
Simply the Best
Best Drive-By Truckers Album: Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime (Anti-). With the DBTs (and Wurlitzer wizard Spooner Oldham) in tow, the Detroit soul screamer does what Hood, Cooley and Isbell have always done: take the personal, make it political — and then make it rock. But LaVette is a singer, not a band; her voice is singular, radically individual and, on this career album, heroic.
Best Wilco Album: Goldrush, The Heart Is the Place (Better Looking). From Oxford, England, Robin and Joseph Bennett deserve better than the inevitable Wilco (or Flaming Lips) comparisons. But it's no slight on the hopeful, experimental, catchy and honest Place to say that it's the kind of record Jeff Tweedy once seemed to care about making.
Best Bob Dylan Album: Various Artists, I'm Not There (Sony). The absurd and noble failure of Todd Haynes' Zimmy flick had the unintended consequence of creating a soundtrack that actually captures what the film could not: The shape-shifting genius as interpreted by the shape-shifters to come long, long after him. And if you don't think punks should be singing gospel, you don't know John Doe — or Dylan.
Best Leonard Cohen Album: Elvis Perkins, Ash Wednesday (XL/Beggars). This young writer of songs about tragicomic sex and melancholic desire sounds like Sam Cooke in comparison to his unacknowledged father L. Cohen. (Elvis' real father is the late actor A. Perkins.) But on this beautiful series of dreamsongs, his surreal aim is just as true.
Best Bruce Springsteen Album: Jason Anderson, Tonight (Eca). From out of nowhere (actually, New Hampshire), this homage to the E Street sound captures the collective joy and ensemble exploration that made the Wild and Innocent true to its name. Anderson may yet be discovering who he is as a songwriter, but charting his progress will be one of the best things about 2008 — and about the many years to come.
Best Pogues Album: The Ike Reilly Assassination, We Belong to the Staggering Evening (Rock Ridge). Chicago wise-guy Ike Reilly put on the best show in St. Louis that no one attended; he also made the best word-smart, half-cocked rock and folk album that nobody heard. What's more, he offered the most concise response to the current climate of religious railroading: "Fuck the train!"
Best Spoon Album: Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge). The politics slip in under the skin as the rhythms go straight for the ass; the brass and strings sting with the precision of sugar needles as the mix hits, again and again, like a heavyweight contender. Single of the Year: "The Underdog."
Second-Best Spoon Album: Jon Hardy and the Public, Working In Love (self-released). Jon Hardy's voice suggests no one so much as Britt Daniel, a fact that barely matters as this St. Louis band pours out horned-up hooks, boundless melodies and unfussy lyrics of finding romance in an alienated world. Another Single of the Year: "Cassius Clay."
— Roy Kasten
The Beat Goes On
Pop music's increasing reliance on MySpace is, in some ways, the dreadful democratization of the biz that many have long-feared. But there are two things in the Web site's favor: It does mean fewer homemade CDs (and their jewel cases) cracking underfoot. And in '07, MySpace was the best place to hear two of the year's most delightful new bands: Jacksonville's multiracial Black Kids and the Windy City rap duo the Cool Kids. The former sounds like what would have happened if the Cure's Robert Smith had gotten his existential angst out by fronting a teen R&B group. The latter samples Eric B and Rakim, offers a song titled "88" and another tune about their bikes, making a crucial link between rap's Golden Age and today's indie scene (which seems to be the only place left where people care about hip-hop history).
The year in hip-hop, as a whole, was about as dismal as any in recent memory. More mixtapes, more guest shots, more regional scenes gaining a foothold — and outside of good efforts from the usual (Kanye) and not-so-usual suspects (Wyclef, a surprising Wu-Tang comeback), almost nothing worth talking about in the mainstream. However, down below in the underground — if it's really worth drawing that distinction any more — El-P made possibly the best album of his career, the tightly focused, vividly imagistic I'll Sleep When You're Dead. Kansas City's Mac Lethal delivered a hugely entertaining debut on Rhymesayers, 11:11, which showed that while "emo-rap" is still a horrible term, rhyming about deeply personal subjects doesn't have to be a turn-off. And on Situation, Rich Terfry, a.k.a. Buck 65, achieved the sort of paradox we've come to expect from an artist of his brilliance. He's never been more conceptual (an album about life in 1956 and Situationism?) or created more hard-hitting hip-hop.
Since we still appear to be in a holding pattern until the inevitable '90s/grunge/black helicopters revival (mark it down for '09, especially if we have a new President Clinton), the '80s influence still dominated. Often in overt ways: See Chromeo's picture-perfect, vocoderized electro pastiche Fancy Footwork, or Tiger Army's wonderful, New Orderesque single "As the Cold Rain Falls," from its otherwise sweet and swell psychobilly outing Music From Regions Beyond. But an even cooler thing was the unexpected ways those Me Decade sounds were spit back this year, as in Kenna's unclassifiable new-wave hybrid Make Sure They See My Face, Scottish DIY-er Calvin Harris and the new millenium synth-pop of I Created Disco and fellow UK-er Jamie T's Clash-inspired hip-hop on Panic Prevention.
Even Nick Cave made an effort to reclaim part of his past, forming the new group Grinderman and making more blues-skronk noise than he had since his days fronting the Birthday Party. The subject of laments like "No Pussy Blues" aside, the old devil also sounded like he was having more fun than maybe ever — a pretty cool, and atypical, way for a pop musician to celebrate a 50th birthday.
— Dan LeRoy
All that Jazz
Blues and jazz roots run deep in St. Louis, and our town is fortunate to have an ample supply of talented musicians in both genres, as well as first-rate venues where listeners can tap into those roots on a regular basis.
BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups completed an ambitious expansion and renovation project this year, opening a second floor and adding an outdoor balcony that effectively doubled the room's capacity. The club also teamed up with video producers Front Row Productions to shoot performance footage of many local musicians for a prospective cable or public television series, which could mean wider attention for St. Louis talent if the plan comes to fruition in 2008
In addition to featuring local acts, BB's continued to book a fine selection of touring blues musicians, including recurring appearances by Watermelon Slim and the Workers, an Oklahoma band whose CD The Wheel Man was one of the underrated standout releases of the year. Other 2007 blues releases worth special attention included Old School, a strong comeback from Chicago vocalist Koko Taylor, and Irma Thomas' After The Rain, a heartfelt and haunting post-Katrina effort from New Orleans' queen of soul.
In other welcome news, Jazz St. Louis added several weeks of music during the summer to the Jazz at the Bistro season, making the series an eleven-months-a-year operation. To further its broader goal of promoting and preserving jazz in St. Louis, JSL also expanded its educational programs to help nurture future generations of jazz listeners and players. The Bistro's 2007 schedule included many top touring acts, highlighted by spring appearances from legendary bassist and former Miles Davis sideman Dave Holland's quintet and the sizzling all-star octet SF Jazz Collective, who mixed original works and re-imaginings of the music of Thelonious Monk with excellent results.
This past year also marked the revival of the Black Artists Group, with a contingent of musicians (led by bassist Zimbabwe Nkenya) performing a series of free shows at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site's Rosebud Café. Here's hoping that this new edition of BAG will continue to thrive in 2008 and beyond.
On the festival front, the news was mixed, as both the Big Muddy Blues Festival and the St. Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival were forced to downsize due to a lack of funds. However, the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, headed up by UMSL music professor Jim Widner, continues to grow, with an entertaining, high-energy performance by Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band capping this year's event.
For many jazz fans, the most talked-about release of the year was the Miles Davis boxed set The Complete On The Corner Sessions, an expanded version of one of the trumpeter's most controversial albums. Also worth checking out: Metheny/Mehldau, which documents the recent collaboration between guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau, and Sonny, Please from tenor sax giant Sonny Rollins.
— Dean C. Minderman
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (Merge). From the very first note — a divine howl from a massive cathedral pipe organ — this album is something special. What sets Neon Bible apart is the fact that a work of such staggering depth somehow manages to sound accessible. The subjects of the songs (faith and mortality, to name a couple) are vast; but when paired with richly textured orchestral compositions (which build to breathtaking crescendo), it's rock & roll in its most evolved form. Those who choose to critique the work for what its not — a revisiting of Funeral, the band's incomparably brilliant debut album— are missing what's right in front of them: eleven impeccably crafted, epic, elegant and profound songs. While 2007 will likely go down as the year that introduced the first wave of cheap imitations to the indie-rock aesthetic, Arcade Fire continued to operate on a higher plane of existence than its peers.
Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl). The fact that Hissing Fauna has hardly left my CD player since its release is a testament to the album's attention to detail. Each listen reveals something different. Inescapably catchy, synth-and-guitar-driven "disco sleaze" melodies draw you in on the first few spins; Destroyer's dissonant, profoundly dark and introspective lyrics then hook you on subsequent plays. But eventually, it's the minutiae that keeps you coming back for more — the way extroverted frontman Kevin Barnes draws out each syllable as he croons, "You're just some faggy girl, and I need a lover with soooouuuul power," or pondering what, exactly, it means to "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean."
Blue Scholars, Bayani (Mass Line/Rawkus). The Blue Scholars' song "Back Home," should go down as the political anthem of the decade. The first single from the Seattle hip-hop duo's second record not only serves as a shining example of MC Geologic's lyrical prowess and DJ Sabzi's soulful and rhythmic beats, but the vitriol it directs at the Iraq war is absolutely spot-on. "Fuck a coffin draped in red white and blue/Withdrawal past due," Geo rhymes in a tone that's more pensive than pissed off, "We disgusted with the fact we pay taxes to build tanks, still droppin' one twomp-and-a-half to fill tanks." The diverse pair (Geologic and Sabzi are of Filipino and Iranian descents, respectively) apply their righteous indignation to other topics such as immigration, the WTO riots and de facto segregation, but nothing rings as true as the refrain of "Bring 'em back home, I don't want to have to keep on singin' this song."
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone Records). When I first heard this album, it felt like I'd been transported into a scene in Pulp Fiction. Not only would the songs melt perfectly into that film's soundtrack, but like all of Tarantino's work, Jones' music exchanges any sense of time or place for cool charisma. It's postmodernism at its peak: an amalgamation and reinvention of all the great funk, soul and R&B that preceded it (the influences of James Brown and Aretha Franklin are particularly pronounced). The Dap-Kings, Jones' backing band, also sat in for the production of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, but while both vocalists are stylistic throwbacks, the 51- year-old Jones, who worked as a prison guard before getting her break, has the swagger and pipes make Winehouse look and sound like a British burnout moonlighting as a soul singer.
Devendra Banhart, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL/Beggars). Perhaps the bushy beard that Banhart sports is really just a mask that allows him to slip easily into the numerous identities he assumes on this album. The stylistic breadth of material covered on Smokey is astonishing: Banhart sings in beautifully accented Venezuelan Spanish over a delicately finger-picked guitar in "Cristobal," offers his takes on samba, doo-wop (in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek love ballad about a Rabbi's daughter in Jerusalem), indie rock, folk and — possibly most impressively, if not unexpectedly — psychedelic rock ("Seahorse"). Though such shape-shifting occasionally causes the album to lack focus, Smokey is Banhart at his innovative and idiosyncratic best.
— Keegan Hamilton
The Weight is a Gift
Is it finally time to tap-dance on the grave of Musical Irony? No, not parody, and certainly not satire — as long as there's social inequity and political wrong-headedness, there will always be need for that — but irony. You know: vintage shirt plus gym-teacher mustache minus properly fitting pants (oof) equals hipster gold. It's enough to make irony-weary music fans choose Scrabble over shows.
And while it's awesome to slap down QUIZ on a triple word score, we miss music. Real music. Good music. Thank heavens for 2007. The past twelve months have put a song in our heart, an extra 512 MB on our iPod, and a concert or fifteen on our calendar.
The year was nearly five-sixths over by the time Menomena came to town, and the Portland musicians' Billiken Club appearance highlighted their abundant talent and wicked wit. Most of the SLU students were dressed in costumes, which ordinarily would be all kinds of annoying (particularly since it was the day before Halloween), but the outfits seemed of a piece with Menomena's whip-smart whimsy. (Confidential to the guy who wore the "vampire giraffe" costume: I am totally stealing that idea next year.)
Menomena's 2007 release, Friend and Foe, is a worthy follow-up to its excellent debut. The band combines computerized loops, intricate math-rock signatures, and hella awesome keyboard and saxophone solos into music that is at once triumphant and very, very dark. Menomena's amazing live version of "Muscle 'N Flo" prompted one tipsy Billiken to shout, "You're special! ...In the good way!" Indeed.
The caliber of shows at the Billiken Club has been one of 2007's greatest delights. In the past four months alone, the venue checked off an impressive indie-rock wish list: There was Menomena, of course, but also Besnard Lakes, the Twilight Sad, White Rabbits and Mountain Goats. And the music released this year, in general? Damn, son. The best album of 2007 is the National's Boxer, and if you don't think so, you probably also hate puppies and fun. Okay, so maybe that's a bit harsh — but the Brooklyn quartet's fourth LP is seriously amazing.
Honest without being cloyingly confessional, serious without being mopey, Boxer distills all that is painful (and all that is beautiful) about being a young American. Matt Berninger's gorgeous baritone lends gravitas to songs about decaying friendships ("Green Gloves"), the dulling effects of middle-class striving ("Racing Like a Pro") and, yes, true love ("Slow Show"). The National's June concert at the Duck Room was both raucous and cathartic, with the capacity crowd requesting favorites and singing along, word for word. Bryan Devendorf further sealed his reputation as one of indie rock's most talented drummers, and Padme Newsome — an unofficial National member who kicks official ass — added texture and beauty with his impeccable viola-playing. Leave it to the National to go for the trifecta: best band, best album, best live show. Done, done and done — and without a trace of pretension or calculated irony. Real music made a resurgence in 2007, and only our Scrabble skills suffered.
— Brooke Foster
Revenge of the Nerds
LCD Soundsystem's self-titled 2005 release stands as the album that made me finally, truly believe in new electronic music. But Sound of Silver was a huge step up — and my ultimate album of 2007. It had everything I wanted: fun, super-fresh style, beauty and plenty of beats. "All My Friends" is elegant and touching, "Someone Great" is bloop-bloop perfection and the hand claps and joyous shouts of "a-woohoo!" in "Watch The Tapes" are majorly addictive.
Still, my favorite part of the music year was when an android stork dropped down from outer space and delivered us Radiohead's In Rainbows. The media hullabaloo surrounding the surprise release sucked me in whole (because I'm a dork and I love shit like that). And while I remain fascinated by the band's alien marketing techniques, the album had the chops to back up the hype. It's pretty, glitchy, bittersweet and epic — in short, everything you would expect from a Radiohead album. However, In Rainbows is instantly more accessible than Amnesiac, Kid A or even Hail to the Thief. Around the same time as the album's release, the band started leaking performances on its Web site, including live versions of album tracks and my new favorite cover ever: Radiohead playing New Order's "Ceremony."
My heart swelled with pride when the Arcade Fire released Neon Bible, and then both fans and critics welcomed the album's lush, bountiful orchestration. Arcade Fire fans have formed a near-cultish church surrounding the band, but their worship might be justified. "Intervention," "Ocean of Noise," "(Antichrist Television Blues)" and "My Body Is a Cage" are nothing short of magical and could easily be mistaken for the rapturous hymns of a new religion. Everyone was primed for a backlash against the indie darlings, but you can't argue with songs this beautiful.
As far as independent releases, at the beginning of the year I was gifted with an advanced copy of AA Bondy's recently released American Hearts, and it's been in heavy rotation ever since. The solo singer-songwriter put aside his former life as the lead singer of scorching glam-grungers Verbena in favor of a more earthy, exposed adventure. Bondy composes lonely tales of complicated redemption, teetering between the delicate confusion of Dylan and the hopeful pride of Springsteen. His soulful voice is soothing and softly Southern, making American Hearts a perfect Sunday-morning album.
I also happened upon tons of great local releases this year. The Humanoids' Are Born is my favorite; the songs are pure punk and the band straight-up shames most other locals with its energy and authenticity. Rats and People's The City of Passersby is dense and enchanting, and quite a few songs on the Bureau's We Make Plans In Secret deserve repeated spins. Finally, Riddle of Steel's 1985 wasn't released until the end of this year, but I can safely predict that it will rock me through 2008.
— Jaime Lees
Someday soon, robots will dominate the world, enslave all humans and breed us for the sole purpose of working in factories to make more robots. (This is inevitable, so let's move on.) The members of Battles are not robots, but they're close — and therefore we probably should not trust them. But when the band's debut album Mirrored dropped in May, it was like the scene in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure where the protagonists are surrounded by people in robes air-guitaring to Wyld Stallyns; it felt like somebody had been to the future in a magic telephone booth and brought back an artifact.
Mirrored predicts a world where Gibson Les Pauls, the Apple iBook, real drums, sampled drums, ten-foot-high cymbals, keyboards, guitars, keyboards that sound like guitars and guitars that sound like keyboards live symbiotically. In a time when music is being enslaved by technology, Battles is making technology its bitch. The band is more than mere ear candy, though. On the album's defining single, "Atlas," the beat from Gary Glitter's "The Hey Song" lies under a bed of off-kilter guitar lines and elephantine bass loops. Soundmaker Tyondai Braxton's vocals, which are pitch-shifted to sound like a human morphing into a chipmunk and back, accent all of this music. It's incredible that a band like Battles can be this innovative — and equally incredible that, in the time we live in, music this strange can be so universal.
— Ryan Wasoba
The Heart of the Matter
The first release of 2007 that really caught my attention was Blonde Redhead's 23, an album on which the New York trio finally transcended the constant Sonic Youth comparisons that have haunted its career. Of course, I only came to this realization after I emerged from the trance-like state induced by the album's dark, wistful and woozy soundscapes. 23 hits its stride about halfway through with the slo-core but bombastically percussive "SW," on which ethereal vocals and a lovely George Martin-esque horn arrangement help build its many layers of hypnotic texture. The momentum continues with the driving rhythm and shoegaze swells found on "Spring and By Summer Fall," before the last few songs gradually wind down; "My Impure Hair" brings a calming sense of closure via church organ percussion, melancholy accordion and blissed-out space-echo effects.
Jimmy Eat World, another band with roots in the '90s, also made a record that proved its 21st-century relevance. On Chase this Light, Jim Adkins and crew created an album every bit as catchy as their seminal effort Bleed American. Super-glossy production drives the album — Light was produced by Butch Vig, after all — but that's not to say that these songs don't stand on their own. "Big Casino" was one of the most infectious singles of the year (and made a definitive statement about recognizing mortality and the dangers of romanticizing the past), while "Gotta Be Somebody's Blues" showed the band exploring its more melancholy side with the help of a truly haunting string arrangement (think Beck's Sea Change).
My favorite album of the year almost completely escaped my attention. Bat for Lashes' inventively choreographed and thoroughly creepy video for "What's a Girl to Do?" (yes, Donnie Darko continues to influence) was interesting, if not one of the best office distractions of the year. But for some reason I filed it under "gimmicky" and didn't check out the rest of Fur and Gold right away — even though when I finally did, I realized that it was a beautiful, moody and haunting effort. Natasha Khan's lyrics paint abstract pictures that are open to interpretation, although they can also be deeply personal; Gold's unconventional approaches to percussion, subtle acoustic guitar flourishes and cinematic string arrangements perfectly accentuate these emotions. The result is an album that's comparable to the likes of Björk, Kate Bush and Tori Amos — but one that also places Khan firmly in their company.
Every year brings a few artists who fly a little under the radar, but whose contributions still deserve recognition. Brooklyn's The Forms made an outstanding album with Steve Albini, one that proves post-rock can be not only powerful and anthemic, but also delicate and beautiful. Airiel's delightful noise-fest The Battle of Sealand was the year's best "new-gaze" record and was highlighted by a collaboration with Ulrich Schnauss on the shimmery and saccharine-sweet synthpop number "Sugar Crystals." Finally, MGMT's album Oracular Spectacular came loaded with pop-hooks and somehow manages to conjure Ziggy Stardust, disco fever and Mayan prophecy all at the same time.
— Shae Moseley