December 10, 2007

Help Against Hype

The Reeler's handy year-end guide to unconventional wisdom

By S.T. VanAirsdale

(L-R) Erin Fisher and Cris Lankenau in Quiet City, one of the year's many refreshing antidotes to hype (Photo: Aaron Katz)

This time of year, the only thing more plentiful online than free shipping is pure, unadulterated hype. Oscar hype, best-of hype, lists, polls -- all the good stuff that reduces contemporary film to the popularity contest such resonant art deserves. And while my annual Top 10 Top 10s ritual must wait for early January, it's never too soon to survey the high tide of hype that washes out entire habitats of superb cinema built throughout the year -- and start the clean-up.

It's important to note that these "antidotes" to hype are not intended as perfect-world awards-season hopefuls or even my own favorite films of the year, nor are they (necessarily) intended to thwack one film or individual for the sake of boosting another. Rather, they are recommended as titles related to hyped efforts on the basis of that hype -- individual phenomena that symbolize, like ivy you can't kill, a far-reaching epidemic. There are more, but only a finite number of hours in my day (and yours). In any case, I hope you'll contribute your own suggestions in the comments.


THE HYPE: "This one could go all the way on Oscar night. It's got stupendous performances, stupendous directing, stupendous writing, stupendous production values and the most dazzling twist ending since The Sixth Sense. I'll go even further out on a limb here: it's also the most achingly romantic movie since Titanic. I can't think of anything in the last 10 years that comes close." -- Lou Lumenick, NY Post (Dec. 1)

ANTIDOTE: Quiet City

WHY: Produced for less than the Steadicam budget on Joe Wright's overblown period yawner, Aaron Katz's sophomore film intoxicates with humor, soul and -- however putatively -- a romance in quiet harmony with its dusky Brooklyn tableaus. Both touching and weirdly elusive, Quiet City pulls no stunts, makes no apologies and ultimately returns your affection in spades.

ALTERNATIVES: A trio of extraordinary 2007 releases including In Between Days, Killer of Sheep and Wristcutters: A Love Story explore the dynamics between love, culture, society, family and, in the latter's case, a hilariously bleak afterworld reserved just for suicides.

--THE HYPED DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes, I'm Not There

THE HYPE: "To make a film that is as layered as Dylan’s music is reason alone that Haynes should receive an Academy Award nomination for best director. You will almost certainly not find a more complex film this year that is so uniquely the product of a director’s imagination." -- Joseph V. Tirella, MSNBC (Nov. 19)

ANTIDOTE: Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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WHY: In a year as unusually visionary as 2007, it's easier than ever to mistake the brand for the product. Between critical darlings like Haynes, Julian Schnabel, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers, Dominik's Assassination polarized viewers who nevertheless couldn't take their eyes off it and have since used it as a point of entry to (rightly) praise cinematographer Roger Deakins, actor Casey Affleck and the film's re-revisionist genre approach. But some poor, underappreciated bastard behind the scenes gave those elements a fascinating coherence, and God knows it wasn't Jeff Robinov.

ALTERNATIVES: Emanuele Crialese's stunnning Golden Door did for the hoary immigration saga what Jesse James did for the Western; first-time director Craig Zobel channeled and maybe even outmaneuvered Robert Altman with his kinetic, microbudget opera of futility Great World of Sound.

--THE HYPED ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose

THE HYPE: "Marion Cotillard’s feral portrait of the French singer Édith Piaf as a captive wild animal hurling herself at the bars of her cage is the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I’ve ever encountered in a film." -- Stephen Holden, NY Times (Feb. 28)

: Tang Wei, Lust, Caution

What the hell happened? Tang Wei in Lust, Caution (Photo: Focus Features)

WHY: God bless the intrepid Cotillards, Julie Christies and all the front-runners of the world, but goddamn the critical establishment that has spent the last three months ignoring Tang's nuanced, selfless work carrying Ang Lee's oversexed espionage romance. Essentially portraying two characters and consistently holding her own with Tony Leung both in and out of the bedroom, her presence and control propel a revelatory screen debut. So why the oversights? Are male critics afraid of her? Is Mandarin the wrong foreign language for an actress to speak to gain traction among industry observers?

ALTERNATIVES: Christina Ricci's unhinged nymphomaniac owned the similarly underrated Black Snake Moan, while Famke Janssen affirmed her leading lady creds in the indies The Treatment and Turn the River.

--THE HYPED ACTOR: Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd

THE HYPE: "Depp gives such a complete and textured performance as the demon barber Sweeney Todd -- in which he sings as well -- that it would be hard for the Academy to deny him again." -- Roger Friedman, Fox News (Nov. 30)

ANTIDOTE: Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening

WHY: It's an odd case to have to make the morning after the Boston Society of Film Critics awarded him its Best Actor hardware (and the L.A. Film Critics Circle tossed him its runner-up prize), but Langella's performance as forgotten novelist Leonard Schiller is a marvel of understatement and physical exactitude that literally defines his craft. The naked loss in his eyes when he first faces mortality -- and the prospect of never finishing his final work -- says more than all the bloodletting in Sweeney Todd and No Country combined.

ALTERNATIVES: Three decades have only burnished Henry Gayle Sanders' sublime work as Stan in Killer of Sheep, though it may take another three decades for viewers to discover the gem of Marc Anthony's debut as salsa legend Hector Lavoe in the otherwise incompetent El Cantante.

--THE HYPED SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There

THE HYPE: "I may be jumping the gun, but if Cate Blanchett doesn’t get nominated, I'll shoot myself." -- Harvey Weinstein; quoted by John Anderson, NY Times (Aug. 21)

ANTIDOTE: Tilda Swinton, Stephanie Daley

WHY: Swinton is but a whisper in the building buzz for the perfectly good Michael Clayton, but I prefer her turn in Hilary Brougher's grossly mishandled and underappreciated Stephanie Daley. As a pregnant psychologist charged with gauging the title character's capacity to stand trial for killing her baby, Swinton (along with fine support from Timothy Hutton and Denis O'Hare) tugs and slashes at a thicket of denial, guilt and apprehensions accompanying her own impending motherhood. Combined with Clayton, the ever-versatile Swinton is having another banner year.

(L-R) Poor Andrew Dominik with Brad Pitt on the set of The Assassination of Jesse James (Photo: Warner Bros.)

ALTERNATIVES: It's easier to pity Jennifer Jason Leigh's abused-on-all-sides Pauline in Margot at the Wedding than to apprise (and reapprise) her rich, complex culpability, while the indomitable Evan Rachel Wood survived Michael Douglas's scenery-gorging with nary a scratch in King of California.

--THE HYPED SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men

THE HYPE: "No Country For Old Men is the Coen Bros best shot at Oscar glory since Fargo. But where to campaign its actors? ... Bardem's unshakeably creepy and quiet madman so dominates the film that he'll get nominated whichever category they decide to place him in." -- Sasha Stone, Awards Daily (Oct. 13)

ANTIDOTE: Scott Caan, Brooklyn Rules

WHY: Like Marc Anthony above, Caan is a baby critics threw out with the bathwater in their haste to dismiss the middling goombah melodrama Brooklyn Rules. Not surprising, but a shame nonetheless; opposite a terrific Alec Baldwin, Caan's sociopath enforcer Carmine recalls his scene-stealing as John Travolta's indecorous foil in the mediocre '06 holdover Lonely Hearts. Barely a blip in the star-powered cosmos that is Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's franchise, Caan is among the most recognizable actors working today who still seems to need a breakthrough.

ALTERNATIVES: Bollywood transplant Irrfan Khan helped give The Namesake its poetry and A Mighty Heart its gravitas; Michael Shannon rinsed out the caustic aftertaste of World Trade Center with grueling, spellbinding psychosis in William Friedkin's paranoia classic Bug.


THE HYPE: "Juno might be the year’s little movie that could. Not that it is favored to win all the marbles, but it will probably be in the mix, in part because an irresistible screenplay by newcomer Diablo Cody." David Carr, The Carpetbagger (Dec. 3)

ANTIDOTE: Jeffrey Blitz, Rocket Science

WHY: Before Juno crash-landed at Telluride in September, exploding its exquisitely marketed cargo of hype, patois, quirk and cute onto the hotel doorsteps of seemingly every critic in town, Jeffrey Blitz wrote and directed his narrative debut Rocket Science. Lightning-fast, smart, articulate, hilarious and almost clinically attuned to the agonies and ecstasies of youth, Rocket Science is the high-school comedy that might have been just a stripper's back story and an abortion canard away from the big time. "It's one of those two, love or revenge, that made me throw a cello through somebody's window," says stuttering hero Hal Hefner. "So you figure it out." Three viewings later, I'm still happy to do so.

ALTERNATIVES: Nobody took bigger lumps for a better film than Hal Hartley did for his outrageously dense comic intrigue Fay Grim, while newcomers Zobel and George Smith tiptoed between fact and fiction, exploitation and mad genius in the Great World of Sound.

Comments (11)

El Cantante is not Marc Anthony's debut. Please, do your research.

it is anthony's debut as "J.Lo's Fake Husband."

i hear he's bound for an Oscar for that.

Refreshing article on cinema gems.

Can't understand the hostility, indifference to Lust, Caution. Thanks for calling attention to Tang Wei's excellent work. The range of emotions when her character makes a fatal decision is the year's best scene.

In addition to your 2007 "Alternatives" list for Atonement, I recommend The Painted Veil. It has everything Lou Lumenick raves about: "stupendous performances, stupendous directing, stupendous writing", etc. and not to mention much more "aching romance" than -- gag -- Titanic. Great article!

What's with all the Diablo Cody-bashing?

How about an antidote for Into The Wild. A universally acclaimed film that had me anxious to exit the theater. I would recommend any other film I've seen over this one. IMO bad acting, bad dialog, tremendously overrated.

Marc Anthony's film debut was in 1988in East Side Story. He had a big role in 2004's Man on Fire

Why is everyone not singing the praises of "The Lookout"? It's hands down one of the years best. It's easily an antidote for any of the categories.

*sigh* Why the Atonement bashing? And why has everyone forgotten 3:10 to Yuma? That movie was nearly perfect.

Yo man Fuck that Transformers fo life!

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