With “American Idol” now officially the worst show on television – sorry, but you can’t kick a runner-up to the curb and then take credit for her Oscar – I looked to movie theatres more than usual this year for some kind of relief. What I found edged more often than not towards disappointing, though buried among fanfare for the multi-million blockbusters was a sizable number of true gems. I know the tendency is to rate each year as either good or bad in terms of output quality, but any year I get to see some of my favorite actors and actresses in some of their best roles is an undeniably great twelve months.
Obliterated by this year’s anointed performers was John Carrol Lynch in Zodiac. Recognizable almost solely as a comedic performer – “The Drew Carey Show,” Bubble Boy – Lynch’s turn as (alleged) Zodiac killer Arthur Leigh Allen is astonishingly nuanced. He is a cold-blooded pedophile and alleged killer whose amenable, almost disarmingly bland personality belies something deeply threatening. “I look forward to the day,” he says at one point, expressionless, “when police officers are no longer referred to as pigs.” Absolutely chilling.
I’ll admit, Zelda Rubinstein’s not exactly a great actress. She may not even be a well-versed one. But she’s absolutely riveting in whatever role she takes, be it a squat medium in the Poltergeist series or a charismatic cameo-appearance dame in knock-off horror films. After being absent from the mainstream for a few years, she returned – to my surprise and delight – as an aristocratic double-agent for the underground in Richard Kelley’s Southland Tales. And while she’s grown visibly frail – her character is almost always sitting or leaning – she wastes little time stealing every possible scene from Dwayne Johnson’s tattooed hero and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn princess. Over the past few years I seem to have acquired a love of overlooked, minute-long performances, from Wiley Harker in The Straight Story and Margaret Tyzak in Match Point to Viola Davis in last year’s World Trade Center. And while I’m hesitant to become someone who creates smarmy, one-vote-for-all awards to highlight some bitter aspect of their personality, I can’t help but bestow my improvised, trophy-less honor on Rubinstein for making a great film all the more better.
By my estimates, Timothy Spall should have about three or four Oscars by now. In reality he doesn’t even have a nomination. Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Life is Sweet – all lacking a certain respectable magnetism without him. He’s one of those rare actors who excels at everything he does, from comedy and drama to television and even children’s films without ever acting as though he’s virtuous for being able to do so. And this year he gave us Albert Pierrepoint, all-around family man and England’s feared executioner, a performance overshadowed by appearances in Sweeney Todd and Enchanted. I’ve never understood the appeal of biopics – they’re too formulaic, and they rush without forethought to condense an entire lifetime into two hours of digestible, pandering cinema. But Pierrepoint, thanks in large part to Spall’s performance, trumped every expectation I had. It was surprisingly fresh; unlike its predecessors, Shergold’s film casts a suspicious eye towards its subject, depicting him as both an impersonal career-man and a warm-hearted husband with complex morals. When the last scene fades, we’re not sure if we should condemn the man or celebrate him.
I could talk endlessly about how much I loved the three lead performances – Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, and Olympia Dukakis – but anybody who’s seen the film already knows how amazing they are. Instead, I'd like to write in praise of Kristen Thomson, who manages to equal all three screen legends without ever overshadowing them. Her performance is one of extreme subtlety. Overseeing a wing of Alzheimer's patients, her character never appears distressed; she moves alongside the older men and women as a caring spirit, never looking overworked or emotionally tested. Her opportunity for release comes outside the hospital, where she smokes a quick cigarette while surrounded by clouding snow. When Pinsent’s Grant Anderson asks her about herself, then dismisses his only life as petty compared to hers, she boils over; a few scenes later, they act as thought the confrontation never happened. Her Kristy is as tortured and complex as the three lead characters, only she stands overlooked in their shadows.
In truth, the best film to be released this year was made in 1977. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, having passed from festival to festival after decades of existing as scratchy VHS tapes in college libraries, is now available on DVD, and Burnett’s masterpiece – his UCLA film-school thesis – is stunning, proving once and for all that Burnett is the laureate of mise-en-scene. In the same breath, though, I would also like to stress how utterly fruitless and impossible it is to create a complete, respectable end-of-the-year list. While I was lucky enough to attend the premier of Irina Palm in Milwaukee, I never had the chance to see others elsewhere: Lake of Fire, Lynch, Juno, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood, and Steel City. On top of that, two of the films on my list were touring international festivals while Crash was coming off a Best Picture win, and they became available in the States only recently, so I’m not sure they even count; at the same time they, much to my chagrin, were good enough to edge out great pictures by perennial favorites like Ming-Liang Tsai. But I’m a sucker for compulsive, facetious activities, so, for the sake of routine, here is my list for 2007:
Honorable mention: Ratatouille, Hairspray, Across the Universe, Larry Clarke’s “Impaled” (from Destricted), Charlie Wilson’s War, and Fido. I also wanted to include two other films, Superbad and Sicko, among my picks for this year but couldn’t. The former was shamelessly and beautifully crass but didn’t seem to fit, no matter where I thought it should go. Sicko, on the other hand, was fully developed and well-intentioned, directed by someone prone to hollow confrontation; in the hours after I watched it, I wrote three pages of a review that, to this day, remains unfinished. Because, as I realized afterwards, Moore’s post-Fahrenheit documentary has some inescapable problems, all of which rest in the lap of the director himself and nobody else.
Two days after Norman Mailer, that great bard of the American conscience, died at age 85, Ira Levin suffered a heart attack in his New York City apartment and passed away, I presume, surrounded by books. He hadn’t published anything in a decade, and that most recent work – a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby titled Son of Rosemary – was far from his best. But he was the first author I’d ever worshipped, and I spent my teen years pouring over every word of Boys from Brazil and This Perfect Day. I even managed to mail him a note of fawning praise; he responded, a few days later, with a letter of thanks, punched out on a fresh-ribboned typewriter and signed in blue ink. Critics like to deride Levin as someone who wrote trashy check-out-line fiction, and I can only respond by saying, in short, that the worth of his words were – and still are – immeasurable to me.