The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a work of the most supreme audacity. A Western with little action, a history lesson without any heroes, and a character study that uses contemplative silence rather than the roar of gunfire, the film is everything I had hoped it to be and more; one of the few movies all year that actually got better as it went along, reducing its 160-minute running time to a mere flash of brilliance. Who could imagine that in 2007, a time when Hollywood is in such an advanced state of decay that every move seems pre-approved by focus groups and teams of cautious lawyers, we would be honored with such risk and bold artistry? After all, here’s a film concerning one of the most famous figures in history, an outlaw known by young and old alike, and rather than pander to the obvious with a romp of hard riding and gunplay, that very man is reduced to a supporting character; a symbol, yes, but not at all the driving narrative force. Thankfully, blissfully, this is not a tale of bank heists and train robberies, showdowns at high noon, or cat and mouse dramatics that reduce the untamed frontier to clever criminals and no-nonsense lawmen. Instead, this is a film about nothing less grandiose than America itself — its myths, its illusions, its raw, wounded identity — with the necessary sense of wonder to pull it off. Such ambitions are fraught with peril, of course (resentful glances and accusations of unjust pretension, to name a few), but each and every frame is a testament to the overall success, and by the final act — a coda concerning the days and nights of Robert Ford after the infamous assassination that stands as some of the finest filmmaking I’ve ever seen — we are not exhausted, or burdened, or bereft, but thankful at having lived to see it all. The decade has seen its masterpiece.
The Wrestler (2008)
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a film that on its face doesn’t sound like much at all, is not without convention, or cliché, or even a hint of familiarity, but its brilliance is not in its ability — or desire — to revolutionize the medium. Through one simple character, the washed-up slob that is The Ram, America itself is laid bare (and where Jersey has never looked so Jersey). And who knew that when the chips were down, Mickey Rourke would come to set things right? His performance is a revelation to be sure; a realization so penetrating, wise, and achingly authentic that it deserves to sweep Oscar off its feet. It is greatness in raw, unflinching defiance, both as a physical embodiment and through sheer emotional resonance. It’s the epitome of the Method’s still unsurpassed approach to the art. Rourke never overreaches, or plays to the cheap seats, or asks us to find him appealing. His faded has-been is a bastard through and through, as well as the sort of man incapable of breadth, scope, or even a moment where he isn’t out to prove his worth through the channel of an appalling self-loathing. His is the vanity of utter stasis; where, preserved in amber like a prehistoric insect, he bathes in nostalgia to keep the world from penetrating his tomb. He lives as he did, stunted for all time, unable to grapple with the parade that long ago passed him by. He’s a muscular, scarred Norma Desmond; the ring his musty, cobwebbed estate.
United 93 (2006)
It’s the film that was never supposed to work. It simply couldn’t. Every conceivable minefield was glaringly apparent; it would function as little more than propaganda, a rallying cry, a spur for Bush’s approval ratings, or a perverse, exploitive justification for invasion and revenge. Heroes would be oversimplified, villains even more so, and the audience would be invited not to observe and recoil as we must in the face of unthinkable tragedy, but bare its teeth and believe, absurdly, that we would have acted more forcefully ourselves. No, this is not that movie, and for that alone, it deserves recognition as the most restrained account of actual events ever filmed. It would be more fitting to describe what we see, what we hear, and hell, what we feel, as just shy of cinema verite; a peeking behind the curtain of an event we think we know from top to bottom, when of course we could not possibly have any idea. It’s all terrifyingly real, for we know the grisly outcome, and the film wisely presents every moment leading up to the actual hijacking as routine, banal, and just this side of boring. It had to be. Our perspective, so viciously unfair as the worst sort of hindsight, screws the tension tighter than we can handle, and we wait it out; a death watch that damn near drives us to the brink. But again, and why this masterpiece will last beyond the raw wounds it portrays, this is above politics, and war, and terrorism itself; these are human beings, fragile and fearful, confused and astoundingly brave, doing whatever they could, which, sadly, was very little, to simply survive. Simply, when it’s everything? But fight on we do, brutes of a single-minded devotion, even when the whole damn enterprise is doomed. More so.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
It’s the sweetest example of a cinematic valedictory – Robert Altman, aging, frail, yet still teeming with wit and insight – faces the cold breath of mortality with A Prairie Home Companion, a delightful ode to endings; some happy, some not, but all unfailingly inevitable. Given that I was not at all familiar with Garrison Keillor’s radio broadcast (nor much of his career, period), I expected little from the movie, and must admit that I was moved to go only out of an obligation to Altman, one of the true giants of the art form. I figured that at best I would be distracted by a few corny jokes, a silly song or two, and that unmistakable overlapping dialogue that has been much imitated, but never equaled. Who knew that Altman (along with Keillor’s charming script) would focus so intently on the matter-of-factness of death itself; that while it will come for all of us, it need not be the only way in which to punch that final clock. In many ways, the film understands that before we’re carted off for the last time, we can release ourselves from the passions that drive us, and the noblest among us know when it’s time to give it a rest. This may in fact mean the end of life for many, but stepping aside can be as simple as a gesture; the nod of agreement that yes, my time in the sun is no more. There are others waiting for their shot. And there always will be.
Before Sunset (2004)
As the rarest of birds – an intellectual engagement between two adults without a trace of pretension or suffocating irony – the film stands as the decade’s most insightful romance, even though our couple remains physically uninvolved throughout. More than unrequited love, or a revisiting of what could have been, these are two older, and not necessarily wiser characters who have arrived at true adulthood with little but quiet resignation to bind their wounds. Jesse and Celine, perhaps the only cinematic pair that warranted a sequel, have an effortless grace together, while their hesitations and despairing glances reveal not the will of a screenwriter, but the hazards of the engaged life. It’s all talk, yes, and elevated beyond our normal unbearable exchanges, but the words rely not on the esoterica of the self-appointed elite, or the instant wit of the smirking wiseacre, but actual ideas learned not in the armchair of youth, but through experience and survival. It’s as if these two, slightly hardened by idealism’s inevitable decline, come together to spend a few hours in a cocoon slightly more tolerable than the ones they already inhabit. Marriage and family, as Jesse has discovered, are not “what adults do” per se, but are the only acceptable escapes left us in a world ever-intolerant of genuine solitude. Celine and Jesse work, such as it is, because they’ve never faced the actual scrutiny of life beyond the glow. At last, a film where one listens, one learns, and one recognizes all too well that our accidental encounters make the routine bearable.