Horror Film of the Year
Horror has been called a bastard child of the cinematic world, it often seems like it’s off on its own in a strange little niche. Still it is a genre that many people, and many filmmakers, have a real passion for. There are a lot of crappy horror films, but there are definitely good ones out there, and these nominees prove that.
1408: Stephen King is probably the greatest horror icon living today, and his works are often turned into decent if not great films. Here we have a neat twist on the concept of the “haunting” of a space. John Cusack is great here in a one man show of sorts and a scene of him looking at himself across a street is genius.
28 Weeks Later…: Making a sequel to 28 Days Later… was so crazy that it actually worked. Juan Carlos Fresnidio turned the original film, which mostly focused on badass zombie horror, and added a fascinating political allegory into the mix. There’s a real intensity to the zombie scenes, and the editing really makes it work.
The Host: This South Korean monster movie isn’t really a work of horror, but it does share the same genre lineage as many of its fellow nominees. The film is a mix of effects, political allegory, design, and family struggle. It doesn’t really excel at many of these things, but the sheer quantity of ideas makes this a very enjoyable flick.
The Mist: The other good Stephen King adaptation of the year. More ambitious than 1408, but also more flawed. The film is marred by simplistic characters and bad CGI, but you can really tell Frank Darabont’s enthusiasm for the subject matter throughout. Flawed though it may be, its always nice to see someone try to make a real film out of this kind of genre material.
The Orphanage: This Spanish horror film from first time director Juan Antonio Bayona managed to get a fairly wide release because Guillermo del Toro put his name on the project. This is in many ways trying to be the ultimate haunting film. It has disturbing images that really stay in your head long after you’re finished watching it.
The Golden Stake goes to… The Orphanage
The Orphanage certainly isn’t the most creative horror film of the year, 1408 does more new things for the haunting genre, but what it does do is take all the great staple scenes of the genre and does it better than anyone else has done before. This is a freaky film that will really have you at the edge of your seat.
Action Film of the Year
Action films are consistently one of the most popular genres around, although all too often they can be lackluster. There are few things as fun as a really good action film that excites and grips the audience. Unfortunately Hollywood executives all too often think anyone can make these movies, but that isn’t true, it takes real skill to make these movies right. These nominees exemplify the right way to make an action film.
300: Machismo has been strangely absent from the cinema screens for a very long time. That is until Zach Snyder decided to adapt Frank Miller’s graphic novel take on the battle of Thermopylae. 300 used new slow motion techniques and bluescreen technology to bring this stylized version of the battle to the cinema screen.
3:10 to Yuma: Before the early 70s, the main genre for action scenes was the Western. James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma was a smart attempt to bring this genre back without any post-modern apologies. There were a number of great action scenes here, particularly a stage coach robbery at the beginning and a massive shootout at the end.
Beowulf: Animation has rarely been used for action thrills outside of Japan, but Robert Zemeckis did the best he could to correct this with the innovative epic poem adaptation Beowulf. The film continued the trend of increased machismo in screen heros that was started by the movie 300, and featured a number of awesome fights with a bunch of monsters.
The Bourne Ultimatum: The Bourne series has consistently had great action scenes as well as very strong character elements. The third installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, is possibly the best of the series and a great showcase of Paul Greengrasses film style. This is the type of competition that forced the James Bond series to re-invent itself.
Shooter: Let me make it clear that Shooter is not a good movie, its really quite weak. So why is it nominated here? Well mainly because I wanted at least one of the nominees to represent a certain old school type of R-rated thriller. The story is lame and it’s attempts to be a sophisticated thriller fail miserably, however deep down there is a fun movie here which shows a lot of people getting shot in the head.
The Golden Stake goes to… The Bourne Ultimatum
This is one of the easiest choices I’ve had to make all through this award thing. The first two Bourne films were easy to take for granted, but this third installment really made me realize just how great the series has been. 300 was a definite second here, but I have no hesitation calling The Bourne Ultimatum the action film of 2007.
Comedies are frequently forgotten in year in review features, and I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. The name of this award should be pretty self explanatory, whatever makes me laugh the most wins it. Bear in mind though, this is for the funniest, not the best. This is not about the best all around film, but the one with the largest laugh quotient.
Hot Fuzz: A parody of the Jerry Bruckheimer action films from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. This film gently poked fun at the action film genre much the way their previous film, Sean of the Dead, took on the Zombie film. While Sean of the Dead was ultimately a much better film, there was still a lot of very nice stuff here like a great shootout parody toward the end.
Juno: Everyone and their mother are buzzing about how charming Juno is, and how lovable its characters are. But this buzz sometimes forgets just how laugh out loud funny the film is throughout. This is not the type of comedy that goes out of its way to elicit laughter, but the dialogue and character interaction throughout are more consistently funny then most all out comedies.
Knocked Up: The first of Judd Apatow’s one two punch, this is the film that made Seth Rogen a household name. The film’s real strength is its ability to be laugh out loud funny the whole way through without interrupting its story. The film is filled with great moments like Rogen’s phone call to Heigl’s truant gynecologist, and an ill fated trip to Las Vegas.
The Savages: This is probably the one nominated film that’s furthest from being an all out comedy, and in many ways it’s the way that the film balances comedy and drama that makes it so compelling. The film is filled with those great little ironic one-liners that don’t make much sense out of context like “this isn’t therapy, this is real life” and “I’m sure the world is just clamoring for a book about Bertolt Brecht for the holiday season.”
Superbad: The second step in Judd Apatow’s brilliant year long plan to bring rapid-fire profanity to the mainstream. This is like the ultimate teen sex comedy and one of the few great entries in this often awful genre. Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and whoever played Mclovin were instant celebrities for a few weeks and this was very well deserved.
The Golden Stake goes to… Superbad
Like I said, this category focuses more on laugh quotient than overall quality. I think both Juno and Knocked Up are better overall movies, but the sheer quantity of belly laughs was a lot higher in Superbad. Here we are treated to classic bits of comedy like Jonah Hill trying to get an old woman to buy him booze, Michael Cera’s near miss first sexual encounter, and McLovin’s general McLovinness.
Most Underappreciated Film
There’s no pleasing everyone, but all too often movies fail to really get the acclaim they deserve. This isn’t necessarily an “under-rated” category, though those are eligible too. Really this is simply a category from movies that fell through the cracks either with critics, audiences or both. This is for the films the critics loved that got seen by few, and the films that got seen by many but failed to be taken seriously by critics. Its also the place for movies that just got straight up overlooked on all levels.
Beowulf: This film was a moderate box office success, but many critics seemed unable to see the many strong attributes it had outside of its technical merits. I think many were too distracted by the film’s 3D effects to notice that there’s a pretty clever script under all the technical advancements. The film is an interesting adaptation of an old tale that examines the dichotomy of the hero figure
Redacted: Of all the overlooked films that came out this year, Redacted would seem to be the most deserving. The film features terrible acting, a simplistic script and a gimmicky set up. However, what the film does have are balls of steel. This is the film for the most hardcore of liberal war activist and it pulls no punches at all. Crude though it may be; in a year of anemic issuetainment like Rendition and Lions for Lambs, this film really hit me.
Sunshine: This was a fairly large budget science fiction film with name actors and a respected director. Because of this I was surprised to find myself as the one and only person in the audience when I went to see it opening day. The film was ignored by audiences and argued about by polarized critics, and most certainly deserved better.
I Think I Love My Wife: This above average effort from Chris Rock is the best mediocre Woody Allen movie not to be made by Woody Allen in years. It was far from a perfect film. But it was an attempt to make a smart, funny comedy. Compared to the non-sence being put out by Rock’s fellow African American SNL alumni Eddie Murphy, this is something to be celebrated.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley: It may be a stretch to call a Palm D’or winner underappreciated, but I do think this film deserved better than its weak early April release date. This movie is just as good as many of the films being nominated for Oscars yet so many are just not bothering to think about it come year’s end.
The Golden Stake goes to… Sunshine
This was one of a few really good movies to be almost completely un appreciated both critics and audiences, and I can sort of see why it’s so polarizing. The film had an ending which could disappoint people looking for a more cerebral solution, but I’ve come to believe the ending works just fine, it just isn’t what many expected or wanted.
Best Foreign Language Film
Foreign films are all too often overlooked by those unwilling to read subtitles. There are great films from all over the world that all too often go overlooked in favor of mainstream fare. That isn’t to say everything with sub-titles is poor, but because of the extra complications with distributing sub-titled film the poor tend not to find their way into the English language market.
Black Book (Zwartboek)-Denmark: This return to form for Paul Verhoven, his first Dutch film since the mid eighties. With this World War 2 espionage film Verhoven is again able to explore the seedy, erotic side of his film style, an aspect he’s avoided since the disastrous Showgirls. This isn’t a perfect film but it has a real energy and a sense of fearlessness. I wish Verhoven hadn’t used a terrible framing story, but for the most part this is a wild ride.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon)-France: This has been a banner year for French cinema. French films can be found in the animation and lead actress categories at the Oscars this year, but the real gem of them all can be found in the director category where this gem can be found. Don’t be intimidated by the title, American director Julien Schnabel has made a beautiful film that’s accessible but never sells out.
Offside -Iran: This slice of life from Iran is a critique of the gender laws in this troubled nation. Iran is actually one of the most democratic and affluent nations in the Muslim world, yet it still has barbaric and misogynist laws preventing women from doing things as routine as attending a sporting event. The film tackles this subject matter in a light, somewhat humorous way that makes the you unsure whether to laugh or cry.
The Orphanage (El Orphanto)-Spain: This Spanish language horror film introduces the world to a promising new director: J.A. Bayona. The best film of its genre, The Orphanage is a really well made horror film that will send chills up your spine despite the familiarity of its content. There are really strong images in this tale and an intriguing mystery at its core.
Paprika –Japan: There is so much anime coming into the country that the market has really become diluted. Which is why it’s such a pleasant surprise whenever a really good one emerges; Paprika, is just such a film. This is a wildly creative film that explores the inner psyches of its characters by way of dreamscapes. The plot is overcomplicated, but the images are really compelling.
The Golden Stake goes to… The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Nothing else here even comes close. This is far and away the best foreign film of the year and it annoys me to no end that it wasn’t even submitted to compete in the best foreign language film category at the Oscars. This omission just screams for reform in that category and hopefully they will finally get it right next year.
Documentary of the Year
This is another category that I’m not entirely confident about giving out authoritatively. I rarely find myself seeing documentaries in theaters and there were a number of Oscar nominated Docs this year that I haven’t had a chance to see. Still, I’m going to give this a shot, hopefully I’ll get most of the year’s documentary highlights.
Helvetica: This is a documentary about, of all things, a typeface. Yes this is about the Helvetica font, something I see every day and never even think about. Though Helvetica is the hook, this movie is really about more than that, it is an exploration of graphic design in general, specifically text and typefaces. I had no idea this is something that could be turned into an 80 minute film, yet I was very interested throughout this film.
In the Shadow of the Moon: This film examines a very familiar subject that’s been analyzed in many feature films and mini-series. That subject is the 1969 moon landing, an event that has almost become ledged. In order to look at this subject in a new light the filmmakers decided to examine the mission on a more personal level through interviews with the astronauts involved.
The King of Kong: Certainly one of the most popular documentaries of the year among online circles. The subject of a rivalry over a Donkey Kong score, is a good set up for an examination of obsession and competitiveness. I really wish the filmmakers had focused more on these themes instead of manufacturing a god vs. evil narrative. Still, interesting things are captured.
No End in Sight: The best documentary yet about the Iraq war, and a well researched indictment of the failed policies that turned the war into the quagmire it’s become. This is in many ways the anti- Moore documentary in that it is extremely detailed and well researched. Most of the film consists of interviews with people who were on the scene when these decisions were made.
Sicko: Michael Moore is in many ways the Oliver Stone of documentary cinema; he makes wild, inventive, and highly enjoyable pieces that tend to piss off anyone who disagrees with him. Moore is certainly biased, but no more so than people like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, and unlike them he never pretends to be “fair and balanced.” Sicko is in many ways the culmination of what Moore has tried before; it combines the satirical stunts of Roger and Me, the sarcastic wit of Bowling for Columbine, and the serious tone of Fahrenheit 9/11.
The Golden Stake goes to… No End in Sight
The Iraq war is a major issue, but news accounts of it rarely go much past arguing pundits. The brilliant thing No End in Sight does is take a step back and look at the war from beginning to end, allowing the viewer to see the bigger picture of how the war went so wrong. Meticulously researched and fact checked, the film avoids sensationalism and delivers a strong, decisive message.