By Nick Schager
[Photo: Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” MGM, 2007]
Tilling the same ground over and over again is easy. Just ask Eli Roth. Or Michael Bay. Or Wes Anderson. Or the countless others who delivered new movies in 2007 that strongly evoked if not outright replicated their prior works. But taking a gamble, both narratively and aesthetically, is a feat worth celebrating, even if the end results aren’t wholly successful. These following five filmmakers all embraced projects that challenged them in new and exciting ways.
Paul Thomas Anderson “There Will Be Blood”
2004’s “Punch-Drunk Love” seems to have been the liberating experiment Anderson needed since “There Will Be Blood” finds the director thrillingly marrying his formidable technical skills to a legitimately epic saga devoid of his trademark (and now played out) pop culture riffing and favorite auteur homages. “Blood” is an astoundingly controlled period-piece-cum-horror-show whose form is awe-inspiringly in harmony with its content. From its elegant tracking shots to its employment of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s magnificent and otherworldly Kubrickian score, the film stands as the most vital turning point in Anderson’s career to date, an impressive shift from agreeably showy stylistics to exceptional, imposing artistry.
Frank Darabont “The Mist”
Setting aside the feel-good, Capra-esque schmaltz that had characterized his post-“Shawshank Redemption” output, Frank Darabont went fast, loose and nasty with this adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novella about a group of small-town Maine residents trapped in a grocery store by a mysterious fog. Shooting all his action with two roving cameras, Darabont’s latest has an intense in-your-face claustrophobia that balances out his script’s more preachy tendencies with a swift ferocity that culminates in a decidedly bleak finale. A less “important” genre film than his prior efforts, to be sure, but “The Mist” is more excitingly visceral than those heralded predecessors as well.
David Fincher “Zodiac”
Like Anderson, David Fincher’s storytelling gifts have often been overshadowed by his dexterous craftsmanship. And as with “There Will Be Blood,” “Zodiac” stands as a defining moment in the filmmaker’s career, exhibiting none of the self-conscious cinematographic frippery that infected his prior “Panic Room.” Stunningly synthesizing narrative and technique, Fincher’s “Zodiac” takes a wholly different approach to the serial killer genre that made him famous with 1995’s “Se7en,” concentrating less on traditional suspense tropes and jazzy visuals than on the rigorous process of journalistic and police investigation, as well as the immense personal toll wrought from obsession. It’s his masterpiece, for the time being.
Francis Ford Coppola “Youth Without Youth”
Having spent the last decade working on his dream project “Megalopolis,” Francis Ford Coppola finally returned to actual filmmaking — and delivered this bonkers philosophical head trip, which involves an old Romanian man (Tim Roth) in the 1930s who is struck by lightning and, consequently, becomes young again with supernatural powers. Oh, and then he rediscovers his long-dead lover reincarnated in a beautiful stranger who winds up being possessed by an ancient Indian woman who’s traveling backwards in time. Make sense? No. But with a new collaborator in cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (not to mention composer Osvaldo Golijov’s beautiful score), Coppola’s luscious widescreen photography has a grandeur that’s nonetheless entrancing. The director’s adventurousness is commendable, even if the end result is not.
Lasse Hallström “The Hoax”
Lasse Hallström’s preference for high-toned sentimentality can be insufferable, which is why it was such a pleasant surprise to find those directorial impulses largely absent from “The Hoax,” a mostly factual tale that, at least during its opening half, has a gleeful, rollicking vivacity. Things eventually fall apart once the story transforms into a flaccid pseudo-thriller that aspires to cast its protagonist Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), who tried to sell Houghton Mifflin a counterfeit memoir of Howard Hughes, into a big, fat symbol of Nixon’s dishonest America of the ’70s. But the film’s initial verve and vibrancy is so compelling that it almost absolves Hallström for making “Chocolat.”