Smile Politely

The Ten Best Flicks of 2007 That Skipped Champaign–Urbana

Yep, we’ve got a Big Ten school and a county-wide population of about 185,000. We are home to an internationally recognized film festival presented and curated by one Roger Ebert and we even have an independent cinema that regularly shows art house films throughout the year. But damned if there weren’t some films with major talent behind them that were never screened in town over the past year.

Granted, there are a great many factors that play into the release pattern of movies today, particularly those that have low budgets and are distributed by small companies. The striking of a film print is an expensive process, so far fewer are in distribution at any given time and studios aren’t willing to take a chance letting one of them play at a venue where there is no guarantee they will turn a profit. And of course, the real money is in getting your movie out on home video as soon as possible, after giving the film a cursory release in major markets, just so the stigma of having it go straight to DVD is properly put to rest.

Still, there’s nothing quite like the communal feeling you get when seeing a film in a theater, particularly when it’s fare that is likely to spark discussion afterwards. Regrettably, the following list consists of the ten best theatrically released films that were never shown on the big screen in this area. While you can catch up by taking them home on DVD, these all deserved to be seen on the format they were made for. Let’s hope this changes in 2008.

(Note: The best place to track these films is at That’s Rentertainment.)

10) Redacted: As directed by Brian De Palma, this grunt’s-eye view of the war in Iraq benefited greatly from the hand-held equipment that was used and the grainy footage it captured. Made to look as though it was culled from images shot by a foot soldier in Iraq (who hopes to make a documentary of his experiences), the film has a you-are-there feel to it that has never been portrayed on screen in regards to modern warfare. Some are put off of by De Palma’s in-your-face tactics and he shows no restraint here, but his aesthetics are perfectly suited for bringing to light a war that has been largely weighed in the shadows of the popular media. Infuriating and revolutionary, this is the perfect companion piece to the excellent Iraq war documentary, No End in Sight, which was also released earlier this year. (To be released on video February 19, 2008.)

9) King of California: Hey, I know a great many people who aren’t fans of Michael Douglas and I’m one of them. There’s always been an air of smugness about him, even when he’s tried to lighten up, as if he is superior to not only the material, but to those who pay to see him. (Tell the truth, wasn’t the best part of The Game the fact that we got to watch Douglas picked apart, piece by piece?) So, it came as quite a surprise that I was completely won over by him in King of California, a modern, small-scale update of King Lear that casts the actor as a man who reunites with his teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and convinces her to go on a treasure hunt with him. Crisply told and a whole lotta fun, this movie benefits from the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously — and by damn, Douglas doesn’t either. (To be released on video January 29, 2008.)

8) In the Shadow of the Moon: We live in an age in which we’ve become complacent about space travel. The space shuttle goes up, work is being done on the international space station and no one blinks an eye. David Sington’s marvelous documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, restores the sense of wonder and awe that should accompany such an astounding feat as rocketing through the cosmos by taking us back to the most important era of the space race — the 1960s — by assembling a treasure trove of newly released documentary footage and, more importantly, candid interviews from those who were there. The wonder in the voices of Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Michael Collins and their colleagues is obvious, and in their anecdotes, Sington recaptures how thrilling their achievements were and continue to be. (To be released on video February 12, 2008.)

7) Crazy Love: We’ve all been a fool for love at one time or another but Linda Riss has got to take the cake. Having been stalked by her former boyfriend, Burt Pugach, who hired a pair of thugs to blind her with lye, she still continued to correspond with him while he was in jail. While this might seem a bit odd, the fact that she married him after he was released is just bat-shit crazy. In this documentary, filmmaker Dan Klores examines their love affair, which shows that truth is stranger than fiction. He simply lays out the facts of this toxic relationship and allows us to step back and look on in wonder at the power of obsession and self-destructive behavior. (Currently available on DVD.)

6) The Hoax: So, when the hell did Richard Gere learn how to act? In all fairness, there’s been a glimmer of talent beneath that handsome face that’s been allowed to come out in certain projects (Sommersby and Dr. T and the Women) but never more so than in The Hoax. This based-on-a-true-story tale follows writer Clifford Irving’s effort to bamboozle the publishing world in the 1970s by claiming to be working on Howard Hughes’ autobiography with the reclusive billionaire. While this was a con job of the first order (for which Irving did jail time), Gere’s performance is as honest and genuine as it gets, especially when he takes on Hughes’ persona while dictating the “memoirs” to his colleague Dick Susskind (the excellent Alfred Molina). Great fun and a great time. (Currently available on DVD.)

5) Year of the Dog: Molly Shannon has always struck me as an actress who’s never been given the right role in which to shine. That all changed with Mike White’s Year of the Dog; she plays a young woman with an emotional void in her life who decides to fill it by adopting a lot, and I mean a LOT, of dogs after her own is tragically killed. Like White’s other films (The School of Rock, The Good Girl), this movie deftly walks the tightrope between comedy and pathos to deliver an accurate portrait of loneliness before offering up a notion of questionable salvation. (Currently available on DVD.)

4) The Walker: That Woody Harrelson – he drops out of sight for a while and then, all of the sudden, you can’t watch two previews without seeing a film in which he is cast. Paul Schrader’s The Walker was here and gone, even in the large markets it was released in, and that’s a shame. Harrelson reminds you of how good he is (forget that extended cameo in No Country for Old Men) as Carter Page III, a male escort who finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, having tried to cover up for one of his clients (Kristin Scott Thomas), who happens to be a senator’s wife. While some saw this as a retread of Schrader’s own American Gigolo, I couldn’t help but get swept away by Harrelson’s performance and the work of his co-stars Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and Willem Dafoe. (A home video release date has yet to be determined.)

3) Jindabyne: This import from Down Under transposes a Raymond Carver short story, which was also touched upon in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, and delivers a devastating story of human callousness, egocentric behavior and relationships torn asunder by long-held resentments brought to the fore. Gabriel Byrne stars as Stewart, a mechanic in the town of Jindabyne who sets out for a weekend fishing trip with his friends. Casting out in a remote area, they find the body of a young girl in the water and, instead of calling the authorities immediately, they tether it to the shore and go ahead with their sport. Needless to say, the backlash to their actions is devastating once it comes to light, with Stewart’s wife, Claire (Laura Linney), being most shocked by her husband’s behavior. Director Ray Lawrence elicits fine performances from his cast but the film’s power comes from the fact that it subtly reminds us of the horrors of which we’re capable. (Currently available on DVD.)

2) Away From Her: There’s been a great many awards thrown Julie Christie’s way for her work in this film — and rightfully so. Her performance as a proud, intelligent woman who’s slowly losing her mind because of Alzheimer’s disease is not only poignant, but at times funny, infuriating and all too human. Once institutionalized, Fiona (Christie) begins to fade away from her devoted husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), and finds companionship with another patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). The effect this has on Grant is devastating but during the lucid moments in which Fiona realizes her plight, Christie makes you feel her desperation and terror. (A home video release date has yet to be determined.)

1) First Snow: There are a handful of film actors who have eschewed the trappings of stardom and go out of their way to be in projects that challenge and interest them. Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan come to mind, as does Guy Pearce, the Australian actor who could have had Hollywood eating out of his hand after the success of L.A. Confidential but has instead starred in one quirky movie after another. His latest, First Snow, is reminiscent of his other classic noir thriller, Memento, as he plays a character wrestling with his own fate. Jimmy (Pearce) is a fast-talking salesman who takes his job, wife (Piper Perabo) and friends for granted. That is, until one day he finds himself stranded in a backwater berg and decides, for kicks, to get his fortune told by the local psychic (J.K. Simmons). While Jimmy doesn’t get the whole story as far as what his future holds, he figures out very quickly that it ain’t all good. He sets out to try to mend his ways and alter events that will happen which are inexorably tied to some dark deeds from his past. Taut and full of surprises, Pearce goes convincingly from cocky to desperate over the course of the film but more importantly, he makes us care for this callous manipulator by convincing us that moral redemption is possible. (A home video release date has yet to be determined.)

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