The deadlines have passed both for list-making and awards-voting, but I still had a few 2007 movies lying around that I wanted to watch before putting a capper on my year and finally taking some time to see movies released in the past (it's been almost two months since I saw a movie not released in 2007).
Control (Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, dir. Anton Corbijn)
Although I'm even less familiar with Ian Curtis of Joy Division than I am with Bob Dylan, I found this biopic of the goth-rock icon much more accessible than I'm Not There, probably thanks to its far more conventional narrative structure. Corbijn, a longtime rock photographer and music-video director making his feature debut, doesn't reinvent the biopic formula, but he does shy away from big melodramatic moments, and he matches the aesthetic of his film to that of the band by shooting in stark, sometimes bleak, black and white. Although Riley's performance as Curtis is impressive, the film's main problem is that it's unable to really understand Curtis, to account for his emotions or why he hanged himself in 1980 at age 23. Granted, it's likely that no one really understood Curtis, and the fact that the movie is based on Touching From a Distance, the memoir by Curtis' widow Deborah, is telling. It, too, touches Curtis only from a distance, which can often be frustrating, especially since he's in virtually every frame of the film. Given the source material, and the fact that Deborah Curtis is a producer on the movie, it's not surprising that her character (played by Samantha Morton) gets the most depth and sympathy, although at least Corbijn doesn't vilify the Belgian journalist with whom Curtis had a prolonged affair. He does sort of ignore the other band members, who barely get any lines, but this is resolutely a movie about the man first and the music second, which makes it sometimes seem incomplete. At least it has a focus, though, which is more than can be said for most biopics, and Corbijn's photographer's eye ensures that it looks fantastic.
Lust, Caution (Tang Wei, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Joan Chen, dir. Ang Lee)
Those two words could describe much of Lee's work, which is largely about repressed emotion and the way that it boils over, often disastrously. This movie got mostly unenthusiastic reviews and has been virtually ignored at awards time (aside from occasional mentions in round-ups of the best foreign-language films), but I really liked it, and would put it up there with Lee's best work. Yes, it's slow and methodical and perhaps a little too long at almost 160 minutes, but I rarely felt impatient or frustrated with the pace of the story. It's by nature a slow burn, a long-term development of feelings on the part of the characters and a winding journey toward where they end up at the finish. Wei is fantastic as the naive drama student who undergoes a startling transformation into an undercover seductress; if I had seen this movie a week and a half ago, I would have added her to my Best Actress list. The much-hyped explicit sex scenes, which don't occur until nearly two hours into the film, are less sexy than brutal and intense, but they do a great job of conveying the complex emotions of the characters. Still, the movie is much less about explicit sex and more about stolen looks and furtive expressions, which all the actors carry off expertly. It's possibly even richer and more powerful than Brokeback Mountain, and well worth checking out for patient viewers when it comes out on DVD in February.
Zoo (documentary, dir. Robinson Devor)
This is really more of a documentary-narrative hybrid, with audio interviews played over reenactments. It's about the 2005 incident in which a Seattle man bled to death after having his colon punctured while having sex with a horse. A delicate subject, certainly, and Devor takes an interesting approach by sort of over-aestheticizing the subject, staging his reenactments with artsy slo-mo, soft focus, dreamy music and oblique angles. It's an innovative solution to the dilemma of several of his interviewees (so-called "zoos," people sexually attracted to animals, who were with the man the day he died) declining to appear on camera. Devor certainly could have gone the more conventional route and interviewed psychologists and pundits and cops and elected officials, but instead he chooses to paint a very sympathetic portrait of people far on the margins of accepted behavior, to show their predilections as genuine efforts at intimacy and happiness rather than sick sexual deviance. To me, this is the far more valuable strategy, and it works more often than not. Right in the middle of the movie, Devor cuts to an extended, on-camera interview with one of his actors, which is jarring and doesn't add anything to the understanding of the story. The disconnect between the audio and the visual also sometimes creates confusion, and bits of factual and chronological details are sacrificed to the artistry. Overall, though, this movie makes what could be a distasteful and sensationalized story into something compassionate and even beautiful.