Thursday, January 31, 2008

2008: Preview


Confession: I'm a bit of a list whore. I've been making em' since I was quite young; I think my first one might have been Top Five Elementary School Lunch Options (#1, for the curious, was Pizza In a Pocket). Of course, ranking cafeteria food is perhaps more useful and less problematic than ranking, you know, art. But I've apologized enough for my excessive listology. It's probably time I just embrace it.

So after sucumbing to the most excessive and self-indulgent of critical pasttimes-- the Year End Review-- I'm going to treat myself to one more list. In lieu of tackling some overdue assignment, I irresponsibly present my Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2008.

Oh, and one more thing: lists are actually not the most excessive and self-indulgent of critical pasttimes. That would be Oscar predictions. Look for those here in a couple weeks. I am so weak...

The Most Anticipated of 2008


1. The Road: John Hillcoat, director of 2006's brilliant, brutal Australian western, The Proposition, takes on Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic triumph. Hillcoat knows a thing or two about bleak, barren landscapes, and his starkly poetic aesthetic is perhaps an even better fit for McCarthy than the Coens'. (Roger Ebert likened The Proposition to the author's Blood Meridian-- forget Ridley Scott, maybe Hillcoat should make that one, too) With Viggo headlining, this could easily be the Movie of the Year. That is, if it doesn't get pushed to 09...

2. The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick makes another movie. And it's only been three years! Who does this guy think he is, Takashi Miike? We don't know a damn thing about the project-- except that Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are attached-- but how much you want to wager it will be completely, overwhelmingly beautiful? Oh, and nature will probably be involved, too.

3. Snow Angels: Speaking of Malick, his most gifted disciple has a new one in 08, too. The trailer for David Gordon Green's latest doesn't exactly inspire confidence in me, but the writer-director has yet to make a bad movie, and the buzz at Sundance 07 (when this puppy debuted, a million years ago) was that his small-town melodrama is up to snuff. Almost as intriguing: Green's other 2008 effort, the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle Pineapple Express. Nope, not a joke. The man who made George Washington is doing an Apatow stoner comedy. It's going to be a weird year.

4. The Dark Knight: It's a pretty enormous bummer about Heath Ledger. The guy had talent. Will this be the last we see of him? If so, he appears to have gone out on a deliriously exciting high note-- Ledger's Joker looks like the stuff of nightmares. Everyone knows the second movie is always the best in comic book franchises. And based on the first six minutes of the film, Christopher Nolan appears to have learned how to shoot an action sequence. It's no consolation for losing such a young, promising talent, but this could damn well be the best comic book movie ever made.

5. The Time Traveler's Wife: One of my favorite modern novels comes to the big screen before I had the chance to write the adaptation. I'm not thrilled about the director (Robert Schwentke, Flightplan) or the screenwriters (scribes behind Ghost and The Notebook) but casting Eric Bana as Henry and Rachel McAdams as Claire was a stroke of minor genius. As much as I was curious about Van Sant's long-dead version, I suppose I should just be thankful that it's not Brad Pitt jumping around in time and Jennifer Aniston wringing her hands in worry.

6. My Blueberry Nights: It's supposed to be a complete disaster, but one could almost say that about all of Wong Kar Wai's ramshackle delights. The Hong Kong filmmaker's English language debut stars Norah Jones, but don't hold that against it just yet. If Nights is half as lovely as Chungking Express, I'll be singing its praises come this time next year.

7. Synecdoche, New York: How's this for a premise: an ambitious theatre director tries to build a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse! Wackiness likely ensues in the directorial debut of master screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Not sure what's more exciting: a new mind-blending narrative from Kaufman or a cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, and Diane Wiest.

8. Paranoid Park: Word from Cannes is that Gus Van Sant's latest is one of his most humanistic triumphs yet. Look out if, as promised, this one marries a real narrative to the director's burgeoning aesthetic mastery. Gerry with an honest-to-God story? I'm there.

9. Be Kind, Rewind: After Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, and the joyous Dave Chapelle's Block Party, I'll follow Michel Gondry wherever he wants to go. This ode to low-rent moviemaking looks like a silly, warm-hearted blast. The trailer sold me in a heartbeat. Every time I hear Jack Black butcher the Ghostbusters theme, I break into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

10. WALL-E: Cars aside, a new Pixar film is the closest Hollywood comes to a sure-thing source of unbridled elation. The question is probably not "Will it be wonderful?" but "will be as wonderful as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or Ratatouille?" You spoil us, Pixar.

Friday, January 25, 2008

YEAR IN REVIEW: THE WORST OF 2007


But maybe you didn’t have the year I did at the movies. Maybe the ratio of inspirational to inexcusable was, for you, far too low. Maybe you saw Transformers instead of The Host, or Good Luck, Chuck instead of Superbad. My heart goes out to you. This is the section for you.

I’m faced again with the same dilemma: is it worth to go here? In a year this particularly outstanding, why not let sleeping dogs lie, bygones be bygones, and the worst of the worst remain buried and (hopefully) forgotten? That’d be the high road to take, and I admire those who have done so. But if writing is a tool for cleansing one’s soul and exorcising one’s demons, then a little critical retribution can be downright purifying. Consider this my baptism of fire.

The following films aren’t just bad, they’re downright reprehensible. If you believe, as I do, that movies have the power to improve the world, then the opposite must hold true as well. These are the blights upon our film culture. May they be washed away and forgotten before they do any more damage.



1) Trade: Like the evil doppelganger of this year’s stellar feminist manifestos, this one feigns outrage, and then gets off on the very degradation it’s pretending to be condemning. An “edgy” look at sex trafficking, Trade is the worst kind of smut, the kind that hides its dark impulses behind a pretense of “importance,” justifying its lewd exploitation as The Horrors We Need To See. This is no hard-hitting expose, though. Rather, it’s a thriller that builds its giddy suspense around a queasy, will she/won’t she hypothetical: the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Sick, sick shit.


2) 300: Kick-ass spectacle or brain-dead garbage? Neither point of view accounts for the full impact and significance of Zack Snyder’s digital, eyesore epic. In 300, Aryan supermen chop through blacks, queers, and armies of faceless foreigners in the name of some vague, ill-defined notion of “freedom.” The Poet Laureate of George W. Bush’s America, Synder’s got his finger on the pulse of a nation—and it’s beating like a war-drum. Is Iran next?


3) Norbit: Eddie Murphy stars in “Mantan’s New Millenium Minstrel Show.” Oh wait, I’m sorry, that’s the TV spin-off. My mistake.


4) Hostel: Part II: In the endless race between Eli Roth’s depravity and his sheer ineptitude, the depravity just took a narrow lead. You want to hate and punish women, Eli, you go ahead. But don’t try to sell your bile as a “reflection” of a post-9/11 world. The only thing this trash signifies is a complete lack of values and imagination.


5) Southland Tales and Revolver: Behold, the dangers of unchecked auteurism! With their latest passion projects, Richard Kelly and Guy Ritchie demonstrate what it looks like to crawl completely up your own ass. Bound for cult status, Kelly’s dsytopian “satire” is the world’s longest, most self-serious SNL sketch—or Idiocracy as written by the characters in Idiocracy. Revolver is the What the Bleep Do We Know? of very bad, very generic Goodfellas knock-offs. Neither is as fun-bad as it sounds. Both are harmless but unfathomably stupid and mind-numbingly boring. Boys, is that the stinking corpse of Ed Wood I smell, or just your careers?

YEAR IN REVIEW: THE BEST OF 2007


2007 was one of the richest and most substantial years for cinema in recent memory—or, depending on what you saw, one of the most frivolous. As the War in Iraq raged on and the world continued to unravel at the seams, people flocked to the movies in record-breaking numbers. Yet while Hollywood offered the usual opiates and distractions, the easy answers and the escapist fantasies, alternative figures assembled on the fringe, ready to tackle bigger ideas and bolder themes through their respective works. It was as if there existed two opposing film cultures, racing along on separate tracks, each promising a different kind of bang for your hard-earned buck.

On Hollywood’s end, it was the biggest year in box-office history, and from February on, the hit parade never seemed to end. The spring brought such unlikely successes as the racist Norbit and the homophobic Wild Hogs, not to mention very predictable smashes like the racist and homophobic 300. Once the summer began, all bets were off, as nearly everything the Dream Factory cooked up went down smooth at the multiplex. It was a non-stop barrage of sequels, three-quels, remakes, and rehashes… and the public lapped it up and asked for more. The rare studio picture that flopped—like David Fincher’s Zodiac or Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford—tended to be of a much darker, more challenging variety. If it didn’t feature pirates, Spartans, or loud, shiny, product-placement-ready robots, most folks just weren’t interested.

On the other end of the spectrum, fans of the profound, the strange, or the merely different had to venture out of the multiplexes and into the art-houses to get their fix. It was in these smaller venues, buried within the heart of big cities, that a sort of parallel film universe developed. In this alternate space, passion projects like Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth and Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers found their audience, old masters like Resnais and Rivette gained a U.S. platform for their still-vital voices, and hard-hitting, non-fiction polemics thrived and flourished. For a lucky few, the festival circuit brought new treasures from across the globe; here’s hoping such mesmerizing gems as Bela Tarr’s The Man From London and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy eventually find distributors in the States.

If there was a place where these two wildly different film cultures met—a middle ground or a neutral zone—it was somewhere near the dead center of IndieWood. For whatever else it was, 2007 was an unusually strong year for mainstream, homegrown independent film. And standing at the intersection of Commercial Success and Critical Acclaim were this past season’s bleak, towering triumphs of American auteurism: the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Watching the two duke it out at this year’s Oscar ceremony—assuming the event even happens—will be a rare treat for film lovers the nation over. (Whoever loses, we win)

Yet as strong as these instant classics are (see my top ten list below), it was a blast from the past that proved to be the year’s most rewarding movie-going experience.

THE BEST OF 2007


1) Killer of Sheep: Twelve months of exciting, provocative, wildly eclectic cinema, and I go with a thirty-year-old relic as my Movie of the Year. It seems a bit like cheating—but, then, who said loving film was about playing by the rules? Receiving its first and only theatrical release just this past spring, Charles Burnett's 1977 masterpiece deserves—nay, demands—to be discovered and celebrated by a new generation of eager cinephiles. With sadness in its soul and yearning in its bones, this lost-and-found treasure of low-budget, fiercely independent American filmmaking renders vivid the plight of Stan, a weary slaughterhouse worker struggling to get by in South Central Los Angeles. The film has the loose, swinging cadence of jazz, and it unfolds like a series of stolen glimpses into a bustling, poverty-stricken community: children play, adults laugh and bicker, and Stan soldiers through his day, dreaming of the scarce time he gets to spend with his family. For Burnett, life is full of simple joys and small disappointments, of love and hardship, and he depicts working-class existence not as a living hell per say, but as a tedious malaise, hard on the body and corrosive to the soul. As essential today as it must have felt three decades ago, Killer of Sheep may be the single most compassionate and humanistic portrait of life-on-the-fringes ever filmed—it’s the defining cinematic text of Marginalized America. 1977, 2007, or any year in between: Burnett’s achievement is, quite simply, timeless.


2) There Will Be Blood: “I’ve got the competition in me, “ seethes Daniel Day-Lewis deep into Paul Thomas Anderson’s mad, mad American nightmare. An insatiable lust for power and fortune drives his black-hearted oil baron, but it’s the healthy bond between liked-minded artistic souls that keeps this infernal machine in motion. Every man plays his part: Day-Lewis in his simmering blend of greed, hatred, and raw ambition, and Paul Dano in the calculated hysterics of his prairie preacher. Robert Elswit’s elegant, dazzling camera-work, Jack Fisk’s elaborate production design, and Johnny Greenwood’s haunting, jarring, unforgettable score—all essential components of this strange, disturbing, magnificent triumph, an allegory for our new age of oil-thirsty tyrants and fire-and-brimstone religious zealots. Yet it’s P.T.’s blood—his obsession and his vision—that courses through the thing, lending it a spooky, idiosyncratic power all its own. And final words aside, Anderson’s far from finished—a new benchmark set, he’s just getting started. (FULL REVIEW)


3) Offside: The plight of the oppressed in Iran has always been of utmost importance to Jafar Panahi. In Offside, the writer-director marries his message to a bona fide entertainment, coming up with something downright revolutionary in the process: a feel-good polemic. Starting with a simple, insular premise—five young women are busted and detained outside of a soccer stadium for trying to sneak into the game—this comedy of errors makes farce and folly of gender apartheid. “These silly laws oppress us all,” Panahi shrewdly proclaims, and it’s in the funny, pointed banter between the girls and the guards that he pleads his heartfelt case. Culminating in a climax of joyous, rapturous release, one of the most celebratory and uplifting I’ve ever seen, Offside posits that you can at once love your country and challenge its policies. This is political filmmaking at its most accessible and utterly persuasive—the type of movie, in other words, that could change hearts, minds, and maybe the world itself.


4) The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford:
Emerging from the locomotive steam like an apparition, Brad Pitt’s Jesse James is a flesh-and-blood icon, man and legend rolled into one enigmatic whole. He’s Pitt’s most compelling creation—a moody rock star of the 19th century—but this aging desperado is only the supporting figure in Andrew Dominik’s hypnotic tone poem western. In the flat-out performance of the year, Casey Affleck plays the craven, star-struck Bob Ford, standing at the crossroads of history, about to confront the discrepancy between boyhood fantasy and harsh, light-of-day reality. With the help of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, Dominik paints a gorgeous, idealized picture of Outlaw America… only to then glorify its murder at the hands of a rapidly encroaching, modernist future. Unfolding like a fever-dream eulogy for a dying era, Jesse James implies that the true casualty of its oft-told tale is the Old West itself—its myths, its heroes, and all of its phony romantic promises. What a thrilling swan song it makes for.


5) Lake of Fire: Great documentaries are often investigations, but they can also be dialogues. The brilliance of Tony Kaye’s unflinching look at the abortion conflict lies not in its journalistic neutrality—who can be completely objective when dealing with this issue?—but in its unwavering commitment to letting every voice be heard. Shot over fifteen years, on stark, black-and-white 35MM, this exhausting and exhaustively researched examination spends close to three hours tackling its taboo topic through the words, testimonials, musings, and ravings of its various interview subjects. Not all of it is pretty—both the actual abortion footage and the Right Wing sermonizing are hard to stomach—but, in its ever shifting perspectives, Lake of Fire offers something close to the cinematic last word on the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate. It’s an argument that becomes a history lesson, only to find an individual focal point in its stirring home stretch. Via this moving tangent, Kaye’s ultimate, empathetic stance takes shape: when it comes to politics of the body, the issue is always a personal one.


6) No Country For Old Men: To call it a return to form is accurate but misleading. It’s more like a culmination, glorious payoff on everything Joel and Ethan Coen have learned about tension, release, and the philosophy of noir in their 20-plus years behind the camera. Stark, elegant and ferociously violent, the brothers’ latest swipes a page from Cormac McCarthy and runs with it into the heart of the Texas desert. It’s there that the chase begins, with Josh Brolin’s cipher cowboy on the lam, Javier Bardem’s psycho assassin in hot pursuit, and Tommy Lee Jones’ weary lawman taking the hindmost. The Coens have got the mechanics of suspense down to a razor-sharp, pulse-pounding science, yet if their magnum opus is a first-rate thriller—surely the best of the year, maybe even of the decade—it’s also a totally rewarding anti-thriller. For it’s in the hotly debated third act that No Country transforms from a very good film to a great one, subverting our expectations, turning inward, and casting a mournful, contemplative eye on the bloodshed it depicts. Tragedy has never looked this sharp or sounded this quiet. (FULL REVIEW)


7) The Host: The year's purest blast of Hollywood movie magic came not from Hollywood, but from the distant shores of South Korea. Even without its goofy-sweet humor, its topical environmental anxiety, and its moments of genuine, disarming emotion, The Host would still be one hell of a Saturday night monster movie. With all those elements, it's a whole lot more: a spirited genre pastiche that both transcends its B-movie premise and joyfully revels in it. Writer-director Joon-ho Bong is a master of propulsive, kinetic set-pieces (see: the first appearance of the creature), but he proves here to be just as adept at the “small moments,” the intimate exchanges between his squabbling kin protagonists. In this way, you could call the film “Spielbergian,” except neither Bruce the Shark nor that towering T-Rex has the presence or personality—the honest-to-God life—of Bong’s leaping, snarling, primordial beastie. (FULL REVIEW)


8) My Kid Could Paint That: The inadvertent Meta mind-fuck of the year, My Kid Could Paint That shows what happens when a filmmaker stumbles onto his real story by way of (not so) happy accident. When he began shooting, Amir Bav-Lev was sure he was making a documentary about Marla Olmstead, the 4-year-old media darling whose paintings took the modern art world by storm. But when allegations surface that it’s Marla’s father doing the painting, Bav-Lev finds himself in the middle of a media circus—and suddenly he has doubts of his own. Who is the actual artist? If the work is what really counts, why does it matter if it was made by an adult or a toddler? And how does one, as a filmmaker, reconcile journalistic integrity with personal, moral responsibility to one’s subjects? The questions linger like a curious aftertaste, and what starts out as a cute human-interest story becomes something sharper, pricklier, and more deeply troublesome: a documentary that casts its own existence under suspicion.


9) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days: In contrast to Offside, here’s the feel bad polemic of the year, a much more harrowing ode to feminine solidarity in the face of an oppressive, patriarchal regime. Chronicling the efforts of a young woman to secure an illegal abortion for her college roommate, this Palme d’Or winner has the rhythm of neo-realism and the texture of horror, but its heart beats the blood of social outrage. It’s with great empathy that writer-director Cristian Mungui plunges us into a moment-by-moment nightmare—a veritable Day From Hell for these unlucky women—and he’s fortunate to have as his heroine radiant newcomer Anamarie Marinca, whose confidence, compassion and resourcefulness lend the work a bold, feminist slant. Like Lake of Fire, the film views abortion as both a personal and a political choice, and a right that must be fought for with tooth and nail. The crowning jewel of the Romanian New Wave, 4 Months is a queasy ordeal, but it’s one that leaves you shaken, wound up, and moved. (FULL REVIEW)


10) Zodiac: By my estimation, a first: a detective drama that’s main character isn’t the cop, the killer, the intrepid newsman or even the plucky, everyman cartoonist—it’s the case itself. And oh what a case it is! With detail-oriented precision, David Fincher’s labyrinthine procedural traces the ups and downs—the twists and turns, the solid leads and the red herrings—of one of our nation’s most fascinating unsolved mysteries. There’s no tidy resolution to this decade-spanning experiment, which adheres not to any clean narrative structure or smooth character arc, but to the specifics of its tangled, layered investigation. A dazzling throwback to the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, Zodiac immortalizes our collective passing into the information age, an era where any one of us can play cop, detective, or rabid conspiracy theorist. It’s all there at our fingertips—but beware the destructive, all consuming power of true obsession.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Again, it depended on what you saw, but for me, 2007 was a great year for film—perhaps, in fact, the greatest of my relatively short lifetime. As such, ten selections are hardly enough to convey the pleasures and the rewards that cinema provided me these past twelve months. Here are sixteen more unqualified triumphs of sight and sound:

A brainy valentine to movies, music, and the “many lives” of Bob Dylan, Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There was the perfect antithesis of biopic fluff like Ray and its ilk. Like a long overdue corrective to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers played affectionate, languishing, bittersweet tribute to late 60s, Parisian Bohemia. Driven by the tender performances of Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, Away From Her was the most devastating love story of the year. For pure elation, it was hard to beat these animated delights: Pixar’s rodent-in-the-kitchen farce, Ratatouille, and Marjane Satrapi‘s heartfelt memoir Persepolis. Christian Bale braved the elements for Werner Herzog in Rescue Dawn, another of the great director’s great odes to the iron will of desperate, besieged men. No End In Sight offered the year’s most direct and biting criticism of the War in Iraq, a damning laundry list of the ways Bush and his cronies botched the reconstruction. On the other end of the documentary field, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters provided both a vivid portrait of a fascinating subculture and the sort of real-life underdog story Hollywood couldn’t write if it tried. Not just the year’s best horror film, The Mist was also a shockingly bleak expatiation on post-9/11 paranoia. A lush feast for the eyes, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly boldly championed the cathartic, healing power of art, for those making it and those experiencing it. Some kind of miracle: Sean Penn’s gorgeous Into the Wild grooved on the idealism of its vagabond hero without deifying him. Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd went fearlessly frantic in William Friedkin’s underrated Bug. And, finally, the gold star comedies of 2007: Edgar Wright’s affectionate action tribute, Hot Fuzz; Adrienne Shelly’s sweet, funny swan song, Waitress; and two doses of arrested male development courtesy of Judd Apatow, Knocked Up and Superbad.

For a full list of Film Monthly Year Ends from my peers and contemporaries, go here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

THERE WILL BE BLOOD


Finally, a new review. And this one's a doozy: Paul Thomas Anderson's new magnum opus, quite possibly the Movie of the Year. Check it out below and here.

Next up: Cassandra's Dream, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and my 2007 Year In Review. Thanks for reading!

THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Seeping out of the ground like some primordial ooze, dark and thick and fluid, a priceless poison. It's pure crude oil, and what Daniel Plainview sees in it is nothing less than the future—his and a whole nation's, reflected in the shiny slick that spews from the dirt and coats his hands. The year is 1898, and Plainview's in a hole, chipping away at rock and earth, searching for gold in the hills of California. What he eventually finds down there in the darkness is better still: black gold, the flowing lifeblood of a booming new industry. Staring into the bubbling abyss, Plainview's eyes go ablaze with hunger, and when he raises his grimy hand to the sky, it's not in reverence to any God, but to the filthy fortune of the soil. Nothing—not broken bones, nor fallen comrades—is going to stand between him and success. Nothing.

Twenty minutes in, and we know all that we really need to know about Daniel Plainview, the man he is and the monster he'll become. He hasn't spoken a word yet, but we've seen him alone in his pit, chopping away like a soul possessed, and we've seen him drag himself across the desert on a shattered limb. He's relentlessly determined, this one, but there's something else behind those eyes. It's a glimmer of madness, a deep and irrational loathing, and it's there in the title, too. There Will Be Blood—a promise of violence, yes, but also a fitting evocation of the creeping-dread nightmare to come. A horror movie of cold, relentless, distinctly American ambition, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest and greatest effort is built around a plethora of seeming contradictions. It's a period piece with a jagged, modern soul, a historical drama with only a tangential interest in history, and a character study that maddeningly, persistently resists dissecting its main character. It's a film of deathly quiet ebbs and shrieking, hysterical flows, a jarring mixture of patient mood setting and sudden, explosive insanity. At a hefty two hours and forty minutes, it takes its sweet time and moves like a bullet. This extraordinary achievement is the new anti-redemption fable. How fitting, then, that it begins in the wet, murky bowels of the earth.

Treacherous hills and bone-dry valleys—this is the American West as a barren dead zone. For Daniel Day-Lewis, the leading man of this turn-of-the-century yarn, it's all just scenery to chew. Really, though, who else but our premiere method madman to tackle a villain this ruthless, a tyrant this outsized in his avarice and contempt? A decade after climbing out of his hole, Plainview's a self-proclaimed "Oilman," roaming from town to town, swindling goggle-eyed locals out of their properties and sucking up the priceless fuel beneath their feet. Like a shrewder, quieter cousin of Bill the Butcher, this intrepid businessman surveys the world through squinted-eyes and clenched teeth, and when he finally does speak, it's in a vaguely implacable drawl, each syllable enunciated with condescending precision. He's one of cinema's great misanthropes—as angry as Travis Bickle, as bitter as Nick Nolte in Affliction—yet Day-Lewis, in the most thrilling performance of his career, affords this scoundrel a pretense of politeness. Plainview hides his hatred behind a thin veil of niceties, and it's both hilarious and scary to watch him tremble his way through a conversation, always one breath away from an outburst. If there's any love in this bastard's blackened heart, he saves it all for H.W. (Dillon Freasier), his "business partner" and adopted son, the orphaned child of a long-dead associate. There's a genuine bond between the man and the boy, but even that can be corrupted by the folly of obsession.

California is Plainview’s kingdom. Has it ever looked this bleak or lifeless, this utterly foreign? Through the lens of Robert Elswit's gliding, darting, all-seeing camera, The Golden State is a vast, alien world. For Paul Thomas Anderson, a hotshot survivor of the 90s indie wave, it's uncharted territory. Far from the urban tangle of his native Los Angeles and into a muckraker's neck of The Jungle—P.T.’s fifth feature is his first adaptation, a very loose take on Upton Sinclair's polemical Oil!. Ironic, then, that it also feels like the writer-director's purest vision to date, more "his" than anything he's done before. Something of a fanboy auteur, Anderson's never been particularly shy about quoting, referencing, or downright lifting from his canonized forbearers. If Boogie Nights was his electrifying riff on Scorsese, and Magnolia evoked the loose, ensemble spirit of Altman, then it's equally clear what lionized legend of cinema looms largest over There Will Be Blood. From the first discordant notes of the film's score—a brilliant, dissonant mess of staccato strings and primal drums courtesy of Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood—the shadow of the late and great Stanley Kubrick creeps menacingly into frame. Blood appropriates the ice-cold, reptile intensity of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, but if Kubrick is the best point of reference here, than one might more accurately call this Anderson's Space Odyssey: a bold, uncompromised leap into the great unknown, and a jaw-dropping showcase for his maturing instincts as both storyteller and aesthetic visionary.

Indeed, there are no shortage of wonders in Anderson’s bag of tricks, but all of the visual wizardry he musters—the elegant tracking shots and remarkable montages—would mean next to nothing were they not married to a narrative of such strange, bewildering power. On a tip from a mysterious stranger, Plainview and son set out for Little Boston, a dirt-poor hamlet in the heart of the desert. No grain will grow in the parched soil, but beneath it there courses a veritable “ocean of oil,” and Daniel wants it all to himself. He builds a towering, wooden derrick, and one thinks again of 2001, except that this Monolith sparks madness not enlightenment, animalistic regression not evolution. It also marks an ideological line in the sand. For it’s here in Little Boston that Daniel first spars with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young, fire-and-brimstone preacher who views the oilman’s arrival as both a problem and an opportunity. It’s the petty, funny, increasingly antagonistic interactions between them that underline the film’s allegorical intent. Liars and hypocrites the both of them, Daniel and Eli are also symbols of the twin, destructive forces of American culture: capitalism and evangelical Christianity. Anderson shrewdly conveys this by crosscutting between the construction of the derrick and the renovation of the church, and he gives both men sermons to deliver, with Daniel appealing to the community’s greed and Eli their fear. Alas, it’s a slight missed opportunity, for the film fails to illuminate the ways in which religion and capitalism increasingly feed off each other—these two rivals clash and bicker to the shocking, bloody end. Yet Anderson’s ability to cast their conflict as a metaphoric one without resorting to schematic characterizations is some kind of miracle. This is an epic at once personal, political, and, in its audacious formal glories, downright expressionistic.

There Will Be Blood’s quiet dramatic centerpiece is a fireside chat between Daniel and a new partner. “I look at people, and I see nothing worth liking,” the oilman seethes, and it’s a chilling moment, not in the least because Day-Lewis plays it like an amused confession and a bid for a willing accomplice. Yet if the scene sheds a little light on the character’s nature, on his competitive drive and his searing misanthropy, it hardly demystifies him. Anderson offers no pat explanations, no hackneyed psychobabble, no clues to cracking the Plainview code. His “evil” is never explained away. It’s just there in the blood. And this proves to be a telling revelation, as it suggests the true conflict buried within the movie. In the greatest of many remarkable set-pieces, Plainview’s derrick hits a vein and erupts like a geyser. The young H.W. is caught in the explosion, deafened by a blow to the head, but after rescuing him from the wreckage, Daniel abandons him to gawk at the up-in-flames derrick, counting in his head all the money he’ll make. It’s a crucial turning point: the man chooses ambition over family, the boy never regains his hearing, and a permanent wedge is driven between them. His one tie to humanity severed—and the one person he cared about turned against him—Daniel slides into a downward spiral, succumbing to paranoia, violence, and insanity.

And then the baroque epilogue: Daniel as an old man, alone in a giant, empty mansion, Charles Foster Kane with a few more screws loose. Freed from the burden of restraint, Day-Lewis finally flies entirely over the top, and the film giddily follows his lead into the ether. It’s a jarring, nasty, bizarre, deliriously daffy scene to go out on, but it feels oddly right, too. Like 2001 in reverse, this is the final devolution, Daniel reverting to a barbaric, primitive state. “I’m finished,” he says, and it’s his ambition that does him in. Not the case with Anderson, a man no less hounded by his own obsession, whose artistic drive is mirrored in the naked desire on screen, the ferocity of purpose. But, like Daniel Plainview, Anderson can’t do it on his own, and There Will Be Blood ultimately stands, boldly and confidently, as a triumph of collaboration. The fluid grace of Elswit’s camera, the volcanic fury of Day-Lewis’ oil baron, even the simpering hysterics of Paul Dano’s holy man—they’re all different notes, some struck in unison, others in contrast. The result, not unlike Greenwood’s haunting score, is a disharmonious symphony of chaos. And it’s Anderson's composition—not always pretty, but completely unforgettable. Something tells me that film lovers will be humming its tune for years.