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Crime Movies Pay

2007 was a great year for gangster, noir, and underworld movies

Greetings Diablo magazine readers and various browsers of the Internet.

Welcome to my new movie blog, Pete’s Popcorn Picks. I’ve been an editor at Diablo for nine years, but a movie buff for much longer than that. (My obsession with cinema dates back to 1974, a magical screening of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN on PBS, and a trip to a drive-in theater to see a double feature of BAMBI and SUPERDAD). In this blog I’ll be reviewing new and mainstream films, reporting on local festivals and special screenings, and tossing out random Netflix recommendations to anyone who cares to browse. A lot of friends will see specific references to films we’ve shared. It’s going to be fun.


First things first: Crime paid off, big time, at the movies in 2007. I’m not sure why that is—it could be our exhaustion from another year of war in Iraq—. The original wave of great American noir pictures came in the mid-to-late 1940s, after the world was enduring the end and the aftermath of World War 2. This year,  war-themed movies like LIONS FOR LAMBS and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH tanked at the box office, but critics and audience responded to ultra-bleak crime sagas like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and AMERICAN GANGSTER.

Speaking of which, if you haven’t seen NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is every bit the masterpiece everyone keeps telling you it is. Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, O Brother! Where Art Thou?) directing the prose of the now-legendary Western author Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest match-made-in-heaven meetings since “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter.” The performances are superb throughout, and Javier Bardem’s phantomlike villain is a mysterious force of the very worst human nature. My friend Dave Simpson was beaming when I popped into his Lafayette Bookstore recently. “No Country was my favorite book the year it came out,” he beamed. “And I’ve seen the movie three times already.”

One of the nicest cinematic surprises I've had in a long time was BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, and I'm sorry to see that audiences have not flocked to this one. It's gritty, edgy, tense, and freakin' fantastic. 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet, the genius behind some of my all time favorite films (NETWORK, THE VERDICT) is in fine form, thanks to a killer screenplay by first timer Kelly Masterson, this is a riveting free fall into hell; or, contemporary noir at its finest. The plot, which zigzags back and forth in time, has to do with a jewelry robbery gone, horribly, horribly wrong. The performances, by Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, and particulalry by Phil Seymour Hoffman, are stellar. This one had me inching forward in my chair...until it peaked with "edge of seat tension" in the final act. Great stuff!

Ben Affleck redeemed himself for years of on-screen dreck with his directorial debut, GONE BABY GONE. Working from a story by the great Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane (MYSTIC RIVER), Affleck guides a great cast of actors through a missing child mystery that builds to a fascinating climax. Affleck's Boston upbringing pays off big time, the movie just drips with South Boston flavor. Watch for actress Amy Ryan at the Oscars—her performance as the all time anti-soccer mom is  stunning.

Even AMERICAN GANGSTER was a great time at the movies, with Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, and director Ridley Scott (and the $100 million budget that stars of that magnitude bring with them) recreating the mean streets of French connection-era New York City. At 2 hours, 40 minutes, the film was never boring, but didn’t exactly elevate to the levels of greatness that gangster genre entries like GOODFELLAS and THE GODFATHER PART 2 have reached.

Two days after seeing AMERICAN GANGSTER, I saw EASTERN PROMISES (dir. David Cronenberg) at the Cerrito Speakeasy theatre in El Cerrito, which shot up my list of favorite movies of the year. Cronenberg’s film is a full hour shorter than Scott’s, but goes deep inside the noir-ish world of Russian mobsters in London, thanks to a fantastic screenplay by Steven Knight and a lead performance by Viggo Mortensen. Also outstanding are Naomi Watts, Vicent Cassel, and Armmin-Mueller Stahl as the seemingly gentle, but oh-so-evil mob godfather. If you liked Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE or Steven Frears’s DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, definitely give EASTERN PROMISES a look.

Last but not least, I should remind crime film buffs of two films from early 2007 that you can add right now to your Netflix Queue.

First is David Fincher’s masterful ZODIAC. Released in early March, just as THE DEPARTED was winning the Best Picture Oscar, ZODIAC disappeared quickly from theaters. It’s well worth a look on home video. Fincher resists being as show-offy as he was in his meticulously researched procedural film. Although several murder scenes that occur in the first hour are horrifying, Fincher’s film is the subtler examination of the Zodiac killer’s reign of terror through the eyes of the journalists and police officers obsessed with capturing him. With a particularly strong performance by Robert Downey Jr. (unlikely to be remembered at Oscar nomination time, unfortunately), as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, ZODIAC was more like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN than SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Another absolute crime gem from this past year is THE LOOKOUT. The directorial debut of Scott Frank (screenwriter of 2 of the 3 best-ever Elmore Leonard adaptations (Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, but not Jackie Brown), THE LOOKOUT is a tigh-knit bank-job thriller, with a knockout lead performance from twentysomething actor Joseph Gordon Levitt (the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun!) and a fun supporting turn by Jeff Daniels. It's getting late so I need to wrap it up here, but that's OK, because this is one of those little movies where the less you know, the better.