Whether 2007 was a great year for filmgoing or not, it was a terrible year for cinephilia: months later, the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni still loom over every movie with aspirations to higher art. Not to mention the ridiculous Bergman Wars that erupted all over the internet as to whether or not he was a worthwhile filmmaker, all because Jonathan Rosenbaum didn’t like him and wrote a startlingly ill-researched essay to prove it.
That said, I don’t think I buy the frequently posited argument that this was all that fantastic a year. A whole lot of pretty good films but hardly a single masterpiece – not a single film that fundamentally challenged what “the cinema” can be, at least not once you’re out of the festival ghetto. It was a banner year for the middlebrow, no doubt, but when ordinarily smart people are calling Sweeney Todd and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead career peaks for the directors of Edward Scissorhands and The Verdict, something has gone wrong. Maybe it was a fabulous year for Oscar contenders, but that’s hardly the same thing. It was a quantitatively good year – lots and lots of good movies – but not a qualitatively good one – precious few of them are films for the ages. But you know, it was a lot better than 2006. I’ll give it that.
Anyway, enough grousing: there was still enough that I left some fine films off of my top 20, let alone my top 10, but I can’t shake the feeling that I haven’t had such a boring list since 2002.
NB: having felt really guilty for putting undistributed films on my “official” list last year, I’ve decided to give the festival circuit its own section. This has the effect of making my top 10 more user-friendly, and even still more boring.
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Away from Her
5. There Will Be Blood
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
8. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
9. Across the Universe
0. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino)
The issue, very simply, is this: nothing about Rodriguez’s Planet Terror or Tarantino’s Death Proof, if they were taken individually, would come withing swiping distance of a best films list, let alone the very top. But I didn’t see them individually: I saw them as part of one extraordinary double-feature that was, without question, the finest experience I’ve had in a movie theater since…actually, only since seeing a midnight showing of Snakes on a Plane a mere eight months prior. But since that was the finest night of movie-going in my 26 years of life, I think I can say that Grindhouse still did pretty well for itself. The hell of it is, I am certain that the experience simply can’t be repeated, particularly not with the two features having been split for DVD. Still, when I think of the state of cinema in 2007 in the years to come, this will be what comes to mind first.
1. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
There were two films this year that I would consider to be formal masterpieces: their use of lighting and focus, the placement and frequency of their cuts, the careful manipulation of elements within their frame, all building upon their already-strong screenplays to make for works that might not revolutionize the art of filmmaking, but within their aesthetic conservatism stand out as essentially perfect. So how to choose between the two? For starters, this one, I think, will show up on fewer lists, and I’m not ashamed of wanting to stand out. More importantly, in addition to having, hands-down, the most beautiful and even inspiring script of the year, this particular formal masterpiece is a cartoon. About a rat. A rat gourmand. And it’s a formal masterpiece. I mean, anyone can make a great film with a camera, but if you’re taking the time to do it in an animated kiddie flick? That is when you prove that you care.
2. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Then there is Ratatouille‘s polar opposite in just about every way you could think to name. Violent, dark, and self-consciously opposed to giving us much if anything in the way of closure, it’s not a “fun” movie, despite coming from two of the most “fun” directors in contemporary American cinema, but it is exhilarating in its own way – flawlessly crafted so that the “tech” and the “story” are inseparable and both vital to the film’s overall effect. Which is draining, no doubt; but does it have any choice in the matter? From the title on down, this is a film about the American myth pulled out by its roots and left to die in the hot Texan sun. Trendy nihilism, maybe, but damn effective nihilism nonetheless.
3. Away from Her (Sarah Polley, not reviewed)
A different animal entirely: though it’s certainly not made badly, there aren’t any brilliant shots or cuts that stick with you. Instead, there is the year’s most heartbreaking script, anchored by two of the best performances: Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer’s and Gordon Pinsent as her husband, who finds himself lost when she forgets who he is. Sarah Polley, in her unnaturally solid debut at the ripe age of 27, has the restraint to know when no amount of craft can replace the look in an old man’s eye for sheer emotional power. In a year where Bergman was much on my mind, no film better recalls his most important contribution to filmmaking: the recognition that the human face is the most cinematic object in the world.
4. Zodiac (David Fincher)
The first of two films to showcase a stylish director learning restraint and making his first flawless work, Zodiac was also the first shot in what became a surprisingly durable year-long exploration of American mythology. Although unlike the rest of those films, it was not interested in retelling, destroying, or inventing a myth, so much as it focused on the corrosive effect that it has on several individuals who all fall for a peculiarly modern variant of celebrity worship, obsession with criminal procedure. There’s a certain nihilism there that befits the director of Se7en, but Zodiac boasts a more humanist core, and weeps over human weakness rather than exploits it.
5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The buzz called it “the P.T. Anderson film for P.T. Anderson haters,” and as this hater can attest, it was right. At long last, the director’s almost supernatural skill with the camera has been used for something other than its own awesomeness: the long takes and the unusual compositions form the base for the theme, rather than its gilt frame. As for that theme: not the acidic parade of awfulness that some claim, but a remarkable slow burn that turns a smart businessman by stages into a black hole of immoral greed, such that each scene – each shot! – seems to reveal him as just a little bit nastier, until the title is fulfilled in an ending that’s much more emotionally honest than narratively coherent, and better off for it. Special attention must go to Daniel Day-Lewis, giving a typically earthshattering performance as the embodiment of all things wrong with the American dream
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
“If the legend is fact, print the legend,” but what Dominik does in this film is to bend the legend around on itself until it seems like we’re watching Greek gods bandy back and forth, rather than men who walked this earth only 125 years ago. Using everything he could to put up a wall around the film, from Roger Deakins’s glorious natural-lighting photography to Hugh Ross’s stentorian narration to the arch title of Ron Hansen’s book, the writer-director turned this into an epic about the act of storytelling, using one of the greatest stories of the mythic American West as his vehicle.
7. Sunshine (Danny Boyle)
I’ve rethought it, and I was wrong: the ending to this film was as appropriate as it was inevitable, for this isn’t just the finest hard sci-fi that the screen has seen in almost four decades – though it is – it’s also the finest study of how technology affects our concept of humanity that the screen has seen in almost…four…decades. Coming across like the child of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its diametric opposite, Solaris, Sunshine is far brainer and more philosophically troubled than we’ve come to expect from genre filmmaking, and to judge from it’s wan box-office, more than most of us care for.
8. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon)
Hands down, the year’s best villain also happens to be a real person who no doubt has parents ho love him and friends who are glad to take him out for a beer now and then, but that’s just par for the course in this film, whose great triumph is to turn the most insular and pointless sphere in the whole world – professional video-gaming – into a nail-biting tale of Good versus Evil. So it plays a little fast and loose with the facts; so what? Far more important is that it digs into the absolute, unvarnished truths of the human condition. We all want to be the best at something, to have succeeded at one thing in our lives, and there are surely less noble avenues for that drive than Donkey Kong.
9. Across the Universe (Julie Taymor)
Yes sir, it does have a pretty daffy script. It also has some of the most exciting cinematography and editing of the year, fantasy sequences that betray a childish adoration for the possibilities of moviemaking, and the best dance choreography in a film in I don’t know how long. But let’s ignore all that, and focus instead on how Taymor’s crazy-quilt fantasia of culture in the 1960s manages, with all its many covers of Beatles songs by off-key actors, manages to do something I would have assumed to be totally impossible: it makes the most well-known songbook in history sound brand new.
10. Control (Anton Corbijn)
The biopic, never a particularly noble art form, has recently turned into a wasteland. Except for this little miracle, which manages to avoid every trap of the genre: it doesn’t suggest that one terrible incident drove everything else in the protagonist’s life, it doesn’t assume that he knew what his reputation would be twenty years on, and in most respects, it doesn’t seem to be about its subject much at all. Sam Riley doesn’t mimic Ian Curtis of Joy Division, he plays a young Mancunian named Ian Curtis who finds out he has a little singing ability and writes some songs, all while dealing with a lot of other shit. Toss in the harsh-while-being-gorgeous black and white cinematography, and you’ve got a study of a poor boy who gets stressed out by being an artist, and not a hagiography.
3:10 to Yuma, 28 Weeks Later, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Devil Came on Horseback, Hot Fuzz, Lake of Fire, Margot at the Wedding, The Savages, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, This Is England
MVP of 2007
If Roger Deakins had only released In the Valley of Elah this year, I do believe we’d all be speculating as to whether he was going to win his first Oscar. Since he also shot No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the only real question is, will he get two nominations, or have to settle for the win for No Country? It’s not every year that someone goes from being one of the greats to the very best living practitioner of his art, but I think that happened for this particular cinematographer in 2007.
Top 10 Films from Other Years
Since I don’t have it in me to get all excited in January ’08 about a film the rest of the industrialised world got to see in summer ’06 (and to keep non-English films from dominating the “real” top 10), here’s the list of my favorite movies in 2007 that weren’t actually from 2007 (links to reviews).
1. Syndromes and a Century [Sang sattawat] (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
2. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)
3. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) IMDb
4. 12:08 East of Bucharest [A Fost sau n-a Fost?] (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006)
5. After the Wedding [Efter bryllupet] (Susanne Bier, 2006)
6. The Lives of Others [Das Leben der Anderen] (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
7. Stephanie Daley (Hilary Brougher, 2006)
8. Romance & Cigarettes (John Turturro, 2005)
9. Paprika (Kon Satoshi, 2006)
10. Private Fears in Public Places [Coœurs] (Alain Resnais, 2006)
Top 5 Films Awaiting US Distribution
As I mentioned up above, the films that I really loved that didn’t quite make it to US theaters this year, although I probably could have cheated on #3 (links to reviews).
1. You, the Living [Du levande] (Roy Andersson)
2. Silent Light [Stellet Licht] (Carlos Reygadas)
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [4 luni, 3 săptmăni şi 2 zile] (Cristian Mungiu)
4. Flight of the Red Balloon [Le voyage du ballon rouge] (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
5. 4 Elements (Jiska Rickels)
There were, sadly, more grating examples of anti-comedy, but only Because I Said So trapped the magnificent Diane Keaton in its web of dog-humping jokes and Z-grade sex farce. I typically don’t “hate” movies, but damn me if I didn’t hate this one.
There were so many decent-but-not-earth-shattering films that got so very much love this year – Atonement, Into the Wild, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Michael Clayton, Juno, Sweeney Todd and so on – that it seems hardly fair to pick just one of them. So I’m going to go all the way ’round to the other side of cinema, far from the prestige epic and the Oscar, to this summer’s deeply unpleasant smash hit Transformers, a quintessentially Michael Baysian exercise in grating characters, gorgeous explosions and aneurysm-inducing visual noise that a great many very smart people thought was somehow different enough from the Bay median to give it their endorsement. Sure, the final battle is impressive, but the 90 minutes of cheap slapstick, cheap teen fantasy and cheap militarism that precede it aren’t so easily wiped away.
Ignoring the “love it or hate it” films that I, for one, loved (yay for Julie Taymor!), I am positively dumbfounded that This Is England, an extraordinarily honest and painful study of class and race in Britain as told by one who was there, has been so totally forgotten. It was a struggle to bump it off my top 10, I don’t mind telling you, as it was one of the most emotionally exhausting films I saw all year, offering no solutions, only an older and wiser look at the terrible mistakes of youth. I just figured out why it’s being ignored.
Dan in Real Life looked like utterly ignorable nothingness from the trailer, and lo and behold! While it’s nothing like a great film, it’s awfully sweet and everything in it feels real and recognisable, and it actually makes Dane Cook look like he can act. That right there is some move magic.
How can it not be Spider-Man 3? I didn’t hate it like everyone else – I liked, and still like, the charming way Sam Raimi doesn’t give a damn about avoiding silliness – but the first two were among the best films of their respective years, and “I didn’t hate it” is, to say the least, a step down.
Most Needful Revisitation
Lust, Caution was nothing I expected and nothing I wanted, and I blamed the film for that. Ang Lee deserves more benefit of the doubt than that, and while I’m certain it would never be a top film of the year for me, it’s probably not really a 5/10, either.
Brand Upon the Brain! and It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.
Both of them were much more experiences & much less “movies.” The former, a film by Guy Maddin, is a typical experiment for the director, combining modern sexual neuroses with a film that looks for all the world like it was shot in 1920, but what everyone remembers about the film is how it toured with a countertenor, a live orchestra, Foley artists and one of Maddin’s celebrity friends to read out the intertitles. It also exists with a dedicated soundtrack, but I cannot imagine how different that must be. But for Crispin Glover’s film, no such ambiguity exists: it will, by all accounts, never be seen without the director in attendance to explain why what looks like exploitative trash actually is very carefully thought out exploitative trash. (I did try to review that one, but it didn’t work very well)
In one of those weird little coincidences, when Brand Upon the Brain! hit Chicago, the celebrity narrator was…Crispin Glover.
In Once, Glen Hansard teaches Markéta Irglová “Falling Slowly” in a music shop. If you’ve seen the movie, no further argument is necessary; if you haven’t, you should change that right now; if you’ve seen it and somehow disagree, I want you to take your shriveled, tar-black heart away from my weblog.
Best Line (recognizing that everything in No Country was already in the book)
“Honey, it’s because doctors are sadists who like to watch lesser people scream.”
-Bren MacGuff (Allison Janney), Juno
Most Gloriously Campy Line
“My bitches wear my collars!”
-Queen Elizabeth of England (Cate Blanchett), to one of her bitches, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Seeing it in person rather than as a jpeg helps. But even in this debased form there’s no mistaking what makes it such a standout: one of the most famous movie stars in the world blurred and hidden behind a tagline that takes up most of the poster. The point of the movie is that Michael Clayton tries to hide himself in much the same way, preferring to let his work – adjusting the truth – to speak for him. Seen here, even the film’s famously bland title pitches in to the overall effect: Michael Clayton is tiny and easy to miss in the face of that giant orange blaze of text.
Hey Sir Anthony Hopkins, what did you do in Fracture?
Best Teaser Poster for a 2008 Film
The Dark Knight
Why pick just one?
Best Trailer for an Actual Movie
The teaser for Cloverfield
Sneaking it’s way onto prints of Transformers before anyone knew the film existed, this is a perfect example of everything a trailer should do: spell out why we should care about the movie without giving away a single element of what the movie is going to be like. Along the way it became the first ad campaign for the viral video world, befitting its notoriously media-savvy producer J.J. Abrams. Is it gimmicky as all hell? Yep. Will the movie suck hard? Yep, or it wouldn’t be coming out in January. But the trailer works – so much that even a bitter old soul like me, who these days feels about as much enthusiasm about Abrams’s name as about Uwe Boll’s, even I can hardly wait the final countdown to 1-18-08.
All the best ones were already book titles. But it pleases me to no end that somebody finally called a movie Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
Best Title Change from the Source Material
Upton Sinclair’s Oil! getting redressed as There Will Be Blood.
Most Confusingly Marketed Title
I could not begin to tell you if the movie is called Stephen King’s The Mist, or just plain The Mist.
Most Needless Retention of a Subtitle
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As opposed to Sweeney Todd: The Tailor Who Made Clothing for Kittens.
Title That Tried Too Hard the Most
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
Title That Most Promised New Hampshire and LIED!
Live Free or Die Hard
Best Popcorn Movie
The popcorn movies this year all kind of sucked. So even though it was about as unpleasantly nihilistic as an action film can be, I can’t think of what else to say than The Bourne Ultimatum.
Best Guilty Pleasure
National Treasure: Book of Secrets, whereby “guilty” means “half of my review was spent apologising for any enthusiasm about the movie that accidentally cropped up in the other half.”
Resurgent Genre of the Year
When was the last Western that made a dime? Unforgiven? And look at the bounty this year: a straight-up ’50s-style plot with Peckinpah-style violence in 3:10 to Yuma, a bit of Fordesque mythmaking in Seraphim Falls, a bit of Fulleresque myth-destroying in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a neo-Western with classicism wrapped in modern dress in No Country for Old Men, and a neo-Western with modernist concerns hidden in an oil-rush frontier in There Will Be Blood. I think it’s worth pointing out that right there, you have a Best Cinematography slate that really can’t be improved on.
Most Happily Dead Genre
Other than Bee Movie, was there a “sassy talking animals” cartoon this year? Don’t tell me if there was, because I’m feeling pretty good about that.
Best Film I Saw for the First Time in 2007
Play Time, and on 35mm to boot. Which still seems too small for all of the film’s noted visual subtleties.