Saturday, January 26, 2008

My Favorite Movies of 2007

It was an excellent year for film, much better than the last two or three, says I. This year I almost alphabetized my top ten for the first time, because I had such a hard time choosing number one. And as a matter of trivia, something I didn't notice until compiling this list, it was another excellent year for Canadian films. Other trends in 2007: films got crowded out of theaters faster, dvd releases continued to accelerate, it was a year of big sequels in Hollywood, many serious boutique releases (several of them war related) tanked at the box office (a trend I fear studio execs will draw the wrong lessons from), film blogs took off like crazy, with the success of Juno Fox Searchlight is now officially the new Miramax (ready crossbows accordingly), and mumblecore got mainstream recognition. (Oh, and NY Mag called it the year of the wang, causing many giggles around the FD office.)

1. Zodiac (dist. Paramount)
I hated Se7en and was disappointed that Fincher had chosen to revisit serial killer territory, but when I heard it was nothing like the dreaded head-in-a-box movie, I rented it. Two and a half hours later I was kicking myself for missing my chance to see it on the big screen. Like this year's underpraised The Dead Girl, Zodiac completely subverts our expectations of the serial killer genre. Critic Amy Taubin's Film Comment appreciation got me to start seeing how much there is going on under the surface of this film. For starters, just compare the scenes in which Jake Gyllenhaal's character thinks he's met the killer with the scene in which the cops come face to face with the actual killer. Zodiac has some of the scariest scenes I've seen in a good long while, but it doesn't exploit. It doesn't revel in gory mayhem. It doesn't use murder to "thrill." It's never less than watchable in a completely mainstream-friendly way, but on another level it's the art film of the year, capturing our moment in time like no other film I saw this year.

2. Away From Her (Lions Gate)
Or as Dave Kehr jokingly called it, "Away With Her." An hour in, it seems like merely a great weepie, but as it unfolds it reveals itself as an unusually subtle and impressive narrative. From a story by Canada's Chekhov, Sarah Polley has crafted an exquisite feature debut. I can't always relate to psycho killers and their prey (I guess it's one of my great failings as a moviegoer), but I can relate to a story whose fears concern losing one's memory, growing old and being abandoned.

3. Ratatouille (Pixar/Walt Disney)
An utterly perfect entertainment, smart, elegant, joyous. In the future I won't just anticipate the next Pixar film, I'll anticipate the next Brad Bird film. Iron Giant, The Incredibles and now this - he's proven himself to be the top director in American animation. I think my favorite aspect of the film is that, all kidding aside with the coffin-shaped room and skull-like typewriter, Ratatouille acknowledges, even celebrates criticism as a crucial part of the experience of art, something practiced by all of us, not just professionals. Wow, pinch me. This came from Hollywood? USA? I'm also delighted to read that the film did spectacularly well in France, where one might have feared a story about a rat who wants to be a chef in Paris might have raised hackles.

4. The Darjeeling Limited and "Hotel Chevalier" (Fox Searchlight)
Sporting a dream cast of talented comedians, Wes Anderson's latest got the bum's rush from too many critics, but I still believe audiences will be watching his films a century from now. His style is so singular, so instantly recognizable that his name is invoked by reviewers to point out inferior imitations (like Juno, for one) almost as often as Altman's is, yet he was publicly lectured by several critics to shuck off that hard-won style, ironically just when it's yielded his strongest film since Rushmore. I suspect if Anderson had concocted a serious revenge thriller, he'd be the toast of critics' groups this season. But instead of making a film that takes up war and revenge and other long played out 9/11 themes, he chose to tell a story about men who remain uncorrupted by cynicism, struggling with grief and the failures of love. It's a story, in other words, most of us can actually relate to our everyday lives. There's no cattle gun wielding maniac, no oil tycoon or sham evangelist, no assassin-hiring corporate executive to root against. How this film got tagged by some as a juvenile film while No Country for Old Men and its brethren were celebrated as mature fare simply astonishes me.

5. Year of the Dog (Paramount Vantage)
Mike White surprised and impressed me repeatedly this year. A friend showed me the episode of Freaks and Geeks that he penned, which was excellent (my friend who watched the entire series admitted it was probably the best single episode); post-Virgina Tech he spoke out in a New York Times op-ed about filmmakers' responsibilities regarding violence in their work, an unpopular argument asserting an unprovable connection between life and art that I, for one, find harder and harder to deny; and then there was his new film, The Year of the Dog. It's an unusually original Hollywood-style narrative, one that I think met resistance from audiences expecting something a little more conventional, especially in the romance department. I was impressed by the way it followed its concerns to logical conclusions without the usual pandering to formulas or avoidance of what might be deemed unpleasant, and for that reason I think it deserves a commendation for gutsiest producers of the year, at least by Hollywood standards (the production team includes Brad Pitt and, according to imdb, an uncredited Jack Black). Molly Shannon excelled in a role that should have done for her what Stranger Than Fiction did for Will Ferrell.

6. Rescue Dawn (MGM)
Herzog's remake of p.o.w. Dieter Dengler's story was a welcome surprise in the usually dismal late summer season, one of those unbelievable tales made all the more powerful for being inspired by actual events.
Herzog brilliantly focuses on the details to bring the story vividly to life, from the insect used to torture Dengler to the dog that licks his wounds in prison camp. Christian Bale (who had a good year) seems ever eager to adapt his body mass for his roles, and here he is joined by supporting actors Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies in losing weight to convey the experience of wasting away in detention. Together, the film's cast conveys a stirring message of camaraderie and derring-do, but as corny as it may sound, on second viewing I was equally impressed by Bale's interpretation of Dengler as a man who unwaveringly holds on to his optimism no matter how desperate the circumstances. Miraculously, Bale, Herzog, Zahn and company never allow the film to degenerate into standard inspirational treacle.

7. Eastern Promises (Focus Features)
A film that's much richer if you look at it as a companion piece to A History of Violence (read Kristin Thompson on the subject once you've seen both films), but it's stunning on its own - not just the infamous nude combat in a Russian bathhouse that distinguishes Mortensen as an unusually fearless actor, but also its treatment of the father-son relationship between Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and Kirill (Vincent Cassel), especially in regards to the open question of Kirill's sexuality. Another film that boldly defies formulaic expectations regarding romance, just the first of its many admirable traits. Is Cronenberg on a hot streak or what?

8. Brand Upon the Brain! (The Film Company/Vitagraph Pictures)
I was lucky enough to see the film when it toured with live accompaniment (on our stop, the narrator was a hugely entertaining Crispin Glover), and I think it ranks with Maddin's best features like Careful and The Saddest Music in the World. Strange and riotously funny, Maddin's work is one for cult audiences, to be sure - even more so than that of David Lynch, the director I consider his closest cinematic compatriot, who at least usually offers audiences a familiar Hitchcock element. Maddin, on the other hand, generally loves to deconstruct the Freudian psychology of Hitchcock-era Hollywood, challenging us in a lighter, more humorous mode that nicely complements Lynch's scarier explorations of the seedy underbelly of classic Hollywood.

9. Lady Chatterley (Kino International Corp.)
I loved this movie from the start, but I've gone back and forth on where to rank it. I think that's because this D.H. Lawrence adaptation is so deceptively simple that it seems artless, which must surely be a feat worth celebrating. What I remember of Lawrence from school was that his work was about as subtle as a hammer blow, taking a modern attitude towards issues like sex and class but in a highly artificial and gendered way, keeping a brick wall between masculine and feminine characters. This film surprised me with its loveliness, its naturalism, its quiet beauty. I caught Pascale Ferran's Coming to Terms with the Dead a decade ago, and I remember being rather impressed with it (it'd be nice to have a Region 1 dvd available - of course there isn't one), but this film establishes her at a very high level of accomplishment.

10. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Dreamworks)
I was so happy to see my old favorite Tim Burton finally fully back in top form after a decade of uneven and sometimes downright poor work (Planet of the Apes - ack, Big Fish - gag). Sondheim's source material was certainly key to success here, and what a thrill it was to hear this calibre of songwriting after so many movie musicals which, however otherwise enjoyable, sported pop-derivative (Across the Universe, Moulin Rouge) or Broadway-lite scores (Enchanted, The Producers). There was much concern about Depp's and Carter's abilities to handle the material and while their vocals are rather weak (in the sense of pop singers compared to opera or Broadway singers), they suit the more intimate and informal experience of moviegoing just fine. I'm under no illusions that the story, based on supposedly true events from the era of Jack the Ripper, is profound, but the filmmakers don't seem to be either, an important distinction in awards season.

Hot Fuzz and "Don't" (a fake trailer from Grindhouse) (Rogue Pictures)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Brothers)
Offside (Sony Pictures Classics)
Once (Fox Searchlight)
Poison Friends (Strand Releasing)
The Lives of Others (Sony Pictures Classics)
Bourne Ultimatum (Universal)
The Last Mistress (IFC)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (IFC)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (THINKFilm)

HONORABLE MENTIONS (the next forty)
The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, You, the Living, Inland Empire, Le Petit Lieutenant, The Host, The King of Kong (A Fistful of Quarters), The Dead Girl, Blades of Glory, Live Free or Die Hard, Red Road, There Will Be Blood, Dan in Real Life, This is England, Regular Lovers, The Savages, The Witnesses (Les Temoins), Letters from Iwo Jima, I'm Not There, The Role of Her Life, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Hairspray, No Country for Old Men, Lars and the Real Girl, Ira & Abby, Knocked Up, Days of Glory (Indigene), Fay Grim, Grindhouse: Death Proof, Black Book, Private Property, The 3:10 to Yuma, Amazing Grace, Margot at the Wedding, Exiled, Hallam Foe, Enchanted, Show Business: The Road to Broadway, Grbavica: Land of My Dreams, Talk To Me

Top Ten Undeserved Obscurities
One of the consolations of movie addiction is finding gems that no one's heard about. These films didn't get enough love, and though they may not all be masterpieces, they all helped make the year more interesting.

Colma: The Musical
The Dead Girl
The King of Kong (A Fistful of Quarters)
Le Petit Lieutenant
Poison Friends
Red Road
The Taste of Tea
This is England
The Year of the Dog

Still Hunting: Top 2007 Films I Missed
There were mainstream movies I probably should have made myself see for their cultural value but couldn't bring myself to (300, Transformers, The Brave One, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) and a few films I'm excited about that still haven't played in Chicago (Forever, My Winnipeg, Secret Sunshine, Son of Rambow), but there were at least eleven which did play here and which I failed to catch. All will hit dvd soon if they haven't already except perhaps Colossal Youth, ironically the film that I'd most prefer to see on dvd so I can study it closely.

Colossal Youth
Gone Baby Gone
Into the Wild
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Lust, Caution
The Mist
No End in Sight
Strange Culture
Syndromes and a Century

A Movie That Provided a Surprising Amount of Food for Thought: Hairspray
I know, I know. Hairspray? I dismissed it, too, but catching it a second time around the holidays, I found the film to be an interesting tangle. Not great art, by any means, but what a strange mix of exhilarating liveliness and plastic-coated formula. Like Dreamgirls (which struggled more in its second half), it's a mainstream musical that blends gay sensibility and civil rights politics, and it sports the safe retro appearance of pop culture history while actually addressing itself to a contemporary society in which Katrina could become a national source of shame and gays are officially second class citizens. There's obviously tons of queer talent involved, but it's all hidden safely away, with a married Scientologist in the prominent drag role originated by Divine and played on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein. Still, the camp sensibility is intact, abounding with jokes about rats and flashers, and except for the third quarter, which focuses more on the grown-ups and bogs down in a poorly directed protest march, the infectious young cast thrills with energy. (And Travolta ain't bad, intriguingly adding an unexpected pathos to the character's camp nature.) After listening to me vent about its faults, Red insisted that the final number is undeniably powerful, and guess what? He's right. As the most irresistible number in an overwhelmingly catchy score is playing (a song whose verse melody, to my ear, echoes that of Madonna's "Material Girl" - an unconscious irony?), a series of characters risk their place in the limelight to share it with someone off stage, knocking the gatekeepers out of their posts. It's a profound gesture which anyone who's ever felt marginalized will not fail to appreciate, at least on some level. It's the kind of ending that can leave you feeling choked up and yet ridiculous at the same time, the kind kids find easier to deal with than adults - one reason its teen fan base pushed the film over the $100 million threshold. With its sunny, naive optimism (exactly what do you imagine happens to Penny the moment she goes home to her church lady mother?) and its insistence on a simply unstoppable integrationist future ("You can't stop the beat"), Hairspray looks to me like it could be a defining film of an Obama era.

Why are No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood so low on my list?
Why are they buried so low in my list? When I caught No Country early in its run, I was relatively entertained though unsatisfied, and in the weeks that followed my spirit sagged as I realized it was stalking the same path as The Departed - the one that ends in Oscars. Upper echelon directors who've never won an Oscar for direction, ultra-violent thrillers for the middlebrow crowd, hype galore: you may as well bank on it, the Cohens will win big. It's McCarthy's source dialogue that provides the film its moments of power, but the fatal problem with the film is its ending. Yes, it's anticlimactic, but I might have accepted that if it weren't also so pretentious. The film insists on presenting itself as being profoundly spiritual in its anticlimax, and in that very insistence it reveals itself to be a sham. Its worldview is off-putting enough (Dave Kehr jokingly referred to it as "No Country for Old Humanists"), but the ending reveals the Cohens to be all mechanics and no soul.

As for There Will Be Blood, I like it better. The characterization is deeper, the direction is stunningly powerful, the story takes more risks, and the score is a wonder, but in the end this is a case of a great young director winning acclaim by sacrificing too much of his personal vision and submitting to the will of the crowd. It feels like another Bush era tirade about oil and revenge and the war of commerce and religion (themes that have played out on screen and on the nonfiction bestsellers lists for years), and he hasn't really anything discernible to say about any of them - except that they are themes of the moment. Well, duh. Or perhaps the idea of big business and religion beating each other to a pulp is simply wishful thinking. I suspect cinephiles are reacting with excitement to Anderson's channeling of Kubrick and Welles. But look at it this way. In three hours Magnolia developed half a dozen characters and challenged us with its daring gestures. In three hours There Will be Blood fully develops one character and offers up something familiar, if dressed in style. (Which is much more than you can say for Southland Tales, which also wanted to capture the zeitgeist but stylelessly failed to develop anything.) If being accepted back into the fold after the excellent Punch Drunk Love helps Anderson's career, I'll wait and see what he does next, but I won't pretend it's even close to being his own best movie, let alone the best movie of the year.

A Moment of Appreciation: Death Proof
Tarantino's latest was a disappointment, especially in needlessly extended form on dvd. His point regarding grindhouse cinema may have been that these old films lured audiences with promises of cheap and kinky thrills but delivered results that were too often mind-numbingly stupid or dull, but in this case he made his point too well, with protracted of scenes of dialogue too often denuded of his characteristic pop culture wit. Still, it has a structure and premise unlike anything I've seen before, and parts of it worked very well. In short, a Tarantino failure can still be more interesting than most other directors' successes. I'm amused that the Cahiers du Cinema crowd admired it so.

Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Runners-Up: Asia Argento (The Last Mistress), Ellen Page (Juno), Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog), Laura Dern (Inland Empire), Amy Adams (Enchanted),
Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead)
Runners-Up: Gordon Pinsent (Away From Her), Christian Bale (Rescue Dawn), Steve Carell (Dan in Real Life), Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises), Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac)
Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)
Runners-Up: Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Adrien Brody (The Darjeeling Limited), Kazunari Ninomiya (Letters from Iwo Jima), Paul Schneider (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Lars and the Real Girl), Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises)
Best Supporting Actress: Sydney Tamiia Poitier (Death Proof),
Runners-Up: Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There), Emily Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl), Bae Du-na (The Host), Maya Lawson (Brand Upon the Brain), Marisa Tomei (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead)

Best Vocal Performance: Peter O'Toole as critic Anton Ego (Ratatouille)
Best Adolescent Performance: Sima Mobarak-Shahi (Offside)
Runners-Up: Thomas Turgoose (This is England), Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray), Brittany Robertson (Dan in Real Life), Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later)
2007 Most Promising Newcomer Award: Justin Timberlake (Black Snake Moan, Southland Tales) - I've never paid any attention to his music, but he was a saving grace in both these films.
Best Cameo: Kevin Smith (Live Free or Die Hard)
Best Director: David Fincher
Welcome Back: Tamara Jenkins - please don't wait another decade to make your next film.
Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography: Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James... and No Country for Old Men)
Best taglines: There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer. (Zodiac); Has the world left you a stray? (Year of the Dog)
Best Gay/Queer Film: Eastern Promises
Not a great year for gay films (Boy Culture was enjoyable in a Showtime kind of way, though I missed several key films including The Bubble, The Nines, and Whole New Thing), and there was watered down fun to be had in mainstream films from Blades of Glory to Hairspray, but of the whole lot, nothing beat Vincent Cassel's character in Eastern Promises, whose repression was actually foregrounded.
Best Film Critic: David Edelstein
I'm not sure I'd even heard of Edelstein before he started filling in occasionally on Roger Ebert's show. Now, I read his reviews every week. One of the smartest, ablest critics I've ever found, he's become one of the few indispensable critics I read every week (along with Dave Kehr, Stuart Klawans, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Andrew Sarris).

2007 Soundtrack Highlights:
"Hurdy-Gurdy Man" by Donovan from Zodiac (a song I now never want to hear again), Rescue Dawn score by Klaus Badelt, Ratatouille score by Michael Giacchino, Darjeeling Limited soundtrack, esp. "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" by Peter Sarstedt (featured prominently in "Hotel Chevalier"); "I Love My Dog" by Cat Stevens (a dog song by a Cat man!) from Year of the Dog; songs by Nick Cave (Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), the score of Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim; "Good Morning Baltimore," "The Nicest Kids In Town," "I Can Hear The Bells," "Welcome To The 60's," "You Can't Stop The Beat," "Come So Far (Got So Far To Go)," and "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now" (Hairspray); "Whither, Wander" (lyrics by Guy Maddin, music by Jason Staczek, Brand Upon the Brain!); Hot Fuzz soundtrack; songs from Once, especially "Falling Slowly," "If You Want Me," and "When Your Mind's Made Up"; "Mediational Field" and other songs by Susumu Hirasawa (Paprika); covers on the I'm Not There soundtrack, esp. Cat Power, Sonic Youth, Stephen Malkmus, Jim James & Calexico; Control soundtrack; incidental music from You, The Living (ha!); Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood (plus the Brahms and Part pieces); songs by Sondre Lerche for Dan in Real Life, "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" Clayhill covering The Smiths (This is England); The Kinks's "This Time Tomorrow" (Regular Lovers AND Darjeeling Limited); "Gonna Make a Pie" lullaby and Quincy Coleman' "Baby Don't You Cry" (Waitress); "Chick Habit" by April March (Death Proof); "Anyone Else But You" sung by Ellen Page and Michael Cera, "A Well Respected Man" by The Kinks (Juno); "Amazing Grace" sung by the actors (Amazing Grace); "Happy Working Song," among others (Enchanted); "Spiderpig" (The Simpsons: The Movie); and "Colma Stays" and "Crash the Party" (Colma: The Musical).

I was fortunate to be able to see my favorite "new" (to me) older film, Earrings of Madame de... (aka Andrew Sarris' favorite film), twice this year on the big screen, confirming my love of Max Ophuls's cinema. Why is it so hard to see the work of this director? It's a crime. I was also knocked out by The Heiress when I saw it on dvd, probably the most I've ever admired a Henry James story in any form. I loved with Vincente Minnelli's The Clock, finally available on dvd. A romance starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker, it reminded me of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two of my favorite romances of all time. Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground was a romantic noir that also dazzled me. One might describe Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as a romance, and I was impressed by the gorgeous cinematography.

After scratching my head over a Pedro Costa art film I checked out the film that inspired him, Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie. Suffice it to say that I was so impressed by this film and the film it came paired with on dvd (The Body Snatcher) that I've ordered a copy of the Val Lewton box set they came from. I only wish the set could somehow also include Tourneur's Stars in My Crown, a wonderful film I caught in an intriguing series curated by Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Film Center. I made time for the 60s comedy classic Bedazzled this summer (actually, we were looking for a way to pass the time until the midnight release of the final Harry Potter novel) and, though never previously a Dudley Moore fan, was surprised to find one of the best comedies I've ever seen. My admiration for Barbara Stanwyck grew to an all-time high when I caught screenings of Clash By Night and Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow - I can't believe more people don't talk about that Sirk. It's one of his best.

The Film Center, in a stroke of eerie prescience, began an Antonioni retrospective just weeks before the old master died. I caught L'avventura and L'Eclisse, challenging films I studied further on dvd. A fantastic Janus films series at the Music Box exposed me to (among other films) the epic Children of Paradise, which truly lived up to its reputation. In preparation for You, The Living, I also caught up with Roy Andersson's unique Songs from the Second Floor. Months before the Ford at Fox dvd set was announced, I decided I was shamefully ignorant about Ford's work and decided to put together my own retrospective of his work at home. It was quite an education, and it's only whetted my appetite for more. I plan to blog about this in more detail at some point, but highlights included Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Sun Shines Bright, How Green Was My Valley, and Judge Priest.

Other highlights of the year included McCabe and Mrs. Miller (which I saw at last during an Altman series at the Music Box), Make Way for Tomorrow (an incredible 30s film about the way we treat the elderly, directed by Leo McCarey), Capra's version of the Kaufman and Hart play You Can't Take It With You (I grew to love Jean Arthur this year, too) and, lastly, an entertaining treat, the Marilyn Monroe rarity Ladies of the Chorus, which happily screened in New York City when I visited there for a few days. While reviewing the landmark Ford box set, Dave Kehr made some good points about the importance of keeping our film heritage alive the way we do with our literature. I couldn't agree more, not just because it's important but also because it's a way to see incredible movies that put today's films in clearer perspective. How about Nicholas Ray and Max Ophuls box sets in '08? Personally, I've resolved to do a better job of staying on top of Criterion's releases, and I'm especially looking forward to their forthcoming Lubitsch box set in their Eclipse line.

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