Saturday, February 23, 2008

Top Films of 2007

Film is my first love, and I've been making end-of-year lists since 1994. Usually, I make a top fifteen--partly because there were so many movies I liked, partly because I don't like all the ties and stuff that other critics throw up. I'm sticking with ten this year though. Not that there weren't enough pictures that belong in the company of these ten (The Bourne Ultimatum, Persepolis, The Hoax, Atonement). This has more to do with the fact that I'm looking over these old lists and going, "Was The Others really the twelfth best movie of 2001? I liked Bamboozled, but can I honestly say only fourteen movies from 2000 were better? Was Citizen Ruth even good?" You get the idea. Movies eleven through fifteen don't really matter. Most of the time, I know the top five without even thinking about it, I can come up with a solid top ten, and I reach for the top fifteen. Why reach?


We Own the Night- James Gray

Own the Night has been criticized as a by-the-numbers cops-and-robbers flick, but it struck me as something much more brooding and emotionally formal. More than anything, even family, it's a film about consequences. Characters recover in the hospital for four months, people's ears ring when a gun goes off. I wouldn't necessarily call it realistic--there are some leaps in character motivation that the movie doesn't earn--but what you do get here is a steady, engrossing film with some truly thrilling sequences you remember long after it stopped rolling.


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead- Sidney Lumet

One of those movies in which you cringe for two hours anticipating a bloody, sadly inevitable conclusion and are thankful for the journey afterwards. It's bleak and not much new noire ground is covered here, but the execution is perfect and Lumet never missteps tonally. I can think of very few films that center on remorse, let alone films that convey it convincingly, but this one can be added to that list.


Into the Wild- Sean Penn

Every synopsis of this film is something like, "A kid gets fed up with suburban life and hitchhikes to Alaska, where he starves to death." But it's so much more than that. It's a contemplative film that channels Christopher McCandless' frustration with equal parts joy and wonder and reverence.

It makes sense that Emile Hirsch would star in a film directed by Sean Penn because he's basically the new Sean Penn, focused yet mysterious, volatile yet always in control. He's in almost every scene, and the film weighs heavily on his shoulders. He never falters.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag and--make no mistake--large parts of this are no more than bourgeois whining. But it's artful bourgeois whining of the absolute highest order.


Gone Baby Gone- Ben Affleck

This film works so well on both the level of a police procedural mystery--crackly dialogue and shady turns--and as a deeper meditation on the notion of justice.

To understand why this is as good as it is, it helps to view it as a companion piece to Mystic River, another Boston mystery based on a Dennis LeHane book and directed by an actor. That film overblew the performances to try to somehow elevate the subject and mine it for the "Shakesperean" heaviness beneath it. What Ben Affleck does with Gone Baby Gone is serve the story over anything else and, in the process, let its depth resonate on its own terms. A rare feat for an actor-director.

It's not often that a plot takes me in places I didn't expect, but the twists in Gone Baby Gone not only do that, they do it in a way that speaks to the context and theme of the film overall.


Zodiac- David Fincher

(Note: I'm re-printing this, even though it was part of a TANBR Recommends a long time ago. My opinion of the film hasn't changed, and I'm too lazy to write a different review.)

David Fincher's Zodiac is a textured portrait of obsession, and it feels, more than any other movie I've seen, like a non-fiction book. By that, I don't mean that it's accurately researched or that it's a documentary or even that it's compelling. Abstractly, its five or six act structure, its refusal to have a traditional protagonist, and its obsession with time--though time doesn't always even make sense within its universe--feels exactly like a non-fiction work obsessed over and tinkered with by an expert until that work means significantly less to anyone but him. Much like the Zodiac case is to the characters of the movie itself.

The performances are particularly great. Jake Gyllenhaal, although he's too young for the role, turns in focused, vulnerable work. Mark Ruffalo, one of our most underrated actors, is effortless but aggressive and heavy. This is the type of movie that could have a five hour director's cut and leave you still wanting more.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly- Julian Schnabel

What struck me the most about this film is both how inward it is, capturing the helplessness and isolation of locked-in syndrome, and how outward and inviting it feels. What could have been a demoralizing, exhausting...French experience was transformed into something much more hopeful, loving, and, dare I say, light.

This wouldn't have been possible without Julian Schnabel's steady hand. He does things I don't like, (jarring us out of fantasy sequences by cutting off the music abruptly, for instance) but you can't deny that he knows the tone he wants to establish and maintains it better than I ever could have expected. In one sentence, that's as appropriate a description I have for a director's job.

Janusz Kaminski also deserves all the credit in the world for photography that absorbs the viewer into the impressionistic world of Jean-Dominique Bauby, uniting theory of white lights and filters and over-exposure with the practice of genuinely serving the theme of a piece.

It's strange, but without those two people guiding the look and feel of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I don't even know if I would have liked it. With them as my middlemen to the psyche of Bauby, I'm in awe.


Superbad- Greg Mottola

Most teen movies are built upon living in the moment--capturing how real teenagers talk, not trivializing the characters' problems. Though Superbad undoubtedly lives in the moment as well, it's one of the first high school movies I've seen that I think I enjoy as an adult more than I would have as a teenager. Knowing that home ec really is bullshit, remembering what it was like when I couldn't buy beer for myself, and believing that, indeed, in the last three weeks of school they should be "sucking on my ballsack" is almost essential to appreciating what ends up being a sweet tribute to friendship, as well as proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Of course it's funny. Achingly, constantly funny. But the greatest victory Superbad pulls off is in reminding us that high school is, simultaneously, the most important time of our lives and something that we take way too seriously.

Plus, I have a thing for movies that take place in the course of one day. And movies with jokes about period blood. So there.


I'm Not There- Todd Haynes

I'm Not There is a film that takes risks gleefully and shoves the entire notion of what biography and myth-making mean back in our face. Some of these performances are showy, but the stunt casting makes sense when the entire point of the film is life/lives as performance. In some ways you could say that Cate Blanchett is the most Dylanesque, in some ways Heath Ledger is, in some ways none of them are and all of them are and Bob Dylan is not. Todd Haynes, inspired by Dylan's life and the obvious touchstone of 8 1/2, accomplishes exactly what he wanted: a film unlike any you have ever seen.

There are two or three too many endings, but that's a quibble for a movie with so much music about ideas and ideas about music. The way the actor's names appear in the opening credits alone warrants more discussion than the entirety of most contemporary films. All that being said, if you're ambivalent toward the music and many lives of Bob Dylan, don't even bother with this.


No Country for Old Men- Joel and Ethan Coen

I'm still working out how to put the way I feel about this into a sound byte. It's rare that you see a film so simultaneously bleak and forgiving, so concerned with humanity at its darkest and most noble. In a way it's a course review of everything the Coens have blessed us with: the unrelenting suspense of Blood Simple, the tight inevitability of Barton Fink, the homespun humility of Fargo. It's all those things at the same time.

One thing that struck me immediately was the lack of music in the film. Even at its most action-packed and suspenseful, the action moves along without any kind of outside influence commenting on it, which is the most poetic thing about it. No Country for Old Men never dictates to you how to think and what to believe, even about itself.


There Will Be Blood- Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson's third masterpiece is epic not only in the scope of the setting but also in the sprawling nature of its emotional portrait of Daniel Plainview. With daring precision and detail, it chronicles the devolution of a man into a mess of American greed and pride. Because the movie lives and dies with Plainview, the intensity and focus of Daniel Day-Lewis' mammoth performance is crucial. This is a challenging, searing, ambitious role, and you leave feeling as if no one else could have played it.

Several times in the movie, especially near the end, there are such conflicting emotions being mined, such strange strains of horror, betrayal, justice, and pre-ordained emotional formalism that the audience laughed just because it didn't know how else to react. If that's not proof that there is unchartered territory here, I don't know what is.

Like all of Anderson's previous work, the film is hopelessly indulgent. How you respond to that will be the key to your enjoyment of the film. Art that is over-the-top and in love with itself is often my favorite kind, so I think this is the best movie of the year. You might not agree, and that's why so many of us like lists.


Reves said...

Good reviews, although I was surprised to see "We Own the Night" on the list - I seem to recall fairly lukewarm reviews. I may check it though, especially with Phoenix starring.

Laminated Fragments said...

I really thoroughly enjoyed the Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I thought it was amazing, and after talking about film a lot in my Modernism course, I appreciate a lot of the camera work and filmography of the film.