Friday, January 18, 2008

Best of 2007

Each year I have the urge to defend the past year’s cinematic output. I spout phrases like “this was one of the best years for film in recent history,” or “at first I thought it wouldn’t be a good year, but then I looked at the films I’d seen…” After seven years of writing my opinion of film down for friends at first and others now, I have come to the conclusion that saying this year “was a good year in film” or that year was a “bad” year is really missing the point of what I’m doing. I love movies and every year is a good year. Some years I have to look harder than others for the best. Sometimes I have to look in different places. But cinema is good, and will always be good. My job is to help you discover that as well.

The best films seen by me in 2007 are as follows:

1. No Country for Old Men. After suffering a bit of a slump with recent efforts like “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers”, the Coen Brothers returned to greatness this year with a dark masterpiece in the vein of their first masterpiece “Blood Simple”. But “No Country for Old Men” shows the maturity these filmmaking geniuses have gained through the years. Unlike “Blood Simple” the three men involved in the crimes of this story don’t find themselves there through a series of mistakes and mishaps. This is a film about men who make deliberate and confident choices to find themselves in the violent predicaments of their dark world.

The Coen Brothers once again display their ability to provide unique characters in utterly unique situations and make them seem as natural as breathing. From a struggle on a tile floor to a rushed defense against an attacking dog, an unusual method of execution to an oddly timed car accident, the Coen’s find a beautiful way to present a world that reflects our greatest fears and insecurities about our ability to affect our own fate. And they spin their tale without ever having to force the audience along any paths we do not wish to go. This is the best film of the year.

2. Juno. I wanted so much to place this film at the top of my list, but I could not deny the power of assured confidence flowing beneath the surface of “No Country for Old Men”. So “Juno” remains the best comedy of the year in a year where the gross-out sex comedy evolved into entertainment with a brain. “Juno” is not so much “gross-out”, but takes the same sassy attitude toward sex as “Knocked Up” and “Superbad”. And its lead actress Ellen Page carries all the confidence of the Coen Brothers’ years of experience in her performance of a 16-year-old who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy.

J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are brilliant as Juno’s parents, who are responsible enough to recognize the severity of their child’s situation, but supportive enough to realize that dealing with the unexpected turns life takes are requirements for growing up. Juno decides to give the child up for adoption to a couple during her pregnancy and learns that being an adult and being a grownup are two different things. Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody create a positive movie about a potentially debilitating life situation with wit and love through characters we would like to know and have in our lives.

3. The Lives of Others. Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, “The Lives of Others” is a terse German thriller set within the walls of East Berlin during the final days of fascist rule. The German Secret Police made it a practice to spy on its own citizens creating an atmosphere of paranoia and deception that played a part in its own demise. The film plays as a bit of a cautionary tale to other governments that may wish to impose upon its citizens’ privacy (“wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more”) and reminds us that individuals can be much more dangerous to government than governments that feel otherwise can be to individuals.

The story follows a secret policeman who is particularly good at his job of listening to people. He is assigned to keep tabs on a writer who has always been a government supporter. The job seems to have more to do with the fact that the writer’s lover is also the mistress of a high ranking official than that he may be a genuine threat, and before too long the policeman begins to like his subject. When it turns out that the writer is writing anti-government articles and publishing them in West Germany, the police officer decides to cover for him. The tension mounts and soon you are witnessing one of the great quite thrillers. Ulrich Mühe provided a career defining performance as the policeman before succumbing to stomach cancer in July of last year.

4. Red Road. Another voyeuristic thriller is found in this British picture that barely received a U.S. release last spring. Once again the main character is a police officer who spends her days watching people who are unaware they are being watched. Jackie sits in front of a screen of video monitors relaying signals from various areas around the city. When she sees a crime or suspicious activity, she makes a call to dispatch and any wrong doings are broken up or even prevented. One day she sees a man on one of her monitors who doesn’t appear to be doing anything wrong, but she begins to follow his every movement through the city and eventually tries to make contact in person. Her true motive for this stalking is surprising.

Kate Dickie provides a riveting performance as Jackie. Writer-director Andrea Arnold slowly reveals the details of the plot so the audience is well immersed into Jackie’s action long before we understand her purpose. Why is she so interested in this man? Does she know him? Is she attracted to him? Did he hurt her? Or rape her? The answer echoes with the truth of emotion and is truly unexpected. “Red Road” hurts on a level that reflects the overcast days in which it is set, and somehow the release of that pain in its final moments also seems to heal.

5. Grindhouse. “Grindhouse” was by far the most exciting and unusual film going experience of the year. I often refer to the “experience” of seeing a film, but rarely does it apply so much as it does to this film. “Grindhouse” is an experience. It is cult directors Quentin Tarantino’s and Robert Rodriguez’s recreation of the experience of seeing an exploitation double feature from the ‘70’s. For it each director made his own full length feature in the style of a ‘70’s exploitation genre picture.

Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” relives the z-grade horror flick crossed with a disaster epic and government conspiracy pic. Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is his version of a slasher flick mixed with a female empowerment picture and car chase epic. Each film works on its own and both live up to the quality cult films fans expect from each director. They are worth watching for their own merits, but as they were originally presented in the “Grindhouse” release they were only part of an overall experience that included scratched prints, bad acting, deleted scenes and trailers for other films in just as bad taste. The original “Grindhouse” release included fake trailers for non-existent films which ran before and between the two feature films.

Although it flopped at the box office, the underground response has sparked rumors of many spinoffs from the “Grindhouse” experience, including a feature-length film from Rodriguez’s fake trailer for “Machete”; a feature of Edgar Wright’s fake trailer “Don’t”, with no stars and bad overdubbing; and Eli Roth’s next release “Trailer Trash”, a feature of nothing but fake trailers due out in August.

6. Eastern Promises. The renaissance of director David Cronenberg continues with his latest masterpiece “Eastern Promises”. This follow-up to his masterful “A History of Violence” even utilizes the acting strength of that film’s same lead actor Viggo Mortensen. Once again in this film Mortensen’s character is tied to the mob, this time the Russian mob in London. He is a “driver” who has a knack for cleaning up his boss’s messes, or more accurately the messes of his boss’s son. When a midwife (Naomi Watts) discovers a diary on the person of one of those messes, she goes looking for the family of the baby that mess delivered before she died. She finds herself to be of great interest to Mortensen and his boss.

With “Eastern Promises” Cronenberg steps even further away from the sex horror fantasies with which he began his career by producing a solid crime thriller. Mortensen turns in a fearless performance as the “cleaner” and proves his teaming with Cronenberg is more than a one hit partnership. The plot does not follow the line one might expect, but never strays far from the expectations of the audience or the needs of the characters.

7. 3:10 to Yuma. Director James Mangold and stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale had a little to say about the hasty reports of the demise of the American western this year with one of the best entries into the genre in the past decade. “3:10 to Yuma” may be a remake of the Glenn Ford classic, but is also a classic in its own right. “Yuma” delivers on the two fronts that have become the staple of the western genre over the years: action and pathos. Rarely has one western delivered both in such even-handed doses.

Bale plays a desperate man who is deputized to help escort the outlaw played by Crowe to federal prison. The two men find a dichotomy in their lives that shows how blurred the lines between good and bad can be. The men themselves may not be so different, but it is the choices they make that define who they really are. Ben Foster also provides an award-worthy performance as Crowe’s second in command, who tries to free him from custody.

8. 300. The new cinema trend of style-as-art took another leap forward this year with several entries, including “Grindhouse”, “Beowulf”, and the animated critic’s darling “Persepolis” (unseen by me at the time of this posting, but eagerly awaited). But perhaps the most influential cinema-of-style release was the surprise blockbuster “300”. A visual masterpiece, “300” is an adaptation of a comic book that depicts the stand of 300 Spartan soldiers against one million Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae, circa 480 B.C. Like the comic book it is a play in visual exaggeration, fitting for its mythical subject matter.

“300” is filled with imagery that could once never even have been conceived of on film, such as the Oracle that seems to swim in erotic throes through the air, or the giant King Xerxes of the Persian Army, or the mutant Spartan betrayer Ephialtes. Much of the action of the film takes place in slow motion, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the richness of the visual detail and unique atmosphere created by the CGI enhancements. You can almost feel the sweat and effort put into the battle by its participants through mere observation.

9. Hairspray. There is probably no other film this year I expected to see on my top ten list less than this adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the John Waters indie-cult film “Hairspray”. But frankly, it was the most fun I can remember having in a movie theater this year. It is a movie infused with the bubble-gum pop mentality that would be off-putting in any other genre but the musical, and is usually insufferable even in that context. But the performers and production design insist so earnestly in their cheer that it becomes undeniable. And the laughs continue to build from the opening titles all the way until the end credits.

Perhaps the most astonishing accomplishment of “Hairspray” is that so many of those laughs are birthed from something deeper than the candy-coated surface of the film. Set in Baltimore during the ‘60’s, it tackles issues of civil rights and sexuality quite bluntly for such a nice movie. I found its socially subversive nature to be quite an invigorating flavor to mix with its bubble-gum pop sentimentality. But above all it is great fun.

10. Zodiac. In my initial review of “Zodiac”, the character study on the three primary investigators of the real life Zodiac killings that terrified the people of the San Francisco Bay area for nearly two decades, I tried to err on the side of caution with my star rating of 3½. I was blown away by the film, but thought my initial reaction might have been overlooking the deliberate procedural pace of the film and an ending which some might find anticlimactic. Since the killer was never caught, the real events remain without closure. And as I reflected on the film in the days following my review, I began to feel I had sold the film slightly short. Such is the danger of star ratings.

I am confident in declaring that director David Fincher’s nuanced and meticulously detailed account of the Zodiac investigation is one of the finest achievements in film this year. Fincher never takes the easy opportunity to pander to the horror of the events with some slasher serial killer approach, yet he still achieves an amazing amount of suspense by investing the audience in the investigators’ lives. The three principals are granted wonderfully complex interiors by the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo. “Zodiac” is a psychologically epic thriller that truly lives up to its tag line “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.”

Special Jury Prize
In most juried film festivals there is a best picture winner of sorts and a special jury prize given for films that the jury would have liked to have given the top prize to as well. Well, with so many great films out there it is no surprise I can’t fit all my favorites into just ten slots. The films in the following list could easily replace any of the films in my top ten list.

American Gangster. Ridley Scott’s look at the criminal life of real life drug lord Frank Lucas is another wonderful character study within a crime procedural. It is a measure of a man that dares to be honest in a corrupt system of justice and the measure of a man who dares to apply simple but solid business standards to a crime system that has become more concerned with its own politics than the business of making money. That the two men measure up to each other and tower above those around them may not be a surprise, but their stories are ultimately fascinating.

Knocked Up. Another example of the sex comedy elevated to the level of intelligence and art, “Knocked Up” was the sleeper hit of the summer that you could proudly proclaim to enjoy and yet still wouldn’t feel comfortable watching in front of your parents, no matter your age. The non-typical casting of Seth Rogan in the lead of a romantic comedy is but one of the breaks from tradition this lesson in the psychology of the male mindset has to offer, yet the story still hits the same notes of humor, seriousness and sentimentality that makes for a well-rounded movie experience.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman. Taking a page from the lesser known historical figures, “The Last Hangman” tells the story of Albert Pierrepoint, England’s best known executioner. His story is told simply with another wonderful performance by the great Timothy Spall. Spall portrays Pierrepoint as a man without expectations from the people around him, yet he unwittingly becomes a hero through the simple act of doing his job as a hangman for the state in the best manner he can. When he is commissioned to execute Nazis after WWII, he becomes a national hero of sorts. Later he becomes locally reviled for being the man everyone knows is responsible for the deaths of their wayward children. His true heroic act, however was to bring some humanity to a practice that is utterly inhumane. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to crack open a history book or two to look for those unsung figures which added to the richness of human record.

Stephanie Daley. There was another movie about teenage pregnancy this year, other than the wonderfully pleasant “Juno”. “Stephanie Daley” is not the humorous look at growing up that film is. It is a powerful drama about a teen who gives birth in a bathroom stall during a school ski trip. She claims not to have known she was pregnant and that the baby was stillborn. Tilda Swinton plays the woman who is brought in to determine if the girl capable of standing trial. Swinton’s character is dealing with the loss of her own child due to miscarriage. It is a remarkable character study of the two women. Amber Tamblyn does a good job as Stephanie of not allowing the audience to know whether she is lying or not.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In this world of violence and conflict I often find myself asking how these people can justify their choices to take innocent life for their allegedly righteous causes. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” comes as a sort of answer to that question. It tells the story of two brothers in the early 20th century who join the IRA to oppose the oppressive British rule. Their divergent paths allow the audience to see the reasoning to both sides of the conflict and Ken Loach’s heartfelt direction and Paul Laverty’s script make it easier to understand how people can make the painfully drastic choice to use violence to service their righteous causes. The scene where one brother must take a friend out to execution speaks deeply to the conviction it takes to truly stand up for your beliefs.

The primary purpose for this list is to inform my readers of the great films out there for them to see, either in theaters, on video, or soon to be. So I couldn’t let all the other good to great films slip by without mention. Here are some films that for some intangible reason I felt were just a step below the rest I’ve mentioned so far.

Julie Christie gives a heartbreaking performance in Away from Her as a woman with Alzheimer’s who forgets who her husband is after he puts her in a special care facility. The Bourne series comes to a spectacular conclusion in The Bourne Ultimatum with the most impressive action sequences of the year. Ashley Judd brings creepy to a new level in Bug, a paranoia thriller based on the hit play. Days of Glory was another contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year about four North African men who enlisted in the French army during WWII. The Golden Compass introduces a new fantasy universe on the same level as that of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings”. Joseph Gordon Levitt continues his track record of choosing smart roles in independent movies in The Lookout, a modern noir where he plays a bank janitor with memory problems who is recruited for a heist. Michael Clayton saw the return of the great legal thriller with George Clooney as a law firm’s “fixer” who finds himself on the wrong side of a big company suit. Angelina Jolie reminds audiences of her subtle skills as an actress with her portrayal of Marianne Pearl, the widow of political prisoner Daniel Pearl, in A Mighty Heart. Werner Herzog shows his skill as both a documentarian and dramatic filmmaker by remaking his documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” as Rescue Dawn about an American fighter pilot shot down in Vietnam who was taken prisoner and escaped from the Vietcong. And Stardust is a beautiful grownup fairytale with fantasy elements and whimsical characters telling of a glorious romance.

Great docs
I didn’t see as many documentaries as I usually do this year but a couple made for some great non-fiction viewing. No End in Sight details the often frustrating history of the war in Iraq without taking any particular side; however, its conclusion is all too evident in its title. And Michael Moore takes a page from Al Gore’s playbook with his latest documentary Sicko. Instead of the outright political attacks of “Fahrenheit 9/11”, he presents his problems with the U.S. health care industry as moral issues.

Great animation
I did see just as much animation as I usually do, but most of what I saw was uninspired compared to these three films. Robert Zemekis makes his latest proposal for what the future of animation holds with his CGI take on the classic tale of Beowulf. While the tale itself might fall into typical fantasy fare, its execution is highly kinetic and makes for a thrilling ride, especially in 3-D. Like much of Japanese animation, the plot of Paprika threatens to boggle the mind of the average American viewer with its contemplations on technological psychology, but it is filled with all the visual excellence that has come to be expected from the best Japanese artists. And with Ratatouille Pixar Animation Studios once again prove why they have become the standard bearers for animation today.

I also greatly enjoyed 28 Weeks Later, As You Like It, Black Sheep, Black Snake Moan, Blades of Glory, Breach, Enchanted, Fido, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Meet the Robinsons, Shoot ‘Em Up, Sunshine, Superbad, Surf’s Up, Talk To Me, and Year of the Dog.

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