Friday, January 25, 2008

Top 10: 2007

2007 was a great year for film, perhaps the finest in my lifetime. To find a year as rich in its cinemtic offerings, one would have to go back to 1980, which saw the release of The Shining, Raging Bull, Bad Timing, Kagemusha, Dressed to Kill, The Empire Strikes Back and Popeye, among many others. It was also the year of Heaven's Gate and the end of that fabled period in American cinema that saw a wealth of classics made with uncompromising personal vision. In a year that saw the studios in a similar state of flux, the artists were again running the show; indeed, my top 10 is loaded with challenging, complex films that, somehow, managed to escape through the system. There was the inevitable junkheap of disposable fodder, but as the year progressed, the movies kept getting better. For a while I feared I'd gone soft like Ebert (but without the understandable excuse of a new lease on life) as I handed out As left and right, but no - the movies were just that good to us this year.

The movies became more challenging, even defiantly so, with abrupt shifts in tone and style and endings that confounded our need for resolution. Even popcorn films worked on levels more complex and intellectually engaging than usual, with children's movies, teen sex comedies and microbudgeted musicals demonstrating an atypical grasp of subtext and character development. The films were once again daring, ambitious and dizzying in scope, with an almost absurd surplus of flawed but visionary works and flat-out masterpieces - any of my top five could be a strong number one in a different year, and while I don't believe in ties, an alternate top 10 made up of films not included would still be a strong representation of the year. Even the okay movies were more okay than usual; as far as male-driven corporate intrigue movies go, Michael Clayton blows anything by John Grisham out of the water, and Juno had more genuine heart than most films in the indie-quirk mold. When they were good they were really good; when they were great, they were unforgettable.

If the best films of 2006 captured that year's sense of resignation, 2007 was infused with - well, optimism isn't the right word, but the hope that comes with seeing things as they are (the resurgence of Westerns partly explained by their matter-of-fact romance). Michael Powell once explained the popularity of The Red Shoes as, after a decade of being told to die for ideology, a call to live and die for art. The films below answer that call, and do so brilliantly.

1. There Will Be Blood To compare Paul Thomas Anderson's strange, sprawling oil epic to its filmic ancestors (I'll see your Kubrick and Malick and raise you a Cimino) overlooks the ways that Anderson transcends imitation to give us a film that is defiantly singular. Anderson gives us a western landscape that takes on the otherness of an alien planet, concentrates the entire violent history of the 20th century in a unbearably tense, decades-long confrontation between an oilman and a faith healer, and has at its center a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis that is (no hyperbole) one for the ages. I'm still struggling to articulate my feelings about There Will Be Blood, particularly its demented final reel, a glimpse into the darkest recesses of human nature that haunts long after the film's end. You have to see this movie.

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I can't wait for February 5, when Andrew Dominik's elegaic western hits DVD and begins its inevitable journey towards rediscovery and eventual canonization. At once a sun-dappled tone poem and a hugely entertaining Western, it's a film for both fans and haters of the genre, its stunning images and nobly pathetic central character investing each moment with a stunningly observed melancholy.

3. No Country for Old Men Watching this movie several times at work, it occured to me that, with its understated, handsome style, it could have just as easily been directed by Clint Eastwood at his best as by the Coens. I say this not to echo the common claim that their Cormac McCarthy adaptation announces their newfound maturity - they were always old souls, even when they were goofing off - but to highlight the understatement and economy they bring to every frame of the film. It's an approach that befits their trio of laconic main characters, and grounds the film's apocalyptic vision with a sharp, unsentimental eye.

4. Zodiac As detail-oriented and obsessive as its protagonists, Zodiac is a procedural that revels in the minutia, loose ends and even the tedium of the search for a killer - or, by extension, an answer. Fincher introduces new, existential concerns into his work while grounding the film in a restrained, unobtrusive but totally snazzy visual and narrative strategy. Stay away if you hate ambiguity (as AMPAS apparently does), but for everyone else, Zodiac is a fascinatingly creepy and elusive whodunit.

5. I'm Not There Perhaps the greatest example on this list of pure film, a kaleidoscopic biopic whose impact lies entirely in its mesmerizing images. Other rock movies dutifully catalog the iconic moments of their subject's life and times; I'm Not There blows them to smitheeens and reassembles them into something beautifully elusive.

6. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street A near-perfect translation of Sondheim's masterpiece to the screen, aided immeasurably by performances that find just the right note and a director expanding his Goth fetishes and Hammer love to new, chilling areas. If only Dreamgirls had this much arterial spray.

7 . Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix An unproven director takes over the wizard franchise with the most difficult-to-adapt of the books (until the last one) and gives us only the second Harry Potter film that can stand on its own terms. Filled with moments of visual inspiration and sacrificing none of the book's emotional heft, it's imaginative in a way that too few kids' movies are. Bonus points for Imelda Staunton's deliciously hateful Professor Umbridge.

8. Grindhouse I thought long and hard about whether to rank Planet Terror and Death Proof together or separately (in which case Tarantino's film would have ranked quite a bit higher). Ultimately, it just feels wrong, as the thrill of Grindhouse, no matter what your preference, is the overall experience (to those catching up on DVD - sorry, you missed it). A feast for cinema lovers - how do you explain to the non-cinephile why a title card can be funny? - its also the purest, most uncomplicated fun I've had in years. Sidenote: Death Proof seems way less popular with men (who largely hate Tarantino's apparently reductive sexual politics) than with women (my friends, my wife, even my mom all cheered on the film's vengeful denouement), but everyone loves Stuntman Mike.

9. The Darjeeling Limited Wes Anderson's India-set travelogue sees his typically meticulous visual style expand to include a lightness of feeling and a subtle social consciousness. Beautifully photographed and featuring Anderson's strongest soundtrack yet, the film also benefits immeasurably from its prologue, the heartbreaking mini-masterpiece Hotel Chevalier.
10. Ratatouille Thank God for Brad Bird. In a time when so much children's entertainment is pandering and even offensive, Bird releases cartoons that honor children's emotions and intelligence. The message of his beautiful Ratatouille is a powerful one not only for children but also their parents, reminding with the lightest thouch how no life is absent of meaning or the potential for beauty. Anyone can cook, indeed - and after a year like this past one, I can't wait to see what's on the menu for 2008.


Allen Lulu said...

I have decided to netflix all of your mentioned films, ahving only seen three of them (damned new children!)
Those three: Blood, Phoenix, and Todd. I don't disagree that Blood is fantastic. It's no Magnolia but Lewis' impersonation of John Huston in tone and voice is sublimely buttery and savage.
I, too, am haunted by the memories and scenes in There Will Be Blood, but don't know that, as a film, it is more than a series of great scenes ith great acting and great art direction.
I have watched Order three times now and really think someone has put the wrong movie in my dvd case. Because I seem to be the only one who thinks that it is one of the weaker of the films.
The first one is a trite little piece of joy and the second may as well be Rocky ii but Azkaban was frought with teenage agnst and budding sexuality. Goblet was truly intense with a dynamic climax, whereas Order seemed to flit by without resonance.
So, I'm sorry to say that I can't agree that it is the best year in 28 years.
It might be the best this decade, but there have been some pretty terrific years in between.

Andrew Bemis said...

Even though I prefer There Will Be Blood, I actually relish the statement "It's no Magnolia." That movie has been unfairly maligned for years - Walter Chaw even set up a false dichotomy between the two in his TWBB review, when I really see them as two sides of the same coin - so it's gratifying to see the fans coming out of the woodwork.

True that there have great years in the past decades - 1999 is another standout, to name one - and, really, I wouldn't be as cinema-obsessive as I am if I didn't think every year had some greatness. But 2007 felt like a bellweather; whether this is true remains to be seen, but I'll be interested to see if you feel any differently once you've caught some of the year's other offerings. In the meantime, any personal banner years you'd care to share?

Allen Lulu said...

I wish I could point to one year and say, THAT was a great year. I could when I was younger. But I think a lot of that has to do with impact. You reference 1980 when 1979 was an infintely superior year. All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, And Justice For All, Breaking Away, Kramer v Kramer, Being There, The TIn Drum, The In Laws (greatest Comedy of the last 20 years....arguably...definitely one of the smartest),

Or 76 with All the President's Men and Network and Rocky.

I get hazy as the years move on but recall some incredible long lasting work in the 90's, Shawshank, Gump, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kevin Smith (fuck off, I like him) Boogie Nights, magnolia. I think, pound for pound, pop culture just stopped moving around 2000. Dead in its tracks. Not just because of the war. Or 911. Something just happened.
We are seeing a turn around but....

Lemme put it this way. Sweeney Todd is fantastic. The grandiloquence that an epic of that size needs would have been better served by a visionary like Fosse or Coppola in his prime. A Carroll Ballard. Someone who understands breadth and scope. It is great, but it is claustrphobic. Because we know how to make big movies very quickly and much more efficiently. The danger of experimentation, which fails a "At Long Last Love" but soars for "All that Jazz" can no longer exist.

And Magnolia is fucking genius. I saw it twice in one week. It is the first film I purchased on DVD. I can see that movie over and over again. And it saddens me that so many people missed the genius.

Wait! There ya go. 1999. Magnolia and Fight Club in the same year? American Beauty (flawed but oh such a better sitcom-as-film than As Good as it gets) the sixth sense? Toy Story 2. The Matrix. Being John malkovich. Blair Witch. Those four films stretched the imagination of the filmgoing experience. Drew us in, changed the way we looked at movies.
Boys Don't Cry showed us that the Indie movement wasn't going to go away and was going to be soemthing to rekoned with.
Bellweather year? I reckon we will still be referencing those abovementioned for years when no one will remember 90% of this year's entries.
Not that they aren't good. I just think we've had some terrific years between this one and 1980.

Also, I think you might really WANT it to be true. And the films are so good that they seem to hold this promise, but, I don't think it will hold up.

And, in reference to a previous comment on my own blog, yes, as good as Ms. Kael. I dare say, sometimes better. Especially in her last few years. I have missed the kind of film ciriticism that understands not just metaphor and the language of film but, also, history. You have a keen understanding of the history of film for your reference points.

Now, go over to Electronic Cerebrectomy and read Aaron's anti Spielberg screeds. I think you would enjoy him.

Whew....all this in a COMMENT section.

Allen Lulu said...

One more from 1980, btw.
Stardust Memories. The third in the trilogy of great Allen films. Annie Hall, Manhattan and this.

Andrew Bemis said...

No argument on 1979 (save Kramer vs. Kramer - blech) or any of the other years you cite. You won't find anyone with a more rose-tinted view of 1970s cinema than me - I completely buy into the Easy Riders Raging Bulls mythos of the period, minus the blame wrongly given to Spielberg and Lucas for killing the party (it was coke and hubris, and besides, why doesn't anyone ever blame Smokey and the Bandit?). I don't see '79 trumping '80 or vice versa - those last few years of the decade were just mad good. Just looking one genre, it seems like half of the best horror movies ever came out between '76 and '80 - Carrie, Suspiria, Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Alien, The Shining, Inferno, Nosferatu, etc. Just an incredibly rich moment in film.

To be clear, I'm not quite ready to proclaim the dawn of an era superior to the '70s - that's a tall order, man. And I'm not even bashing the years in between, as my favorite movie is an '80s movie. But I would argue that we're seeing the emergence of some directors every bit as visionary and fearless as Coppola or Fosse. I'd argue that P.T. Anderson has the kind of scope you describe (the Sweeney Todd you want to see sounds a lot like There Will Be Blood, actually). Or Wes Anderson, perhaps the most film-literate of the new directors. Or Tarantino, one of cinema's greatest pop artists. There's David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, the Coens the Three Amigos - all incredibly audacious, innovative and most, I would guess, have their best films still ahead of them (and we haven't even begun to talk about foreign cinema).

Do the films look and feel quite the same as they did in that fabled decade? Sometimes, rarely, but for the most part they can't - the means of production and distribution, and the demands of the audience, have changed too drastically (as I'm sure you know better than I). Last night I was watching 3:10 to Yuma and was put off by its absence of sweeping landscapes - it was all medium close-ups, as if it had been designed for DVD, and many films suffer from a similar mindset (if Juno wins best picture, it will be the triumph of the sitcom). In a way, though, that makes movies like TWBB, The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, and Zodiac all the more remarkable - somehow, against all odds, they made it through the system with such aesthetic and conceptual purity that they'd look totally comfortable with an old-school United Artists logo at their heads. Zodiac's retro WB/Paramount openers point to this, actually - it's a modern moviemaking business model, but it's old-school cinema.

So yeah, I think the movies of this year will be remembered. And sure, there was a lot of forgettable crap, but don't forget that 1979 was also the year of Love at First Bite, The Black Hole and Roller Boogie.

Good call on Stardust Memories, by the way - one of Woody Allen's most underrated films. And thanks again for your compliments - they mean a great deal, and I'll do my best to live up to them.

Andrew Bemis said...

Also, I just read your post on There Will Be Blood and wanted to link it here - it captures almost exactly the feeling the film left me with.

Allen Lulu said...

Damn you, Bemis! I loved Smokey and the Bandit....30 years ago when i saw it twice in the theater.
And I would say that, for the time period, Kramer WAS groundbreaking. Sort of a male women's-rights movie. But it worked. It resonated. Movies don't resonate anymore. They aren't really part of the social consciousness anymore. There is so much noise it's hard to even be heard, let alone make an impact.
We don't care about the moviegoing experience because, what the fuck, it'll be on DVD next month.
I watched Into the Wild the way it was MEANT to be: on my iPod Touch! It still had impact and made me cry, but it also made me long for a time when movies meant more than box office.
You are right about Sweeney. I wish it had the scope of Blood. Imagine if it had.....
I don't know how old you are, I'm 42, but living through the heyday was pretty heady. Going to the movies because you HAD to see Elephant Man or HAD to see Breaking Away or god, the list is nearly endless, those were some great times.
I wish we were on the precipice of a new dawn.
Let's cross our fingers. But someone should really get Anderson money to make more movies.

Anonymous said...

I'm planning on unveiling my top list of 2007 in a few days... at least within the next week. Our top few are essentially the same, although the order is somewhat different. I also agree that this has been an incredible year, the best since I've been watching films seriously. I have to go back quite far to find a year that matches it's output.. although my knowledge of 70s-90s cinema is incredibly weak. It's unfair for me to really say much.

The only major disagreement I have is with the Harry Potter film, my favourite film was actually the previous entry but this might be the worst for me. The opening sequenec was brilliant, the rest just felt unfocused and uninteresting. The cast is still incredible and the younger actors are improving. Just felt so messy to me.

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safemeds said...

I think that 2007 was one of the better years for films, actually I watched a lot of excellent films during that year, one of the best ones was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford