Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Movies Of The Year: 2007 (Part Two)

Been a wild year here at The End Of Cinema Headquarters. While I watched more movies total this year than in 2006, with the Metro Classics series taking up one of my precious days off for much of the year there was much less time and brain energy left for writing about those films. One advantage of this is that for the first time, my end of the year Movies Of The Year will actually have comments for the films instead of a simple ranking, as I haven't had a chance to write about most of the films I saw in 2007 yet.

Still, if this year is anything like years past, we haven't seen the best of the 2007 films yet. When I wrote the 2006 list last year, I'd yet to see a whopping 11 of my current Top 15 films of that year. With highly anticipated 2007 films by Hou Hsiao-hsein, Wong Kar-wai, Jia Zhang-ke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bela Tarr and other End Of Cinema favorites yet to be released in this country, as well as such well-regarded films as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Silent Light and Persepolis by filmmakers I'm unfamiliar with, there's no reason to expect this list to be anything close to final.

But it's that time of the year, and list we must. Of course, because we here at The End take a long and broad view of history and the world, only films that have 2007 as their year of release on imdb are eligible for the 2007 list. This tends to create a comparability problem when looking at the lists of other folks, who believe that films only exist when they happen to show up wherever they live. Thus, any number of 2006 films show up on other people's lists that won't make it on to mine (at least eight of the Indiewire Critics Poll Top 20 aren't 2007 by my reckoning, for example). With this list, therefore, I'll be integrating films from 2006 or earlier that premiered in the US in 2007. For The Big List, however, only the actual 2007 films will be listed. The previous years' film titles will be italicized below.

So, with Olivier Messaien's Quartet For The End Of Time on the soundtrack (thanks to Alex Ross) and fueled by a not inconsiderable amount of Diet Coke, here are the Movies Of The Year for 2007.

41. Beowulf
40. Spiderman 3
39. Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
38. Spielberg On Spielberg
37. Transformers
36. 300
35. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix
34. The Bourne Ultimatum
33. Bienvenue a Cannes
32. Hot Rod
31. Michael Clayton
30. Hot Fuzz
29. Superbad
28. Knocked Up
27. Lars And The Real Girl
26. Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
25. Tears Of The Black Tiger
24. Stardust
23. Eastern Promises
22. Paris, je t'aime
21. Paprika
20. Sunshine
19. The Host
18. Juno
17. Waitress
16. The Simpsons Movie

15. Lust, Caution - Ang Lee's adaptation of Eileen Chang's story was a huge hit in China, and it's not hard to see why, what with glamorous and often brilliant acting from stars Tony Leung and Tang Wei, beautiful production design and one of the year's best scores surrounding a dark WW2 spy-thriller narrative. And the sex. The very explicit sex. Like all of Lee's films, the movie is a visual feast with a surprisingly problematic story. Going into too much detail would spoil it, but I can't say I'm happy with the way the plot resolves itself. Too abruptly unfeminist for me. But still, a worthwhile film and one that, unlike most of the films below it on this list, I look forward to watching again.

14. The Darjeeling Limited - Wes Anderson's slightest film to date, the story of three brothers trying to reinvent their family and themselves on a train journey across India. It has all the good and bad elements of Anderson's style, including some of his best straight-ahead compositions (the ones with the camera facing perpendicular to a rectangular object like a wall or train while the characters either look straight ahead or move sideways as the camera tracks with them, often in slow-motion) and a vibrant use of color (including the blues and yellows he also used well in The Life Aquatic). Still, the movie doesn't seem to explore any new territory for Anderson, and it ever really reaches the poignancy or oblique emotional power of his earlier films. And the film also, embarrassingly, falls into the imperialistic (if not exactly racist) trap of having rich white men begin their spiritual awakening through the death of one of the local brown people. Still, Anderson's films I don't think are designed to be fully appreciated on first viewing. Of all his films, only Rushmore did I love immediately. There's something about the intricacy of his design, and the subtlety of his film's emotional shifts that demand repeated showings to be grasped in their entirety.

13. Zodiac - David Fincher's procedural about the unresolved hunt for the eponymous serial killer is the critical dark horse of the year, to the point that it's becoming overrated. The ensemble cast is terrific, led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr, and the digital cinematography by Harris Savides is a benchmark for that emerging medium. But there's something missing from the film for me. I feel like it works better in the abstract (cool! a film about the search for a killer where everyone goes nuts because they can never find him. Obsession! Madness! Woohoo!) that it does on the screen. This is, no doubt, related to the fact that for much of the film, it plays out like a conventional thriller and not the experiment it tends to get described and remembered as. I'm thinking not so much of the reenactments of the actual murders (which would be unnecessary if the point of the film was the investigators and not the killer) but of the way the film resolves itself, specifically Gyllenhaal's trip to a suspect's basement, with all its creepy killer-in-the-dark vibe that feels much more like Silence Of The Lambs than it really should.

12. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly - About as good as can be possibly be expected from a film that resides more or less solidly in the despised Disease-Of-The-Week genre. Director Julian Schnabel follows the pattern of such uplifting films as My Left Foot and Shine, but films it with so much élan that you forgive its predictability. Mathieu Amalric's performance as the Elle magazine editor who has a stroke and proceeds to write a book by blinking his left eye comes alive in his narration, continuously undercutting the well-meaning doctors, therapists, friends and priests who try to help him often to hilarious effect. Marie-Josée Croze, who, along with Amalric, was great in a supporting role in Munich, plays a speech therapist and has gotten some attention for her performance here, though it seems to me her performance almost entirely consists of looking adorable, which, I grant, she does extremely well. Schnabel's gotten a lot of recognition for the film, picking up Best Director awards at Cannes and the Golden Globes, though it seems to me the awards should be going to Januz Kaminski, whose cinematography is nothing short of brilliant and has thus far only won a technical award at Cannes and a couple critics association awards.

11. Once - The indie film sensation of the year, like Zodiac, suffers from overrated syndrome, but getting past the hype, there's a charming little romantic musical about marginal people trying and failing to connect. Shot in an only occasionally obnoxious handheld digital style, the film revels in the procedure of musical performance. Like another filmmaker on this list, Tsai Ming-liang, director John Carney allows the audience the pleasure of watching people do stuff, and there are few things that fascinate me as much as watching people play music. Glen Hansard and especially Marketa Irglová are very good at the acting part of their jobs, and while their music isn't nearly as outstanding as the thousands of people who've bought the soundtrack seem to think it is, it is perfectly fine and fits the story and these characters very well.

10. Grindhouse - Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's double feature ode to the crappy genre films of the 70s was one of my most enjoyable film experiences of the last few years, but I think the films work best in that format, back to back with fake trailers and missing scenes. Tarantino's longer cut of his half, Death Proof, which is the only one available on DVD, is significantly worse than the theatrical version: it's unnecessarily longer, doesn't play as well without Rodriguez's chaotic splatterfest preceding it and adds a helpful intertitle between sections that eliminates some narrative ambiguity and destroys my (much more interesting) theory of the time structure of the plot (making the film a generic Women kick ass! revenge film instead of making an interesting statement about violence begetting violence and turning the charismatic and terrifying villain of the first half into a simpering moron in the second). The film rates this high because of the energy and excitement of the theatrical release.

9. Rescue Dawn - Werner Herzog's remake of his own documentary about the true story of an American pilot shot down on his first mission in Vietnam who escapes from a Laotian POW camp and has to fight his way through the jungle has terrific performances from Christian Bale (with a wild accent), Steve Zahn (not being funny) and Jeremy Davies (who played my most reviled character in Saving Private Ryan, a war film much inferior to this one). The best work on the film though, continuing a trend from this year, is by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who manages to make the jungle as beautiful as it is terrible, visually demonstrating one of Herzog's most persistent themes. It's perhaps the most conventional of any Herzog I've seen, with a straightforward narrative, a happy ending and celebration of mainstream virtue and entirely lacking any tortured yet strangely heroic insanity, but that's OK. Not every film can have Klaus Kinski.

8. I Don't Want To Sleep Alone - Another director stepping towards conventionality is Tsai Ming-liang, with this film about a homeless man (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng playing the character he often plays in Tsai's films) who gets involved in a love triangle with the man who nurses him back to health after a severe beating and a waitress at a local coffee shop. All the characters live on the edge of society, the waitress living with her mom in a shell of a building about to be sold out from under them and spending much of the day caring for her comatose brother (interestingly also played by Lee, don't know what to make of that yet), the man who finds Lee squats in one abandoned building while working to pump a lake of water out of another, and Lee himself, a Taiwanese main in Malaysia unable to speak the language (I don't think he says a word the entire film). Globalization is the ostensible political subject of the film, though it doesn't appear to necessarily be for or against it. More interesting, to me and, I suspect, to Tsai, is observing people in process. Much of the film is taken up with the small details of taking care of Lee Kang-sheng in each of his roles. While not as obsessed with seemingly mundane activity as Tsai's Goodbye Dragon Inn, there's still ample opportunity to get bored out of your skull if you're not in the right frame of mind. Though there are some comic moments, the film is never as funny as the intricate and unexpected What Time Is It There?. What the film does have that those lack, is a pair of sublime images revolving around water (Tsai's favorite motif). They aren't as shocking or transcendent as those in the next two films on the list, but they are as beautiful as anything in film this year.

7. Still Life - Director Jia Zhang-ke's story of two people searching for other people in the wake of the floods caused by the Three Gorges Dam is a deliberately-paced examination of the effects the dam has had in dislocating thousands (millions?) of people of the past several years. If this all seems a little dry, it is. For large stretches of the film it's as sober and realistic as Jia's previous work, calling to mind especially Platform, about a theatre troupe coming of age in the economic, political and cultural chaos of the 70s and early 80s. But, not unlike The World (but much more successfully, I think), this film contains a couple of sequences of such magic that to say anymore would be a spoiler felony. The film's not yet available on US DVD, and is supposed to get a theatrical release of some sort early this year. Don't blink and miss it.

6. Ratatouille - Director Brad Bird's best film to date, and certainly the best Pixar movie, if not the best Disney-related film since Sleeping Beauty, this story of a rat who wants to be a chef gets to the core of what it means to be an artist. Even more surprising is that in its perfect final 20 minutes or so, it gets to the core of what it means to be a critic and consumer of art. Apparently alone among mainstream American animators, Bird treats his films as films, and the camera moves as if it were actually filming actual space, gliding up down and around like the great crane shots of Orson Welles, Max Ophuls or Paul Thomas Anderson (to make some ambitious, not entirely absurd comparisons). The animation is as stunning as you expect from Pixar, being both realistic and stylized at the same time. The film's been criticized for the weakness of the main human character, the incompetent chef Linguini that the rat Remy controls like a puppet. I don't get it though. Isn't he supposed to be weak? He's having his movements controlled by a rat!

5. Climates - Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's fifth film, and the first that I've seen. Ceylan and his wife Ebru play a married couple who decide they can't stand each other and break up over the summer. In the fall, Ceylan tries to rekindle a romance with an old mistress of his (complete with a hilariously awkward attempt at rough sex), but that doesn't seem to do it for him. So, in wintertime he tries to reconcile with his wife. The Ceylan's are quite good, but the real star of the film is the weather, filmed magnificently with a digital camera by Gökhan Tiryaki. From the beads of sweat on Ebru Ceylan's body in the summer, to the massive snowflakes in winter, there are more just plain stunning shots in this film than any I've seen this year. Narratively speaking, the film is alright, there's nothing particularly new about the story, or the way Ceylan tells it. Though I did quite like the ending.

4. There Will Be Blood - The next three films are doubtless the top 3 American films of 2007, and that isn't likely to change, though the order may very well (I've only seen each of them once, for one thing). Paul Thomas Anderson's epic set in turn of the century California integrates his own obsessions with family and disastrous fathers into a grand narrative of the conflict and connections between peculiarly American versions of Wild West capitalism and evangelical Protestantism. Anderson's direction, however, is more restrained than in any film since Hard Eight. Though there are still some fine tracking shots, they aren't nearly as flashy as in Boogie Nights, and the film never attempts the fevered intercutting or musicality of Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love. Not that there isn't music: the score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood stands out as the year's best, though on first viewing it doesn't appear as vital to the film as the pop scores in Anderson's last three films (one sequence excepted). Daniel Day-Lewis channels John Huston (whose Noah Cross in Chinatown is a clear template both as a character and a voice) in a literally volcanic performance that slowly builds to an eruption in the film's closing sequences that either sends the film over the top into masterpiece territory or destroys the whole drama of the picture, depending on the viewer. I'm solidly in the masterpiece camp. There are few things more virtuous in a film than having the guts to blow the whole thing up from the inside.

3. No Country For Old Men - Speaking of blowing things up, the Coen Brothers do exactly that in the last third of this film, when the narrative shifts from a conventional cat-and-mouse film with Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss and a suitcase full of money on the run from Javier Bardem's oddly coiffed coin-flipping killer Anton Chigurh to a somber meditation on the meaning of violence, stories of violence and the ways we choose to cope with both of those things. Millions of viewers are, of course, outraged at this development, though I wonder what they were thinking all those long Tommy Lee Jones monologues that begin and punctuate the rest of the film were all about. On the other end of the critical spectrum, are the highbrow Coen haters, but I already wrote about how tired of their arguments I am. The film rates this high for me not just because of its technical skill (the ensemble acting is terrific, with Kelly Macdonald in particular doing great work in just a few scenes, and Roger Deakins's cinematography is as good as anything he's done with the Coens, and that's saying a lot) but because of its ambiguity: because the questions it raises about narrative and about society are as interesting as those raised by any other film (but one) of 2007. It's too bad that none of the debate around the film wants to try to deal with those questions, instead choosing to focus on what the film, and the Coens, are not.

2. I'm Not There - Todd Haynes's anti-biopic based on the idea of the life of Bob Dylan and starring six actors playing six different characters that are all, more or less, not Bob Dylan. It's a film about the conflicts between art and politics, between celebrity and art, between the past and the present and between men and women and even, occasionally, about Bob Dylan. Haynes steadfastly refuses to engage the question of who Bob Dylan is. Far more interesting (and knowable) is the question of what our idea of Bob Dylan is. Marcus Carl Franklin plays not-Dylan as Woody Guthrie, an anachronistic black kid who rides the trains from town to town singing old folk songs. Christian Bale plays a young protest singer who becomes disillusioned with the left and eventually becomes a born-again Christian preacher. Heath Ledger plays an actor who once played Christian Bale's character in a movie (my favorite not-Dylan: not only is he not-Dylan, he's not a not-Dylan) whose marriage to Charlotte Gainsbourg is slowly disintegrating in the 70s, the decade when the idealism of the 60s was exposed as the narcissism that lead to the Reagan 80s. Cate Blanchett plays the most Dylan-esque not-Dylan, pinned in a black and white 8 1/2 landscape, cut like Masculin, féminin and reciting lines out of Don't Look Back while arguing with a persistent critic named Mr. Jones and lip-syncing to Stephen Malkmus covering Dylan songs. Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, old and retired to the country, an Old Weird America that can't help but drag him back to some kind of political stand. Finally, Ben Whishaw plays Arthur Rimbaud, an artist dragged before an inquisition and forced to justify himself before an unseen power. Haynes cuts from character to character along the path of a generic musical biopic (slow rise out of poverty, success, love, fame, drugs, crash, triumphant return), though temporally jumbled such that it's the emotional trajectory of the genre that drives the narrative, instead of any kind of A then B causality. All of the actors are quite good, though Bale at times is trying too hard (the TV interview scene is the low point in the film). Blanchett has been justly praised for her performance, and I think Whishaw is excellent as well with the least screen-time. I was always going to be a sucker for this film, huge Dylan fan that I am, so it's not really a surprise that I'd rate it this highly. There's far too much to it to take in in only one viewing, and there's no 2007 film I look forward to revisiting more again and again.

1. The Wind That Shakes The Barley - Ken Loach's masterful story of the Irish Revolution and subsequent Civil War was my #1 film of 2006 and I still think it's better than any film I've seen in 2007 as well. But that may very well change. It usually does.

In addition to the ones cited in the intro that have yet to get a US release, here's some more films I haven't seen:

Across the Universe
After The Wedding
American Gangster
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Atonement
Away From Her
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Black Book
Black Snake Moan
Charlie Wilson's War
Control
Gone Baby Gone
Helvetica
Into The Wild
The King Of Kong
The Lives Of Others
Margot At The Wedding
The Namesake
No End In Sight
Offside
The Savages
Sweeney Todd
3:10 To Yuma
12:08 East Of Bucharest
28 Weeks Later
La vie en rose
Walk Hard

8 comments:

  1. 20. Spider-Man 3
    19. TMNT
    18. Superbad
    17. Juno
    16. Planet Terror
    15. The Pixar Story
    14. In The Shadow of the Moon
    13. Meet the Robinsons
    12. Knocked Up
    11. The King of Kong
    10. I'm Not There
    9. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
    8. Zodiac
    7. Control
    6. Hot Fuzz
    5. There Will Be Blood
    4. No Country for Old Men
    3. The Simpsons Movie
    2. Death Proof
    1. Ratatouille

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  2. You saw Meet the Robinsons??

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  3. What is this "we" business? I know that I had nothing to say regarding this list (would have put Sunshine and Stardust higher, if I did....

    Harumph!

    kgb

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  4. Saw that shit in 3-D at Disneyland. It seemed like the thing to do. Plus, they weren't showing Grindhouse for some reason.

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  5. Mike: Superbad that low? Wouch. I mean, Knocked Up over Superbad? I tried watching Knocked Up a second time (at home) and I turned it off about half an hour into it. I watched Superbad on DVD around Xmas and cracked up.

    Still have yet to see Control, Simpsons, Robinsons, Juno, King of Kong.

    Two other things:
    1. I'm Not There just didn't get groovy enuf; felt a tad hemmed in. I still dig how Cate-Bob says "pussy" tho...
    2. If I owned Hot Fuzz I probably would have remembered to write something about it in my yearend thing. That shit is hilarious. I agree: funnier, and smarter, than Superbad. Which means less one-liner belly laughs but plenty of witty play. Plus there's that spike thru Timothy Dalton's chin and "long, slender neck."

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  6. I don't know what you mean by I'm not There being "hemmed in" or lacking groove.

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  7. It's one of the few times I've thought to use the word "schematic" as a pejorative. Still, I enjoyed myself watching it. And was surprised by how moved I was during the breakup scenes between Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg. But I wish it had been a little looser -- and more about the movies in general and less about Bob Dylan specifically. Cuz, as much as it is a movie about the movies, it's main agenda is Bob Dylan. And its use of intentionality is totally predicated upon one's knowledge of Dylan, and those movies of the time period, which isn't too much to ask, I know, but still, the argument gets a little muddled that way. Also: doesn't that first shot make us Dylan? The appeal of Dylan is that he's so not us -- he's insane. There wasn't quite enuf insanity, either. Nothing in _I'm Not There_ can top that clip of the real Dylan riffing on that sign on some random British street corner, you know? I'll definitely rent it to watch again, in any event.

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  8. Everyone seems to think that I am somehow gaga over "Knocked Up", but it just ain't true I tell ya. I saw it once and walked out thinking "that wasn't too bad" but I'll never need to see it again. That's pretty much how I felt about #12-16. #17 and onward though just made me angry. No amount of Melvins references can save your precious movie Ms Cody!!!

    "Superbad" was terrible. I can dig a penis joke or two but c'mon! And the whole police sub plot was just excruciating.

    Oh and I just saw "There Will Be Blood" again and after two viewings it remains utterly effective, so I bump it a notch up, sorry "No Country. . ."

    ReplyDelete