Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Simply put, 2007 was one of the best years for film in recent memory–at least the best since 1999. You'd just have to have done basically nothing with your life but see movies in the last few months to realize it. Once again, the studios crammed all their good releases into the last three months of the year, causing a bottleneck both at the box office and in movie fans' limited times to get to theaters. Most of the best movies suffered financially for this, ensuring, as always, that making ambitious, brainy movies will be as hard as ever.
Luckily, I'm on strike, so I pretty much have done nothing but watch movies the last two months.
Why were there so many great movies released this year? The short answer would be that there are more talented filmmakers working now than ever. But the short answer would be very incomplete. As always in Hollywood, it's more about the opportunities given a few of the people in the long line of talented filmmakers perpetually clamoring for a chance to get their visions up on screen, intact. The long answer involve talking about the flood of alternate financing that can be found (provided you have a marquee actor attached, of course). Hedge funds that finance or co-finance riskier pictures, taking some of the risk away from studios (now serving as distributors rather than financiers now than ever) and giving the green light to more movies than we've ever seen. The ballooning of riches at the top of the food chain has caused a lot of loose money looking for risky but potentially wildly profitable returns on investments, and what wildly profitable returns are more wild and well-publicized than those that come with a hit movie?
But enough technical talk. Let's enjoy the fruit of this system while it lasts. Onto the list!
1. Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I guess 2007 is the year when the Western was reinvented again. During the entire decade of the 1970s, a handful of brilliant filmmakers (Robert Altman, Sergio Leone, Terrence Malick, Mel Brooks) took turns deconstructing this sturdiest of movie genres and building it into something new and strange. History repeated itself this year. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are Westerns more in spirit than in exact form. Even a Martian would identify The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as a Western, but it may be the strangest of the bunch.
This movie came out of nowhere, basically shot in the gut and left for dead by its studio. When a movie is put on the shelf for years, 99 times out of 100 it’s because the movie just doesn’t work and they can’t figure out any way to market it. But every once in a while, it’s because the movie is so good the bean counters don’t realize it AND they can’t figure out how to market it. Jesse James is that rarest of cases.
The movie’s stately pace will be a bore for some and a revelation for others. The period dialogue is flawless, the cinematography opens a window onto a Western world transforming from the frontier to modernity, and the performances…oh, baby. Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, and Brad Pitt give career performances in the most unexpected modern classic in a year full of them.
2. No Country for Old Men
The Coen brothers are back! And thank God.
The great thing about a true blue Coen Brothers movie (I’m talking everything from Blood Simple up to The Big Lebowski) is that you know you’re going to be popping it in and enjoying it at least a couple times a year. That’s pretty astonishing, but they were so good for so long we took it for granted. Not anymore. No Country For Old Men, their latest movie, is sort of a companion piece to Blood Simple, their first film—both are graphically violent tales set in Texas, with lots of breathing room for the tension to amplify. Javier Bardem’s pageboy killer will instantly go down as an iconic movie villain, and Tommy Lee Jones sort of emerged from nowhere to star in a couple movies this fall. Here he lends his crotchety moral credibility to punctuate the reflective, long sigh of an ending to the movie, one that has caused a bit of a controversy, but one that I’m fine with after having watched the movie a couple times (though I can still understand the feelings of the people who feel gypped by it). And after seeing No Country author Cormac McCarthy’s interview on Oprah, I kind of picture Jones as playing a sheriff version of McCarthy himself.
3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Probably the most unique major feature film released this year, also one of the best. Julian Schnabel brilliantly directs Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of the eponymous memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby. How do you make a stimulating narrative film about a guy with “locked-in syndrome,” only able to communicate with the outside world by blinking one eyelid? Somehow, these guys pulled it off. (Another weird thing: Diving Bell is a movie by an American director, but in French.) The film begins with one of the most startling opening sequences in memory: shot by Janusz Kaminski, we see what Bauby sees as he wakes up and learns about his condition in the hospital. We hear actor Mathieu Amalric speak the thoughts of Bauby and realize at the same time he does that the doctors and nurses looking down at his wandering, gauzy eye can’t hear him. Amalric is great as always (two French film recommendations featuring Amalric: Kings and Queens and Late August, Early September). Though it’s a movie about a paralyzed guy who can’t speak, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a feast for the senses, and one of the most touching and (dare I use the dreaded term?) heart-warming films I’ve seen since becoming a cynical adult. Great, great stuff.
4. There Will Be Blood
The first time I saw this film, I came out thinking of it as a bit of a noble failure. That was even the gist of my review for this site. But for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Something about the relentlessness of both the movie and Daniel Day Lewis’s character gnawed at me. So I saw it again. My friend that I saw it with had basically the same opinion that I had the first time I saw it. But we kept talking about it. And talking about it. Pretty soon, we realized that There Will Be Blood is that rare kind of film that defies all your expectations about how it should work. After you see it the first time, you’re disappointed that it’s not what you expected. But gradually you let your original conception go, and give yourself over to it…and before you know it, it’s the movie from 2007 that strangely seems to possess the highest rewatchability factor. I’ve seen it three and a half times already, and it’s just barely out in theaters. This is the kind of left-field movie that Stanley Kubrick always made—strange, thorny, unexpected, and filled with moments of jaw-dropping genius. It takes a few times to let it sink in until you let go of the movie you want to see and really appreciate it for what it is.
Daniel Day Lewis’s performance in There Will Be Blood is as intense and utterly captivating as his turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, and there’s no glaringly miscast romantic pair (Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz) to dilute it this time around. Paul Dano isn’t really big enough to totally balance the movie, but his turn as a charismatic preacher is just strange enough to give Lewis a foil to work off of during the atomic bomb ending. How the hell Paul Thomas Anderson went from making multi-character epics about the San Fernando Valley to this is anyone’s guess…and that’s part of the magic of this film. There Will Be Blood is both completely timely and totally singular, a movie that calls to mind other great films of the past (Citizen Kane, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) yet looks like nothing you’ve seen before. This could easily be my number one movie of the year—damn, there were a lot of great movies this year.
And here’s another one! Zodiac worked on my psyche the same way There Will Be Blood did: it’s a movie about obsession that just gets under your skin. I liked it well enough when I saw it in theaters, but then found myself getting more and more impatient for its DVD release, no doubt mirroring the tortured inner state of San Francisco cartoonist Robert Graysmith as he obsessively waited for another missive from the mysterious Zodiac killer. Also, like There Will Be Blood (and No Country, for that matter), this is a movie that boldly defies standard American movie logic. Like Javier Bardem’s killer in No Country, the Zodiac is never caught. All reports from the set found director David Fincher as obsessively devoted to details as ever, doing hundreds of takes of insert shots and remaining steadfast in his insistence on period details and even using the same locations where the events that inspired this movie happened. Zodiac was a big commercial flop, but time will be kind. If you didn’t catch Zodiac when it came out, don’t fret. This is the kind of movie designed to live a long, healthy life, and sooner or later you’ll get around to catching it on DVD…and perhaps becoming converted.
6. Eastern Promises
This one was kind of forgotten in the shuffle of primo fall releases…but it wasn’t forgotten by me. Viggo Mortenson reteams with director David Cronenberg on Steve Knight’s original screenplay. Cronenberg and Mortenson brought us 2005’s slightly overrated A History of Violence. Here they got rid of all the minor things that bugged me about that movie (mostly a hammy musical score by Howard Shore and a Capra-like small town that felt about as authentic as a walk through Disneyland). Within the next five years, Russian mobsters as screen heavies will reach a tipping point and become as big a cliché as Italian-American mobsters are now, but Eastern Promises has managed to get past the finish line before that cliché becomes official. If there’s any justice in the world, Viggo will taste some Oscar gold this spring for his turn as Nikolai, a driver for his more-connected London-based Russian mob friend Kirill, played by French actor Vincent Cassel (who American moviegoers might recognize as “The Night Fox” from Ocean’s 12 and American moviegoers with a taste for envelope-pushing French films might recognize as Marcus from Irreversible). Viggo is so intense I thought that merely his projected image might start a fire at the theater I saw it at—you might want to have a fire extinguisher on hand if you catch it on DVD now. Straight women with a pulse and gay men with a taste for sado-masochism will be wearing out one particular scene on their DVDs for years to come—let’s just say it takes place in a bathhouse and involves a fight between naked men more brutal than anything seen outside of Imperial Rome.
Side note: This is the only movie on this list whose screenplay wasn’t adapted from either a book or a documentary made by Werner Herzog. I guess this is just a weird coincidence, since on my top ten of last year, 8 of the 10 movies were original screenplays. Weird.
7. Rescue Dawn
Another movie that’s kind of been forgotten about during “kudos season” (as Variety would put it), this time because it came out during the summer as counter-programming to the big summer movies and pretty much no one saw it. But that’ll change…Rescue Dawn will still be here when all the Live Free or Die Hard’s of the world have finally died. The true story Rescue Dawn is based on—downed German-American pilot Dieter Dengler’s capture by the Viet Cong and subsequent amazing escape and rescue—is so amazing that only Michael Bay could screw it up. Luckily, Werner Herzog is no Michael Bay. Herzog had good practice before making Rescue Dawn—he already made this story into a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Most of the documentary consists of interviews between two wildly charismatic, kind of crazy Germans—Dengler and Herzog. Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn are perfect companion pieces now. Christian Bale, adding another notch to his resume for World’s Greatest Young Actor, channels Dengler’s weird charisma and gives a spellbinding performance matched by Jeremy Davies, who plays another POW in the prison camp in full, glorious, Crazy Jeremy Davies Mode. This is a story that would suck in even the most cynical of viewers, and the physical transformations of Bale, Davies, and Steve Zahn add a level of gutsy authenticity to this story.
8. The Bourne Ultimatum
Why aren’t more action movies as good as all three Bourne movies? Movie critics and film snobs get a bad name because people think our top ten lists are always filled with English drawing room dramas (I swear, I only have one on my list this year!). Not so! We love visceral, testicle-tingling action and adventure just as much as the next guy. It’s just that so many action movies are bad. That’s why we should all take a second and thank our lucky stars that Paul Greengrass, Tony Gilroy, Matt Damon, and I guess first Bourne director Doug Liman have given us one of the best action movie franchises of all time. Where did this potent cocktail come from? You’ve got to start with screenwriter Tony Gilroy (who made his directorial debut this year with Michael Clayton), who took the nearly unreadable Robert Ludlum novels and forged something stripped-down and intense out of them. From what I’ve read, after the first 20 minutes of The Bourne Identity, Gilroy pretty much wrote all original scripts for Supremacy, Ultimatum, and the rest of Identity—that’s how far he was forced to go off book. You’ve got to give credit to Doug Liman for setting the tone and look with the first film. We can’t forget Matty Damon, of course. But the rest of it goes to Paul Greengrass, who melded the immediacy of his pulse-pumping, documentary-style to the action genre, to the delight of millions of moviegoers the world over.
On the surface, Atonement looks like pure Oscar-bait. It’s an epic period piece featuring stunningly attractive, doomed lovers, English drawing-room drama, and epic war scenes. But in its naughty heart heart of hearts—symbolized by its plot hinging on the typing of a four letter word that begins with a C and rhymes with the last name of one of the Watergate burglars—it drips messy eroticism and more wet, hot sex than all Vivid Video’s 2007’s releases combined. Director Joe Wright is proving himself an ace adaptor of British period novels, and he does it by using as many whiz-bang filmmaking tricks and unlikely editing rhythms as he damn well pleases. The knock on this movie that the first hour builds so relentlessly and fascinatingly that the second hour—which finds its heroes spread out all over Europe—suffers from a bit of entropy is probably justified. A signature, unbroken shot of an army camped on a broken beach in World War Two feels more than a little superfluous to the subject matter and theme, but it’s still a jaw-dropping sequence in a film filled with jaw-dropping sequences where you least expect them. Atonement isn’t quite a total success, but it’s a breath of originality in one of the most stuffy genres known to man.
10. Into the Wild
There’s a school of thought that says Christopher McCandless–the young man who ran away from his bourgeois life and family to live on the road and in the wilderness and died for his hubris in the Alaskan frontier—was just a selfish, ungrateful brat. There’s another school of thought that his radical break with society made him a hero. There’s a third school of thought—the one I subscribe to, and the one screenwriter-director Sean Penn at least somewhat attempts to get across—that exists somewhere in the middle, and furthermore thinks that this middle ground is what makes McCandless such an endlessly fascinating topic, first of a top-notch Jon Krakauer book, and now of Sean Penn’s film adaptation of same.
Into the Wild, like the protagonist at its center, is heartfelt, sometimes brilliant, and sometimes clumsy (e.g. what’s with the straight-out-of-1982 green font of the opening title?). Into the Wild isn’t a book that lends itself to an obvious adaptation, and Penn does a good job keeping things moving by cross-cutting between different periods in Chris’s life and shots of his parents and sister back home. Eddie Vedder’s score is alternately beautiful and grating (Eddie, do you think the song where you keep singing “Society!” is just a bit on the nose?). And Emile Hirsch’s performance is both suitably wide-eyed and innocent and occasionally grating. It all adds up to a moving experience in the end, though, making the hiccups and growing pains of the road to Into the Wild well worth the ride.
I am not a super being, nor am I a full-time film critic. Which makes it just about impossible to see every movie in time for a Top 10 list. I managed to get to a lot of stuff this year, but couldn’t see everything—especially the foreign films. There’s lots of good things being said about 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Once, Control, Syndromes and a Century, and This is England, among others. I’ll keep you updated…I know you’ll all be on the edges of your seats.
Also, full disclaimer: I haven’t seen Southland Tales and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead yet, both of which seem to have a fighting chance to elbow their way onto this list.
Come On, People
As good as they are, Killer of Sheep and The Lives of Others are not really 2007 films, although a lot of critics have been putting them on their lists. The Lives of Others won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Oscars, which means it definitely came out in 2006. And Killer of Sheep came out in 1977, for God’s sake! That said, Killer of Sheep in particular is quite the little treasure, and well worth the attention these cheater-critics are giving it.
It’s a lot too messy to really be considered on a top 10 list of such rare distinction, but I’ve got to give a shout out to Grindhouse for trying something completely new and weird. Put all together, it’s a bit too long, a bit too unnecessary, and a bit too too, but damn if I didn’t have a great night out when I saw this in the theater. Two full movies, three trailers, hilarious period-recreated advertisements…this was a great night out at the movies. And its complete and utter failure at the box office means that we’ll never see its like again.
The Year’s Secret Best Movie
It doesn’t to count, because it’s a TV show who’s run lasts over several years. But taken together as one big whole, the scope and breadth and sheer entertainment value of The Wire makes it the year’s Secret Best Movie.