Top 10 List, 2007

It was a terrific year for Hollywood movies — if I’m unhappy with anything about my final top-10 list, it’s the absence of non-English-language films. Yes, that’s partly a function of a lack of moviegoing adventurousness on my part, and I should take the rap for that.

But the foreign-language films I enjoyed the most — The Lives of Others, The Host, the first section, at least, of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — just didn’t seem to quite belong in this company. (The much-lauded 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days — which I won’t see until next week — is a 2008 film for my purposes.)

The films here are also dominated by men. They’re directed by men (the single documentary is the one woman-directed exception) and they deal with traditionally male concerns — cooking, adventure travel, police work, drilling for oil, hunting down and killing your tormentors. You have to go all the way down to number eight to find a movie with a female character who does more than just play sidekick (unless you count Angie in Gone Baby Gone, which I don’t), and that doesn’t make me happy. I could have slipped Day Night Day Night, Margot at the Wedding, Red Road, or even Black Book onto the list for the sake of gender balance — though none of those boast what you’d call female role models. (Maybe I could have listed Juno.) You can pretend they’re there if you like, but they weren’t my favorites.

Again, it was a terrific year for Hollywood movies. These are the best ones I saw.


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Ratatouille

It may be primarily that I’m a sucker for exactly this kind

of Hollywood formula. Long,

story-and-character-driven set up. Gratuitously gorgeous visuals. Fancy camerawork.

(The rat’s-eye view adds an unusual verve to the early floor-level action

sequences, in which ordinary kitchen furnishings loom as menacingly as any T.

Rex.) Snappy dialogue, with a healthy sprinkling of one-liners. Terrific

(voice) performances. Unafraid of boring his audience — or merely incognizant

of the conventional wisdom that kids have short attention spans —

writer/director Brad Bird holds out until the last 20 minutes or so to let ’er

rip in wildly satisfying fashion, delivering payoff after splendid payoff in

the lead up to the film’s coup de grace — a flashback that says everything that

needs to be said about the delicately personal relationship between artist and

audience, and about the soul-soothing satisfaction that can confront a

disgruntled connoisseur who is delivered something challenging and magnificent.

Ratatouille, it turns out, refers not just to the peasant origins of certain

highly sophisticated artisans, but to that special subjectivity that turns

great art into a life-altering experience. Brad Bird’s masterpiece-to-date

didn’t get the kind of end-of-year love that the rave reviews it earned in the

summertime would have suggested — maybe pro critics were displeased by the film’s

clear suggestion that they might be happier in another line of work — and it’s

true that There Will Be Blood (and even Zodiac) is a very close runner-up. But

if I could have only one of them, I know which one I’d pick.

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There Will Be Blood

This year, Daniel Day-Lewis drank everybody’s milkshake. I’m

normally not such a huge fan of this kind of stylized, scenery-chewing, attention-grabbing performance, but his work here has a fevered intensity and apparent authenticity that

helps lend mythic grandeur to P.T. Anderson’s finest film to date (there’s no

contest — this is in a completely different league from the excellent Hard

Eight and the intermittently charming Punch Drunk Love, and it blows the doors

off the highly derivative Boogie Nights and Magnolia). Anderson keeps the

overarching metaphor loose enough that, while it clearly references the

socialist agenda of its source material (Daniel Plainview is nothing if not a

symbol of the moral failures of capitalism) it can also be read in its

unavoidable contemporary context — without too much of a stretch, I think — as

a blistering take on the roots of U.S. foreign policies. (In her New York Times

review, Manohla Dargis calls it “an origin story of sorts,” which sums it up.)

It’s not a perfect film, but its flaws hardly matter in comparison to its

achievement.

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Zodiac

While we’re thinking about long dark nights of the American

soul, it pays to take another look at David Fincher’s psychological thriller,

which kicked the year off right. It’s almost perverse, in this day and age, for

a major filmmaker to make a big Hollywood

movie about a serial killer who’s never caught. Scratch that. (The Coen

Brothers did that by the end of the year, anyway.) Zodiac was never “about” the

famous psychopath who terrorized San

Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was

about a schlubby newspaper cartoonist and a police inspector who never

recovered from the epic mindfuck of trying to crack the case. And it’s about

Fincher himself — a notorious perfectionist who was a child during the Zodiac’s

reign of terror and who in adulthood marshaled considerable visual-effects

resources to make this digitally photographed procedural a preternaturally

authentic period piece, boasting the kind of overhead photography and tracking

shots that heretofore would have required a time machine to get in the can and

onto your local multiplex screens. Like There Will Be Blood above and Into the

Wild below it’s a distinctly creepy and impressively American movie, reflecting

one more facet of the national experience.10_wild.jpg

Into the Wild

More than anything else in recent memory, Into the Wild

reminded me of Vincent Gallo’s time-capsule road movie, The Brown Bunny. (Yes,

that’s a compliment.) Like Gallo, Sean Penn — employing his directorial chops

with smart, startling confidence — borrows stylistic tropes from 1970s cinema.

Here, they help prop up the out-of-time idealism evinced by his protagonist. As

the ill-fated (and, some would argue, ill-prepared) adventurer Christopher

McCandless, Emile Hirsch conveys exactly the right combination of gentle smarts

and naïveté. Penn portrays McCandless as a kind of folk hero, but won’t let him

completely off the hook for abandoning the family that loves him, or for

indulging in a cocky self-regard that helped lead to his death. That

undercurrent saves the film — with its whitewater-kayaking, moose-hunting,

testosterone-friendly scenarios — from playing as pure macho indulgence.

Instead, it unfolds as the tragedy of an American boy who’s wise and crazy, heroic

and pathetic: an American myth for the 21st century.

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The Bourne Ultimatum

How do you feel about waterboarding? Jason Bourne is against

it. Much ink was spilled in the latter half of the year about the commercial

failure of issue-oriented cinema directly addressing the Iraq War (think The

Kingdom, Lions For Lambs, and In the Valley of Elah). But less attention was

paid to the emotional subtext of the third movie in the Bourne trilogy, which

dealt finally with a soldier’s long-sublimated anger at being manipulated and

deceived by his commanding officers. Of course Shooter covered some of the same

territory — even making the anger felt toward U.S. lawmakers gunshot-explicit — and

it won’t be showing up on anyone’s best-of-2007

list. But Paul Greengrass smuggled the political allegory in with a boatload of

intense, nerve-jangling action scenes that emphasized the subjective camera — whether

it was gliding into a room just behind Matt Damon’s shoulders or making a

stuntman’s leap from building to building in a great, parkour-inflected rooftop

chase sequence, the strategy was to make audiences experience the same kind of

feelings as the confused but driven action hero. It worked a treat, as they

say. Jason Bourne, c’est moi.

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Gone Baby Gone

Yes, I had my doubts. I’m not a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s

novels, and what critic was excited about the prospect of Ben Affleck making

his directorial debut? Turns out it’s the freshman film of the year. The

machinations behind the film’s central mystery turn out to be fairly ludicrous,

but they work brilliantly as emotional provocation. (Clint Eastwood, having

recently reinvented himself as an expert director of melodramas, might also

have had a field day with this material.) Affleck’s obvious affection for the

blue-collar Boston

milieu is a huge asset, and he gets a smart, unsentimental performance from his

little brother Casey that invests the film with an easy resonance. Also, Amy Ryan, in a big way: playing white trash with neither affection nor condescension. One day,

maybe this will make an interesting double feature with Juno — very different

films, of course, but both of them concerned in part with the popular American

pastime of criticizing other people’s fitness as parents.
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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This awkwardly (but aptly) titled film is a triumph of mood

worthy of Terrence Malick. Tracing the roots of celebrity culture all the way

back to 1883, writer/director Andrew Dominik imagines the last few months of

the life of Jesse James as a hazy battle of wits between the sharp, charismatic

bandit (Brad Pitt), the gang of thieves he no longer trusts, and the young

wannabe Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who exhibits a neediness that borders on

creepy. Affleck has plenty of time — nearly three hours — to precisely detail

the ways Ford’s idolatry of James turned to resentment and betrayal, and Pitt

invests James with charm and humor to balance his occasional murderousness,

effectively imagining a man on the downhill side of his own legend. Cinematographer

Roger Deakins shoots some scenes with a vignette that blurs the edges of the

frame and gives the images a dreamlike feel suited to images half-remembered,

stories blurred by the cloudy-glassed lens of time. The result is a languorous

masterpiece — a revisionist western about myth, moral compromise, and the male

ego.

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28 Weeks Later

I popped this one into the DVD player at year end just to

make sure I hadn’t gone completely crazy when I gave it, essentially, a rave

review. Happily, I found that this is still a terrific dystopian horror film

with just the kind of thumb-in-your-eye socio-political commentary that used to

make George Romero movies so special. (I wasn’t a big fan of Land of the Dead,

and I hold out some hope for Diary, but … ) The pre-title sequence alone is a

zombie classic, with its clever inversion of horror convention to emphasize the

safety in darkness while the eyeball-stabbing bursts of sunshine represent

chaos and terror. But things really start cooking when we visit London, which has become a sort of police state under the

protection of the U.S.

military, brought in to contain the terror threat. (Naturally, there’s an

essential declaration of mission accomplished.) Eventually, the guys with the

guns decide they have to firebomb the village in order to save it. Robert

Carlyle has a central role as a coward who left his wife to die among the

zombies, and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo makes relentless use of windowpane

imagery to recall the last, poignant shot of the poor woman pounding on the

glass. I’ve never been a fan of fast zombies, which have lately all but

consigned the shambling, Tombs of the

Blind Dead-style undead to the dustheap of horror history, but they’re used

to good effect here — have you ever had a nightmare where you had to run flat-out

as fast as you could to keep some unmentionable thing from happening to you?

This film is about that nightmare. (I remember some griping among genre

aficionados about inconsistencies in the story — but complaining about the

finer points of zombie behavior is akin to whining that you can’t believe the talking

rat is controlling the chef by yanking on his hair.)
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Manufactured Landscapes

One of my blind spots is probably documentaries — I would

almost always rather see a fiction film than a nonfiction film, and I sometimes

have a stupidly hard time separating my feelings about the aesthetics of a

documentary film from its qualities as journalism. But this film is fascinating

in every regard. It’s ostensibly a study of the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose

photography documents the effect of industry on natural landscapes, but it’s

also a film that encourages thought about the status of those photographs as

art. Further, it eventually deals with the unresolved tension between

Burtynsky’s photographs, which are largely apolitical, and the context of his

project, which is the increasingly intolerable transformation of the

environment by unchecked industry, particularly in China. The film puts the

photographs in some context, but never enters full-on didactic mode — which is

why it succeeds as art, rather than journalism. By that measure, it’s fairly

extraordinary. It deserves to be seen on a big screen, but check it out on DVD

if that’s what’s available to you.
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No Country for Old Men

So who is this Anton Chigurh guy, anyway? I’ve seen

arguments that he represents death, or God, or fate. (Does he have to symbolize

anything?) OK. To me, he represents the existential position. His conversations

with his victims are the equivalent of a philosophical debate between someone

who believes in arbitrary, ultimately capricious fate, and some poor sucker who

still puts some trust in faith, love, free will and conscience. They’re tapped

phone calls from Hell to Heaven, charges reversed. But Chigurh never confronts

Llewelyn Moss. It’s unnecessary. There would be no argument, because Llewelyn

understands that point of view. Partly it’s something he learned and partly

it’s something he was born with, a knowledge that led him just so far and no

farther. It’s a fine film, but beyond the casting of Javier Bardem —

which is a stroke of genius, for sure, making this a top-10 entry and a

must-see — I’m not sure the Coens bring all that much to the table that wasn’t

already present in the source material. (I keep hearing how it’s Cormac

McCarthy’s worst book — which only makes me think I have to run out, like, right now and read everything the man

has ever written.)

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Honorable mention (in no particular order): Margot at the Wedding, Day Night Day Night, Michael Clayton, The Lives of Others, Grindhouse, Black Snake Moan, The

Host, Black Book, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

  • It’s one of my favourite McCarthy books, so stick that in your cake and eat it. The Coens do a decent job of bringing it to the screen, but I wasn’t as wowed as so many others, because the narrative quirkiness of the novel doesn’t quite translate to the screen as much more than a perverse delight in refusing to deliver to the audience what it demands (a confrontation.) In the novel, this makes perfect sense in large part cuz the sheriff’s narration is so damned brilliant, you know that there’s really no point (as you suggest in your review above.)

    Anyways, good top ten. I can’t believe I forgot to include Manufactured Landscapes in my top ten. I might just have to go back and do a little Orwellian revisionism…

  • I’ve only read No Country and The Road, and while I thought The Road was easily the better book, I thought it was clear No Country was kind of awesome as well. I’ll be working my way backwards from here. (My wife’s read most of them, but gave them away to friends as she finished, so I have to buy/borrow them all over again.) I’m on a mystery kick right now — just finished Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (terrific!) and am about to start either The Big Sleep and/or The Maltese Falcon, never having actually picked up either novel myself.

    I’m not sure what I would have made of No Country’s narrative strategy if I hadn’t already read the novel. Possibly I would have liked the film more and maybe given the Coens too much credit, I don’t know.

    Good to know you liked Manufactured Landscapes so much. Was that shown on Canadian TV or something before the theatrical release? I think there was a (prohibitively expensive) DVD available through Amazon.com before the U.S. theatrical release that was sourced from Canada.

  • The dvd was pricey through Amazon.ca as well, but I flipped it on eBay.

    I’m particularly embarrassed that I forgot the film (my bookkeeping of film’s scene this year has been atrocious) because the director grew up here in Victoria (in fact, she went to Oak Bay High School, where I teach), and is friends of a good friend of mine. Quite aside from the incestuousness of it all, I thought her film was damned fine, just the sort of thing filmmakers should be doing more often with documentaries (using the medium to question/examine/explore the medium) but so rarely do.