27 December 2007

List #3: Best of 2007, Film

... that added confusion as to whether or not I should include films that had yet to receive official US distribution, such as Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy or Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. It also crossed films such as Old Joy and Wild Tigers I Have Known, which were officially released in 2006, only to come to Saint Louis this year. It’s not so much that I’m a stickler for these regulations, but it just adds to confusion once 2008 rolls around as possible best of’s like Ploy and Paranoid Park don’t make the cut (I’ve opted for waiting until next year for Van Sant’s, as it does have an official release date for March from IFC Films). Perhaps though, this is the point of an introduction, to give a roadmap to the reader as to why certain things made the cut and others did not (officially, my #1 of 2006 and 2005, Children of Men and Caché respectively, didn’t hit Saint Louis until after the new year, so the politics of a “Best of the Year” list for film are decidedly murky). Thus, I have compiled a 20 best, which includes those 2007 films without official releases and skips out on the 2006 ones that didn’t make it here until 2007. Notable films that I didn’t have the opportunity to catch before writing this include: 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Juno, Sweeney Todd, Syndromes and a Century, Quiet City, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Persepolis, No End in Sight, Manufactured Landscapes, Rescue Dawn, and Lars and the Real Girl. Here’s the official, revised list of the Best Films of 2007:

1. No Country for Old Men – dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - USA

The American press has caused such a hoopla over the Coen brothers’ latest film that it almost bares no importance for me to say anything further. I vacillated between listing this or my number two, Grindhouse, at the top, but I realized a simple coin toss wouldn’t cut it. I think I only wanted to list Grindhouse at number one just so that my list didn’t look like every other film critic out there, and that wouldn’t be fair. No Country for Old Men is, without question, the finest film I saw this year, impeccable on nearly every level of filmmaking and dramatically shattering in a way all its own.

2. Grindhouse – dir. Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright - USA

Pardon shall never be given to those Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez fans who skipped out on their double-feature. Actually, despite the film’s unfortunate box office receipt, I lean toward feeling sorry for those who missed out on the most rousing cinematic event you could ever ask for, and this is coming from someone’s who’s never liked a film by Rodriguez and could barely muster interest in anything Tarantino did after Pulp Fiction. I refuse to look at Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof as separate entities, because they damn well shouldn’t be. Most of the pleasure of Grindhouse is in their placement, in knowing that after you saw Rose McGowan kill a bunch of zombies with her machine-gun leg that you had a whole ‘nother treat in store with Kurt Russell plowing down hot chicks in his car. But it’s not so much knowing as it is experiencing. The final twenty minutes of Death Proof provide the most intense car chase scene in movie history, not just closing itself perfectly, but concluding more than three hours of trashy cinematic ecstasy. In fact, I don’t want to believe that two other films could compliment one another better than they do in Grindhouse. Grindhouse was a one-of-a-kind cinema blessing that could have never been reproduced on home video, even with the highest level consumer HD (and assuming that the films weren’t annoyingly released separately on DVD without Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Edgar Wright’s hilarious faux trailers). Curse yourself, please, because you really fucking missed out. Full review here.

3. Black Book [Zwartboek] – dir. Paul Verhoeven – Netherlands/Germany/Belgium

After Hollow Man, you too were probably thinking that there was no way Paul Verhoeven could return to your good graces. Hopefully, after Black Book, you couldn’t even remember that he made that awful movie. Black Book is stunning, from start to finish, and probably the most Verhoeven of all of his recent films. For in who else’s mind does a graphic depiction of pubic hair-dying and ripping the top off a woman only to douse her in feces constitute as historical realism? In his lead actress Carice van Houten, Verhoeven finds absolute radiance, depicting her as if she were the most beautiful woman to ever grace the screen, even when he’s dumping literal shit on her. Black Book is the sort of war film for those who found Schindler’s List a bit too morally refined and Lust, Caution a bit too, well, sedated in everything but its sexuality. And for a sleaze-bag who has loved Verhoeven since seeing Basic Instinct as an impressionable youth (including Showgirls, mind you!), you know which vision of wartime peril I prefer.
4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – dir. Andrew Dominik - USA

There’s an unofficial debate among those I know as to whether this or No Country for Old Men reigns superior. It’s not so much a conflict between the classic western versus the neo-western by any means; the argument is pretty straight-forward. The general consensus probably leans toward No Country (even I rank it higher), but that doesn’t diminish the fact that The Assassination of Jesse James is a spectacular motion picture. There are plenty of similarities between the two films as both bring their underlying melancholy to the foreground in their third acts and dispel the notion of legend (or the past, as is more the case in No Country). The Assassination of Jesse James finds the titular legend (Brad Pitt) in the final stages of his life, recruiting a crop of Missouri thieves (among them the astonishing Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, James’ assailant) for his last, unspectacular robberies. Andrew Dominik (Chopper) fashioned an intentional response to that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, opting instead for printing the sad fact of mistaken glory. In many ways, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the companion piece to No Country for Old Men, as both brilliantly feed off one another and, combined, leave a haunting spell greater than any other double feature you might pair together this year (Grindhouse was many things, but “haunting“ wasn’t one of them). Additional accolades should be given to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score, as Cave has finally found his cinematic home in the form of the western (after last year’s The Proposition).

5. Bug – dir. William Friedkin - USA

If Bug proved anything (other than the fact that Lionsgate’s marketing department sucks), it’s that the old standard of atmospheric, creepy horror films has officially been replaced by the slice-’em-up torture porn of the Saw and Hostel films. Yet for those who prefer paranoia to dismemberment, Bug was an utterly unnerving and bleak examination of a woman’s (a brilliant Ashley Judd) descent into complete obsessive terror with the help of a stranger in town (Michael Shannon). William Friedkin walks Bug along a dangerous line between sheer horror and over-the-top mayhem, and to those without patience (mainly the people who bought into Lionsgate’s misleading promotion), it didn’t work. For others like myself, Bug unsettled to the point of cringing and total personal disruption. I was literally shaken and stirred, and formed a return appreciation for Freidkin’s dying brand of terror.

6. Glue – dir. Alexis Dos Santos – Argentina/UK

It would befit the majority of film critics who don’t appear to have been hired by the studios to include, at the very least, one film you’d never in your life heard of on their yearly rundown of the best of the year. To some, it might be out of snobbery that they would do such; a lot of times, it probably is, but I can only defend myself. One would typically assume that someone who wrote about films did so because they loved cinema, and this, usually, would be the case for me. Glue was an accidental Netflix rental, one I hadn’t remembered adding to my queue until it arrived in my mailbox. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with it, as it almost perfectly recalled some of my favorite films of the past decade (Morvern Callar, Come Undone, George Washington). Yet merely reminding me of those films isn’t enough, and thankfully Glue exceeded mere association. Taking place in a rural town in Argentina, Glue depicts the teenage longings of two people, one a glue-sniffing waif of a boy with awesome hair, the other a pretty girl with shy tendencies and dorky glasses. First-time director Alexis Dos Santos paints Glue in kaleidoscopic reverie and perfectly captures the awkwardness of youth in all its miscommunication and pent-up sexuality. Though it got much less attention on the international circuit, I can only hope for great things from Dos Santos, who’s just as impressive a filmmaker as his co-patriot Lucrecia Martel, who received many accolades for 2004’s The Holy Girl.

7. Ploy – dir. Pen-ek Ratanaruang – Thailand

Though it greatly depends on who you ask as to where it falls, Ploy marks a high point in Thai director Ratanaruang’s filmography. It’s high-hurdles better than 6ixtynin9 and Monrak Transistor, and a stylistic commonality with Last Life in the Universe… yet Ploy is such an exceptionally haunting film that I would dare to call it his best (I actually have yet to see his Invisible Waves for the record). Ploy is a dreamy and alternately nightmare-y tale of a married couple, stuck in a Bangkok hotel with a strange, lonely girl. Deceptions and jealousies arise beneath the eerily calm and gorgeous cinematography. If it ever comes stateside (by either Tartan or Palm, I would guess), see for yourself Ratanaruang’s growth as a filmmaker, from once Tarantino-wannabe to Wong Kar-wai heir apparent (after My Blueberry Nights, it appears as if we desperately need one).

8. Red Road – dir. Andrea Arnold - UK

Red Road is a tale of forgiveness, and when you eventually discover that’s what the film’s all about, a true appreciation of it must come from your own amnesty. Conceptually, Red Road is the first entry of Lars Von Trier’s “Advance Party,” in which a trilogy of films will explore, differently, the stories of three prewritten characters played by the same actors (the other two films have yet to be completed). In Red Road, Andrea Arnold, an Oscar winner for her short film Wasp, makes her feature debut with the assuredness of someone whose been in the business for decades. Arnold layers her film with as much palpable suspense and tension that you saw in No Country for Old Men, yet with an air of evocative mystery, as it takes two-thirds of the film for its ultimate “purpose” to be revealed. Its revelation is disappointing, perhaps only in contrast to the sheer rapture of what proceeded it. Your feelings toward Red Road will inevitably come rushing out in its third act, for better or worse, but for my money, I can’t think of another film that captivated me as fully as Arnold did here, and first time actress Kate Dickie, as the central CCTV operator, is astounding. Full review here.

9. There Will Be Blood – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson - USA

My experience with There Will Be Blood was a murky one. I got word that there was going to be a screening directly in the middle of feeding my obsession with the third season of the television show Lost. Naturally, I hadn’t slept much the night before (every damn episode of Lost ends with a cliff hanger!) and wasn’t thrilled to see There Will Be Blood, an adaptation of Upton Sinclar’s Oil!, in the first place. Though I liked Punch-Drunk Love, my feelings for Magnolia and Boogie Nights were tepid at best. As uncompromising as his previous three films were, Paul Thomas Anderson churned out the most ambitious film of his career, a claim I doubt even fans of Boogie Nights or Magnolia will disagree with. There Will Be Blood is such a curious and peculiar film that it’s hard to even recognize Anderson as the author. Though it’s certainly long, Anderson appears to have set aside his pretentious quirks for something altogether fascinating. Daniel Day Lewis is breathtaking here, solidifying his place as the most consistently exceptional actor working today. Equipped with a brilliant score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood successfully managed to take my mind off the mysteries of Lost island and became much, much more than just a fleeting distraction.

10. Once – dir. John Carney – Ireland/UK

I’ve had living nightmares that sounded similar to an outline of Once. As a vast admirer of the golden era of the Hollywood musical, the notion of a stripped bare, un-glorious entry into the genre (with no dancing even) sends chills down my back. I’d also like to see anyone in their twenties not raise their hand when asked whether or not they knew someone who’d pick up an acoustic guitar at the most inopportune time and start to play their sub-Dylan, sub-Young, sub-Ani Difranco singer-songwriter bullshit for an unsuspecting audience. As someone who’s not a musician, the very thought of watching “band practice” makes me want to gnaw at my wrists. Yet… for some reason, Once is just fucking lovely. Its musical scenes (though lacking sequined outfits) resonate with the intensity of watching the musicians perform live. Aside from being added to the list of celebrities who resemble yours truly (a nice change of pace from the usual Anthony Rapp conclusion), Glen Hansard sparks such joyful chemistry with Markéta Irglová that you can’t help but slide your own romantic cynicism aside. Thankfully, the answers in Once aren’t as easy as they might appear, adding its own supposition to the notion “the couple that harmonizes together…”

11. Private Property [Nue propriété] – dir. Joachim Lafosse – Belgium/Luxembourg/France

If you feel the need to make a list of the ten best actresses that have ever appeared on the screen, your list would be incomplete without Isabelle Huppert. Madame Huppert solidified her placement in 2001 with her devastating portrayal of frigidness in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. In the years following, fear set in that The Piano Teacher might be her last earth-shattering performance, but with Private Property, all hope has been restored. As in all her best films, Huppert provides the anchor to a film that probably wouldn’t work otherwise. In Private Property, she plays the mother of adult twins (Jérémie Renier, Yannick Renier, real life brothers, but not twins) who’s ready to cut the chord and live her own life. In the films that followed The Piano Teacher, Huppert often played a parody of her expected role (most effectively in 8 Women, where her Augustine seems taken from the exact same character sketch), but in Private Property, she’s radiant and, believe it or not, equipped with a sense of humor. In many ways, Private Property should have been just a showcase piece for her talent, but director Joachim Lafosse constructs a fascinating piece of familial tragedy, both dramatically alluring and void of incessant melodrama. As a great companion to this, have yourself a double feature of the 2007 thespian delights of Isabelle Huppert, with Claude Chabrol’s Comedy of Power as your follow-up. If you can’t defend her residency on the list of the world’s greatest actress after those, you’re a lost cause. Full review here.

12. Great World of Sound – dir. Craig Zobel – USA

As Mutual Appreciation was my needed reminder last year, first-time director Craig Zobel made his Great World of Sound this year’s sole reminder of the vitality and imagination of the American independent scene. Co-produced by David Gordon Green, Great World of Sound is evocative and moody, all while never condescending its subjects (even when some of them may have needed to be). Both leads, Pat Healy and Kene Holliday, are remarkable.

13. Eastern Promises – dir. David Cronenberg – UK/Canada

For doing exactly what it needed to, Eastern Promises probably should have been my number one for the year. It’s an amazingly effective crime yarn, consistent and stirring. In his second pairing with director Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen is phenomenal, a delicate performance culminating in that breathtaking naked bathhouse brawl.

14. Zodiac – dir. David Fincher – USA

Or, All the Zodiac Killer’s Men. Zodiac was riveting in ways I never expected, particularly coming from a director who’d lost any notion of subtlety after his first big film.

15. Flanders [Flandres] – dir. Bruno Dumont – France

Flanders was a perfect example of reading between the lines. Its story and, in fact, its power lied somewhere outside of the frame, which probably explains why nearly every critic hated it when it was briefly released earlier this year. Dumont doesn’t stray too far from his roots of shock value, but there’s something a bit more human at work in Flanders than is usually expected of him. Full review here.

16. Golden Door [Nuovomundo] – dir. Emanuele Crialese – Italy/Germany/France

The stellar work from the cinematographers of There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and No Country for Old Men overshadowed Agnès Godard’s astounding work on Golden Door, a wonderful fable of freedom and hope through the eyes of a Sicilian family who meets a mysterious English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on their boat ride to the New World.

17. The Orphanage [El orfanato] – dir. Juan Antonio Bayona – Spain/Mexico

Rarely has a horror film been this playful. When searching for her missing son, Laura (Belén Rueda) discovers a world of dead children ghosts in the former orphanage she now calls home. Like Pan’s Labyrinth (director Guillermo del Toro co-produced this), there’s still a level of desperation and cruelty to what’s going on, but it never hinders the lively joy of The Orphanage’s jolty horror.

18. Starting Out in the Evening – dir. Andrew Wagner – USA

Starting Out in the Evening is the sort of film that should have been made in the 90s. It’s a chamber drama/character study of three individuals (Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor) that’s hugely reliant on its dialogue and plot devices (the film is actually based on a late-90s novel by Brian Morton, so this all makes sense). Yet Starting Out in the Evening, the film, breathes new air into this nameless genre of chatty character studies, aided by three exceptional performances, updating its story to something more relevant, more intelligent than it may have been had its incarnation came ten years ago.

19. The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down – dir. Paul Sapiano – USA

Never has a high concept worked so well beyond my own expectations. In The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down, a spoof of educational dating films, the potential “short film” material manifests itself oh-so-brilliantly in its assessment of twentysomething night life. It’s hilarious and absolutely spot-on (you know you’ve found the house party when you see a drunk girl crying on her cell phone on the staircase). I have much anticipation for the film’s upcoming sequel, The Boys and Girls Guide to Being Gay.

20. Joshua – dir. George Ratliff – USA

As one of the most misunderstood films of the year, Joshua was a wholly contemporary horror film tackling the difficult issue of modern parenting. Though marred slightly by expected demon-child clichés, Joshua was unnerving, haunting, and with a wonderfully peculiar ending to match that of Rosemary’s Baby. Full review here.

Special Mention:
Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl falls into a weird limbo category for year. Technically, it was released two days before January 1, 2007, but no one saw it. I suppose it made a small run for Oscar consideration, but like I said, no one saw it. And that's a shame. With an impressive ensemble cast which includes Piper Laurie, Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Giovanni Ribisi, and Kerry Washington, The Dead Girl is exceptionally good, with a surprisngly devestating performance from Brittany Murphy as the titular "dead girl."

Honorable Mentions:
Sicko - dir. Michael Moore - USA
Away from Her - dir. Sarah Polley - Canada
The Boss of It All - dir. Lars Von Trier - Denmark/Iceland/Sweden/Norway/Finland/France
The Cats of Mirikitani - dir. Linda Hattendorf - USA
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - dir. Seth Gordon - USA
Stephanie Daley - dir. Hilary Brougher - USA
Comedy of Power [L'ivresse de pouvoir] - dir. Claude Chabrol - France
Waitress - dir. Adrienne Shelly - USA
The Exterminating Angels [Les anges exterminateurs] - dir. Jean-Claude Brisseau - France
Fay Grim - dir. Hal Hartley - USA/Germany and Broken English - dir. Zoe Cassaevetes - USA/France/Japan [both for Parker Posey's exceptional work]
Zoo - dir. Robinson Devor - USA

More readings:
Best of 2006 [Not revised, by the way]


Ed Howard said...

This is a great list. I didn't see as many new films as I would've liked in 2007 (something I plan to fix in 2008), so there's a lot I haven't seen there. But beyond the obvious (and mostly great) picks, I'm really glad to see not only the fantastic "bomb" Grindhouse (the most fun at the movies this year, by far) but the incredibly creepy, atmospheric, and thought-provoking Bug (also a big flop). Two amazing and original films totally sunk by crap marketing that didn't even appeal to the people most likely to want to see them.

Anonymous said...

i'm finishing up my top 10 list as well and we will have at least one film in exactly the same position. i think a few others will be similar as well