I’ve contributed Top Ten lists to four different organizations already: MSN, IndieWire, the Village Voice/LA Weekly 2007 Film Poll, and Senses of Cinema (not yet published as of this writing). The process has remained fluid throughout, and not just due to differing rules for the different groups. I’ve allowed myself to challenge my own evaluations, and the reasons behind them, for each list, shifting films up and down the list, swapping out different titles in the final spots, rethinking what it is that makes a “best film,” and understanding what I want to represent as “cinema” with such a list.
That ends with this, my final list, the one that I prepare for my annual “Top Ten” event, a small party/debate that I have been hosting for a few film critic friends of mine for ten years now. It’s by design a small gathering of people I enjoy talking to and arguing with, who take movies seriously and are articulate enough to make a discussion not just lively, but invigorating and challenging. The results of that event will follow in a later posting. Here is the list I presented at the event, supplemented with notes, comments, runners-up, and links to reviews and other writings (where available).
1. No Country For Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen)
A model of simple, strong, evocative storytelling pared down to the bone and character and meaning radiating from every image, every movement, and every moment, “No Country” is cinema in every sense of the word. Part of the thrill is the feeling that it’s all spinning out of your grasp, it’s rushing out of control, in a film that refuses to rush anything. You never feel it’s out of the control of the Coens, whose methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story, and Roger Deakins delivers simple and stark images, a desert that sometimes feels like it’s lawless frontier. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss may seem smart, but is just smart enough to outrun the trouble dogging his trail, a minor league talent in a major league showdown. The Coens don’t offer that comforting sense of cosmic justice or thematic completeness that most crime movies provide, even those films about chaotic situations where the violence spills out of the confines of the protagonists. And that’s the point. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t know, and that’s far more dangerous. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, retires because, he says, no longer understands the kind of violence and characters that he faces with the explosion of the drug trade through the borders. The Coens (and McCarthy’s story) remind us that it’s not the violence that’s changed, only the players.
My Seattle P-I review of No Country For Old Men is here.
2. Into the Wild (Sean Penn)
Here’s what I wrote for MSN about the film:
No film this year gripped me, moved me and carried me away into another life so completely as the odyssey of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch). The story of a young man who rejects his past, flees what he perceives to be as compromises and corruptions of the material world and embarks on his “Alaskan adventure,” a quest of self-reliance in the natural world guided by Henry David Thoreau and Jack London is true. The film, adapted and directed by Sean Penn from Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book, is an epic that (but for a handful of flashbacks) lives in the moment. Penn throws you headlong into the romance of his journey and the buzzing thrill of his quest with spectacular imagery and textures you can almost feel in the space between you and the screen. He embraces the rush of Christopher’s idealized, poetic notion of man alone in nature while acknowledging (and even, in a way, appreciating) the self-involved immaturity of the young man who is convinced he knows it all. And as the quest unfolds, Penn uncovers the emotional damages that underlie the flight from the betrayals of his past and watches his inability to connect with or commit to another human being. The painful beauty of the film is how Penn embraces every level of meaning and experience simultaneously. At a running time of more than 2 ½ hours, “Into the Wild” has a ragged glory, as if hewn from a surfeit of raw materials, and a purity of passion and creative conviction.
I also wrote about the film for the Seattle P-I in my Toronto Film Festival coverage.
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile, Cristian Mungiu)
Set in 1987 in the last days of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, this beautiful and harrowing drama follows – in a series of long takes and real-time scenes – the efforts of a college girl to get an illegal abortion. Cristian Mungiu, like so many of his fellow directors responsible for the recent wave of Romanian films to grapple with politically touchy and socially relevant issues (from before and after the fall of Communism), uses the camera with blunt power and subtle discretion. It doesn’t blink or look away from situations that twist into ugly scenes and helpless compromises, and in fact brings us closer and more intimate than we want to be, but it also finds the strength of humanity under the desperation. There’s no Estalgia for the good old days of comforting Communist rule here. [Note: as of this writing, it has had no screenings, public or press, in Seattle, but will be released early in 2008. I saw the film at the Vancouver International Film Festival.]
4. Zodiac (David Fincher)
David Fincher creates his most disciplined, focused, and mesmerizing film with his drama about the notorious unsolved Zodiac killings that had San Francisco gripped in fear during the early seventies. The low-key thriller is as much a study in obsession and detail as it is a murder mystery, and Fincher is appropriately obsessive in his attention to detail, from the complexity of the investigation (Fincher studied the case files firsthand in preparation for the film) to his recreation of seventies San Francisco and American culture, right down to a style that evokes (without actually copying) the look of seventies cinema, all with the clarity of digital filmmaking. Fincher takes us through one dead end after another, investigates how crimes insinuate themselves into the culture, and reveals how the unsolved cases wear down the cops, showing us that the true story far more compelling than any serial killer fiction.
5. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)
The songs, lives (real and imagined) and mysteries of Bob Dylan make up the soil from which Todd Haynes’ impressionistic survey of the enigmatic Bob Dylan, his art, and his interaction (and at times collision) with the culture is another of his investigations of the inextricable ties between style and substance, surfaces and identity. Not a biography by any conventional definition this is a freewheeling Bob Dylan portrait where his name is never spoke, his life and career is represented by six different actors representing various personas, and the songs and stories (real and imagined) and mysteries of the artist are as important as any historical record. Haynes delivers a song-cycle of a movie: vivid, exaggerated, contradictory impressions of a man who confounds a culture looking to peg him with a definition.
6. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson seems to carve the drama out of the rock of the earth and lubricate the character interaction with oil gushing from the ground. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance (channeling, as many critics have noted, the timbre of John Huston) is also a kind of sculpture, the rough gold and silver miner who has remade himself into the totem of a businessman, speaking to crowds with confidence incarnate and promises of straight talk already twisted by his dreams of an oil empire. It’s a magnificent, sinewy film, rich with the darker pits of character. “I built my hate bit by bit.”
7. 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, Corneliu Porumboiu)
Deceivingly modest and insidiously shrewd, Corneliu Porumboiu’s crafty satire is a dryly hilarious and painfully biting puncturing of the national myth of revolutionary heroism in the overthrow of communism. In the course of a joke of a TV interview program (presented in excruciating real time), all pretense of dignity and authority is stripped away and even the callers’ contentious accusations are indistinguishable from their personal investment in their particular version of the truth. “One makes whatever revolution one can, each in their own way.”
8. Inland Empire (David Lynch)
David Lynch composes and conducts another figure-eight of a movie, the story of an actress (Laura Dern) who may or may not go on a journey of metamorphosis that twists around itself. The languid pacing and ambiguous events of the nearly three-hour production are confounding and dreamy, like nothing else coming out of Hollywood. If you are willing to lose yourself in Lynch’s sensibilities and decidedly metaphysical approach to cause and effect, you’ll find a hypnotic and richly textural experience that challenges invites you to make your own connections through the echoes of stories and imagery and odd dialogue.
9. Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha, Pedro Costa)
Pedro Costa merges fiction and documentary for this portrait of life in the urban slum Costa has adopted as his cinematic home. Non-actors (many of them seen Costa’s previous films) pull out experiences of their own lives to create the characters. Costa leaves relationships vague, often to almost the end, and just lets these characters drift, talk, co-exist, allowing us to decide who they are and what they mean to each other. It’s a mystery of a sort, but for Costa the mystery has to do with people, not definitions, and he creates his own form (the film apparently is filled with flashbacks, which are not identified as such) to pull us out of our narrative comfort zone to explore along with him. I should also mention that this film did not receive a theatrical run. It played for one night only in Pedro Costa retrospective at the Northwest Film Forum.
10. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
Andrew Dominik’s cinematic folk song embraces and celebrates the chasm between idealized outlaw myth and the unglamorous realities of frontier thievery. The imagery is rich and deep, with colors tinged in a nostalgic sepia, giving it the feel of a folk ballad, albeit one that at times loses the melody in lazy riffs of mood and atmosphere and unnecessary verses charting the paths of minor characters. Casey Affleck is great as the wary, skittish Bob, desperate for Jesse’s attention, and is the lead in the film – why does every critics and awards group insist on calling him a supporting actor?
Runners-up and honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):
“14th Arrondissement” segment of Paris Je T’Aime (Alexander Payne)
51 Birch Street (Doug Block)
Allegro (Christoffer Boe)
Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliviera)
Black Book (Zwartboek, Paul Verhoeven)
Exiled (Fong juk, Johnnie To)
Golden Door (Nuovomondo, Emanuele Crialese)
The Host (Gwoemul, Joon-ho Bong)
Juno (Jason Reitman)
Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)
The Orphanage (El Orfanato, Juan Antonio Bayona)
Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
Regular Lovers (Les Amants réguliers, Philippe Garrel)
Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner)
Sunshine (Danny Boyle)
This Is England (Shane Meadows)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach)
Year’s most worthy act of cinema resurrection:
Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
Most memorable film event of 2007:
Out 1: Spectre (Jacques Rivette – I did not get to see the original 12-hour version, which did not play in Seattle but was screened in Vancouver in 2006 – sadly, at a time when I was in Paris).
Most exciting DVD release… ever:
Ford at Fox – 21 discs, 24 features, 17 DVD debuts. Has there ever been a DVD release with such commitment to rescuing and showcasing both established classics and rarities and forgotten works (both major and minor) of a Hollywood master? In a word: No.
A few notes:
2007 is an unusual year in that so many high-profile, substantially-budgeted American films have proven to be so interesting, so inventive, so creative, and so demanding. Films like “I’m Not There,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford,” and “Into the Wild” are auteur films in the studio system (calling them indie is to abuse the word too much, but they are certainly produced more frugally than such productions than “Rush Hour 3” and “Evan Almighty,” and with more to show for onscreen). “Into the Wild,” though produced with studio backing, is more of an indie production, shot with an unconventional timetable, on and off over a couple of years, and perhaps that’s part of the cinematic chemistry behind the unadulterated passion and the vividness of the experience and texture that Penn gets on screen. Regardless, it’s the most exciting, thrilling, passionate and compassionate film I saw all year.
But it’s taking longer for exciting and interesting foreign films to get a stateside release, and those that do get picked up are being relegated to niche releases, rarely getting out of the top ten markets, and even landing direct-to-video in my home, the city of Seattle (which has no less than three non-profit screens in addition to a healthy arthouse chain). It’s a concern, to be sure.. If the film critic matters at all, it’s in creating audience interest in things like the thrilling burst of cinema coming from Romania right now. Hopefully the wave of praise for “Secret Sunshine,” the tough and emotionally prickly Korean drama that won praise at both Cannes (where it earned an award for the starring actress) and Toronto, will help find it a distributor and a stateside release.
Also, a few thoughts on why I love the cinema and will keep returning to the theater with high hopes and an open heart can be found on my New Year’s Day post.