One last “Best” list – Senses of Cinema 2007 World Poll

The Senses of Cinema 2007 World Poll is up and I’ve once again been invited to participate. The contributors are spread over three pages (A-E, G-M, and M-W), and my list is pretty much the Final Top Ten I published here last month, with a few minor differences and one significant change: for Senses of Cinema, I put Into the Wild into the number one spot. I stand by No Country For Old Men as my final pick for 2007’s best film, but the emotional power and complexity that Penn communicates in Into the Wild, in his often raw imagery and headlong direction, moves me on a personal level in a very different way than the more than the exquisite and subtle work by the Coens. That I get both of these films in the same year is my idea of a gift from the cinema heavens

Seattle Film Critics (a small, disorganized group of them, anyway) pick their top films of 2007

There is no more “Seattle Film Critics Awards,” and no formal body to put their stamp on the year in review as a group. But there are still many fine Seattle film critics and they like to make lists. I do too, but even more, I like to talk about movies, so I have an annual ritual where I invite a small group of colleagues (those who are both friends and film critics, and who like to engage in friendly but passionate debate) to offer their lists and their reasons. And then we debate the night away.

Here are the results of the Axman’s Tenth Annual Seattle Film Critics Top Ten Party, an unofficial, purely personal event that in no way stands in for the critical consensus of the Seattle Film Critics at large, merely those few critics that I prefer to spend a few hours arguing with. This year, those few included: Jim Emerson, Kathy Fennessy, Robert Horton (unable to attend but sent his list), Richard T. Jameson, Dave McCoy, Kathleen Murphy, Jeff Shannon, Tom Tangney, Andy Wright (unable to attend, sent his list), and me, Sean Axmaker.

What follows is the compilation list of films. There is no “weighting” of points (as in the Village Voice list), merely a simple hierarchy: a first place pick receives 10 points, a second place pick 9, and so on to a tenth place pick of 1 point. Ties are weighed accordingly, assigned two spots on the list and then the added points split between them. This has no official standing or bearing on anything. It’s just interesting to see the critical mass of this particular gathering. And the critical mass – in 9 of 10 lists – is weighted overwhelmingly toward…

no_country_for_old_men_coen.jpg1) No Country for Old Men (87 points, 9 lists, 8 “Best Film” picks)

2) (tie) There Will Be Blood (39 points, 5 lists, 1 “Best Film” pick)

– Zodiac (39 points, 6 lists)

4) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (27 points, 5 lists)

5) Away From Her (26 points, 4 lists, I “Best Film” pick)

6) Into the Wild (25 points, 4 lists)

7) Once (23 ½ points, 5 lists)

8.) I’m Not There (21 points, 3 lists)

9) Inland Empire (19 points, 3 lists)

10) Grindhouse (18 ½ points, 3 lists)

11) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (17 points, 2 lists)

12) Margot at the Wedding (16 points, 3 lists)

No other films appeared on more than two lists. The top films that appeared on two lists follow:

Eastern Promises and Superbad (12 pts), 12:08 East of Bucharest (11 pts), Exiled (9 ½ pts), Breach, The King of Kong, Atonement (8 pts). The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Lust, Caution placed highly on a single list apiece for 8 pts.

The following lists are as presented and adjusted for ties – the list is 10, no more, no less, unless the person stacked multiple titles in the “10” spot and split the votes accordingly.

Continue reading “Seattle Film Critics (a small, disorganized group of them, anyway) pick their top films of 2007”

Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List

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) Continue reading “Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List”

More lists and lost “Youth”

I really wanted to like Francis Coppol’a Youth Without Youth more than I did, just because he seems to have gotten his own creative youth back with the film. My review is on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The film effortlessly evokes “Faust,” the fountain of youth, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and even “Frankenstein”– spinning tales of reincarnation and estrangement without finding its own identity.

It’s hard not to think of “Youth Without Youth” as Coppola’s attempt to recapture the cinema rapture of his youth with the grace of age and experience. There is a joy in his simple but rich imagery and vibrant filmmaking. He has returned to simple, practical techniques to create his fantastic imagery, only discreetly resorting to digital touches. It’s gorgeous.

Read the rest here…

More lists, more lists:

The Indiewire list was posted on Thursday, December 20. I had the honor and the pleasure of participating, though thanks to an E-mail snafu I found out a little late and didn’t have time to write up comments. I might as well now:

2007 is unusual in 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 autuer films in the studio system (calling them indie is to abuse the word too much, but they are certainly lower-priced productions than Rush Hour 3 and Evan Almighty). The shortage of exciting foreign films actually getting a stateside release, however, is a concern, and those that do get released become more and more niche releases. 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 was the top pick for Best Unreleased Film, will help find it a distributor and a stateside release.

The compiled lists are here, and the individual lists are listed by critic here. My list, which is slightly different from my other lists this year, can be found here.

My favorite list of the year to date: Jim Emerson’s 10 Best List: The Movie at his Scanners blog.

Ten movies, 76 seconds, two or three shots apiece (more or less), no dialog, no annotations. (The critical comments will come later.) This is my hommage to the ending of the late Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Eclipse” and to the writers who are currently on strike. (Full disclosure: I’m a WGA/west member and I absolutely support the writers.) The effort was to look at my favorite movies of the year (inspired, to begin with, by the opening of “No Country for Old Men”) solely through establishing shots, architecture, landscapes, inanimate objects… and a few glimpses of extras and motionless actors who don’t speak.

The haunting howl of the wind, which serves as his soundtrack, really makes the piece.

Coming soon: The Village Voice/LA Weekly Critics Poll.

New reviews: ‘Juno’ and ‘Mala Noche’ plus Top Ten lists

The annual running of the lists is usually kicked off by the (often laughable) National Board of Review’s awards (and really, any group that lists The Bucket List as one of the Top Ten films of year earns the term “laughable”). Now I and my fellow MSN writers toss our opinions into the ring, along with other goodies.

The Top Ten 2007 Films poll can be found here with individual ballots found here. My top pick (at least for this list) was Into the Wild.

The Best (and Worst) of 2007 TV, meanwhile, is here.

For the record, my top pick for 2007 TV is Mad Men, and my pick for worst (which didn’t make the list): Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Upon reflection, however, I realize that I had forgotten a much worse show from another major creator: The Black Donnellys. Must have just blocked it out to save myself the pain of remembering.

For another take on the year in review, check out the delightful “Moments Out of Time” by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. If the name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you used to devour the annual recounting of cinema moments in “Film Comment,” or before that, in “Movietone News,” where it was born decades ago.

Also new this week:

My review of Jason Reitman’s Juno: “the feel-good film of the pregnant teenager comedy genre,” is at the Seattle P-I. That description may sound like a glib dismissal, but it’s actually an appreciation of the film’s wit: it is actually quite smart and mature as well as clever and entertaining.

The original screenplay by Diablo Cody ricochets with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. In this skewed cinematic universe it’s both defiant and defining, a private language for a bright high school non-conformist.

Under the cleverness is a very human and humble story of growing up, and Page is engaging and energetic and palpably vulnerable under her self-possessed eccentricity. We watch her rise to responsibility as she watches how adults face up — or don’t — to their own.

My review of Criterion’s release of Mala Noche is new on Turner Classic Movies this week:

Gus Van Sant’s intimate black and white tale of l’amour fou has been hailed as a precursor to the American wave of queer cinema that started to swell in the late eighties. Its credentials are established in the opening lines as Walt (Tim Streeter), a counter jockey at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store, gazes upon Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal Mexican immigrant with fleshy lips, a wide, youthful grin, and a streak of juvenile machismo. “I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo,” he rhapsodizes in voice-over, and he spends the rest of the movie doing all he can to get next to this beautiful boy (“He says he’s 18, but he’s probably 16,” Walt confesses). Johnny is full of attitude and sass and contempt for his gay admirer, but not too proud to take advantage of Walt’s desire for his company to score a handout at the store or a turn behind the wheel of Walt’s car (which he pilots with the reckless mania of a teenager on a video game).

Best DVDs of 2007 and more on Berlin Alexanderplatz

My list of the Best DVD releases of 2007 went up on MSN today.

If there is one glaring omission, it is due to the fact that my deadline arrived before the new “Blade Runner” box set did. Based on the little I have seen, it likely would have placed quite high on the list.

My top pick? Do you have to ask?

1. “Ford at Fox
Wipe the drool away, movie geeks. Fox is bucking for DVD sainthood with this astounding release…. 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. Essential for Ford fanatics, classic film buffs and DVD completists alike.

And for TV:

1. “Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition
David Lynch’s cult TV show had previously been available in incomplete chunks, and until now the pieces never added up to the entire run. Paramount finally cleared the complicated rights imbroglio surrounding the missing elements of the series, notably the original feature-length pilot (for so long available only as an import), and has pulled it together into a single set — including the home video debut of both the broadcast pilot and the extended European cut (complete with its alternate ending).

I have ten picks in movies and movie-related releases, five picks in TV, and honorable mentions. Here are some of the those mentions that, on other days, would have found their way onto the list:

Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934


The third collection of the brilliant “Treasures From American Film Archives,” which showcases 48 rarities made between the years 1900 to 1934, is loosely organized around themes of social issues and engagement and reveals a side of early cinema forgotten in the popularity of the comedy legends and silent screen heartthrobs. The four features are the highlights, but the totality celebrates the diversity of cinematic forms in early cinema: 30-second “actualities,” newsreels, cartoons, political tracts, documentary exposés, and more. It sprawls across genres, it tackles everything from prohibition to women’s voting rights, worker safety to unionism, police corruption to organized crime, and it showcases slices of our cinematic history that just don’t get seen outside of film archives and “educational” screenings. It turns out that they can be damnably entertaining. The four-disc box set also comes with a 200-page illustrated guide to the treasures within.

Cinema 16: European Short Films

Cinema 16

Cinema 16’s two-disc collection of some the best of short cinema from Europe is the most well-curated and compelling short film compilation I’ve seen on DVD. This set pays more attention to superior work than to familiar names and showcases some of the most inventive, powerful and provocative films you’ll see in the three-minute to half-hour format, including Roy Andersson’s brilliant and disturbing 1991 “World of Glory,” Virgil Widrich pitch-perfect high concept twist on Xerox art “Copyshop,” and Andrea Arnold’s searing piece of social realism, the Oscar-winning Wasp,” as well as early films by Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and Lars Von Trier. Features sixteen shorts on all, with commentary on all but three of the shorts.

The Jazz Singer: 80th Anniversary 3-Disc Collector’s Edition


“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” This newly restored version of the legendary hybrid silent film, the absurdly maudlin melodrama starring Al Jolson as a cantor’s son who mugs and shimmies his way through songs like “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye” and “Blue Skies,” is remastered from earliest surviving nitrate film elements and original Vitaphone sound-on-disc recordings. But the three-disc set as an entirety is a lavish tribute to the birth of sound and the early Vitaphone shorts (many of them featuring the kinds of acts that killed vaudeville). A true work of cinema archeology.

New at Turner Classic Movies:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fifteen-hour-plus adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel, one of the most revered classics of German literature, is the German auteur’s most lavish and complex production ever. It’s also his most personal, a dream project with roots that reach back to Fassbinder’s youth, when he read the novel for the first time at age 14. Fassbinder, grappling with his own identity and his emerging homosexuality, saw himself in the character of Franz Biberkopf, the trusting, emotionally naïve, almost childlike hero who begins the novel wandering an alienated Berlin plunged into depression and enters into a destructive relationship with a cruel thug. Five years later he re-read the novel and “it became clearer and clearer to me that a huge part of myself, my behavior, my reactions, many things I had considered a part of me, were nothing other than things described by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz,” he wrote in 1980. “I had, quite simply, without realizing it, made Döblin’s fantasy into my life.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz became Fassbinder’s touchstone throughout his career. He named the protagonist of Fox and His Friends, which he portrayed on screen himself, Franz Biberkopf, while the central characters of many other films were named Franz (including those played by himself in his first feature Love Is Colder Than Death and in The American Soldier). His own pseudonym used for editing credit, Franz Walsh, is a mesh of Döblin and the American director Raoul Walsh. Even the plots of two early films (Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague) have their roots in Döblin’s novel.

Read the complete piece on the film, its production, and the Criterion DVD at Turner Classic Movies.