Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Top 15 Movies of 2007

I always wait until a bit into January before publishing my yearly Top Movies list. It's the only way to be sure I don't miss anything crucial, though I tend to end up missing crucial films regardless. Once again, if a foreign film opened in America in 2007, I consider it fair game. And even if it didn't, but I saw the film in 2007, it counts. Just so you know.

15. Hot Fuzz

There's a lot to like about Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's loving parody of overblown Hollywood action films, from the deliriously over-the-top violence to the bevy of sly, unexpected cameo appearances - but what I mainly remember all these months later is the fantastic, scenery-chewing supporting performance from Timothy Dalton. The precise quality that made him the worst James Bond EVER (and I'm including George Lazenby here) - the self-conscious smarm - makes him the ideal foil for Pegg's beyond-high-strung hero cop. It runs about 20 minutes too long and starts to wear out its welcome, but it is an homage to Michael Bay movies, after all, so perhaps it's not even overlong enough.

[Read the original review here]

14. Juno

I've heard several people - friends and film critics alike - refer to Juno MacGuff as an unrealistic portrayal of a teenage girl. Now, I agree that the sarcastic, snappy comments Diablo Cody has provided for actress Ellen Page on every page of the Juno script don't always seem to fit the gravity of the situation in which the character finds herself. But that's not the same as saying that the character herself doesn't seem realistic. I'd say Juno is one of the year's most compelling, genuinely human protagonists. Plenty of sharp teen girls have this kind of offbeat, smartalecky personality, if memory serves. Not every teen is the vapid sort you'd see in...well, in almost every other movie.

Also, I'd like to note that, in response to this idiotic argument raised in certain segments of the blogosphere, claiming Juno as a pro-life movie because she considers having an abortion and then doesn't go through with it, the movie is very clearly pro-choice. No one at any point states or even implies that the decision to have the baby is anyone's but Juno's - her parents, the baby's father, the State, NO ONE ELSE voices an opinion on the matter. To claim that a film in which a woman goes through with a pregnancy is automatically pro-life suggests that the pro-choice side roots for abortions. "Why aren't any girls in movies these days getting abortions? That's why I don't go to the theater any more! Too few abortions!"

[Read the original review here]

13. Rocket Science

Rocket Science is about a stutterer who joins the high school debate team to get closer to a girl, which is an extremely silly high-concept premise. That description makes it sound like the latest edition of those reprehensible direct-to-DVD American Pie sequels.

American Pie: Master Debators!
Oh, shit, I'm writing that down...No one steal that...

Instead, Rocket Science is a minor-key, extremely heartfelt and personal story about a likable kid who gets in way over his head and then decides to follow through anyway. (Granted, as a former awkward, shy teenager and high school debater, I probably found the movie more relatable than most will, but that doesn't make me doubt its quality as a motion picture).

[Read the original review here]

12. Eastern Promises

At first, I was a it disappointed with David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, which had easily been among my most anticipated 2007 films. I think it's because I'm used to Cronenberg films working on multiple levels at once - most of them are esoteric, cerebral films that function on a superficial level as genre exercises. Eastern Promises, on the other hand, is just a genre exercise. It doesn't really go any deeper than that. But it's an exceptionally well-made genre exercise, and it would spiteful to ignore its pleasures merely because of its limitations.

The script is unfortunately structured and takes some rather outlandish, unnecessary turns. The central character (an unusually stiff Naomi Watts) isn't particularly sympathetic and lacks proper motivation to embark on a dangerous journey through the Russian underworld. The film is kind of all over the place, and winds up telling several different, moderately interesting stories at once rather than a single, relentlessly gripping one.

But Cronenberg's eye and innate understanding of the mechanics of suspense are as sharp as ever, aided by Peter Suschitzky's claustrophobic cinematography. Together with a very brave Viggo Mortensen, they craft the year's most memorable fight scene, a virtuoso, single-take bit of savagery in a Russian steam bath. It's entirely possible Cronenberg made this entire movie just so he could shoot this scene.

[Read the original review here]

11. The Lives of Others

This was the first film from writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and it's a surprisingly accomplished work for a debut, successful both as a thought-provoking allegory about free will and oppression and as a Hitchockian thrill machine. This is a story of a True Believer who gradually realizes he has been taken in by a grand, sinister lie, and the gradual awakening process is navigated delicately, without a lot of melodramatic speeches or heartfelt confessions, such as you'd get with a Hollywood version of the same story.

It has about 2 endings too many, but The Lives of Others has stuck with me all year, since I first saw it back in March.

[Read the original review here]

10. Rescue Dawn

Herzog's latest adventure film isn't as big or as personal as his standard fare. Like Eastern Promises, this finds a great and idiosyncratic filmmaker sublimating his usual techniques and just telling a story simply, on its own terms. Sure, it's still got some Herzoggian grandeur and fascination with man's struggle against the power of the natural world. Christian Bale and Steve Zahn play U.S. soldiers (based on two real guys) who escape a POW camp through the Vietnamese jungle, and when they're not in imminent danger of discovery by the enemy, they're falling victim to the perils of their unfamiliar surroundings.

But this movie is a true story (previously related by Herzog in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and obviously one that holds a lot of personal interest for Herzog himself, so instead of Aguirre 2, we get an old-fashioned survival story, gloriously shot and filled with some terrific, small moments.

[Read the original review here]

9. Ratatouille

Can Pixar continue improving on the quality of their animation in each successive film forever? Implicit in the concept of computer animation is that the computer gets smarter with every project. That's just technology. But eventually, it feels like these Pixar films are going to reach maximum gorgeous, colorful detail. In fact, the swarms of rats invading Parisian kitchens in Ratatouille may be too perfect-looking - I could see patrons avoiding some of the city's fine dining establishments after the realism of these kitchen sequences. It'd be difficult to eat a really amazing, authentic ratatouille for me now without imagining some rodent who sounds like Patton Oswalt preparing it with his grubby little hands just out of sight.

What's great about Pixar, and particularly Brad Bird's two films with the studio, is that the amazing technology works in service to warm, funny and smart storytelling. There's kind of an awkward, almost Randian quality to Bird's The Incredibles - it's a great, funny, visually-dazzling film with a peculiar, somewhat elitist moral compass. Ratatouille is not only charming but genuinely uplifting. Anyone not at least a bit touched by the conclusion of villainous food critic Anton Ego's storyline should just give up on movies're never going to get it...

8. Grindhouse

It's a real shame that Planet Terror and Death Proof have been split up on DVD and made into two separate films, as the entire experience of Grindhouse works better all put together. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, whether intentionally or not, took 180-degree, diametrically opposed approaches to the task of updating the Z-grade cinema that once ruled the questionable movie houses of New York's Times Square, and the sensory overload of seeing them together - along with some funny fake trailers - was half the fun.

Rodriguez, in Terror, used contemporary technology to essentially "replicate" the look of an old movie, but with a scale and a style that would not have ever been possible for a low-budget film in the '70s. His zombie horror film is essentially more-retro-than-retro; it looks more like we'd imagine an insane Late-Night UHF creature feature than a real Late-Night UHF creature feature.

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, on the other hand, inverts the formula, turning his movie into a lament for a dying era in cinema, when everything was fashioned by hand and a market still existed for movies made by amateur outsiders. (Like the real films of the era, Death Proof sags in the middle, filling time with pointless dialogue that doesn't really go anywhere. He's so committed to replicating a lost genre, he's actually willing to make his movie kind of boring for 20 minutes or so!)

He does everything he can, really, to actually make the movie like he's an exploitation director with no budget in the '70s, to limit what he can accomplish until the whiz-bang car chase conclusion. And when that conclusion comes, it's both a tearful goodbye to and a sendup of the grindhouse - he mocks the casual misogyny and perverse humor of these old movies while conceding that they have an authenticity that Grindhouse itself can't even touch.

[Read the original review here]

7. Black Book

Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is like some kind of miracle - a realistic, serious WWII film that's never maudlin, even when the story takes a tragic turn. This story of a Jewish spy (an amazing Carice van Houten) working for the Dutch Resistance is an adventure movie for adults, one that's too busy kicking ass for gauzy Hollywood pathos. In fact, the sadness of its characters and the seeming futility of their cause are brought into greater relief because the film's suspense is so relentless. We don't hear about their desperation; we come to feel it, as they do, with each close call and narrow escape. This is Verhoeven reinvigorated, working with some material that's worthy of his gifts, rather than this embarrassing Hollywood sci-fi bullshit he's been doing.

[Read the original review here]

6. Wristcutters: A Love Story

An intriguing premise executed perfectly, Wristcutters is what Defending Your Life would have been like if Albert Brooks could just get over himself for 10 minutes and make a real movie. I'd love for this movie to inspire a mini-trend in American independent film - the mundane fantasy film. This is the Mumblecore Lord of the Rings. The plot, in a nutshell: Zia (Patrick Fugit) thinks better of slitting his wrists over a girl when he discovers the afterlife is just like Earth, only a bit more overcast and dreary. Now, he's stuck in a city filled with other suicides, working a dead-end (literally!) pizza delivery job and afraid to try killing himself again for fear of where he might end up. When he hears word that his lost love has also killed herself, he sets out on one last road trip to find her.

Writer/director Goran Dukic (working from a story by Etgar Keret) has filled this entire world with memorable eccentrics: Tom Waits as Kneller, leader of a ragtag afterlife commune, and Will Arnett as the wannabe cult leader The Messiah are the recognizable faces, but Shea Whigham really steals the show as Eugene, Zia's partner in crime whose entire Russian family have all found themselves in the same disappointing eternity. A fantastic character (who, according to IMDb, is inspired by Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello and a friend of Dukic), Eugene bops around this odd world like he finds the afterlife refreshing, a break from his former life even though it's remarkably similar.

5. You, the Living

I wrote about this surreal, plotless Scandinavian dark comedy at length earlier this week when I saw it at the Palm Springs Film Festival. You can go read that review here. It's a breathtaking, haunting and atmospheric flight of imagination, unlike any movie I've ever seen other than Andersson's previous effort, 2000's similarly-brilliant Songs From the Second Floor. This guy is like David Lynch's jocular, perfectionist cousin.

4. Zodiac

Quite simply one of the best police procedurals ever made, this is not a film about the Zodiac investigation specifically, but about the nature of investigation itself. How an investigation quickly involves and even implicates those doing the investigating. The characters in the film stare a bit too long into the abyss of the Zodiac murders, and it sucks them in one by one, obsessing them with its endless string of facts and details and observations and contradictions.

It's hard to find fault with any of David Fincher's decisions here. The music is impeccably chosen, particularly Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," which becomes the killer's theme music, classic hippie rock rendered ethereal and vaguely sinister. Harris Savides' digital cinematography - this is the first Hollywood film in history made without any film or video tape - is glossy and pristine; it resembles the films of the '70s, but if they had been shot with modern cameras. And everything is so detailed; accurate to the actual Zodiac crimes and making this entire world feel complete and lived-in on screen. Fincher went so far as to use CG blood, so that it would always look exactly right, and even shot some scenes in greenscreen, going back and artificially recreating '70s San Francisco in a computer because the real thing looks too different now. Amazing.

[Read the original review here]

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik's brooding Western is, without a doubt, the year's most underappreciated film. Roger Deakins shot both this film and the one at #2, because he's a genius, and he gives Jesse James the look of a fading photograph; awkward and uncanny and beautiful. It's a long movie, and really something of a slow-motion chase movie, with James pursuing enemies real and imagined, and Robert Ford pursuing James, desperate to share a bit of the legend's glory. It's also the first of three Westerns sitting atop my Top Films list this year, a definitely surprising and clearly unprecedented event. (Not only have I never found 3 Westerns at the top of my list of favorite films, I can't think of any year in which any one genre so dominated the year.)

[Read the original review here]

2. No Country for Old Men

After Ladykillers, I genuinely entertained the notion that the Coen Brothers were lost to us forever. I've put up with longer dry periods from other directors than the one-two punch of crap that was Intolerable Cruelty and the aforementioned Tom Hanks catastrophe...

But the Coens had been so good for so long, just churning out strange, unexpected, perfectly-realized classic after classic, one every few years since 1984's Blood Simple. Their career had almost come to feel like "Guitar Hero 3" - one split-second's miscalculation could throw off their rhythm, and the whole game would be ruined.

Fortunately, the Coen Brothers' filmography is nothing like "Guitar Hero 3" - or at least, me when I'm playing "Guitar Hero 3" - because No Country for Old Men is one of their greatest achievements, and it succeeds on the same strengths the Coens have been exploiting for years: Unbelievably clever dialogue (this is easily the year's best screenplay), an extrasensory skill at pacing and designing set pieces and an ability to coax career-best work from talented character actors.

Many were turned off by the film's abrupt, low-key and intentionally anticlimactic ending, and it's certainly not a conventional way to close out this story. So much of the film is about what we can't know and can't understand: What drives a man like Anton Chigurh? Where does the money come from and to whom does it belong and why are all these people willing to die for it? What is the nature of Llewelyn Moss, who seems alternately sympathetic and repugnant, or for that matter, Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff who doesn't maybe try as hard as he could to solve crimes any more? It seems only fitting that we'd be left with more questions than answers, that we'd forcibly change perspective the moment the pieces actually fall into place, and once again have to readjust our viewpoint on the film's violent events.

[Read the original review here]

1. There Will Be Blood

Not much of a surprise here. I've been raving about PT Anderson's latest and greatest for a while now to anyone within earshot, and have seen the film twice theatrically. It's a masterpiece - quite possibly the best American film of our present decade.

What makes it so good? Well, I have to tell you...I'm not 100% sure. I mean, I could go on here at length about the film's qualities: how Jonny Greenwood's spastic orchestral score compliments the unpredictable and hazardous work of drilling for oil or the way Daniel Day-Lewis can make a long, pregnant pause both FUNNY and TERRIFYING. I could spend at least a good paragraph on a single shot, in which Day-Lewis watches oil burn in the distance, his smudgy red face the only thing visible in a sea of blackness.

But I couldn't really tell you why the life story of a lonely, misanthropic, greedy alcoholic, an intense and provocative character study of a horrible man, effected me on such a deep level. Perhaps I sympathize with the angry atheist Daniel Plainview, forced to abide and respect the religious majority in order to get by while secretly disgusted by their self-righteous piety? Perhaps my love of historical films, Daniel Day-Lewis films and Paul Thomas Anderson films just collided in a Perfect Storm of Shit That Appeals to Lons?

Or maybe 2007 was just the right year for There Will Be Blood. A year when a movie about a desperate, empty sociopath, fueled by a bitter distaste for humanity and an insatiable lust for wealth, status and power, felt suddenly relevant.

[Read the original review here]


Jordan said...

Your top 3 and my top 3 are exactly the same! that's right. i make my own personal top 10 list. Good show.

drummer510 said...

wow, compared to 2006, 2007 movies were weak. I can't believe you liked Juno that much, it was an ok movie. Definitely not a top 15, but I guess since the movies this year sucked in general, Juno goes higher than it should. I still need to see "There will be blood".

Anonymous said...

I can't believe someone other than me has "Rocket Science" in their top-of-the-year. Schweeet.