Combustible Celluloid
 

What Happened to Me in the Dark

2007: The Year in Review

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Overall I felt that 2007 was a better movie year than we've seen in a long while, and that critics, more or less, seemed to be on the same page when it counted; though for the life of me I can't understand the generosity most others have lavished upon the wretched Dan in Real Life. Even the year-end award contenders have been, on the whole, fairly decent, and the most obvious, desperate "issue" films have been getting the critical drubbing they deserve (Lions for Lambs, anyone?). Quite a few of these soapbox films have reared their ugly heads this year, and I can only assume that it's because Crash and Brokeback Mountain did so well two years ago that producers immediately turned around and tried to find a follow-up. Me, I agree with the late Samuel Goldwyn who said, "If I want to send a message, I'll use Western Union."

No, the biggest problem with 2007 was the issue of qualification. Three of the year's very best films fell just outside the margins of the year. David Lynch's Inland Empire was the very best film I saw between January 1 and December 31, but it officially opened in the United States in December of 2006. Since Lynch self-distributed the film, and since he has issues with DVD screeners (he wants the film shown in proper conditions), only critics in Boston, New York and Los Angeles saw it in time for their 2006 lists. It showed here in San Francisco for the very first time for the press on January 17 and it opened to the public on February 9 -- far too late for list consideration. Secondly, we had Charles Burnett's masterpiece Killer of Sheep, which was made in 1977 and never received a commercial release until now. It's without a doubt a landmark in American cinema, but I decided to discount it as one of 2007's best films, since its historical place lies elsewhere. Finally, there was Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, which saw commercial release in a shortened version as part of Grindhouse. Tarantino later showed his uncut version at Cannes, and that version was released on DVD, but it bypassed a commercial release. The long version is infinitely better than the one that most people saw in Grindhouse; it restores Tarantino's musical rhythms and pauses, and it's a brilliant film. Likewise, I eventually decided to discount it.

So the following is actually my list from #4 to #13. Even so, it's a good, solid bunch of films. I'm happy with this list and it suggests that the medium is alive and kicking. If there's a theme this year, it has something to do with bravely looking at the unknowable and asking whether or not it can ever be known.

1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, USA)
Normally, I like to give my top slot to a film by a proven master, and Dominik is far from that. His only other film, Chopper, was perfectly fine but nowhere near as haunting as this new Western. I think I can honestly say that I've thought about this film every day since I've seen it. I also believe that it defies the simple categorization of "Revisionist Western." It's far more complicated than that, and given its many inventions and additions to the genre, I have to say that, frankly, it's one of the all-time great Westerns, period.

2. No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA)
On another day, this could have been my #1. It was that close. This is Joel and Ethan Coen's most mature and arguably most lasting work, having found a kindred spirit in author Cormac McCarthy (it's too bad that other filmmakers have gotten their hands on McCarthy's other books). It, too, is a Western of sorts, and it mourns the loss of what we know for an upcoming, frightening horizon of what we don't.

3. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, USA)
It's rare that the three best films of the year are American, but there you go. Lumet made my list last year with Find Me Guilty, and oddly enough, he's never been one of my favorite filmmakers. I think that, now in his 80s, he feels safer to try more dangerous ideas. Admittedly, the general arc of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a bungled robbery and its aftermath, is familiar, but Lumet and rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson give it a unique structure and an emotional weight that transcend it.

4. Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
The Iranian New Wave appears to be dwindling, but Panahi is still vital. Admittedly, this amazing film about women trying to sneak into an important soccer match is probably his least daring, and certainly less so than his previous, startling films The Circle and Crimson Gold. But it indicates more humanist leanings that make him all the more interesting.

5. Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, France)
Another film by a master in his 80s, this film was based on a play, and it should have been stagnant and insufferable, but Resnais gave it a vibrant flow and balance. His physical partitions that appear everywhere in the film beautifully illustrate the inability of these characters to connect. Regardless, each lonely soul springs wonderfully to life.

6. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, USA/Canada)
I have to admit, I found myself missing the old Cronenberg, the one that reinvented horror as well as taking chances with bizarre ideas like Naked Lunch and Crash. But Eastern Promises, a fairly traditional gangster film, was at the very least a demonstration of his remarkable skill as a filmmaker, not least of which in the much-discussed sauna fight sequence. But even genre theorists could read something into the film, and Cronenberg's body-conscious obsession, via the all-important tattoos.

7. Bug (William Friedkin, USA)
Of the former 1970s-era Hollywood mavericks, Friedkin gets a great deal less love than Coppola, but his film was far more daring, inventive and alive than Coppola's comeback. Bug doesn't look at all like the work of 72 year-old. It departs slightly from Friedkin's motif, which usually relies on intensive research and realism, but its paranoid not-knowing is just as potent as anything Friedkin has ever presented as fact.

8. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, Korea)
The true son of Godzilla returned to cinemas this year, with this uncannily smart, scary and emotionally wrenching monster story that preyed on environmental panic. While some humans behave abominably, and others plain silly, bravery comes from the strangest places.

9. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)
Along with Death Proof, this was the year's most astute piece of film criticism, ripping apart the biopic genre and putting it all back together again with intriguing pieces. Oddly enough, most viewers are picking their favorite bits over the others -- and, admittedly, Cate Blanchett is a standout -- but the point is to see the package as a whole and to come to the conclusion that Bob Dylan, and in fact anyone, is ultimately unknowable.

10. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
After I decided to eliminate Inland Empire from my list, I had an open slot. My brain reminded me of several choices, but my gut kept going back to this hilarious and quietly revealing Romanian comedy, which opened so briefly that hardly anyone noticed. Romania is currently the source of an exciting New Wave, if this and two other films -- The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days -- are any evidence. This is my way of acknowledging it. That, and it's a delightful Christmas film.

TOO CLOSE TO CALL

  • Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino)
  • Exiled (Johnny To)
  • Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright)
  • Inland Empire (David Lynch)
  • Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning)
  • Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
  • Triad Election (Johnny To)

    RUNNERS UP

  • Away from Her (Sarah Polley)
  • Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)
  • Black Sheep (Jonathan King)
  • Comedy of Power (Claude Chabrol)
  • The Darjeeling Limited/Hotel Chevalier (Wes Anderson)
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julien Schnabel)
  • Juno (Jason Reitman)
  • Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran)
  • The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona)
  • Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud/Marjane Satrapi)
  • Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)
  • Romantico (Mark Becker)
  • The Savages (Tamara Jenkins)
  • The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman)
  • Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton)
  • Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  • There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  • Waitress (Adrienne Shelly)
  • The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach)
  • Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola)

    December 21, 2007

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