My Top 10 for the year 2007 comes to you from the midst of the WGA Writer’s Strike of 2007-2008, when there was some doubt about whether or not a typical Oscar telecast would even be possible without those striking scribes.
That would have been quite a shame, since 2007 is one of the very best (if not the best) cinematic years of the new millennium thus far. In almost any other year that decade, my #3 choice would probably have been my #1 choice.
Of course, the Oscars did happen, with major wins for Marion Cotillard, Diablo Cody, and the Coen Brothers, amongst others. But it’s interesting, and a little depressing, to imagine an alternate reality where we never saw a bunch of very deserving actors and filmmakers take home the gold for a job well done.
(A briefer version of this Top Ten list was first published in my “Confessions of a Dangerous Film Student” column in INsite Boston in early 2008.)
“There Will Be Gold: In Support of Awards Season”
Let’s get this out of the way — naturally, I support the writers. Because… well, duh. But I, like you, dear reader, also mourn the loss of things like scripted (read: watchable) television and those oh-so-glitzy Globes o’ Gold — almost as much as I miss the possibility that I might make money on a screenplay in the near future.
What with my love of cinema (and the obsessive compulsion to express my love in list form), this time of year is basically my Christmas, and it is unfortunate indeed that a quibble has taken the focus off a slew of movies that are well deserving their aurous rewards.
So lest this strike never end, let’s celebrate 2007 as the year entertainment went out with a bang — the best year for movies in quite some time — and, even if this year’s Oscars are FedExed to recipients in lieu of a ceremony, I shall exercise my god-given right to give kudos where kudos are due.
There was never a chance in hell that a film could encapsulate the rich, stirring prose of Ian McEwan’s brilliant novel, but this lavish adaptation comes close enough for me. Beginning with a rousing day-in-the-life of a wealthy family (and their less well-to-do staff) in England prior to World War II, the film follows the fanciful Briony (Saoirse Ronan) as she innocently invents one fiction (a play) and then a much more dangerous one that has devastating consequences for her sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), whose bright future is about to take a dark turn.
Despite an awkward execution of the book’s first tricky jump in time, place, and POV, McEwan’s haunting tale of lives undone by a child’s misunderstanding hits just as hard in the film’s crushing denouement. Joe Wright’s direction is assured and striking, particularly in the film’s more intimate first hour, before the tale takes on an epic scope (including an impressive but unnecessary long take of the beach at Dunkirk). It is only at the end, when Atonement unleashes a powerful revelation, that the full scope of the story becomes clear, and enhances so much of what we’ve seen. While the movie can’t quite match the impact of the book, it’s a mighty fine adaptation with a rare brand of emotional power that is not based so much on what happens to these characters, but what does not. 9. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Darkly funny and relentlessly tense, Joel and Ethan Coen have centered one of their best films on the most memorable screen psycho in recent memory (played to oddball perfection by Javier Bardem). Anton Chigurh is as unhinged and unpredictable as that pageboy haircut would suggest. As in all the best white-knuckle thrillers, here, at every moment, we expect something much worse to happen than what actually does. No Country For Old Men is certainly one of those. It has a pitch-black soul — so that even the characters it spares don’t really seem that far away from annihilation.
Perhaps the Coen brothers are the most perfect filmmakers in existence to execute the grim vision of Cormac McCarthy. The Coens love to tell stories about foolhardy heroes who end up being the punchlines of some grand cosmic joke, and McCarthy is more prone to bleak chaos. Somehow, they balance each other out. The story is entirely unconventional when it comes to who lives and who dies, and while that definitely challenged me upon my first viewing, I also had to admire the screenplay for its daring. I’m still a little sad about how things go down in this film, which I guess is the mark of a good movie. The gorgeous Texan landscapes are worth the price of admission alone. 8. PARIS, JE T’AIME
A collection of miniscule movies celebrating the famed French city, highlights include shorts by such notable filmmakers as Gus Van Sant, Tom Twyker, the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron, Sylvain Chomet, Wes Craven, and Richard LaGravanese, along with brief but full-bodied performances from the likes of Elijah Wood, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Buscemi, Juliette Binoche, Margo Martindale, Gena Rowland, Bob Hoskins, Nick Nolte, Gaspard Ulliel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Natalie Portman.
As always in anthology films, some chapters are going to be more enjoyable than others. In the space of just a few minutes, several of these shorts manage to be touching and transporting; a few leave us wondering, “That’s it?” Cuaron’s single-take stroll at twilight is impressive technically, but not narratively; LaGravanese’s segment feels like an entire feature rolled into a short. Some are heavy dramas, others are light comedies, and a few contain a touch of magic. All in all, it’s a fitting tribute to the City of Light. If only every film had this breezy sense of creative freedom and joie de vivre!7. IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
Americans are typically more concerned with domestic disasters than those on foreign turf, which explains why so many of 2007’s current events films flopped while everybody tuned in for updates on Lindsay, Paris, and Britney’s tiresome shenanigans. Too bad, because this mournful look at the effects of the current war on soldiers features what might be the best performance of Tommy Lee Jones’ career as he portrays a father searching for his veteran son’s killers. The young man survived horrors overseas, but did not survive those that still lied in the hearts of the men who returned to American soil changed by the experience.
Charlize Theron, James Franco, and Susan Sarandon turn in solid performances in what turns out to be a not-so-terribly-cheerful movie. (Films about parents mourning their children are seldom laugh riots.) As it turns out, this little David of a movie was no match for the Hollywood Goliath, as it got all but lost this awards season. (Jones did get a deserved Best Actor nomination.) It’s one of the most egregiously underseen films about current events “Over There,” featuring brilliantly understated writing and direction from Paul Haggis that even Crash’s most vehement naysayers would be hard-pressed to rip apart. 6. MICHAEL CLAYTON
Michael Clayton is a curious movie; it’s not really about what it’s about. Michael Clayton is a law firm “fixer” — no law degree, but an ability to smooth talk the firm’s clients into doing what they otherwise might not. That doesn’t end up having much to do with the movie’s actual plot, which concerns an attorney who has gone off the deep end and now threatens to undermine their defense of a lawsuit against U-North, an evil conglomerate of the sort that’s easy to root against. And even that fairly typical plot isn’t really what the movie’s about.
It’s a character piece — one in which the title character is not nearly the most interesting character. George Clooney is just fine in his usual leading man mode, but Tom Wilkinson, as a guilt-ridden lawyer rapidly losing his mind, and Tilda Swinton, as the ruthless corporate villainess, give two of the year’s strongest supporting performances. The script is so good that this slick drama can just as easily pose as an enthralling thriller, even if the actual suspense is fairly minimal. Not bad for first-time director Tony Gilroy (the screenwriter of this year’s similarly breathtaking The Bourne Ultimatum).5. I’M NOT THERE
Todd Haynes’ unusual tribute to Bob Dylan is for the most daring of moviegoers — those looking to take a ride unlike any other. (And not necessarily only for Dylan acolytes, considering I’ve never had much interest in either the man or his music.) Not so much a movie as a tapestry in motion, it’s more mentally stimulating than emotionally involving — but well worth seeing for the performances of such esteemed thespians as Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and especially the incomparable Cate Blanchett (all playing characters loosely based on Dylan).
This is essentially another anthology movie, though unlike Paris Je’Taime, these “short films” are all on the same subject and all by the same writer-director. Per usual for such films, some segments are much stronger than others. The most striking is Blanchett, playing a male in a stylish black-and-white segment, though Ledger leaves an impression opposite Charlotte Gainsbourgh in the most emotionally resonant piece. Is an artsy, elusive film featuring a number of actors playing Bob Dylan (but not named Bob Dylan) pretentious? Oh, sure. But in this case, it’s also mighty intriguing. 4. INTO THE WILD
Full disclosure: I saw this film at a screening attended by Walt and Billie McCandless, so I was extra-attuned to the film’s inherent tragedy. Though I doubt I’d be much less affected by my viewing no matter the circumstance. Based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, Sean Penn’s film entrances us with the reckless derring-do of a young man’s quest for emancipation — from his parents, from society, and from mankind at large. Along the way, he meets a series of vivid supporting characters played by Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, and Kristen Stewart, along with the very excellent Hal Holbrook.
The film is episodic by nature, as many travelogues are, but still manages to build toward its inevitable conclusion all the while. What makes it work is the tragic fact that McCandless was ultimately punished for his arrogance against the elements, and we are left to feel conflicted about his journey. We get swept up in the excitementof his travels even as the backs of our minds nag: “Hmm… this might be a really bad idea.” It’s easy to admire McCandless for his bold spirit, but Penn is a shrewd enough filmmaker not to leave it at that (as many directors might have). We see the hole McCandless’ absence left back home with his parents and sister (well-played by Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, and Jena Malone). It’s all anchored by a bold turn from Emile Hirsch in a film that reminds us that adventure is not a game, man is no longer wild, and absolute freedom is not something that can be seized without consequence.3. THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Heaven isn’t exactly the place Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson were matched, but the combination of (arguably) cinema’s most captivating actor with (arguably) today’s most alluring auteur makes for a hellishly good time at the movies. The film’s title promises blood, and there is some — but not much until the end of the movie. Until then, there’s just a lot of oil, as the titanic antihero Daniel Plainview goes from poor prospector to the sort of wealthy tycoon who can afford his own bowling alley. (Wink wink, to anyone who has seen the climactic showdown.)
It’s a thoroughly American movie, one that tackles a lot of heady subjects — capitalism, materialism, greed, religion — and also explores the complex and ultimately heartbreaking bond between Daniel and his adopted son (a “bastard in a basket”), who is eventually blinded in a cruel twist of fate. The film’s titular payoff is one of the most riveting final scenes in motion picture history, in my not-so-humble opinion — guaranteed to leave just about any viewer speechless. What else to say on my summary of this excellent piece of cinema, except: “I’m finished!”2. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
It’s damn near impossible to make a beautiful film about blinking, but artist-director Julian Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have done it. It’s the kind of story that could never be dreamed up unless it happened to a real man — Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffers a life-altering stroke that leaves him with only one very unconventional method of communication at his disposal. The camera shows us the world through our paralyzed protagonist’s one functional eye without feeling claustrophobic, alternating the hospital-bound scenes with flashbacks to Bauby’s pre-stroke life. Strangely enough, we come to realize that he may be better off now, despite his condition.
Mathieu Almaric has the challenge of projecting all the rage, confusion, frustration, and sadness Bauby experiences after the incident using just one eye, really. If there was an Oscar for Best Performance By A Single Body Part, he’d be a shoo-in. There are some nice supporting performances, but ultimately the film rests all on him and the movie’s visual stylings (which make very good use of some icebergs). It’s a spellbinding, deeply moving experience that affects us all the more because it’s incredibly true. 1. ZODIAC
This is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s not even a horror movie. Only a handful of scenes even attempt suspense. There are no jump scares. (Okay, there may be one.) There’s not an excess of blood or gore, and the killer is seen in, what? Less than 5% of the film? Even the DVD extras scared the shit out of me.
That’s because it’s a true story. These murders actually happened. The way it went down is fucked up and perplexing and contradictory the way only real life can be. At this point, maybe it’s unlikely that the Zodiac killer is still jaunting around the Bay Area, but he could be, because they never caught him definitively. In fact, we have no idea how many Zodiac killers there are. Maybe one. Maybe several. Hell, maybe I’m a Zodiac killer! (Spoiler alert: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Zodiac killer.)
Movies have taught us a great deal about serial killers. They have tidy motives sprung from traumatic childhoods; they are masterminds willing to spend years planning and executing flawless crimes; their diabolical patterns can be unlocked by collecting roughly three clues, all of which were right there all along. But Zodiac teaches us something else — that everything we’ve learned from movies is wrong. No stranger to darkness and depravity, David Fincher delivers his most mature and accomplished film to date, a complex mystery that painstakingly examines the false leads, dead ends, and twists and turns of a real investigation. A journalist, a police detective, and (yes) a cartoonist team up, represented by the A-list acting dream team of Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal (it’s a pretty easy-on-the-eyes lineup).
The investigation unravels them all in different ways, and this emotional toll is as integral to the story as the cold-blooded killings themselves. Which is not to say that the handful of scenes depicting the Zodiac’s shooting and stabbing are not effective. They make Fincher’s Se7en look like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and not because they’re more gruesome or numerous, but because they play out like real killings. No killer has actually executed people as artfully as the madman in Se7en. Real murder, I imagine, plays out much more as it does in Zodiac, with an unsettling randomness. A few of the victims don’t even die, which is almost more chilling. And since they never caught the guy (that we know of), there’s no Psycho-like final scene that explains why. These murders are administered by a villain who is all the more terrifying because of what we don’t learn about his psychopathic state of mind.
Oh, and P.S.: I wasn’t kidding about those DVD extras. If you think this movie is disturbing, wait until you watch the interviews with real-life people who encountered the Zodiac. These are currently the only bonus features I have forbidden myself from watching when home alone. *