Sunday, January 06, 2008

Favs of 2007

The following are my 20 favorite films of 2007. These 20 favorites may be someone else's 20 worst, but here's hoping we can meet in a compromise and enjoy 2008.

20. Atonement- Joe Wright's tale of star-crossed lovers is the stuff of Lifetime Movie channel upon first viewing. Beautiful people (Keira Knightly and James McAvoy) are torn apart by war and the deception of a child, and upon my initial viewing, Atonement registered as a very well done drama and nothing more. But the film lingered in my mind for days (something that only happens with my true favorites) and I gave it a second chance. The devastation and emotion of the narrative were there even greater the second time and it won me over.

19. The Bourne Ultimatum- I could've done with a little less hand-held camerawork, but this is still a terrific finale to a terrific spy trilogy. After watching this film twice on DVD, its clear that Greengrass has a subversive feel for editing and bodies in motion. Plus it features 2-3 of the greatest set pieces all year. Damon pulverizes through everything and everyone like a missile and we finally get some answers solved. I have the feeling that in 5-10 years, this will be for me what the Bond Franchise (minus 25 or so films) was to my father.

18. This Is England- Shane Meadows slightly autobiographical glimpse of youth in 1980's England as they flirt with rebellion, grow teenage crushes and deal with sobering reality. Oh, this is still a film that allows for its skinhead character (Stephen Graham) to elicit some unwarranted violence, but it's the way Meadows charts the impressionable journey of young Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) that resonates soundly. It would be easy to file Meadows' effort alongside previous 'skinhead flicks' of Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke, but This Is England is about so much more. He cares about his teen characters greatly and shows that their rebellious nature and nationalist zeal, when confronted with true evil, are merely excuses for hanging out and partying.

17. Red Road- Andrea Arnold has created a modernized version of Hitchock's Rear Window. A woman (Kate Dickie) is confined in a surveillance booth watching over the denizens of Glasgow through a wall of TV monitors. And then she recognizes a male face on one of the camera images. She puts a plan in motion and we're relegated to hapless observers, left wondering and watching as she puts her plan into action and we slowly gain answers to her mystery. Created out of the Dogma faction, Arnold's film looks better than a majority of those von-Trier inspired movies, and it packs quite a moral wallop as well.

16. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead- Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is one of three films this fall to feature the rising real estate of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here he gets to act sleazy, trade dialogue punches with Etahn Hawke... and he gets to screw Marisa Tomei. Things are certainly looking up for him. But in light of that, Lumet's latest is an intense chamber piece that observes the slow dissolution of a family through a heinous act. There's no redemption here and while Ethan Hawke churns out a frenetic, high-wire performance, it's the sad eyes of father Albert Finney that will stay with you longer than anything.

15. In the Valley of Elah- Not only has director Paul Haggis slightly redeemed himself for Crash, but In the Valley of Elah makes me look forward to his next film. Tommy Lee Jones is achingly poignant as a father searching for the answer to his son's death after he returned home on leave from the Iraq war. Charlize Theron plays the marginalized female police detective who helps with the case. Slowly, and with very little sledgehammer tactics (save for the final shot), Haggis weaves a smart and touching story that tackles some pretty heavy themes- all with great success.

14. Hott Fuzz- While I'm a fan of Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright and writer Simon Pegg exceeded any average ambitions with that film and delivered a truly great comedy with Hott Fuzz. Essentially a lovingly recreated spoof on pretty much everything cinema-wise, Hott Fuzz has more heart in its sound effects than most comedies do over their entire 95 minute running time.

13. The Host- Korean director Bong Joon Ho directed one of the most underrated police procedurals in recent years (Memories of Murder, 2005) so it's no surprise he would helm one of the more criminally under appreciated monster movies in recent memory. And that's even after showing the monster in the first 25 minutes. Humor, pathos and action are all magically intertwined as the genre conventions are constantly twisted. A great film.

12. We Own the Night- I've long been a fan of director James Gray, and with We Own the Night, he continues to examine the fragility of a family cast against an urban canvas of crime. The moral stakes are higher in this one, as the film pits cop brother (Wahlburg) against fringe criminal brother (Joaquin Phoenix) during the Russian mafia days of early 80's New York. Featuring a few stellar set-pieces, a majority of the film's power is derived from the detailed texture and nuances that Gray infuses into the story. Whole stretches of this film feel so classical in style that it doesn't seem like a film in 2007. And no current director uses light and shadow quite as magnificently as Gray.

11. The Hunting Party- This is the best kind of movie experience one can have. You go see a movie based on limited word of mouth, minimal critical acceptance and low expectations and get steam rolled by a moving and charismatic genre picture, full of nouvelle vague camera homages, strong acting from Richard Gere and Terence Howard and an overall confident story. When this hits DVD, catch up with it.

10. Knocked Up- This is a film for any 30-something still feeling their way through life, unsure if they've made the right decisions and dealing with their mistakes the best way they know how. It's not only a magnificent comedy, but a pretty damn good representation of MY age group as well. And like I've been screaming lately, Leslie Mann deserves a supporting actress nomination. I don't know if Judd Apatow and his crew have another comedy with this much warmth up their sleeve (Superbad just missed the mark somehow) but here's hoping they do.

9. The Wind That Shakes The Barley- Ken Loach's Cannes 2006 Plame d'Or winner is his best film in years. Tracing the root beginnings of the IRA, Cillian Murphy turns in a wonderful performance as a young man who's drawn back into the nationalist fervor just as he's about to head off and become a doctor. From there, Loach draws out the dividing opinions of those involved with detail as different factions of the IRA want peaceful, political resolve and those that want violence. There are some gorgeous shots of the Irish countryside and don't be mistaken- this is a film of raw, primal power as scenes of violence and speech play out. Loach has always worked best as a fly-on-the-wall, observing the political and emotional explosions that go off, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley may be the most involving expression of this style yet.

8. After the Wedding- Susanne Bier's early year drama features Mads Mikklelson (yes, that lazy-eye guy in the latest Bond movie) being invited to a wedding. From that simple invitation, After the Wedding spirals into a complex family drama and blindsides you with devastating revelation after revelation. These aren't cheap plot twists either. The narrative earns its various twists and turns and Bier's handheld camera work is piercing.

7. Sunshine- The best science fiction film in the last few years? At least since Soderbergh's Solaris, anyway. While Sunshine borrows alot from previous cinematic forays into the genre, it also distinguishes itself from its predecessors by tripping in and out of genres with courage. What begins as a typical space thriller (featuring the ubiquitous repairing the outer ship panels and computer malfunction) soon evolves into a nightmarish collision of slasher flick and psychological thriller. Cillian Murphy heads an international cast and with the inclusion of two films on this list, he had a blockbuster year. Too bad enough people didn't see either film.

6. No Country For Old Men- What further praise can be heaped onto the Coen Brothers blood-spattered, suspenseful adaptation? Not much.

5. Once- A "musical" in the leanest sense, John Carney's independent film follows an Irish guitarist and immigrant female singer as they bond over the course of a dew days. There are so many magical little moments in this film, that it never takes a wrong step. It manages to be warm and heartbreaking at the same time, eschewing any false emotions as it follows their relationship in completely rewarding and unexpected ways.

4. Day Night Day Night- The debut feature of director Julia Loktev, Day Night Day Night is an oblique observation about a young female suicide bomber (Luisa Williams) in Times Square waiting to carry out her mission. The film is unrelenting in its penetrating handheld camera and the central performance of Williams. We're given long glimpses into the "brainwashing" process of the unnamed female by masked men, the hours spent alone in a hotel room and then her interaction with the crowds of Times Square. Loktev is a talent to watch.

3. Zodiac- Released almost ten months ago, David Fincher's obsessive procedural about the equally obsessive pursuit of the Zodiac killer by various outfits (the media and the police, specifically) has only grown in stature. Repeat viewings only deepen the rewards of the film- from the perfect blocking of the camera, to the restrained performances and especially its dark heart of unfulfillment.

2. There Will Be Blood- In There Will Be Blood, filmmaker/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson has created a riveting portrait of a terrifying, larger-than-life oil magnate played to dizzying perfection by Daniel Day Lewis. There are moments of stark originality and brutal images that rank with the best of Anderson's films. And the score, by Jonny Greenwood, conjures up tense and uncomfortable feelings. This is a work of daunting ambition and dare I say it, but with this film and Magnolia, Anderson has certainly established himself as the new great American filmmaker, unafraid to produce challenging and cathartic works on epic scales.

1. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford- Dreamy, elegant, and a downright masterpiece- Andrew Dominik's two and a half hour tone poem about the myth of the Old West, celebrity status and the paranoia that infects even the closest allies, this is a remarkable film on every level. From Roger Deakins' other wordly cinematography to the luscious score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is transfixing from start to finish. This spot could've easily gone to There Will Be Blood, but Dominik's film is just as equally ambitious and successful in taking an old genre and simmering beauty, darkness and texture from the remains.

Runner Ups: American Gangster, I'm Not There, No End In Sight, The Lives of Others, Eastern Promises


weepingsam said...

So explain to me again why I skipped The Assassination of Jesse James when it came out? who wrote the bad reviews? or was it just that 3:10 to Yuma was so bland that I decided one lame western was all I needed in a year? Whatever it was - what possessed me? I finally saw it, at a rep house, and was transfixed. I'm thinking, with that and No Country for Old Men, and Zodiac and There Will Be Blood and Darjeeling Limited, even Grindhouse, The Bourne Ultimatum, etc., 2007 is starting to look like a pretty good year for American films...

Joe Baker said...

Sam, so glad you've converted to the Jesse James bandwagon. Yep, there were a few negative reviews out there, but mostly I don't think anyone saw it. It's popping up on quite a few critics lists here and there, but I feel this is a film that'll find its audience in the next few years. At least among movie-geeks, anyway.