Friday, April 9, 2010

Year in Review: 2007

2007 was far and away the best year for movies in the last decade. I cannot believe how many great films were released this year – I could have easily made a top 20 list and still not run out of titles I love, so narrowing it down to just 10 choices was an difficult task for me, but somehow I managed.

10. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg has always been fascinated by the idea of identity, and that is probably what drew him to this violent crime film set in London. Viggo Mortenson is a Russian gangster – a bodyguard to the boss – who slowly gets involved with the nurse (Naomi Watts) who helps to deliver a baby to a young Russian girl who dies, and wants to know why. Mortenson is absolutely brilliant in the lead role – brutal, and yet somehow caring towards Watts as he tries to warn her away from “people like me”. Armin Mueller Stahll is cold and brutal as the boss, and Vincent Cassell gives an excellent performance as his son, who may be harboring secret feeling for Mortenson. Cronenberg’s obsession with the body is addressed in all the tattoos, and their meanings, that Mortenson and the other gangsters adorn their bodies with – what is on the outside of their body, defines how they are on the inside – or does it?

9. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)
I have had a kind of love-hate relationship with the cinema of Paul Verhoeven over the years, but I think that Black Book represents him at his very best. It is the type of film Hitchcock would have made had he enjoyed the freedom that Verhoeven does. Carice van Houten gives an excellent performance as Dutch Jew who witnesses her entire family being slaughtered by the Nazis, and changes her name, dyes her hair and joins the Dutch Resistance. There she is assigned to get close to a top ranking Nazi – using any sexual means at her disposable. The film is a remarkable thriller – fast paced, edgy, sexy and fun – but also one that delves deeper into the Dutch attitudes at the time that they would probably want to admit. They were not exactly friends of the Jews themselves. The final “murder” in the movie is one of the most haunting I have seen in a movie. This is Verhoeven’s best film.

8. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
Brad Bird has established himself as one of the best animators in the world. Ratatouille is a thrilling, emotional, wonderfully entertaining film from Pixar, about a rat named Remy, who dreams of being a world class chef. He gets his opportunity when he stumbles into a gourmet restaurant, and meets a young man who is completely talentless, but can be used like a puppet for what he wants. Ratatouille could be about anything – even movies – but the essential message is the same – don’t settle for crap when you can have true greatness. Bird’s film transcends the stereotypes of talking animal movies, and really is one of the most joyous films of the last 10 years.

7. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye)
Far and away the best documentary of the decade; Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire has been almost completely ignored by audiences and critics alike. It is a two and half hour examination of the abortion debate, which steadfastly refuses to take sides. Just when you think the movie is becoming a little too pro-life, it snaps back and you start to think it’s pro-choice, and snaps back again. It interviews anyone it can find with an opinion on the debate – from the nutcases that make up the most vocal fringe of both sides, right down to reasonable people who make a rational case for their side. The movie, shot in beautiful black and white, is far and away the most level headed doc I have seen on the subject – and one that if you go in with an open mind, will likely make you doubt your side, at least for a few moments.

6. Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee)
It is one of the crimes of recent cinema Chang-dong Lee’s brilliant Secret Sunshine has still never received proper distribution in North America – either theatrically or on DVD – it is time that someone like Criterion do for this film what they have done for Pedro Costa and release this masterwork. I was lucky enough to see the film at the Toronto Film Festival that year, coming off of its Cannes Festival debut where it won the Best Actress prize for Do-yeon Jeon’s mesmerizing performance. She plays a young widow, who along with her son move back to her husband’s small home town. She makes a meager living teaching, and her son is the center of her world – until he is kidnapped and murdered. The movie then spirals downward for her, as first she embraces religion whole heartedly and finds a purpose – only to discover that the killer has done the same thing, so she decides to punish good. Do-yeon Jeon’s performance is one of the best in modern cinema – hitting pretty much every note imaginable, and still managing to make her performance feel real. Kang-ho Song, a huge star in Korea (and seen over here in films like The Host and Thirst) gives a fascinating performance as a man who we think is in love with her, but something much more complex develops between the two of them. Don’t let the fact that the film didn’t get released over here fool you – this is a masterful film.

5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was far and away the best Western of this decade. It is a haunting film that takes its time slowly building it characters and their story up. Brad Pitt gives the best performance of his career as Jesse James – a charming criminal, who over the course of the movie grows increasingly paranoid, and increasing weary of his life. There is madness in his eyes at some points in the film. Casey Affleck is even better as Robert Ford – the young man who idolizes Jesse James to a heightened degree – that idolization slowly turning into anger and the desire to be famous by killing him. Dominik’s direction calls to mind Terence Malick – with its slow build up and breathtaking imagery. This is a masterwork.

4. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)
Bob Dylan has made himself such an enigma over the years, and has reinvented himself so many times, that a classic Hollywood style biopic would do him no justice at all. Which is why Todd Haynes’ brilliant film I’m Not There is as great as it is. Haynes uses six different actors to portray Dylan at different stages in his life, different personas if you will. You have youngest Marcus Carl Franklin as the kid who wanted to be Woody Guthrie, Christian Bale both trapped as a folk singer, and later as a gospel singer, Heath Ledger as Dylan the celebrity, Ben Whishaw as Dylan the poet, Richard Gere as Dylan the recluse and finally, in one of the very best performances of the decade, Cate Blanchatt as Dylan at the height of his fame, not knowing precisely what is expected of him, and drowning his sorrows in drug abuse. Haynes has a different style for each of his characters, influenced by different directors from Godard to Warhol to Peckinpah to Pennebaker and more. I’m Not There is a brilliant movie precisely because it doesn’t explain Dylan, who is unexplainable, but instead gives us snapshots of Dylan. Just like the song that the movie is named after says, every time we think we get a glimpse of the real Dylan, he’s gone.

3. Zodiac (David Fincher)
David Fincher’s Zodiac does for serial killer movies what The Godfather Part II did for mob movies – completely and totally de-romanticize them. Fincher frontloads all of the killing in the movie to the opening half hour, making us wallow in the depravity on display, and drawing us into the mystery. The rest of the film is about how the hunt for the Zodiac killer, who was never caught despite all his killings, and his constant taunts to the police and media, destroys the lives of the people it touched. Jake Gyllenhaal starts out the movie as the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, with one failed marriage already behind him, and his obsession with the killer destroy his second. His family is replaced around the table by boxes of files about the Zodiac. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are top cops who are drawn deeper into the mystery, until finally Edwards cannot take it anymore. Robert Downey Jr. is another reporter who becomes so paranoid, that he falls further into alcoholism, destroying his career and his life. Fincher’s perfectionism is on display in every scene – the period details just right, as he draws us deeper and deeper into the mystery. The movie is about the fruitlessness of obsession, and life in the information age – where we have so much information at our fingertips, yet somehow answers still elude us. If Seven marked Fincher as a great filmmaker, and Fight Club elevated him to cult status, than Zodiac is the film that confirmed that Fincher was a master.

2. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The best film the brothers made this decade (and second only to Fargo in their all time canon), No Country for Old Men is a brilliant adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book about how America has completely lost its way. You can hardly blame Josh Brolin’s character for picking up that bag of money and going on the run – he’s got a young, pretty wife at home (Kelly McDonald), and only works part time. Plus the money is just sitting there, waiting to be taken. It’s drug money, who’s going to miss it? But this simple act sets the events of the movie in motion, as two men pursue Brolin as he goes on the run. One is the benevolent sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who has worked for years and he no longer understand his job – no longer understand all the violence and bloodshed he sees around him. The other is the hit man (Javier Bardem) who moves like a shark, or as one character compares him to, the bubonic plague – an unstoppable killing machine. How do you stop someone like Bardem, who plays by no rules whatsoever? The Coen’s film is pitch perfect – there is no a shot, cut or line of dialogue out of place, from it’s opening shots, right down to its ambigious ending. The Coens usually work best when they write their own material, but here they have accomplished the best adaptation of the decade – knowing precisely what needs to stay in from McCarthy’s book, and what needs to be cut. This dark film was a surprising winner for best picture in 2007 – and it’s one of the best choices the Academy has ever made.

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Not just my favorite film of 2007, but also my favorite for the entire decade. From the wordless opening section lasting nearly 15 minutes, right up until the films brutal, violent, bloody climax There Will Be Blood stands head and shoulders above every other movie made this decade. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the decade as Daniel Planview, the misanthropic oil man who spends his life gathering wealth, and driving every one close to him away. He lets his guard down only once – when he thinks he has found his long lost brother, and he admits how much he hates everyone in a marvelous sequence next to a campfire. Day Lewis is equally great in his big, over the top moments (like the infamous “I drink your milkshake scene”), as he is in the films quieter, more subtle moments. There Will Be Blood is really about the twin pillars of America – capitalism and religion (represented by Paul Dano’s charlatan of preacher), and how they are both rotten to the core. There were a lot of great films this decade – but a lot of great filmmakers. This list of 50 films just barely scratches the surface of the riches that were out there for moviegoers. But none of them can match There Will Be Blood. With this film, Anderson clearly established himself as the best filmmaker in the world today.

Just Missed the Top 10: Away from Her (Sarah Polley), Juno (Jason Reitman), Atonement (Joe Wright), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet), Bug (William Friedkin), The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Host, Into the Wild (Sean Penn), Knocked Up (Judd Apatow), Superbad (Gregg Mottola), Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy), The Savages (Tamara Jenkins), Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino)

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers are among my favorite filmmakers in the world, so it is with no end of joy that I watched this year’s Oscars as they emerged winners of the screenplay, director and Best Picture awards. True, I do think that There Will Be Blood is the superior film in many ways, but I learned long ago to be happy when a great film wins this award, even when it beats a greater film.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Daniel Day-Lewis’s powerhouse performance is easily the best of the decade, so it was an easy choice for me to love this win. Out of the nominees, I think Viggo Mortenson gave the second best performance, but was somewhat saddened that great work by Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman (in Before the Devils Knows You’re Dead) and Gordon Pinsent (in Away from Her) didn’t garner more traction in the nominating round.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Marion Cottilard, La Vie En Rose
I will say that foreign nominees would have dominated my list this year – not just Do-yeon Jeon’s mesmerizing work in Secret Sunshine but also Carice van Houten in Black Book and Anamaria Marianca in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But of the nominees, I would have preferred Ellen Page in Juno (yeah, I still love Juno, deal with it) or Julie Chrisite in Away from Her to win. Cottilard is very good in La Vie En Rose, but not great – she is aided by Edith Piaf’s singing voice and a lot of makeup. Cottilard has made the most of it however as she has delivered several great performances since this victory.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Javier Bardem is brilliant in No Country for Old Men – an unfeeling, unstoppable killing machine. I know some thought that Bardem, with his odd haircut, was one note in the film but his performance is more than just him killing – it’s the absolute malice and determination he has in every scene. It is a great performance – even if I wouldn’t have minded if Casey Affleck won for The Assassination of Jesse James, or for that matter Bardem’s co-star Tommy Lee Jones who is just as brilliant.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Tilda Swinton is one of those strange actresses who is completely brilliant, and utterly unqiue in pretty much every role she takes on. Here, she is excellent as corporate lawyer who will stop at nothing to win her case, and silence those who don’t agree with her – and she’s wonderful. No where near as good, mind you, as Cate Blanchatt who is simply amazing in I’m Not There, but pretty damn terrific nonetheless.

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