In looking for a way through the year’s many movies and hours lost to them, I’ve come on a theme to match my need. Many of the year’s releases, I’m thinking, evoke a similar desire—to find order, morality, something like quality. And yet the best reveal the difficulty and even the futility of the quest, uncovering in their seeming failures more remarkable potentials. These are named below, in no special order.
If the films reveal worlds rife with corruptions and premised on betrayals, they also provoke profound questions. How is truth or nobility defined? Who measures the achievement or benefits from the scale? And how different might these worlds be if only such quests might start from somewhere else? Imagine, for example, that Charles Burnett’s first feature, Killer of Sheep, had actually been released in 1977, when he made it? Just this year released to theaters, DVD, and TCM by Milestone Films (a miraculous story in its own right), the movie follows the poignant struggle of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) to find meaning and self-definition amid soul-crushing poverty and loneliness. Facing death each day on his job at a Los Angeles slaughterhouse, Stan yearns for stability and, more profoundly, hope. His many labors and frustrations—including his efforts to patch together his relationship with his estranged wife (Kaycee Moore)—are captured in stunning black and white, his emotional depths rendered in images so stirring and so complex that the film seems almost to rewrite what’s possible in film.
Such possibilities are approached, at least, in adventurous movies. Consider the lyrical brilliance of Golden Door (Nuovomondo), directed by Italy’s Emanuele Crialese. It narrates another sort of search, as immigrants from Sicily make their way by ship to the New World (specifically, Ellis Island), at the turn of the century. Seeking economic salvation in the reputed land of milk and honey (this notion rendered in lovely, surrealishly concrete imagery), Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and his family endure a dark and raucous passage. On board, he meets the woman who may or may not embody his dream, the alluringly red-gloved and British Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Their relationship, charted in delicate passings on deck and eventual agreements on land, subtly evokes the early promise of the U.S., back before its disappointments became so overwhelming.
Both Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood offer something like next steps in the dissection of a seeming national potential. In first, which begins in 1881, the fantasy of infinite prosperity is complicated not by criminality but by celebrity. While Jesse (Brad Pitt) and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) seek to leave their notoriety behind, finding peace in post-infamous lives, the ultimate fanboy Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) pursues to a grisly conclusion his desire not only to admire his idol, but more compulsively, to be him. The movie explores the dangers of consumer culture made visceral and literal, especially as the assassin not only becomes famous for his deed, but reenacts it nightly on stage, shooting Jesse James again and again for increasingly uninterested audiences.
Anderson’s film, based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, lays out an ostensibly basic structure: the opposition of commerce and religion as these forces shaped the U.S. in 1898, the self-proclaimed oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) finds his first well, then parlays his talent-cum-expertise into an empire of exploitation and profits. Embodying the most visible challenges to his self-delusions are his son, H.W. (played as a boy by the extraordinary Dillon Freasier) and the preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The film’s schematic framework shape is complicated at every step by stunning oilfield visuals (brilliantly shot by Robert Elswit and designed by Jack Fisk) and Day-Lewis’ enthralling performance. Plainview is locked into a lifelong conflict with Eli, whose professed interest in saving souls is no more real or less American than his own interest in making money.
Another sort of pursuit is represented in Zodiac, directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith, whose pursuit of the Zodiac killer consumed him. Abetted at first by Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), Graysmith—on whose book the film is based—persists in his search for the serial killer’s identity, as technologies improved and answers receded. The film reflects not only the discontents of this particular investigation, but also the ways that celebrity and violence intertwine in myth and truth.
The impossibility of attaining conventional truth is crucial in three excellent documentaries. My Kid Could Paint That, by Amir Bar-Lev, begins as one story and becomes another, At first investigating definitions of art—in the gallery world, in the minds of critics like Michael Kimmelman, even in the ways that artists might imagine themselves—the film eventually becomes an investigation of documentary as a genre and the limits of documentation. As much as the film grants parents Laura and Mark Olmstead opportunities to show the truth of their four-year-old daughter Marla’s brilliants, the less convincing their story becomes.
Two films focused on the war in Iraq also explore the permeable boundaries between fictions and truths. Usama Alshaibi’s smart first feature, Nice Bombs, charts his 2004 return to Baghdad with wife Kristie. Endeavoring to make sense of the devastation he finds, Alshaibi manages a consistently acute observation of tensions between troops and citizens, expectations and realities.
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s extraordinary The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, begins with a decision to follow up on an Iraqi prisoner spotted first in their film about U.S. troops in Baghdad, 2004’s Gunner Palace. Journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas, detained with his brothers in Abu Ghraib for years, here recounts his ordeal with wit and profound cultural insight, the film illustrating his experiences with graphic novelish art (at once too real and never real enough) as well as interviews and archival footage.
Quests to think through or at least escape oppressions are made excessively alienating in two films that feature brilliant central performances: in Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night, Luisa Williams’ suicide bomber is severe and vulnerable, callow and resolute, the film tracking her final hours with a fierce, utterly compelling focus. And in Red Road, Kate Dickie makes recovery from trauma into a kind of mission: following the loss of her family to a drunk driver, Jackie finds her way through a bleak mix of grief, anger, and revenge, by way of her job as a CCTV monitor in Glasgow: watching everyone, she finds herself.
Visions of oppression are more systemic but no less personal in three foreign-language films. Cristian Mungiu’s astonishing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days charts the ordeal of two college students as they procure an illegal abortion during Ceausescu’s reign in 1980s’ Romania. Jafar Panahi’s Offside follows a group of young women soccer fans, as they are arrested attempting to attend a World Cup qualifying match at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Even as they are stymied and contained, the girls find strength in one another, as the film celebrates their ingenuity, passion, and resilience.
And at last, the movie quests of 2007 were not always doomed. Joon-ho Bong’s The Host (Gwomeul) is at once a clever paean to old-school atomic-monster movies, satire of nationalist dreams, and enchanting coming of age tale. The creature—resulting inevitably from South Korea’s bad-idea collaborations with U.S. military experiments—embodies an uncanny grace that is, in the end, overshadowed by its young girl victim, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). Resourceful as she resists her fate, she’s not so much vengeful as she is charming and courageous, aware of her limits and the truth she faces. She’s an ideal hero for our moment.