[1 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Okay - so it’s actually 11. Instead of playing by the rules and sticking to the mandatory 10, another title managed to sneak its way onto SE&L‘s annual celebration of the artform’s best. Even more depressing, there are dozens of releases from 2007 that deserve almost equal appreciation. You know it’s been a banner 12 months when films like Grindhouse, SiCKO, The Simpsons Movie, Knocked Up, Eastern Promises, Juno, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are stuck circling around numbers 11 through 20. Unlike past years, where compiling this list required a fair amount of aesthetic archeology, practically every week saw another astounding effort announce its classic intentions. Some may quibble with a few of the selections, but the bottom line remains firm - 2007 was a great year in cinema, and these 11 masterworks are proof of same.
Still, with nearly 300 titles taken in during the last 52 weeks, what is and is not included here may seem specious. After all, there were dozens of foreign works (Persepolis, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) that never got screened for SE&L. In addition, there were monumental movies that had to use a direct to DVD ideal just to get distribution. Leaving them out was painful as well. It’s important to remember, however, that said lists may look like consensus, yet remain securely in the paradigm of personal opinion. Your choices may vary, and indeed, probably should. If we all agreed, it would make such annual wrap-ups rather pointless. With that in mind, here are SE&L‘s selections for the 11 best films of the year, starting with the tie at 10:
#10 (tie) - Sunshine
Sunshine is a film about sacrifice. It’s a movie that asks the big questions and waits for the inevitable answer. It’s the kind of intellectually driven science fiction that Hollywood can’t be bothered to make nowadays. Instead of staying betrothed to the George Lucas School of Speculative Design, where everything is techno-wow and movie serial sodden, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland have gone back to the original source of serious future shock – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – and fashioned their own post-modern, post-punk space odyssey. The results resonate inside the brain in a way few films in recent memory can claim, awakening long dormant desire for truth and explanation. This is the kind of movie that stimulates debate as it mires us in the mysteries of the cosmos. It sings – and it also saddens.
#10 (tie) - Ratatouille
Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.
#9 - The Darjeeling Limited
Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest. Sure, there will be those who see director Wes Anderson’s trademark quirks, his moments of forced magic realism and out of the blue character shifts and claim the same old self indulgent designs. And within his previous settings—a private school, a New York apartment, an oceanic research vessel—such strategies did indeed appear downright excessive. But within the context of India, a mysterious nation with its own inherent eccentricities and extremes, Anderson finds a totally complementary venue. In a country where seemingly anything can happen, where faith folds itself neatly into the fabric of everyday life in a manner so seamless that it’s almost indecipherable, the idea of three wayward men seeking interpersonal salvation doesn’t seem quite so quixotic. The way Anderson portrays it, it’s standard operating procedure in such a pulsing, overpopulated locale.
#8 - The Brave One
Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.
#7 - Into the Wild
Based on a book by Jon Krakauer and Christopher McCandless’ own diaries and writings, Into the Wild stands as the best movie in Sean Penn’s limited career behind the camera. After The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge, the Oscar winning actor pools all his talents to take on one of those too good to be true storylines. In the McCandless saga, you’ve got familial dysfunction, interpersonal pipe dreams, psychosocial subjectivity, the call of nature, and the undeniable allure of the open road to transform a simple act of individual wish fulfillment into something far more meaningful. Laced with amazing visual stunts, standout performances, and a perspective of our nation that’s nearly incomprehensible, we wind up tramping right along with our wide-eyed hero. We experience his dizzying highs…and everything that countermands such living in exile delights.
#6 - Gone Baby Gone
In the hands of first time director Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone arrives as an incredible cinematic experience. Taken from a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, this simple story of an abducted little girl, the surrounding investigation, and the suspicious mother at the center, has the kind of narrative power and acting prowess that elevates it above other like minded dramas. By capturing a sense of society lost, by using both the media focus and the behind closed doors denouements that seem to follow such situations, Affleck produces tragedy on an epic Greek scale and moviemaking of classic neo-noir artistry. In combination with some of the most riveting performances in recent memory, as well as a true sense of setting, what we wind up with is an incredibly dense and layered exploration of human ethics.
#5 - Zodiac
It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work: Lots of late nights; Way too many cups of coffee; Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed, and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged. It’s also David Fincher’s best work to date - and when considering his creative canon, that’s amazing.
#4 - Hot Fuzz
Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette. And they do so magnificently.
#3 - There Will Be Blood
This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own style. Well, all reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium.
#2 - No Country for Old Men
Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Looking over their creative canon, a body of work that includes Oscar nods, a single win, several career defining films and more than a couple cult classics (“We want the money, Lebowski!”), they argue for their place among the artform’s true greats. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves – and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.
#1 - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Fans of Stephen Sondheim had every reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.
Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.