Whether by luck or some kind of hive rejuvenation, 2007 saw a whole lot of terrific American movies.
We've had a few rough film years during this decade. Many of our most talented U.S. filmmakers have slowed their output to a crawl. Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, David Fincher, and Wes Anderson, among others, have taken three to five years between projects, leaving film fans wondering why everyone can't have the work ethic (or consistent funding) of a Steven Soderbergh or a Robert Rodriguez.
Whether by luck or some kind of hive rejuvenation, 2007 saw a whole lot of terrific American movies, including new films by some of the directors mentioned above. It started when David Fincher broke a five-year absence with the March release of Zodiac, but the year really revved up in late summer and early fall. Almost every week brought fresh excitement, and suddenly movies seemed worth obsessing over again.
In fact, many of the year's best depict obsessions. Zodiac set the tone early on. Fincher's mediation on the unsolved Zodiac murder case is all about obsessions leading to dead ends. Yet this film without a central protagonist or traditional cop heroics have an unexpected result. Fincher traces exactly how the case goes wrong -- the poor information sharing and protracted, fruitless research -- inviting us to get lost in the case, too. Zodiac is mesmerizing and chillingly unknowable, one of the best crime pictures in years.
The Coen brothers, too, tend to immerse themselves in the mundane details of crime, though they employ them for farcical effect as often as dramatic. No Country for Old Men features darkly comic moments, like that tenacious swimming dog, but the obsessions are soon overwhelming. Moss (Josh Brolin) is determined to keep some found drug money, while Anton Chigurth (Javier Bardem) is equally resolved to track that money down. As with Zodiac, the obsessions in No Country aren't slick or precisely thrilling (though both films are almost unbearably tense at times). If anything, the mood is slowed down, though the violence feels inevitable.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is another neo-Western with a careful pace and lack of unnecessary noise, a slowed-down stalker narrative. As Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) obsesses over the famous outlaw, the film dissolves Western myths, in the form of waning criminal careers. Affleck, a perfect poster boy for the year, knows his way around moral grayness; he also stars in his brother Ben's Gone Baby Gone. When a little girl is taken from her troubled Boston home, Affleck's private detective, like the cops in Zodiac, can't shake the case. The solution isn't as elusive as the Zodiac puzzle, but resolution remains equally slippery.
Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood offers more closure, though of a bitter, insane variety, for Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Its opening 15 minutes are virtually dialogue-free, as we're introduced to Plainview's single-minded attention to oil mining. After several more hours of his hard-charging version of capitalism, the film's closing line ("I'm finished") offers a glimpse of obsession's rough endgame.
Not every 2007 obsession manifests itself in crime, death, and despair. Brad Bird's Ratatouille gives us a rodent with an unbeatable desire to become a professional chef and a rousing animated depiction of pure passion. Bird has a singular talent, too: making a big-ticket computer-animated family film seem as personal, idiosyncratic, and recognizable as a Wes Anderson picture.
Anderson himself returned this year with The Darjeeling Limited. Obsessive attention to costumes, locations, and props is a hallmark of his work (think of the Team Zissou uniforms, or the pins Max Fischer offers Herman Blume in Rushmore, or every packed frame of The Royal Tenenbaums). In a sense, Darjeeling is no different; the film's trio of morose brothers is assigned a variety of tics to deploy and material goods to clutch. But here, the characters' own obsessive attachments move to the thematic forefront; one of the film's biggest moments has the brothers casting off their literal and metaphorical baggage in order to catch a moving train (shot in Anderson's trademark lovely pop-scored slow-motion). The baggage-shedding metaphor may seem a bit obvious, but the image is also arresting in its simplicity; the emphasis is on the characters' motion, not the detailed embroidery on their suitcases.
Much of the year's purest entertainment was touched by obsessiveness, too. What was Grindhouse if not the product of encyclopedic film-geek love? The Tarantino-Rodriguez twofer pays homage not only to the style but also the subject at hand. The two friends even invited other filmmakers to join the party and contribute meticulously detailed fake trailers for the B-pictures of their dreams.
Musicals got into the act too. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Tim Burton, zeroes in on Sweeney's rage, embodied by a scowling, skunk-striped Johnny Depp. A pair of pop music pastiches, I'm Not There and Across the Universe, could only have been made by directors drunk on obsessive love for Bob Dylan and the Beatles, respectively. Even Superbad, the year's funniest comedy, got a lot of mileage out of adolescent boys' single-minded desire to score with chicks. It shares with many of the year's best films a sense of filmmakers and performers giving themselves over without reservation.
Such generosity has produced one of the best recent movie years. The question is whether this inspiration can be sustained. Lengthy distillation periods led to terrific films by Fincher and Anderson, but the potential slide from Spielbergian productivity into the painstaking, occasional craft of a Kubrick or a Malick remains an obvious, maybe even attractive, possibility. Let's hope, then, that the artistic processes that served us so well this year are less like the dead ends of Zodiac and more like Ratatouille, that the finest keep cooking.