Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Top 10 Films of 2007 and Assorted Miscellany

Any year in which I have to regretfully bump great films from the Top 10 is a good year, and so by that standard 2007 was a fine time indeed. It was a great year for comedy, with a lot of humor pervading subjects like unplanned parenthood, cookery, cannibalism, cross-country trips, teenage drinking, and the love between man and pig. Sure, the end of year Oscar fare was typically grim, but overall this was a welcome shift upward which I hope continues. We need optimism. This could have been a better year in terms of roles for women and films told from their point of view- most of the best stuff was from the male side- but even then a few distaff turns stand out. Enough preliminaries, let’s get to the list.

1. KNOCKED UP. Every time I think of this movie, the words “Annie Hall” come to mind. At once both crude and sophisticated, the film tells the story of how maturity can sometimes sneak up on people in the context of a raucously funny bad taste comedy. It’s consistently funny, sharp, and rewarding, the kind of rich farce that promises to get better with age.

2. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. The Coen Brothers undertake one of their darkest projects in a long time, a lean, spartan suspense thriller featuring a villain destined to take his place among the all-time greats. The ending is jarring and unsettling, but ultimately in a good way, leaving room for interpretation while fitting the tone of the picture perfectly.

3. SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. Easily Tim Burton’s
best film since 1994’s ED WOOD, this gloriously bloody entertainment captures both the depth and spirit of Stephen Sondheim’s musical while creating a visual landscape all its own. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter offer unique perspectives on the characters of Todd and Mrs. Lovett, and what they lack in pipes they make up for in passion.

4. RATATOUILLE. By this point you expect the combination of Pixar and Brad Bird to result in nothing but great things, but somehow the film is still surprising and unique, a tale of the passion of art and the love of doing something well. This film sparkles with great characters and sensuous visuals, a treat for gourmonds and animation lovers alike.

5. THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Daniel Day-Lewis rips and roars across the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hale, full-bodied adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!”, bringing to life the bigger-than-the-big-screen character of Daniel Plainview, an oil man who will do anything to be on top of the business and has no other desire in life. Gritty, grimy, and oddly fun stuff, characterized by an atmosphere that always leaves you waiting for the other shoe to drop.

6. HOT FUZZ. Virtually perfect for what it is. Having conquered the world of zombies and relationship comedies, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright move into the world of buddy cop pictures and the vaguely homoerotic relationships therein. Built around a small town murder mystery that’s plotted so well you could almost do it as a straight thriller, the film is the kind of sincere comedy that makes you love its characters beyond their ability to make jokes, and provides opportunities to shine for everyone in the cast. A gem.

7. AMERICAN GANGSTER. Ridley Scott puts his substantial visual and technical skill in service of a story of the rewards of vice and the price of virtue, and the strange overlap between the two. A fantastic showcase for the talents of Denzel Washington and Russel Crowe, and a finely constructed narrative that may or may not have anything to do with what happened, if that matters.

8. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. A daring, fully cinematic musical which celebrates the fundamental spirit of rebellion, creativity, and hope which underlines the music of the Beatles. Not only do we get several unique and visually dazzling reinterpretations of the music, but a story that engages with the issues of counterculture and revolution that the band and the music found itself facing. It’s a film which wrestles with the question of whether art and idealism are enough to have in times of war and brutality, and whether it’s possible to hold onto peace and love when they don’t seem to get things done fast enough. Julie Taymor puts an amazing amount of skill into bringing to life a modern piece of psychedelia. We need more films like this.

9. SUPERBAD. Possibly the funniest movie of the year, this epic assembly of teen irresponsibility has never a dull moment and actually has a well constructed storyline despite the appearance of simply rambling to a conclusion. From the strange adventure of McLovin to the arrival of our heroes at the kind of party nobody wants to be at for very long, this is a wildly creative coming of age comedy which at heart is about the pain of being forced to grow up too soon, and the joyful insanity that accompanies it.

10. THE DARJEELING LIMITED. A vision quest movie that cleverly takes the piss out of vision quests. Wes Anderson’s latest brilliantly unites Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman as three brothers who seek spiritual enlightenment while also struggling with their inability to share a cabin. Funny, sincere, and wonderfully lush and chaotic in its realization of India as a place far messier than most pilgrims imagine. The inclusion of the pleasantly erotic short film HOTEL CHEVALIER at the start adds the perfect accent to this strange little adventure.

Special “To Hell With This, I Want To Write More About These Movies Too” Runners-Up List:

11. GRINDHOUSE. Many people said there was no point, especially after the film bombed at the box office, but Quentin Tarantino and Richard Rodriguez deserve our gratitude for working to create not just a pair of films but a genuine, long-lost cinematic experience, one that celebrates the ritual of moviegoing. And they’re good films in themselves, the over-the-top splatterfest PLANET TERROR making a good counterpoint to the talky but brilliant auto thriller DEATH PROOF (I would pay full evening show prices to see an entire series of films in which Zoe Bell and her girlfriends have wild kickass adventures.) Throw in some of the greatest trailers ever (which need to be expanded into features and I don’t care how financially unviable that is- though thank God for MACHETE)- and you’ve got a grand old evening at the pictures.

12. MICHAEL CLAYTON. Tony Gilroy’s astonishing thriller of a man pulled by loyalty into doing the right thing. It’s not quite a message movie, because the corporate malfeasance that the title character must confront is stated but not delved into deeply, but there’s no mistaking the passion and clarity of the film’s voice as it says that corruption can be confronted and defeated and therefore must be. A smart and inspiring picture with a note-perfect performance by George Clooney.

13. EASTERN PROMISES. David Cronenberg’s newest thriller isn’t quite as gut-punchingly astounding as HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, but it’s a great vehicle for the talent of Viggo Mortensen and features the director’s most intricate and most visceral action sequence to date. Less concerned with the specifics of plot and more with the overlap of two worlds, the movie develops strong relationships and manages to feel different from more conventional crime thrillers.

14. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. It may be an expanded TV episode, but it’s a good ‘un, with the sparkle and wit of the show’s best installments wedded to a suitably epic storyline that doesn’t actually mean much. A refreshingly offbeat summer blockbuster with some gags destined to become classics.

15. CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR. Aaron Sorkin proves he’s still got it with the script to this unusual true story, not quite a comedy or a drama or even a standard dramedy. Tom Hanks proves wonderfully convincing as the titular Senator who, for all his decadent ways, finds a cause worth the use of his remarkable acumen, and is magnificently counterbalanced by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s jaded and completely undiplomatic CIA agent who knows more than you’d think. A fun film that also makes you think twice about realpolitik and its misapplication then and now.

Not Seen: Atonement, Perseopolis, Once, The King of Kong, others I'll remember as soon as I've posted this.

Most Underrated Film of the Year: BUG. William Friedkin’s return to form was spectacularly mispackaged as some kind of horror film, ensuring a quick death at the box office. What it really is, is a psychological thriller that treats insanity as a contagious disease, borne by loneliness and desperation and the need to make contact. Ashley Judd gives a fearless performance in a compellingly intimate picture that was somehow totally ignored.

(Runners-Up: Grindhouse, Across the Universe, Black Snake Moan)

Performances that Impressed Me (a non-comprehensive list):

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Josh Brolin, No Country For Old Men
Josh Brolin, American Gangster
Jonah Hill, Superbad
Michael Cera, Superbad
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood
Denzel Washington, American Gangster
Russel Crowe, American Gangster
Ellen Page, Juno
Michael Cera, Juno
Zoe Bell, Grindhouse/Death Proof (Yes, she’s playing herself, and I don’t care.)
Ashley Judd, Bug
Amy Adams, Charlie Wilson’s War
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Seth Rogen, Knocked Up
Katherine Heigl, Knocked Up
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Julie Kavner, The Simpsons Movie

The Unofficial Saul Bass Memorial Award For Best Opening Credits Sequence in a Film that Bothered to Have One: Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Runners Up: Juno, Superbad, and that unfortunately is it.)

A special "Moments of 2007" post will follow shortly. And look for me to harp further on this opening credits sequence thing.

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