Here it is: the granddaddy and finale of my listmania month. Aren’t your relieved? Seriously, I’ve spent a LOT of time at AMC, Landmark, and various critics’ screening rooms this year, and the culmination of all that “hard” work comes here at the end of 2007, when I can give proper shoutouts to the best that I’ve seen. 2007 was a remarkable year for American cinema, with celebrated new films from American auteurs like David Fincher (Zodiac), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and Todd Haynes (I’m Not There), not to mention the triumphant return of the Western. Eight of my top ten films are American productions, and six of them deal directly with questions of what it means to be an American. Thus, even as American politics proves more depressing by the day, it appears there is something of a renaissance in our homegrown cinema—and that’s something we can all be happy about.
10) Southland Tales: Richard Kelly’s postmodern cinematic menagerie defies all categorization. It is intensely ambitious (perhaps overreaching), trippy and mind-bending, and certainly the most unique film of the year. It’s about a lot of things (Iraq, religion, America, pop iconography, media, technology, time travel, David Lynch, etc) but, strange as it sounds, feels remarkably cohesive. More than anything, Tales is a cautionary statement about who we are and where we’re going as a culture. And it’s a crazy good piece of pop entertainment to boot.
9) Once: This summer’s Irish indie import proved to be the feel-good audience charmer of the year. Equal parts Lost in Translation and Before Sunrise/Sunset, Once spins a tight little yarn about music, love, and temporality in the setting of modern day Dublin. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are wonderful as unnamed “guy” and “girl” who share a sudden close connection, and they harmonize beautifully on the lovely original songs that make up the soundtrack.
8) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: The subject matter of this film is compelling enough—the last days of America’s most notorious train robber—but the atmosphere is what makes this a great film. Taking a page out of Terrence Malick’s stylebook, director Andrew Dominik turns this story into a contemplative existential portrait told through images and sound, not so much with words. Brad Pitt does a lot of iconic posing in the film (and he’s nicely tormented), but the real star is Casey Affleck, whose “cowardly” Robert Ford is one of the most striking cinematic performances of the year.
7) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This French-language film from director Julian Schnabel is a “tale of human triumph” sort of film—about a man (Dominique Bauby) with “locked-in syndrome” who composes an autobiography by blinking his one functioning eyelid. Butterfly is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, fluidly weaving the worlds of imagination, memory, and dreams into a tapestry of one man’s point of view on a world both tragic and hopeful.
6) Zodiac: This film is a stellar return to form for David Fincher (director of 90s classics Se7en and Fight Club), and one of the most intriguing, taught thrillers of the year. Fincher’s sleek visual style (I might call it digi-age noir realism) is totally unique among American directors, and he has a way of building unsettledness (not necessarily jump-out-of-your-seat horror) that lingers in your mind far after you leave the theater. Zodiac, the tale of an average Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) who inserts himself into a decade-long investigation into the Zodiac killer, is a gorgeously made period piece (60s-80s), yet feels totally pertinent in theme to our DIY, collective-intelligence culture today.
5) Lars and the Real Girl: This film, which tells the unlikely tale of a man and his life-size doll, is the perfect blend of comedy and artsy drama, and the feel-good film of the year. A lot has been said of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Lars (which is remarkably humane and believable), but the supporting actors (Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider) are also amazing in this actor’s showcase film. Sometimes the most unlikely, offbeat stories are the ones that surprise you in their deep emotional resonance. Lars is definitely such a story—and the most pleasant surprise of 2007.
4) No Country for Old Men: In a year in which America and its stark western landscapes were on full display, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is the astonishing Exhibit A. On one level the film is a pulsating cat-and-mouse thriller (in which the creepy Javier Bardem stalks the hapless cowboy Josh Brolin), but as it progresses we begin to see that it is about much, much more. The presence and subsequent absence of violence at the film goes along reveals a white flag weariness that matches the arid and emotionless Texas landscape. It’s a film that intentionally refuses satisfaction or answers to its audience, leaving us, like the older characters in the films, to stand stumped and disillusioned by the mundane nightmare of the modern world.
3) Into the Wild: This is a film that hits all the right notes. It’s a great true story, beautifully shot in dozens of scenic locations, with top-notch acting, music, editing, and direction by Sean Penn. Emile Hirsch deliver an Oscar-worthy performance as the passionate young Chris McCandless, and Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook should be recognized as well for their strong supporting performances. It’s a film that packs an emotional wallop, even if you know (or sense) how it is going to end. But far from a downer, Wild is the most stridently alive of any film released this year.
2) I’m Not There: Todd Haynes’ much anticipated Bob Dylan biopic (that isn’t really a biopic) is not at all accessible. For many, it’s probably not even that entertaining. It’s not an easy film by any means, but it is a work of art. There is a lot to admire about the film’s style (cinematography, period costumes, stunning editing) and its acting (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and especially Cate Blanchett are amazing), but the brilliance of I’m Not There is far less quantifiable. Just as the film—through the case study of Bob Dylan and the 60s—shows us how identity is an elusive thing in postmodernity, so too does it evade any standard understanding of story and cinema. Like the era in which it exists, I’m Not There is made up of disparate images, moments, sounds, feelings, frustrations—small pieces loosely joined by the fragmenting, universal quest for identity.
1) There Will Be Blood: There Will Be Blood is an American masterpiece–a Citizen Kane for the postmodern Net-generation. It’s a stunning, thoroughly modern work of art that paints a stark picture of what happens when greedy capitalism and power-mongering is bedfellow with something so contrary as Christianity. As the title forebodes, the results—for all parties involved—will not be pretty. Though not a political film in the traditional sense, Blood nevertheless captures the blood-oil-Iraq-evangelicals-capitalism zeitgeist far better than the countless Lions for Lambs-type films have this year. For this and other reasons, it is both the most important and riveting film of 2007.
Honorable Mention: The King of Kong, Juno, The Darjeeling Limited, My Best Friend, Rescue Dawn, The Savages, Into Great Silence, Atonement, Jindabyne, Grindhouse: Death Proof, Amazing Grace.