The verdicts are in, and in an unexpected bit of critical solidarity, it seems virtually unanimous that 2007 has been one of the best years for movies in quite some time. But look again, as even a cursory glance of a random sampling of top tens would suggest that every critic has picked the same dozen or so films to single out as distinguished products. To be fair, a handful are making my list as well (see below), but the notion rubs me the wrong way for a few reasons. One, there is little examination into the process that allows us, as viewers, access to certain product. When a film is labeled as “indie”, there may or may not be any awareness that the major studios all have “boutique” labels, which cultivate the same kind of brand labeling as any other corporate entity. As critics line up to fall all over themselves heralding a return to “adult” films, they’re still lining the coffers of the companies that spend the rest of the year churning out garbage for teens with disposable income. It might seem churlish of me, but suggesting that a handful of critical and popular favorites have elevated this year above and beyond any other in recent memory seems to suggest an overwhelming lack of critical veracity, as well as any sense of artistic discovery. In Roger Ebert’s recent Sun Times feature listing his top ten films of the year, there was a line up of the usual suspects front and center – Juno, No Country For Old Men, Atonement, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Into the Wild, etc. What was at first mystifying (and ultimately infuriating) was the relegation to a separate, smaller section, a laundry list of animated, foreign, and documentary features. The implications of this, at least to me, are crystal clear – that any films falling within these (very broad) confines can and should be ostracized, existing only to be lumped together and therefore even easier to dismiss en masse. Not only are the explanatory notes significantly shorter, but they have also been printed in even smaller type (to be fair, if one visits the article online, the entire feature is presented as one piece, and the font size is the same; this strikes one as a fascinating irregularity between the printed word and online writing) . I’ll pose a simple question: does No Country For Old Men need any more press at this point? Or would
Far from suggesting that Ebert has ruined movie reviewing, I simply want to raise a few questions. Having done so, allow me to submit that this was, in fact, a great year for movies. I’ll only add that every year is a good year for movies, inasmuch as there’s always something to seek out if one is willing to. In keeping with my contrarian tone, my top ten films of 2007 is more like a top 20, give or take a few. And while no one wants a critic to pile on arbitrary titles, like seeing
No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen): You might assume from my ramblings above that I hated the film, and I must admit that I’m slightly troubled by the almost unanimous praise it has received across the board. And yet it might very well be a thriller for the ages; tough, taunt, remorseless. The performers are uniformly great, and it seems silly to single out Javier Bardem over Tommy Lee Jones or Josh Brolin. The film builds quietly to a metaphysical conundrum, namely, are we becoming more and more soulless? It’s masterful craftsmanship that sneaks up on you. If all mainstream films were this good, it would indeed be a year for unbridled celebration. Just for grins, check out Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum's contrarian assessments at www.davekehr.com and www.chicagoreader.com. It is a fascinating crash course in just how dangerous it can be to suggest that a film that everyone else loves might actually not be that good, even self-flattering.
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa): Costa is perhaps the most singular auteur to arrive since critics latched on to Bela Tarr. After reading about the film for some time, I first caught up with it earlier this year during the Chicago Latino Film Festival. In a fitting bookend to the year, the
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien): Hou has been expanding his visual repertoire over his last several features, moving away from static tableau framings and introducing some close ups and more frequent tracking shots (for the best survey of his body of work, see David Bordwell’s “Figures Traced in Light”). Flight of the Red Balloon observes, quite intimately, a harried single mother, her young son, and the Taiwanese nanny employed to care for him during the day. It’s a simple drama about an average family (a friend even complained that it was too simple, leaving him relatively bored). And yet Hou’s camera (aided by frequent cinematographer Mark Lee-Ping) reveals emotions and ideas almost entirely through discrete compositions and movements. The narrative is oblique, even elliptical, but we are left with a beautiful portrait of a family going through everyday life, replete with all the normal joys and sorrows. A much longer piece on the film’s deceptively simple mis-en-scene is in the works.
The Man From
28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo): Like all the best horror films, this one is overflowing with political subtext.
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven): Verhoven’s magnificent return to form follows a Danish Jew (Canice van Houten) falling in love with a Nazi commandant while fleeing the resistance that is supposed to liberate her. In some ways, it is a forceful adaptation of Vonnegut’s “Mother Night”, while also allowing Verhoven to indulge in his own particular brand of violent, sexy irony. Surprisingly, the most entertaining mainstream film of the year happens to have subtitles.
Offside (Jafar Panahi): Young women attempting to attend an Iranian championship soccer match are caught and detained (they can’t be in the stadium alongside the men). At once a scathing critique of an oppressive social regime, it also gradually emerges as a film about strong national pride. Panahi embraces this contradiction, suggesting that one can love their country while still disagreeing with its policies and hoping to make it better. In other words, a must see for the Bush administration and anyone who subscribes to a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. This is humanist filmmaking at its very best.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu): Speaking of which, another contender in the Romanian New Wave (rounding out the Death of Mr. Lazarescu/ East of
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach): a powerful historical film about the birth of the IRA. It would, in fact, seem that history is doomed to repeat itself, as a group of Irish insurgents tackle the hugely superior British military force bent on occupation and subjugation. Anyone sensing a trend here? I thought so…