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2007: The Year’s Best Films

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “No Country For Old Men,” Miramax, 2007]

49 movies.

When I sat down to deliberate on the best of 2007, my shortlist of worthy titles came in at an enormous 49 movies. Though I’m satisfied with my final selections, there were far more than just ten “best” movies this year. Anyone who claims 2007 was hard up for quality film just wasn’t looking hard enough, if at all. Sure, theaters around the country were consistently filled with clunkers, as they most always are. But there were great pictures to see too; so many, in fact, that some got trampled underfoot by an enormous stampede of releases.

As I look over my favorite films of the past twelve months (along with the lists by my colleagues Alison Willmore, who runs the IFC Blog, and Michael Atkinson, our weekly DVD columnist), I see far too many examples of fine pictures that nobody saw. Where was the love, for example, for “Rescue Dawn”? Werner Herzog’s spirited fictionalization of his documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” was almost universally beloved by those who saw it — problem was, that group turned out to be a viewing minority, and the film made just under $5.5 million at the box office.

A lot of critics and commentators would say its box office failure (and the failures of many other pictures) had less to do with an excess of product than its tie to the war. In a year that saw the western return to prominence in the most meaningful way in decades (with pictures like “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “3:10 To Yuma”), that other old venerable genre, the war picture, became absolute box office poison. In years past, something like “Rescue Dawn” might have stood a better chance in the marketplace. With very few exceptions, audiences in 2007 voted in favor of less topical fare.

And so, apparently, did I. Though I admired some of these button-pushers (including Tony Kaye’s powerful documentary about the abortion debate “Lake of Fire”), my own selections tend to focus on bold directors who made bold films instead of bold points. There are some things about the list I’m not proud of — it’s a dreadfully masculine lot and shamefully light on young directors — but it’s an honest assessment at the very least. Anyone who assembles one of these lists with an eye toward pleasing others instead of themselves is wasting their time.

This year, I solidified my own personal criterion for what qualifies a movie for the very top of a best-of list. The films that transcend simple excellence to move to that higher stratum of true greatness all left me with the same feeling: the desire to see the entire movie again immediately, without even so much as a bathroom break. This year, four films met that qualification, and they are the top four films on my list.

So here are those four exemplary films, plus six more outstanding titles, plus ten more honorable mentions. And I could go on and list twenty-nine more, and who knows how many more after that. Bad year for movies? If anything, it was too good.

1. No Country For Old Men

At this point, what more needs to be said? The movie is so universally beloved, it almost makes me want to distrust my own equally positive reaction and just hate it on basic contrarian principles. But I can’t deny how it made me feel when I saw the movie nine months ago, or how it’s stuck with me all the time, or how I expect it to remain lodged in my cranium for the rest of my life.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Somehow the film about the most restrictive subject — a man locked into his own body by a sudden and total paralysis — became one of the year’s most unrestrained movies. Jean-Dominique Bauby’s triumph was in psychologically defeating the ailment that enslaved his body; director Julian Schnabel’s triumph is in conveying that battle in a movie that soars with visual invention from start to finish, even as its subject sinks to the bottom of an abyss inside his metaphorical scuba gear.

3. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

This totally compelling documentary provided more entertainment value — and a better story — than most fiction films this year, along with a level of ethnographic insight few other docs could match. Director Seth Gordon must have thanked his lucky stars when he discovered the weird world of competitive arcade gaming, which has enough outlandish characters (i.e. the dude who likes to be called “Mr. Awesome”), human drama, and sheer giddy thrills for five movies.

4. Zodiac

This is a movie about how men lose themselves to their obsessions, and director David Fincher conveyed that idea so effectively, eventually I did too — I got so lost in the film, its 158-minute runtime felt like half that. This mesmerizing chronicle of one of America’s scariest serial killers is the shortest three-hour movie in history.

5. The Host

With yet another home run, my favorite Asian filmmaker, Bong Joon-ho, conquers a new genre: the monster movie. The creature causing an international ruckus swallows its victims whole and then regurgitates them to enjoy the next time he’s feeling snacky. Bong does much the same, ingesting all the best elements of a slew of horror and science-fiction films and spitting them back out on the screen in gruesomely beautiful fashion.

6. Hot Fuzz

Too many comedies — even some of the funny ones — spray jokes at the audience like buckshot, hoping to throw enough gags at you so that at least a few hit you as funny. Writer/director Edgar Wright and writer/star Simon Pegg’s film, in contrast, is an exercise in precision: every shot, every line, every reference to dumb action movies past is crafted with scrupulous care. Plusm Wright knows how to use his camera for more than a sight gag; his arsenal of whips and zooms are a welcome relief from the stuffy cinematography of most of his comedic contemporaries.

7. Syndromes and a Century

Screened at festivals throughout 2006, but released in theaters in 2007, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s follow-up to “Tropical Malady” featured a similarly bifurcated story, about two nearly identical sets of doctors whose stories nevertheless travel different paths to different endings. Like all of Weerasethakul’s work, this gorgeously shot film is endearingly odd and oddly endearing.

8. There Will Be Blood

It’s barely been released but the film already has a few critical talking points; how it’s another remarkably immersive performance from star Daniel Day Lewis and a dramatic (and effective) departure for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Both are true, but the one thing I felt most strongly about this brooding ficto-biopic is in danger of being overlooked; that being, supporting actor Paul Dano, playing two different roles, is so good in this film he absolutely steals every moment he’s in. And he’s stealing from Daniel Day Lewis.

9. Into the Wild

This is a movie that I flat-out should have hated: the call of the wild goes right to my voicemail every time. But there is something poetic and even spiritual to be found here. Sean Penn’s film perfectly elucidates the reason someone might find the natural world so appealing that they would explore and pursue it well past the point that any rational person would turn back.

10. Black Book

Paul Verhoeven’s best film since 1990’s “Total Recall” (and his most entertaining since 1995’s “Showgirls”) proves that time away from the spotlight hasn’t dimmed the Dutch master’s flair for arty depravity. Even as he stuffed the film with well-executed suspense sequences and thoughtful moral arguments about fascists and revolutionaries, Verhoeven still found time to throw in some hot sex scenes and slather his leading lady in human fecal matter. Bravo, sir.

Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order)

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, The Bourne Ultimatum, Gone Baby Gone, Lake of Fire, The Namesake, Offside, Once, Rescue Dawn, Superbad, We Own the Night.

Top 10: Alison Willmore

1. No Country For Old Men

Among its endless cinematic joys, the Coens’ film is one of the few I can think of to fully shoulder the weight of deliberation. Who knew that so much suspense could be wrung out of acts of patience, from men of few words sitting back and fooling themselves into believing they can see all of the angles before acting? Yeah.

2. Rescue Dawn

Werner Herzog wills American jingoism into yet another route to his treasured ecstatic truth in this narrative remake of his own doc “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” that towers above the year’s slew of somber war films like a wild-eyed hallucination.

3. There Will Be Blood

Jagged and brilliant, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film isn’t much like the Upton Sinclair novel that inspired it, or like anything else I’ve ever seen on screen in any movie theater. Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano fall into place as unlikely adversaries in a battle for control of a small Texas town, but the film itself leaps and stutters forward in drips of dread like the most indescribable of horror movies.

4. Killer of Sheep

Given that it was made in 1977, it seems like a cheat to include “Killer of Sheep” on this list, but just as much one to leave it off — Charles Burnett’s exquisite, unhappy chronicle of life in Watts is a landmark of American independent film.

5. Southland Tales

Ridiculous, overstuffed, incoherent and awesome, Richard Kelly’s follow-up to “Donnie Darko” is an apocalyptic storyline splattered with L.A. satire, liberal mourning and a shimmer of pop mythology. Imperfect, sure, but impossibly moving and more than memorable.

6. Syndromes and a Century

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes movies like he’s never seen one before, and so has never had to concern himself with the narrative constrictions and formal obligations that weigh every other director down. Supposedly inspired by his parents in their youth, this two-pronged film wanders through a country and a city hospital, with echoing moments seeming to gather meaning while defying any easy read.

7. Paprika

Another incandescent reverie of a film, Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” swirls through fabulous dreamscapes with a delirious freedom that can only be found in animation. A doctor discovers thing have gone terribly wrong with a device that allows people to explore the dreams of others, but that sci-fi surface is only a launching pad for the brightly colored, disturbing envisionings of a thousand buried memories and subconscious doubts and desires.

8. Control

While Todd Haynes’ “suppositions on a film concerning Dylan” were fanciful, uneven and ultimately better in theory than in practice, Anton Corbijn’s debut feature managed to shake off the stiltedness of the form of the musical biopic merely by being grounded and vividly alive. Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis becomes a compelling, thrilling and fully realized figure, no rock martyr, just painfully young, talented and terrified of being trapped.

9. Romance & Cigarettes

Few moments in movies this year, musical or otherwise, were as thrilling and flat-out enjoyable as the one in “Romance & Cigarettes” in which James Gandolfini walks out of his Queen house and launches into Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Lonely is a Man Without Love,” accompanied by swirling garbage men, singing schoolchildren and Bobby Cannavale belting the chorus with a garden hose as a mic.

10. The Host

A monster movie for a new millennium — it’s hard to determine which is scarier, Bong Joon-ho’s galloping, waterlogged mutant or the portrait he paints of the inefficient, uncaring bureaucratic society that’s meant to protect its citizens from it. The film’s central family may be a dysfunctional disaster, but its members, at least, are still capable of caring for each other and those they come across who are in need, something rare enough in the world of “The Host” to approach a state of grace.

Michael Atkinson

1. Syndromes and a Century

Thailand’s great, mysterious, life-affirming, diptych-entranced, meta-meta-man Apichatpong Weerasethakul does it again, twice, or maybe more, while seeming to do nearly nothing at all. A dream had by us all, and just as maddening and gorgeous.

2. Once

Who knows how long the heart-kneaded buzz from this beloved greatest-musical-since-Demy may last, but in my seat it was an all-viscera epiphany, and it’s made moviegoing since a little bloodless.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

The greatest of the Romanians so far, Christian Mungiu’s patient knuckle-biter is at least 50% off-screen space and trauma; the mercilessly suspense birthday dinner scene alone is more concisely conceived and effective than any ten American films this year.

4. Half Moon

Northern Iran has supplanted the American West and the Australian Outback as the globe’s most expressive road-movie topos, and Bahman Ghobadi’s mythic Kurdish bus trip is simultaneously hilarious, magical-realist and tragic.

5. There Will Be Blood

Didn’t see it coming — P.T. Anderson sheds his pretentious snark-generation-ism for Upton Sinclair’s period saga of catapulting capitalism, scene for prickly, crazy scene the most fascinating new American film of the year.

6. Regular Lovers

May ’68 awaited its definitive film portrait until the arrival of Philippe Garrel’s impressionistic personal meditation, which manifests the cataclysmic, liberating, and finally tragically disillusioned emotional thrust of résistance, coupled with the electric sense of being 19, sexually alive, responsibility-free and ready to dope up and drop out, all of it seeping out of this neglected three-hour epic like fragrance from a valley of lilacs.

7. Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett’s legended, much-hailed, rarely seen 1977 classic about being black and poor and spiritually unmoored in ’70s L.A. finally saw theaters, a full 17 years after it’d been an early choice for national Film Registry canonization. It’s a ghost movie, returned to haunt us.

8. 12:08 East of Bucharest

Another Romanian, Corneliu Porumboiu’s deadpan comedy picks at the scab of the 1989 revolution, revolving around what must be the eloquent and entertaining three-shot in recent cinema.

9. Los Muertos

Lisandro Alonso’s lovely, remarkably eloquent naturalist odyssey tracks an aging convict as he is released in rural Argentina and heads upriver to find his daughter and grandson. Exposition is all but absent; the focus is on the moment, the soothing re-establishment of intimacy with nature, performed and captured in astonishing single takes.

10. Michael Clayton

Semi-hack screenwriter Tony Gilroy steps definitively into the men’s club with this ethical torture device, thought-through and written and acted with a startling concern for the sickening quotidian of power culture.

Runners-Up (In Order):

The Host, No Country for Old Men, Lars and the Real Girl, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Brand Upon the Brain!, Czech Dream, 3:10 to Yuma, The Boss of It All, Zodiac, Lust, Caution, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Into Great Silence, The Lives of Others, Tears of the Black Tiger, We Own the Night, Dans Paris, Broken English

[Additional photos: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Miramax; “Rescue Dawn,” MGM; “Syndromes and a Century,” Strand Releasing]

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