By Craig Phillips
Some fine adaptations are central to this year's diverse list. Looking back on it all to try to find some overarching pattern emerge doesn't work as well, but that's what I like about the best films of 2007; they're unique and they made blood pulse through my veins in excitement. A few of them made me laugh. At least one of them made me slightly queasy.
Maybe this expansive list will counter those who've said '07 was a weaker than average year. Nonsense, I say. While I'm fortunate in that, unlike newspaper critics, who are forced to sometimes see truly bad films against their will, I can usually pick and choose films that I at least think will be interesting. But I certainly saw my share of Disappointing Films With Merit. (And by deadline time, I'd still missed more than I would've liked, too - see the list at the bottom*.) But these are the 15 films that lifted me somewhere special, and which I'd revisit again. And, as you can see, I didn't punish films just for being released much earlier in the year.
No Country For Old Men: Disturbing as hell, no question, but the Coens' were at the top of their game for this one, and the film was so utterly suspenseful that I was often able to disassociate myself from just how skin-crawlingly evil Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh was (you'll never look at a coin flip the same way again). He's an unforgettable creation. The film offers up one knockout set-piece after another (the pit bull chase into the river is particularly jaw-dropping). West Texas' arid landscape (shot beautifully by Coens' fave Roger Deakins) makes for a rightly bleak backdrop, and Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin (a great year for him), and Woody Harrelson round out the spot-on cast. Jones' final soliloquy may not tie everything up in a neat little bow, but it's the perfect ending to this modern day Treasure of the Sierre Madre. One of the best of the Coen Brothers morality fables.
Into the Wild: We could not have asked for a better adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book based on the sad but beautiful last few years of Christopher McCandless, portrayed in heartrending fashion by Emile Hirsch. Sean Penn's script embraces McCandless's ideals while also acknowledging the cruel hardships he put his family through as he disappeared into the American wilderness. It's gorgeously shot (but not showy) and edited just right, moving back and forth between his tragic final months in Alaska and the other parts of his often amazing journey. If the people he meets along the way, including, wonderfully, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker (a Colorado River guide making his acting debut) as a hippie couple with their own sad past, sometimes seem a bit too smitten with him, this is apparently not at all inaccurate; he was a ghost that moved through others' lives. Only other debit: Penn's occasional penchant for trippy POV camerawork. Regardless, the movie is enormously affecting and the end result appropriately moving.
This is England: Jonathan Rosenbaum's already noted how this film reminds of Mike Leigh's Meantime; both explore what would make a young English lad become skinhead in Thatcher-era England. While Leigh's film was made in that era, Shane Meadows' film has such an immediacy that you are transported back to the 80s, no irony, it just is. In fact, it feels just as fresh and tender as The 400 Blows and newcomer Thomas Turgoose is just about as unforgettable as Jean Pierre Leaud was in that film. Equal parts funny and disturbing.
The King of Kong a Fistful of Quarters: This sounded like a dream film for a video game history geek like myself, but I still had low expectations that it'd be more than an amusing little trifle. That it's much deeper and fascinating is a credit to the filmmaker Seth Gordon. Funny and sad all at once, it's about nothing less than obsession, competition, losing one's youth, and, oh yeah, trying to beat that infuriating ape once and for all.
The Lives of Others: A winner at the '07 Oscars but released this year here too, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's riveting film was so astonishingly well crafted it was hard to believe it also marked his first feature. Intelligent, honest and, though it may be a "historical" drama, its exploration on the nature of surveillance, on spying, is unfortunately quite timely again.
Once: The life of a busker in the streets of Dublin. About as perfect as a simple, independent romance can be - but it's a musical most of all, and the music is terrific. So too are the performances by real life musicians Glen Hansard of The Frames and the lovely Marketa Irglova. They communicate more with their songs which flow most naturally from their world, and yet have such an easy way with each other all 'round that all their scenes together are a joy (the scene in a music store where they first perform together is particularly fetching). Short, sweet and damned near perfect.
Offside: Jafar Panahi's (The Circle) lovely film, like Once, uses a deceptively simple premise - Iranian women, not allowed to attend sporting events, pose as men to try to sneak into a World Cup qualifying soccer match - as a microcosm for greater societal issues, even if the film, like its protagonists, shows pride in what it means to be Iranian, too. Funny and real, and wholly immediate. A winner.
The Savages: Tamara Jenkins' film is executed pitch-perfectly. As siblings, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney have such a nice and easy comedic rappoir that it's hard to dislike either one of them; Linney is fast becoming - has become, really - one of our finest comedically empathetic actresses. The script gives us so many fully realized characters, each flawed in their own ways, that it makes you realize what a crock of shit most dysfunctional family dramas are.
Paprika: Gorgeous mindfuck from Satashi Kon works on so many levels it needs to not only be seen but seen again. The story whips between dreams and waking lives, folding and unfolding within itself on multiple levels. It's also a sharp-edge satire of Japanese culture and world pop culture (from Hentai to Disney). Nothing less than dazzling.
The Host: Mix of the immediately real and the fantastical are woven nearly seamlessly in this enthralling Korean horror film. The squishy monster that comes from the sludge of the Seoul River is the humungous device that brings a dysfunctional family together. Long but never feeling overlong, Bong Joon-ho's film is perfectly paced between breathless action sequences, and quieter moments for character reflection and transformation, all leading up to a perfect - subversive and poignant - finale.
Away From Her: What sounds on the surface like a Hallmark Channel movie is instead a most profoundly captivating drama, about a middle-aged couple grappling with Alzheimer's, felt to me like a Canadian Ingmar Bergman film, a love story handled with maturity, and grace, with the appropriately wintry landscapes. That it's directed by a first time feature director, actress Sarah Polley is even more remarkable. That she made a film out of a seemingly unfilmable short story (by Alice Munro) and into a movie so tender and real is even more so. A heartbreaking little treasure. Christie deserves an Oscar nomination but Gordon Pinsett is no less fine in his subtle way.
Rescue Dawn: Explores many of the themes familiar to a Werner Herzog picture - man vs. nature, personal obsession and determination - and beautifully, though in a somewhat more straightforward way, it's also a pretty gripping (true life) POW escape tale. If the very ending's a bit too gung ho patriotic, the rest is pretty magical. Christian Bale is well-cast, charming as Dieter Dengler, but Steve Zahn is the real revelation here.
And lastly, a trifecta of well-done crime dramas:
Eastern Promises: As with History of Violence, David Cronenberg again subverts the crime genre, but I found this one to be much more alluring. Even the shadiest of characters - as in Vincent Cassel's malfunctioning Gangster's son Steve Knight's taut, humanistic script (co-written with Cronenberg) melds perfectly with the director's chillier impulses. The outstanding cast - Viggo Mortensen (outstanding), Naomi Watts, Cassel and a most memorably frighetning Armin Mueller-Stahl (as a Russian mobster) - all restrained and fully credible, raise it to another level altogether.
Zodiac: Already underrated. David Fincher captures 70s San Francisco flawlessly in this film that's more about obsession than it is a standard police procedural. A bit overlong, but fascinating and gripping, nonetheless. [Note: A director's cut is now out on DVD, too.]
The Lookout: Seems dark indie mysteries starring Joseph Gordon Levitt are regulars in my best of lists (see: Brick, '06), and this one set in a wintry Kansas marked the auspicious directorial debut from highly regarded screenwriter Scott Frank. Levitt just gets better and better in each film, elevating the role of a damaged young man far way above what it could have been. Jeff Daniels gives the film zing in a supporting role as Levitt's blind roommate. This is less a suspense film than a character drama with black comedy tinge, and in that sense it succeeds.
Click on for my Honorable Mentions and more (and less)...
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