By David Hudson
At some point during the just-wrapped year, I promised myself I'd write up one of those year-end top tens (a first for me), and I have, finally, and it follows, but first, a round of the all but obligatory hemming and hawing. Last year at GreenCine Daily, I wrote a wordy entry on, oh, the state of things in general, and over the past couple of days, I've been wondering if I'd be doing something along that line again. But then I re-read that entry and realized that, with regard to most of the issues raised, not a whole lot has changed over the past 12 months.
There were more Blog-a-Thons. Summer blockbusters sucked again, but made loads of money again. Critics carried on worrying about themselves. A few films (e.g., No Country for Old Men, which I've yet to see) rode the transatlantic PR express I described last year (open mid-year at a prestigious European film festival, bounce off the NYFF to maintain buoyancy, then open late enough to be remembered throughout awards season). Despite the iPhone, news from the technological front - for cinephiles, mind you - was less spectacular this year than last. We're still moving, but only incrementally, toward the universally recognized ideal, "what you want to watch, when, where and how you want to watch it."
So... to that top ten, then. As I commented on my ballot for indieWIRE's critics poll, I haven't seen many of the films you'll find on most lists. I strongly suspect that I'll be counting There Will Be Blood and I'm Not There, for example, among my favorite films of 2007 once they make it over to Berlin, but for now, the criteria for what follows are simple: The film premiered somewhere in 2007 - and I saw it. On the one hand, that'll disqualify a few titles on that iW ballot. On the other hand, there may be a title or two that hasn't hit the US yet. So it goes.
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. [official site]
Previous Daily entries: Cannes, Toronto and New York (and many thanks again to Aaron Hillis and Andrew Grant for that terrific series of NYFF podcasts).
No way will I be able to argue the case for this film anywhere near as well as Amy Taubin has in her piece for Artforum. Let me just add as footnotes to that fine essay and to my own feeble remarks on the film and the extraordinary Vlad Ivanov at Modern Fabulousity that Cristian Mungiu has mapped a system within the world of his film which mercilessly constrains his characters even as they use those very constraints to overcome it - which is not unlike what David Fincher's done in Zodiac. The challenge both filmmakers meet gloriously is communicating to the audience which options and routes are possible and which are utterly impossible, and both pull this feat off without resorting to overt exposition.
What's particularly chilling about 4 Months..., though, is that there is never a single hint that any of the characters, from Otilia (and yes, Anamaria Marinca, too, is phenomenal; Otilia's roommate's helpless, her boyfriend's useless; it's up to her to see this thing through, and Marinca never allows us doubt her, even as she lets slip how much it's costing her) on through to the bittiest walk-on, was ever touched by the romance of the socialist dream in any of its forms. Quite a contrast to, for example, a batch of recent German films accused of espousing Ostalgie. Instead, the understanding throughout is that that the black market, i.e., capitalism as raw as it gets, is the unwritten law of the land. Though poverty is still widespread in the rural regions, the Romanian economy is now finally picking up. It's come a long way. While it's not the point of 4 Months..., Mungiu does show us that, in the waning days of the Cold War, Romanians bore the brunt of the worst of both worlds.
Previous entry: a longish one, back in February.
The story of the one that got away can be every bit as riveting and revealing as the chase with the big payoff at the end. David Fincher's investigation into an investigation goes far, wide and deep but never astray. While the restraint here - from the director of Alien 3, Se7en and Fight Club, no less - is remarkable (and a pleasant surprise), I wouldn't go as far as some have in placing Zodiac in the tradition of Sidney Lumet and/or 70s-era police procedurals. Just because Zodiac is set in that period doesn't mean it's pretending to be of it. Let's not forget, for one thing, how many years the story actually spans or, for another, the expertly color-balanced sheen throughout, plus the occasional Fincher flourish to boot, particularly in the transitional montages.
At any rate, marvelous performances all around, but I want to mention especially Mark Ruffalo. I've been a fan ever since You Can Count on Me, but this performance takes the cake. While Robert Downey, Jr does his thing, only more so (and I happen to like his thing, by the way, a lot), and Jake Gyllenhaal gets to geek out, Ruffalo takes on the tough task centering the film just on the sane side of obsession.
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Previous entries: Venice and September.
Undoubtedly, for me, the biggest surprise of the year. The trailer actually had me dreading it; the reviews, even the positive reviews, did not whet my appetite. Frankly, the thing reeked of Malick Lite. What a shock (of the best sort) it was to discover that it's anything but. Granted, I'm a Malick fan; but this is an altogether different animal. A comparison, though, can be helpful when it comes to trying to pinpoint what makes Assassination work. I would never use the word real, for example, to describe a Malick film. Malick's films tend to float a foot or two above ground; they tilt toward the mythic without ever quite tipping over (though the threat is often palpable). Assassination is every bit as gorgeous as a Malick film, but the beauty is very much of this world, with both its feet on the ground. What's more: How very often I'll be sitting in a theater thinking, "Take out that music and you'll have yourself one helluva scene." Which is precisely what Andrew Dominik does time and again. It is, for me, part of what makes Robert Ford's first killing so much more rattling than the titular assassination itself.
As in Zodiac, here we have an outlaw playing the media like a virtuoso, pulling tricks future outlaws will be picking up on - much to the media's ever-willing delight, of course; and, as with Zodiac, I do think some critics have leaned a little too heavily on 70s-era forebears as keys to this one. In Assassination, Dominik has found his own pace and structure to make a film of and for our time.
There are no previous entires. In fact, this is the first of two films on this lists that I caught at the Berlinale in February that I never got around to writing about. One of my New Year's resolutions for 08 is to prune the "Shorts" here during festivals I attend and tell you more about what's going on offline. But I digress: Christian Petzold may be the most important German director to remain virtually unknown in the US; perhaps I should add "of his generation," because Harun Farocki naturally springs to mind, as Petzold has worked as Farocki's assistant and Farocki often has a hand in the original drafts of Petzold's stories. In Yella, Petzold riffs on Carnival of Souls, only, as with, say, The Shining, the most disturbing moments occur in the cleanest, seemingly least threatening of environs. Petzold has talked about looking to Marnie for inspiration, then abandoning it because the Hitchcockian gaze was all wrong for what he was after. What he's retained from the Hitchcockian influence, though, is the notion that a woman can be possessed of an indescribable, perhaps even supernatural power that she knows as little about as those over whom she exerts it. Add to this Petzold's mostly sly but occasionally outright funny commentary on contemporary business culture and his finely tuned sense of what separates that culture from what most of us would comfortably identify as reality and the grand total is an under-the-skin experience of the highest order.
As for that ending: I have great respect for my friend Jürgen Fauth, but I do have to disagree with his objections; if you think of Yella in musical terms, as Petzold seems to, bringing in recurring motifs (caws, wind in the trees, gurgling water), it needs a coda. And this coda fits the tone of all that's gone before just fine.
5. Don't Touch the Axe. Or Ne touchez pas la hache, also known as The Duchess of Langeais.
Previous entry: Toronto.
This year we lost Ousmane Sembene and Edward Yang, but it was the freakish one-two punch of the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni within hours of each other that set many off talking about the end of an era. But heavens, let's not overlook our blessings. 2007 was also a year (give or take a few months) that saw new films from Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. Much of the original Cahiers crowd, so central to that era, is, knock on wood, alive and kicking. I'm ashamed to say, though, that I approached Axe without doing my homework - worse, I still have not caught up with that lengthy assignment list. Axe is part of a body of Rivette's work with linkage in some form or other to Balzac's History of the Thirteen; not only have I not read the Balzac, I haven't seen any of the linked-up Rivettes, either. All I've got for you, I'm afraid, is an appreciation of the film based on merits outside of any other context - but an appreciation that's only swelled over all these months since a single viewing in February.
Most scenes are interiors; within the space of each room are three points geographically aligned and realigned in such a way as to account for the momentary arrangement of forces of attraction and repulsion between them: the duchess (Jeanne Balibar, exquisite), the general (Guillaume Depardieu, gruffly convincing) and the camera. All three are remarkable strategists. Eventually, though, time and the times take advantage of each of the would-be lover's pride; time and the times play to win. Of all the films on this list, this may be the one I'm most anxious to see again.
Previous entries: Cannes, Toronto, New York, 12/18 and the 12/25 entry that went up with David D'Arcy's interview with Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.
A beginner's guide to the history of Iran, a critique of European nihilist chic, tales of love won and lost, bouts of depression and recovery, conversations with God (and gods) and more than a few life stories, all within a never-a-dull-moment 95 minutes. But the black and white compositions are so very fine and engaging, simple as they are, that there's little time while viewing to marvel at such a dramaturgical feat.
What else is there to add after all that's been typed up by so many in that slew of entries already posted? Just this: I laughed, I cried.
Previous entry: 6/26.
How lucky are we that Pixar, which owes its phenomenal success more to John Lasseter's insistence on the primacy of story than even its second-to-noone ability to conjure a world within a computer, and Brad Bird, who probably has a keener sense of design, color, texture and just plain style than anyone else working in animation, have met and taken such a liking to each other? Awfully lucky, I'd say. Bird is some sort of national treasure. I'd have a helluva time choosing a favorite: The Iron Giant, The Incredibles or Ratatouille? Doesn't matter; again, we're lucky to have them all.
A footnote (though, actually, all my comments here are footnotes to the entries I'm pointing to for each of these films): The way the French took to Ratatouille, with all its France-as-Magical-Kingdom stereotypes microcosmically squeezed into that little Parisian square in front of and inside the restaurant reminds me of the way they celebrated their own Amélie. Nothing wrong with that, of course; it just amazes me, is all I'm saying.
Previous entry: "Berlinale Dispatch. Madonnas."
So here's one I did write about, and I think I'll leave it at that, adding only two notes. First, I read later that the phenomenal Sandra Hüller agreed to take on her roles in Madonnas and Requiem on the same day. Second, as for that issue I bring up at the end of that entry, about Germany being, as one black American calls it, "a paradise for black men," I've decided it's not really an issue at all.
9. Hannah Takes the Stairs.
Previous entry: "Matt Dentler and Andrew Bujalski"; "Weekend mumbles"; and "Video interview. Joe Swanberg."
2007 was the year we all wished we'd never heard the word "mumblecore," no one more so than the filmmakers who've been lassoed into its overly reductive parameters and then whipped by the inevitable backlash - which, of course, reached its zenith in Amy Taubin's piece in the November/December 07 issue of Film Comment - which, in turn, set off a string of comments here. And by the way, speaking of that issue, I want to thank Paul Fileri for his very kind piece on the Daily. I've received some email here and there asking, what "trivial chatter"?, but he's right; the Daily grew a little too all-embracing this year, and my second New Year's resolution for 08 is to be more selective, to filter a tad more rigorously.
And I'm digressing again. Obviously, I disagree with Taubin regarding the work of Joe Swanberg as much as I agree with her regarding Cristian Mungiu. I'm glad she likes Aaron Katz's Quiet City. So do I. But I had a truly grand time watching Hannah, and this is one of its qualities I've been surprised to see so often overlooked in reviews: how very fun it is, from its yellower-than-yellow opening titles right on through to its last trumpeted note of the 1812 Overture. And I don't want to go too far with this, but there's something about Greta Gerwig, who is asked to carry the film like no other actor's been asked to carry one of Joe's films, that reminds me a bit of Diane Keaton - different as they are, mind you! - in that I'd never tire of watching the interplay of confidence and insecurity ripple across her face. And one more thing: Kent Osborne is a hoot.
10. The Bourne Ultimatum.
Previous entry: 7/30, an entry that just went on and on.
Here's another one for which there's just not a whole lot more to add to what's been written up in that entry, plus my brief comment at Modern Fabulousity. Just one thing: I do think that Paul Greengrass consciously uses an audience's moments of disorientation to intensify his action sequences. In other words, I'd find myself concentrating so hard on who's just slammed into whom and from where and so on that it'd make an already bafflingly well-executed sequence that much more engaging.
Leaving the premiere screening of Hannah, by the way, Jonathan Marlow commented that Joe's film is "dangerous" in that many an aspiring filmmaker will see it and assume, "Oh, I could that," when, chances are, probably not. In a different way, same goes for Greengrass. He does not jostle his camera around indiscriminately.
I've seen Eastern Promises only recently, and I'm still mulling over. It's possible that I'll decide it deserves to elbow its way onto some future version of this list (and believe me, that'll never get written), but I think I need to see it a second time. I will say this, though: Viggo Mortensen's is the best performance I saw in 2007.
I'm sure I'll also never forget Jeanne Balibar in Don't Touch the Axe and Sandra Hüller in Madonnas.
On the comedy front, one of the most entertaining performances I caught came from Slavoj Zizek, who, over the years, has perfected the role of Slavoj Zizek. Rarely, though, has he made watching so much fun as he has in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. Sputtering insights and absurdities (which are which? that's up to you!), he allows director Sophie Fiennes to dress him up and put him in silly settings - and carries on as if she'd simply shifted the lectern a few inches to the right.
I do wish I'd caught more docs. Let me make special mention of Michael Tully's Silver Jew for providing the only moment in all of this year's SXSW Festival that actually had me in tears; and of Stephen Kijak's Scott Walker 30 Century Man, not only finely done (having interviewees listen rather than blather, for example), but also, and more importantly, for educating me on a topic I'd always wanted to know more about. That, too, is what cinema can do.
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