Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

My Top 10 of 2007; The Year Hollywood Finally Grew Up?

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 8, 2008

So here it is, my annual late Top 10 list. As I’ve explained before, I always wait until early February to post my list because, well, like most Americans I live in a part of the country that doesn’t get films unless they’re in wide release. Because of this, I don’t get to see some of the best films during their limited theatrical releases, and the ones I do get to see sometimes take weeks – even months – to be projected on a screen out here. This is the main reason I love award season so much – between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, the films that are most likely to be nominated actually get released to theaters nationwide, allowing discerning film fans the opportunity to sample some quality work rather than, say, the latest Uwe Boll disaster. So many films are released during the Xmas season for Oscar consideration, then go wide during January and even early February, that I feel the need to hold off on making my list until I’ve actually seen everything I possibly can that could conceivably make the list. If I were to put it out there on Dec. 31, 2007, there would be even more glaring omissions than necessary. Also, I typically spend the month of January catching up on films I missed during the year on DVD via Netflix, enabling me to get an informed perspective of that particular 365 days of cinema.

Looking back on 2007 and my list of favorites, it occurs to me that perhaps this was the year that Hollywood – or at least parts of it – finally grew up a bit. Now, when I say that, obviously I’m not talking about the typical summer blockbuster stuff like Transformers. That stuff never changes, and most likely never will. And I’m not referring to “growing up” in the superficial sense of sublimating one’s personality to please others (like Seth Rogen did in the hugely overrated Knocked Up). What I mean is that, looking at the 10 films on my list (and a few that didn’t quite make it), it appears that the absolute best films this past year were the ones that acknowledged certain truths that are mostly ignored by escapist Hollywood movies. These are films in which the stories are not just complex but complicated; not merely dark but genuinely anguished; not just intelligent but challenging and uncompromising. These are works that shake up the viewer, rouse us from our candy-coated Hollywood stupor and force us to confront some uncomfortable realities. In these films, a happy ending is not a given; the “good guys” don’t always win and the “bad guys” don’t always lose; relationships are not always easily maintained; and important questions are sometimes not answered at all. In other words, the movies are inching somewhat closer to real life as the thinking person experiences it.

Naturally, this upsets some people. Several of my favorite films of the year have provoked reactions from audiences ranging from puzzled to seriously angry. “That was stupid”. “What was the point to all that?” “Who would want to make a movie like that?” I’ve witnessed this myself walking out of quite a few of these films, and each time it made me wonder what the hell these people expected. Is every film that gets made supposed to be a big crowd-pleasing “rollercoaster ride”? If you want nothing but generic storytelling and stereotypical, one-dimensional characters, there are plenty of options out there. As a frequent moviegoer, I tend to appreciate it when someone gives me something more than that. That’s not to say that pure escapism can’t be fun, of course, because it most definitely can. But if you only watch movies to “have fun”, frankly you might as well stay home and watch Cartoon Network. Because that’s the intellectual level you’re operating on. When I watch a film, I want to be shaken up a bit, to have an experience I didn’t quite expect to have. I want to get something out of it that I couldn’t get from watching the trailer. And if that doesn’t happen, I’m usually disappointed. That doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy a film simply for being entertaining; but a truly great film is always much more than that. That’s the difference between a three-star movie and a four-star film. There’s “a good time” and then there’s “a great experience”. Hollywood used to know how to do both at the same time, but it’s been awhile since they’ve done so on a consistent basis.

So is this a total fluke, or is it the beginnings of something important? I don’t know. It could be a reaction to the times we live in, or it could be a complete coincidence that a lot of filmmakers had the same kind of thematic concepts at the same time. It may take some time and perspective to sort that out. What’s ironic is that it’s not an influx of new talent that’s causing this sudden progressive shift; if anything, for me 2007 was the year of the old-school veterans coming back strong. Sure, there were a few impressive novices as always, but in general this was the year that the Big Guns kicked a lot of serious ass. This includes directors who consistently make great films, and a couple who have barely existed on the fringes for decades. It’s these guys who prove that there’s always a chance to hit a home run – that greatness always has the potential to resurface. This is why diehard film fans follow their favorite directors through thick and thin over the years, even when they seem past their prime and out of the game. Because, every now and then, they come roaring back and deliver a masterpiece. So kudos to the veterans for proving that a great filmmaker should never be counted out.

But it’s not simply a matter of me preferring my old favorites either, because sometimes those guys can let you down as well. One of my biggest disappointments this year was Eastern Promises. David Cronenberg is one of my all-time favorite directors, and as such I was really looking forward to his latest (as always). But this time, I just walked out going, “eh, it’s OK”. I didn’t hate the film, but it just didn’t do much for me. I understand that it has its supporters, and certainly there are worse films to champion. But most of the positive reviews I’ve seen seem to be based on the pedigree, not what’s on the screen. It’s as if it must be a great film because it’s Cronenberg, and frankly it doesn’t work that way. When I put a film on this list, it’s not because of what the director has done in the past; it’s because the film they made knocked me out. No one hits it out of the park 100% of the time, no matter how talented they are. DC isn’t capable of making a bad film in my book, and I’ll absolutely see whatever he does next. But this one…just OK, in my opinion.

Another film you won’t see on my list, just so you know in advance, is Jason Reitman’s Juno, which I liked but didn’t quite love. I’m glad people are enjoying and responding to it – I’m always glad when a “little film” finds a big audience. If it causes people to be just a little more adventurous in their choices, I’m all for it. But the movie itself, while very funny at times, fell short of greatness for me. I think it’s a decent quirky comedy, and on that level I enjoyed it. But there were so many things in it that I just didn’t buy, and for that I mostly blame first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (who I do think is talented, don’t get me wrong). For example, I didn’t buy that: 1) a girl as smart and self-possessed as Juno would engage in a planned sexual encounter without using any form of protection; 2) that her parents wouldn’t absolutely hit the roof when they found out about her pregnancy (as any parents would); 3) that a 16-year-old girl listens to Iggy and the Stooges; 4) that this same girl somehow has never heard of Sonic Youth before; 5) that said girl watches the films of Dario Argento but has never heard of Herschell Gordon Lewis (I’m sorry, but generally people are either all-or-nothing when it comes to their music and movie knowledge. If they’ve heard of one, they would have heard of the other); 6) that a well-off couple would stoop to putting an adoption ad in the penny saver; 7) that they were apparently no social or educational consequences to Juno being pregnant whatsoever. That last one is the biggie for me – she doesn’t seem to suffer at all in the outside world, and I really don’t believe that for a second. Not that the movie had to get all Afterschool Special, but come on… she doesn’t at least get suspended? No high school kids harass her about it? Give me a break. I also didn’t care for the way Jason Bateman’s character wound up demonized for deciding he couldn’t be a parent – if a person doesn’t believe they can go through with it, they damn well shouldn’t, for the sake of the child at least. Would it have been better for him to bail after the kid was already attached to him? Come on. It was the best thing for all involved, despite what Cody apparently wants you to think. As I said, I enjoyed the movie, and I think Ellen Page is a superstar in the making, no question. But a great film? Just don’t see it. I liked visiting Juno’s world, but I didn’t actually believe a minute of it. Honest to blog.

I liked Atonement too, but again it didn’t make the list. No one should feel bad about it though, because several movies I really loved (and even gave 4 stars to) didn’t make it either. That’s the sign of a very good year, when you have to debate which films should make it and which shouldn’t, instead of struggling to think of 10 films you liked enough. But I don’t do a “runners-up” list like some critics do – for me that defeats the whole purpose of making a Top 10 list in the first place. I feel that the films on the list should be the ten films that make up the absolute best in the year of cinema for you. To extend that list to 15 or 20 or even 50 (as some do) negates the entire point. These are, quite simply, the films I loved the most, that kicked my ass the most. For the record, there were many films that I didn’t see this year because they either didn’t play anywhere near me, or I was lazy and stupid and missed my opportunity to see them. These include:

Michael Clayton, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Once, I’m Not There, Control, Sunshine, Ratatouille, Grace is Gone, Youth Without Youth, Rendition, The Darjeeling Limited, Away From Her and La vie en Rose. So if you’re wondering why any of these films are absent…that’s why. Sue me.

And now, without further ado, here’s my personal Top 10 of 2007, in descending order:

10) Grindhouse – the best “pure fun” movie of the year, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s ode to the sleazy ‘70’s B-movies they grew up on and the decayed atmosphere in which they were presented might have been the biggest financial disaster of the year. Fuck it. If you’re a true film geek, this was the must-see experience of 2007, an absolutely rollicking piece of unabashed trash that reminded us how much fun movies used to be before CGI and political correctness ruined everything. Complete with the excellent faux trailers and bogus placeholders (“brought to you by your friends at the Weinstein Company” made me laugh more than anything), this was just a blast for cinema lovers of all stripes. Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward, and hopefully more B-movie makers will emulate this instead of churning out formula crap like they mostly do now. Love them or hate them, these films had an energy, a sense of style, a spirit that’s absent from filmmaking in general these days, and that’s a sad state of affairs. Both of the Grindhouse films have their flaws (some of them intentional, I’m sure) and I still take serious issue with the kid dying by his own hand in Planet Terror. But overall, put together they made for one hell of an unbeatable, loony as hell double feature. I sincerely wish the Weinsteins would release the theatrical cut on DVD, complete with the trailers and ads (while keeping the Director’s Cuts available as well) so those of us who took the ride can experience it again at home, and those who didn’t can see what they missed out on. Three hours of pure bliss.

9) Sicko – people who take issue with Michael Moore, please go away and just stop seeing his films already. Your blind hatred is not relevant. Seriously, if you couldn’t see the necessity in Moore’s attack on the American health-care system, I guess you’ve never been sick. Letting people die when they could be saved should always be a crime. If you can’t agree with that… I don’t want to know you. Fuck the insurance companies, fuck the HMOs, and fuck anyone who commits murder for profit. That’s what this amounts to, and it’s completely insane and must be stopped. Now. Moore’s best and perhaps his most vital film yet.

8) The Orphanage – if you like old-fashioned ghost stories (and who doesn’t), Spanish first-time feature director Juan Antonio Bayona has a movie for you! Just pure excellence from first frame to last, and the best film of its kind since The Others. I guess Picturehouse was hoping for another Pan’s Labyrinth phenomenon here, and while that didn’t happen, it doesn’t make the film any less worthy. Bayona has joined my ever-growing list of directors whose films are now must-sees. Kudos to him, and to Guillermo del Toro for “presenting” this excellent piece of work.

7) Bug – 72-year-old William Friedkin has made his best film in years here, a hugely misunderstood look into the abyss of paranoia and mental illness that’s also an intense mind-blower. Ashley Judd is simply phenomenal (when’s the last time anyone ever said that?), giving the kind of performance that should make people re-evaluate her as an actress. No more generic thrillers, OK Ash? You’re clearly better than that. Michael Shannon is every bit as good, and frankly in a better world these two would be looking at Oscar nominations. Friedkin has made the kind of spare but gripping film you’d expect from a hungry first-timer. Incredibly underappreciated upon its release, this will become a cult film, mark my words.

6) American Gangster – Ridley Scott pits Denzel Washington against Russell Crowe and lets them fight it out all over the screen. The result is glorious filmmaking, a slice of ‘70’s style Sidney Lumet down-and-dirty realism with a touch of De Palma theatricality. If Scott is stealing here, at least he’s stealing from the best. Oscar nominee Ruby Dee is just one of a hundred great reasons to see this film, not the least of which are two great actors ripping it up ferociously. They spend most of the film apart, but when they finally meet, it’s pure electricity. Riveting and fierce, and absolutely relevant to the world we live in.

5) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – and here’s the real thing, 83-year-old Sidney Lumet making his best film in decades, a stunning account of one New York family slowly circling the drain after two brothers (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, both excellent) botch a robbery of their parents’ jewelry store. It gets more complicated and perverse from there, and Lumet draws us into Kelly Masterson’s fantastic story with the precision of a master. Yet it feels like a young man’s film, like the work of someone completely energized by the possibilities of cinema. Hoffman proves once again that he’s one of the absolute best actors working today, and the great Albert Finney kicks an enormous amount of ass. The scene stealer is the often naked (and looking damn good) Marisa Tomei, justifying that Oscar once and for all. If he can pull this off at his age, here’s hoping Lumet never retires. And lives to be 200.

4) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Tim Burton makes a masterpiece out of a Stephen Sondheim musical. Wonders will never cease. Beautifully grimy and misanthropic, only Burton could make it look so damn good. Johnny Depp plays a damaged barber who turns people into meat pies with the help of the wicked Helena Bonham Carter. It’s the feel-good movie of the year! It’s amazing this actually got made at all, much less unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Even better, it’s fuckin’ great cinema. Whether you can stomach it or not is your concern.

3) There Will Be Blood – possibly the only film and lead character more misanthropic than Sweeney Todd, Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant sucker-punch is a complete departure for him in style and content. It deals with what I consider the prevalent issue of our lifetime – the conflict between capitalism and organized religion, between naked greed and false spirituality, and how the clash basically fucks up society as a whole. Not to get too deep or anything. Daniel Day-Lewis has the Oscar locked with his performance as Daniel Plainview, the bastard of all bastards, the kind of guy who’d steal a ring from his own grandmother’s corpse. Is he wrong to fleece a bunch of stupid bumpkins who don’t know any better out of their oil-rich land? Maybe. But he does it simply because he can. Because they let him. And so the country as we know it was born. His conflict with young preacher Eli Sunday (the excellent Paul Dano), who he correctly recognizes as another snake-oil salesman infringing on his time and territory, is the backbone of this meditation on the corrosive effects of moral corruption. It’s brutal, fascinating stuff, and combined with Jonny Greenwood’s jarring, dissonant score, it’s the kind of film that, like Plainview, makes you admire it almost against your will. It will drink your milkshake.

2) No Country for Old Men – what can be said that hasn’t already been? The Coen Brothers prove their brilliance once again (I sometimes wish they would stick to noir-ish films and give up on the comedy already). You don’t like the ending? Well, tough shit. Neither does the sheriff, and that’s what the film’s about. Bad things happen to good people, and other good people are left bewildered in their wake. Deal with it. Great cast, with Javier Bardem as the scariest motherfucker of the year. It’s going to clean up at the Oscars, and deserves every single award handed to it. Gripping, profoundly sad, and absolutely wonderful.

1) Zodiac – yes, the film I loved the most this year was David Fincher’s sprawling epic about the hunt for the Zodiac Killer. Much more than “just another serial killer movie”, Zodiac is a haunting meditation on the nature of obsession and how it sends people down the rabbit hole, some never to return. Every bit as deep and dark as its subject matter warrants, this is a film that wounds not with shocking imagery but with the regret of blind alleys, missed opportunities and the lack of solid answers. The point is that it leads us on a wild goose chase that never gets resolved, for that’s what this story is all about. To provide a simple resolution would be false and phony, and simply untrue. What makes it so brilliant is how it compels us to follow its characters into the abyss, to examine the evidence and get caught up in the madness for ourselves. I definitely know who I think was the Zodiac Killer… and that leaves me with nothing but frustration, just like all the real investigators. In the end, we’ll probably never know, and that is the scariest proposition of all.

Anyway… as far as the Worst of the year goes, I generally don’t make out such a list, because I usually don’t see that many films that I absolutely hate that much. I try to avoid the obvious shit, the Norbit and Epic Movie type films as much as possible. There are 3 films at which I had an absolutely miserable time though, and they are as follows: 300, Zack Snyder’s CGI-ridden ode to homoerotic war-mongers and the celebration of insane, nonsensical bloodletting; Ghost Rider, the nadir of crappy comic-book movies, with Nicolas Cage doing his tired Elvis impersonation for the umpteenth time; and Alien vs. Predator – Requiem, which managed to take two once-cool concepts and recycle them into a piece of derivative, unappetizing shit. I only saw an hour of it due to technical difficulties, and I don’t really feel the need to ever see the rest. You can pick any one of those as my personal Worst Film of the Year. I consider it a three-way tie.

So that covers it for now. I liked Cloverfield and Rambo (speaking of insane bloodletting), but don’t feel the need to review them. Haven’t seen any other ’08 films, as I’ve spent most of the year so far catching up on ’07. After the Oscars in a couple of weeks, it’ll be time to leave that year behind and concentrate on this one. I look forward to all the surprises and delights that await us in the next 10 months or so. Later!

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