Not Much Middle Ground
The Eleven Best Films of 2007
2007 offered arty seriousness or genre kicks and little in between. Deep or stupid, the best films vested passionately in formal concerns (well, except for Superbad). Each drove their narrative with a disciplined, specific and original cinematic grammar. Most were as concerned with painterly beauty—or willful ugliness—as with stylistic rigor. The lapidary care lavished by directors made their stories more nourishing, subtle and memorable—even Deathproof. Filmmakers working successfully through such idiosyncratic styles rendered even more ludicrous those grasping after a visual identity. Paul Thomas Anderson, for instance, never found frames appropriate for his story. His grandiose visuals only showcased the bankruptcy of his narrative. Tim Burton chose a flashier set of hammers with which to pound us over the head, but Sweeney Todd remained, like There Will Be Blood, inert on the screen, dead on arrival, forcing us away from the story, turning us into mere spectators. The best films 2007, whether brilliant or moronic, offered sufficient embrace to make us all participants.
1) 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS
It’s not the what-choice-do-we-have? stoicism with which everyone negotiates the cloud-cuckoo-land of Romania under Ceausescu. Nor the evocative, realist frames that so bring that era to life. Nor how everything—a pack of Kents, a taxi ride, a woman’s body—is valued foremost as a commodity for barter. Nor the most stark, unsentimental, tragic presentation of abortion ever filmed. It’s not even Cristian Mungiu’s remarkable understatement: one-scene/one-shot, little intercutting, key moments played in fierce whispers or empty monotones, or his deceptively straightforward, multi-layered, unbearable tale. What makes this the best film of the year is how all these aspects merge into an atmosphere of incontrovertible truth: political, emotional, sexual, economic, historic, cinematic truth.
2) IMAMURA RETROSPECTIVE at BAM
Like Isaac Babel or Boccaccio, Shohei Imamura embraces sweat, greed, perversity, fever-lust and self-justification as fuel for the life-force. The working-class universe is his palette, and he paints with an ease for realist dialogue in all its opaque cross-purposes (sometimes folks mean what they say, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they have no idea). Imamura’s compassion for simple human needs overflows (The Eel) or he presents all human efforts as an infernal comedy like an unholy intersection of Balzac and Bukowski (Pigs and Battleships, The Pornographers). Imamura does not make Western-style films (like Akira Kurosawa); he’s obsessed with Japanese identity in the face of American occupation, and Japanese custom, whether enduring or crumbling. He likes to turn up the bleak (Vengeance Is Mine) and to tell it as it is (History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess) while turning up the bleak. BAM gave us a joyous overview of the master’s career, and screened his titles often enough that we all could see them. Good for them.
3) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
The Getaway as conceived by Beckett:
1) Everything takes place at the fraying edge of the world.
2) The language, though filled with arcane meaning for the speaker, remains funny as hell.
3) Ain’t nobody gets away.
4) UNDERWORLD at the New York Film Festival
This year’s Festival offered stunning prints from the past that found sparse audiences. It’s a shame, especially in the face of the astonishing, layered but never disruptive original soundtrack—played live—by the three-man Alloy Orchestra (who were commissioned by the Festival). Von Sternberg’s uncluttered, theatrical frames give lie to the widely held notion that silent classics are boring. Underworld’s pace, mise-en-scene, character development, graphic violence and dirty sexuality play as modern as the best of this year, and with more knowing sophistication than most.
5) THE DIVING BELL and THE BUTTERFLY
Can too much beauty dilute depictions of tragedy? To make the plight of his paralyzed protagonist more moving, Schnabel surrounds him with fabulous French babes, all devoted to his service, none of whom he can ever touch. Schnabel’s embrace of glamour, texture, mood and atmosphere emerge—for the first time—as a fully mature and aware style. His avoidance of hipster mannerisms and easy emotion, and his uncanny dream-like cutting, make the film play in the mind like the memories of his blighted hero: immersing, irresistible and always slightly out of reach.
6) THE HOST
An American makes a Korean pour bad stuff into a river. A decade later, a monster emerges, gobbling Koreans and causing the Americans to enforce a toxic cover-up. So, who’s hosting whom here? The monster a virus or Korea the meddling occupiers? Joon-ho Bong frames as finely realized a bogeyman since Alien with a family of loving bumblers who stumble their way to glory and to no particular new understanding of themselves or one another. With the apocalypse so near at hand, according to the director, paradise is a quiet meal at home with the TV turned off. Who can argue?
7) BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD
In 4 Months’ Romania, economics do not equal karma. Over here, they do. In Lumet’s most bitter, hopeless film, Americans suddenly realize they’ve missed out on the good life they deserve. Since that can’t possibly be their fault, they avidly pursue their doom. As the smartest Europeans turn to issues of class, identity and desperation (this year Cristian Mungiu, last year 13 Tzameti), most American filmmakers keep pretending they don’t exist. But for Lumet—as for Fritz Lang—incompetence at life means a guilty sentence with no parole from the self. Of course Ethan Hawke can’t act. The surprise might be that Marisa Tomei can.
Echoing Woo—as if he had a choice—director Johnny To privileges male bonding over any other bond, but his males bond more like The Wild Bunch than Hard-Boiled, and with fewer erotic close-up exchanges. Avoiding the endless exposition that gelds Infernal Affairs or Triad Election, Johnny To finds a beauty in set-pieces, using color like Michael Powell and gun-shot architecture like Leone. So many recent Hong Kong action films have sought—as opposed to the superabundant plot material of Korea’s The Host—content in form, depth in surface, poetry in style. Johnny To, alone, succeeds. Five years from now, Exiled will not look like this year’s model. It will still be gorgeous, ground-breaking and have the best shoot-outs of the year.
9) DEATH PROOF
Tarantino masturbates more than usual, but the freedom of preaching to the choir helps him develop an incongruous charm. The boy does love his own voice; all the women sound just like him. Tarantino’s taste in music has improved, however, and it’s not (entirely) his fault that there was and remains a thriving genre built on watching girls look hot and then get murdered. If Tarantino’s repellently gleeful about the murders, he’s no less enthralled with Kurt Russell’s shameless whining, Zoe Bell’s joi de vivre or, bless his heart, (endless) car stunts. Tarantino possesses that rarest thing: a unique, instinctive, recognizable style. He once again demonstrates his purely American genius for brilliant cinema in the service of the most fantastically stupid plots.
I can’t help it; I laughed. Obviously, the writer/directors can’t tell their bad ideas from their good ones, and mistake gag quantity for quality. Happily, their blind joyful conviction in their own methods only adds to the exuberance that makes the film such a lobotomized good time. That, and their genuine compassion for the bullied.
11) THE MIST
Made on the cheap and looks it, but thought through with a rigor that transcends budget. If the visuals/pacing/oratory remind you too much of Twilight Zone, then revel in Marcia Gay Hardin’s slowly building derangement, Stephen King’s heartfelt loathing for fundamentalists, and monsters that evoke the arrival of Satan. Featuring the bravest, most committed finale of any film in years.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.