2007 was an above average year at the movies, far better than the depressing state of 2005 or 2006. And for me it was also the year of the Western. By coincidence I happened to be studying the Western in a graduate course taught by Jim Kitses, who is arguably the #1 Western movie scholar in America. During my semester, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men opened in theaters, and we studied them in class. Two of these would have made my top ten anyway, but looking at them in-depth gave me even greater pleasure and made me even surer of my choices. Seraphim Falls and There Will Be Blood were also Westerns of a sort, and the number and general high quality of these films make this the strongest year for the genre since the early 1970s, or perhaps even the late 1960s.
The most frustrating thing about the year is that three of my favorite movies didn't qualify for list consideration. David Lynch's Inland Empire opened in 2006 but didn't screen for the San Francisco press until early 2007. (You can look for it on my best-of-the-decade list instead.) Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep is a masterpiece, and an essential part of the history of American cinema. It had its official theatrical debut in 2007, but I decided that its contribution to cinema has more to do with 1977, when it was made, than 2007. Finally, Quentin Tarantino's uncut version of Death Proof was a revelation, and far, far better than the truncated version that most people saw in Grindhouse. It screened at Cannes and then went straight to DVD in the U.S., so it, too, was disqualified. No matter. I came up with ten excellent films anyway.
1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, USA)
Normally I like to save my #1 slot for a film by a proven master, and Dominik is far from that; his only other film, Chopper, failed to prepare me for the astonishing, haunting dreamlike quality of this new film. I have to admit I thought about this movie just about every day since I saw it. It's too easy to label this as a "revisionist Western," since it contributed so many new ideas to the genre. It's by far the best Jesse James movie ever made, and certainly one of the greatest Westerns I've ever seen.
2. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, USA)
If the wind had changed direction, this could have been my #1. It may be the Coens' best film, and it's by far their most mature. Like the best Westerns, it's about the clash between savagery and civilization, and the end of one and the terrifying beginning of another. The hunter (Josh Brolin) and the serial killer (Javier Bardem) understand each other more clearly than anything else in this topsy-turvy world.
3. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, USA) 4. Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran) 5. Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, France) 6. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, USA/Canada) 7. Bug (William Friedkin, USA)
Now in his 80s, Lumet seems to have passed the point at which he cares what people think. This and his previous film, Find Me Guilty, have been among his very best. It's a fairly routine story about a bungled jewel caper, but the unfolding of the story and the extent of the emotional damage is heartbreakingly vivid.
Several women -- who are not allowed in Iranian stadiums -- try to sneak into an important soccer match dressed like men. Quite a bit softer than Panahi's tough, previous films The Circle and Crimson Gold, Offside also showed a new strain of Renoir-like humanity and hope.
Nearly fifty years ago Resnais astonished the world with his masterpieces Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, and he's still making them, albeit smaller and quieter. Based on a play, this one is simply about lonely souls and missed connections. It's a bright, interior work with partitions separating people in more ways than they could ever realize.
I have to admit, I miss the old Cronenberg who made horror movies and weird, risky films like Naked Lunch and Crash, but this simple gangster film nonetheless highlights his extraordinary skill. And auteurists wishing to find something personal can do so via the film's all-important tattoos and their relation to Cronenberg's body obsessions.
Friedkin's motif throughout his career has been careful research and layers of details and facts to enhance his cinematic worlds, but in this intense, paranoid chiller, he throws all his former caution to the wind: nothing is certain anymore and nothing can be proven.
4. Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran) 5. Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, France) 6. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, USA/Canada) 7. Bug (William Friedkin, USA)
5. Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, France) 6. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, USA/Canada) 7. Bug (William Friedkin, USA)
8. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, Korea)
I will forever treasure the moment in which the beast drops from the bridge into the water, then the 360-pan to show him galumphing down the riverbank, right toward the camera. This was the true son of Godzilla, a new scary creature to remind people of environmental chaos, blind, stupid human panic and the occasional moments of unlikely bravery.
9. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)
If there was a theme to the films of 2007, it was that nothing is truly knowable. Haynes' exceptional work of film criticism deconstructs the biopic genre and re-structures it from several points of view to illustrate that it's impossible to really understand Bob Dylan. He probably also intended not to draw attention to one single performance, but Cate Blanchett is so bloody good, she managed to do just that.
10. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
The most exciting cinema in the world at this moment is happening in Romania, with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and this amazing Christmas comedy about a small town talk show host trying to figure out whether or not the December 22, 1989 revolution actually came to their town. Astonishingly enough, the answer isn't so important and the film manages to wind up on a note of hope.
Aside from the three films mentioned above, my runners-up would include Hot Fuzz, the documentary Into Great Silence, and a pair of Hong Kong films from Johnny To, Exiled and Triad Election, as well as about 15 or 20 more films that I'm immensely fond of. My favorite revival, after Killer of Sheep, would be Blade Runner: The Final Cut.
As for the year's worst films, I saw more than fifty of them, but any list must begin with Dane Cook and Good Luck Chuck, the stupidest, laziest and most offensive piece of cinematic refuse to litter the earth this year. After that comes Pathfinder, September Dawn, The Heartbreak Kid, August Rush, Into the Wild, The Hitcher, Because I Said So, Evan Almighty, Hannibal Rising, In the Land of Women, Pride, Silk, Jindabyne, Gracie, The Ex, Transformers, Rush Hour 3, 300, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Dan in Real Life, The Kite Runner, Charlie Wilson's War, Finishing the Game, Goya's Ghosts, Halloween and Shrek the Third. I could go on, but why bother?
Finally, in the spirit of fairness, ten Guilty Pleasures: The Astronaut Farmer, Black Sheep, DOA: Dead or Alive, Fay Grim, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, Music & Lyrics, Nancy Drew, Southland Tales, Weirdsville, and Wristcutters: A Love Story.
Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Joyous 2008.