What constitutes a 2007 movie, anyway? Is it the year of its production or the year of its release? If the former, then does that mean that Tears of the Black Tiger, a nutzoid Thai psychedelic Western that was released in its home country in 2002 isn’t a 2007 film, even though it was only released in America last March? If the latter, this means that Charles Burnett’s masterful Killer of Sheep, made in 1977 but only officially released last fall, is a “new” movie. Is a film a 2007 release if it was shown in New York City and Los Angeles exclusively, starting on Christmas Day, to make it eligible for that year’s Oscar awards? If a movie wins awards at Cannes in May 2007, but doesn’t find its way to theaters until January 2008, is it still a 2007 movie?
Idle questions, to be sure. They’re relevant, however, when you’re compiling a list of favorite movies of 2007 and you don’t live in a major media outlet. It’s customary for Oscar bait (I’m lookin’ at you, Atonement) to come to Jackson, Mississippi, only in the following January. That’s great for me. The cliché is that January is the filmic scuttlebutt month, in which the dregs are unceremoniously dumped out by studios eager to forget—and to have consumers never know—that they spent $15 million to produce Meet the Spartans. (By the way, it recouped its costs. Jesus.) In Jackson, however, January is a cinematic boomtown; there’s almost too much worthwhile stuff to see.
“2007” as an idea was complicated by my entering the festival circuit. I didn’t do it whole-cloth, mind you, but I did attend my two first film festivals: The Crossroads Film Festival here in Jackson, for which I served on the screening committee; and the Toronto International Film Festival. Several of my favorite movies, as you’ll read below, came out of festivals, which means that they’re just now becoming widely available or haven’t become so yet.
I wasn’t sure what to do about that, in terms of this post. So, I made a compromise. If I either saw or had the opportunity to see a movie in a theater in 2007, on a first-run basis, it counts as a 2007 flick.
As with last year’s go-round, I’ve listed my favorite films, but also singled out movies that exemplified the following filmic aspects: photography, sound & sound design (this includes music), editing, writing, acting, mise-en-scene (décor, set design, costumes), and visual effects.
Photography: Less emotionally involving than Tropical Malady or Blissfully Yours, and with that bifurcated narrative structure that’s becoming a little pat for the director at this point, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s fourth feature Syndromes and a Century is still rich and absorbing. As with Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, Syndromes conveys the ripeness of the natural world—particularly in the verdant, rural first half of the movie—wonderfully. Weerasethakul eschews close-ups except at the beginning of each half, and his long takes allow us to drink in the world he creates. Using the same slowly moving (and often stationary) camera style in each half, the movie nevertheless creates two utterly different worlds—a rural hospital, a city medical complex—that are essentially the same type of environment. The country hospital, a little scrungy and a little dilapidated, feels immersed in its community; palm trees and jungle sway around it. The urban hospital, by contrast, is so clean as to be sterile, and so isolated from the city it inhabits that the movie’s final moments, in a city park, feels like a blessed release. Yet Weerasethakul’s visual style refuses to pick sides—the city hospital has pockets of joy that echo the country world’s lilt. I’ve said before that nobody captures how night actually looks to the eye quite like Weerasethakul, and the lively darkness that splits this movie in half confirms the point. His night vision is realistic and mysterious at once; it doesn’t so much glow as hum with vibrant life.
Sound: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a whiz-bang technical marvel, but is it saying anything beyond “Blood for Oil?” Daniel Day-Lewis starts off amazingly but becomes an irritating series of his customarily explosive mannerisms—i.e., technique—by the end. (He’ll get his Oscar but George Clooney deserves it.) Paul Dano is too young, weak-voiced, and babyish to be convincing as a revivalist preacher of a faithful congregation, but he gets points for slyness in his quieter exchanges with Day-Lewis. God and greed created 20th-century America, says Anderson, with greed winning out and both being frauds in any case. But the worlds of the church and the oil rig aren’t tethered to any outside reality or sense of American history. It’s a pressure cooker of a movie, but we can’t really see where the steam is coming from, or if it actually scalds anything outside of its immediate reach. Because every cinematic gesture is outsized and every character a caricature, There Will Be Blood’s bleak worldview is too simplistic to be taken as serious satire, and too thuddingly obvious to be taken as effective allegory. It’s histrionic melodrama that wants to be seen for high-toned realism. Still, I can’t deny its force. The movie floods the senses with propulsive force—C. mentioned that she felt like she’d been bludgeoned for two hours—and its significant part of its power comes from Jonny Greenwood’s score. The atonal slurs at the beginning sound like something monstrous arising from the primordial soup, which is precisely right for our first glimpse of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). During a apocalyptic oil burst in which red flame and gigantic shadows consume the night, Greenwood’s plucked strings and plonky drumming reflect the onscreen chaos. Its denseness and claustrophobia works at odds with the vast landscapes we see in the movie, making Anderson’s huge scale of design and action feel oppressive. (For a more musically informed take on what Greenwood’s up to, read Alex Ross’s take on the film score.) The sound design works wonders as well. When a character loses his hearing in a (different) derrick explosion, the suddenness of his deafness is reflected in a spectacular drop of volume; we can still barely hear voices and warping machinery, but it’s like they’re having to cut through a liquid barrier. Throughout the movie, every sound, even a minor one, is sharply defined. Anderson’s created a heightened aural landscape that propels us forward. I just wish it were propelling us toward something interesting.
Editing: I’m cheating a bit with Hsiao-hsien Hou’s mesmerizing The Flight of the Red Balloon, as it consists entirely of looooong single-take vignettes. The decision not to cut, however, is sometimes the most important editing decision of all. Juliette Binoche stars as a voice actor for a puppet-theater troupe, who’s also a single mom living the boho life in Paris. Her furtive, funny interactions with family and friends are captured in real-time—chats with the Chinese nanny (Fang Song), tense negotiations with the downstairs neighbors, a theater performance, a blind piano tuner coming into the apartment to work on said piano, the same piano being lifted by movers into the place—as Hsiao-hsien’s camera deftly weaves its way around the environment. Unlike Weerasethakul’s stationary takes in Syndromes and a Century, Flight’s camera is never still. Hsiao-hsien zooms in telling details, roves around and often away from the speakers in the scene to focus on what we initially think is a stray item, and is otherwise as restless as the antic, naturalistic dialogue. The unbroken takes, incidentally, are mostly improvised. Hsiao-hsien gave the actors basic scenarios but then lets the film roll through, catching accidental beauty and ratcheting up tension by simply letting a scene play through in full.
Writing: To call Ping Pong Playa an Asian-American version of The Bad News Bears is to sell it short. In the movie, director/writer Jessica Yu and co-writer/star Jimmy Tsai develop a freewheeling, anything-goes conversational style that makes characters ping off of each other in hilarious ways, even in the slightest situations. The dialogue crackles; nearly every line and gesture brings laughs. (When I saw it in Toronto, the man sitting to my right actually fell out of his chair from laughing so hard. I always thought it was just an expression until then.) As Christopher “C-Dub” Wang, Tsai shines as a foul-mouthed, nimble-minded, arrested adolescent who would rather be—if he had to be identifiably Asian at all—a member of the Wu-Tang Clan than the next stereotypically Chinese ping-pong superstar. The writing shows how he learns to accept his gifts, teach some Asian nerd kids some game along the way, and defend the honor of his family. The sharp script sticks to the standard misfits-in-sports genre but upends it through well-drawn characters who resonate as soon as we see them. Their social development proceeds realistically despite the screwball mechanics, as do C-Dub’s growing pains. Even the obligatory love story comes with claws. By infusing the formula with Chinese-American concerns of assimilation, and then subverting those concerns by making hip-hop an extension of C-Dub’s soul, Ping Pong Playa flips the script on what could’ve been rote. To top it all, it moves briskly and never turns sappy—it’s acerbic and biting through and through. (Read my full review here.)
Acting: John Sayles has been fearless in writing about, and directing, black folks for more than three decades, and never succumbs to the white man’s curse of making us saints, savants, or simpletons. His black characters are admirably complex and grounded in a recognizable American reality. Still, even he’s never quite risen to the heights he reaches in Honeydripper, a comic drama set in 1950s Alabama amidst the beginning surge of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not just that the principal cast is black but that the movie’s world and perspective is entirely African-American. Whites—Stacy Keach as a corrupt but essentially benign sheriff, Mary Steenburgen as an aloof southern belle—are basically bystanders; the black folks run Honeydripper. Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DaCosta, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Keb’ Mo’ and newcomer Gary Clark, Jr. all give fine, nuanced performances. Sayles grounds them in a world so tactile, and allows them to play in it so well, that the Honeydripper Lounge feels like a place that exists before and after the viewer enters the movie. Glover and Dutton, playing old friends, push and pull at each other’s behavior. The gentle, but long-simmering, attractions and arguments between characters have gone on for years, and create a network that’s as close to a fully realized black southern community as I’ve seen. The actor spin and expand that web line by line, gesture by gesture, until it’s something perhaps even greater than Sayles intended—a portrait of black life in flux but also in curious stability.
Mise-en-scene (décor, set design, costumes): Tekkonkinkreet, directed by Michael Arias, was hyped as the first major anime movie directed by a non-Japanese animator. (Arias is American.) Certainly, the tics of modern anime show up—gangster clichés, monstrous combinations of flesh and robotics, people with nearly superhuman abilities to leap and absorb trauma, a futuristic urban atmosphere. The plot doesn’t quite make sense, and the characters make rash decisions that seem decidedly out of character. The cityscape it renders, however, is breathtaking. It’s a cluttered, litter-strewn, graffiti-flecked environment that’s drawn so realistically than I often thought I was looking at photographs rather than background art. For all the detail, though, it’s an expressive, visually heightened place. When Arias wants the night to appear as our eyes perceive it, it conforms to his dictates. When he wants it to evoke low-level dread and a horror sensibility, it does so. Daytime is actually haunting and deliriously detailed, so much so that I paused the DVD to absorb the still frames as individual works of art. Whether perched atop skyscrapers or peering down alleys, our eyes behold sights that exist only in the cobbled-together dream of an über-city but which feels completely real.
Visual effects: It’s been a blood-soaked year in cinema. Nothing this year encapsulates the pendulum swing between our raw desire to see rendered, damaged flesh and our revulsion of the same quite like Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Spurting blood and ground-up human meat are damn near characters in the movie. Knives and throats, bodies falling from long distances and cracking on pavement, limbs and joints sliced off—it’s all here, dark and disturbing and oddly funny, in Burton’s extravagant and exaggerated style. Sweeney Todd exacts his revenge, and then his revenge overtakes him, and the blood that drenches the celluloid shows how he makes his soul filthy in the process. The gruesomeness, by any technical standards, is routine, but it’s expressive. The rent flesh and red, red liquid convey so many things—rage, despair, guilt, humor. Over and over again, the blood spurts—or, better yet, the threat of them—sicken us even as we smile at Stephen Sondheim’s lovely melodies or laugh at a witty, mordant lyric.
My favorite five movies of the year, in order:
#1: Offside, directed by Jafar Panahi. Six young Iranian women want to see, in person, the 2005 Iran-Bahrain qualifying match for the next year’s World Cup. The trouble is that women aren’t allowed into stadiums for male sporting events in Iran. At all. They try but get quickly rounded up by security. It’s a testament to Panahi’s visual acuity that he can convey the tension and excitement of a high-stakes soccer match without the viewer ever seeing the match, even though the film is partially shot during the actual game. (Oh, alright—we get a ten-second glimpse of the field in action; it whets our appetite all the more.) Instead, these unnamed girls hear the game from a makeshift holding cell, as reluctant soldiers comment on what they see. The girls are sharp, funny, and direct. Despite being jailed, they’re less afraid of the men than vice versa—one of Panahi’s many vicious ironies about gender repression. They argue politics with the soldiers, occasionally escape to watch the game, and bond with each other. The men look milquetoast by comparison. Panahi’s restless camera bounces from girl to girl, boy to boy, and provides a (more or less) real-time account of a sporting event that says volumes about the state of contemporary Iran. The men and women bond, despite themselves, through soccer, and the movie ends in raucous celebration that’s nationalistic in spite of Panahi’s acidic critique of the society in which he lives. I’m making Offside sound like a treatise, but in actuality it’s hilarious. The humor builds from Kafka-esque absurdity—as the bureaucracy and reasons for subjugating women grow more convoluted, the funnier the movie gets. The reasoning behind keeping women out makes you either laugh out loud or bang your head on the sidewalk, and in any case is easily dismantled. (The girls do so throughout the movie.) Offside is deeply nationalistic—the men and women revere the Iranian team as heroes—but at the same time deeply critical. It doesn’t play as a philosophical tract—the dialogue is to-the-point; the gorgeous camerawork evokes the news documentary more than the “art” film; the issues raised are done so naturally—but nevertheless explores issues that refuse to dissolve when the credits roll.
#2: My Winnipeg, directed by Guy Maddin: Maddin creates a “docu-fantasia” of his hometown. If that seems like a contradiction in terms, well, that’s the point. He reveals how memory, nostalgia, and pure daydream intertwine, so that our understanding of the past and present is always a weird combination of the three. His vision of Winnipeg casts itself as a newsreel documentary circa 1942, but quickly reveals itself to be personal, mythical, thoroughly modern, and downright demented. Strands of Maddin’s life—or what he wants us to think of as his life—seep into this “nonfiction” history of the Canadian city, until we no longer trust our eyes or the narrative. It’s spellbinding and hilarious, and uses every tool possible—stock footage, animation, overexposed film, splotchy and scratched frames, narration (by Maddin) that is disturbingly impassioned—to suggest the disintegration of the mind as well as of the celluloid. Formally and narratively, My Winnipeg is challenging, but is always entertaining and frequently pee-your-pants funny. (My full review is here.)
#3: Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird. Extraordinarily beautiful and deliriously funny, Brad Bird’s third animated feature is his masterpiece. With Pixar as his production unit, he uses computer animation to show vantage points and camera angles that would otherwise be impossible to create. He shows that cookery is work, hard labor, but is work that can be pleasurable. The food looks divine and edible. He takes the concept of cuisine as art seriously, and treats the kitchen respectfully. Visually, Ratatouille is luscious; the colors alone make us smile with their richness. The humans still have a vaguely plasticine look but it fits here, because the rodent world—fuzzy, realistically rendered even though the rats are talking—is where Bird’s heart lives. The human world should look alien to his eyes. Patton Oswalt’s whiny drawl suits Remy, our rat hero who sets out to become a three-star chef in high-stakes Paris. He’s prickly and ugly but ultimately lovable, all the more so because we only come to love him gradually, since he’s not cute. Remy’s the anti-Mickey Mouse; considering who Pixar’s owned by, that’s a pretty subversive act. What’s more subversive is that, for all the talking animals and slapstick gestures, Ratatouille’s seriousness about art appreciation, love, and labor means that its primary audience shouldn’t be kids but rather adults.
#4: No Country for Old Men, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. To hell with traditional notions of protagonists—No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the villain who’s seen more often than we’d like even though he’s not often seen, is the movie’s pivotal figure. He sets the film in motion and we gauge our reactions to its violence by measuring what he think of him. He’s allegorical Evil, and Bardem brings a blank intensity to him that’s deadening and terrifying. As an unstoppable but inexplicable force of nature, he personifies evil in this world—how we can never quite get rid of it, even if we don’t know why bad things happen to us or what death is supposed to teach us. It’s easy, but idiotic, to dismiss the Coen brothers as nihilists. They’re satirists, to be sure, and mercilessly lampoon their characters, even the sympathetic ones. But they aren’t moral relativists—even when they’re showoffs, they reveal an understanding of good and evil that is concrete though nuanced. In No Country, they methodically show how violence affects people around it in physical and emotional ways. Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Kelly Macdonald all circle around the nature of evil but the Coens leave the conflicts frustratingly resolved. It’s not nihilist, though, to point out that we never truly understand evil. The good/evil dance is complicated and made tense by the filmmakers’ technical prowess. Minor conversations are tense; bullets whiz out from nowhere; the quiet lulls and grand landscapes fool us into complacency. And, damn it all, No Country still manages to be funny at times, even as we’re biting our nails in terror.
#5: The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wes Anderson. I love train travel and I love Wes Anderson’s sensibility, so I’m biased on two fronts. Still, I think that grafting his rich white kids into an Indian context was a great move for him as an artist. It shook him out of his comfort zone, and allowed him to explore how white privilege is viewed by others. The customarily ironic and colorful Anderson mise-en-scene is ever-present, but so is the palpable sense of loss and familial wounds that don’t completely heal. Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman feel like true brothers—as an eldest brother myself, I cringed at how accurately the tension felt. Spiritual discovery and naiveté has rarely felt so funny, and so painful.
Because it’s only fair, here are ten movies I didn’t see in 2007 that might have changed the nature of this list: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Encounters at the End of the World, The Host, Lake of Fire, The Lives of Others, Once, Paprika, Persepolis, Two Days in Paris, and Zodiac.