The Top Movies of 2007

By Our Critics

It's that time of year again. Our six critics (Scott Foundas, J. Hoberman, Nathan Lee, Jim Ridley, Ella Taylor, and Robert Wilonsky) don't always (or often) agree, but we've combined their top 10 lists (allowing for ties) to pretend like they do. Here are their choices of the 10 (or 15) best movies of the year:

1. There Will Be Blood: The Texas tea bubbles up from the ground like primordial blood at the start of Paul Thomas Anderson's turn-of-the-century oil-prospecting epic (which opens in the Twin Cities January 4 and stars Daniel Day-Lewis). Nearly three hours later, the blood spilling across the floor of a Beverly Hills bowling alley looks suspiciously like crude. In between, we are held rapt by a big, bold, iconic story of the greed that drives some men to greatness and just as often proves their undoing. (Foundas)

2. I'm Not There: Semiotics, symbolist poetry, and Velvet Goldmine are not without their use when contemplating the intricacies of Todd Haynes's deconstructed biopic—not to mention everything ever written about Bob Dylan. But for this non-Boomer, having lived through none of the era chronicled, knowing little of Dylan's life, and caring not much more for his music, I'm Not There struck me—hard—as an emotional experience unencumbered by historical baggage. (Lee)

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: The title of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's Cannes Film Festival prizewinner refers to the length of a pregnancy—specifically, the one a college student named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) seeks to terminate in a midsize Romanian town circa 1987, when Ceausescu is still in power and abortions are illegal. Those who accused Judd Apatow's Knocked Up of being a thinly veiled family-values polemic may find 4 Months more to their liking, but it becomes clear early on that Mungiu is less interested in the life-vs.-choice debate than in the way people living in a socially repressive society adapt to circumstance. (Foundas)

4. Killer of Sheep: Poetic in the very best sense—the exaltation of bedrock existence through concrete detail, closely observed—Charles Burnett's 1977 film about a Watts, California, family man making ends meet with a literal dead-end job proved to be the triumph of the year in its long-delayed theatrical release. Noncommercial, eh? Milestone's successful distribution showed that its audience was narrowly focused, all right—to roughly anyone who's ever come home beat and soul-sick from a day at work. (Ridley)

4. Southland Tales: Muddled. Self-involved. Overbearingly ambitious. Insufferable. Funny how the critical mud slung at Donnie Darko on release has the same consistency as the shit storm that raged against Southland Tales, yet another—-how dare he!—ultra-convoluted sci-fi satire from the incorrigibly precocious Richard Kelly. Southland Tales looks and feels more like life in 2007 than Juno, In the Valley of Elah, and Michael Clayton combined. (Lee)

5. Zodiac: Obsessed with codes, graphs, symbols, and technology, David Fincher returns the serial-killer genre to its roots. This is a movie for number crunchers, systems analysts, archeologists of the analog era, and anyone interested in how we came to inhabit the cognitive chaos depicted in Southland Tales. (Lee)

6. Ratatouille: It's not just about a gourmand rat, or a beautifully animated French kitchen. As with Brad Bird's other work of genius, The Incredibles, Ratatouille makes a witty argument for passion and cooperative excellence. (Taylor)

7. Colossal Youth: In this heroic film by Portuguese director Pedro Costa, a Cape Verdean immigrant named Ventura wanders dazedly between the gutted-out remnants of his former residence in a Lisbon housing tenement and a couple of prospective new ones, crossing paths with a succession of fellow travelers whom he refers to as his "children." Difficult to describe but impossible to forget, Costa's film is like a waking dream. (Foundas)

8. (tie) Eastern Promises: Like A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises could almost pass for an exceptionally well-made B movie—in fact, this gangster flick is a dark, rhapsodic fairytale set in a world populated by angels, devils, walking corpses, and human wolves—and most impressively by Viggo Mortensen. (Hoberman)

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: Cynics will grouse that this isn't as important as Sicko or No End in Sight—when, yeah, it kinda is. Not because Seth Gordon's doc about two dudes vying for the title of World's Best Donkey Kong Player in the History of Ever will change the world, but it might just change your life. Who doesn't want to be awesome, even at something totally pointless? (Wilonsky)

9. Regular Lovers: Parisian hotties riot in the street, smoke dope, boogie to the Kinks, fuck, mope, pose, lounge, and stare beautifully at the walls of beautiful apartments in Philippe Garrel's film. This, mes amis, is why cinema was invented. (Lee)

10. (tie) Hot Fuzz: Hands-down the funniest movie of 2007. Not so much a parody of buddy-picture conventions as an affectionate rehabilitation, Edgar Wright's incredible two-headed transplant of Hollywood cop histrionics onto the tweedy British whodunit was the only balls-out comedy this year with a visual style to match its verbal wit. If only every muscle-headed shoot-'em-up were set in a precinct house with a swear jar. (Ridley)

Knocked Up: Come for the dirty words and bong hits, stay for the trenchant observations—no, seriously. Sure, it's the one-liners that linger ("You look like a cholo dressed up for Easter"), but even they barely obscure life's biggest truth, which is: "Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn't last 22 minutes. It lasts forever." (Wilonsky)

Manufactured Landscapes: The opener of Jennifer Baichwal's beautiful documentary, a tracking shot that takes about eight minutes to roam from one end of a Chinese electronics factory floor to the other, tells you all you need to know about modern labor, our disposable world, and who will own the global economy. (Taylor)

Private Fears in Public Places: Directed with light-fingered mastery by Alain Resnais, now 84 and fully indulging his delight in golden-age cinematic gloss, this exquisite ensemble comedy-drama about the perils of seeking love late in life resembles a Vincente Minnelli musical with the songs elided, leaving only the persistent ache of unexpressed desires. (Ridley)

Honorable Mentions: Into the Wild, Black Book, West of the Tracks, No Country for Old Men, Syndromes and a Century, My Kid Could Paint That, Grindhouse, Offside, Day Night Day Night, Away from Her, Once, Paprika, Lars and the Real Girl, The Host, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Honor de Cavalleria, The Band's Visit, Lake of Fire, No End in Sight, The Bourne Ultimatum, Terror's Advocate, The Savages, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Music and Lyrics


Missed Opportunities

Kick yourself for not seeing these 10 movies 

By Jim Ridley

How tough is it for a movie to find its audience, above the din of blockbuster marketing and beyond the clogged distribution pipeline? Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese/Malaysian director regarded as one of the world's greats, had two films in U.S. theaters this year, The Wayward Cloud and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Neither made it far outside of the nation's major cities. They weren't alone. From minor hits to complete obscurities, these 10 films from 2007 deserved more attention from audiences, distributors, and critics.

End of the Line: Good, unreleased horror movies are not exactly in overstock, so why has Maurice Devereaux's hair-raising subterranean shocker taken so long to surface from the festival circuit? Maybe it's because this sick satiric tale—in which religious zealots conduct their own Rapture with cross-shaped daggers on a stalled subway—pushes sensitive buttons about fundamentalist hysteria. Then again, maybe it's because the movie raises the even more subversive possibility that the zealots are right. Either way, this is scary as hell and impressively unrelenting—starting with a strong candidate for the best jump-fright since Michael Myers bolted upright.

The Hills Have Eyes 2: It starts in a mock-up Kandahar, Afghanistan, with a war room staffed by stuffed dummies; it ends with a besieged peacenik wisely chucking his pacifist ideals in the face of Pure Fucking Evil. In between, outmanned U.S. troops reap the fruit of decades-old government policy—here, desert nuclear testing—in the form of implacable fanatics with the home-field advantage of tunnels and caves. In a year when Hollywood turned Iraq War hand-wringing into a virtual subgenre, no reputable movie caught the country's ideological confusion so fully. This should be playing somewhere near Los Alamos, at a drive-in with No End in Sight.

I Know Who Killed Me: Not even Lindsay Lohan's sojourn in the tabloids stirred up much interest in this marvel of trashy delirium. A pity, too: Chris Sivertson's mystifying mood piece about a demure honor student who morphs into a mutilated stripper was sold as torture porn, but it's closer in spirit to a glue-huffing remake of Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique. As psychodrama, it was even more potent. Try finding a more eerie metaphor for a child star's uneasy transition to adulthood than pole-dancer Lohan facing her Disney-princess self packed away in a casket.

Joshua: You can't blame new parents who didn't want to waste their one date night a year on a movie that acutely captures the sleep-deprived panic of the other 364 days. For the stouthearted, though, George Ratliff's masterfully unnerving thriller about a blank-faced tyke (Jacob Kogan) whose mom and dad suspect him of psychological warfare against their new baby creates a mood of imminent doom that anyone with suspiciously quiet tots will recognize. The leads enact the pressures of child-rearing so empathetically—mom Vera Farmiga in exhausted near-madness, dad Sam Rockwell in sex-starved, stuck-in-the-middle befuddlement—that the cumulative chills leave your teeth chattering. It's perhaps better watched at home, with your kids locked safely in their rooms.

Lake of Fire: The year's most criminally underseen movie, Tony Kaye's landmark abortion documentary made a crucial commercial miscalculation: Because it presented both pro-choice and pro-life positions fairly, neither side wanted to see it. A documentary is supposed to reinforce your prejudices, stupid, not challenge them. For anyone brave enough to consider the issue beyond sloganeering and name-calling, though, this staggering doc has the power to tip the undecided either way. And kudos to Kaye for shooting on celluloid—his graphic film may be hell to watch, but never to look at.

Manufactured Landscapes: Despite the endorsement of Al Gore, Jennifer Baichwal's visually stunning documentary was snubbed by the same environmental groups who rallied around An Inconvenient Truth—in part because the inconvenient truth of Baichwal's film is that the industrial ravaging of the planet, as shown in Edward Burtynsky's macroscopic photographs, has an undeniable (if horrifying) grandeur. Can the environment's loss be cinema's gain? Following Burtynsky through China, from one hypnotic science-fiction rubblescape to another, Baichwal challenges us to say no—or at least not to succumb to our sense of awe.

Music and Lyrics: Maybe the year's most pleasant surprise: an intelligent, genuinely amusing romantic comedy, scaled to match the modest ambitions of its hero, "happy has-been" Hugh Grant. Paired with Drew Barrymore, whose tremulous vulnerability has never been more appealing, Grant gave his least shticky and most winning performance in years as a Reagan-era pop idol who gets a shot at a mild artistic triumph after years on the berry-farm circuit. But he has no shame about his limited success, and the same can be said for writer-director Marc Lawrence, who kids '80s nostalgia without meanness or condescension. The cherry on the sundae: delicious pop-novelty pastiches by Andrew Blakemore, Adam Schlesinger, and others, including the deathless "Pop! Goes My Heart."

Paprika: Director Satoshi Kon's anime fantasy—a mind-blower on a Videodrome/2001 scale of sensory and intellectual bombardment—exemplifies more than any digital-animation feature this year the freedom of working in a medium with no physical restraints. With his sleep-troubled film-noir cop prowling the subconscious of a near-future Tokyo, Kon explores the relationship of dream logic to the visual grammar of movies and plays eye-boggling tricks with perspective, distending bodies and boundaries and looping his nightmare scenarios. And yet at the movie's heart is a wistful, romantic affirmation of the need for inviolate space where our inner selves can soar.

Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs): A fake movie snowfall blankets this gorgeous ensemble comedy-drama about the difficulty of forging new loves late in life. Directed by Alain Resnais with a formal rigor and brisk elegance that should shame filmmakers five decades younger, its combination of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design makes it more accessible than Resnais's form-breaking early films of the Nouvelle Vague era. Even so, it failed to reach the audiences that have eagerly embraced, say, Patrice Leconte's diverting trifles. Too bad: On TV the beauty of Eric Gautier's cinematography will be diminished, though not extinguished.

Urim and Thummim: This memorably odd doc by Dub Cornett and Dancing Outlaw director Jacob Young—the story of three men who claim to have found an Old Testament portal on the 99-cent sale rack at a Madison, Tennessee, Goodwill superstore—made its debut at the 38-year-old Nashville Film Festival last April. Last month, it played the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where no less an admirer than Werner Herzog reportedly dismissed its critics as "retarded." Will you ever see it? The movie itself provides an answer: Stranger things have happened.


Real to Reel

Documentaries continue their ascent onscreen

By Robert Wilonsky 

An acquaintance who fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq says he has no use for documentaries about George Bush's bungling of the War on Terror. He will not see a single one of the movies made about the tragic consequences of the administration's rush to drop bombs over Baghdad. He has no use for No End in Sight, say, or Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. "Those movies are for you civilians," he says, grinning. "I'm sure they're all 'good' and 'important,' but everyone knows what went wrong—everything went wrong." He goes on to suggest that unless folks actually do something with the information laid out in No End in Sight, in which former administration officials cop to their myriad fuckups, well, it's just another brick in the infotainment wall.

Yeah, but sometimes we civilians just need a brick to the head. There was no shortage in 2007 of good documentaries about important subjects. Chief among them was Michael Moore's Sicko, which may not have had the cultural impact of his earlier Bush-bashing, but which actually galvanized red and blue believers alike on the issue of health care. Indeed, folks around the country formed advocacy groups in response to the doc, a sure sign they were as infuriated as they were entertained. Also released in '07: Darfur Now and The Devil Came on Horseback, both about genocide in Sudan; The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, about one Iraqi's wrongful imprisonment in Abu Ghraib; and For the Bible Tells Me So, about the Good Book's stance on homosexuality.

In what was one hell of a cinematic dinner-party wish list, Jimmy Carter, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, and Karl Lagerfeld all got their own portraits; forthcoming in 2008 is Alex Gibney's Gonzo, about the life and death of Hunter S. Thompson. And earlier this year a couple of guys knocked out of the park a doc about King Corn, otherwise known as the silent killer that makes everything taste swell as it poisons us to death. You'll never look at a can of Coke the same way again.

Two of the best films of 2007 were docs that played like far-out fiction. Indeed, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is, at this very moment, being converted into a narrative feature (so unbelievable is its subject matter that many who saw Seth Gordon's movie about two dudes vying for the title of Donkey Kong champion believed it a mockumentary). Then there was Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That, about a four-year-old girl hailed as the second coming of Jackson Pollock, at least until Charlie Rose came to town and began tossing around the theory that, ya know, maybe her daddy's the painter after all.

Bar-Lev's doc was perhaps the year's most essential true-life tale, not only because it's a thriller bereft of glib resolutions or because it serves as an excellent corrective for parents who think their kids are geniuses, but also because it's the sole doc of 2007 about making a documentary. Bar-Lev initially thought he was telling a feel-good story about a cute little girl and her rise to stardom; instead, he found himself on the other end of the lens, wondering whether he'd been duped and why he was even bothering in the first place. By the time the girl's mother accuses him of betrayal, you don't know what to believe—and you don't get more honest than that.


Bad Blood

Horror films failed to scare up the big bucks in 2007   

By Luke Y. Thompson 

It was only a couple of years ago that the horror genre seemed newly resurgent, like an undead killer digging himself out of the grave. "Fresh faced" directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Darren Lynn Bousman, and James Wan—many of them dubbed "The Splat Pack"—seemed poised to bring their new takes on terror to the masses in a big way. They succeeded, briefly. But even as some of the movies continued to innovate this year—the campy, retro double feature of Grindhouse, the smart satire of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the oddball survival horror of The Mist—box office receipts plunged, so much that by the end of 2007 obvious horror titles were promoting themselves as something else. Rachel Belofsky, president of Screamfest L.A., tried to get P2, about a young woman stalked through a parking garage, for the festival's closing night, but the distributors "kept saying they weren't marketing it as a horror film... . They ram a guy duct-taped to a chair into a wall repeatedly. The last time I looked, that's a horror film!"

As studios scrambled to salvage their horror lineup and adjust expectations, a different sort of scary movie emerged. "The scariest stuff in terms of new films was encapsulated in Javier Bardem's performance in No Country for Old Men," says Lucky McKee, writer-director of the cult hit May and one of Showtime's Masters of Horror episodes. Indeed, you won't see the Coen brothers' movie advertised as horror, but what else should you call a film about a black-clad, borderline supernatural assassin who wanders Texas blowing holes in people's heads with a compressed air gun? The Los Angeles Film Critics Association recently bestowed their Best Picture award on There Will Be Blood, but as horror fans know, that title comes straight from the lips of Tobin Bell in Saw II.

Even Atonement, the year's big English-accented costume drama awards-bait epic from the director of Pride and Prejudice, features a scene in which an injured soldier's head is unbandaged to reveal a massive gaping wound, off of which a big chunk of broken skull promptly falls. A similar scene in Saw III had audience members fainting just last year. So if moviegoers are still hungry for gore, why haven't they been flocking to the films that traffic in it primarily?

Roth, whose Hostel Part II was, in comparison to the first Hostel, a disappointment (though it made $35 million internationally on a $10 million budget), thinks the scheduling of this year's genre titles didn't help. "My whole argument was, why are we coming out in the summer?" he says. "It was June, and people were in the mood for Oceans 13 and Pirates of the Caribbean; they were just in the mood for summer blockbusters."

Courtney Solomon, president of After Dark films, got stuck with a July release date for Captivity, which was delayed and fared dismally after the MPAA forcibly recalled its controversial billboards and posters. "The movie was originally scheduled for May 18, which would have been the first horror movie out that summer, going head to head with Shrek 3, so we'd have been counter-programming. There were a lot of screens available and it was perfect timing, [but] because it got suspended by the MPAA, it wasn't possible to go out any more on that date."

Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing for Lionsgate, which released both Hostel Part II and the more successful Saw IV, thinks the wait for a Hostel sequel might have been too long for the general public. "One of the reasons the Saw movies do so well is because they come in rapid succession," he says, adding that Hostel Part II "could have been better served if it was released earlier."

Hostel Part II and Captivity were also not exactly critical faves, but even horror movies that were well-liked by critics failed to gain traction. What happened to Grindhouse and The Mist? Easter and Thanksgiving opening dates, says Roth, noting, "Everyone's with their families. Why did 1408 do so well and why did The Mist not do so well? They're both supernatural horror movies [and both based on Stephen King stories]. I honestly think it's the weekend." Notable among the movies that did hit were Rob Zombie's Halloween, released at the very end of the summer blockbuster season, in August; 30 Days of Night, in October; and Saw IV, on Halloween weekend.

So there's life in the genre yet, as Belofsky is quick to point out: "What happens when a romantic comedy bombs? Are there front-page articles in Variety going, 'Comedies are dead'? It just seems funny to me that a genre that makes millions of dollars for this industry is the quickest one to get panned."

Solomon, however, doesn't explain away the box office downturn as just bad timing or the media's genre bias. He thinks it's time to move away from the current trend of "torture porn"—more realistic horror about bad people who torture and kill—since we're seeing enough of that on the news already. Hinting at his company's future, Solomon suggests that "creature horror movies are probably something that people would be more interested in, because we haven't seen a lot of those, à la Alien, in recent times. So a fresh one like that would probably be accepted very, very well." Stay tuned: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem opens Christmas Day at a theater near you.

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