Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Top Ten Films of 2007

It's that time of year again. Just before Oscar Sunday and I've been putting it off long enough. So many films this year deserve to be in a top ten list--someone's list anyways--but I had to decide a few weeks ago that making a list should be about movies I loved, not necessarily about those that critics loved. It should be filled with ones that shocked or surprised me or made me fall in love with cinema all over again. It shouldn't just be filled with a list of the truly "great films" of the year. As I look at the list I made for this year, one thing is common to them all: the music (or deliberate lack thereof) colors the emotional core of the movie. From number 10 to number 1, the music plays a significant role in the story, the mood, and the character's struggle. So even though I'm leaving off a few films I thought for sure would make it on my top ten list and some also ruled by great music ("The Savages," "Juno," "The Namesake," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "American Gangster," "Knocked Up," "The Orphanage," "The Devil Came On Horseback," "Waitress," "Dan In Real Life," "3:10 To Yuma," "No Country For Old Men" and one of my favorite summer flicks "Hairspray") the list must only be ten, that's the beauty of it. So here we go, like it or not:

10. Eternal Summer: What does it look like in a country where same-sex friendship, for centuries, has been more valuable, more precious, and more lifelong-lasting than opposite sex romances? More importantly, what does it look like when the Western world of romantic ideals clashes with the Eastern world of honor and friendship? Eternal Summer is that dilemma. Far from perfect, but consistently engaging in its simplicity, there’s a visual wonder present here that once again reinforces how and why Asian cinema simply is, the master of mood and atmosphere. With the three characters in the film all symbolizing particular objects in space—Jonathan (the sun), Shane (the earth), and Carrie (the comet)—the film uses this “space” to explore sexuality and the friendship that often muddles up, down and in between. It also uses this as a metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood. In a sense, Eternal Summer is as reserved as Chinese culture itself, evoking in its simplicity a raw brand of melodrama unparalleled in big-budget American films. In the end, Director Leste Chan suggests a final scene far more ambiguous, complex and ironically dreamlike (despite its element of tragedy) than a handful of American independent films. We the audience are cast out into the cosmos, and asked to wonder where the fate of these three friends—and people in the world like them—will be at life’s end. Haunting, heartbreaking and a much needed love letter to the people of Asia who live lives with similar complexities.

9. The Host:Welcome to my new obsession with Asian cinema. Some movies on a film lover’s list simply have to be on there for a sarcastic slap in the face of our world today. For me, South Korea’s mega blockbuster The Host is that film. Blending the dysfunctional family comedy of Little Miss Sunshine, the thrills of Jaws, the human nature values of King Kong and the contemporary circus politics of the Fox News Channel, director Joon-Ho Bong has crafted a relevant, scary, and funny cultural indictment on the political superpower known as America. Based on the real life events of an American scientist who ordered toxic chemical waste to be emptied into Seoul’s vast Han River, causing an outbreak of South Korean riots and protests, The Host begins with a simulated scene displaying this very act (set in the year it actually happened). After that, something freaky has morphed underneath the waters of the Han River and as expected, it’s attacking people, hopping along beaches and underneath bridges slurping and snapping up its prey as fast as it can. Essentially, The Host is a film showcasing an excellence in editing. It juxtaposes mass hysteria against our “everyday fear-driven evening news” in a way that asks, “Are we mere consumers, being controlled by the democracies we elect?” What’s fascinating about The Host is how it manages to be completely cultural—showing how ancient old society values of its senior citizens starkly contrast the bachelor’s-degree-holding mass of educated, yet dissatisfied youth—and yet, completely, universally now. When a monster movie can be this smart, this exciting, this culturally critiquing, how can it not be one of the year’s best?

8. Superbad: “Tell your story, no matter how bad it is.” This mantra could be the vision for the evangelical world, couldn’t it? I recall once in youth group in high school a sponsor commented that when people come to give a testimony, they spend entirely too much time focusing on the “sin part” of the story. That is, it all seems to be about how horrible this person was before they found Jesus. Their story was about their dirty deeds (had sex a lot before marriage, did every drug imaginable, cursed profusely). To myself, a kid born and raised in the church, this part always intrigued me. I looked forward to this part of the story. It fascinated me. In all honesty, this is why I loved to listen to these stories: to hear all the bad that I was told I could never do. This is the difference between the evangelical world and the rest of the world: the latter embraces the “badness” of every story; the former usually doesn’t. The evangelical world tries to theologically tell us it’s not apart of the whole person who we really are. But they can’t seem to come to grips with the reality that this is and was part of a person’s past. They are only one person and you can’t split a person into halves (as much as we’d like to think we can). This is why I loved Superbad so much. It effortlessly merges today’s raunchy youth with Ecclesiastes 4:9, figuratively and literally. In an age where most people suspect intimacy between two people of the same sex on film as almost always “homo-erotic” it’s refreshing to watch Superbad and see it’s not about the sex, but about the friendship. Masked as another raunchy high school comedy, it’s actually an elitist comedy really, with most of the jokes hitting high above the heads of everyday adolescents. And I know I’ll get a lot of crap for putting it there on my top ten list, but I’m sorry. Here’s a film that got me. It shocked me by how much I loved its irreverence and appreciated its blend of high/low cinematic art. Farting is still funny but it’s never been this well-written, I swear.

7. There Will Be Blood:There’s always one film on my top ten list that deserves to be there and I can’t even explain why. But when you’ve been wrong about a certain director for so long (with Boogie Nights and Magnolia I missed the point when I first watched them—probably due to my age—and only later realized they were both top ten material, for sure) you begin to change from your old ways. Initially, after I saw There Will Be Blood I saw no hope. There only was a very desperate man who was very, in a sense, soulless. But after some good conversations I’m already learning how wrong that assumption of the film was: this isn’t just a film about how bad one man is, but about a complex figure in American history: the oilman. Once chipping away lonely in a dark hole, alone, and covered in dirt is now a man speaking to crowds, making more money than he knows what to do with. How does the former become the latter and still keep his soul when his world is but an open road? More importantly, what happens when you’re surrounded by the very worst in “Christian” religion, where it becomes the next thing in line behind oil that people are ready to sell (and ready to “buy” so to speak)? This is why There Will Be Blood works on so many levels. It is a historical sum up of America in the 1920s California, revealing how greed works its way into every aspect of life, no matter what a person’s faith may be. And once again, as he did in Boogie Nights and Magnolia writer/director P.T. Anderson crafts a story that’s a warning sign to future generations, overtly moral and striking in visuals and substance. What is it about? It’s about people. It should always be about people. Every time it loses focus, things go awry. There Will Be Blood shows us how bad it did get and how bad it will get if we don’t start taking Jesus’ words seriously: “money is a bitchy barrier to God—you can’t serve them both; when you try, be prepared to die twice.” That’s a paraphrase but it works, doesn’t it?

6. The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters: Every once in awhile, a documentary breaks through the barriers of capturing “life on film” and captures the competitive history of humanity in one 100 minute sweep. In 2003, a little documentary called Spellbound did just that. Not until now has a documentary repeated that feat. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters could very well be “Spellbound-as-adults.” Essentially, it narrows in on a group of 80s gamer geeks (a few of them geniuses) with one particular story in focus: who is the best Donkey Kong player on the planet? This question starts a film loaded with laughs, giggles (they are not the same) and so many smirk-cracking-to-laugh-out-loud moments you’ll swear you’re a character inside of the game. On top of this, the footage these guys capture is nothing short of a miracle. It’s a movie where more is at stake than the title of being Donkey Kong champion. It’s a movie about competition, competitiveness and ego, and it’s the best, most exhilarating, most entertaining documentary of its kind.

5. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly: So many critics are talking about this film and so many of them have named it the best film of 2007. That’s not a surprise. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is visually intoxicating and explosively emotional, and may very well be the most unique, haunting and creative "true story" vision to appear on film in years. Imagination hasn't looked this good since In America or Amelie. Many films try to get inside the heads of their characters visually, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly achieves such a feat with an emblematic visual rhythm. There are a few moments in the film that feel like home video footage from one’s childhood, slowly etching its way into our hearts. When the film gets frustrated, we get frustrated. When the film shows the most vulnerable moments between father and son, we recall our own personal moments. These moments carry the film and bleed into the harsh, seemingly hopeless reality that is the main character’s life (and real life person, Jean-Dominique Bauby). Every act of the film is fleshed out to perfection, thanks to the Cannes award recipient in 2007 for best director, Julian Schnabel. And don’t be surprised if he does an upset at the Oscars in a week.

4. Ratatouille:Disney and Pixar just keep getting better. Not only is this a film that was worthy of a Best Picture nomination (when are Oscar voters going to realize that 5 Academy Award nominations in other categories such as Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing and others warrant a Best Picture nomination, despite it being “animated”). In the tradition of Beauty and the Beast and Finding Nemo, Ratatouille may even be a more fully realized whole film. I can’t remember the last time an animated film honored Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in story, in drama and in visuals. It also could’ve shared the title of another great film about Paris this year—Paris, Je T’aime (Paris, I love you)—in the way it seems to act as a love recipe to the city of blinding lights. Added to this, the movie really does (as cliché as it sounds) have it all. It blends high culture with low culture, criticism with creativity, and devotion with destiny. For a movie appealing to all ages, that’s pretty much a miracle in 2007.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days:Romanian films are quickly becoming the cinematic cultural touch points of today. Between past and tomorrow, moral choices and immoral social systems, nothing and everything seems to be sacred in the present. Romania showcased this brilliantly with its 2006 masterpiece The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and it’s done it again here in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where the world of 1987 is seen through a 2007 lens. Watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is an experience that must be absorbed in one sitting. You can’t take a break, you can’t pause for an interrupted cell phone call; you simply must focus on the film’s use of space. With no music in the film, only silence showing the distant space between people, the film works through you gradually and meticulously like a shining razor, cutting through emotionalism in an effort to exploit its audience. You watch and wonder why the camera lingers for so long after a scene—that in most Hollywood films would be cut out in an instant—and marvel how director Cristian Mungiu brilliantly relishes in the mystery of the after space. The after space is that intangible but completely felt mystery weaving through the air after any choice made between two people. It is confused by how love often manifests itself and even more confused at how politics encourage such warped expressions of this love. The space is explored in this film between the heart of the character and the heart of the audience, merging the two in a climax that is eerie and unforgettable. This is breathtaking cinema that will be haunt you for days after you see it.

2. Lars And The Real Girl:Ryan Gosling somehow manages to upstage himself yet again (from last year’s Half Nelson) into this wholly complex character of an ordinary lonely man in Wisconsin who grew up without a mother. Hundreds of actors have played characters like this before but no one has given the depth and emotional intelligence that Gosling gives to Lars here. Having said that, the entire cast fully supports this tricky performance. Patricia Clarkson as the wonderful psychiatrist/MD Dagmar, Emily Mortimer as Lars’ overbearing yet completely loving sister-in-law, and Paul Schneider as Lars’ older, sometimes wiser (sometimes not) brother. In a sense, the movie redeems our perception of what a sex doll could do for people (and in this case, an entire community). There are endless layers to Lars and the Real Girl—with its visual chemistry warmly fused with its lyrical story—but I really saw it as one giant contemporary parable with shades of pink colored in everywhere. Lars is about redemption, yes, but it’s also about how perception and community can make us into truly good people. There are so many wonderful scenes in the film, so many crying out desperately needing to be noticed it seems as though the loneliness Lars feels is actually connecting to us. The movie is mostly somber and quiet but there’s a level of respect, humanity and honor in this quiet. It has its outrageous, hilarious moments (as shown in too great of detail in the movie’s trailer) but these are not where the film’s strengths lie in. Like my last year pick for second best film of the year Stranger Than Fiction, Lars and the Real Girl rests its head in between the tragedy and comedy of everyday life and everyday people. And there, in the transformation of seasons—from winter to spring—is where we see its heart and our own.

1.Into The Wild:There’s a pattern going on here. Roger Ebert, the undisputed greatest film critic of the twentieth century, is freaking me out. Every other year for the past few years, his “number ten spot” on his wrap-up top ten list of films for the year has been my “number one.” In 2003, his number ten was my my number one: In America. In 2005, his number ten was my number one: Millions. And now, two years later, it’s happened again. His number ten is my number one—my favorite and pick for the best film of the year: Into the Wild. The film (even after three viewings) is a deeply moving, completely complete motion picture event. Movies like this rarely get made anymore. It’s got the character driven-ness of great films like Five Easy Pieces and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and the pitch-perfect-poetic flare of a really good nonfiction book. It’s about a selfish kid trying to find his way (with to his credit, a seriously disturbed past) in life, out on the road, and climaxes in a way that movies rarely, if ever, do: a spiritual, emotional, purely human supernatural epiphany. Is it from God? Heaven? Nature? Inside himself? Let the viewer decide.

10. Eternal Summer
9. The Host
8. Superbad
7. There Will Be Blood
6. The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters
5. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
4. Ratatouille
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days
2. Lars And The Real Girl
1. Into The Wild

THE 2007 ODE-TO-CINEMA AWARD: I started a tradition a few years back picking out one film a year which furthers the art of cinema. It honors the past while creatively putting together a fresh, unique vision for the future. Essentially, I like to think of it as part of my 2007 Top Ten list, just in a different way. This year's award goes to, Paris, Je T'aime.Eighteen different directors and dozens of world-famous actors come together for various interpretations--sad, lonely, tragic, scary, happy and wondrous--of what it means to be in love in Paris and in love with Paris. Each vignette takes place in one of Paris' streets and is named after it appropriately. There are of course a few favorites I've watched more than 10 times already (see Alexander Payne's film, Tom Tywver's film, and Gus Van Sant's film for three greats inside of here), but what I love most about this film is the way it captures--sometimes in five minutes or less--moments in life. It moves us, sweeps us up and enchants us. I hope the future of movies come close to resembling something like Paris, Je T'aime.

That's all for now. Be forewarned though...once I see more films from 2007 and once I see movies I loved more than once, sometimes that makes me rethink my list. So as always, this is subject to change. But enough for now. Sorry Nathan for making you wait so long. I hope you're not heavily disappointed.


Tara said...

Tara's #1 movie of 2007? Stardust.

Neville said...

You always surprise me Tara. I'll try to check out "Stardust." I missed it in the Summer Hoopla Cinema Rush and haven't caught it on DVD yet because, frankly, all the really good movies of the year come out at the year's end, when "Stardust" came out on DVD.

I'll get right on that though. My apologies my sweet Tara.

nateshorb said...

I'm Nathan Shorb and I approve of this top ten list.

I don't know about all these crazy Asian movies, (I mean, if you love a continent so much, why don't you MARRY it?!?) but other than that, I approve.

Michelle said...

Very cool.

Betsy said...

Nev, I'm finding that we have the same taste in film. Granted, I don't really know about Asian cinema, but otherwise, I'm with ya.

Thanks to your suggestion I watched a screener of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (so unmistakeably french). Loved the visual connection to the character w/ the POV.

After I watched There Will Be Blood, I wasn't quite sure how to feel except that it was way too long and my bladder was about to burst. But after talking to people and really thinking about it, I am appreciating it more and more (but still think it could have been edited a bit more, which is funny b/c it was nominated for editing). Have you seen the "my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard" You Tube montage? Great concept, poorly executed.

Can't wait to see Lars & the Real Girl and Into the Wild - those screeners are always checked out at work - I've been fighting for them for weeks.

Stephen Becker said...

so joy and i just joined netflix, and i've added every one of your movies. you are my inspiration.

Corie said...

Unfortunately, since I have small demanding children (the nerve of them!), seeing movies (whether in the theater or on DVD) gets harder and harder. However, I've had the majority of your films on my Must-See list for quite a while now. Also Stardust, for whatever that's worth! :)

The only one I have seen so far on your list is Superbad, which J and I actually just watched last night. And I gotta say, I just didn't get it. I mean, I am with you on the point that it was so much more about friendship than sex. And parts of it were really enjoyable and parts of it were really hilarious and parts of it were poignant... but on the whole I guess I just missed the chord it struck you (and so many others, critics included) on. Maybe I had too high expectations, I don't know. It just seemed kinda draggy, and rambling, and unnecessary in several parts... and this is coming from a usual big Apatow fan.

Oh well! Hopefully it won't be too much longer before I get to some of the others on your list. Your insight and critique are impressive as always.

Corie said...

just finally saw your comment on my blogspot page-- I switched over to wordpress ( so I hadn't looked at the blogspot one in a while.

Funny about your dream! We're doing well-- how're you? :) You warranted a mention in a recent post of mine. :) Let me know if/when you're ever back in this general region of the world.