December 31, 2007

Top 10 Films of 2007

Posted in Movies at 3:39 am by Calico Jack

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not terribly fond of numerical lists — not in film criticism, at least. It seems rather insulting to ask someone who’s spent an entire year watching, dissecting, and discussing films to take those collected experiences and write a small paragraph for each of his or her favorites, as long as those favorites number exactly ten — no more, no fewer. Even more egregious is wanting a numerical ordering, as if one’s preferences can be so easily digested: I liked this movie slightly less than three others this year, but more than everything else, and this much more than the one immediately preceding. Voilà! Now you have number four on the list. If you’ve only seen a dozen or two movies during the past twelve months, ranking films shouldn’t be terribly difficult. But my unofficial count stands somewhere around 127 for the year, and picking and ordering the best from what I’ve seen is slightly more daunting.

The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity; but come December, nearly every critic dutifully produces his or her list to be analyzed and argued over. Some, like Tony Scott of the New York Times, manage to skirt around expectations and provide a fresh take on a rueful tradition. Others such as Roger Ebert carefully hew to reader expectations, but have quite a long list of other worthy films. And as much as I despise this practice of ranking movies, it won’t be going away anytime soon. In the most positive light, it can be a way to encourage a critic’s audience to watch movies that they might not otherwise bother to check out, since appearing on a top-ten list is a sign that the film is well worth seeing. It’s simply a byproduct of living in a sound-byte era, where many prefer their news and opinions given in small, easily-digestible chunks. And I must admit that compiling a list such as this is quite enjoyable, regardless of what my inner critic distastefully recoils against.

There are two caveats before I begin: First, all of the movies featured have had a U.S. theatrical release in 2007. Several were shown overseas last year before coming to the States, but I have to draw the line somewhere. And secondly, if you ask me whether these are my favorite films of the year or the ones I consider “best,” my answer is both. It sounds disingenuous, but there you have it. It’s nearly impossible to describe what happens after viewing a film that expertly combines technical mastery (direction, cinematography, sound editing) and human emotion (screenplay, acting, scoring) into one great experience. Even the categories I listed just now aren’t nearly complete; and can in fact be detrimental if relied on too heavily while critiquing a film. Movies are often something greater (or less) than the sum of their parts, and those in the list that follows are the ones that holistically affected me the most.

10. “Ratatouille”

Pixar’s most recent film is also one of its best, surpassing even the excellence seen in “Toy Story” or “A Bug’s Life.” It might be a slight to call director Brad Bird an auteur of animated films for writing and directing both “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” because his latest work deserves to be recognized on the same level as anything else released in 2007. Endlessly inventive and visually lavish, “Ratatouille” has some of the most beautifully depicted vistas put on film this year. It also contains a few gentle but well-aimed jabs at the insularity of jaded critics, urging them to remember that love and passion for one’s work are just as important as technical merit. And the story of a rat who reaches for excellence, even when his friends and family are content to settle for mediocrity, will inspire those both young and old.

9. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”

This searing, gorgeously shot period piece set during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s was glaringly overlooked by audiences when it reached American theaters back in March. As rural Irish brothers fighting first against the British, then against each other, Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney give two powerful performances in this tale of a family tragically divided by differing views on the nature and obligations of freedom. Directed by Ken Loach, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” never shies away from depicting war in all of its brutality; but its focus lies elsewhere, demanding that the viewer consider not only why ordinary citizens decide to take up arms and give their lives for their country, but also how difficult it can be to stop the cycle of violence once supposed peace is achieved.

8. “The Bourne Ultimatum”

The kinetic third installment of the Jason Bourne trilogy is also the best action movie of the year. This series has grown steadily better with each film, and “The Bourne Ultimatum” ends the titular hero’s quest with a knockout punch to the audience’s jaw. As Matt Damon violently dispatches his enemies while searching for the truth behind his training as an assassin, director Paul Greengrass ensures that the audience feels every punch and every hit through frantic editing and jarring camera cuts. Jason Bourne is shown as increasingly haunted as the film progresses, sunken eyes set deeply into a hollow face and a tangible air of exhaustion hanging over his every gesture. But when Bourne needs to go into action, so does the film — pulse-pounding car chases, intelligent characters and wincingly visceral fights provide more thrills than any other blockbuster this year. Yet the biggest strength of “The Bourne Ultimatum” lies in its scriptwriting, which never relies on exposition to propel its complicated plot forward but instead prefers its revelations to come through the eyes of Bourne himself.

7. “Atonement”

The World War II-era Ian McEwan novel about class divisions and betrayal from whence this movie is adapted might, on first glance, seem nearly unfilmable. So much of the drama and emotion that defines the story comes not from conversation or action but from inner thoughts and, more importantly, misinterpretations of other characters’ motives. It is an astounding relief to discover that with “Pride & Prejudice” director Joe Wright at the helm, virtually all of the thematic elements of McEwan’s novel are preserved whole and unblemished. “Atonement” is a study of the repercussions of a young girl’s impetuosity and thoughtlessness, and how one single action can destroy the happiness in the lives of everyone it affects. Wright is a master at highlighting the struggles of his characters through lush cinematography and careful focus on body language, and a wonderful score by Dario Marianelli serves as a subtle foreshadowing to the events that lie ahead for the film’s characters. There are two scenes in this film that any movie would kill to have: an epic, minutes-long tracking shot of the British evacuation at Dunkirk, and a powerful coda that that asks whether one can ever truly atone for long-ago sins.

6. “Juno”

First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody penned this witty, heartwarming tale about a sixteen-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her best friend. Ellen Page is a marvel as the titular character, who shows a surprising level of maturity when faced with a difficult choice but isn’t quite as smart about the larger world as she thinks she is. After deciding to give her baby up for adoption, Juno forms a tentative relationship with the prospective parents, a yuppie couple fantastically played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Much of what makes “Juno” such a treasure lies not with its hilarious, quirky hipster dialogue but the way this film lets its characters develop from beginning to end, leading to quite a change in how the audience views several characters’ actions. “Juno” expertly mixes hearty laughs with touching observations, and it well deserves its place as best comedy of the year.

5. “The Lookout”

This gem of a film was released back in April and never quite gained the traction it needed to seep into audiences’ consciousness. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a star-making role as Chris, a former high school jock who suffers perpetual short-term amnesia after being responsible for a tragic accident. Years later he’s rooming with a sarcastic blind sage played by Jeff Daniels in one of the strongest performances of his career. Chris is still trying to adjust to his changed life when he meets a ready friend and seemingly helpful buddy in Matthew Goode; but like so much else in “The Lookout,” everything is not as it seems. To say any more would give away too much of the plot, but know that writer-director Scott Frank has crafted an utterly absorbing, unpredictable character study masquerading as a thriller, aided by some of the strongest dialogue of any film this year.

4. “Zodiac”

Unlike so many other procedurals that rely on quick crime-solving and tidy confessions to give an audience a sense of resolution, “Zodiac” focuses instead on the relentless and deadening efforts of those tasked with solving the series of brutal murders that occurred in the San Fransisco area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It isn’t a film driven by suspense but by obsession: obsession with details, obsession with geographical places, obsession with chronology and time. Each scene in “Zodiac” is carefully timecoded in order that the audience knows exactly how everything fits together, how each scene plays off of the one preceding and sets up the one to follow. It is also merciless in showing how even the most experienced of police officers and reporters can become so overwhelmed with details — murder scenes, aisles of evidence boxes piled on top of each other, eyewitness accounts, innumerable phone tips, handwriting samples, the killer’s own coded messages — that even with thousands of individual points of data, assembling those pieces into a coherent whole becomes nearly impossible. David Fincher has directed the best work of his career with “Zodiac,” a film which reminds the viewer that tidy closure is something oft found only in the movies.

3. “Once”

It will be very difficult to overpraise this small, low-budget Irish musical, but I’m going to give it my best shot. “Once” is set in Dublin over the course of just a few days, where street busker meets a Czech immigrant working as a flower seller. The two forge an instant bond, and together they produce some hauntingly beautiful music together. This film has been billed as a romance, but it’s a marketing mistake: any romance in “Once” is far purer and much less sexual than the meaning behind the term today. Both characters remain unnamed to signify the ordinariness of the situation they find themselves in, and it also helps to keep the focus on the achingly tender songs that they perform. Unlike most musicals, the songs in “Once” flow naturally in and out of the dialogue; they never feel forced or misplaced. In fact, nothing about this film ever strikes a false note; even the ending could have gone so many different, lesser ways, but the one shown is absolutely perfect. This is a film that deserves every positive adjective that can be given; it’s inspiring, heartfelt, charming, sweet without being cloying, and utterly uplifting.

2. “Das Leben Der Anderen” (The Lives of Others)

This film won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film by narrowly beating out the superb “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which was my top film of last year. But due to a February release date in the United States, I’m able to put this moving and profound film on the list this year. “The Lives of Others” is a cautionary tale set in Berlin before the end of the Cold War, when the East German government kept careful watch on its citizens deemed most likely to fall prey to the dangers of free thought and capitalism and no one was immune from state scrutiny, especially not those of the artistic class. There are two central characters in “The Lives of Others”: one a socialist playwright, Georg Dreyman, who outwardly espouses all of the necessary ideals for staying in the good graces of the ruling class while secretly harboring revolutionary ideals; and the other a career Stasi officer assigned to surveil Dreyman after a corrupt bureaucrat decides he wants to have Dreyman’s actress girlfriend for himself. The two characters are never seen on-screen together, but it is the choices that they both make — and the reasons behind them — that give this film such an enormous emotional punch. As Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Mühe gives a deceptively minimalist performance, barely revealing any emotion save for quick, slight facial adjustments. It is a classic study in understatement, essential for showing the growing humanization of his character; while he continues to spy on Dreyman and his friends and family, he gradually starts to understand how corrupt the current political system is. “The Lives of Others” is a powerful indictment of the repressive political system that was so cancerous to eastern Europe in the latter half of the 20th century, serving as a sobering reminder that even today, we must be vigilant against internal threats to our freedom. And the moving final scene of this film is one of the best of the decade.

1. “No Country for Old Men”

There really wasn’t any difficulty in deciding which movie should be my top pick for best film of 2007. This adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s sparse novel is both a mastery of filmmaking and the most haunting, engrossing film of the year. I find myself pondering this film weeks after seeing it for a second time; its images and statements about human nature and the futility of fighting Death are indelibly etched on this critic’s brain. Joel and Ethan Coen have directed a stark, meticulously crafted film that plays out like a fascinating, unnerving West Texas chase thriller before transforming into something more existential in the third act. “No Country for Old Men” may well be the most unpredictable film of the year for reasons for which I will not describe here, but every single twist and turn is all-consuming. Josh Brolin plays a machinist who stumbles upon $2 million in a suitcase after a drug exchange turned sour in the desert, and Javier Bardem is utterly terrifying as Anton Chigurh, an implacable killer hired to recover the cash regardless of who gets in his way. Tommy Lee Jones gives his most world-weary performance as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a longtime Texas lawman unable to cope with the increasing brutality and random violence of the world around him. These three men circle around each other for much of the film, each with his own way of looking at the world but never quite able to prepare for that which does not fit neatly into their patterned lives. It isn’t until the end of the second act that “No Country for Old Men” fully embraces its allegorical leanings with an unexpected twist that questions much of what has come before. And the final act’s coda is reliant on two scenes that utterly frustrated many in the theater, but which I think are absolutely essential for understanding the film as a whole. “No Country for Old Men” is utterly magnificant, with powerful performances and lyrical dialogue that has so much meaning beyond the mere words spoken — a bleak, sober masterpiece that should be regarded as one of the great films of the last thirty years.

This was a very strong year for cinema, and I have at least ten other films that deserve honorable mentions on the list — but that will have to wait for its own entry. Also, there are still several films I haven’t been able to catch yet, most notably “There Will Be Blood.” But the previous ten films are my picks for best of the year, and each is well worth your time. “Ratatouille,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Lookout,” “Zodiac,” “Once,” and “The Lives of Others” are all available on DVD now.

December 25, 2007

Artist Discovery: Battles

Posted in Music at 2:11 pm by Calico Jack

Perhaps this is a tentative step back into blogging after yet another hiatus. Either way, the single “Atlas” from Battles’ LP Mirrored is one of those songs that I suspect a lot of people simply won’t grok, for lack of a better term. It’s prog-rock at its most rhythmic, with a pulsing drum that accentuates…oh, just watch it yourself:

I can understand how off-putting it might be to those trained on top-40 blandness. For sheer exuberance and stomp-along thrill, however, it has my vote as single of the year. It’s as addictive as my favorite song from last year, Kasabian’s “Shoot the Runner”: