If I had to think of one moment that summed 2007 up for me as a critic and moviegoer, then that moment came before an early-morning press screening at Cannes. Two film writers were speaking about a film from the day before -- excited, animated, engaged. One of them said "Le Scaphandre et le Papillion?" She then made a hand gesture worth a thousand words, and then exclaimed "Cinema!" And I felt the same way about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as she did -- that it was a work of pure cinema, using every possible element of film to make a powerful piece of art, one that was engaged with the real world we live in while also existing as a strong, expressive creative work in and of itself. That's worth looking for, at the movies -- and, this year, it was easier than you might think to find it. These, then, are the films that made me exclaim 'Cinema!" in 2007, in no particular order after #1.
The best film of the year -- wildly engaging, supremely confident, completely thrilling. Lesser filmmakers would have turned Cormac McCarthy's book into a tedious shoot-'em-up; thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen, we get a pulse-pounding, thought-provoking existential action flick -- a Greek tragedy with shotguns, a story of the American West whose true themes and concerns are eternal. I've seen No Country for Old Men five times now, and I get something new out of it every time -- it's a rich and dense work that also has sugar-rush surface-level pleasures. With three of the best male performances of the year (Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem) and a tone that somehow both fulfills and thwarts what we expect from the movies, No Country for Old Men may be the Coen's masterpiece.
2. PersepolisTransforming Marjane Satrapi's illustrated autobiography of her life in Iran and Europe into animation didn't just keep the fresh feel of her illustrations intact; it transformed what could have been dismissed as a regional story into a universal one. The animation captures everything from flights of fancy to all-too-real terror, and the story shows us the everyday people and humanity of a nation we're used to seeing only as a headline in the paper linked to grim news. The film could have been cloying sentimental; it could have been shallow, cynical and glib. But Persepolis managed a delicate balancing act by following its heart -- and succeeded as one of the year's most exciting and rewarding films.
You don't just finish No End in Sight feeling engaged; you finish it feeling smarter. Charles Ferguson's brisk, brief documentary avoids Michael Moore-style showboating in favor of good, honest journalism and interviews with the people who made the decisions about the war in Iraq, and the people who lived with them. Whether you support the war or not, No End in Sight is necessary viewing for every American, 102 minutes that fairly and firmly explain a series of policy decisions and actions we'll be dealing with for the next several decades.
A great demonstration of how unique, visionary direction can turn a story you think you've seen before into something bold, striking, touching and new. Director Julian Schnabel's directorial eye may be justifiably praised, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly also has soul to go with its sights -- as well as an immensely talented ensemble cast. If you're avoiding this because of what you think are obvious reasons not to see it -- too French, too depressing, too familiar -- trust me, those assumptions aren't just wrong; they're also keeping you from seeing one of the most moving and brilliant films of the year.
In a year stuffed to a stupor with dim, grim big-money and small-brain action films, The Bourne Ultimatum dared to be different -- and proved that a great action film can make your pulse and your thoughts race. Paul Greengrass's direction was breathless but never thoughtless, and Tony Gilroy's script made for the perfect close to a well-made series. The Bourne Ultimatum didn't just demonstrate that action movies can be smart; it also proved they can be art.
It's easy to suggest Great World of Sound made this list for what it is not -- specifically, while it is an American independent film, it is not about a doe-eyed dreamer of a young man with a poet's soul and shaggy bangs who discovers himself/overcomes a painful past with the help of a well-crafted soundtrack and a gorgeous, quirky woman with dark hair during a lengthy road trip or series of flashbacks. But not only did Great World of Sound put the 'independent" back into independent film -- as an adjective describing a condition of art, not one describing a form of financing -- it did so with brilliance, comedy, assurance and an storytelling sensibility which knew, to quote Nick Lowe, that "you gotta be cruel to be kind." (And, for that matter, vice-versa.) Two low-rent "talent scouts" (Pat Healey and Kene Holiday) tour the American South looking for singers to 'sign' to a 'label' -- that requests 30% of recording costs upfront from the singers. And our heroes can't quite see all the quotes and conditional clauses in that sentence, or their lives. ... Great World of Sound has a plot big enough to take in a braod canvas of themes -- culture, capital, America, race, class, the South, delusions, dreams -- but it also stays rooted and real every step of the way.
Like Andrew Dominik's previous film, Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James ... is a film about an aristocrat among criminals, a bad man who is nonetheless slightly better than those around him. Unlike the brawny, broad Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James ... is a work of subtlety and grace, from the moody score to the bone-dry narration to the muted, morning-light cinematography. Brad Pitt is excellent in the first title role, but Casey Affleck's wormy, squirmy Robert Ford -- self-hating and self-important, contemptuous and contemptible -- was one of the most magnetically repellent characters of the year.
Big and bold and gloriously, perfectly self-indulgent, I'm Not There is not the Bob Dylan story; it's what Todd Haynes thinks of when he thinks of Dylan, which is even better. No, parts of it don't work as well as others -- but, then again, parts of Dylan's career, of Dylan's life, didn't work as well as others. No other film this year felt so completely like a shared dream, no other film this year risked as much in the name of pure giddy expression, no other film this year dared you to pay attention, fill in the blanks, make up your own mind, play along or walk away. And yes, Cate Blanchett's work as the luminous pale pop poet Jude Quinn may be getting all the buzz, but the best performance in the film is actually Christian Bale's Jack Rollins -- a stern and wrathful stalk down the road not taken.
Set in a bleak winterscape of cold conditions and colder laws, Christian Mungiu's Palme D'Or-winning drama followed two friends in 1987 Romania. One needs an abortion, even though that's illegal; the other is prepared to do whatever it takes to help her friend. And they, and we, learn just what that phrase truly means. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is a drama with the clenched, cruel ever-tightening grip of a classic crime story, and a brilliant character study at the same time.
Paul Thomas Anderson returns -- and moves past the mere modern concerns of his already-impressive early filmography by transforming part of Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! into a riveting, wrenching, mythic and murderous fable about modern America. There Will Be Blood is unearthly, unsettling, a hybrid of Citizen Kane and American Psycho, a celebration and condemnation. The film's a portrait of capital and culture circling each other in the sunburnt dust of turn-of-the-century California, devouring each other in the hunt for money and power, growing more mighty and yet more famished with every bloody bite. Add in Daniel Day Lewis's performance -- unhinged, unforgiving, unstoppable-- and Johnny Greenwood's score, and you have a film that, with all its virtues and flaws, stands as truly unforgettable.
20 More Films Well Worth Watching:
Once; 28 Weeks Later; Waitress; Protagonist; Colma: The Musical; Ratatouille; Zodiac; Helvetica; Killer of Sheep; Starting Out in the Evening; Before the Devil Knows You're Dead; Control; Things We Lost in the Fire; Eastern Promises; The Savages; Away From Her; Taxi to the Dark Side; Honeydripper; In the Shadow of the Moon; Superbad.