Monday, February 18, 2008

Best of 2007: The Top 10

The Esteemed
Top 5

Already two months into 2008, and it's still a challenging task. Here are the five films that really left an indelible impression on me. Note: I still haven't seen The Hottie and the Nottie, so things could change...

1) There Will Be Blood

I feel the same way about church, and mine served donuts!

The first shot of the film- a harsh landscape accompanied by eerie orchestral strings- could just as easily be the surface of the moon, mimicking the ominous discovery of the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. To Daniel Plainview it might as well be the moon; he'd be just as willing to pillage and plunder, if it meant his own well-being of course. In those first glimmers of this monumental character study, blood is coursing through Daniel's veins like the oil beneath his feet, and there's no clue as to if or when he'll ever find solace in his success. Then again, that title certainly doesn't bode well.

Daniel Day Lewis provides Plainview, and the whole of the film, with a furious lifeforce; an energy and pull to a sinister and greedy soul. There's an extreme sense of exhilaration in watching a consummate actor dig into the recesses of such a truly dark being and have so much fun with it. Paul Thomas Anderson's work carries the vision, scope and personal signature that has already made him a reputable auteur. Anderson's fifth film is of a remarkably different breed for the young master, whose Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love are already audacious modern classics with his singular voice at their center. With There Will Be Blood, the clashing of oil, greed, religion and human misery are startlingly relevant and serve to further Anderson's playing field. If he continues on his delirious hot streak, he'll be just as infamous as Stanley Kubrick, or his mentor Robert Altman.

2) Once

What's Czech for "withholding"?

It's a musical drama so light on its feet and so effortlessly touching that it picks you up and leaves you feeling inspired, even if you're still in tears. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make a startling romantic pair, especially given that they're first time performers and their on-screen romance is relegated primarily to the beautiful music they create together. It's a rare treat in musicals when the songs actually linger past the runtime, and part of that comes from the incalculable chemistry within these sequences; as if the songs really are being stripped from these character's insides before our very eyes.

Credit should go to John Carney, whose subtle control and economy of scenes can so easily go unnoticed. Given it's pared down nature, it's uncompromising, heartbreaking ending, and its invigorating low-budget aesthetic, there's truly something to be said for the strengths of this offbeat musical. Unlike studio venture Hairspray, or Dreamgirls the year before, the magic comes not in the precise choreography, stunt casting or A-to-Z plotting, but in the simple, transcendent power of song.

3) Eastern Promises

And Tweety Bird's on the left cheek...

Who knew the Russian sex trade and bathhouse knife fights were too mainstream? That's a claim many have leveled against David Cronenberg's latest thriller, which fails to acknowledge the closeness to his fascinations and barely scratches the surface of a film built upon layers. Eastern Promises constructs another small-scale thriller with unexpected emotional heft, not unlike A History of Violence, wherein characters' motivations mutate and identities dissolve. The plot itself is relatively simple, but the implications and undercurrents are anything but.

Viggo Mortensen once again carries the weight of the film, transforming this time into a Russian mobster with a secret; using each sigh and inflection as sharp detail and signifier of his experiences, much like the tell-all tattoos adorning his body. The intrigue of this character, alongside the melancholy narration of a deceased 14-year-old Russian mother, makes for a dark and essential entry in Cronenberg's filmography. The ending leaves many threads open, but it's not to the fault of its otherwise tightly-wound script. Instead it allows the characters a promise of a new life, once again without any guarantees.

4) Lust, Caution

She did it all for the jewelry.

One of Ang Lee's most detailed and dazzling juggling acts masquerades as a simple espionage tale, but quickly weaves into a stirring collage of identity, performance, and tragic romance. Like Lee's earlier films, these characters are all carrying the burden of repressed longing, wanton lust, and the desire to transcend their beginnings, but there's a strangely unique flavor this time around. Tang Wei gives a stunning, undervalued debut that takes into accounts all aspects of "performance" as Wong Chia Chi, a burgeoning actress who finds herself part of the resistance in a spy game to seduce and destroy the corrupt Mr. Yee, played by the always captivating Tony Leung.

The complexity of the relationships, the scope of its revolutionary story, and the combined sensuality and danger make for an extravagant think piece. It haunted me long after seeing it, not unlike Lee's Brokeback Mountain, largely because it leaves so much undefined and yet oddly finite. This is as unlikely a romance as I've ever seen and I almost hesitate to call it one, with the "controversial" sex scenes serving as surprising development of character and narrative intrigue. It all leads to that crucial scene where each deception and heartfelt emotion collide with a single line of dialogue, leaving everything forever changed.

5) Grindhouse

Shake it while you got it!

Easily one of the most fun times at the movies this year, with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez throwing us back to the days of drive-in, bad ass bombshells and all. With the missing reels, uproarious faux trailers, editing flubs and scratched reels, it's easy enough to understand why some audience members weren't in on the joke. Thus it died an unfortunate death at the box office, but I say it's all the more appropriate. This is cult cinema, meant to kiss the celluloid ghosts of underground gods like Russ Meyer and Roger Corman. Granted it's all made flashy and well cast for these director's devoted fans, but the inspiration and fanboy love positively bleeds off the screen.

Rodriguez's Planet Terror is the more slapdash, excessive of the two, and probably the less authentic in terms of the grindhouse vibe. Cherry Darling, a go-go girl with a machine gun leg, is already iconic, and this is brainless fun from start to finish. It's George Romero meets John Carpenter meets Rodriguez's own sensibilities, and it doesn't take itself seriously for a second. Tarantino's viciously enjoyable Death Proof uses it's extensive dialogue and character build to play on conventions and invoke the aura of both the slasher and chase film, all the while forming its own unique blend. It pulls a great feminist reversal and some smart modern tricks so as to not to make it merely an homage picture, and Tarantino films scenes with such unforgettable flourish and intensity. If only more filmmakers credited their inspirations with as much love and go-for-the-gut affection.

The Remaining Top 10:

(6) Margot at the Wedding

Don't even bother complimenting her hat.

A bruising study of treacherous characters and fractured families, with a uniquely sour streak from Noah Baumbach. Nicole Kidman scalds as an emotional vampire, and Jennifer Jason Leigh makes a refreshingly lived-in return.

I'm Not There

Musical chameleon or shape shifter?

A mutating, ambiguous, and bold biopic that discards convention for the absolute essence of an unknowable icon. It's free flowing, inventive work from the always intelligent Todd Haynes.

(8) 2 Days in Paris

Woody Allen finds Adam Goldberg a tad neurotic.

A funny farce in which neuroses give way to a couple's true nature. Julie Delpy shines again, furthering her immense range of talents with a sharp naturalism and cross-culture perceptiveness.

(9) Away from Her

Uh-oh, someone forgot to make reservations for the ski lodge...

A poetic, elegant and unexpected story of life beyond memories. Sarah Polley's assured debut tinges with heartbreak, renewal, love and loss, and Julie Christie is a fragile wonder.

(10) (tie) Knocked Up / 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Seth Rogen's baby or Mr. Bebe? Abstinence, kids.

2007 was certainly the year of the pregnancy (Juno and Inside included), each with a uniquely different approach. One is light Hollywood fare that refuses to confront real issues, but makes up for that with a sharp ensemble, big laughs and plenty of heart. The other is harsh Romanian arthouse fare that pushes buttons and cleverly holds its focus to the point of sheer discomfort.

No comments: