~BEST of 2007
February 18, 2008 by JAN ALBERT
JAN ALBERT’S 10 BEST LIST FOR 2007
Last year was a tough time to escape from the real world at the movies. It seemed like everyone was holding their breath to see what additional harm the Bush Administration would do to our country and around the world, how many more human lives would be destroyed by the war in Iraq, how low the dollar would fall, how fast the climate would change, and many of those feelings of fear and dread – and our increasing estrangement from each other – seeped right onto celluloid.
Take NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the hit film by Joel and Ethan Coen, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Set in the iconic desert that has graced so many American films, there are no heroes to be found in this postmodern western. It’s just one vast wasteland of evil where life or death is determined by a coin toss. There’s no reasoning with the villain played by Jarvier Bardem – he’s just a killing machine that can’t be stopped. The sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) packs it in and quits because no one observes the traditional boundaries anymore. It’s every fucker for him (or her) self, chasing a suitcase of drug money, and he can’t make heads or tails of what he can do to hold the line.
Now, I recognize that there were some admirable elements in this cinematic story – including an anti-hero (a terrific breakthrough performance by Josh Brolin) we care to root for, brilliant cinematography, and a handful of incredibly suspenseful scenes (the dog chase, the coin toss in the convenience store, hiding the suitcase in the motel vent!).
It’s undeniably skillful, but pretty bleak stuff. I don’t know what I can take away from a film like this, that I don’t already know – and, don’t want to be reminded of. It may well be a work of art for our times but it didn’t rock my world, so it ain’t on the list!
HERE’S WHAT IS:
1/ INTO THE WILD, another film about a guy on the run, was my favorite film of the year and it didn’t even get nominated for an Academy Award. At least Hal Holbrook’s performance was recognized. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by his isolated old man trying to persuade a young one to reconsider his decision to cut himself off from the rest of the world. This is at once a rousing on-the-road adventure, which shows off some of America’s greatest scenery, and a compelling coming of age story. Chris McCandless’s true-life journey of discovery becomes unforgettable because it’s cut so heartbreakingly short. Sean Penn wrote, directed, and also pulls great performances from Catherine Keener, Marsha Gay Harden, Bill Hurt, and especially Emile Hirsch as the hard-headed seeker who finds out what makes life worth living.
2/ THE DIVING BELL and THE BUTTERFLY is an astonishing experience. Julian Schnabel is an inspired filmmaker. I don’t know why he wanted to get into the head of Jean-Dominique Bauby, (a 43 year-old French magazine editor who had the unlucky fate to awaken from a stroke fully cognizant of the world around him, but unable to move any part of his body except for one eyelid) but that’s what he does. Working from the book Bauby wrote, blinking out one letter at a time, Schnabel creates a visual tour de force – flashes of the world Bauby experiences moored to his hospital bed, scenes from the life he remembers, and flights into his imagination, where he continues to enjoy making love, driving fast cars, tossing his children into the air, and eating oysters. A toast to grabbing life by any means necessary – and the human desire to leave one’s mark in the sands of time.
LUST, CAUTION IMAGE/COURTESY: rottentomatoes.com
LUST, CAUTION IMAGE/COURTESY: rottentomatoes.com
LUST, CAUTION IMAGE/COURTESY: rottentomatoes.com
3/ LUST, CAUTION – a dark erotic spy thriller set in Shanghai during WWII, sucked me into a fascinating world I’d have no excuse to spy on otherwise. It was too long (like There Will Be Blood and most other films these days), but my eyes ate up the sumptuous costumes and period decor. As the idealistic college student turned undercover agent, Tang Wei seems to bare her very soul to Ang Lee’s camera and to her suspicious prey. Ditto: Tony Leung, playing a Chinese collaborator during the Japanese occupation. Now, here is a villain (unlike Jarvier Bardem’s cartoon baddie in No Country) who is uncomfortably believable as a human being. The lengthy cat and mouse game between these two is unbelievably tense as duplicitous seduction turns to passionate sex, and then becomes a painful love story. The sex scenes are uncompromisingly bold and hot (I think I learned a couple of new positions from this film), but did not feel exploitative of the female star to me. This might have been how SUSPICION would have looked like if Alfred Hitchcock had made it in 2007.
4/ JUNO: A wonderful script meets the perfect actress (Ellen Page) and is nimbly shepherded to the screen by Jason Reitman (whose THANK YOU FOR SMOKING made my list in 2006). Diablo Cody’s dialogue is so fresh; a combination of email and cellphone slang turned into verbal jazz riffs. Ellen Page delivers it so confidently and embraces her character so completely, you really can’t imagine anyone else as the feisty teenager who gets pregnant her first time at bat. The adult actors surrounding Juno are all perfectly cast and Reitman is judicious in giving each one their moments to shine. It was such a rush to hear people talk smart to each other in this slip of a film, which emulates the very best romantic comedies of the past but perfectly embodies this moment in time.
see: the JUNO trailer
5/ THE DARJEELING LIMITED// I’M NOT THERE:
I place these two films together smack in the middle of the list because while neither one succeeds completely, I really admire the strong vision of Wes Anderson and Todd Haynes. Much of what they got up on the screen is inspired and uncompromising, full of life, and unlike anything else out there. They deserve a shout out!
Wes Anderson has been continually criticized being too precious for his own good – Mr. Style over Substance.
Now, it’s true, a tight story is not his strongest point, but this saga of three estranged brothers trying to re-bond on a train trip through India works pretty well. It’s a road movie with style to spare (the Louis Vuitton suitcases the brothers haul across the globe even get a special credit!) but the film is about something more than production design. I came away thinking about the importance of trying to make peace and maintain family connections, for better or worse. There’s a divine short film (Hotel Chevalier) about one of the brothers and his difficult romance that precedes the big show but stands on its own as a marvelous divertissement.
Anderson’s stock company of players, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Angelica Huston, are all on board; joined this time by Adrien Brody and Bill Murray, who, in a great recurring bit, fails to make the train! There’s a tourist’s sense of wonder at the visual treats they discover, and a sense of humor that tips it’s hat to Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and the Beatles, as the brothers bicker their way across India. But then, there’s a moment when they set aside slapstick to stand together and support a small town through a tragedy that sticks with you in an entirely different way.
HEATH LEDGER as BOB DYLAN-PHOTO/COURTESY:ctvdigital.com
Todd Haynes has always been accused of being an inscrutable genius. This film meditation on the role Bob Dylan has played in public and in private is inscrutable but nothing short of epic. You get kind of lost in it but then tune back in. I do think his gimmick of having six different actors play Dylan is brilliant. You can tell Haynes has studied all of Dylan’s biographies, press conferences and concert films dozens of times searching for clues to the muse. All the touchstone moments are imagined in this film; Bob being booed for going electric, his refusal to be anointed as a prophet, mocking the press at work trying to discern “the meaning of it all”, Dylan in his ‘Lay Lady Lay’ Woodstock days, and, as the man who finds his Lord.
Heath Ledger plays Dylan as a failed husband in some searing scenes from a marriage with the wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg. The deep sense of sadness he communicates couldn’t be more affecting. In retrospect, one can’t help but wonder how Dylan was able to save his soul in the constant spotlight that burned out this beautiful young star way too soon.
check out the: I’M NOT THERE website !! – 2 trailers !!
6/ GONE BABY GONE: MICHAEL CLAYTON got all the attention, but I loved this melancholy little modern noir and the moral dilemma it dumps in the lap of the most believable private detective to grace film in ages. Casey Affleck holds the screen in the central role up against some real scenery chewers, like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman. Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard did a very good job of adapting Dennis Lehane’s sordid case of a missing child. A real feeling for South Boston and the characters who live there (the people who started out in the cracks and then fell through) permeates the film. It’s a fine directorial debut for Ben Affleck; and Amy Ryan deserves to win the Oscar as the little girl’s druggie, careless mom. She’s a force of nature as a woman the audience disapproves of, but just cannot hate despite it all.
7/ THERE WILL BE BLOOD: Some of the best sections of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about the rise of a ruthless oil baron in early 20th century California are without dialogue altogether. Since there’s no chit chat, it forces you to slow down and examine the work at hand in a whole different way and the film pulls you in with the same kind of power that some of the greatest silent films (like Napoleon and Sunrise) exhibit. Watching the sheer determination it takes to violate the earth with manual tools, to drop deep down into a mine and set explosives, to risk the high probability of injury and the long odds of actually making a strike, tells us a lot about Daniel Day Lewis’ character before he ever speaks. Later, watching the expression on his face as he swims blissfully in the ocean, then gradually begins to glance at his trusted partner with the growing suspicion that he is being played for a fool, is a towering moment of acting that took my breath away.
Although Anderson pays direct homage to Citizen Kane in the cataclysmic final scenes, I think There Will be Blood is a work of art that will stand the test of time on it’s own merits. If you need any reminder of where the foundation of greed that supports our society sprang from, just watch as Daniel Plainview’s ambitious pioneer spirit twists into an avaricious grab for land that betrays the innocent and emasculates any competitor trying to succeed on the same playing field. Why, I guess he’s as much of a destroyer as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (just one that I can access slightly better). Man, it’s downright poetic when Plainview’s little son, the one person on earth he shows his soft side to and wants to share it all with, is deafened in a oil rig explosion and they can no longer communicate. Your heart almost goes out to this monster.
VIGGO MORTENSEN in DAVID CRONENBERG’S EASTERN PROMISES/A FOCUS FEATURES RELEASE/PHOTO: PETER MOUNTAIN/COURTESY: STARPULSE
8/ EASTERN PROMISES– was an immensely satisfying movie-going experience for me. Even though the divide between the good guys and bad guys is blurred, righteousness ultimately wins out after some heart-stopping action sequences. Now, this is the kind escape from reality I’m looking for! David Cronenberg’s body of work is way too bloody for many, but his films always make provocative points about our culture and he always gets great performances from his actors. This time is no exception. The uncommonly excellent script is about a doctor (a persuasive Naomi Watts) who tries and fails to save the life of a young Russian woman who gives birth in the E.R. The dead patient’s diary opens up a sordid world of illegal immigrants promised good jobs, then enslaved as sex workers in a foreign country where they can’t even speak the language. The great Armin Mueller Stahl is truly terrifying as the Russian mob boss masquerading as a ‘kindly’ restaurant owner who offers Watts borsht while plotting her murder. Vincent Cassel is just terrific as his screwloose son, and then there’s Viggo Mortensen as the mysterious mob driver who marches to his own drummer. SIGH! From the hippie guy who gives Diane Lane a summer to remember in A Walk on the Moon to Aragon, the mythic hero in The Lord of The Rings, to the guy in A History of Violence, trying to rub out the past, Viggo just gets better and better. For me, the character he creates in Eastern Promises is the single greatest performance of the year. And the greatest thing about it is that you can’t even catch him acting. He is riveting as a smooth Russian criminal who isn’t fazed by cutting off a dead enemy’s fingertips and fights like a naked animal when he’s cornered with switchblades in a steam bath. He will be working again with Cronenberg in the screen adaptation of The Road and playing Edgar Allen Poe soon. I can’t wait.
FROM LEFT: KAL PENN, IRRFAN KHAN, SAHIRA NAIR and TABU in THE NAMESAKE.
PHOTO CREDIT: MIRA NAIR/COURTESY:FOX SEARCHLIGHT
FROM LEFT: TABU, KAL PENN and JACINDA BARRETT in THE NAMESAKE.
PHOTO CREDIT:ABBOT GENSER/COURTESY: FOX SEARCHLIGHT
9/ THE NAMESAKE: Long novels that follow a family’s fortunes are the stock and trade of great literature. Movies: not so much. There are countless examples of Hollywood buying a beloved book (The Kite Runner comes to mind) and trying to condense and capture it’s magic in the most well-meaning manner.
Director Mira Nair’s elliptical film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller stands out because it succeeds so gracefully where so many have missed the boat. The film follows a young man who marries a girl his parents have chosen for him in Calcutta and brings her to Queens, New York. A son and a daughter are born to the Gangulis and grow up living the American dream in the suburbs. They become adults who disappoint their parents and reject their values by taking up with white lovers, getting divorced, etc. Grandparents, then parents die, and before you know it, 40 years have passed. The acting is as subtle as the storytelling (and the cinematography by the masterful Frederick Elmes). I felt almost privileged to look on as a slow regard and enduring love builds between Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan). Kal Penn (1/2 of the Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle team) does nice work as the ‘namesake’ who doesn’t find out until almost the end why his father called him Gogol.
JEAN-LOUIS COULLOC’H as OLIVER PARKIN in LADY CHATTERLEY/COURTESY: KINO
MARINA HANDS as LADY CHATTERLEY/COURTESY: KINO
JEAN-LOUIS COULLOC’H and MARINA HANDS in LADY CHATTERLEY/COURTESY: KINO
10/ LADY CHATTERLEY: It’s their love of nature that brings two lonely people from different classes together. Pascale Ferran’s adaptation of the second and lesser-known version of D.H. Lawrence’s once scandalous tale of sexual awakening is beautiful. An aristocratic lady whose husband has been paralyzed in the war seeks what stimulation and release she can find by taking long walks and collecting flowers. Passing through the gate that separates their estate from the forest beyond leads her to Parkin, the rough, almost monosyllabic gameskeeper, who becomes her soul mate. Almost three hours long (with subtitles!), you will either fall asleep or surrender to the experience! Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coullooc’h give such brave performances. As the seasons change, flowers bloom, snow blankets the ground, and they reveal themselves in the kind of relationship most men and women just dream about.
check out: the LADY CHATTERLEY website with trailer
THE BEST OF THE REST:
11/ The Bourne Ultimatum: Who doesn’t love a great chase scene? And, it’s quite an achievement to make the 3rd installment in a series as action-packed as the first two. Matt Damon is a seriously underrated actor who brings great intensity and a wounded humanity to this guy who doesn’t know who or what exactly he is.
12/ 3:10 to Yuma: an absolutely swell throwback to the classic western where the good guy triumphs after having his ass kicked. The whole cast looks like they are having a blast. It’s pure joy seeing two of the best, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, square off. Ben Foster was robbed of a best supporting actor nomination. That dude was one scary sidekick!
13/ Talk about cutting to the chase! Consider: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. This sad little robbery gone wrong proceeds at warp speed under the able direction of Sidney Lumet. The script by Kelly Masterson is a puzzle, which obscures the big picture by starting and stopping the action to consider each piece from a different character’s POV. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the most valuable player of 2007. He is brilliant here, in Charlie Wilson’s War, and The Savages. What a showoff!
14/ Two Days in Paris: She acts, she writes music and scripts, she directs: I for one, didn’t find the critical comparisons of Julie Delphy to early Woody Allen grandiose. I laughed and laughed at this weird little comedy about a woman who drags her boyfriend (played by the hysterically caustic Adam Goldberg, Delphy’s real life former B.F.) home to meet the parents in Paris, where they run into her numerous previous lovers wherever they go.
15. Persepolis: Another feisty female coming of age story – this one set in Iran after the Shah’s overthrow. Marjane Satrapi (with Vincent Paronnaud) turns her comic book memoir into a beautifully animated film journey. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss it.
16/ Atonement: I am a complete sucker for historic British love stories set in sweeping cinemascope landscapes with impeccable production design. I loved the first section – Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are very well matched and that is one divalicious green gown. Found the second section very frustrating despite the brilliant ‘cuts’ made as the camera move across the battlefront. I just didn’t like the woman that bad little girl became, and the lovers are separated for soooooo long. Admired the short and sweet 3rd part with Vanessa Redgrave.
17/ Away From Her: Impressive directorial debut and literary adaptation by actress Sarah Polley. Loved the visual metaphor of the cross-country ski tracks in the snow. Thought Gordon Pinsent was every bit as good as Julie Christie in the less showy role of a husband whose loved one is losing her mind but seems to remember all of his missteps perfectly! Olympia Dukakis was also superb as a woman who wants her share of the action before it’s too late.
18/ Blade Runner 25th Anniversary re-release: I know it seems like this 1982 cult film is re-released or recut by director Ridley Scott every two years, but this year’s model, seen on the big screen at the Ziegfield, was simply amazing. Every time you see it (and my husband has required me to see it about 11 times) you notice or understand something else about this terse, dense evocation of the near future. Shots have been fixed, wires digitally removed, and what has always been a film of uncommon beauty has been lovingly enhanced. To think this visual masterpiece was made before all these CG tricks existed is fantastic. The DVD package contains every version of the film ever made and features an incredible documentary, which contains deleted scenes, screen tests by the actors who got the roles, as well as those who didn’t, interviews with all the major players, the screenwriters, production designers, et al.
One detail I found fascinating was that the writer’s strike that was going on back then delayed the start of shooting and gave Scott and his team of visual futurists a few extra months to bring their iconic vision to life.
They didn’t know it at the time, but looking back it becomes obvious that everyone connected with Blade Runner was giving their very best. Their vision of what lies ahead has never been surpassed by the dozens and dozens of films it influenced and all the special effects that have come since.
But what also makes it such a timeless gem is the score by Vangelis (one of the all-time greatest), a perfect cast (yes, even Sean Young), and THE STORY, STUPID! What does it mean to be human? Hampton Fancher and David Peoples turned Philip K. Dick’s book, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ into a screenplay that still pricks the conscience and touches the heart.
19/ Tekonkinkreet: Like Blade Runner, Michael Arias’s absolutely mesmerizing animated feature (a stunning blend of computer graphics and hand drawn character and background work) imagines the immediate future. It’s about two Japanese street kids surviving harsh changes in their world with guts and imagination. It came and went in America without notice. Catch up with it soon.
20/ Forever: Heddy Honingmann’s documentary film set in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is about how the dead continue to inspire the living. It’s an inspiration.