1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Meeting and exceeding expectations beyond my wildest dreams, 2007’s most dynamic cinematic treat hit every mark and fulfilled every promise on its way to sheer perfection. There’s not a scene I would change, or performance I would alter, and standing above the crowd is Casey Affleck, inhabiting the very soul of an American loser who, despite his relative anonymity, changed history not through cleverness, guile, or talent, but rather the only way open to his ilk — the barrel of a gun. For this is less a story about the rise and fall of a Wild West icon than an immersion in Ford’s misguided narcissism, making him the undisputed father of many a sad idealist, be it Czolgosz, Oswald, Sirhan, or Bremer. All are bound together, then, as those who sought the infamy of the powerless. Whether as a history lesson, character study, or somber meditation on identity and loneliness, this is that rare movie where artistic ambition meets narrative skill with a resulting genius for the ages. As a Western it challenges the our need for heroes; as a revisionist fable it dares question the official lies that permeate our collective memory; and as sheer craft, it seems to reinvent the medium right before our eyes, recreating a new and believable world almost without parallel. And that final act? After Ford has committed his dastardly deed? As good as anything committed to celluloid in 100 years. American mythology has rarely been so tenderly torn asunder.
Stark and moody, dark and brooding, this memoir of Iran succeeds not because it tells us what we already know — that life under religious fundamentalism is an unrelenting nightmare — but rather because it does so with wit, charm, and a quiet humanity so often missing in portraits of the Middle East. And as animation, its sharp lines and deep blacks blast away the silliness of talking animals and overwrought bursts of color. Because this tale is told through the eyes of a child, we get every emotion under the sun, as well as the shifting loyalties and identity confusion that speak to a universal experience. As both the Shah and the post-revolutionary regime feel the sting of satire’s lash, no one could ever accuse the filmmaker’s voice of harboring a secret romantic longing for an idealized past. In that sense, this is one of the few odes to freedom that avoids grandstanding and political demagoguery. What this young woman seeks, and what she cannot find in the country of her birth, is the right to fail, which is just as vital as the right to succeed. Using her experiences in an Austrian boarding school, Marjane tries on various hats almost at will, liberating the imagination in ways religion seeks to eliminate through dry repetition and unthinking ritual. In the end, what saves her — and what can save any civilization locked away behind the walls of tyranny — is a vulgar expression, a sexy remark, or even a bit of loud music to release the fires of aggression. Perhaps, even, a feisty grandmother’s bosom. It also makes one hell of a case for instituting “Eye of the Tiger” as our national anthem. Though now, it belongs to the world.
3. Away from Her
It had every right to fail. It should have failed. Is it possible to make a film about Alzheimer’s that avoids cheap sentiment, phony uplift, and mawkish displays of emotion? I never would have thought so, but in 2007, young Sarah Polley managed a feat few could ever hope to equal. In a shot, and seemingly overnight, she has cast herself among the world’s great filmmakers, establishing a maturity and breadth of vision that usually require a lifetime to acquire. To the film’s credit, this is not the story of two sweet old birds who make goofy eyes at each other until one starts forgetting to flush the toilet. Instead, the husband and wife of this tale are flawed, angry people who share a deep and abiding love, but only because it’s one of the few cinematic portraits of such love that harbors no illusions. There has been betrayal and boredom in these lives, as well as despair and retreat, and each are beyond thinking a greeting card is going to solve the issue before the final credits. This is a somber, adult film; a deep, unsettling look at what it really means to spend your life with a single person, and how we’ve so degraded the idea of acceptance that most of us fail to recognize its true implications. Both Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent give towering performances, and the supporting players do much to flesh out unforeseen emotional turns. And yes, it ends perfectly, without any sense of triumph, but simply the quiet realization of life’s punishing mystery.
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Now standing as one of the leanest, most authentic portraits of authoritarian rule ever filmed, this bleak Romanian character study is no mere advocacy picture. An abortion is sought, but no placards are forthcoming, and no one shouts from the rafters what most of us are thinking. Instead, this brutally honest movie considers freedom and its absence, and the ways in which human beings adapt to even the most heinous of circumstances. Lacking any real political axe whatsoever, it takes its time concentrating on small, near imperceptible gestures; glances and nods that pass for dialogue in a nation that long ago lost its mind. And yet, as is the case with all repressive regimes, the official story does not capture the citizenry body and soul, proving that as unforgiving as life can be behind walls, it often forces us to tap hidden reserves of wit and intelligence that are crucial for survival. And yet, despite the lack of overt gestures, one cannot help but watch in horror during the abortion itself, not because of any “pro-life” massaging of truth, but rather out of the recognition that when tyranny strikes, it first seeks to control reproduction. As a consequence, women suffer first and most often. Is this a feminist screed, then? Hardly, though one may apply those standards if one chooses. In line with its advocacy of freedom, the film respects our intelligence and lets us gather the data on our own. Above all, it is a consideration of the abortionist that hits the harshest note. As abortion will exist whether or not is receives the sanction of the law, it goes without saying that without protection, fear and clinical detachment will replace the necessary compassion and care so vital at such a time.
5. I’m Not There
A distaste for Bob Dylan likely kept many away from this bizarre, wholly unique exploration of the elusive artist, but as much as an appreciation for his music is necessary, this could just as easily be about a fictional creation as an actual man. And so the rub. Director Todd Haynes just might be admitting that Mr. Dylan doesn’t really exist at all, at least in any form we can understand from the cheap seats. Dividing his life into “acts” while using a diverse roster of talent to portray the icon, Haynes is admitting that a traditional arc would not only cheapen the overall story, but also fail to capture the essence of a slippery personality who works as much on resisting labels as he does his music. Hell yes, this is a scattershot, maddening, frustrating mess of a thing, and as likely to alienate as entertain, but who else would have the balls to admit that the nature of the artist is to confound, rather than clarify? Dylan is a musical genius to be sure, but he’s also a humorless bastard when the mood strikes, and his contempt for audience and fellow man alike is legendary. But how else to handle such monumental fame, and how else to remain engaged in a laborious, often tedious way of life? And yet, this is far from a pitying, self-indulgent tragedy of artistic sacrifice. We can love the man, or hate him, but let’s stop pretending we know a thing about him, especially when he knows so little about himself. Maybe I’m guilty of admiring this film more than actually liking it, but when so many movies limp forth, dry up, and blow away without registering a single chord, how privileged, then, to stand in the face of true audacity and risk.
6. Charlie Wilson’s War
Political movies rarely work these days, either clearing theaters with an elitist sneer, or so dumbing down world events that all relevance is lost. In the end, it took Mike Nichols to get it right. Peppering his smart script with sly wit, Aaron Sorkin maintains the proper balance of laughter and thoughtful drama, always remembering that ultimately, politics is the triumph of the ridiculous. As played by Tom Hanks, Mr. Wilson is a slave to his passions (women, liquor, and cocaine, to name a few), but thankfully, he is never made to apologize for his sins. Seeking no redemption, Wilson instead channels his remaining energies into fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan, albeit under the table and behind the scenes. Using his seemingly innate talent for the game, he makes deals, cuts corners, and even sleeps with born again right-wingers to secure the necessary support. He’s a bastard, but few Congressmen have been so delightful in their descent. Philip Seymour Hoffman adds a measure of sad-sack wisdom as a weary CIA agent, once again demonstrating that as much as we’d like to imagine our nation being defended by neatly tailored James Bonds, the rumpled, sleep-deprived cynics actually carry the day. And while the film connects the necessary dots from support of the Mujahideen to the events of 9/11, nothing is ever forced, or revealed with a told-you-so smugness.
Released during the dead days of early March, David Fincher’s superb achievement was ignored by audiences, but has received some overdue respect by the critical establishment at year’s end. It’s easy to see why theaters remained empty, however. Long, detailed, and more a think-piece than slam-bang thriller, the film masterfully recreates an era while maintaining a healthy respect for the rigors of investigation, be it journalistic or through more legal channels. Graphic killings are reproduced, but this is not a dime store analysis of yet another quirky madman; this is a story from the other side, and how a failure to catch a killer destroys those obsessed with closure. Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal throw much into their roles, always flirting with madness, but it is Robert Downey Jr. as a hard-living newspaperman who steals the show. Whenever he appears, everything around him falls away, and we are left watching an actor at the peak of his powers, seemingly without peer. And while the film stays true to its vision of the hunt, there’s a commentary lurking at the edges, speaking to our collective obsession with death, just so long as the clues keep coming. Whether these men are driven to the depths of despair by the failure to prevent additional killings or simply the ego drive of being outsmarted, one can never know. But Fincher’s modern classic doesn’t hazard a guess, as it too prefers ambiguity to the absolute. We love a good crime drama, but can’t seem to live with the one that gets away.
8. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Billy Mitchell, despite being a wizard with a joystick and one hell of a hot sauce mogul, is, unlike the dictator of your choosing, the true villain of the 20th century, even managing to spill over a bit into our own time. With an ego way out of proportion with his actual achievements, he has the strut and swagger of a man who has never been challenged, if only because one must actually interact with other human beings to be so pressed. Even his video game records, the envy of many a geek throughout the globe, are curiously suspect, as this man has all the desperate sincerity of a used car salesman facing termination. That, and he lies as a matter of course. Still, as hateful as he is, there are few who would make so fascinating a subject for a documentary, and his story (along with his rival, the comparatively normal Steve Wiebe), despite inhabiting a world few of us might recognize, is arguably the archetypal American tale. Believing fame to be our birthright, we seek to be the best at something, no matter how trivial or obscure, in order to stand out from the faceless masses. Still, as insightful as this film is, it also takes us through the riotous days and nights of life with Donkey Kong, from the practice sessions to the arcade competitions, which would have all the electricity of a heavyweight bout if anyone worth knowing gave a shit. No matter, as we come to care — and care deeply — because the documentary wisely avoids a superior tone. Without mockery, there’s pathos afoot, and despite the lives devoted to sheer nonsense, much more appears to hang in the balance.
9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
On its face, it’s a three-hanky weeper. A cheap melodrama. An embarrassing, life-affirming mess. If made in America, perhaps, but under the steady, methodical, and Frenchified hand of Julian Schnabel, this is a mere recitation of fact, not emotional rape. Handsome, carefree magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers a massive stroke, leaving him completely immobile with the exception of his left eye. Possessing only the ability to blink, he learns to communicate, eventually writing a book about his experiences. Even in the telling, it sounds hopelessly maudlin, but take my word for it: this is an unguarded, straight shot into the heart of hell, most realized in the opening scenes, where we take Bauby’s perspective from his inescapable tomb. Without even the ability to commit suicide, Bauby is left with blurry visions of a world he can no longer affect, or contribute to in any meaningful way. It’s the ultimate disempowerment. Still, there is no pity, no pleas to a deity, and no sense of heroism to be found. Here’s a man who suffered a tragedy, and here is what he does during the course of each day. Through such minimalism, the film beats back the notion that the sick and the lame must necessarily act as fountains of wisdom for our emulation. Bauby was a shallow jerk in life, and though gaining some perspective through a health crisis, he hasn’t been transformed in any artificial manner. Lacking grand pronouncements, it was sheer exhilaration to watch something as simple — and as mind-numbingly laborious — as dictation between patient and nurse. And speaking of that nurse, one Marie-Josee Croze, there are few who could make the alphabet so damned erotic. In a film without God, she’s as close to an angel as we’re allowed.
Guilty pleasures, as the term implies, are still pleasures, and despite their reputation as cheesy, often unwatchable disasters, they can often illuminate aspects of the culture that more high profile releases studiously avoid. Of all the movies released in 2007, this one had the cold eye and hard heart to take a Louisville Slugger to hearth and home; all but promoting despair and abandonment as the only sane reactions to the poison of wee ones. Little Joshua — proper, studious, and yes, more than a little odd — is hardly the apple of his mother’s eye, and his father, the adulterous, selfish lout, has no idea what to say to the lad. And as revolutionary as any movie is that dares question the sanctity of family, the most curious turn remains with Joshua himself. He’s smart, savvy, and precocious, and as such, he knows his parents are not up to the task. Faced with such a depressing reality, why not so orchestrate events that you can dispatch with the dead wood and choose the most suitable guardian, who in this case is a raging queen with snooty tastes? A homosexual as the last, best hope for our most gifted children? My god, it’s practically a declaration of war. More than that, though, this is a clever, well-crafted drama, one that shifts from cackling hilarity to unsparing horror in the span of a single scene. Above all, though, the scenes involving the crying newborn and the sleepless nights just might be the most effective means of birth control yet devised.
The Second Ten:
12. The Hoax
13. Into the Wild
14. Confessions of a Superhero
16. Audience of One
17. No Country for Old Men
18. My Kid Could Paint That
19. Strictly Background
20. Machete trailer from Grindhouse