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Nathan Vass’ Top Ten Movies of 2007

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I, Erik Samdahl, posted my top ten movies of 2007 a couple weeks ago. Here, check out the top ten movies of 2007 as determined by Nathan Vass, who has done occasion guest movie reviews on the website over the last couple of years. Nathan has an excellent but particular taste in movies; I’ll agree with him pretty much spot on 80% of the time, and 10% he’ll absolutely love movies that I simply liked (American Gangster, for one) and the other 10% I couldn’t disagree more (300). Regardless, he writes a lot more poetically than me, so please enjoy his best movies of 2007, as well as some other insightful comments…

1. There Will Be Blood

The boundaries of cinema are now slightly bigger. ‘Blood’ is like nothing you have ever seen, or heard. Every element of it, from Day-Lewis’s blistering, rightly lauded performance to (Radiohead) Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score- if ever there was a film that defied superlatives, this is it. Anderson’s long takes highlight the performances, and his writing establishes a unique vernacular quite unlike anything I’ve heard, which he slowly escalates to something way beyond tipping point in the final scene, an ungodly stunner that flies in the face of categorization or even description, but must simply be seen to be believed. Everyone knows Day-Lewis is great, but nobody’s ever seen like this before. Steven Spielberg has stated that Anderson is his favorite director of the new generation, and I am inclined to agree. Easily one of the towering cinematic achievements of the new decade.

2. No Country For Old Men

It’s the ending that raises this film to the level of masterpiece. For the first two acts, the Coens make a measured, tense thriller rooted in physicality, with riveting but easily comprehendible situations. Then, the film takes a sharp left turn in its viewpoint, but not its subject matter, forcing us to reevaluate the thematics of what we’ve seen in a way we wouldn’t have expected- it’s about a man’s change in worldview, and how he achieves peace with himself internally, by changing the way he sees things, instead of finding closure physically. It’s a cerebral ending, and a challenging one for most audiences; at first glance it feels unresolved, but in reality it couldn’t be moreso. The film is not exactly very approachable or entertaining, but the execution of the scenes, performances, and in particular, the script, really couldn’t be any better.

3. Zodiac

If you forgot about this film, it’s time to see it again. Another reviewer wrote that if if Fight Club was Fincher’s rock’n’roll masterpiece, this is his twelve-part symphony. Like Oliver Stone’s JFK, the film mines its subject matter for all it’s worth, thereby becoming the definitive last word on its subject (the investigation of the Zodiac murders in 1970s San Francisco). Certainly serial killer movies will continue to be made, but they will be difficult to take seriously in light of this film, which, finally, exposes the true nature of investigative police work and journalism- it is tedious, exhausting, sometimes never-ending- an arduous numbing of the soul. The film is not so much about the Zodiac himself, but about the people who fell to the psychological toll of pursuiing him; one by one they drop out of the picture, until only one (Jake Gyllenhal) is unable to give up, having lost the rest of his life long ago. It’s a bleak picture, but a valuable and cautionary one. Writers will take pleasure in its detail and measured pacing, and especially for its unique inverted-pyramid structure- you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

4. American Gangster

Ridley Scott’s so good that when he turns in another masterpiece, people shrug their shoulders. His new film is as good as any of his others, and well worth the time of any serious filmgoer; the film’s incredibly dense, intricate plotting is reminiscent of JFK. Indeed, Gangster holds the record for the film with the most locations (180). Steven Zaillian’s script takes a unique approach- dozens (about 350, in the shooting script) of very short scenes, many of them without dialogue, sketch together a detailed portrait of two like-minded workaholics on very different career paths.

The two characters seem similar to others we’ve seen before, but there are subtle differences that make them very different. Lucas (Washington) is oblivious to the glamourous side of ‘the life,’ seeing it merely as a lucrative but exhausting business venture; he has conversations with associates not about fast cars or women, but about exclusivity rights and trademark infringement. Roberts is of the same breed, with a little more humanity; both of them define themselves by what they do. Contrary to popular consensus, Crowe’s character is almost more interesting than Washington’s- we wonder what makes him so doggedly honest. Could it be the same vision of the possibilities of America that he shares with Lucas, but from a different angle? A film that stimulates such questions should not be ignored.

I should also note the tremendous performance by Washington; watch him at the moment when he first sees Russell Crowe. You can read a dozen emotions on his face in the space of a few seconds. And then there is the direction- each successive film Ridley makes further cements his status as one of the premier visual stylists of our time. The communicative power of the cinematography, the use of music, the layered but followable script, the sheer size of the picture- it’s all impeccable, and very much deserving of the iconic title.

5. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

What lingers in the mind is not the story or plotting, but the atmosphere. This is a film about that which is nearly intangible- the unspoken inner thoughts of others, the gradual shifts in the mind that lead a man to do something he originally couldn’t dream of. Scenes drift past us, at first appearing inconsequential, but in hindsight revealing exactly what we needed to know. The title of the picture tells the what and who; the film tells us the how and the why. The performances by both leads are award-worthy, although the film has somehow been passed over this awards season, despite its undeniable if unique quality.

6. I’m Not There

The film is just like Bob Dylan- frustrating but brilliant, complex but engrossing, always at the cusp of being comprehendible. Most importantly of all- it’s completely uncategorizable. The more you know about Dylan, the more comprehensible the film is, and the more one can appreciate the novel approach (six actors, including an 11-year black boy and Cate Blanchett, portray various sides of the Dylan persona). The fact that the movie actually manages to make any sense at all is a testament to the talent of the filmmakers. Todd Haynes’ direction is highly energetic and hugely ambitious; the visuals are many and varied in their approach. You don’t watch this movie so much as wander around in it- and that’s a good thing. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Blanchett as the 1960s-era Bob Dylan.

7. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

Large portions of the film are shot exclusively from the point of view of the protagonist’s left eye- the only part of his body that hasn’t been paralyzed. There are lots of movies about paraplegics; you’ve never seen one like this. Vibrant colors and beautiful compositions leap off the screen; American painter Julian Schnabel’s direction is in-your-face outstanding. Somehow, the film manages to be very uplifting, despite its subject matter. The film concerns the man’s coming to terms with his new state of living, somehow still finding some humor and joy in life. The picture is based on the life of a French editor of Elle magazine, who, upon being paralyzed, dictated his entire autobiography by blinking his left eye.

8. Into The Wild

A fantastically involving picture. Penn’s direction is remarkably fluid, and the questions the story posits are relevant to so many of us; we are allowed to consider the character’s ideas and actions on their own terms, and come to our own conclusions about life. One of the most thought-provoking and deeply rewarding cinematic experiences of the year.

9. Juno

How rare- a comedy made with attention to human nature, exploring its characters not just for laughs but for the same insight we gain from watching dramas. There is a humanity lurking under the too-cool exterior of Juno, and you can sense traces of it in the nuances of Ellen Page’s incredible performance; her quirkiness and ironic attitude conceal something that is never shown in the film, but clearly sensed. It’s a remarkably difficult role. Also rare in a teenage comedy- Juno actually seems like her parent’s child, and we can see where she learned to be the smartass that she is. The drama of the story is real, and earned, and by the end, we feel we’ve been somewhere. The same can’t be said for most comedies today. (Also worth noting: when was the last time you saw a *cool* stepmom in a movie??)

10. Michael Clayton / Atonement / The Bourne Ultimatum

All three films are pitch-perfect examples of their respective genres, and represent filmmakers working at the top of their craft. Gilroy’s Michael Clayton is the best legal picture since Mann’s The Insider, and is astonishingly well written and directed for a first timer; Atonement is a period piece with a very unique story focus (neither of the lead actors are the main characters) and very, very sharp editing and direction; with Bourne Ultimatum, Greengrass has all but perfected his style, shooting a studio tentpole sequel as if it was an indie docudrama; the film is made of three chase sequences, and he injects them with a realism that can’t be achieved any other way. His editing is disorienting but intricate; notice how flows of motion are started in one shot but are almost never continued in the next. The best action picture in several years.

Other comments

Sicko

Great, mostly non-partisan documentary that makes you want to move to France.

Transformers

The fulfillment of Michael Bay’s promise to cinema- beautiful, exquisitely photographed wall-to-wall kinetic movement, complete with laughable dialogue and story. It’s fantastic.

Gone Baby Gone

Ben Affleck’s (co)writing and direction is confident and mature, and best of all, understated. The script uses a crime drama as a template for exploring different, complex points of view on a certain aspect of the human condition.

La Vie En Rose

Nearly the best musical biopic that still uses the musical biopic template (that is, struggling artist makes big, takes drugs, does one last show); the overwhelming advantage here is total non-linearity, connecting scenes not by time but by emotion. Cotllard’s performance is outstanding. Also worth noting is the presence of some incredible dynamic tracking shots.

3:10 To Yuma

Another genre picture that works very well without breaking out of the bounds of its mold. The film is about as good as it could be as such. Worth mentioning is the humanity of the Christian Bale character, and the dynamic between the two leads.

Reign Over Me

A brilliant first hour, very affecting in its realistic approach of a unique dilemma studiously avoided in the movies; the remainder of the picture unfortunately dissolves into typical studio melodrama. A massively unrealistic courtroom scene near the end takes the cake.

Across The Universe

Well worth it for its ambition and creativity;

Hot Fuzz

Another excellent comedy with good characters, albeit a good deal more frivolous, and gory, than Juno; it kicks into high gear in the last half hour. A good number of unmissable scenes.

300

Glorified nihilism at its worst. The film wallows in stereotypes and prejudices, positing psychotic violence as a premier problem-solving tool and worse, a cause for glory. It isn’t that the film’s characters are morally repugnant, although they are; it’s that the film takes a stance that glorifies their outlook. Only in post 9-11 America could a picture like this be so well-received. I recognize its many strong points (the visuals are undeniably great), and want to like the picture, but am unable to get past its non-relation to reality. I should stress that despite that, it is not, however, a bad film by any means.

Beowulf

People will laugh about this film in times to come- indeed, some already are. Zemeckis has miraculously forgotten how to make the masterpieces for which he is famous, choosing instead to turn a piece of epic literature into a short, action-fluff piece that doesn’t even work on its own terms. 3D effects are particularly risible, essentially emphasizing foreground/background contrasts, throwing the swishing arrow in every now and then. The novelty wears off fast, and 3D shots thrown in for their own sake will seem extraneous and oddly paced on the 2D dvd.

The Kingdom

A surprising disappointment. The film dares to simplify America’s involvement in Iraq, and all the complexities involved, into a big-budget version of CSI. The story and imagery, at times, smacks of blatant wish-fulfillment, particularly in the climactic gun battle. The opening credits set us up for a story that builds upon the complicated, violent history of Saudi Arabia, but only offers us a peek in the film’s final 30 seconds. The rest is a (very) well-executed version of a mediocre and irrelevant story- not something promised in the film’s opening.

Grindhouse

Ebert writes, “This evocation of a grindhouse may have existed somewhere, sometime, but my movie-going reaches back to before either director was born, and I have never witnessed a double bill and supporting program much like the one they have created…. “Grindhouse” is an attempt to re-create a double feature that never existed for an audience that no longer exists.” He is right, but the films stand on their own, even if their origins don’t. Rodriguez understands the appeal of the “good bad film,” and offers an excellent one with Planet Terror, which involves zombies, Bin Laden assassins, barbeques and small motorcycles; Tarantino’s segment is actually intended to be a good movie- which it is- and focuses on too-hip dialogue, female feet, a kinetic car chase, and some fairly disturbing violence that is ambiguous in its intent on the viewer. An excellent, unique package, overflowing with its filmmakers’ creativity and love for their medium.

The Savages

Hoffman nails it, again. Linney proves herself once more. Tamara Jenkins’ script moves well, exploring an unexplored but universal topic (what do we do with our aging parents?) with detail and good humor.

Eastern Promises

Cronenberg’s non-direction appears as a missed opportunity at first sight, but upon further reflection is quite effective. His use of slightly wider-angle lenses and compositions that center shoulders instead of heads doesn’t even register on first viewing. He infuses a subtle sense of dread through mostly indiscernible means; he pointedly asks us to wonder what the different characters are thinking, a task many filmgoers may not be accustomed to. Note the way he reveals that one of the characters is homosexual. The use of readings from a diary, peripherally related to all the characters, is timed to suggest the inner motivations of the characters then onscreen. A unique, film-going experience. Worth mentioning is the climactic (and unending) bathhouse fight, which shows us the visceral vulnerability of close combat in ways we’ve definitely haven’t seen before.

By Erik Samdahl
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