Ah, year’s end: the time to reflect on the bounty that was the 2007 movie year. There were many truly great films, one that I would actually call a classic, scores of excellent documentaries, and even a bunch of major studio flicks that are actually worth watching and only missed this collection by a hair (I’m thinking Sweeney Todd and Juno–which was the fruit of a major studio).
Sadly, the Oscars are going to ignore some of the best, and it’s becoming apparent that, for the third year in a row, the Academy is going to ignore the finest performance by a male lead for the third year in a row. In ’05 no one, in my mind, was better than Jeff Daniels in The Squid and The Whale: a brutally honest portrayal of a man falling apart in his career and his watching his sons desert him. In ’06, Toby Jones was Truman Capote in Infamous (showing us both the joy and the despair of being Truman). That film was utterly destroyed by the inferior Capote a year earlier. This year, Tommy Lee Jones was perfect in the deeply flawed In the Valley of Elah. His examination of a soldier coming to grips with the death of his son–and, in essence, his faith in his country and the military that ostensibly protects it–was simply magnificent. Since he didn’t even get a Golden Globe nomination, there’s not a junebug’s chance on a windshield that Jones’ll get any recognition.
Sadly, this was also a year that saw some of the finer big-budget films fall to the wayside, as garbage like 300 and Wild Hogs raked in the dough over Grindhouse and Zodiac. But them’s the breaks, I suppose.
Without further bloviating, here’s my favorite from the year:
10. Grindhouse One of the battiest and most enjoyable three hours you could spend in a theater. Real grindhouse fare is only fun if you’re dead drunk or stoned, and even then it’s damned tedious. Directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino know this, and made a pair of crack films that stand up to repeated viewing. The fake trailers, fake blood, awesome car chases and sexy chicks made Grindhouse a barrel of fun. Why Miramax didn’t release this in the summer–and during the drive-in theater season–is beyond me.
9. INLAND EMPIRE Yes, it is supposed to be in all-caps. David Lynch’s most bizarre film (and that’s saying a hell of a lot), INLAND EMPIRE bookends his masterpiece Mulholland Dr. as the most thorough and damning examination of the nightmare that is Hollywood, the devourer of dreams (and dreamers).
8. My Kid Could Paint That Sad, beautiful, and the most thought-provoking documentary of the year. Amir Bar-Lev’s little film about four-year-old Marla Olmstead, who may or may not have painted giant abstract paintings that have sold for many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some people walk away from My Kid Could Paint That convinced Marla painted these, more come away feeling like her parents are charlatans. But everyone comes away conflicted about the nature of modern art, child rearing, and their own complicity in Marla’s damaging fame. Watch it with your children for an even more complex experience.
6. Killer of Sheep Shot in 1977 in the Watts district of Los Angeles, and suppressed for these thirty years because director Charles Burnett had never secured the rights of the songs in the film. Worth the wait: Killer of Sheep is an unsparing look at the vicissitudes of poverty, how adults try to maintain their dignity and children try to find joy in the midst of such despair. Utterly heartbreaking.
5. The Lives of Others This tale of an East German Stasi officer who finally becomes a human being was made even more poignant with the death of its star, the great Ulrich Muhe, who died this last spring from stomach cancer. No doubt he was suffering when the film was being made. A wonderful movie about the power of art to wreck the calculating evil of the state.
4. Great World of Sound This sweet, melancholy little comedy never made it to Minneapolis–it’s amazing that the damn thing ever saw the light of day. Less a comedy than a thorough and uncompromising look at the life of snake-oil salesmen: in this case, losers with the Great World of Sound company, a so-called recording studio whose one goal is to fleece aspiring musicians. The director, Craig Zobel, could have taken the easy route and made the myriad auditions of amateur singers into fodder for cheap laughs or American Idol parody. But no one in Great World of Sound gets off easily, though everyone–even the rip-off artists–emerge with their dignity intact. A fascinating movie, less funny than moving, and anchored with a wonderful performance by Kene Holliday. When this finally hits DVD, put it at the top of your NetFlix queue.
3. There Will Be Blood (opens at the Uptown on January 4) As epic and weird as Moby-Dick, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is bound to be a big, fat flop, box-office wise. The story of an oil man who inherits a son, meets a mad evangelist, and, of course, strikes oil and sticks it to both the major corporations and, in a sense, God. The insane ending is making everyone fidget, the movie is long, uncomfortable, filled with disagreeable characters who look as if they’re going to rip one another’s heads off, and has a screeching soundtrack reminiscent of Stravinsky‘s most disturbing work. This is one strange masterpiece that will haunt you for days.
2. Zodiac Sadly, no one knew quite what to do with this movie. Zodiac looked like another great serial-killer thriller from David Fincher, the guy who gave us Seven, and the studios tried their level best to market it as such. But it’s far from a bloody slasher: Zodiac is instead a movie about frustration, about paranoia, and its nearly three hours leave you exhausted. And that’s great. The story of the men–police officers, journalists, and even a political cartoonist–who tried desperately to catch California’s Zodiac killer, and lost their lives (figuratively) doing so. These men are obsessives, following one lousy lead after another, and the movie does the same. Fincher’s direction
is perfect, as obsessed with detail as the detectives who must search every nook, cranny, and dust mote at the scene.
1. Ratatouille In reviewing Evan Almighty, The Onion brought up an interesting point: "Historically, throwing money at a comedy has never made it funnier, because there’s nothing more cost-effective than a joke, and nothing more ruinous than a spectacle trampling all over it." However, I can think of two exceptions to that rule: The General, Buster Keaton’s Civil War comedy that used the spectacle of soldiers, cannons, and a train crashing into a river to great comic effect (and could not do without it). But in sending a real locomotive crashing into the drink, Keaton made The General the most expensive silent film of all time, and might have ended his career. Then there’s Ratatouille. Now, Ratatouille’s budget, well over a hundred million dollars, is not so much the result of spectacle, but the cost of labor. See, this isn’t the 1930s, and you can’t hire animators to make a cartoon that’s as good or better than Snow White and Pinocchio and pay them in pennies, dirt, and empty promises the way Uncle Walt used to.
But I digress. Ratatouille is sweet to look at, and could be the finest animated movie in history. Look at that kitchen–the reflections in the copper kettles, the crumbs under the stove, the way the marble steps are worn out just so. You could stare at the far corner of the screen, away from the action, and get an eyeful of rich detail. Director Brad Bird moves his camera through this crowded kitchen with the dexterity of Keaton leaping through windows and ladders. Ratatouille works on so many levels: the film is a feast of good humor, rich characterization, with a witty script and dynamite direction. It is slapstick and screwball mixed together (one is violence, the other sex), and is a touching examination of the sticky relationship between artists and critics. The vocal talent is spot-on, Patton Oswalt simply perfect as Remy, the rat who so yearns to cook that he’ll risk his life. Of course you should watch this delight with a child: the stuff they won’t get they’ll ache to understand, and maybe, just maybe, you can get that picky eater to chow on the titular–and vegetarian!–dish.
Once again I have to gripe: Ratatouille garnered rave reviews across the board, and yet critics have seemed squirmish to place this on their year-end lists. Why? Cartoons don’t rate? Children’s films don’t rate? Rest assured, Ratatouille, which deserves every Oscar and accolade there is, will instead get its sole nomination in the Best Animated Feature category, along with Bee Movie and other lousy fare (even Persepolis, which will probably be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, will be spared that indignity). I guess it doesn’t matter. Ratatouille ranks up there with the greats: His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and Sullivan’s Travels to name a few. All of which were ignored by critics and academies as well.