It was a good year—a very good American year, at least as far as movies go. I don’t think I’ve ever compiled a list with as few as three foreign films, one of them by our neighbor to the north, David Cronenberg. It was also a year in which avant-garde movie ideas (particularly those associated with the post-Warholian structural cinema of the ’70s) filled quasi- commercial independent productions. And that may be why it was such a good year, at least for a lapsed structuralist like me. (Speaking of structure, my list is restricted to movies made over the last five years that had their first New York theatrical engagements in 2007.)
1. I’m Not There. [Todd Haynes]
Todd Haynes’s brilliantly realized assemblage, from a script co-written with Oren Moverman, is both movie and text—or, rather, it’s a meta-text examining the cultural artifact known as “Bob Dylan” in the context of the cultural moment we call “The Sixties.” Is it overly dependent on its subject and audience? (Name me someone who isn’t a parasite. . . .) As a movie, I’m Not There prompted some genuine critical dialogue. Was it arcane or populist? A conventional biopic in postmodern drag? The Joycean summit of the collective boomerography or a generational circle jerk? I’d say it was the Dylan movie that Dylan was never able to make himself. Murray Lerner’s performance doc, The Other Side of the Mirror, provides an invaluable footnote and corollary: I Was
2. Eastern Promises [David Cronenberg]
North America’s preeminent narrative filmmaker continues his 20-odd-year roll. Like A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s followup could almost pass for an exceptionally well-made B movie. In fact, Cronenberg tunnels into Steven Knight’s script to make something more elemental—this gangster flick is a dark, rhapsodic fairy tale set in a world populated by angels, devils, walking corpses, and human wolves, the most impressive of whom is Viggo Mortensen.
3. 13 Lakes and Ten Skies [James Benning]. Veteran avant-gardist James Benning’s “soft” structural landscape films, each a succession of static 10-minute takes, evoke primeval cinema with a power that I wouldn’t have thought still possible. Save for the color-film stock, these glorious movies could have been made a hundred years ago; they date from 2004 but had their first local run late last spring at Anthology Film Archives.
4. Southland Tales [Richard Kelly] Maybe next year the folks at Anthology will give Richard Kelly’s hugely entertaining yet much-maligned Los Angeles apocalypse a revival—perhaps retitling it after a ’60s underground movie (I’m thinking Senseless, Overstimulated, or even Star Spangled to Death). Like I’m Not There, it’s an assemblage, but its context is . . . Now. Perhaps we need a bit of distance before Kelly’s film maudit is recognized as a true visionary experiment—scripting the E!ternal verities of American life as a cable-news, reality-TV, music-video, YouTube, infomercial, Saturday Night Live, idiot-pop extravaganza.
5. There Will Be Blood [Paul Thomas Anderson]
No lack of critical consensus here: Paul Thomas Anderson’s wildly ambitious meditation on God, oil, and family values is as outlandish as it is sensational.
6. Offside [Jafar Panahi]
Flying just beneath the radar, Iranian cinema’s paradoxical populist Jafar Panahi made an unscripted documentary fiction in which a varied group of Iranian women (really) attempt to crash the all-male precincts of a Tehran soccer stadium. Part sports-inspirational, part women’s-prison flick, and my candidate for the year’s best foreign-language release, Offside confounds genre as well as gender—the movie is a cinema-verité political allegory that itself is both critical and utopian.
7. Day Night Day Night [Julia Loktev]
Julia Loktev’s first fiction feature is another hybrid. As a would-be suicide bomber on the loose in Times Square, Luisa Williams gives a hauntingly behavioral performance, first subject to constant supervision and then under total surveillance. Essentially,
Day Night Day Night is a conceptual documentary in the guise of a political thriller. It has nothing to do with the psychology of the terrorist and everything to do with the psychology of the spectator.
8. Terror’s Advocate [Barbet Schroeder]
Now here’s a political thriller in the guise of a talking-head and archival-footage documentary (my candidate for the year’s best nonfiction movie). Barbet Schroeder’s portrait of French lawyer Jacques Vergés is a belated and worthy sequel to The Battle of Algiers and La Chinoise. The action hopscotches the globe, from North Africa to China to Germany; the supporting cast includes Pol Pot, Klaus Barbie, and Carlos the Jackal. The anti-hero is the suave embodiment of Third World rage: Is he evil incarnate or the bad conscience of the West?
9. Panoramas of the Moving Image [Ernie Gehr]
Downstairs at the Museum of Modern Art, avant-garde filmmaker Ernie Gehr has contrived a 15-minute, five-channel installation, bringing 19th-century “magic lantern” technology into the digital era. These fantastic moving landscapes, dissolving cosmic patterns, and binary vaudeville turns are a revelation, not only for revisiting a long-lost art form but because, as in Gehr’s films, the application of simple principles is the basis for subtle, endlessly fascinating optical effects.
Panoramas is on through March, but MOMA should make it permanent.
10. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [Andrew Dominik]
James Benning and Ernie Gehr aren’t the only filmmakers rehabilitating an archaic modernism. A movie that might have been shot through a pinhole camera or fashioned out of musty daguerreotypes, Andrew Dominik’s stupendously pictorial neo-western is borderline absurd and yet powerfully affecting. This is a movie that reminds us of what was lost. No matter what anyone says, the western is over; eight years of cowboy presidency notwithstanding, it will take a time machine to bring it back. In the meantime, Dominik draws on Ron Hansen’s novel to make a western that successfully dramatizes the current cult of celebrity. Brad Pitt is excellent as the Star and Casey Affleck even better as his Fan.
And . . .
In a lesser year, any of these 10 alphabetically listed honorable mentions would have made my top 10: Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, Holland); I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan); Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran, France); Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, U.S.); Paprika (Satoshi Kon, Japan); Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France); Redacted (Brian DePalma, U.S.); Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand); Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, U.S.); Zodiac (David Fincher, U.S.)