Mesmerized last October by the enigmatic serenity radiating off the screen as Syndromes and a Century played the New York Film Festival, I was sure I’d just seen the best film of 2007. Four months later, transfixed by the rigorous procedures of Zodiac, I wasn’t so sure. And then they kept on coming, one after another: big, brainy, unusually ambitious pictures, all of them—and here’s the real miracle—American. Any year with a Zodiac, Grindhouse, I’m Not There, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, or Southland Tales would be memorable; the lot of them in one marks the finest stretch of homegrown cinema in my lifetime. I might easily have complied a top 10 list without a single foreign title; factor in superb work from Canada, Thailand, Argentina, France, England, Japan, Portugal, and the Netherlands, and my complete top 20 overflows with wonders.
1. Southland Tales [Richard Kelly]
Muddled. Self-involved. Overbearingly ambitious. Insufferable. Funny how the critical mud slung at Donnie Darko on release has the same consistency as the shit storm that raged against Southland Tales, yet another—how dare he!?—ultra-convoluted sci-fi satire from the incorrigibly precocious Richard Kelly. Darko‘s vindication started with a midnight run at the Pioneer Theater, and there are already signs of an incipient Southland cult emerging from the same neighborhood. Late into its run at an East Village multiplex (the final stop on its way to grossing a grand total of less than $300,000), a friend testified to the enthusiasm of the half-capacity crowd, and reported the appraisal of some giddy über- hipsters after the show: “OMG, best movie ever!” Maybe not ever, but I’ll call it this year for wit, poignancy, honesty, and outrage, for the precise, inspired casting and the marvelous ensemble acting, but, above all, for committing to a resolutely contemporary address. Southland Tales looks and feels more like life in 2007 than Juno, In the Valley of Elah, and Michael Clayton combined.
2. Zodiac [David Fincher]
David Fincher returns the serial-killer genre to its roots in Fritz Lang’s M, a movie likewise obsessed with codes, graphs, symbols, and technology. It’s cinema for number crunchers, systems analysts, archaeologists of the analog era, and anyone interested in how we came to inhabit the cognitive chaos depicted in Southland Tales.
3. Syndromes and a Century [Apichatpong Weerasethakul]
Buddhism, Bergson, and Tropical Malady are not without their uses when contemplating the placid mysteries set afloat in the latest by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Complex as it may be, this two-part reverie about magic, memory, and happiness is quite simply the most rapturous moviemaking of the year. There’s nothing quite like the lucid, unhurried, benevolent sense of becoming in Syndromes, and no one with a fresher, kindlier imagination than this young Thai genius who, not yet 40, is evidently incapable of anything but masterpieces.
4. I’m Not There [Todd Haynes]
Semiotics, Symbolist poetry, and Velvet Goldmine are not without their uses when contemplating the intricacies of Todd Haynes’s deconstructed biopic—not to mention everything ever written about Bob Dylan. But for this non-boomer, having lived through none of the era chronicled, knowing little of Dylan’s life and caring not much more for his music, I’m Not There struck me—hard—as an emotional experience unencumbered by historical baggage. Haynes’s clear-eyed, heart-wrenching solicitude for the drive and demand for personal reinvention, attending as well to its costs and consequences, had me on the verge of tears from start to finish. Or maybe it was the music.
5. Pitcher of Colored Light [Robert Beavers]
Fifteen minutes of bliss, courtesy of the masterly avant-garde filmmaker Robert Beavers. Impelled by emotional as well as formal necessity, this portrait of the artist’s elderly mother alights on various domestic motifs (sun-dappled grass, fabric, ceramics, a couch, a cat) only to swerve, dip, fade, or glide off-subject in a continual act of readjusted attention. Screened but once at the New York Film Festival, Pitcher poured forth its quiet splendor, then evaporated like a dream.
6. Regular Lovers [Philippe Garrel]
Parisian hotties riot in the street, smoke dope, boogie to the Kinks, fuck, mope, pose, lounge, and stare beautifully at the walls of beautiful apartments. This, mes amis, is why cinema was invented.
7. The Rabbit Hunters/Colossal Youth [Pedro Costa]
“You’re either for it or against it!” declared a faction of righteous cinephiles rushing to the defense of Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa’s monumental dirge for the Portuguese poor. Count me in—sort of. Youth takes a spot here only if paired with Costa’s superior short The Rabbit Hunters, a kind of pastoral companion piece extending the methods (hieratic portraiture, avant-garde ethnography) and milieus (the slums of Fontainhas, the mindscape of ghosts) of the feature. Where the epic relied on duration to generate its (considerable) existential wallop, the 23-minute crypto-coda is charged by an electrifying incision of composition and cutting. Another NYFF one-off, but as the center panel of Memories—an omnibus triptych including an excellent essay film by Harun Farocki and a coy doodle by Eugene Green—nothing stops The Rabbit Hunters from getting a proper theatrical run. (Unless, of course, you are against it!)
8. Black Book [Paul Verhoeven]
The anti–Army of Shadows. Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch film in over two decades rewrites Soldier of Orange, his first epic of the resistance, penned in irony and from the perspective of a woman. And what a woman! Carice van Houten gave the performance of the year as a magnificently self- contained Jewish femme fatale who falls in love with . . . a sympathetic Nazi.
9. Eastern Promises [David Cronenberg]
A conceptual step down from A History of Violence—but what isn’t?
10. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry [Dennis Dugan]
I know even fewer people who love this movie than Southland Tales. And they’re all gay. So thanks to the liberal, well-intentioned heterosexual film critics out there for, you know, being down with my peeps and everything, but wrong movie to gang up on: This shit is mad funny and will do more to normalize the idea of gay marriage than a hundred crap fag indies booked at the Quad.
And . . .
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Los Muertos, There Will Be Blood, Paprika, In Between Days, Black Snake Moan, Hot Fuzz, Grindhouse, No End in Sight, Superbad, Smiley Face, The Disappointment: Or, the Force of Credulity.
Worst official trend of the year Abortion.
Best unofficial trend of the year Traumatized animals (Los Muertos, The Hawk Is Dying, Zoo, Killer of Sheep, etc.).
Top 10 DVDs of 2007
1. Ford at Fox An epochal release: 24 films by the master, John Ford. Expensive? Priceless.
2. Histoire(s) du Cinéma Jean-Luc Godard’s legendary video essay finally comes to DVD (in a Region 2 box set from Gaumont), with English subtitles.
3. Inland Empire The best film of last year gets super-sized with, among other treats, 70 minutes of “More Things That Happened.”
4. The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vols. 1 and 2 Superb editions of the complete Anger, the most visionary of American filmmakers, courtesy of Fantomas.
5. Eyes Wide Shut Better late than never, I suppose, Warner Bros. rectifies their mutilation of Kubrick’s misunderstood swan song with a widescreen edition (imagine that! A Kubrick film deserving widescreen!) of the “European” cut.
6. Sans Soleil/La Jetee Chris Marker’s masterpiece(s): the Criterion disc of the year. And that’s saying a lot.
7. Twin Peaks—The Definitive Gold Box Edition Crazy!
8. Our Hitler Crazier!
9. The Wire, Season 4 One more season to go for the narrative film of the decade.
10. Death Proof WTF is up with the Weinsteins? Dudes can release Factory Girl, Who’s Your Caddy?, and D.O.A. Dead or Alive but not the new Tarantino movie? OK, so Grindhouse flopped, but I repeat: THE NEW TARANTINO MOVIE. Come on, guys, just a week at Cinema Village or something? Please?