Hey, we’re back. After seven editions, the almost-traditional Village Voice poll of alt-press (and now other) film critics took a hiatus last year (lotta changes going on around here; maybe you heard). Meanwhile, our sister publication LA Weekly shouldered the burden of anointing a 37-year-old movie, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, the Best Movie of 2006.
This year we’ve joined forces and polled 102 critics to crown, as the Best Movie of 2007, something so new that most readers won’t be able to see it until 2008: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Listed by 56 critics for a total of 402 votes, Anderson’s startlingly original tale of prophets and profits in the American outback arrived at the last moment to top the Coen brothers’ #2 No Country for Old Men by 74 votes and David Fincher’s #3 Zodiac by 88.
What do these three movies have in common? All were made by highly self-motivated mavericks operating somewhere on the frontier between indie and studio filmmaking. And all three are kind of scary. They’re movies about natural born killers—American even if played by foreigners, and charismatic too: Daniel Day-Lewis, the star of There Will Be Blood, handily won Best Actor, with Javier Bardem, star of No Country, named Best Supporting Actor. (The never-quite-identified Zodiac killer may be all the more charismatic because, as Fincher makes amply apparent, he’s as much an obsession as a person.)
Why shouldn’t we be preoccupied with homicidal sociopaths? America’s been at war for the past four and a half years—with, to cite the top-polling documentary, No End in Sight (#29). War makes you wonder what exactly defines murder and who is enabled to commit it. The morally ambiguous mode known as film noir was born during World War II and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum observed at the time, the national obsession with the cannibal genius Hannibal Lecter coincided with our first Iraq adventure, Operation Desert Storm. Where do these current killers come from? It’s suggestive that both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were shot in mid-Texas Bush country (although the former is set in California). It’s even more provocative that none of these killers show the slightest remorse—just plumb evil, I guess.
Other notable films featuring murderous protagonists (and convoluted titles) are The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (#12), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (26), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (#30). Way, way down the list of favorites was the year’s most significant fiction film about Iraq. Tone-deaf but gutsy, genuinely enraged and generally abrasive—not the least in its dark humor—Brian De Palma’s Redacted (#93) eschewed any sort of distancing crime-movie metaphor to show innocent American soldiers as bloodthirsty maniacs.
Redacted was a throwback to the brash, blithely offensive comedies with which De Palma began his career, and it’s striking that with There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, I’m Not There (5), Ratatouille (#9), The Assassination of Jesse James, Michael Clayton (#15), Southland Tales (#23), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Darjeeling Limited (34), Sweeney Todd, and Day Night Day Night (#46)—to sample only the poll’s top 50—2007 was as strong a year for American movies as any since the much-fetishized early ’70s heyday of the Hollywood New Wave. (In addition to De Palma, vets Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola even weighed in.)
The best-reviewed movie of 2007 was, however, made in 1977. It’s been 17 years since the Library of Congress declared Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep a national treasure. Restored and released to theaters, as well as on DVD by the folks at Milestone, it placed eighth—in good measure, I’d warrant, because it embodies an unsentimental humanism that scarcely exists in current American movies, studio or independent.
The top 10 held only a few surprises. One was the remarkable fourth-place finish achieved by Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—a graphic account of two college students in search of an illegal abortion that, among other things, casts feel-good comedies like Knocked Up (31), Juno (#54), and Waitress (#145) to the far side of Fantasyland. Anamaria Marinca edged Julie Christie in Away From Her (#19) for Best Actress. As in Cannes, Mungiu’s film bested Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (#7), and it does so again as the poll’s top foreign-language film—and this on the basis of a few festival screenings and a week-long Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles. (The movie opens in New York in mid-January.) Even less expected was the sixth-place showing of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Buddhist conundrum Syndromes and a Century. (Most amazing, however, was that the uncompromising Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa’s audience-challenging and barely seen Colossal Youth ranked 10th.)
Last year, the LA Weekly poll introduced a category for Worst Film—a category that Colossal Youth, had more critics seen it, might have won this year. As satisfying as it may be to insult somebody’s taste or advertise a pet peeve, the notion of a worst movie is far too vague. Does “worst” mean morally repugnant or technically inept? A truly bad movie is infinitely superior to the disposable mediocrities that pass through the multiplexes. As the surrealist Ado Kyrou advised, “Learn to go and see the ‘worst’ films, they are sometimes sublime.” A more useful category, addressing as it does the tyranny of conventional wisdom, would be Most Overrated. For that, I’d happily mark down No Country for Old Men. In formal terms, the Coen brothers’ latest pinball machine is obviously superior to 90 percent of the year’s releases. But it’s also a soulless enterprise, with nothing more on its mind than the expert manipulation of the spectator, critics included.
That said, I’m pleased to report that, garnering five votes, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales tied The Bucket List as the year’s Worst Film. But, as the year’s Best Supporting Actress, Cate Blanchett, might have put it: You know something’s happening when Southland Tales also headed three critics’ lists as the year’s Best Film. Time constraints have made it impossible to calculate the 2007 poll’s Passiondex— my formula to measure the degree of ardor with which critics voted for particular movies—but my heart tells me that Southland Tales is the obvious winner. Here is a movie that some people love and others love to hate. That’s double passion! And that’s good. As Sarah Michelle Gellar’s socially aware porn queen warbles just before the world ends, “Teen horniness is not a crime—open your heart and your mind.”