Friday, January 11, 2008

My Top Ten Movies of 2007

I've been having an interesting ongoing discussion with my friend LVJeff, since reading his own recap and top 10 of 2007, about the wide range of movies that have been appearing on the critics' top ten lists this year. It's a breadth that hasn't necessarily been reflected in the critics' awards, which have tended to cluster around the same few films and performers. Critics like to revile top ten lists even as they almost certainly enjoy making them - yet these lists, rather than the awards, are far more reflective of what Jeff pointed out has been a very strong (if dark) year in film that's allowed different critics to pick their personal favorites while leaving many other, equally worthy films, to others.

By this point, there have been many, many commentaries on the movies of 2007 and their recurring, mostly grim themes - the ravages of old age and death, the blood and evil "you can't stop from coming," though also, somewhat more cheeringly, the surprising resiliency and reinvention of the musical in a year that produced not one but four musicals I seriously considered putting in my top ten. (In the end, only two made it: sorry, "Sweeney Todd" and "Across the Universe." Come to think of it, I should have put "Sweeney Todd" on there as the one film that most perfectly embodied all the trends of the year.) It was also an exceptional year for the animated film, two of which made my top three. But when I look at my list, I see a lot of films that deal with two of the deepest human desires - the desire to create and the desire to connect with others - and the ways in which they both conflict and reinforce one another. Perhaps this pattern is hardly surprising, considering these are two desires that very much inform my own life.

Anyway, here they are - my top ten movies from 2007:

1. Ratatouille
2. Lust, Caution
3. Persepolis
4. There Will Be Blood
5. Starting Out in the Evening
6. Atonement
7. Once
8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
9. Michael Clayton
10 TIE: Hairspray / No Country for Old Men

That last tie's a weird pairing, I know, and yet it makes sense because my response to these two movies were almost perfect inversions of one another. One of them, in my view, had fairly serious aesthetic and intellectual flaws, but was so infectiously enjoyable that it ended up transcending them. The other was, from an aesthetic point of view, damn near flawless, but so stylized and so unrelenting in its bleakness that it just didn't register emotionally with me. However, I include it because it *stayed* with me, in ways that few other films this year did.

Honorable mentions: PROTAGONIST; EASTERN PROMISES; THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM; SWEENEY TODD; JUNO; THE SAVAGES; GRINDHOUSE; ACROSS THE UNIVERSE; and a special little spot for ENCHANTED, which has even more flaws than HAIRSPRAY but is right up there with it and RATATOUILLE as the films I'd be most easily persuaded to see again.

Movies a lot of other people were crazy about that didn't quite do it for me: INTO THE WILD; ZODIAC

Movies I missed or haven't seen yet: I'M NOT THERE; CONTROL; BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD; AWAY FROM HER; THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES by the blah-blah-blah; CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR; KNOCKED UP; RESCUE DAWN; the Romanian abortion movie with all the numbers in the title; and every documentary that came out this year. What's sad is there were quite a lot of documentaries I *wanted* to see but didn't have time to catch: NO END IN SIGHT, LAKE OF FIRE, MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, NANKING, THE KING OF KONG, others. I didn't even see SICKO. Oh well - more titles to add to my Netflix queue, I guess.


Blogger Michael said...

Lynn, I enjoyed reading your write-up about your favorite films and admire the way in which you find common elements among the films and compelling, honest reasons for why you like them. Your top ten is really an emblem of how you interact with cinema. I also like the list because it contains three films ("Once", "Persepolis", and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") that I really wanted to see before the end of the year but wasn't able to due to time constraints -- and I really wanted to see them because they seemed to be up my alley and might have made my own favorites (I missed Persepolis both when it came to L.A. and also when it played at the Toronto Film Festival, and I wasn't able to catch it there either, though in Toronto it had more to do with my own desire for a leisurely dinner, instead of rushing off to the theater, something that happens too often). The Diving Bell intrigues me simply for its concept alone.

I had a difficult time with Zodiac. I might have to see it again before passing judgment, but as a tale of obsession, I didn't find it all that interesting, even though I could admire Fincher's craftsmanship. A good friend who knows my tastes well highly recommended I see I'm Not There and, again, time constraints prevented that from happening, but I have a suspicion that, based on what I've read, I might like it a lot. Or at least I hope so. Gonna try to catch it at some point.

We'll all have to get together again soon to chat about movies! (Plus, I finally saw Transformers and need to speak to the Chen Bros. about that ... 'cause I kind of liked it.)

9:27 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks, Michael, and happy new year! I enjoyed reading your own roundup of 2007, too. "White Light/Black Rain" was playing at Sundance last year, and I remember being interested but not able to see it there. 2007 seemed to be an especially strong year for documentaries as well as feature films, which makes me all the sadder that I saw *no* documentaries last year. I'll have to remedy that this year.

I agree with you about "Zodiac" - a film about obsession that didn't really seem to go anywhere with it. Maybe that was the point, but as I think I commented at the time, Fincher seems to show the *effects* of the obsession without tapping into the *cause* in a way that could really draw me in...though he evidently succeeded with other viewers.

I hope you get a chance to see "Once," "Persepolis," and "Diving Bell" soon - would love to hear your thoughts on them. I believe "Once" is on DVD now. And yes, we should meet up soon with the brothers Chen! I'll send around an e-mail soon. And now I feel like I need to see "Transformers," too, just to figure out where I weigh in on the controversial issue of its merits. :-) I still think the funniest review of it is Outlaw Vern's - definitely worth a read if you get a chance. I thought it was more entertaining than the movie itself could possibly be.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Lynn, I just read Outlaw Vern's review of Transformers -- pretty entertaining I must say. And I think LVJeff gave it 4/10 or something like that. Now, I should say up front that I liked it purely as "popcorn" entertainment, but, still, I sort of liked it, which is surprising because, like many, I detest most of the other films Bay has made.

I didn't known Once is already on DVD -- thanks, I'll get it via Netflix. If you're interested, White Light, Black Rain is also out on DVD (that's how I saw it). I'll look forward to getting your email about meeting up, and when we all do meet, we can definitely talk in detail about some to these films. Would love to hear more about your reaction to Zodiac, as well as the films that made your top ten.

3:41 PM  
Blogger LVJeff said...

Well, if Mike is willing to check back in here once in a while, we could all have a little mini-discussion here :-)

Really like your list, Lynn, and even though I didn't have the reaction to Lust, Caution that I was hoping for, I'm just glad to see someone stick up for it. And I think I should let Betty Jo know that at least someone else out there put Hairspray on her list!

Mike, I really wish you got to see Persepolis. And you should definitely catch Once. And I'm Not There, too -- dangit, I would've just loved to know what you thought of them. And I'd love to know both your thoughts on Assassination of Jesse James. Lynn, I'm surprised you haven't seen Away from Her, available on DVD. I think it would've been my number 11.

Also, concerning Zodiac, that's a movie I liked enough at first, but admired more as time has passed. I don't see it as simply about obsession. I see it more as about the need for closure -- for having answers in a universe that doesn't really care if there are any answers. The way I see it, it's in people to seek answers, and that leads to said obsessions.

Heh, about Transformers -- I think the reason why it's a lesser-offending Bay film, if you will, is because it very obviously only seeks to have fun. No one takes it seriously, and it has big robots. It's kind of, well, happy to be stupid. My problem with it is that I see it as reveling in being stupid (and Vern's review perfectly encapsulates this). And maybe this wouldn't bug me so much were it not for its now permanently associating said stupidity with The Transformers!

Case in point: almost everyone I've talked to who's defended it has said that big robots fighting each other isn't meant to be meaningful cinema, or something to that effect. It's big robots fighting each other, it's meant to be big dumb fun. And that bugs me, because, I don't know, those big robots meant something more to me, they were something more interesting. But I'll never be able to defend that, because of their source -- they were toys and were given a toy storyline, I mean, it's not like I'm defending Tolstoy here. So now TF = big dumb fun. And I'm sad.

TF had some kind of dignity to some of us, however miniscule or imagined, and the movie stripped much of that away. Too many things about it are just too dumb for me -- the screenplay is black hole awful and the robot designs are just ugly. It wouldn't have taken much more effort to make a more dignified wow'er.

Sorry for hijacking the comments here, Lynn. I was just thinking how much I actually really liked Across the Universe, heh. It makes me happy to hear it barely missed your top 10. I swear I'm going to watch it again.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Jeff, I appreciate your thoughts and your recommendations. I really hope I can catch Persepolis, Once, and I'm Not There -- I still sort of kick myself for missing Persepolis at TIFF (but it really did come down to a good dinner or the film the very night I arrived from California, and with me good food always wins). The friend who highly recommended I'm Not There mentioned its indebtedness to Godard, which is why he thought I'd like it. I'm going to do my best to catch all of these films, including Jesse James which I intentionally avoided only because one critic described it as epic, slow-moving, and thoughtful -- the kind of thing I wouldn't necessarily want to see in a multiplex. I'll catch it on DVD.

Regarding Transformers -- I really like what you say here. It reminds me of something Roger Ebert once said many years ago. He said that a film's subject matter is irrelevant; in other words, a good filmmaker can make anything meaningful, and so even something like big robots could hold meaning in the right hands. I don't have the same kind of history with the original series, and I think that allowed me to enjoy it more. It was probably the first Bay film that I could sit back and enjoy simply for what it is and what it does. Some of the set pieces are pretty impressive (just from a technical standpoint), and I thought the narrative moved along fairly swiftly.

In the final analysis, it's certainly more testimony about how someone like Bay can spend so much money on a film and yet contribute so little to cinema. But I had a good time with it. :)

1:51 AM  
Blogger lylee said...

Well, I can't really weigh in on the Transformers debate, but I will say that I've never been *quite* as anti-Michael Bay as most of my fellow movie-lovers. I mean, I would never rush to see any of his movies, but when I *have* seen one or another of them, I've gone in with appropriately adjusted expectations (read: turn brain off) and been reasonably entertained. (except maybe for the last 20 minutes of "Pearl Harbor.")

Thanks for the DVD tips, both of you. I've been so occupied with trying to catch movies in theaters that let's just say Netflix has been making a major profit off me for the past few months!

Jeff, I take your point on "Zodiac," but I still felt very much like an outsider looking in - so while I could appreciate on an intellectual level what Fincher might be saying about closure (our need for it, the lack of it, etc.), on other levels it just felt kind of...fitful to me. It didn't jell. But opinions, as always, are subjective.

I think the one movie I regret missing most last year was "I'm Not There" - it sounds so intriguing as a concept, however opinions may differ on the execution. Michael, we'll both have to weigh in after we've managed to see it.

4:30 AM  
Blogger LVJeff said...

The description of Jesse James is accurate; some people have compared it to Malick. It's slow and pretty; there's much to soak in.

As for I'm Not There, Mike's friend is partially right -- the movie is a collage of six differently-styled sections, and one of them is indeed a Godard tribute. There is also a Fellini section, and, I believe, a Peckinpah one; I think the rest aren't as auteur-specific, but they are each distinct.

I may have to wait until we're all face-to-face again to say anything more about Transformers. Suffice it to say that I've hypothesized this much: people who didn't know much about TF to begin with seem to think it's all right. Old fans, though, are divided -- there are a group that loves it, and a group that hates it. The haters have a nickname for it: "TINO," for Transformers In Name Only :-)

6:33 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

I'm so far behind in my movie-watching it's amazing that I've seen as many films this year as I have.

That said, I thought that your piece and the LV Jeff article you linked to did a good job of putting this past film year in perspective.

And for LV Jeff's sake, I gotta admit it. "Transformers" is one of the few movies I deliberately chose to pass up at the box office last year. But at least I was honest enough to acknowledge upfront that a movie about giant robots wasn't for me.

Besides, most of the movies I really hated came out in 2006...

1:32 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks, TK...I actually remember 2006 as being a year of many intriguing but flawed films; this year is stronger across the board. I know it is because there were a slew of titles that would almost certainly have made my top 10, maybe even my top 5, in other years that just couldn't quite squeeze in this year.

I'm with you on Transformers. Had no desire to see it, still have none. Now if it were a Voltron movie, on the other pays your money and you picks your poison, I guess.

5:38 PM  
Blogger EC said...

I'm trying to figure out how harsh your grading system is. After watching Atonement, I just went back and read your review, and saw that you gave it a B+ and gave it the #6 spot on this list.

Just curious as to:

1. How many movies you watched in 2007?

2. What was the lowest grade to make the top 10?

4:54 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

First of all, in answer to your questions:

1. I think this year I saw around 50 or so movies. I keep a running tally, but I don't have it right in front of me.

2. B+

It's kind of a running joke that I give the vast majority of the movies I see some kind of grade in the "B" range. It's not that I'm wishy-washy, or at least not only that. It's that I don't tend to see movies unless I have reasonable expectations that they'll be good. But to get an "A" level grade they can't just *meet* my expectations, they have to *exceed* them somehow. So in my book, a B+ is a very good movie. An A- is exceptional, and I rarely give straight A's. I think "Ratatouille" was my only straight A from 2007, because it so perfectly combined ingenuity (of writing and visuals) with emotional resonance.

And yeah, I have to admit my top 10 rankings aren't always consistent with the grades I originally gave the movies. If they were, both "Once" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" would be ahead of "Atonement." But the truth is my top 10 tends to fall into clumps: this year #1-3, or really #1-4, were very close together in my mind (#4 was almost #1 at one point), then #5 was sort of by itself, then #6-8 were another clump, and then for the last 2 spots there were easily at least 5 movies (this year, anyway) that were in contention. How I end up ranking within each "clump" ends up being somewhat arbitrary and how I feel at the moment. And I often think it comes down to which movies, when I think about them, conjure up vivid images or emotions in me. When I thought about "Atonement," I couldn't get this beautiful image of James McAvoy standing feverishly in front of a black-and-white movie projected against a wall; and that long, long tracking shot of the retreat at Dunkirk; Keira Knightley's green dress; her face at tea; etc. So even though "Once" had more heart, and "Diving Bell" was more aesthetically daring (hence the higher grades), I ended up putting "Atonement" far higher on my list than I'd originally anticipated when I first saw the movie.

2:56 PM  

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