The A-lists

It was a so-so year in film, but there were some that made a surprising impression

It was an unusual year at the movies. Not exactly the best of times, certainly, and not the worst of times either, if only because the likelihood that more bad news—and perhaps worse—is already on the way.

The movies of 2007 were inevitably part of the bad news, even as a remarkable number of them made earnest attempts, in some cases, planting the seeds of some good, or at least better, news. Cinema, serious and otherwise, is obviously not immune to the information overload, media glut, tabloid hysteria, mass-marketed frenzies and pre-packaged dumb-downs that infect contemporary existence.

I remain convinced, however, that really good movies, and perhaps all really good art, are a form of good news, even when they’re dealing with the bad news and making us see what we are about more clearly.

Pan’s Labyrinth

From where I sat in 2007, there were three films that did that especially well—the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others. But, there was much else in the movie year worthy of more than just passing mention.

Best of the year in Chico movie houses (in alphabetical order)
3:10 to Yuma
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Lives of Others
No Country for Old Men
Pan’s Labyrinth

Honorable mention:
Children of Men
Death at a Funeral
Eastern Promises
Gone Baby Gone
Letters from Iwo Jima

Also of special note:
Across the Universe
After the Wedding
Amazing Grace
The Astronaut Farmer
Avenue Montaigne
The Bourne Ultimatum
In the Valley of Elah
The Jane Austen Book Club
Lars and the Real Girl
Michael Clayton
A Mighty Heart
The Namesake
The Valet
La Vie en Rose

Gone Baby Gone

Best new foreign-language films (DVD only)
Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, France)
Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau, France)
Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, Thailand)
Comedy of Power (Claude Chabrol, France)
Days of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb, France)
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, France)
Private Property (Joachim Lafosse, Belgium/France)
La Petite Lili (Claude Miller, France)
Time to Leave (François Ozon, France)
12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, Rumania).

Honorable mention:
Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico)
La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrère, France)
Woman Is the Future of Man (Sang-Soo Hong, Korea)
Heading South (Laurent Cantet, France)
The Bridesmaid (Claude Chabrol, France)
Le Petit Lieutenant (Xavier Beauvois, France)
The Page Turner (Denis Dercourt, France)
Flanders (Bruno Dumont, France)
My Best Friend (Patrice Leconte, France)

Best new English-language films that flew under the radar
Inland Empire (David Lynch, USA)
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, Ireland/UK)
The Red Road (Andrea Arnold, Scotland/UK)
Away From Her (Sarah Polley, Canada/UK)
Longford (Tom Hooper, UK/USA)
Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, USA)
Seraphim Falls (David Von Ancken, USA/UK)

There was a small flood of documentaries on the war in Iraq, and I’ve not yet seen most of them. In any event, the year’s landmark documentaries would seem to be Michael Moore’s Sicko, which had a good run locally, and the monumental, austere Into Great Silence (Philip Groning, Germany), which I’ve so far only glimpsed via DVD.

It may be symptomatic of something that most of the outstanding documentaries that loomed so large in my year’s viewing were on musicians:

No Country for Old Men

Murray Lerner’s The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival; Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream; the Paul Crowder/Murray Lerner Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who; Willy Smax’s The True Story of the Traveling Wilburys; Hisham Mayet’s Palace of the Winds; and Andrew Douglas’ ethno-musicological road trip Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

Best westerns
It was an exceptionally good year for westerns, particularly with No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 3:10 to Yuma.

But the continued vitality of modern variations on this supposedly outmoded genre shouldn’t come as too great a surprise given the standard already set in 2006 via The Four Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Proposition and Brokeback Mountain.

Seraphim Falls, with Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, got exiled quickly to DVD, but stands as a powerful addition to the genre and one of the most unjustly overlooked adventure dramas of the year.

Tears of the Black Tiger, from Thailand, was a marvelously outlandish variation on the genre, and The Astronaut Farmer, from the resolutely eccentric regionalists Mark and Michael Polish, was bolstered by some far-flung variations on the western as well.

The Lives of Others

Disappearance, a “north-eastern” variation from a Howard Frank Mosher novel, is a somewhat nasty disappointment, but Luc Moullet’s delightfully absurdist anti-western from 1971, Une Aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl Is a Gun), finally turned up on DVD and proved well worth the wait.

Stray cats in Brit flicks
Four older British films, cinematic inventions with Brit rock stars in the cast, emerged—separately and satisfactorily—on DVD:

Help! (1965), the Beatles’ second Richard Lester-directed feature;

Performance (1970), a scathingly surreal nightmare drama with Mick Jagger playing a key role and making memorable contributions to an intriguingly eclectic soundtrack;

O Lucky Man! (1975), Lindsay Anderson’s rock ‘n’ roll Candide with Malcolm McDowell in the lead role and Alan Price doing pungently Brechtian musical interludes;

Radio On (1979), Christopher Petit’s brilliantly bummed-out road movie with Sting in the cast, and David Bowie and assorted Brit new wavers on the soundtrack.

Best performances
Julie Christie in Away From Her; Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Gone Baby Gone; Kate Dickie in The Red Road; Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone; Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men and In the Valley of Elah; Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Kelly Macdonald in No Country for Old Men; Russell Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma; Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others; Isabelle Huppert in Gabrielle, The Comedy of Power and Private Property; and the ensembles in Death at a Funeral, Lars and the Real Girl, Private Fears in Public Places, La Petite Lili and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The long goodbye
Two of the greats, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, died on practically the same day this past summer.

The coincidence of their passing served at least to some of us as a reminder of how much we’ve been missing (and mourning) their innovative brand of moviemaking (from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s) for a long time now.