Great Year for Cinema: 2007

Jumping ahead fifty years from this segment’s previous installment, “Great Year for Cinema” takes a look at what is arguably the finest year for films in the space of the last ten years, delivering several masterpieces as well as a few genre films that represent golden standards for their time. Before we get into the astounding breadth of American offerings, I’d like to highlight two extraordinary foreign titles first.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Julian Schnabel

For better or worse, sentimentality has become a staple of the evolution of the cinema, so much so that now the word “hallmark” has immediate associations with its television programming. Though directed by an American, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is entirely French in its language and location, and takes the most dangerous road of sentimentality and instead transforms itself into a film of deep spiritual value. Based upon a true story (two words that could also signal a death knell into schmaltz) Mathieu Almaric is Jean-Do, a successful editor of a French magazine who, without warning, has a stroke, paralyzing him almost completely. The terrifying condition, known as locked-in syndrome, allows for only two things to remain active in Jean-Do: his left eye, and most importantly, his mind. While in the hospital, Jean-Do learns to communicate once again in the most fascinating of ways, and comes to realize things about himself that he never confronted before. Yes, it all sounds particularly corny, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the furthest thing from the Hallmark Channel. Jean-Do is a deeply flawed soul seeking redemption in an immobile body, and his journey is nothing short of transcendent. Also separating the narrative from its potential sentimental routes are Schnabel’s keen visual sensibilities, especially his teaming with the incredible Spielberg lenser Janusz Kaminski, whose photography gives an entirely new meaning to the idea of “point-of-view.” As one of the most overlooked films in an exceptional year, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is unquestionably among the most emotionally rewarding films you are ever likely to encounter.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days – Cristian Mungiu

I’ve already mentioned this film previously in my segment from last year looking back at previous winners from the Cannes Film Festival, but it is nevertheless important to stress what a punch to the gut this film can be, in the very best way possible. Taking place in Romania during the twilight of the Cold War, the rule of the Iron Curtain imposes a strict rule of law upon the citizens living under it. Among these laws, abortions are illegal, so when the young college age protagonist actively seeks the operation from the services of the black market, the plot immediately becomes ripe for conflict and unbearable tension. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a slow burn film, for it may seem editorially relaxed due to its dependence on long takes, but in fact, the opposite occurs. Each shot simmers with tension as the young woman finds herself getting deeper into her situation, and even the seemingly casual placement of the camera in the claustrophobic spaces suggests the immense pressure building in every frame of the film. A searing pressure cooker of a film that contains more intensity in two minutes than most modern action films try to muster over an hour, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a haunting, provoking experience.

No Country for Old Men – Joel and Ethan Coen

Continuing the theme of building unbearable tension and carrying it across to domestic shores, one would be hard pressed to find a better pressure cooker than Joel and Ethan Coen’s Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men. Among the few films in recent years deserving of the Academy’s most prestigious award, the Coens’ film is a stirring and haunting meditation on the nature of violence in Texas in the years following Vietnam, and the old guard law enforcement’s uselessness against it. With its three central characters played by the ever magnetic Josh Brolin, the weathered Tommy Lee Jones, and the lawless Javier Bardem, the Coens’ story comes to the fore visually than it does through needs of dialogue. That visual storytelling is due to the noteworthy photography by Roger Deakins, which casts this modern western in a bleak, pessimistic light. Known for their offbeat comedic sensibilities, the Coens allow for few such moments here, as the film remains largely a stoic and vigilant departure from their previous work. A harsh unforgiving tale as adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men may appear spare and economic, yet its river deep themes can be traced all the way back to the Bible.

There Will Be Blood – Paul Thomas Anderson

Moving further west to the oil seeped realms of southern California, Paul Thomas Anderson took another left turn in his increasingly eclectic oeuvre to deliver There Will Be Blood, a meditation on America’s obsession with two entities that have governed its heart and soul for well over a century: oil and religion. Both are intertwined in the epic tale of madman entrepreneur Daniel Plainview, as volcanically portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose performance stands as one of the greatest ever to grace the screen. Plainview is driven by forces that are so beyond comprehension that they truly can never be fully expressed, and his willpower is matched by that of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher whose devout beliefs have corrupted his own worldview as well.  Incredibly photographed by Robert Elswitt, and aurally supported by a truly otherworldly score from Jonny Greenwood, the film’s vision remains firmly within the eyes of Anderson. Though it draws from many sources in cinema, among which include The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and even 2001: A Space OdysseyThere Will Be Blood is a true individual masterpiece in which an early 20th century tale remains just as vital a hundred years later.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Andrew Dominick

Turning the chronological clock back even further, we arrive at the most under appreciated yet perhaps most flawless film to emerge from America in 2007: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The title is a mouthful for sure, and the run time is lengthy at well over two and a half hours, but it is completely worth every minute. The best superlative I can assign to this film is intoxicating, in which the edges of the frame seem is disappear from the very first shot and one is immediately immersed in the world of the film. One might also be misled by thinking that the title in and of itself presents a spoiler, but the assassination is not the point of the film. A western of the highest quality, director Andrew Dominick’s film is one of atmosphere and psychological drama between its two leads. Brad Pitt is a revelation as a Jesse James, who, only in his thirties, is approaching the twilight of his rebellious career, and is gaining profound insight into the worth of his life. His is sagely soul in the body of a young man. His future assassin, Robert Ford, is naught but an inexperienced, naive lad whose emotional insecurities are just barely concealed beneath the surface of a gaunt face. Casey Affleck’s performance here is no less than astonishing and I’ll leave it at that, suffice to say his is another of the best you are ever likely to witness. It’s hard to attribute an MVP award to a film as exceptional as this, but no harder case can be made than that for Roger Deakins’ career best photography, in which every single shot could be worthy of hanging in a public gallery. Also integral is the melancholy score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which absolutely complements each of Deakins’ incredible shots. In the end, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford turns out to be much more than a story of double crossing in a time when America discovered its obsession with celebrity: it is, in truth, a tale of self betrayal.

Into the Wild – Sean Penn

We now arrive at my personal favorite film from 2007, which, like so many others listed above, was critically lauded, but never quite universally embraced by the public. Actors directing movies can tend to be a crap shoot depending on the director, but in the case of Sean Penn, whose preceding films gave him a very solid foundation. With Into the Wild, his directorial game went up a few notches when he took on the daunting task of adapting Jon Krakauer’s nonfictional account of Christopher McCandless, a young, idealistic college graduate who left behind society in search of himself, specifically in Alaska. His odyssey took him through various odd jobs across the country, and the people he met would profoundly change his outlook on life. It is a genuinely inspirational story, yet does not shy away from presenting the flaws in Chris’ plan. Rambunctious, intelligent, yet prideful to a fault, Chris is played remarkably by Emile Hirsch who put a foothold into showing his talents as one of the best young actors working in Hollywood. The surrounding cast is also universally excellent, including William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, Vince Vaughn, and even Kristen Stewart, who, prior to Twilight more than shows her potential as an actress. The strength of this ensemble clearly comes from Penn’s direction, for it helps when one receives notes from one of the best actors of his generation. So if good performances are a given, the film’s cinematic pulse is equally defined, from the awe inspiring photography of 1990’s Americana, to the exceptional editing bringing us into Chris’ worldview. Though I am biased for my deep connection to the material, Into the Wild objectively remains a stirring achievement in a year full of superlatives.

The Bourne Ultimatum Paul Greengrass

Moving into genre fare, the summer of 2007 (five years ago is hard to believe) thrived on threequels, and most were disappointing at best, but separating from the rest of the crop in August was not only the best threequel of the summer, but quite easily one of the best action films of the decade: The Bourne Ultimatum. The culmination of its previous two installments, The Bourne Ultimatum was simply an exceptional work of action cinema, taking all of the tropes established by the first two films and ramping up its style and energy to a new level while never forgetting the propulsive power of its plot. Matt Damon is among the most consistent actors working in America, who has yet to give a poor performance, and has single handedly made Jason Bourne as recognizable on screen as that of James Bond, previously unmatched with onscreen presence. Bourne is very much a machine in search of his programming, and his journey is consistently exhilarating as Ultimatum makes the very best out of the chaotic action cinema that so many films imitate but never perfect. The handheld style, the insane editing are all integral to the plot, for where other films try to pull off the same style for the sake of being cool, Greengrass uses the verite edge for getting the audience into Bourne’s lost, confused, yet sharp as a tack mind. Where other action heroes save the day, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset, Bourne’s conclusion is murky, mysterious and as deeply existential as the genre has seeing, certifying it as a stone cold classic.

Superbad – Greg Mottola

Finally, we have the high school comedy that does for the 2000’s what films like American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Dazed and Confused did for their respective decades: epitomized the simultaneous joy and anxiety of high school life. It seems like Hollywood pumps out at least five high school movies every year, hoping at least one will land in the realm above mediocrity, but when almost every film feels like product rather than story, its hard to make anything worthwhile. Luckily, the screenwriting talents of Seth Rogen and Adam Goldberg provide the basis for a familiar story that plays with genuine wit, humor, and even heart on screen thanks to some great casting as well. Comedy duos are crucial today, and one would be hard pressed to find a more immaculate pairing Jonah Hill and Michael Cera who complement each other perfectly. As directed by Greg Mottola, Superbad is often uproarious in every scenario it presents, bolstered by its vintage and funky soundtrack, yet its resolution and ultimate thematic statement is quietly poignant and elevates this to a true masterpiece of high school comedy.

There are so many strong films from 2007 surrounding these eight films, I couldn’t write about them all, but here are a few honorable mentions: Tony Gilroy’s thrillingly adult Michael Clayton, David Cronenberg’s brutal yet tender Eastern Promises, Joe Wright’s elegiac Atonement, Brad Bird’s (obviously) delicious Ratatouille, and David Yates’ realistic and political Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I’ve already written extensively about here.

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~ by romancinema on April 24, 2012.

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