Joe Bowman | Movies









There happens to be a lot of politics into creating a ten best for the year’s cinematic releases. I’ve seen lists that include 2006 titles (Stephen King listed Little Children as one of his), some that list films that only five people in the United States have seen (check out ArtForum for those), and plenty that have films which won’t officially be released in the United States until after the new year (this year’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has made the rounds this year though IFC Films won’t have it stateside until January). So how does a person determine whether or not a film is eligible for one’s own list? Two fantastic films, Children of Men and Old Joy, both came out late 2006, only to show up in Saint Louis this year. I had the privilege of seeing Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy at this year’s SLIFF, but it has yet to receive any US distribution. And I would love to include Gus Van Sant’s latest Paranoid Park on my list, even though it won’t hit theatres in the States until March. In fact, I’m sure a number of international critics had already seen both Red Road and Black Book before this past January, while others wouldn’t have the chance until later in the year. I’ve thought hard about the politics of inclusion this year, eventually adhering to the Internet Movie Database’s official listing for US release dates for the films that follow; thus I’ll have to save Ploy and Paranoid Park for next year and keep Children of Men, Wild Tigers I Have Known, and Old Joy for a revision of last year’s. Although you’ve probably already seen my number one or at least seen it on just about every other critic’s list, perhaps I can illuminate some other remarkable films of 2007 that weren’t directed by the Coen brothers. Honorable mentions are as follows (in no particular order): Great World of Sound, the best example of the spirit and vitality of the American independent like last year’s Old Joy or Mutual Appreciation; The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down, a hilarious, smart spoof of educational dating films that’s considerably better than it sounds; Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s best since Crash; Flanders, a bleak, polarizing war drama from Bruno Dumont whose voice is best heard outside of what is shown; Golden Door, a dazzlingly beautiful spectacle of a Sicilian family’s embark to the New World and the mysterious English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) they meet along the way; Starting Out in the Evening, a subdued, poignant character study with phenomenal performances from Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, and Lili Taylor; Joshua, a misunderstood modern horror tale examining the terror of modern parenting; Sicko, far and away better than Fahrenheit 9/11, an absolutely rich documentary; The Cats of Mirikitani, the other best documentary I saw all year; The Orphanage, the smartest horror film all year that’s both playful and, at times, chilling; Zodiac, which is absolutely riveting; and The Dead Girl, officially a 2006 release (it was released in New York two days before the new year), this ensemble drama boasts a fantastic cast, the highlight of which being Brittany Murphy as the titular victim anchoring the film to haunting depths.

1. No Country for Old Men
The American press has caused such a hoopla over the Coen brothers’ latest film that it almost bares no importance for me to say anything further. I vacillated between listing this or my number two, Grindhouse, at the top, but I realized a simple coin toss wouldn’t cut it. I think I only wanted to list Grindhouse at number one just so that my list didn’t look like every other film critic out there, and that wouldn’t be fair. No Country for Old Men is, without question, the finest film I saw this year, impeccable on nearly every level of filmmaking and dramatically shattering in a way all its own.

2. Grindhouse
Pardon shall never be given to those Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez fans who skipped out on their double feature. Actually, despite the film’s unfortunate box office receipt, I lean toward feeling sorry for those who missed out on the most rousing cinematic event you could ever ask for, and this is coming from someone’s who’s never liked a film by Rodriguez and could barely muster interest in anything Tarantino did after Pulp Fiction. I refuse to look at Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof as separate entities, because they damn well shouldn’t be. Most of the pleasure of Grindhouse is in their placement, in knowing that after you saw Rose McGowan kill a bunch of zombies with her machine-gun leg that you had a whole ‘nother treat in store with Kurt Russell plowing down hot chicks in his car. But it’s not so much knowing as it is experiencing. The final twenty minutes of Death Proof provide the most intense car chase scene in movie history, not just closing itself perfectly, but concluding more than three hours of trashy cinematic ecstasy. In fact, I don’t want to believe that two other films could compliment one another better than they do in Grindhouse. Grindhouse was a one-of-a-kind cinema blessing that could have never been reproduced on home video, even with the highest-level consumer HD (and assuming that the films weren’t annoyingly released separately on DVD without Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Edgar Wright’s hilarious faux trailers). Curse yourself, please, because you really fucking missed out.

3. Black Book
After Hollow Man, you too were probably thinking that there was no way Paul Verhoeven could return to your good graces. Hopefully, after Black Book, you couldn’t even remember that he made that awful movie. Black Book is stunning, from start to finish, and probably the most Verhoeven of all of his recent films. For in who else’s mind does a graphic depiction of pubic hair-dying and ripping the top off a woman only to douse her in feces constitute as historical realism? In his lead actress Carice van Houten, Verhoeven finds absolute radiance, depicting her as if she were the most beautiful woman to ever grace the screen, even when he’s dumping literal shit on her. Black Book is the sort of war film for those who found Schindler’s List a bit too morally refined and Lust, Caution a bit too, well, sedated in everything but its sexuality. And for a sleaze-bag who has loved Verhoeven since seeing Basic Instinct as an impressionable youth (including Showgirls, mind you!), you know which vision of wartime peril I prefer.

4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
There’s an unofficial debate among those I know as to whether this or No Country for Old Men reigns superior. It’s not so much a conflict between the classic western versus the neo-western by any means; the argument is pretty straightforward. The general consensus probably leans toward No Country (even I rank it higher), but that doesn’t diminish the fact that The Assassination of Jesse James is a spectacular motion picture. There are plenty of similarities between the two films as both bring their underlying melancholy to the foreground in their third acts and dispel the notion of legend (or the past, as is more the case in No Country). The Assassination of Jesse James finds the titular legend (Brad Pitt) in the final stages of his life, recruiting a crop of Missouri thieves (among them the astonishing Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, James’ assailant) for his last, unspectacular robberies. Andrew Dominik (Chopper) fashioned an intentional response to that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, opting instead for printing the sad fact of mistaken glory. In many ways, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the companion piece to No Country for Old Men, as both brilliantly feed off one another and, combined, leave a haunting spell greater than any other double feature you might pair together this year (Grindhouse was many things, but "haunting" wasn’t one of them). Additional accolades should be given to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score, as Cave has finally found his cinematic home in the form of the western (after last year’s The Proposition).

5. Bug
If Bug proved anything (other than the fact that Lionsgate’s marketing department sucks), it’s that the old standard of atmospheric, creepy horror films has officially been replaced by the slice-’em-up torture porn of the Saw and Hostel films. Yet for those who prefer paranoia to dismemberment, Bug was an utterly unnerving and bleak examination of a woman’s (a brilliant Ashley Judd) descent into complete obsessive terror with the help of a stranger in town (Michael Shannon). William Friedkin walks Bug along a dangerous line between sheer horror and over-the-top mayhem, and to those without patience (mainly the people who bought into Lionsgate’s misleading promotion), it didn’t work. For others like myself, Bug unsettled to the point of cringing and total personal disruption. I was literally shaken and stirred, and formed a return appreciation for Freidkin’s dying brand of terror.

6. Glue
It would befit the majority of film critics who don’t appear to have been hired by the studios to include, at the very least, one film you’d never in your life heard of on their yearly rundown of the best of the year. To some, it might be out of snobbery that they would do such; a lot of times, it probably is, but I can only defend myself. One would typically assume that someone who wrote about films did so because they loved cinema, and this, usually, would be the case for me. Glue was an accidental Netflix rental, one I hadn’t remembered adding to my queue until it arrived in my mailbox. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with it, as it almost perfectly recalled some of my favorite films of the past decade (Morvern Callar, Come Undone, George Washington). Yet merely reminding me of those films isn’t enough, and thankfully Glue exceeded mere association. Taking place in a rural town in Argentina, Glue depicts the teenage longings of two people, one a glue-sniffing waif of a boy with awesome hair, the other a pretty girl with shy tendencies and dorky glasses. First-time director Alexis Dos Santos paints Glue in kaleidoscopic reverie and perfectly captures the awkwardness of youth in all its miscommunication and pent-up sexuality. Though it got much less attention on the international circuit, I can only hope for great things from Dos Santos, who’s just as impressive a filmmaker as his co-patriot Lucrecia Martel, who received many accolades for 2004’s The Holy Girl.

7. Red Road
Red Road is a tale of forgiveness, and when you eventually discover that’s what the film’s all about, a true appreciation of it must come from your own amnesty. Conceptually, Red Road is the first entry of Lars Von Trier’s "Advance Party," in which a trilogy of films will explore, differently, the stories of three prewritten characters played by the same actors (the other two films have yet to be completed). In Red Road, Andrea Arnold, an Oscar winner for her short film Wasp, makes her feature debut with the assuredness of someone who has been in the business for decades. Arnold layers her film with as much palpable suspense and tension that you saw in No Country for Old Men, yet with an air of evocative mystery, as it takes two-thirds of the film for its ultimate "purpose" to be revealed. Its revelation is disappointing, perhaps only in contrast to the sheer rapture of what proceeded it. Your feelings toward Red Road will inevitably come rushing out in its third act, for better or worse, but for my money, I can’t think of another film that captivated me as fully as Arnold did here, and first time actress Kate Dickie, as the central CCTV operator, is astounding.

8. There Will Be Blood
My experience with There Will Be Blood was a murky one. I got word that there was going to be a screening directly in the middle of feeding my obsession with the third season of the television show Lost. Naturally, I hadn’t slept much the night before (every damn episode of Lost ends with a cliff hanger!) and wasn’t thrilled to see There Will Be Blood, an adaptation of Upton Sinclar’s Oil!, in the first place. Though I liked Punch-Drunk Love, my feelings for Magnolia and Boogie Nights were tepid at best. As uncompromising as his previous three films were, Paul Thomas Anderson churned out the most ambitious film of his career, a claim I doubt even fans of Boogie Nights or Magnolia will disagree with. There Will Be Blood is such a curious and peculiar film that it’s hard to even recognize Anderson as the author. Though it’s certainly long, Anderson appears to have set aside his pretentious quirks for something altogether fascinating. Daniel Day Lewis is breathtaking here, solidifying his place as the most consistently exceptional actor working today. Equipped with a brilliant score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood successfully managed to take my mind off the mysteries of Lost island and became much, much more than just a fleeting distraction.

9. Once
I’ve had living nightmares that sounded similar to an outline of Once. As a vast admirer of the golden era of the Hollywood musical, the notion of a stripped bare, un-glorious entry into the genre (with no dancing even) sends chills down my back. I’d also like to see anyone in their twenties not raise their hand when asked whether or not they knew someone who’d pick up an acoustic guitar at the most inopportune time and start to play their sub-Dylan, sub-Young, sub-Ani Difranco singer-songwriter bullshit for an unsuspecting audience. As someone who’s not a musician, the very thought of watching "band practice" makes me want to gnaw at my wrists. Yet… for some reason, Once is just fucking lovely. Its musical scenes (though lacking sequined outfits) resonate with the intensity of watching the musicians perform live. Aside from being added to the list of celebrities who resemble yours truly (a nice change of pace from the usual Anthony Rapp conclusion), Glen Hansard sparks such joyful chemistry with Marketa Irglov· that you can’t help but slide your own romantic cynicism aside. Thankfully, the answers in Once aren’t as easy as they might appear, adding its own supposition to the notion "the couple that harmonizes together…"

10. Private Property
If you feel the need to make a list of the ten best actresses that have ever appeared on the screen, your list would be incomplete without Isabelle Huppert. Madame Huppert solidified her placement in 2001 with her devastating portrayal of frigidness in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. In the years following, fear set in that The Piano Teacher might be her last earth-shattering performance, but with Private Property, all hope has been restored. As in all her best films, Huppert provides the anchor to a film that probably wouldn’t work otherwise. In Private Property, she plays the mother of adult twins (JÈrÈmie Renier, Yannick Renier, real life brothers, but not twins) who’s ready to cut the chord and live her own life. In the films that followed The Piano Teacher, Huppert often played a parody of her expected role (most effectively in 8 Women, where her Augustine seems taken from the exact same character sketch), but in Private Property, she’s radiant and, believe it or not, equipped with a sense of humor. In many ways, Private Property should have been just a showcase piece for her talent, but director Joachim Lafosse constructs a fascinating piece of familial tragedy, both dramatically alluring and void of incessant melodrama. As a great companion to this, have yourself a double feature of the 2007 thespian delights of Isabelle Huppert, with Claude Chabrol’s Comedy of Power as your follow-up. If you can’t defend her residency on the list of the world’s greatest actress after those, you’re a lost cause.

Some notables that I didn’t get around to in time: Juno, Sweeney Todd, Syndromes and a Century, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Quiet City, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Persepolis, Manufactured Landscapes, No End in Sight, Rescue Dawn and Lars and the Real Girl.

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