Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.
There Will Be Blood tops an exceptional year in film.
By John Esther, CJ Johnson, Ed Rampell and Don Simpson
John Esther’s Top Ten
With few exceptions, as the year progressed toward its finale, the quality of films continued to rise. By the time November hit, bad movies were fewer and farther in between than in any time in recent memory.
Yes, there were those blockbusters and top grossing movies each week (Knocked Up; Superbad; Transformers) suggesting the overall intelligence of moviegoers had not changed from the previous years, but underneath the commercial radar there were a plethora of films and documentaries for anyone who wanted more out of a film than escape.
These films were a welcoming image in a year that saw the deaths of the legendary filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni (The Red Desert; Blow-Up) and Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal; Fanny & Alexander), who died within a few dozen hours this summer. Thus, unlike previous years where one has to strain to find a top ten, this year I found myself arguing over which films would make the cut.
In alphabetical order:
Control -- Anton Corbijn and writer Matt Greenhalgh’s biopic on the life and tragic death of Joy Division singer-scribe Ian Curtis gave proper analysis to one of the most significant bands of the past 30 years. Joy Division personified the post-punk artistic awareness of an alienated existence free of comprehension and companionship that only music (art) could redeem. To understand the existential, dislocation and discontent in Curtis’ lyrics Corbijn and company meticulously capture the monotony of his life. Containing the best soundtrack in a year of many good soundtracks, Control did the poetics of Joy Division and its many fans a tremendous service and experience.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- Based on the bestseller book Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon by Jean-Dominique Bauby with a screenplay by Ronald Hardwood director Julian Schnabel this French film went for the heart and mind as it followed the true harrowing and redemptive life of Bauby (Matthew Amalric). Told primarily through the post-massive stroke Bauby’s single eye, the film begins to channel Bauby’s transformation from self-pity to self-realization. In the process Bauby developed a profound sense of love for the human condition, the beauty of some individuals, the power of the imagination and how true care is far more rewarding than any material comfort.
I'm Not There -- Offering a plethora of semiotic signifiers the complex biopic was more for fans of Haynes’ films than it was for Dylan fans looking for a chronological, traditional look at the artist. There are plenty of Dylan songs throughout the film and Dylan did give his blessing, but I’m Not There deliberately, often randomly, obscured the artist only to switch gears and capture some profound insights into what is it that made Dylan, well, Dylan. The use of several actors playing Dylan worked on several levels to remind and masquerade the ideas behind what it means to recreate recent history on celluloid.
In the Valley of Elah -- I have never been a Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby; Crash) fan yet if I had to pick my very favorite film of the year, it would have to be this stunning portrayal of how war can wreck one community after another. After serving a tour of duty in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) disappears. Not pleased with the locale investigation, Mike's father Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) does some detective work of his own--with the assistance of Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). What Hank, his wife (Susan Sarandon) and others find and reveal are no soft blows. Courageous, selfless, extremely well written, superbly-acted and wonderfully shot by Roger Deakins, few films leave such a lasting impression on a viewer as In the Valley of Elah.
Look -- Every week an estimated four billion hours of footage is caught on surveillance cameras in the United States. While that is not much of a shock in our every increasing techno world, the way we respond to what we see is what is at stake in writer-director Adam Rifkin’s video-slave new world. Intertwining several stories about deception, destruction, distastefulness and de-composure, this film illustrated a nation of voyeurs generally looking at others but not seeing them; voyeurs watching tragedy unfold but not responding to it; voyeurs responding to a crime instead of preventing one; voyeurs obsessed with sensation yet antagonistic toward sensitivity; voyeurs gazing at their own humanistic demise and adapting instead of rebelling.
The Rape of Europa -- In a year of uneasy films to digest, director-writers Richard Berge, Bonnie Cohen and Nicole Newnham's documentary was a welcome meal. The most comprehensive documentary about the relevance of art, art collection and art preservation during World War II, this awesome trio details at length how people died to save their precious national art while the Third Reich was busy trading, stealing and destroying art across Europe. Russians living in the basement of The Hermitage starved to save their art while a clever French museum curator in France "spied" for the world of art as American art historians were brought into Italy to show the Allies where they should not bomb. Unlike most documentaries about World War II Europe, this one is primarily about the good people.
The Simpsons Movie -- Twenty years in the making, watching The Simpsons and company on the big screen was mesmerizing. Dense colors, elaborate background scenes, detail crowd shots, I could watch this movie with the sound off and be entertained. To say this was the best example of a show being adapted from the small screen to the big screen would hardly be an endorsement since most of those adaptations are junk. Not only was the The Simpsons Movie the best adaptation of that kind, it is also the best-animated movie ever.
Talk to Me -- Taking a huge leap in artistic merit, director Kasi Lemmons¹ (Eve¹s Bayou, TheCaveman¹s Valentine) latest film tells the story of legendary radio DJ Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle). Focusing on this life from the late 1960s and on, Greene was a man from the streets of Washington, D.C., whose direct, elocutionary confrontation with authority represented a new voice in America. Highlighted by engaging performances, Terrance Blanchard’s able score and intelligent screenwriting by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, at every turn Lemmons splinters the characters, images and themes just enough that they connect and diverge--piecing together an unraveling nation.
There Will Be Blood -- Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights; Punch Drunk Love) took one long great leap forward in his career with his adaptation of Upton Sinclair's Oil!. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in phenomenal form), an early 20th century prospector, con artist and misanthrope to the core, slowly connives everyone in his pathway between Little Boston (Bakersfield, Ca.), where he repeatedly strikes oil to the shores of San Luis Obispo,. Not for the mawkish moviegoer, this nearly flawless 158-minute film about the past is, in many ways, an allegory for the present. A superior version of American Gangster.
The Other Woman -- Italy's Oscar selection chronicles the horrific plight of a Ukranian women (a fantastic Kseniya Rappoport) sold into sexual slavery and how she tries to deal with life after escaping. Her salvation is a little girl she believes is one of her daughters and Irena will stop at nothing to be with her, including enduring more exploitation, attempted murder and the inevitable crushing heartbreak. From the opening frame Guiseppe Tornatore makes it quite clear that he is sick of the degradation that too many women, including those in cinema, are too often expected to endure to please the male gaze. Featuring a riveting score by Ennio Morricone.
CJ Johnson’s Top Ten
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of the extraordinary memoir by Jean Dominique Beauby whom, at the age of 43, suffered a massive stroke leaving him completely paralyzed without any control over any part of his body except for his left eye. This is perhaps the most tremendously affecting film I've seen in years. Not only is the cinematography genuinely innovative, but the performances do what few are able to accomplish: they render you speechless. Harrowing, heartening and life affirming this was the most essential film of the year.
No Country For Old Men -- Beautiful poetry from the brothers Coen. No Country For Old Men is a disquieting cat-and-mouse chase between the law and cold blooded hit men, the hunter and the hunted, painted with extraordinary poetic images to reflect the ugliness of a society that (for all intents and purposes) is without hope of redemption: ours. Neither an action movie nor a suspense-thriller in the usual sense of the phrase, it does feel like one due to the volatile and searing intensity of the performances, namely Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem.
There Will Be Blood -- Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) is the ruthless oilman who is the consummate manifestation of the evils of capitalism in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. An exploration on the themes of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! There Will Be Blood is a magnificent historical epic, with enough grit and guts to make Giant look like a happily-ever-after fairytale. Lewis’ performance much lauded performance is entirely merited, and he is solely responsible for turning Anderson’s film, which is not without its faults, into something of a masterpiece.
La Vie en Rose -- This fascinating film about the life of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf is more than a biopic. Its a richly textured portrait; an explosive medley of color and passion; of pain and frustration; painted with a vivacious musical palette. Dahan has certainly not created the formulaic biopic, which itself is commendable, and his casting of fearless Marion Cotillard as Piaf was sheer genius: she ignites the screen in one of the strongest performances of the year. Period. Cotillard’s strength and Dahan’s driving vision result in a film that is (although imperfect) visually enrapturing, thoughtful, impressionistic and painfully sad.
This is England -- The film’s cut-the-crap sensibility and rebellious social humor,make it the sort of film that only a straightforward midlands lad like director Shane Meadows could pull off. Meadows’ story follows 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) whose desperate need for acceptance and some sense of identity prompts him into joining a skinhead gang in depressed Nottingham in Thatcher’s early 80s England. We see Shaun slide from what is initially harmless hooliganism into a violent militancy that is relentlessly uncomfortable to watch. Defying genre, This is England is political, historical and, most importantly, acutely personal.
Control -- Movies about rock and roll tragedies either get it right (Sid and Nancy) or get it horribly wrong (The Doors). So a massive hurrah is in order to first-time director Anton Corbijn because Control’s account of the explosive life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (played by the ferociously good Sam Riley) is an unexpectedly visceral and refreshingly human experience. Curtis is an often-explosive character with complex emotional and physical issues, but Corbijn’s film remains pointedly reticent and his shrewd use of dingy black-and-white photography, so appropriate to its setting of late ‘70s Manchester, gives the film a necessary sobriety too keep it from falling into the tortured artist sentimentalism that would have certainly befallen a lesser film — and lesser filmmaker.
Paris, Je T’aime -- If you’ve ever kept a travel journal, been in love, been divorced, or really, if you have any kind of pulse at all then there is something for you in Paris, Je T’aime. This collection of twenty short films comes from an impressive array of filmmakers (everyone from the Coens to Craven to Cuarón) who use the city of lights as the backdrop (or as the main character) for vignettes that range from the unabashedly saccharine to challenging little curiosities. Some work, some don’t, but they all have the darn-dest way of staying with you long after the film has ended. It’s a wonderfully original all around experience, and the most beautiful declaration of love to any city in recent memory.
Zodiac -- Frustrating and frantic and fabulous. Demanding absolute attention to detail, Zodiac wanders and twists, confounds and infuriates, curdles your blood and, after almost three hours, leaves you utterly worn out. This isn’t so much about the actual nefarious zodiac killer of 1960s San Francisco fame as it is about the various lives that are affected by it: in particularly, Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsession of it and Robert Downey Jr’s capitalization of it. A thriller that is truly thrilling in the most unexpected of ways.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters -- George Bailey meets Mr. Potter gaming style. Billy Mitchell is a 25-year-old Donkey Kong champ with a fanatical drive to maintain his title and an ego big enough to make Prada’s Miranda look like Mother Theresa. Standing in his way is the virtuous “Wiebe,” a hard working, upright kid from Middle America with no delusions of grandeur, only the dream to dethrone the villainous Mitchell. Director Seth Gordon’s King of Kong is the most unexpectedly moving underdog film of the year, and the best part? It’s a documentary.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: -- Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s sixth collaboration, delivers exactly what it promises: blood, guts and Victorian grunge. This adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s 1979 marvellously morbid musical has Depp stepping up to the plate to reveal himself to be a surprisingly strong musical lead, and Bonham Carter is balefully beautiful in a frighteningly mad way (making up for her less than impressive singing chops). It’s a gory, psychological thriller, intense and intelligent, but the best thing about Todd is its surprising wallop of emotional depth—this may not be the best Burton-Depp film (that title rightly rests with Ed Wood) but it is the most affecting … and effective.
Ed Rampell’s Top Ten
I’m a big fan of movies that are cinematic – that is, motion pictures that use the attributes unique to the medium of cinema. I love film form, from the rapid montage of a Sergei Eisenstein to the long tracking shots of a Michelangelo Antonioni to the picturesque tableaux of John Ford to the sweeping long shots of David Lean to – well, you get the picture. But let’s face it, storytelling, characters and content are even more important for most moviegoers. So for my Top 10 list, I selected films based on their progressive politics.
And the winners are:
In the Valley of Elah – War and peace figured mightily in 2007’s politically aware cinema, as 21st century Leo Tolstoys crafted consciousness and conscience into content, starting with Paul Haggis’ meditation on Iraq and the post-traumatic stress disorder many soldiers suffer, especially when fighting for a pack of lies. Elah’s mournful ensemble cast includes activist/actress Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron caught up in a troubled – and troubling – American imperium.
Redacted – Brian De Palma’s powerful expose of war crimes committed by GIs in Iraq is revolutionary in both form and content. It is worth noting that only one major studio feature was released during the Vietnam War that was set in the Indochina conflict – John Wayne’s gung ho (and I don’t mean Ho Chi Minh) The Green Berets. However, fiction films today have already trained their sites on Iraq, Afghanistan and the so-called “War on Terror,” and it ain’t a pretty sight.
Lions for Lambs – Robert Redford directed and co-starred with Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise in this penetrating look at Neo-conservatives, the corporate media and the Afghan War. Michael Pena, who played a 9/11 survivor in Oliver Stone’s 2006 World Trade Center, is shrewdly cast as a soldier who has volunteered to take the fight to Osama – with disastrous results.
Charlie Wilson’s War – Mike Nichols’ movie takes us back to the original U.S. incursion into Afghanistan – call it “Afghan War I.” Some may simplistically see this highly entertaining movie co-starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a pro-war patriotic picture. But it can also be viewed as a cautionary tale of the folly of a freelance foreign policy carried out by the CIA and Congress that saw Washington insanely back Islamic extremism, which directly gave rise to Osama Bin Laden. Listen to the jets Congressman Wilson (Hanks) hears on his balcony at the end – they are Osama’s boys headed for the Twin Towers and D.C., as the CIA’s most expensive covert operation ever inevitably leads to catastrophic blowback.
Rendition – Gavin Hood explores the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, with its secret prisons and torture in this expose of the Bush regime’s overzealous techniques during the “War on Terror” that itself uses terrorist tactics. An ensemble cast including Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Omar Metwally and Yigal Naor brings this gripping drama about the ultimate Hitchcockian “wrong man” alive.
Across the Universe – Speaking, or rather singing, of peace, Julie Taymor uses the Beatles’ music (although not the Fab Four themselves) to resurrect the 1960s’ antiwar movement and counterculture in this musical with Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess and, in cameos, Salma Hayek, Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard.
Michael Clayton – Progressive filmmakers also tackled other topics in issue-oriented films, such as Tony Gilroy’s anti-Big Ag drama starring George Clooney, Michael Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack as lawyers on the horns of an ethical dilemma.
There Will Be Blood – Based on socialist Upton Sinclair’s novel, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation raises the “no blood for oil” theme, as it explores the American oil industry and Christian evangelism. Paul Dano puts the mental into fundamentalism as the wacky preacher Eli Sunday, while Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a powerhouse performance as a Citizen Kane-like petroleum robber baron, who gains the world as he loses his soul.
Sicko – With his usual wit, panache and boldness, Michael Moore tackles the state of American healthcare and insurance in this documentary that dares paint a human picture of France and Cuba.
The Great Debaters – Denzel Washington directed 2007’s Best Progressive Picture, A film about class struggle in academia and the cotton fields of the Deep South during the Great Depression. Denzel portrays the real life poet Melvin Tolson, an academic and debate team couch by day, and rabblerousing Red at night. Tolson organizes white and black farmers and sharecroppers to fight for truth, justice and the progressive way in this stand-up-and-cheer anti-racist movie co-produced by Oprah and co-starring Forest Whitaker and John Heard.
Don Simpson’s Top Ten
The fantastic cinematic output of 2007 exists in stark contrast to that of 2006 (which will go down as one of the more lackluster years in the history of cinema). Politics took the forefront and Hollywood finally began to show its leftist tendencies (after six years of curtailing them) with an exponential increase in unabashed critiques of the military endeavors by the U.S. during President Bush’s reign. Race and the environment were also big issues this year, while feminist issues (most notably abortion) seemed to be less worthy of discussion (thanks in part to Juno and Knocked Up). This year also marks the release of two films that are as close to cinematic perfection as I have witnessed in many years: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and There Will Be Blood.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Writer-director Julian Schnabel’s kino-eye stylishly captures the dying days of French Elle editor (Jean-Dominique Bauby) while trapped inside his paralyzed body. Startlingly beautiful cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) and a script (adapted from Bauby’s memoir by Ronald Harwood) that takes existentialism to higher levels, The Diving Bell and Butterfly is Schnabel’s most significant contribution to the world of art and beyond. Pure eye-candy and mind-candy, this is cinematic perfection in my eyes.
There Will Be Blood – This is a film that is destined to go down in cinema history as one of the great epic masterpieces. The cinematography (Robert Elswit), editing (Dylan Tichenor) and soundtrack (Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) seem avant-garde in comparison to anything recent but they all work in faithful worship of the great masters of cinema’s past. Daniel Day-Lewis’s pitch-perfect performance as oil tycoon Daniel Plainview is as dastardly as the devil himself.
I’m Not There – Layered with references (many that only the most astute Dylan scholars will appreciate), the non-traditional narrative of Todd Haynes’ artful homage to the many personas of Bob Dylan is primed to blow as many minds as when Dylan went electric. Far from a bio-pick, Haynes use of multiple characters to play various eras of Dylan works surprisingly well (though the casting of Richard Gere as the Woodstock-era Dylan is the film’s most notable flaw).
Southland Tales – With Godard as my witness, I bask in the essence of difficult cinema (and, yes, I realize I am basking in almost solitary confinement on this one). Southland Tales utilizes the rapid-fire news tactics of Fox News, bombarding and overwhelming the audience with various theories, words and images; but instead of telling the audience what to think (like Fox News does), writer-director Richard Kelly gets down on one knee and pleads with his audience to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Amen!
The Simpson’s Movie – Finally! My namesakes from Springfield (my hometown) made their way onto the silver screen. I can’t say I was 100% satisfied with the result (admittedly my expectations were totally unattainable) but, as with the television show, it is still better than most everything else.
Black Book – Director Paul Verhoeven returned to his birthplace (the Netherlands) and made the best film of his career. It is the structure and pacing of the narrative (and Carice van Houten’s lead performance as Rachel/Ellis) that make this one of the best WWII thrillers.
Hannah Takes the Stairs – Naturally bare with unbridled honesty and simplicity (and aesthetically saturated with Eric Rohmer and Hal Hartley’s influences), combined with director Joe Swanberg’s refreshingly nonchalant attitude toward sexuality and nudity, this is the best that the fruitful “Mumblecore” scene has offered so far.
Control – Joy Division is one of my favorite bands of all-time, and Anton Corbijn’s directorial debut did not disappoint. The lush black and white cinematography perfectly reflects the doom and gloom of the gray old 1970s England that spawned Joy Division.
Into the Wild – The mood and atmosphere of Sean Penn’s fourth directorial effort are as transfixing as the acting performances (most notably Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless). Into the Wild is a beautiful study of McCandless’ attempt to escape the grasp of capitalism, as he also slowly comes to terms with the human necessity of companionship.
Sicko – Michael Moore is far from flawless. I don’t agree with everything he does or says (or many of his tactics), but I have to admit the dude has a true gift for crafting captivating documentaries. Sicko brings a lot of important issues to the table concerning the state of the health care system in the U.S. – though, whether or not it will bring about any changes is left in the hands of the voting public.