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My Ten Favorite Movies of 2007

joe strummer
joe strummer

The haunting strains of the opening track by Phillip Glass for Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” sweep over me again, an incidental measuring rod, a rubric for film; I review the offerings for 2007, films about Alzheimer’s, class dynamics, and even punk rock. Increasingly, I find myself gravitating towards humbler titles such as “Diggers” (it features “Ride Captain Ride” by Blue Image), and especially documentaries that mirror a chronicle of the times, a snapshot of events that take on a larger life. Moreover, I now have a burning love for French films, since a noticeable void existed for such Gallic dailies when I was younger. Koch Lorber films have many meritorious motion pictures, such as “le petit lieutenant,” “Comedy of Power,” or the disturbing “Violette” (Isabelle Huppert waxes superbly). I am looking forward to seeing the “Killer of Sheep,” a 1977 film by Charles Burnett that takes place in Watts, Los Angeles; this should grace my mailbox tomorrow. This is turning into a bloated monster, a shot of Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters,” a Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade with bouncing floats of Jodie Foster, Tommy Lee Jones, and Javier Bardem bobbing down the lane!

I have been developing some of my own canons of exemplary film surreptitiously; this is because I have been sitting around in the velvet cushions of theaters with nothing better to do, too much idle time maybe, therefore, I thought I’d spill a few tricks of the trade for you. I look for the rhythm of the action, whether the film gains momentum, if there are any wasted shots, the music and locations, and especially just how solid the story itself is and if the actors can do it justice. As an example, I thought that “The Lookout” was very condensed without a dull moment. Matthew Goode plays an excellent bad guy and Jeff Daniels plays the wise, blind roommate who comes to the aid of Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Isla Fisher adds a nice touch as the temptress who helps to set up Chris Pratt for a fall. There is no excess adipose tissue here, the action builds to a slow boil, then it cremates you in the final scenes with high tension, violence, and finally a test of friendship. The writing and directing of Scott Frank makes this one of the best for 2007. Another striking example for character study is Jody Foster as Erica Kane in “The Brave One”; I don’t believe the theme of vigilantism has been completely exhausted yet – hey the “Death Wish” series still strikes a raw nerve for me-and Jodie seems to expand on various facets of her earlier roles; there are tints of Iris Steensma and sprinkles of Clarice Starling in Erica Kane. I felt as if this one was mostly underappreciated, but perhaps some of you will take a second look.

This ‘Best Of’ resembles a potato-print that is brief in particulars but stamps a silhouette of creed on Chinese paper. I found more to loath than love this year, but still managed to unearth a few black Etruscan Bucchero vases. I renewed my dedication to the genre of documentaries, since my training is in history, and my loyalty is fixed to this form. “The Thin Blue Line” is a reason why I so love this way of expressing a story. I discovered First Run Features this year and have benefited from such offerings as “Sacco and Vanzetti,” the most popular news story of the 1920s, and “One Bright Shining Moment,” that highlights the career of George McGovern and his failed run for the presidency in 1972. I love films period. However, the larger than life offerings were boring; no more do you leave the theater then you mostly forget what you’ve seen. Another car chase scene is boring; no way, it will ever beat “Bullet” with Steve McQueen racing ’round the streets of San Francisco. The critics loved “Eastern Promises,” but I found it contrived and derivative; I don’t know why exactly? My views are changing daily and I want a more serious experience, I’ve come to believe. I still love dramas or adaptations of literature, if they are done right. “Lady Chatterley” lures you to a lovely volume of D. H. Lawrence, like a snake charmer on his recorder. “Documentary” magazine lists the twenty-five best ones. “Don’t Look Back,” “Woodstock,” and “Crumb” were amongst some of my favorites. I’m convinced that “No End In Sight” could be included in that list. The truth was told boldly about Iraq. For me, documentaries, or the ones that are wisely produced, have more staying power. One thing I know for sure. I just love to go to movies or pop a DVD in the player, and attempt to see what it will do to me- it’s that simple. Let your eyes carefully drink these wily words and ‘get thyself to a nunnery (movie house), Ophelia’! This list is a moving target, a snapshot in time, and will change by the time that you read this.

I am creating my own live documentary about Benazir Bhutto by collecting newspapers, looking at film footage anywhere I can find it, and thumbing through slideshows on the New York Times web page. The most important story of the year comes in the waning moments of this year. At first, the media said she was shot, but now the story is changing; some cleaning up is in play. The Musharraf administration quickly altered the crime scene, removed the evidence and is claiming Ms Bhutto died solely by the suicide bomber. Something fishy is going on here, and I believe that a cover up is going on as I write this. The Bhutto family does not want an autopsy either. This is a bit of information that makes no sense? This is a movie in real time…I am greatly saddened by these events and am trying to educate myself about her life, and the role that Pakistan plays in the nexus of the Middle East. I suspect that a good amount of Pakistanis are anti-US, if not Musharraf himself. No doubt, this killing is related to the US and the War in Iraq, but I’m still attempting to pull together the parts of this apparatus. A reasonable theory would be that Benazir Bhutto was too sympathetic to the U.S. and would have brought the war to Pakistan, thus creating a wider war. The U.S. may very well intervene in Pakistan and impose a puppet state. I don’t believe that Musharraf can hold onto power and chaos may prevail, just like it does in Iraq.

So here it is. This comes very late in the writing…This is number one of this year: ‘Pakistan: New Bhutto Video.’ Watch this on YouTube, she is shot three times and you can see her shawl and hair rise up. This is live conspiracy…story of the year…living, breathing, bleeding flick – right before your eyes…if you miss this you are blind! Documentarians must be flocking to Pakistan!

A theory just came to me…when the surge happened in Iraq many al-Qaeda fled Iraq and went to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The newspapers claim that the indigenous Pakistani al-Qaeda has grown, that it is less foreign. I dispute this, and suspect much of al-Qaeda that went to Iraq in the first place were from Pakistan. Now they have returned and are firing things up. Remember, that al-Qaeda was originally created as fighters against the Russians in Afghan-Russian war of the late 1970s. This is what created Bin Ladin-both were spawned by the United States CIA. This is common knowledge. Now we have to go back in there to clean out the rats’ nest that we created! How ironic and should be carefully documented by brave souls! Therefore, the ‘War on Terror’ has shifted over to these countries. Al-Qaeda controls Musharraf, but he puts the blame for the assassination of Bhutto on al-Qaeda; they are really one and the same, he is a puppet to al-Qaeda. Their presence is greater in Pakistan than ever before. This is due to the U.S. presence in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan has flared up again too. The Taliban is strong again. The opium poppy crop has never been larger. My fear is that Bush will widen the war in these countries. This may already be the case. Things get a little complicated here, when you are thinking about al-Qaeda in Pakistan. You have to study the War in Wazirstan to understand how this conflict works with the War in Afghanistan. Musharraf wants to appear as if he is fighting al-Qaeda in order to appease the U.S. I do not believe this, just like I don’t believe the official version of the toppling of the Twin Towers. When I say this is a movie, I am not trying to be sensationalist or disrespectful. I don’t like the way that the media is taking it lightly. The American public is ignorant of the history of Pakistan. How can we make informed decisions? I sincerely believe this is the most important story to emerge in years, and likely can provide the key to this powder keg we know as the Middle East. Surely, Benazir Bhutto will be idolized, and will be a martyr for a myriad of political positions, both centered in the East and in the West.

1. THE LIVES OF OTHERS

“The Lives of Others” is easily the best movie of 2007. I saw it in February at the Arbor and have not stopped watching it since then. Martina Gedeck is beautiful, not pretty. The music has totally captivated me. It was done by Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha. In one scene Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) fondly reads Bertolt Brecht, a book he took from Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch); he is warming to the west. This is a story of outward and inward change. I love the old typewriters clicking away. I love the shots of the full-page typed secret documents of Wiesler. Dreyman types an article on suicide statistics too. Flute and guitar tracks are over the top. I love freedom. You do too. The German Democratic Republic did not have it. Wiesler has a friend over for recreational sex. Fatigue is over me as this drives to the end. The headphones, the reel-to-reel tapes, the grey uniforms, the gloomy buildings of East Berlin-these were the touches that makes it real. I have often worried about wiretapping, electronic surveillance, censorship. Violations of civil liberties have been considered. The abandonment of the constitution has been considered. It’s all too easy. It’s happened before. J. Edgar Hoover did it to MLK. Just read “1984.” Just read “Animal Farm.” Just read “Gulliver’s Travels.” Just read “Brave New World.” Okay, just read it again. The ending is very sad, but the shining beams of redemption trickle down. This is an Orwellian nightmare.

2. BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

‘May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.’

So the Irish proverb goes, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot for Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to sneak pass the devil and enter the gates of pearly heaven. Andy commits enough felonious crimes here to condemn him to the deepest depths of the Inferno for all of eternity. What Sidney Lumet is doing with “Before the Devil…” is taking an everyday story, say right out of any town USA’s daily news, and charging it with symbolism, so that it takes on the proportions of high Greek tragedy, such as “Oedipus Rex.” An odd Hegelian dialectic is created by the coupling of random circumstance, the free choices of Andy and Hank (Ethan Hawke is perfect here as the weaker brother) perhaps, with a seemingly inevitable fate, related to this family, and suddenly some dire consequences burgeon and morph with catastrophic resonation. This elevated state implicit, as a theme is due in part to Albert Finney (as Charles the father) who gradually comes to know the corruption of the sons, and primarily the ill spirit of Andy. Albert Finney plays a working-class King Lear who attempts to cleanse the maladies of his poisonous offspring, but is too late. This screenplay by Kelly Masterson is easily the best one I have seen for 2007. It has the density and care of some of Hitchcock’s best; progressive chapters focus on the jewel robbery, the center of this film, again and again, and you are gifted with more facts (you long for data) but from shifting perspectives. You then know enough to see that there is more lurking beneath the surface that is dark and vindictive. Subterranean layers of psychological malfeasance are systematically unveiled-they bubble up to the surface, both through the father, by way of both sons, and even through the wife (Marisa Tomei as the chilly Gina)-in fact, everyone is partially to blame. What we have here is a brilliant medley of action and psychology of character, where the momentum of events shades the parties’ thinking, there motives of behavior, and the outcome is worlds apart from the original simple and possibly rosy plan. I believe this is how tragedies come about.

3. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

The scene where Chigurh stalks down Moss in Del Rio, or maybe it was Eagle Pass, and Moss has to jump out of the window made me sit up and take notice! The crime scene out in the desert of West Texas was chilly. You could swear though that it was from the news. The Coen Brothers stay close to the earth and cactus of Cormac McCarthy’s book. You are experiencing the fall of the New West. This is when the war-on-drugs was still fresh, in the early 1980s. There are no loose links here…none. This is a masterpiece, maybe the Coen’s best yet! That’s why I purchased the box set “The Coen Brothers Movie Collection.” This includes: “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “Blood Simple,” and “Barton Fink.” “No Country For Old Men” is the most developed of their style yet, and all of there energies and hooks are present with gusto! Why did Llewelyn Moss have to die? Why didn’t the dark Chigurh ever get it? Carson Wells studies the crime scene in Eagle Pass, a cheap hotel with bullet holes, bloody towels, and a dead woman clerk slumped over the daily news. All this over Mexican black tar-shot out trucks and carcasses formed in a wagon train rotting in the desert, buzzards flying over Sanderson. Anton Chigurh waits at the house of Carla Jean. Carla Jean had just buried her mother and walks into a twist of fate with a dire outcome. Sheriff Bell traces Llewelyn, tracks down Chigurh, but figures how much easier things were in the old days. The Texas sun bakes the desert, scorpions scamper, rattlers coil, bodies decay, and carrion crow hover o’er the crime scene. Nothin’ changes. No one gets caught. Not many live to talk. Carson Wells disappears, Carla Jean’s mother tries to hide in El Paso but dies under mysterious circumstances. Drug running escalates over the years. Chaos on the border, flashing guns and knives, piles of brown powder in plastic bags, shot out hotels and bodies little the streets. Sheriff Tom Bell sees his reflection in the 21-inch screen TV in the abandoned trailer house. He calmly takes a sip of milk from the carton; twenty minutes ago, Chigurh had done the same, as he stalks the money briefcase that Moss lifted from the dead man in the desert. Dawn in the desert is pink light, blue beams on cactus shoots, the universe rolls on-creatures live and die-some survive, some don’t.

4. NO END IN SIGHT

Mission Accomplished

‘On May 1st 2003 President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq and said: “In the battle of Iraq the United States and her allies have prevailed.” And four years later, after over 3,000 American deaths and over 20,000 American wounded Iraq has disintegrated into chaos… (Narrator: Campbell Scott). “People who die they’re lucky, but people living, they’re dead while alive.” Ali Fadhil on civilian wounded. (An estimate of 600,000 civilian deaths as of 2006).

The crisp audience applause at the end of “No End In Sight” fueled my own feelings that I had just experienced an important documentary. I recall my revered history teacher from high school, Jim Bolger, illustrating a rife precept of foreign policy: ‘that it’s not a good idea to get involved in the Middle East, especially by way of unilateral military intervention’. This came back to me as I viewed the violence in “No End In Sight.” I am watching “The Thin Blue Line” today, the Saint Theresa of documentaries, and am able to see how Errol Morris’s argument is given for Randall Dale Adams’ innocence through a series of simulations. The shooting of Officer Woods at the time that he stopped a little Mercury Comet vehicle in late November of 1976 is shown over and over again, but from shifting perspectives. “No End In Sight” discloses exactly what steps were taken to prosecute the war after March of 2003, and then it goes on to present exactly why those were the wrong decisions to make in conducting the War in Iraq. This is achieved through talking head interviews, film footage, and an omniscient narrative, that anchors you to the argument. Colonel Paul Hughes (deputy director of the Office of Humanitarian Assistance and Anti-Personnel Landmine Policy) shadows Randall Dale Adams here, the conscience of the Administration’s misfires. “I don’t do quagmires,” Rumsfeld retorts clumsily; I grabbed on to “The Making of a Quagmire” by David Halberstam and was having a deja vu. Charles Ferguson is being rhetorical, historical, and even judgmental here. He thoroughly argues his position and covers the most important blunders committed by the Bush Administration. A few of those are: not having enough troops on the ground, De’ba’athification, not containing the looting and establishing marshal law in the months after the invasion (March of 2003), private security companies killing civilians (the Blackstone incident has emerged since then), not protecting the ancient museum with some of the oldest treasures of civilization, not securing the ammunition dumps that were ubiquitous throughout Iraq, and dismissing the Iraqi army, which cinched the creation of the Insurgency. People in the know were dismissed and idiots like L. Paul Bremmer were brought in. I purchased the DVD Saturday so that I could go over it meticulously. All the facts and opinions hold up here. This is appropriate and is the vital reason why this is the best documentary of 2007. You don’t just invade a country, frame an occupation, then expect things will be easy as pie. Napoleon failed when he invaded Russia. Hitler failed when he invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviets failed when they invaded Afghanistan. Finally, the U. S. failed when it invaded Vietnam in 1965. I am numbed today by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Again, I remember my old history teacher’s words.

5. JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN

Joe Strummer, The Clash

6. JUNO

There are 61 photos of Ellen Page right here; I know ‘cuz I have shuffled through them three or four times already. Ellen Page as Juno is way, way a big star now and her stardom will only bloom over the next few months. The snappy, ‘valley girl’ dialogue in “Juno,” the verbal boomerang of Juno MacGuff, functions nicely within its own universe, and need not pay tribute to the banalities of everyday speech. The screenplay by Diablo Cody (My Criterion Top 10 has ten of her favorite films…hum…interesting), an overnight sensation with the media, is the key to this clever, and very spunky offering. This is the one that left you with a fuzzy, warm feeling for many days after you left the theater (saw it on Christmas Day at Dobie with only two other people)-loosely the “Little Miss Sunshine” for 2007-but the message morphs to serious territory; it’s disguised as a comedy, but foxily slips in polemics on abortion, musical taste, parents, yuppies, adoption, puppy love, and most certainly, the good-old-fashion pangs of growing up in this stressful modern age. The message here is wholesome, and you walk away with a sense of hope for humanity and our current youth. This was a rare sensation this year.

7. LADY CHATTERLEY

Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) prancing about in the English countryside, fleshly dressed with birds piping, squirrels scampering, and flowers blossoming-Pascal Ferran’s fetching Franco production touch-is pastoral erotica from Virgil’s “Georgics”; or I arrive there by channeling freely. I am due for a sit-down with D. H. Lawrence’s “John Thomas and Lady Jane,” an earlier version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” but my reading of the theme of this film is that transcendent erotica can only be managed by flip-flopping social classes; Constance seeks out Parkin, (Jean Louis Coulloc’h) the estate gardener, for his good health and labor-intensive preoccupations (if not his occupation). This piece of literature has already been committed to celluloid innumerable times before, but this version pinpoints the natural harmonies that are consummated between these two diametrically opposed class archetypes. The fact that the husband, Lord Clifford Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot), has disabilities from combat wounds in WWI-he is especially ineffectual when he goes on the hayride of life-and that he is a cruel industrialist, deepens your sympathies for the bucolic lovers. The charm of this one is the way that delicate class barriers are shattered like glass menagerie, and erotica is released mysteriously when defiance is in play, yet it is organic defiance and comes from the heart.

8. MARGOT AT THE WEDDING

“Margot at the Wedding” is a post nine-eleven, topical “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Nicole Kidman (Margot Zeller) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pauline) mixing it up with bad-vibe chemistry tweaked to a bitter curry extraordinaire. I adored “The Squid and the Whale,” but Noah Baumbach pushes the dysfunctional family envelope to the edge of the cliff in this one. “Margot…” looks like an eight millimeter home movie stuffed in a dusty canister from the seventies, with faded colors, mostly misplaced pop tunes (like Stephen Bishop’s “On and On”), and dangling conversations sprinkled with poisonous dart-words. It is the teeny nuances that turned me on; the Voglers’ roasting a pig in their backyard, the spooky, kooky crochet game, the searching for Wizard the family dog, Margot finding the salacious polaroids of Pauline and Malcolm, Margot’s book reading fiasco, the chain sawing of the backyard house tree by the pudgy, “Tommy Boy” (remember Chris Farley) Malcolm, and the anti-surprise ending where Margot and her son, Claude, negotiate the bus ride. Too, I loved the cosmetic aspects of the dress down look of Nicole and Jennifer, loved that funky hat of Nicole’s for publicity stills, and dug the blue-jean, wineglass toting nonchalance of these jaded, spoiled, upper-crust-boho-bound fledgling starlets. Yea, the whole thing could have happened to any of us, but maybe just in a pipedream from “Modern Screen”!

9. CONTROL

‘You cry out in your sleep, oh my failings exposed, yet a taste in my mouth, as desperation takes hold. Just as something so good, just can’t function no more. Love will tear us apart again. And Love, Love will tear us apart again.’ Ian Curtis-Joy Division

“Control” brought back memories of 1980, a year when many things developed. “They keep calling me”; I daydream of Lester Bangs, San Francisco when I lived there, and some colleagues who truly loved this band. After watching the movie, I picked up “Substance,” a hits collection of Joy Division, and was inspired by these songs again. My favorites for now are ‘Transmission’, ‘Dead Souls’, and ‘She’s Lost Control’; this is the first time I ever heard the bass mixed this loud. This is a power-pop flowering of Industrial Rock. Long dark raincoats, kinetic hair, and billowing smoke-curls from ciggies… Sam Riley lies on his bed smoking a roll of tobacco, and listens to David Bowie; a poster of Lou Reed is on the wall. Ian begins to write bits and pieces of poetry. The director, Anton Corbijn, filmed “Control” in black and white, and it is as if it’s the year 1975 again. The scenes with the band are memorable, and Sam Riley dancing and cupping the microphone were realistic. Ian Curtis died on May 18, 1980 at the age of 23, and only speculation has been offered as to why he left us. One scene has Ian and Debbie (Samantha Morton) walking away from each other with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ playing on top. Ian had epilepsy, was having an affair with Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), drank too much, did too many prescription drugs, had pressure on him, or whatever? Some speculation as to causes. Something caused him to come unhinged. We are left with some very good songs and a movie to preserve this moment in time.

10. ZODIAC

‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ The Man That Shot Liberty Valance.

Sketch of the Zodiac killer based on witness testimonies.

Honorable mention goes to: “The Brave One,” “The Lookout,” “Rescue Dawn,” “The TV Set,” “Paris, Je T’Aime,” “Away From Her,” “Broken English,” “Black Book” “Michael Clayton,” “Jindabyne,” “Mafiosa,” “Factory Girl,” “Jonestown,” “Blame it on Fidel,” “My Best Friend,” “The Dead Girl,” “Live-In Maid,” “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” “The Mist,” “28 Weeks Later,” “Waitress,” and “The Darjelling Limited.”

Films that I have yet to see but intend to as soon as possible are: “4 months, Three Weeks, and Two Days,” “The Savages,” “Last Mistress,” “Flight of the Red Balloon,” “There will be Blood,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “The Kite Runner,” “Colossal Youth,” “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Crazy Love” (this one scares me though),”This Is England,” “Persepolis,” “Paranoid Park,” “Atonement,” “Flawless” (has Demi Moore and Michael Cane), “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains,” “Darfur Now,” and “Oswald’s Ghost” (I am really looking forward to this one). Note: Most of these films have yet to come to Austin.

I am only able to write with really good music playing as a muse to push the quill. The following titles guided me through this project: “Beethoven Piano Sonatas” by Mitsuko Uchida, “Yundi Li-Prokofiev and Ravel-The Berliner Philharmoniker-Seiji Ozawa,” “Theatre of Voices Stimmung Paul Hillier-Karlheinz Stockhausen,” “Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 3,” “Simone Dinnerstein J. S. Bach Goldberg Variations,” and “Lorraine Hunt Lieberson-Roger Vignoles-Songs by Mahler, Handel and Peter Lieberson.

John Kays identifies timeless remnants from our past that will endure, or be admired by future generations.

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