No Country for Old Men: Javier Bardem (eventual Oscar winner) as Chigurh
No Country for Old Men: Javier Bardem (eventual Oscar winner) as Chigurh

As we embarked on our annual November-December process of catching up with the myriad films missed in the course of the year and zeroing in on our notions of the best, Kathleen Murphy remarked that 2007 hadn't been a year for great films. No, I agreed, only one or two seemed worthy of deeming great (an adjective we take pretty seriously), but there had been a healthy crop of really good, smart, ambitious movies that lingered in the mind. And in its way, that was almost as gratifying, and maybe more reassuring, than half a dozen masterpieces.

1.  Neither of us had any reservations about the top film of the year. Ethan and Joel Coen's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was wellnigh flawless as an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's haunting novel - right down to a stunning cinematic equivalent of the moment in the book that had readers going "What?!" and riffling back to see if two pages had been turned at once. It's also masterly moviemaking of an order rarely equaled or even approached in these careless times ... which generated a weird minority protest among some critics: wasn't it perhaps, uh, too well-made? Great (yes) performances by Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the hitherto-negligible Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss and the uncanny Javier Bardem as Chigurh, a chilly devil too terrible for Hell. All praise, too, to Kelly Macdonald, who [in the photo that accompanied this in the newspaper] has opened a door she shouldn't have, but couldn't help it. After all, it's in her own home.

2.  Kenneth Loach's THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY won the Palme d'Ôr at Cannes in May 2006 and was the first film I caught at that year's Toronto International Film Festival. It arrived here in January or February. Movies in such circumstances tend to fall between stools at list time the following year. This clear-eyed, heartbreaking account of the Irish "Troubles" in 1921-22, and how Irishmen stopped fighting the British and started blooding one another, is too fine and powerful to be forgotten. Cillian Murphy was a rare instance of a star appearing in a Loach film - not that either actor or director made much of that.

3.  THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY can easily be made to sound like a movie one would watch only for penance. Its real-life protagonist, Elle editor "Jean-Do" Bauby, is a vital man struck down in his prime by a ferocious neurological event resulting in "locked-in syndrome": total paralysis save for the ability to blink his left eye. Fatuous clichés about the triumph of the human spirit will be resisted at this point, because Julian Schnabel's film of Bauby's memoir - which Bauby "dictated" with that blinking eye - is thrilling to watch. Working with Steven Spielberg's favorite cameraman Janusz Kaminski, Schnabel (a painter who made two previous films about beleaguered artists, Basquiat and Before Night Falls) first gives us the world from Bauby's restricted point of view, then reinvents it by investing every image with sensuous avidity and wit. The charming Mathieu Amalric manages to characterize Bauby so fully, without motion and often without being seen on screen, that after a while we feel we are seeing him all the time. And oh yes: a lot of the movie is amazingly funny.

4.  I haven't read Ian McEwan's much-loved novel, so I speak of ATONEMENT only as a film I was mesmerized and moved by. Ranging from a lovely summer's day in 1935, when a terrible misinterpretation gives way to a lie that wrecks several lives, through the wartime of Dunkirk and the Blitz, to a modern-day confession that is either transcendent or horrific, depending on one's susceptibilities, this is a richly textured and intricately observed drama and a brilliant mediation on the allure, consolation and peril of shaping fictions. In only his second feature film, director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) uncannily manages to make every image shimmer as if in the mind's-eye of a reader. Keira Knightley will be up for a best-actress Oscar, and deservedly, but the discovery of the film is Saoirse Ronan.*

5.  The gentleman suspended against the backdrop of Tangiers is, of course, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in the third installment - THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM - in the Robert Ludlum-derived franchise. Mostly, this wasn't a good year for thirds-in-a-series, and Ludlum doesn't bear thinking about. However, Paul Greengrass' movie is not only much the best panel of a very good triptych, it's a terrifically well-made film, singlehandedly redeeming the action genre from the lazy curse of CGI. Greengrass had just finished making 2006's United 93 before undertaking this film. His work on both is equally diligent and accomplished, raising craft to a metaphysical principle.

6.  Do film critics have a sense of humor? The question has been often asked, but rarely more to the point than in the case of MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, the latest film from the gifted Noah Baumbach, whose The Squid and the Whale was among the top films of 2005. The title character is a waspish (in both senses) fiction writer (aha, another one!) who's ventured out of greater New York City to attend the wedding of a sister she hasn't spoken to in years. Margot is a deeply twisted character, who can lodge a scorpion sting with the most offhand comment - a compliment, even. She is also, probably, a further gloss on writer-director Baumbach's mother (whom many film critics know personally, and may feel compelled to defend). So all right, the characters in this movie are not people one might like to spend a long summer weekend with. But they are sharply delineated, superbly acted, and frequently so appallingly funny you're not sure whether to laugh or cry. Laugh, for heaven's sake! Nicole Kidman is brilliant in the title role, the best she's been since her Oscared turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Jennifer Jason Leigh (Mrs. Noah B.) plays the vulnerable sister Pauline, and Jack Black is both hilarious and unprecedentedly sympathetic as Pauline's clueless prospective husband. Others in the first-rate cast include Zane Pais as Margot’s son, John Turturro as his mostly absent and cuckolded dad, and Ciarán Hinds as Margot's current lover, her peer in emotional and intellectual skewering.

7.  The talented young Canadian actress Sarah Polley made her feature-directing debut this year with AWAY FROM HER, a film derived from an Alice Munro story and focused on a long-married couple coping with the wife's Alzheimer's. Again, this is one of those movies that sound like grim duty, but it delivers a tender yet utterly unsentimental account of people finding something better in themselves than they or we had any reason to expect. Gordon Pinsent, long a stolid mainstay of Canadian movies, is beautifully directed as the husband. And Julie Christie was never lovelier, or better.

8.  How could they make a movie about the Bay Area's Zodiac Killer when Zodiac was never identified, let alone apprehended? Well, partly because ZODIAC isn't about Zodiac but about the case, and what it did to the lives of some police detectives and San Francisco journalists who took their mission obsessively. It's also about fear, and the way it can spread like a miasma through an entire community, even as, necessarily, life goes on, as close to normal as possible. Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo all do superb work in a cast so beautifully selected and so rich in personal history that throughout the nearly-three-hour movie one keeps doing second takes on one peripheral figure or other and tries not to say out loud (at least in the theater) "Omigod, is that her!" David Fincher directed, with an obsessive eye of his own to recapturing the particular aura of the Seventies, and frequently disturbing the bejeezus out of us for reasons we can't name.

9.  There seems to be a new wave breaking in international cinema these days, and the unlikely beachhead is Romania. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS isn't the first indication we’ve had of this phenomenon, but it's the one that copped the top prize at Cannes this year - a compelling, psychologically harrowing account of a young woman (Anamaria Marinca) setting out one day in the Ceacescu era to set up an abortion for her feckless roommate. Director Cristian Mungiu shoots in long takes that allow neither the players nor the characters any relief from their inimical, depersonalized surroundings or the relentless grinding of heartless bureaucracy or people looking to seize the main, or any, chance. OK, this one is not unexpectedly hilarious. But its power rewards the pain.

10.  I made out my Ten Best list in reverse - the back half of it, anyway. Andrew Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a film a mite too enamored of its not-as-original-as-it-hopes take on Western outlawry as a form of rock stardom (hello ... Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973?...). And even at two-and-a-half-hours-plus, it feels as if pieces are missing. But no other film this year, save No Country and maybe Zodiac, cast such a spell or so beguiled the eye. Like the Coen film, it was shot by the estimable Roger Deakins, and you'd swear at times you were looking the harsh beauty of Western legend straight in the eye. Brad Pitt plays Jesse; Casey Affleck becomes a major star as Bob Ford, even if Ford didn't.

* Keira Knightley did not get that Oscar nomination, but we do not stand corrected. Saoirse Ronan was nominated, and that's just fine. -RTJ

Copyright © 2007 by Richard T. Jameson


Kathleen Murphy:
1. No Country for Old Men
2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
3. Lust, Caution
4. Atonement
5. There Will Be Blood
6. Into the Wild
7. Away from Her
8. Margot at the Wedding
9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
10. Once / Juno

Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Jan. 2, 2008