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American Cinema: Our Best Diplomat in 2007?

Eastern Promises (Photo by Peter Mountain)

Wherever my travels have taken me this year, whether as close as the screening room down the street or as far afield as the Cannes Film Festival in France, the sentiment has been the same: What a banner year it has been for American movies. And at a time when there isn’t much about our country that everyone the world over can agree on, these words of praise have been spoken by critics, filmmakers and just plain moviegoers of myriad tongues and nationalities. Far be it from me to argue: Of the 17 titles I’ve managed to shoehorn into the 10 slots below (with an eye toward potential double and triple features), all but four are American or American co-productions. Even more notable than this surfeit may be the fact that some of the most venturesome work in this annus mirabilis for homegrown cinema came in movies produced and/or released by the major Hollywood studios or their subsidiary “specialty” divisions. Not that the news was always good: Two of those films, Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, were expensive commercial failures, while the box-office fate of the riskiest venture of them all, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, remains to be seen. All of which makes one wonder how willing, with its purse strings already tightened by an ongoing writers strike, Hollywood will be to take such risks in the future.

For the list that follows, a few ground rules: For no reason other than thinning a very thick herd, I have excluded any mention of deserving films (like the extraordinary Chinese documentary West of the Tracks) that opened only in New York and not in L.A., as well as those movies (like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding) made long ago but only distributed this year. And yet, through no fault of their own, I have failed to find room for Black Book, Death Proof, Exiled, The Host, I’m Not There, Into the Wild, The Last Winter, Private Fears in Public Places, The Savages and Rescue Dawn.

1. There Will Be Blood. See review, page 70.

2. Colossal Youth and Regular Lovers. In what has become a distressing trend for foreign films in Los Angeles, the year’s two greatest imports registered barely a blip on most moviegoers’ radar. The first, Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s heroic, intransigent movie about the displaced residents of a Lisbon housing slum, was limited to a single, sold-out showing at REDCAT (despite receiving a full week’s berth in New York); the second, French filmmaker Philippe Garrel’s fever-dream remembrance of Paris in May of 1968, got all of two screenings at LACMA during the very first weekend of 2007. “But I can rent them from Netflix” is the popular refrain I hear when I complain to people about this sorry state of affairs. Well, in the case of Colossal Youth, you can’t; and the lustrous black-and-white photography of Regular Lovers cameraman William Lubtchansky is something I wouldn’t wish to be relegated to even the greatest home-theater system.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Lake of Fire. “The Romanian abortion movie” is the somewhat dubious shorthand that has been bestowed upon director Cristian Mungiu’s searing portrait of life in his home country before the fall of communism (which played a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in L.A. earlier this month and will return to local theaters in January). In reality, Mungiu is less interested in the life-vs.-choice debate than in the way people living in a socially repressive society adapt to circumstance — how a pack of cigarettes becomes a form of currency, a hot shower a luxury item. For a more direct (if equally nonpartisan) confrontation of the abortion issue, there was British director Tony Kaye’s kaleidoscopic, years-in-the-making documentary about left-wing pro-lifers, history-making abortion patients turned anti-abortion advocates, militant soldiers in the army of God, and every shade of the spectrum in between.

4. Zodiac. After There Will Be Blood, the year’s other masterpiece of American narrative cinema was David Fincher’s storage-locker-claustrophobic drama about the collateral victims of the eponymous San Francisco serial killer: the cops and reporters who allowed the case to consume (and in some cases destroy) their lives. Dumped into release by Paramount during the chill of spring and all but ignored in the year-end awards-whoring hubbub, Zodiac will endure long after most of 2007’s supposed “best” pictures have been consigned to the historical dustbin.

5. Ratatouille. Not just — maybe not even — for kids, Brad Bird’s zesty comedy of talent at odds with mediocrity and art at odds with ego represented the full creative flowering of one of the most inspired and imaginative storytellers at work in American movies. A slow-food movie for a fast-food nation, Ratatouille offers as apéritif a dreamlike evocation of the City of Lights, for postre an episode of involuntary memory borrowed from Proust, and in between some slapstick madness worthy of Jacques Tati. Bon appetit indeed.

6. No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Two inspired evocations of outlaw life in the American West, one set in the 1980s ?and the other a hundred years before. In adapting Cormac McCarthy’s circumspect, mordantly funny best-seller about a weary sheriff and an assortment of modern-day bandits on the blood-soaked trail of $2 million in drug money, the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen seemed to rediscover their moviemaking mojo following a couple of dubiously arch comedies that one wishes could be stricken from their résumés. No less impressive a feat of adaptation was Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik’s film version of Ron Hansen’s densely detailed novel about the final days of a storied American outlaw, his upstart assassin, and the birth of American celebrity culture.

7. Eastern Promises and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The year’s most bracing suspense thrillers, courtesy of two masters of the form. In Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg pulls us in on a woman-in-distress setup straight out of a ’40s film noir, then embarks upon a series of distinctly Cronenbergian machinations including — but not limited to — bodily dismemberment and the transmutation of identity. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 83-year-old Sidney Lumet spins a lurid melodrama that’s also an edge-of-your-seat heist movie, propelled by a brutal efficiency that would leave many a younger director gasping for air.

8. Margot at the Wedding. The full measure of Noah Baumbach’s Chekhovian dramedy may lie in how edgy it makes viewers — how they squirm in their seats and walk out of the theater slightly dazed, as if emerging from a particularly fractious family reunion. True, Baumbach’s comfort zone is the audience’s discomfort, but it’s the rumpled humanity of his characters that shines through at every turn.

9. Knocked Up and Superbad. Even the flaccid music-bio spoof Walk Hard couldn’t stop 2007 from being remembered as the year impresario Judd Apatow revitalized the landscape of American comedy with a pair of ebulliently vulgar, surprisingly heartfelt tales of emotional panic ­— one about the looming specter of fatherhood, the other about the possibly more terrifying thought of heading off to college with your virginity still intact.

10. Redacted and No End in Sight and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. First, the only two essential Iraq movies in a veritable minefield of them: Brian De Palma’s bilious, Brechtian deconstruction of wartime propaganda, from the frontlines to our living rooms to cyberspace, and political scientist Charles Ferguson’s blistering, minute-by-minute account of how it all went wrong in the first place. Then, for a bit of perspective, there was Ken Loach’s masterful telling of an earlier war on terror — the Irish Republican Army’s guerrilla ops against British occupiers, circa 1920 — complete with its own cautionary lessons about centrism at odds with extremism, and political interests placed before human ones.


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