A sedate modern western, a giddily nasty teen comedy and a drama of war and class top the Daily film staff’s list of the best movies of the year, and taken together the films provide a telling glimpse into the kind of year 2007 was.
There was no runaway moment that defined the season, no marquee masterpiece that broke records, no big trend that gave writers in my position an easy out at the end of the year. The only consensus that seems to have formed is that this was an uncommonly good year for film and an even better one for discussing it. Whether in service of “300” or “Knocked Up,” “Eastern Promises” or “There Will Be Blood,” 2007 was a year that invited strong opinions and saw cross-cultural debates at every turn. Are the warriors of “300” gay or Bush surrogates? Is Judd Apatow pro-life? Is David Cronenberg having some kind of weird Clint Eastwood moment? And who, exactly, is that Daniel Day-Lewis character supposed to be?
There has been a place for every movie this year, and there’s more reason than usual to celebrate it. No discussion can go without mention of the American writers’ strike and how it will affect production in the next couple of years. Jeers out of Hollywood studios have sought to ensure that the strike has only caused the most obvious surface damage, that the long-term security of the industry in the forthcoming years is sound. But with a virtual creative deadlock in the past several months and the chilly reception to the movies that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this month, it seems prudent, even urgent, to solidify what went so right this year and also what went astray. Ahead are just a few observations, because in a year as insistently eclectic as this one, it’s impossible (believe me, I tried) to extol all of the triumphs and frustrations in one essay.
THE NEW BLOCKBUSTER
In a blockbuster season notorious for its week-after-week slate of sequels to movies that didn’t require them, many old names in spectacle filmmaking were dominant (the painfully inane but admirably persistent clanking of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” still echoes somewhere in my subconscious). More interesting were the names no one expected to ever be attached to a movie that cost more than $10 million to make. The most accomplished blockbusters – or at least the ones that earned the best reviews – were the ones by directors who started as part of distinct subcultures outside of the Hollywood mainstream but have begun to carve a new niche in the major-budget market.
I’m talking about David Yates (“State of Play”), whom producers hired out of nowhere to direct “Harry Potter of the Order of the Phoenix” and who proceeded to make the only film in the series effective both aesthetically and emotionally. Or Paul Greengrass, the director of movies like “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” who solidified his talent for action with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the second in the series he directed and by far the most successful. A series like “Bourne,” with no real hook to distinguish it, has benefited enormously from his microscopic touch, and has also generated serious discussion outside popcorn circles. (Manohla Dargis of The New York Times even suggested it for a best picture nomination.) By the time Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” opens in July, no Hollywood studio will be able to argue the benefits of snagging a former independent maverick for its next triple-digit movie.
THE APATOW REVOLUTION
There has been no shortage of ink spilled about Judd Apatow, the new mythic figure to emerge from the Hollywood comedy machine, and I’m not about to interject. It’s difficult to understate how big of a deal it is that the former folk television hero has become a success that major studios are willing to finance. He and his creative class, which includes the writers of “Superbad,” have the ability to crush the crass, hopelessly repetitive frat-pack movies that have long dominated this genre on pure good will alone. His movies strike a chord not just because they’re funny, though they really are, but because they’re not (just) about making fun of their characters.
No, he’s not flawless. If you saw “Walk Hard” last month, you probably understand why most people didn’t. But the honesty he imbued in the last two movies he helmed, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” helped turn two modest, partially improvised comedies into instant contemporary touchstones. He’s attached as either a writer or producer to four movies scheduled for 2008 – including “The Pineapple Express,” already famous for a brief preview that blazed the Web late last year – and there’s every reason to be hopeful that his brand becomes a new convention.
WHERE ARE THE MOVIES?
For every new American success there was this year, there was an equal puzzlement why the independent and foreign film markets have been so stagnant. The movies have been made just as before, and American films are earning bigger returns than ever overseas, so what gives?
The answer is not easy to pin down. There’s big talk out of most of the major film festivals about how liberating the international scene has been lately – Romania is apparently a very good place to be a filmmaker these days – but the movies in question have often opened in New York and Los Angeles to earn praise in those elite circles only to disappear before they expand to other markets. (The few people who have seen “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” have heralded it as a modern masterpiece; a few days ago I discovered its distributor cut a contract to make it available on Comcast OnDemand so people will actually have the opportunity to see it.)
There is also the conundrum of the studio specialty division, labels like Paramount Vantage, Focus and Fox Searchlight, which have released some of the very best movies of recent years but increasingly look to ostensibly viable product (think “Revolutionary Road”) rather than truly independent work (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”), even as they occupy an increasing percentage of the art-house business. Whatever it is, these movies are out there, and the recent glut will hopefully inspire distributors to use whatever media necessary to fill the appetite for them.
Up to the end of the year, there was a huge question mark on every filmgoer’s map of the year, the movie no one had seen but everyone wanted to. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” is an absolutely stunning movie, arresting in every aspect and yet deeply difficult to watch. There has been a definite shift in recent years away from this sort of grandstanding, challenging and brazenly enigmatic filmmaking, and watching it recalled the great auteurs – the ones who led to that title being coined – doing work that invigorated audiences by taking their trained-eyed feet out from under them. There were many great movies this year, but none that so boldly ripped into us as this one. It’s Anderson’s first film that hasn’t ended on a note of awkward whimsy, and the only one in which he has actively tried to interrogate his audience. It’s an electric experience, one which his generation of filmmakers will see and, I suspect, revive.