Film-Forward Review: [THE BEST OF 2007]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

One approach to a best-of compilation is to imagine what DVDs would fortify against cabin fever. (Granted, four of the following are not yet available on DVD.) All solidly crafted, these films cover a wide range, something for every mood – some to lift your spirits after viewing a few in particular (thanks, Coen Brothers).

Though two films were released in their native countries and played the festival circuit in 2006, they weren’t released in the U.S. until 2007, thus ripe for the picking. (It’s a bit unfair to include a film that has won acclaim at festivals, but hasn’t yet opened anywhere in the U.S.) All around, it was a strong year with plenty to choose from: Jindabyne, My Best Friend, Persepolis, Poison Friends, Sicko, Starting Out in the Evening, and Terror’s Advocate. But the top 10 are, in alphabetical order:

Dad (Stefano Accorsi), left
brother François (Benjamin Feuillet)
Anna (Nina Kervel) 
Marie (Julie Depardieu)
Photo: Koch Lorber Films

The personal is charmingly political here as the turbulent international struggles of the 1970’s are seen from a young French girl’s confused point of view. As her daily life is upended by her increasingly radical parents, she filters class issues through the contradictions imparted from them and their friends, the household help, and her upper-class grandparents. Sweetly sympathetic to all sides in the generational wars, Julie Gavras’s directorial debut amusing illustrates that values are imparted to children through what we do as much as what we say. Nora Lee Mandel (out on DVD)

Director Julian Schnabel’s take on the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby has been lauded as one of the most unique biopics in years, based upon Bauby’s memoir. The magazine editor suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995, leaving him nearly completely paralyzed. Bedridden, he could only use his left eye to blink his memoir to a transcriber. The film explores his life leading up to the stroke, his struggle being trapped inside his own body, and the rich world of his imagination. Beautiful cinematography and a wonderful screenplay place the viewer inside Bauby’s head to see the world from his perspective and expansive mind. Dustin L. Nelson

With almost as much gushing blood as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, this vivid 21st-century penny dreadful, also set in dank London, is both pure pulp and pure class, elegantly directed by David Cronenberg. Its climactic steam-room fight scene, one of this year’s most talked about, lives up to its hype. Add this Russian-mobsters-in-Blighty thriller with other atmospheric London crime dramas, from the fog-shrouded Night and the City (1950) to the equally melancholic Mona Lisa. Kent Turner (DVD)

The best home movies you’ll see. Really. Director Sandhya Suri’s doctor father emigrated from India with his family to the North of England, and instead of letters, he sent S-8 films and tape recordings back home, and his relatives did the same. Suri strikes gold with footage from jaw-dropping and condescending 1960s BBC programs for new immigrants (“This is a light”), a contemporary example of clueless racism, and the fly-on-the-wall observations of her disarming family. Besides reflecting 40 years of huge social changes, this intimate documentary ends where it began, with the next generation longing to leave the nest. KT (DVD)

This intriguing and odd documentary focuses on two gamers – Steve Wiebe, a seemingly reserved family man laid off from Boeing, who sets out to beat the long-standing Donkey Kong world record score held by Billy Mitchell. After a question of subterfuge (not including a break-in into Wiebe’s garage), the underdog strives to prove he has broken the record, and Mitchell with his minions go to any length to retain his title. The King of Kong explores the process of self-discovery and the strange, insular realm of the retro gaming world in one of the most surprisingly moving films of the year. (And it’s not too many movies that can use the ubiquitous song “Eye of the Tiger” and get away with it.) DLN (DVD)

Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria Sieland
Photo: Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classics

The year's most self-assured directorial debut. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s intricate script works on many levels, as a Hitchockian thriller, a historical exposé, and a love story; at least three mousetraps are set in place. I was wrong in my initial review where I felt the coda went on too long. After a second viewing, it feels entirely necessary. Von Donnersmarck is not just concerned with exposing the crimes of the former East German communist government – but also with truth and reconciliation. It has been a long time since the winner of the Best Foreign Language Academy Award was so well deserved. KT (DVD)

This fatalistic and brutal neo-Western depicts a story with no God, or if so a vengeful one, where the hand of fate can't be whittled down simply to a coin toss. Watching a coin toss, however, becomes the most suspenseful thing in the world. On the storytelling front, the film's a marvel, taking its time during the cat-and-mouse chase between psycho hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and Vietnam vet Llewelyn (the underrated Josh Brolin), who’s run off with Chigurh’s drug money. With no dialogue and without a musical score, the Coen brothers build suspense to a fever pitch. Infused with pulp fiction impulses and providing many of the same pleasures of a classic action film, the bone-chilling violence happens as fast as in a Leone film, but what sticks in the mind is what it doesn't shown. Jack Gattanella

In a year with a wealth of Holocaust-related documentaries, this endlessly fascinating portrayal of survival stands out for its rarely seen historical footage and, more importantly, for its candid portrayal of the courtship of married Jack Polak and single, younger Ina, first in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and eventually in Bergen-Belsen. Now in her eighties, the elegantly-coiffed Ina is a natural raconteur. And maybe people don’t change. Even in the camps, she would curl her hair nightly. KT

Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon

Paul Thomas Anderson’s baptism by oil saga recalls Giant, and not only for the drill-digging drama. Just as George Stevens’s film offers a fascinating look on the contrasting acting styles of studio-bred Rock Hudson vs. Actors Studio James Dean, the contrast between Daniel Day-Lewis, as a malevolent silver miner-turned-oil man, and Paul Dano, his evangelical nemesis, couldn’t be more startling. Both actors thoroughly inhabit their roles; Dano, understated for the most part, holds his own against scenery-chewing Lewis, an actor who works as much internally as he does outwardly (more so than any other film actor). Together they produce the year’s most mercurial moments. Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling, percussion-driven score adds greatly to the tension. KT

A viscerally explosive film set so specifically in 1920s County Cork, Ireland, that director Ken Loach cast only locals with a family history of the Irish Rebellion, including Cillian Murphy in the central role, who gives an emotionally draining performance. The very specific charting of the step-by-step fight for independence and then fratricidal civil war makes the film universal as a searing examination of the legacy of brutal colonialism. Stripped of all sentimentality, but determinedly meticulous in its period detail, the issues raised are just as much an essential precursor for The Battle of Algiers as Bloody Sunday. NLM (DVD)


The Best of 2006

The Best of 2005

The Best of 2004

The Best of 2003


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