For film critics the period between Thanksgiving and mid-December induces a kind of discombobulation, a state of mind somewhere between the euphoria of a kid on Christmas morning and the panic of a harried accountant. The upside: Day after day, the postman, FedEx and UPS ring the doorbell and hand over packages of DVDs. The bounty eventually includes most of the movies released during the year, big and small, including holiday films that haven't even opened yet.
It's a bonanza, no question. But yuletide magnanimity isn't the reason the studios bestow all these goodies on us, of course. They're seeking our votes in critics groups' awards and year-end polls and recognition on 10-best lists like this one.
The downside: A nagging sense of duty makes me feel obligated to try to see every film that might qualify for my votes in those forums. And that gets harder and harder to do. I see movies week in, week out, throughout the year, yet increasingly when December rolls around, I look at those stacks of DVDs and realize with a kind of sickened dismay that there are a lot of reputable movies that I missed in the normal course of reviewing. So I spend the three weeks after Thanksgiving in a dizzying marathon of catch-up viewing.
And there's never enough time. This year I considered the marathon over Dec. 14, the deadline for three polls that invited my participation: Film Comment (www.filmlinc.com), IndieWIRE (www.indiewire.com), and Village Voice/L.A. Weekly (www.villagevoice.com). Yet after e-mailing my ballots to those outfits, I looked at the DVDs in front of my TV and experienced a pang of guilt: There were still some that begged to be seen.
So that Friday evening I slipped another disc into my PowerBook. And guess what. Yep, that film leapt from anonymity straight onto my 10-best list. Or at least the list I hadn't yet submitted, the one you'll see below.
I note this partly to explain why my 10-best in the Independent differs, by one film, from those you'll see in the polls noted above. Yet, the resulting inconsistency notwithstanding, there's something happily appropriate about that difference: My last-minute discovery was, of all things, a North Carolina film.
Have you seen Great World of Sound? Judging by its brief run in the Triangle, I would guess not. But this wonderfully original comedy about a pair of music-biz bottom-feeders, filmed in Charlotte by 29-year-old N.C. School of the Arts School of Film graduate Craig Zobel (and executive produced by David Gordon Green), is surely one of the year's most delightful and impressive directorial debuts.
How did I miss Zobel's film earlier? I had heard about it from people returning from Sundance, where it debuted. I knew it got good reviews when it opened in New York in the summer. Somehow the news of its North Carolina pedigree escaped me, otherwise I would have made a point to catch it even after missing its press screenings.
The main point here applies to all movie fans, not just critics: These days, the sheer volume of film releases makes it tough for even the most diligent and eager cinephile to keep pace.
I haven't seen statistics that spell out the extent of the current glut, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Not that many years ago, New York would see an average of six or seven movies open on any given Friday. Now, some weeks in a busy month like October will see 20 movies debut. The days when The New York Times could get by with one lead film critic seem like a distant memory. The paper now has—must have—three lead critics and a stable of second-stringers.
In one sense, this glut is nothing to complain about. In compiling my 10-best list this year, what struck me was the number of very deserving candidates. In fact, this may be the first year when the 10 best oddly seem less significant than the honorable mentions that appear below. Any year that has also-rans as excellent as Michael Clayton, Once, The Savages, La Vie en Rose, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and No Country for Old Men (among others named below) must be counted an artistically vibrant period.
I would argue that it's a period of many very good films and few truly great ones. Indeed, as much I like the films that appear on my 10-best list I wouldn't claim that any of them is the kind of masterpiece that launches a new era in filmmaking. Nor are there any real hot spots to report. The films on this year's list resemble other recent years in comprising a mixed bag of American independents, documentaries and a few foreign titles (this year those are all European for the first time in a long while, the recent booms in Asian and Iranian cinemas having been notably in abeyance in 2007).
The increased numbers of such films makes it hard for most to gain traction in the marketplace. This past autumn there was a lot of industry comment about films as highly touted as Michael Clayton and Into the Wild performing less well than expected. Some might say that those two movies are simply too arty to have any kind of mass appeal. But I also understand the viewpoint of a critic friend who believes we're undergoing a profound shift in movie-going habits, with Netflix, advanced home entertainment systems and the unappealing aspects of the theatrical experience combining to lure more and more adult movie fans into watching films at home rather than on the big screen.
For those who, like me, prefer watching any film in a theater, the Triangle has continued to offer plenty of diversity in its independent and art screens, the number of which remained stable during 2007. Of course, the heavy volume of film releases means that some noteworthy titles still miss the area, but these, thankfully, are relatively few. Of those which have yet to land local play dates, I'd especially recommend three outstanding documentaries to our art-house bookers: Jonathan Demme's Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, Julian Temple's Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten and Jim Brown's Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.
From a national perspective, 2007 will go down as the year when a lot of earnest films about Iraq tanked, and when the recent popularity of documentaries hit a downturn at the box office. From my perspective, it was also a time when critics visited far too much acclaim on one modestly accomplished film, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and one would-be epic that struck me as a load of pretentious rubbish, P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood (both films will arrive in the Triangle soon).
I can't help but note, too, that my cinematic world shifted a bit last April 14. That was the day that my film Moving Midway—a documentary about my family's plantation outside Raleigh, and about the Southern plantation's place in American popular culture—premiered at Durham's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The wonderful response the film got was an exhilarating experience for a first-time filmmaker, and far removed from the usual solitude that is a writer's lot. Look for a national release in 2008.
1. Into the Wild (Sean Penn)—Penn's finest hour as a writer-director tells the enthralling true story of a recent college grad's flight from conformity, across America to an icy last stand in Alaska. Echoing everything from Thoreau to Easy Rider, this American original succeeds through its passionate inventiveness and conviction.
2. Into Great Silence (Philip Groning, Germany)—Serenity itself, this nearly three-hour account of life in a monastery in the French Alps is less a documentary than a meditation, a vision that not only conveys the tenor of the via contempliva, but also suggests links to Western sacred art stretching back to Byzantine mosaics.
3. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)—The most masterful European film of late—and the year's most impressive debut—offers a ground-breaking dramatic look at the psychic damage wrought by state surveillance under the Communist tyranny of East Germany, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
4. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino)—A double feature suitable to a gamy 1970s second-run cinema, complete with coming attractions and bad splices, this combo zombie flick (Terror Planet) and car-chase thriller (Death Proof) packs more cinematic smarts into its riotous genre romp than you'll see in a dozen Hollywood films.
5. No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson)—The great stand-out in a year of well-intended but mostly so-so Iraq films, this razor-sharp documentary doesn't argue the war shouldn't have been launched; rather, it shows how the Bush team's arrogance and bungling turned military victory into post-war calamity. A devastating critique.
6. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)—During the last days of Communism, two college-age women harrowingly seek a back-alley abortion for one, in the latest wonder from Romania's recent cinematic renaissance. Upcoming at Triangle art houses.
7. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, France)—Based on Satrapi's bestselling graphic novels, this cleverly realized, mostly black and white animated film brings both comic drollery and understated pathos to its autobiographical account of a girl coming of age during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Upcoming.
8. Black Snake Moan (Craig Brewer)—Memphis-based Brewer, who debuted with 2005's Hustle & Flow, again explores of the intersection of Southern myth, manners and music in this boldly imagined tale of a town tramp and her unlikely savior, featuring terrific performances by Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson and Justin Timberlake.
9. Sicko (Michael Moore)—Confirming his status as America's No. 1 comic documentary provocateur, Moore's best film to date is an impressive detailed and eloquent indictment of America's woeful health care system. Will it shape the debate over health care in the 2008 elections? Stay tuned.
10. Great World of Sound (Craig Zobel)—Zobel, an N.C. School of the Arts graduate, makes a terrifically auspicious debut in this downbeat, brilliantly acted (and partly verité) tale of two guileless music hustlers based out of Charlotte. Deserves a return engagement in the Triangle.
Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, John Carney's Once, Jonathan Demme's Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, John August's The Nines, Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men; Jafar Panahi's Offside, Sarah Polley's Away from Her, Marc Forster's The Kite Runner, Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War, Jim Brown's Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, Julian Temple's Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon, Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club, Olivier Dahan's La Vie en Rose and Dan Klores' Crazy Love; Anton Corbijn's Control, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters, AJ Schnack's Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Jason Ruscio's Laura Smiles, James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma, Adrienne Shelley's Waitress, Daniel G. Karslake's For the Bible Tells Me So, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's An Unreasonable Man, Rob VanAlkemade's What Would Jesus Buy? Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and Greg Mottola's Superbad.