Maxine Harfield’s top 11 films of 2007

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Kino International

For me, the best of both Stateside and European cinema in 2007 was marked by three noticeable trends: firstly, a wealth of terrific performances by male leads, many of them new to celluloid; secondly, the rise of a number of directors renowned in other media forms, trying their hand very successfully at film (Anton Corbijn and Julian Schnabel are good examples); and thirdly, a strong presence in films about or out of Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Bloc.

I was not the only spectator wowed by two particular movies this year, as both Lady Chatterley and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days were critically acclaimed and lauded with prizes. Add to these, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (recent winner of two Golden Globes) and you have my three favorite movies of the last 12 months: all three, highly accomplished and, at times, breathtaking. If these rank as my joint firsts, I have listed seven other very fine films in alphabetical order.

Most erotic: Lady Chatterley [Pascale Ferran]
An exquisite adaptation of one of the most infamous British novels of the 20th century, by – rather surprisingly – a Gallic director. Perhaps I’ve not been getting out enough, but sex has seldom been so intimately or faithfully represented on screen. Ferran achieves the impression that you are witnessing the actual sexual awakening of the young Constance Chatterley. Judging by the sighs emanating from the audience at the screening I attended – pure joy for women, and probably not bad for men either!

Most harrowing: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [Cristian Mungiu]
Mungiu’s Palme d’or-winning masterpiece manages the feat of painstakingly exposing the bleak socio-economic reality of Ceau?escu’s communist dictatorship in early 1980s Romania via the life-and-death tale of two female friends who fall victim to the system’s brutality. The result is so much more than political, however. The film is about strength, courage, sacrifice, loyalty and love – and the flip side of each. It is both triumph and disaster. In fact, returning to write about 4 Months for this list, I am still astounded at how much it has to say and how skilfully it is conveyed, whilst remaining above all, a gripping yarn. A must see.

Most imaginative: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [Julian Schnabel]
The Diving Bell takes the triumph-in-adversity movie to a higher plain in its original and unsentimental approach to the real life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s sudden paralysis and subsequent writing of an acclaimed book, by dictation – effectively winking his story in code to a nurse at his bedside. The combination of director Schnabel’s unique artistic eye and Mathieu Almaric’s (in my opinion one of France’s greatest contemporary actors) stirring incarnation of a ferocious yet tender spirit trapped in a now-useless body, makes for a haunting tribute to Bauby’s indomitability. Bauby’s internal voice confesses “All I have left is my imagination and my memory” – this film is a beautiful assertion of the power of both.

Most odd: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [Andrew Dominik]
I failed to fully understand the motivation driving the plot of The Assassination of Jesse James and I knew, and still know, next to nothing about its antihero and Westerns in general. But the unaccountable pleasure in watching this film was all down to Casey Affleck. Move over, Brad Pitt! As the awkward and anemic Robert Ford, you can almost see and hear his mental wheels turning, machinating his next vengeful move, behind the blank mask of his rather angelic face. The simple period costume, Quaker-like interiors and shots of the prairie are also striking in color and tone.

Most distant: Away from Her [Sarah Polley]
For Julie Christie’s performance as a beautiful older woman losing her mind, and with it her loving husband, to Alzheimer’s. For its quotations from Auden & MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland. For the astuteness of the line: “How could they forget Vietnam?” And for K.D. Lang’s version of “Helpless”. Essentially, an essential love story – simple as that.

Most thrilling: The Bourne Ultimatum [Paul Greengrass]
The early sequence at Waterloo station, when Jason Bourne attempts to “bring in” and therefore save the journalist who knows more about his true identity than Bourne himself, is action cinema at its most tense. Greengrass is totally in control of his art: the high-speed editing; the impossible stunts. Matt Damon continues to perfectly embody the intelligent killing machine, Bourne, and with a nod to the ugly state of current world politics, this time round, he learns how it all began: by shooting dead an unidentified man who is slumped in the corner of a room with a bag over his head. Why? Because someone told him he should. Powerful stuff.

Most cool: Control [Anton Corbijn]
Shot in black and white by veteran Dutch rock photographer and music video maker Corbijn, this sensitive biopic of Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis makes even 1970s depressed and depressing Manchester look beautiful. Again, impressive principal actors lead the day – Samantha Morton as Curtis’ wife and Sam Riley, singer with Leeds-based group 10,000 Things, in his screen debut as the fatally troubled Curtis. The too-few scenes replicating Joy Division’s live performances on stage, including Curtis’ weird and wonderful mannerisms plus haunting voice, represent the film’s best, sometimes mesmerizing, moments.

Most unforgettable: Eastern Promises [David Cronenberg]
Far from perfect and not nearly as accomplished as A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s latest is moody, stylized and strong on one of the director’s favorite themes: redemption. It’s a Russian mafia story, involving a nurse in London but actually, it is not important for me to tell you any of that. Go – because you need to see Viggo Mortensen wearing a suit (how cool?) and later wearing nothing but his tattoos in the already-legendary Turkish bath scene. Joking aside, is it just a knife fight between hoodlums or perhaps symbolic of man’s fundamental vulnerability? For you to find your own meaning, but I guarantee the images will endure.

Most poetic: The Lives of Others [Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck]
Testimony to the excellence of von Donnersmarck’s work is that, fortunately, almost everyone seems to have both seen and loved The Lives of Others. The film’s relentless portrayal of the paucity and paranoia of life under the Stasi regime in the former East Germany aside, it spoke to me most of the power of art to redeem. The message is written on Hauptmann Wiesler’s face (played by the now deceased Ulrich Mühe) as he listens to the enemy’s music and reads his poetry.

Most raw: This is England [Shane Meadows]
Things fall apart as isolated young teenager, Shaun, who is grieving the loss of his soldier- father during the Falklands War, mixes with the wrong skinhead crowd in not-so-enticing northern Britain under Thatcher. As the title suggest, This is England is extremely evocative of a time and place. It is grittily funny in parts but its darker tones and portent of tragedy are never far from the surface. Everyone in this film seems to be aching for love and Thomas Turgoose gives a heartbreaking performance as Shaun. (The film is dedicated to 15-year-old Turgoose’s mother who tragically died of cancer just before its release.)

Most laughs: The Simpsons Movie [David Silverman]
If I were allowed an 11th choice … well … this would be it! At a minimum of one laugh every 30 seconds during a movie spanning 87 minutes – you get 174 chances to chuckle loudly. Not bad for your money.

© 2008 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.

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