One of the joys of getting to work as a freelance arts journalist is committing time to write retrospectives of films having significant anniversaries. To take a look back at how heralded films from a different era continue (or perhaps fail) to resonate with contemporary life is one way to validate the primacy of the art form. This calendar year, you should get used to seeing cinema-related publications go into depth about titles like The Graduate (50 years old), Star Wars (40), and Titanic (20, already).
Nevertheless, just one decade removed from 2007, it seems like that year’s sociocultural zeitgeist is at least a generation away. This was a time before a global financial crisis, a series of Middle East uprisings, and Barack Obama’s presidency. It was a year when Facebook became a household name, but Netflix was still the service that mailed DVDs to your home. And in the United States, it was a time of sustained pessimism, as only one third of citizens reported satisfaction with the president.
From a cultural perspective, 2007 was a terrific year for American (and, to some extent, Canadian) cinema. Years such as 1939, 1960, and 1994 have long been crowned as major annum for movies, although 2007’s legacy has been championed with less fanfare. Nevertheless, from the view of a decade later, when a dearth of compelling drama narratives from big studios has diminished widespread adult interest in what’s playing at the local movie house, 2007 looks like a cinematic paradise. It was a year for inventive R-rated comedies, bleak and satisfying noirs, and unexpectedly mature stories aimed at families. Sure, there were the usual suspects of remakes and sequels. But the feelings of despair and disenchantment from a prolonged War on Terror had an effect on the stories reaching the screen.
The year brought us many star-studded dramas, made by big studios with generally hefty budgets. Several of these titles benefitted from complex characters and even layers of ambiguity. David Fincher’s Zodiac, although a box office disappointment, has aged gracefully. Its mystery narrative, based on true events, earned more power for refusing to end on a note of closure or catharsis.
James Vanderbilt’s screenplay, both sprawling and tense, elevated what could have been a routine police procedural by focusing on the greyness of truth in the investigation of a Bay Area serial killer. It works as a snapshot of the time, when the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden also yielded few helpful results. (Another 2007 title about the limited power of American authorities to bring a killer to justice: Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men.)
Fincher’s interest in the rhythms and procedures of hard work reminded one of the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, such as All the President’s Men. Likewise, ambiguity and attention to detail were common attributes in other new releases, such as Michael Clayton and American Gangster. Both star-studded, dialogue-driven thrillers, the films focused on weary heroes (played by George Clooney and Russell Crowe, respectively) repeatedly failing to earn the victory they desire. These dramas harkened back to a decade when films could be serious and populist.
The films from the late- and post-Vietnam period found a counterpart in certain efforts from the late Bush era. With public support draining for U.S. military ventures, non-fiction titles helped to clear the air from obfuscation. Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight may be the most essential doc of its time, critical of the Bush administration’s inadequate handling of the “war on terror.” The Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney, proved to be a vital companion piece to Ferguson’s film. (On a lighter note, the year boasted doc crowd-pleasers, too. These included The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, as well as Guy Maddin’s stunning My Winnipeg, which premiered at TIFF that fall.)
However, even as the president’s polling numbers dropped, audience greeted studio-sanctioned depictions of the war with minimal enthusiasm. Critics lambasted these flicks for being preachy (Lions for Lambs), simplistic (The Kingdom), or both (Rendition). Still, the permanence of anxiety and frustration surrounding American politics was a major feature of numerous 2007 releases.
For instance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood suggested a link between capitalism and Christianity, critically lambasting right-wing interests. The tale of a ruthless oil baron (portrayed unforgettably by Daniel Day-Lewis) inflicting his enterprise on a dumbfounded rural America seemed to click with the times. The dynamic between Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) commented on how good intentions can quickly sour into selfish abuses of power. As author Jason Sperb writes in his book on the director, “Blossoms and Blood“, the film’s conclusion “posits that organized religion exists only as long as it serves big business’s interests by contended, distracted workforce.”’
As for more light-hearted fare, 2007 was a banner year for comedy blockbusters. In the summer, the one-two Apatow punch of Knocked Up and Superbad confirmed how well an R-rated comedy could nix vulgarity (at least momentarily) to celebrate masculine camaraderie. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz perfected the filmmaker’s knack for sublime visual gags and genre parody. Jason Reitman’s Juno, helped immeasurably by Ellen Page’s performance as an insufferable teen going through growing pains and an early pregnancy, deservedly became one of the biggest indies of all time. (Those who mock the odd turns-of-phrase from scribe Diablo Cody miss the point of how the dialogue is purposefully off-putting.)
On the heavier side, Atonement and Away From Her were outstanding big-screen adaptations. (The latter introduced us to the directorial credentials of Sarah Polley, who also received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay.) The biographical drama has rarely been better than Todd Haynes’ comprehensive I’m Not There. Big stars like Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises) played complex monsters to court Oscar gold. And has any Cannes premiere since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – the winner of 2007’s Palme D’Or – gripped audiences with such sustained unease?
The flipside of that bleak Cannes victory was the year’s breakout Sundance hit, a moving, musical called Once. Made for around $250,000, the film follows the creative pursuits of two musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) in love with the process of making music – and who slowly begin falling for each other. Its soundtrack, with soaring, aching anthems about human connection, is singular. The film’s victory in the Best Original Song category at the Oscars will forever stand as one of the Academy’s better moments.
2007 also brought us dark, intriguing experiments from new or establishing auteurs. Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night was an unbearably suspenseful drama that played with our post-9/11 paranoia. Andrew Dominik’s striking tale of Jesse James and the titular coward who shot him didn’t find an audience but has since attained the cult following it deserved. Shotgun Stories introduced us to the haunted milieus and conflicted characters of Jeff Nichols. And, well, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales was a thing that happened, its merits and foibles still up for debate.
But, several of the finest films of the year evoked the harsher realities of the time while also guiding spectators toward the realm of dreams and imagination. Gábor Csupó’s adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia remains one of Disney’s strongest live-action efforts. Written by David Paterson – the son of Katherine Paterson, who wrote the classic novel – the film did not shy away from the sensitivity of its source material. It dealt with themes of coming-of-age and grief without condescending to its young audience. Meanwhile, the story used special effects sparingly but usefully, to explore the benefits and the perils of creativity.
Similarly, Persepolis (co-written and directed by Marjane Satrapi, adapted from her autobiography) boasted a youthful ingenuity while dealing with dark themes. Its young protagonist, Marjane, reacts to a fundamentalist rule in Iran with sharp humour and an adolescent spirit. The film transformed the world of 1970s Iran into one of immense buoyancy without avoiding the darkness of the era’s politics.
The close proximity between harsh reality and imagination was also a feature of another adaptation, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Julian Schnabel arrests the audience in the locked-in view of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke at age 43 and ended up writing a novel about his life in an entirely unprecedented way. Trapped in his perspective, we do not just experience Bauby’s difficulty acclimating to his syndrome but also float into his memories, an escape from his situation. (You can read more about my thoughts of that masterpiece here.)
Still, the best film from this remarkably strong year for movies may have been the one with the strangest premise: Ratatouille. Brad Bird’s dazzling telling of a rodent master chef refining his craft in modern-day Paris remains Pixar’s best film – a feat that seems insurmountable. The culinary comedy is, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote, “one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film.”
In the film, the oft-marginalized rat Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) obsesses over French cooking and has just the expertise (and the nose) to whip up a savoury dish. He meets his match in a food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole, in his last defining role). The film’s most truthful and unforgettable shot comes when Ego tastes the titular dish Remy has concocted. The astonishing quality of the food instantly returns the aged journalist to a time and place long buried: his childhood, as he indulged in his mother’s home cooking.
As Ego pens in his glowing review at the film’s conclusion, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” In 2007, in the multiplexes and the art houses, the works of great artists were everywhere. The annual buffet of light and heavy cinematic offerings would eventually make audiences, at least in the years that have followed, hungry for more.