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CRITICS' POLL 2007: The Critics Speak: Best, Worst, the Auteurs and the Underrated

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire December 22, 2007 at 7:37AM

Included within their ballots in the 2007 indieWIRE Critics Poll are comments on the year in film from many of the 106 participants. Today, we offer the second in a three part series of edited comments from the critics. In this edition, a look at cinephilia, comments about the best and worst of the year, considering the underrated and the underappreciated, and thoughts on "No Country For Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "I'm Not There," and "Southland Tales."
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Included within their ballots in the 2007 indieWIRE Critics Poll are comments on the year in film from many of the 106 participants. Today, we offer the second in a three part series of edited comments from the critics. In this edition, a look at cinephilia, comments about the best and worst of the year, considering the underrated and the underappreciated, and thoughts on "No Country For Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "I'm Not There," and "Southland Tales."

The complete results from the 2007 indieWIRE Critics Poll, which surveyed more than 100 film critics, are available now online, including comments and perspectives from the voters.


IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES: The Year in Cinephilia

"Too many good movies this year, foreign and domestic, released and unreleased. A true annus mirabilis. Anyone who thinks otherwise ought to fire up their Netflix queue and make sure they know what they're talking about." - Scott Foundas

"What a relief, for once, to come to the end of the year and NOT hear critics bitching and moaning about how bad a year it was for film. Though surely, once awards season hits its real peak and Oscar nominations are announced, I'm sure all the various backlashes will really kick in." - Bilge Ebiri

"As a rule, I don't believe in putting thirty year-old movies on a top 10 list. 'Killer of Sheep' was probably the best movie that received a release this year, but it seems to do a disservice to the many great films 2007 had to offer. There's the mysterious, rapturous beauty of 'Syndromes and a Century'; on the other, 'There Will Be Blood' is a triumph on almost every level. Two masterpieces; an embarrassment of riches." -- Chris Wisniewski

"It was an extraordinary year for movies, but there was a catch: it was an extraordinary year if you didn't focus on Hollywood or even off-Hollywood. My Top Thirty films included titles from Portugal, Taiwan, Thailand, Argentina, Brazil, England, Ireland, France, Spain, Mexico... the closest to a Hollywood film on my list would be Todd Haynes's 'I'm Not There.'" - Daryl Chin

"For pure enjoyment, a three-way tie between 'Black Book,' 'Syndromes and a Century' and 'Superbad.' Paul Verhoeven's WWII thriller plays like the best of Hollywood adventures, only with more fucking and the occasional bucket of shit. But Verhoeven's playfulness and his sadism are intimately linked; just when he's got you feeling great, he pulls the rug out, asserting that all victories are temporary and strife is eternal." - Sam Adams

"More people in our world will see 'Juno' than '4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.' More will see '300' than 'Offside.' More will see 'Saw IV' than 'There Will Be Blood.' Yet we fight on, championing those films that really mean something to us. I find this rage against an always dying light both disconcerting and empowering, and I am thankful for filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jafar Panahi, Sarah Polley, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang, the Coens, Todd Haynes, and all of the others who consistently reminded me of why I do what I do and why I love film above all other art forms--especially after suffering through so much artless, formless film chaff (I'm looking at you, Eli Roth)." -- Michael Koresky

"Two deeply uncool movies that are cooler than cool movies: James Gray's 'We Own the Night' and Jonathan Demme's 'Man from Plains.'" -- Matthew Wilder

"There's no question that 'Zodiac' is a masterpiece of film construction--but am I the only one who finds it a genuinely soothing work? It's a near perfect movie about the impossibility of perfection. Watching the film is like trying to add fractions that will never quite equal a whole (1/n + 1/(n+1)...). In short, it's a better OCD movie than 'The Aviator.'" -- Ben Kenigsberg


IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES: Cinematic Disappointments and Film-Inspired Rancor

"To paraphrase Ellen Burstyn in 'The Last Picture Show': Nothing's been quite the same since Robert Altman died. Proof: 'I'm Not There,' 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,' 'Juno,' 'Zodiac,' 'Southland Tales,' '3:10 to Yuma' and 'American Gangster,' which all contributed to killing the moviegoing urge. - Armond White

"How about the worst? 'Redacted'" - Kent Jones

"When it comes to unpleasant cinematic trends this year, I'm not sure which was worse: the number of awful films about Iraq, or the number of films featuring the awful Dane Cook." - Nick Schager

"Worst movie ever made: 'Reservation Road.' God bless the middlebrow public for not taking the bait for once. Just because it's not British period fare doesn't make it equally mendacious. I'm calling for a moratorium on all post-9/11 'cost of revenge' allegories." - Vadim Rizov

"The year's two worst movies are right-wing/left-wing mirror images: both '300' and 'A Mighty Heart' turn the carnage of the Age of Terror into kitsch. In '300,' the recently talented Zack ('Dawn of the Dead') Snyder turns Frank Miller's homoerotic pulp into sado-porn aimed at the raping, pillaging droogs in DePalma's 'Redacted.' (The next time we commit a massacre of civilians, you can bet '300' will be playing in a nearby tank.) In 'A Mighty Heart,' the Marianne Pearl story is harvested into fodder for the Mother of Us All, Queen Jolie, to chew on as she flexes her empathy muscles. Michael Winterbottom's usual hugger-mugger never felt so pointless." -- Matthew Wilder


THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: "No Country" vs. "There Will Be Blood"

"It was fascinating to watch some of the nation's, um, long-established critics wind themselves up over the Coens' 'No Country for Old Men' without acknowledging, or perhaps understanding, why. It's a troubling movie on many levels, but maybe what really bugged them is how it excels as an emotionally tactile, culturally apt accounting of what it's like to face the apocalypse -- that is, to get old. You can't stop what's comin' indeed." - Mark Holcomb

"'No Country for Old Men' strikes me as well-made but warmed-over '70s nihilism, not quite tonally convincing or consistent and definitely not as serious as it makes itself out to be. No better than the fourth or fifth-best Coen film." -- Andrew O'Hehir

"Two impeccably crafted movies about two outrageously evil men duke it out for year-end glory. But while 'friendo' haunts my nightmares (and Jonny Greenwood's score haunts my iPod), neither 'No Country for Old Men' nor 'There Will Be Blood' have much of a hold on my psyche. Hear all the grunting? That's the sound of critical heavy lifting as folks attempt to add significance to films that are strikingly devoid of catharsis or reckoning. Both movies ultimately say that violence is part of the American character, always has been. Pardon me if that's a little too John Wayne for my taste." -- Joshua Rothkopf

"No Country for Old Men" contained less dialogue than one-quarter of the average Coen brothers film, yet in its overwhelming emptiness still managed to rush toward the viewer like the road under a state trooper's cruiser -- like the Coens always do, no matter what style they adopt." - Donna Bowman

"If one of the great seventies auteurs had fulfilled his dream of making a movie that combined a nervy modern sensibility with the iconic scale and sweep of classic Hollywood, he would have made 'There Will Be Blood.' The writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, achieves effects so advanced even his movie-brat elders couldn't attempt them; there's no American filmmaker working at his level now." - Matthew Wilder

"In 'No Country for Old Men,' in 'There Will Be Blood,' in 'We Own the Night' and 'Into Great Silence,' actions spoke louder than words. In 'Blood''s near-silent opening, or 'No Country''s wordless procedural passages, the pleasures and privations of manual labor were a welcome oasis in the virtual world." - Sam Adams

"Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' is four-fifths of a near-masterpiece, but that final section in Daniel's mansion devolves into a guided tour of Anderson's DVD collection. Look: 'Giant'! Over there: 'The Shining'! Watch out, 'Citizen Kane' coming through! And the climactic tete-a-tete evokes the worst of "Magnolia" -- the Oscar clip shouting and weeping and fighting, the graduate theater workshop blocking. It's a shame, because until that point, 'Blood' is often brilliant, and Anderson shows every sign of having digested the best of his inspirations -- from Sinclair Lewis and Flannery O'Connor to Robert Altman, George Stevens and David Milch -- and melded it into something uniquely corrosive and sad, and impossible to dismiss as mere mimicry." -- Matt Zoller Seitz

"The director's greatest gift is black comedy -- Daniel's testimony in church while being smacked about by the craven reverend is a scene Evelyn Waugh couldn't have improved on -- but he seems to distrust it, and maybe he's right to distrust it. In American commercial cinema, comedy gets little respect, black comedy even less. Daniel Day Lewis' highly stylized performance is exquisitely modulated up until that final stretch, at which point it turns into a cross between John Huston's Noah Cross and Popeye the Sailor Man." -- Matt Zoller Seitz


RINGS OF CONFUSION: "I'm Not There" vs. "Southland Tales"

"We'll remember 2007 as a remarkable year for American film: David Fincher, Todd Haynes, and Paul Thomas Anderson--each with astonishing new projects after a five-year hiatus--made some of the best movies of the year. But whereas all three of them turned to the past, only Richard Kelly, following up 2001's 'Donnie Darko' with the audacious 'Southland Tales,' had the courage to take on our disastrous present. Equal parts intellect and emotion, Kelly's film never becomes a screed and never lets you forget the power of the medium to transport you out of mind and body. Justin Timblerlake performing to the Killers is the year's most heartbreaking scene. And I'm dying for a case of Krysta Now Energy Drink." - Melissa Anderson

"The nearly unendurable 'I'm Not There' is popular with egghead critics for one simple reason: they view it as the movie they'd make if they were filmmakers. (Same with that squawky, sophomoric claptraption, 'Southland Tales.')" -- Matthew Wilder

"At least as coherent as 'I'm Not There,' 'Southland Tales' may make more sense when seen at a decaying Chicago multiplex, where Justin Timberlake's lip-synch scene plays in counterpoint to a music video advertising the National Guard." -- Ben Kenigsberg

"The fratboy futurism of 'Southland Tales' was surpassed in weight and resonance by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's 'Sunshine,' a powerfully nihilistic fable of self-willed destruction. Last-act missteps notwithstanding, Boyle and Garland's philosophical thriller -- their third crack at the end of the world -- seared to the bone. Apocalypse now and forever." - Sam Adams

"Panel discussion I'd most like to see: a sit-down between noted Dylanologists Todd Haynes and Jonathan Lethem, both of whom pull-quoted on Rimbaud's "I is another" to get at the nature of identity in a cultural and technological climate of appropriation. The film 'I'm Not There' could have been titled 'The Ecstasy of Influence'; the Harper's essay 'The Ecstasy of Influence' could have been titled 'I'm Not There.'" - Mark Asch

"I'm at a bit of a loss to address a film culture that lauds Todd Haynes' 'I'm Not There' while dismissing Julie Taymor's 'Across the Universe.' More than 'I'm Not There's' fastidious deconstruction, 'Across the Universe' revived the '60s in all their ardor and excess. Haynes shows the Black Panthers puzzling over Dylan's lyrics, but Taymor shows the Weathermen building bombs." - Sam Adams


MR. ANDERSON, WELCOME BACK, WE MISSED YOU: "Darjeeling" Love

"The idea that 'The Darjeeling Limited' is somehow lazy Anderson redux amazes me. It's a huge leap forward -- the first movie to feature characters that aren't emotionally constipated, and the suffocating over-designed tableaux are taken in an unexpected direction: there's too much stuff to take in, so you don't bother. As opposed to that awful games closet in 'The Royal Tenenbaums.'" - Vadim Rizov

"Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" marked the greatest evolutionary leap forward by a major American filmmaker this year. He was so far ahead of everybody this year that almost nobody recognized what, exactly, he was doing. There are no epiphanies in the movie, only thwarted potential epiphanies and almost-epiphanies, experienced by brothers who narrate every feeling they have, add soundtrack music to their real world experiences and generally seem hell-bent on narrating their own autobiographies in real time.... They plan and execute their spiritual odyssey as if it were a shopping spree. They're metaphysical consumerists. That's America circa 2007. Anderson has evolved, yet his critics -- lovers and haters alike -- are still reviewing 'The Royal Tenenbaums.'" - Matt Zoller Seitz


UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: From "Flanders" to "Flanders"

"Everyone pretty much shat all over 'Flanders,' and it's a real shame: twisted, relevant, and brutally disturbing, 'Flanders' was easily the best war film of the year." -- Chris Wisniewski

"In a great year like 2007, everyone's probably anxious to throw some mediocre films in the dumpster just so you don't have to think about them anymore. But I beseech my colleagues, give 'The Banishment' another look. Ponderous, yes, and too Tarkovsky-damaged, especially by the end. But also a brilliant example of how to control meaning through framing and movement, and in the end a kind of Bergman story shot through with regrettable Russian machismo. What if Von Sydow had the option to just shoot Ullmann instead of talking to her? This is the tragedy Zvygintsev wants to dump in our laps. Worth a second look." -- Michael Sicinski

"Tsai Ming-liang's 'The Wayward Cloud' is as wildly original as 'Blue Velvet' or 'Naked Lunch.' It's a Warholian verite psychodrama-cum-porno musical that's flooded--you should pardon the expression--with euphoria. It should play on as many screens as a cartoon about penguins or polar bears; it would fill audiences with a very similar joy." -- Matthew Wilder

"If there was a slot for most underrated and slept on, I would've liked to include 'Nancy Drew' (for its erratic but frequently hilarious satire), 'Comedy of Power' (for continuing to prove Claude Chabrol's late period mastery, inexplicably dismissed by many as sopoforic auto-pilot), 'Spider-Man 3' (for half a dozen sequences as rich and strange as anything a blockbuster's ever produced), and 'I Know Who Killed Me,' which is the movie 'Inland Empire' wishes it were." - Vadim Rizov

"Revelation of 2007: Out 1 is even better the second time through." -- Ben Kenigsberg

"'King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters' was not the year's only documentary to immerse us in esoteric geek speak. But since the argot of video games is more widely accessible to the non-initiate than skateboarding jargon, 'The Man Who Souled the World,' Mike Hill's documentary about World Industries mogul Steve Rocco, lasted a mere week in a New York City theater. For those in the know, however, Hill's movie is a deft study of how a subculture gets appropriated by corporate forces, is reclaimed through punk ingenuity, and then contained all over again." -- Benjamin Strong

"Playing for one week at MoMA, 'White Palms' was technically released; I just have no idea who saw it. Szabolcs Hajdu does for the athlete's body in motion what Claire Denis does every time out, and he has a perfect feel for the importance of competitive athletics in the late USSR. Criminally overlooked, and so much more than the sappy redemption saga the plot summary promises." - Vadim Rizov

"A great movie was made this year in the Hemingway style, set in a rugged, heartless terrain, expressing character through action, abjuring dialogue for long passages, depicting a world where evil triumphs and old men weep for mercy...I'm referring, of course, to Bruno Dumont's 'Flanders.'" -- Matthew Wilder


DEFENSIVE GESTURES: "Bamako," "Bubble," "Syndromes," Mumblecore and More

"'Bamako' was my favorite film of the year not because it's perfect (it definitely and defiantly isn't) but because it dared to be radical but heterodox, combining the influences of Godard and Sembene in unpredictable ways and finding both drama and humor in inherently dry and unfunny material. In '06 I saw the re-release of '2 or 3 Things I Know About Her' and the influence is clear. In 'Bamako,' Sissako tries to adapt Godard's mode of attack to contemporary conditions -- and I don't know how history will judge, but for my money the newer movie is every bit as provocative without being as precious, or as willfully obscure." - Andrew O'Hehir

"Giving didacticism a good name, Bamako's cinematic lecture far surpassed 'An Inconvenient Truth.' Indicting the west's exploitation of Africa's resources, Sissako literally puts the World Bank on trial, making no attempt to disguise the constructed nature of the proceedings. Camera crews fully visible, he foregrounds the films as both political act and wishful fantasy. In real life, the guilty never pay for such crimes." - Sam Adams

"'Regular Lovers' gets props for being the single most accessible, enjoyable and all-round film I thought was going to be an impenetrable slog." - Vadim Rizov

'"The Bubble,' featuring the year's best original screenplay, is one of the peaks of the gay cinema breakthroughs that critics pretended to welcome with the big-budget, name-star 'Brokeback Mountain' but then ignored as a matter of habit. Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox's symbolic situations, recognizable characters and nuanced dialog surpasses even the superb (and unfairly maligned) 'I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry' in realistic details. Fox's script isn't a satire but a political romance that dares give unprejudiced clarity to the inequities of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, global homophobia and middle-class privilege." -- Armond White

"Why did Raul Ruiz's 'Klimt,' a parade of bedazzlements, fail to receive the plaudits his equally wonderful 'Time Regained' was awarded? Maybe because critics want politics to go with their metaphysics? This dizzying kaleidoscope of doubles conjures memories of Borges, Nabokov and Losey." -- Matthew Wilder

"I'm happy that 'mumblecore' worked as a marketing concept, and I think that the films fit together reasonably well under that rubric. But ultimately it's all about the filmmaker's personality, and Joe Swanberg's films want to fly apart just as much as Andrew Bujalski's want to pull together and Aaron Katz's want to stand still. "Hannah Takes the Stairs" has less in common with other mumblefilms than with Pialat's "A nos amours" - not only because Swanberg wants to harvest his actors' personalities and construct the fiction from them, but also because the film is gradually beset by the entropy that emanates from his charming but darkly ambivalent protagonist." - Dan Sallitt

"'Into the Wild' took material from a doomed young man's history and from Jon Krakauer's moving non-fiction exploration of its meaning, and transformed it into Sean Penn's own tortured, ambivalent reflections on his father, his leftism, his belief in the healing power of creative expression -- complete with the missteps that such a deeply individual document might be expected to have, but with the sense in every frame that no compromises were allowed to dilute Penn's vision." - Donna Bowman

"Though most of the attention being paid to the American West in films this year came from new takes on old-school stories -- "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "3:10 to Yuma" -- my favorite view of the West arrived via Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild." Penn took the lure of the West to its lonely limit." -- Susan Gerhard

"We'll never know if Christopher McCandless sought out his own destruction or just got caught up in his own rhetoric, but Sean Penn's 'Into the Wild' powerfully incarnated both McCandless' exuberant visions and his glaring shortcomings. Critics unable to distinguish the movie's subject from its maker lashed out at McCandless via Penn, but the movie could only have been made by someone who's felt what McCandless once felt, and then lived to outgrow it." - Sam Adams

"'Syndromes' mirror-image reverie may seem esoteric, but only if you go in expecting it to conform to the rules of traditional narrative. Remove that onus and there's nothing 'difficult' about it. The strictures of commercial (including art-house) exhibition have become such that audiences won't sit still to have their expectations challenged. With 'Syndromes,' which never opened in my home market, the country's fifth-largest, they missed out on a film that, far from being a chore, left those who saw it beaming from ear to ear." - Sam Adams

"Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films go down easier than similarly challenging work by other filmmakers because they're sensual experiences first and foremost. On one level, 'Syndromes and a Century' is such a joy to watch that its meaning remains besides the point. Still, it expands the possibilities of love stories much the same way '2001: A Space Odyssey' rewrote science fiction's rules. -- Steve Erickson

The complete results from the 2007 indieWIRE Critics Poll, which surveyed more than 100 film critics, are available now online, including comments and perspectives from the voters.