Saturday, February 23, 2008

2007: Two Extremes

Oscars are coming, and I realize I have yet to relay to you my top ten for the year. My initial reaction is that it was an odd year of particularly good summer movies, high on entertainment, and a strangely bleak and less-inspired fall. Anyway, here they are:

10. Waitress. A charming yet complex tale of imperfect love. Equal parts sweetness and tartness, fantasy and reality, Adrienne Shelly's comic tale of a woman trapped in a relationship, an affair, and a diner yearning for something more hits all the right notes. I especially love the way what could be another clichéd relationship problem is actually fodder for deeper questions about love, freedom, and commitments.

9. Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. Another grippingly realistic Romanian film, following the course of Otilia as she helps her friend Gabita procure an illegal abortion. Gut-wrenchingly intense and fantastically paced, it never stoops to moral grandstanding nor sentimentality, but pursues an unflinching truth to the characters and realities they face. Chillingly executed.

8. The Bourne Ultimatum. One of the better action films of recent memory, Paul Greengrass's installment of part three features some of the most satisfyingly involving chase sequences. Trimmed down to its basics, the film is never less than superb entertainment, and the rooftop climax is stunning.

7. Away From Her. A mature, deeply sensitive dramatization of Alice Munro's The Bear Went Over The Mountain, Sarah Polley's directorial debut stars a luminous Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer's and Gordon Pinsent as her husband. Acted with subtlety and passion, the effect is starkly beautiful and, quite simply, heartbreaking.

6. No Country For Old Men. The best film since their, the Coen brothers deliver an engrossing, brutal morality tale. Beautifully shot and cleverly filmed, it's bloody and brilliant with indelibly stark performances.

5. Knocked Up. Not only the year's funniest movie, but perhaps the year's smartest. Judd Apatow's tale of a surprise pregnancy delivers the most insightful look at men and women and their differences since High Fidelity. A perfect marriage of male and female comedies.

4. No End in Sight. Charles Ferguson's clear-eyed look at the war in Iraq is the perfect documentary for right now. Side-stepping the spin and smugness of other documentaries, it offers in plain words and painful images the history of the war. He's collected the words of many sources, from scholars to soldiers, and assembled them into an effective, damning, and sobering essay.

3. Ratatouille. Brad Bird has teamed back up with Pixar to deliver one of their best films yet. It offers eye-poppingly clever animation along with a modest yet boundlessly effective tale that delights on so many levels. Reaching beyond the simply clever, Bird hits upon some of the most profound statements to be made by popular art.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Julian Schnabel does the impossible in crafting a sensually gorgeous biopic about a man paralyzed. Schnabel has made not simply a movie, but a genuine work of art, poetic and beautiful, seemingly liberated from the mundane world of the possible. In encountering the near-death, film is made freshly alive.

1. There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson's epic examination of American greed and obsession fuses everything into a darkly satisfying whole. Amidst the bleak landscapes, the film fills them with large characters and large ideas, recalling the sprawling masterpieces of great cinema past.

It's interesting I think that my top two offer two divergent ideas of greatness, one outwardly expansive the other interior, one wildly new and the other classic.

Ten films I also want to recommend:
The year offered a number of great moments. Several foreign films offered dark realism, including the biting, modest comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest and Ken Loach's insightful look at the Irish fight for independence and internal violence The Wind That Shakes The Barley. In America, I enjoyed the gritty honesty and moral heft of Gone, Baby, Gone and the intelligent hunt for a serial killer in Zodiac. On the lighter end, Juno and Lars and the Real Girl surprised me with their touching charm and originality. Paprika and The Simpsons Movie exemplified the entertaining power of animation, the first to offer a wildly vivid spectacle and the second to induce more laughs than almost any other film this year. And finally, a nod to the clever musicals Enchanted, with its clever reaffirmation-through-satire of love through song and Once, for its extraordinarily simple yet moving tale of music's importance to people.

Five films to avoid:
Becoming Jane. It's sort of a lukewarm casserole of Jane Austen leftovers. It's technically filling, but nowhere near as good as the first servings.
Death at a Funeral. Completely unfunny and predictable. I'll avoid the obvious uses of the word death here.
I'm Not There. I wasn't there either. An intriguing failure, beautiful and devoid of anything resembling a point.
Lust, Caution. A waste of talent, smothered in atmosphere and clichés to stiltifying effect.
Rocket Science. Wildly uneven, a sort of "winning little comedy" that loses.


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