Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Best and Worst of 2007

2007, you might say, was the year of revelations at the cinema, a year of surprises, startling discoveries and spectacular achievements. But that is not necessarily a positive prospect, either. Saturated by ambition and ambivalence, the movies that occupied theater screens in the 12 months of the calendar year offered high stylization, great energy and loud explosions, and payoffs too brief and momentary to make many of them deserving of that output. The trend was not one limited to the more prolific of box office competitors, either; like a disease that transcends culture and social divides, no one, including the Indies or the art-house flicks, were safe from the mediocrity that spread through the crops.


Mediocrity, at least, tends to lull us into appreciating bright spots even more than we might ordinarily do. One does not know how the few actual great films of 2007 will hold up in years to come, but in the moment, amongst a slew of monotone and intellectually stagnant releases, they emerge as more than just solid productions: they are also beams of light in a time when our faith in the future of moviemaking feels like it has been muddled. The year produced many films that are memorable for distinct reasons. Not all of them are completely successful, even fewer are flawless. But the year’s ten best are so placed not just because there are so few choices to pick from, but because each selection represents a scope that fully encompasses the passion and inspiration of a talented filmmaker. It is clear, beyond debate, that these people love making movies.

THE BEST

1. There Will Be Blood
The portrait of the cynical and the corrupt is a grand, stirring thing in the hands of a talented filmmaker, and the always-impeccable P.T. Anderson tops himself with this loose adaptation of the “Oil!” novel by Upton Sinclair, eradicating a good chunk of his stylistic quirks in order to play straightforward with his material, at least to a point. The result is brilliantly dramatic, beautifully shot and utterly captivating in the way it builds, deconstructs and tears apart a persona in attempt to understand the process at which power and money forces man to detach from the reality around him. Daniel Day-Lewis does the work of his life in the lead role, rivaling even the great Orson Wells in “Citizen Kane” in his attempt to occupy celluloid less as a villain and more as an enduring object of destruction. He is brave, he is captivating, and the endeavor that surrounds him is astonishing in its brash thrust. Having seen it twice to this point, I relish the opportunity to revisit it a third. And no other movie released in 2007 has warranted that distinction.

2. Across the Universe
In a different time, in a different climate, Julie Taymor’s vivid snapshot of the 1960 American society would be heralded as a trailblazing endeavor. A musical in which the spine of the music is made up entirely of songs from the Beatles catalogue, it is a film in awe and appreciation of everything it does. But the music is only the glossy coating; underneath, an ensemble of colorful and likable young characters blast their way through life with little more than love and brotherhood guiding them, and Taymor surrounds them in stirring acid-ish visuals that cater to the sentiments of a drug-fueled generation. Why did it not catch on as easily as it should have? Perhaps because the Beatles’ music is so timeless with so many people, it is impossible for most of its admirers to allow characters in a movie to take ownership of those songs. A valid standpoint, no doubt, but one that shields people from seeing just how beautiful and poignant the end result really is. When it comes right down to it, all you really need is, indeed, love.

3. Zodiac
David Fincher’s “Zodiac” suffered the burden of searching for an audience in a time when the cinema was disinterested in the ways of the classic serial killer phenomenon, having been saturated already by the next generation of creative homicidal maniacs such as Jigsaw, Leatherface, and those crazy rich guys who run human slaughterhouses across Europe. Too bad for moviegoers, as they missed out on not only a brilliant, calculated and skillful thriller, but also the best film of its genre. Surpassing even the likes of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven” in its haunting, terror-filled grandeur, the movie obliterates the FBI-agent-becomes-hero formula and tells its story without gloss or convention. Zodiac was never found, but the theory that makes up the spine of the premise is both fascinating and plausible in its foundation, and Fincher’s direction hits all the right notes in its search for closure to a mystery that will likely forever remain unsolved.

4. Sunshine
Danny Boyle passed on doing “28 Weeks Later” because of his involvement with this film, a project in which the premise reeks of the over-the-top natural disaster thrust of “The Core” and “Armageddon.” The difference between those films and this? “Sunshine” isn’t just well-executed, it is precise, observant, imaginative and visionary to a fault, a movie so brave and challenging that it doesn’t merely ask “what if,” but “why not?” Filmed with a scope that rivals the expansive, endless possibilities of a “2001” or a “Blade Runner,” it plunges us into its sphere with a certain level of passion. The movie genuinely cares and believes in the material. And as it slowly but surely reaches a fevered pitch of tension and excitement, it also refuses to bow to convention and give us the conventional climax that we come to expect of disaster pictures. Science fiction movie-making has not seen anything this well done since “Minority Report.”

5. Lust, Caution
What a beautiful, elaborate, chilling period drama this is! Ang Lee’s follow-up to his award-winning “Brokeback Mountain”, while an odd choice of material to those who felt he would continue for commercial appeal, is easily the director’s most daring, challenging and effective work yet, telling the story of a group of rebels in World War II-era Shanghai who plot to assassinate a local political official who has ties to the Japanese. When they deploy one of their own into his life, allowing her to earn his trust and gain access to his secrets, a wild and passionate love affair ensues. Lee is unashamed in his brazen approach to the rough, often violent sexual interludes shared between his two leads, and he captures a sense of chemistry that lends great material to discussions on the use of sex as a tool for power and control. Furthermore, an isolated shot in which a bus approaches the camera while nighttime Shanghai is visible in the background makes for the single most stunning moment I have seen on film all year.

6. Ratatouille
Who would have thought a movie with a bunch of rats would have been so cute? The latest PIXAR picture is rousing, touching, charming and funny on so many levels that it is impossible to pinpoint one specific reason why it is such. Moreso than “Cars,” the last of the studio’s CGI features, the movie takes ambitious chances with formula and completely distances itself from the urge to cater strictly to the tots; both adult and serious, the movie has all the wit, skill and delectability of a great classic Woody Allen comedy, and all the emotional maturity of one of the great Disney fairy tales.

7. 28 Weeks Later
The sequel on a top ten best list is a rarity, even more of one if its predecessor too ranked among the highest quality output at the cinema of any other given year. The follow-up to Danny Boyle’s rousing, haunting and utterly terrifying horror flick not only built on and expanded his universe, but gave it new edge. Gone is the enclosed, tight, gritty facet of the original, and in its place comes an arsenal of skillful conviction, slick camerawork, well-paced narrative structure and effective performances that, even without linkage to its predecessor, allows the movie to completely exist on its own terms. By the end, you are so worn down from the impact of the psychology of the movie’s tug-of-war with human condition that you walk away not with satisfaction, but with a sense of numbness and despair. And it’s powerful.

8. Juno
Diablo Cody, an exotic-dancer-turned-screenwriter, didn’t just concoct one of the cleverest scripts of 2007, she also produced a sweet, touching, genuine, heartfelt and delightful little comedy that plucks at all the quirks of a series of characters involved in the life of a pregnant teenager as if she genuinely understands her players instead of just viewing them from the outside. It is a brilliant and effective little movie that hits all the right chords, never backs down from the wit or sarcasm, and approaches hard positions with a subtlety that adds great dimension to a series of likeable, realistic characters. Ellen Page as the lead, a high school wisecracker who finds herself with child, is simply marvelous in her conviction, and Jason Reitman’s direction ensures all sorts of color and humor will occupy the screen as we watch all of its vibrant people slog through a series of difficult situations in an attempt to grasp the meanings of their lives, or something like that.

9. 1408
A creepy hotel room, a deep and buried past that manifests itself into the lives of those living in the present… yeah yeah yeah, we’ve heard it all before. But “1408” isn’t a clone of “The Shining,” nor is it just a generic haunted hotel thriller with a bunch of creaking sounds and suggestive visuals – the movie is purely psychological, relatively simple, and easily one of the most well-acted of its kind. 90 percent of the screen time is occupied by a single character played by John Cusack, who approaches the role as if he is just as much the victim of the impending torment as the persona in the script. When a writer with experience in exploring haunted mansions and divulging in supernatural lore is mysteriously lured to a vacant hotel room in a high rise that has been vacant for decades, he is encouraged to turn the other way and avoid the temptation to uncover its mysteries. Naturally, he refuses, and when the room’s interiors begin to go bonkers, so does the man witnessing them. So direct with the suggestive sights and implications, there are times when the audience feels like it is unraveling right along with the protagonist.

10. No Country for Old Men
Though their movie fails as a straight crime thriller – a prospect that is likely not of much concern to the filmmakers anyway – the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” nonetheless flourishes as a character study. Three-fourths dedicated to its villain and one-fourth to the protagonist, the movie plays awkwardly with its players in a tug-of-war for the affections of a dithering narrative, yet allows (perhaps rightfully) the necessary details of their stories to emerge with a certain cleverness and energy. Bardem as a ruthless drug dealer dead-set on reclaiming what it his is more than just a scene-stealer, he is an embodiment of dynamic and passionate performing, as his screen persona rips through the lives of everyone around him like a hurricane on a mission to devastate anything that shows courage or strength in his presence. It is easily the male performance of the year, and the fact that it single-handedly drives a movie that might have seemed ordinary without it says something profound about the actor who undertakes it.

Honorable Mentions:

The Namesake
Beautifully written and framed, the story of an Indian immigrant family from its early days in the states to its later years as the children learn to grow up in American society is both touching and captivating in the way it leads us in and out of the lives of so many rich and colorful individuals. Director Mira Nair pays great attention to character details from very early on, ensuring that her audience will continually be enraptured by this family as they progress socially, recall rich heritage, share joy and sorrow, and learn to exist together in a world that is difficult to some but embracing to others.

300
The adrenaline and testosterone boiling in the veins of this screen adaptation of the Frank Miller source material is a bit hard to get into initially, but once you do, a sly, stylish and almost operatic visual feast is ready to nourish you. A bit heavy on the macho factor (so much so that it, in some ways, seems to be going for homoeroticism), Robert Rodriguez nonetheless directs his picture with passion and attention to detail, and I love how the screenplay completely turns its nose up at the prospect of characters considering defeat, admitting fault or bowing to pressure. 300 men mean nothing to an army of hundreds of thousands, but they make damn sure they go out with the most colorful bang you’ll ever see on screen.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The best of the “Harry Potter” films thus far, the first movie that truly recognizes the famous source material for what it is: stories of ambitious teenagers learning to find their place in a world filled to the brim with magic and whimsy, but littered by villains that mean so much harm that they would not hesitate twice about snuffing out lives to achieve what they desire. Just as the screenplay has grown more adult and consistent, so have the performances of the young actors, who seem like they are finally doing more than just reading dialogue or reacting to situations on command of a director. Here’s looking forward to the series continuing to sparkle.

The Big Disappointments

3:10 to Yuma
Though well-acted and directed, it’s simply impossible to find much else to say in favor of this run-of-the-mill western drama, which places all of its characters in generic western situations, has them recite generic western dialogue, and gives them a climax so generically western in its thrust that you feel as if the screenplay was entirely made up of excerpts from more famous westerns of the past. Here is yet another reason why the genre of outlaws and fast-gunners continues to bore.

Atonement
Amazing that a movie with such passionate themes could emerge as something so utterly void of rhythm and energy. Telling the story of a would-be relationship destroyed by the actions of a single young girl too na├»ve to understand the complexity of human behavior and romance, the film feels like it plods when it should be soaring, and finds its comfort in simply staying stagnant with its themes rather than allowing them to evolve or collapse under the weight of the narrative tragedy. One of the year’s biggest awards contenders, “Atonement” joins the ranks of “The English Patient” as one of those highly-acclaimed period dramas that everyone, except you, is talking about.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tim Burton loses even more ground as a credible director in this droll, depressing and lackluster screen adaptation of the famous Stephen Sondheim musical, focusing so incessantly on style and execution that he leaves his script on auto-pilot for nearly two straight hours. Though well-shot and polished, as are most of Burton’s endeavors, it is nonetheless a movie that chooses to be weird just for the sake of being weird, not for any dramatic or emotional purpose. Has Hollywood’s most gifted eccentric finally lost the plot? One might say he lost touch with it way back when, except now he is merely covering up the evidence with some well-written musical numbers.

The Golden Compass
What went wrong? How did a brilliant, epic, challenging novel lose so much in the transition to screen? Just ask the filmmakers behind “The Golden Compass”, who will no doubt do everything in their power to justify their virtual diluting of the very adult, very mature and very socially serious fantasy fable by Phillip Pullman. As a book, the story of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon was both inspiring and stimulating in its many psychological and political facets; as a fantasy picture, it undermines the fabric of the source material in order to cater to the kids, and creates a film in the process that is weak, uninteresting, short-sighted and shameless in the way it strips away essential aspects the book. Call me a purist, call me whatever you want, but don’t call me when New Line Cinema decides take this series further with new cinematic adaptations. This boy isn’t having it.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
The predecessor to Kapur’s latest biopic about the virgin queen was the first masterpiece I saw as a certified film critic back in 1998, and as such the expectations for its follow-up were high. Big mistake. Not only does lightning never strike in the same place twice, sometimes it completely misses its intended mark. “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is such a feat: miscalculated, short-sighted, and underwhelming in so many way that it fails to entertain even on a superficial level. Cate Blanchett is, as always, stunning in the lead role (her nomination as an actress at this year’s Academy Awards is deserved), but here she is upstaged by so much ambitious cinematography and art direction that she and her fellow players are muffled in their attempts to say something interesting. The virgin queen would not have approved.

THE WORST

1. Pathfinder
For those still optimistic enough to think that Hollywood has enough sense to prevent their absolute worst decisions from ever seeing the light of day, this sack of crap is for you. “Pathfinder” isn’t simply the worst movie of 2007, but one of the most shameful cinematic endeavors ever released -- a nightmare in every sense of the word, directed with all the skill of a cat litter commercial. The movie tells the tale of a Viking son (played here by Karl Urban) who is inherited by a family of Native Americans as an infant, the sole survivor of a battle that culminated with the slaying of an entire ship of land-rapers. Years later, another Viking ship pulls into the bay for the same purpose: to gain control of the land and slaughter the “savages” that currently occupy it. Except this time, one of their own is now considered family to the Natives, and he isn’t about to let his violent ancestors lay waste to their society for the sake of land. That the screenplay conveys all of this in confusing muddles is only the shell of the problem; badly directed and poorly executed, the movie is indistinctive with the photography and lighting, and there are moments so dim-witted that we see characters running from a hot and sunny beach into the nearby wilderness, where snow is falling at a high rate. Too bad no one on screen noticed they were slogging their way through little more than a giant turd.

2. Balls of Fury
“Balls of Fury” is such a bad movie that it violates a principal rule in modern cinema, which indicates that any movie starring Christopher Walken in any capacity cannot possibly be so bad. Oh, but it is that and more: a movie so lifeless and unfunny that staring at your watch for the same amount of time feels more rewarding. Main characters follow each other around without much script to drive them beyond very broad plot points, and Walken’s appearance in the picture – a cross between a Liberace and Elvira – does little more than prove that, yes, “Balls of Fury” was very obviously made in the hands of amateurs. It is not enough to frame your star in a series of quirks; at least give him something interesting or funny to say and do. Don’t allow him to spend 80 minutes of unfunny screen time cracking lame jokes about the oh-so-important sport of ping-pong.

3. P.S. I Love You
Gerard Butler announces in the first scene that he will “always be there” for his wife, and then dies of a brain tumor and leaves her in one of the worst romantic weepers ever made. If seeing is believing, than “P.S. I Love You” is that rare endeavor that truly lives up to its hype as a pile of trash. Unromantic, contrived, touchy-feely and sappy melodrama at its thickest, the movie is a series of cringe-worthy flashbacks, unbelievable characterizations and lousy coincidences designed to do little more than make ladies swoon over Irish biceps and piercing blue eyes, all for the sake of nothing lasting or genuine. Luckily for Butler, he spends most of the movie dead; poor Hilary Swank, one of our greatest living actresses, has to endure a screenplay of such detestable and monstrous intentions that we find ourselves wanting to cry for her. She does a lot of her own crying, to be sure, but whereas most movies would make no argument over what those tears are meant for, “P.S. I Love You” is almost bad enough to make you wonder if, just maybe, Swank’s crying amounts to her truly realizing just how dumb she looks to be associated with this travesty.

4. Evan Almighty
Read my lips. Steve Carell is not funny. Steve Carell in “Evan Almighty” is not funny. Morgan Freeman playing God is not funny. And everything about this follow-up to Jim Carrey’s “Bruce Almighty” reeks of every unfunny sentiment you can possible think of. Obviously meant for kids (or religious adults too dumb to smell a turkey when it’s right in front of them), it is synthetic comedy through and through, paved from beginning to end in plot twists and comedic dialogue exchanges so unfunny and aloof that it’s as if the filmmakers are intentionally trying to cater to no one other than themselves. Who finds the idea of building an arc funny? What relevance does it have in a movie that is sorely lacking in comic timing? If not for the presence of Wanda Sykes as a wisecracking, quick-witted political secretary, this entire thing would be better off drowning in a 40-day flood.

5. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

The Silver Surfer makes a more interesting screen persona than any of the Fantastic Four do, but that only highlights the fundamental flaw with this franchise. What in the world is really so appealing about four well-named super-heroes who, minus their space-bound mutations and abilities, have no distinguishing characteristics to speak of? If the predecessor to this endeavor could not find the answer, “Rise of the Silver Surfer” finds that the question is now no longer in the mind of anyone behind the scenes. As such, the movie bubbles over with the stench of irrelevance, plodding through the material with such half-hearted conviction that even highly-stylized special effects feel like nothing more than glossy coatings on expired candy.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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