January 20, 2008

Noteworthy Films of 2007

Posted in Movies at 2:47 am by Calico Jack

In my earlier post I mentioned that there were quite a few films that didn’t quite make my top 10 list, but which deserved recognition in their own right. They are presented here in alphabetical order, with a few comments after each:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — This is a quiet, reflective masterpiece about the mental deterioration of our nation’s most famous villain. Its cinematography is gorgeous and its plot exquisitely paced, and it missed my top 10 list by the thinnest of margins. It is quite probable that this film will actually grow stronger as the years pass and may eventually be remembered as one of 2007’s best movies.

“Away From Her” — Julie Christie deserves a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of a woman compelled to deal with the knowledge that Alzheimer’s is gradually stripping away her life, most poignantly her relationship with her longtime husband and soulmate. Their love for each other is the center of this moving, heartbreaking film, even as they lose nearly everything that held them together for so many years.

“Breach” — One of 2007’s most underrated films was this true-life story of Robert Hansen, an FBI agent who sold his nation’s secrets to the Soviet Union for decades. Chris Cooper is fascinating as a psychologically indecipherable agent and traitor, certain that he is smarter than everyone else but too proud to realize the trap being laid for him. Even knowing the eventual outcome does little to remove any suspense from this tightly crafted thriller.

“God Grew Tired of Us” — This inspiring documentary about several Lost Boys of Sudan focuses less on the deplorable situations in Africa from which these young men escaped and more on the struggles that they faced after being relocated to America. As they strive to adjust to a place where electricity and plumbing are common and closely-knit communities are nonexistent, the three young men also desperately try to retain their culture that they left behind. Their dreams, anxieties and frustrations are eloquently expressed in a film that ultimately shows how the power of hope can transform lives.

“Grindhouse” — This double feature doesn’t work nearly as well on DVD as one might think; splitting apart and expanding Tarantino’s car-chase “Death Proof” and Rodriguez’s zombie thriller “Planet Terror” only highlights each film’s weaknesses. But the original three-hour experience in a darkened movie theater is one of the most enjoyable of the year.

“Gwoemul” (The Host) — I really hope that this Korean monster film is eventually recognized for what it is: a smart, partly-satirical, always-entertaining thrill ride about a dysfunctional family forced to pull together after one of their own is kidnapped by a rampaging monster. There is more genuine emotion and human conflict here than any ten monster films put together, and the first ten minutes of this film show one of the best monster-on-the-loose scenes of all time.

“Hot Fuzz” — Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright top their beloved 2004 rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy) “Shaun of the Dead” with their hilarious British sendup of buddy cop movies. This film works as both a satire and a worthy addition to the genre; it has explosions, guns, an inept small-town police force, a renegade swan, sea mines, and a host of other plot elements that combine into one extremely funny, thrilling homage to action movie clichés.

“La Doublure” (The Valet) — The French make light farcical comedies better than anyone else, a perfect example of which is this deftly plotted and utterly charming film about a valet who is paid to pretend he’s dating a supermodel in order that the model’s billionaire boyfriend keep his infidelity secret from his wife. As befitting a film drawing many of its inspirations from classic 1960s sex comedies, the various plots thicken with remarkable alacrity as nearly every character masquerades as something he or she is not.

“Lars and the Real Girl” — Ryan Gosling is one of the better actors in cinema today, and his skills are put to excellent use in this admittedly odd film about an painfully shy, insecure young man who comes out of his shell only after ordering a life-size doll off of the internet and imbuing it with a full-fledged personality as his supposed girlfriend Bianca. Her sudden appearance frightens and confuses Lars’s friends and neighbors, especially his brother and sister-in-law with whom she shares a house; but they eventually decide to play along with Lars’s delusions in order that he might break out of his self-imposed shell. This is a deceptively complex film whose quirkiness and oddball comedy never quite eclipse the underlying sense of tragedy and loss as Lars must deal with his past to face his future.

“Paris, Je T’Aime” — Twenty-two highly acclaimed directors from around the world each contributed to this wonderful collection of short films celebrating the city of Paris. Each of the eighteen selections is set in a different one of Paris’s many districts, giving a wildly diverse look at the culture, neighborhoods, and lives of the city’s residents. Not all of the shorts are as good as one might hope, especially with such prestigious names attached to them; but there are at least five or six gems in this montage (and a double handful of other good ones as well) that more than make up for the few that fizzle. This collection is full of romance and love, sadness and melancholy, hope and laughter — and above all else, life.

“3:10 to Yuma” — This remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford classic is a welcome return to the classic Western, where men lived by codes of honor and the lawless West still held challenges for those struggling to make a living in those harsh conditions. Christian Bale is marvelous as a financially desperate rancher paid to transport a notorious killer to a train bound for the Yuma prison, and Russell Crowe brings a particular kind of intensity to his role as the black-hatted outlaw with his own peculiar sense of honor. Those two performances elevate this film beyond the pedestrian and help to resurrect the genre that many had written off as nearly extinct. Between “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and “No Country for Old Men,” it has been an amazing year for Westerns.

“28 Weeks Later” — The best horror film of the year is also a sequel to Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking 2002 film “28 Days Later,” managing to keep all of the dystopian terror of the original while adding a fair amount of political content by pointedly critiquing nation-building. That, however, is mere icing on a very bloody, very scary cake that never lessens its frantic, brutal pace to allow room for breathing. And it also does what only the best horror films are capable of: utterly embodying bleak hopelessness and despair.

“Waitress” — This bittersweet comedy-drama by the late Adrienne Kelly stars Keri Russell as a waitress and renowned pie-maker in a roadside diner trying to save enough money to enter a pie contest, thereby enabling her to leave her lout of a husband. But Jenna must also deal with two problems: her newly discovered pregnancy and a handsome young doctor seemingly more interested in her than in her pies. The decisions Jenna is forced to make, and the alternately hilarious and poignant ways in which she deals with her frustrations, make this film one of the most heartwarming of the year.

“Zwartboek” (Black Book) — Paul Verhoeven has directed the most complicated and involving film of his career with this tale of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. Carice Van Houten is astonishingly vibrant as Rachel, a young woman forced to go undercover with the Nazi regime after her entire family is brutally murdered. Although it bears some of the trademarks of a Verhoeven film with its rather unsubtle emphasis on sex and violence, this film sheds most of its potential luridness by focusing on Rachel’s enormous internal struggle as she tries to balance her commitment to the resistance with her growing affection for a German officer. This is a lushly beautiful, compelling, and ultimately thought-provoking tribute to those who walked the thin line between heroism and treason.

Films I didn’t get a chance to catch in theaters in 2007: “There Will Be Blood,” “Death at a Funeral,” “Persepolis,” “I’m Not There,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Romance and Cigarettes,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “The Savages” and “American Gangster.”

Those will have to wait for a wider theatrical expansion or a DVD release, unfortunately.

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