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Sunday, January 27, 2008

2007 at the Movies: A Look Back

It’s time to look back on the year just past and recall the films most worth remembering and recommending. Several of the best movies of 2007 divide neatly into contrasting pairs – very convenient for a year-end wrap-up essay.

Serial killers inspired two very different, very fine movies, David Fincher’s Zodiac and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. Zodiac is a haunting, disquieting film of great technical skill and fine performances, and it was for me the movie of the year.

Tim Burton’s original and explosive talent has often been undone by inferior material. But the powerful Stephen Sondheim musical provides a perfect match. Some of us may have feared the opposite, that Burton and Sondheim would ruin each other, that the whole thing could turn into an arch, campy misfire. But the visual grace and narrative energy of this film is a wonder, as is Johnny Depp’s performance in the title role. The Grand Guignol overstatement in the bloody murder scenes seems to me a bit of a miscalculation, but the movie has an understandably powerful effect on audiences. The photography by Dariusz Wolski and the production design by Dante Ferretti are among the year’s best, and Timothy Spall and young Ed Sanders stand out in a superlative supporting cast.

Animation brilliance arrived in Pixar’s Ratatouille and in the French film Persepolis. If Zodiac is the feel-bad movie of the year, Ratatouille qualifies as the feel-good alternative. The best Pixar movie so far, it will leave you with a big silly grin on your face as you watch the story of a rat who aspires to be a Michelin three-star chef. It is a rhapsodic ode to food as art, to the romance of Paris, and to the alchemy by which Pixar’s wizards transform computer code into smashing entertainment.

Persepolis is far more bittersweet but almost as rewarding. Told mostly in black-and-white images like the autobiographical graphic novel it’s based on, it is the story of Marjane, an Iranian girl who grows up at the time of the downfall of the Shah and the rise of the fundamentalist mullahs. Her parents eventually send her to Europe, and her adventures there and upon her return to Iran make up the second half of the movie. It’s deeply moving without being sentimental, sharply humorous, and told with bracing clarity and insight.

Two phantasmagoric movies took as their starting points musical icons of the 1960s: The Beatles in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe and Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. The Taymor film features higher highs and lower lows: yet at its best, it’s the most exhilarating movie musical of recent years. The Haynes film is more consistently accomplished, and less interested in entertaining you, although I was enthralled by every minute. It steadfastly refuses to conform to the rules of real biography or of the fictionalized showbiz variety. Instead, with visual brilliance and sometimes astonishing imaginative leaps, it provides a kaleidoscopic journey through aspects of Dylan’s personality and work. (It also features one of the year’s best soundtrack albums.)

Two genre films were lifted into best-of-the-year status by the artistry of their directors: Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik’s film, a meditative look at the legendary outlaw, is fairly demanding of audiences and it did not fare well at the box office. It is stunningly well made, although its script is uneven.

The newest Bourne movie is superbly crafted, somewhat mindless fun, just like the first two. It has two set pieces, one a game of cat-and-mouse in London’s Waterloo Station, the other a chase through the streets and along the rooftops of Morocco, that are among the best of their type ever. Paul Greengrass is one of the most skilled directors in the world, and I believe two of these romps are enough for him. I can’t wait to see what he does next, after making 2006’s best movie, United 93.

Two of the year’s movies take real-life stories with tragic elements (and endings) and turn them into journeys that are often joyous and exhilarating. The subject matter shouldn’t keep you from seeing these movies. Sean Penn’s adaptation of the best-seller Into the Wild, about a reckless yet inspired solo trek into the Alaskan wilderness, is remarkably compelling and beautifully acted. Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the story of a French magazine editor paralyzed by a catastrophic stroke. Able to communicate only by blinking one eye, he managed to dictate the memoir the film is based on. Schnabel, the brilliant director of Before Night Falls, handles this story with visual eloquence, sharp humor, and emotional restraint.

Lake of Fire, a wrenching and brilliantly well-made look at the abortion issue, stands far above the other nonfiction films of the year. Be warned that it’s very strong stuff (it doesn’t go down easily like Michael Moore’s Sicko), but don’t miss it if you care about either the issue itself or about innovative documentary filmmaking.

Let me also draw your attention to two fine 2007 movies that barely got released in theaters, but could make for an extremely rewarding Netflix or Blockbuster rental:

The Italian is a Russian film dealing with a fascinating, heart-wrenching and very topical subject: the effect that the adoptions of Eastern European children by wealthy Westerners have on the local culture – a corrupting, distorting effect that may not immediately be apparent to Western observers. The movie uses a neat point-of-view trick to make its case vividly. A six-year-old boy, soon to be adopted by a well-to-do Italian couple (thus acquiring the nickname that is the movie’s title), becomes obsessed with finding his birth mother instead, and goes to surprising lengths to do so. At first the audience roots against him and for the adoption – but by the end one’s opinion is likely to have swung 180 degrees (at least). A splendid movie with excellent performances, including a really remarkable one by Kolya Spiridonov as the boy.

Into Great Silence is a 3-hour documentary about monks in the French Alps – simply following their daily lives over several months. This was a surprise boxoffice hit in Germany, drew an overflow crowd to its single festival screening in New York, on a Sunday at noon, and received a brief theatrical run at the nonprofit Film Forum. It's fascinating and moving, designed as "meditation rather than information," in the director's words. You’ll need to be in a patient and receptive frame of mind, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.

And finally, two movies that I was fortunate enough to catch at festivals would certainly be on my list, but their theatrical releases will come in 2008. And they will be brief and limited releases, so catch them on DVD if you miss them in theaters. They are the scathing documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about detainees held by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo; and Gus Van Sant’s latest semi-abstract look at violence and anomie among suburban American youth, Paranoid Park. Both of these movies are as vital and as brilliant as any of 2007’s “official” releases.


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