2007 Year in Review

The Best    |    The Worst    |    The Individual Best

The Best

2007 started out as perhaps one of the worst film years in some time. Only Bridge to Terabithia managed to earn a 4-star rating until the very end of the year when I finally saw Away from Her.

It snowballed in the last two weeks where The Orphanage, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and There Will Be Blood finished out the year with top ratings. What was most notable about the year was that nineteen films picked up the of *** ½ or higher. That’s not bad.

It’s been 10 years since I genuinely liked that many movies in one year. Several years have seen 18, but after the weak years of 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2006 (9, 12, 13 and 14 respectively), it’s good to finally feel better about a year’s releases. 2004 remains my record for most four-star pics in one year with ten such releases, but 2007 was better than 2005 and 2000 where only 2 four-star films made their way to my list.

But, for all critics, there’s nothing more important than their year-end Top 10 list. I’ll start off looking at the nine films that didn’t crack my Top Ten.

There are four comedies within that ten that were generally fun to watch. Each had their problems, but it’s hard to not enjoy movies like Juno, The Simpsons Movie and Waitress, each of which avoided the typical push towards over-compensation that seems to characterize most big screen comic ventures. Juno is an adult comedy about an adult subject featuring a juvenile lead. We’ve seen similar flicks before, but the dialogue alone makes this one a unique, if not severely unrealistic, experience.

The Simpsons Movie proved that not all series adapted from television have to suck. Much like the South Park movie in terms of quality TV-to-screen adaptation, The Simpsons gave us a funny, semi-subversive diversion over the late-summer months when the rest of the films tanked one after another.

Waitress may have shared similarities with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore upon which the TV series was based, but the late director of the film Adrienne Shelley gave us reason to cheer for a woman whose escape from abuse was a welcome relief.

The sole fantasy honorable mention is The Golden Compass, a film which many critics quickly dismissed and audiences avoided, but which manages to entertain nonetheless. It features a fascinating fantasy world that boasts magnificent visual effects, with several memorable characters and many fine performances.

Taking their genres to new directions, the remaining five films did what their type should do best. Tell a good story and tell it well. Eastern Promises didn’t go the uber-violent path director David Cronenberg took with A History of Violence and ended up better for it. Gone Baby Gone was a marvelous debut for thespian-turned-director Ben Affleck who pulled solid performances from a twisting story of redemption.

Zodiac, David Fincher’s look at the serial killings near San Francisco, was tightly told and featured some great performances from actors who have found themselves stuck in less interesting films this year. Once tells the story of two musicians who find themselves and friendship while focused on recording music together. It was a touching story that was all the more impressive thanks to the marvelous score including one of the year’s best songs “Falling Slowly”.

Then there’s Grindhouse. It was a massive undertaking that failed when released to theaters, but succeeded in the minds of those who saw it. Hearkening back to the 1970s when exploitative double features were the name of the game, Grindhouse took two shorter films by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino and linked them with faux movie trailers for films that could have been just as amusing had they been feature length.

However, as good as these films were, there were ten that stood above them. Starting off the bottom of the Top 10 list is the marvelous screen musical Hairspray. The film seemed ill planned from the day producers announced John Travolta would steal the role made famous by husky drag queens like Divine and Harvey Fierstein. Travolta didn’t prove entirely up to the task, but the rest of the cast was stellar. The young stars, lead by the amazing Nikki Blonsky hoofed their way into the audience’s heart with one show-stopping number after another. The trailer did the film little justice choosing one of the weaker songs, but when put together, the entire film leaps off the screen proving the stage-to-screen adaptation is still a viable option.

Ang Lee has been examining emotional relationships from the beginning of his career in Taiwan. Although topping his Oscar-winning directing job for Brokeback Mountain wasn’t likely to happen soon, he still managed to turn out an involving drama about a Chinese girl trying to decide between love and country. Featuring strong performance from Tony Leung and new actress Tang Wei, Lust, Caution is a wonderful story paced effectively by the seldom-disappointing Lee.

A movie that I might never have watched in the first place was a refreshing take on the heist genre. The Lookout marks Scott Frank’s directorial debut. After putting together the lauded screenplays for Out of Sight and Minority Report, Frank has taken the helm of one of his screenplays and the result is exceptional. He elicits strong performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the bank custodian whose mental disability leaves him vulnerable to the manipulation of and ex-schoolmate of his played by Matthew Goode.

Atonement may not have been the epic journey many of us were expecting, but its startling self-limitation is surprising when considering film’s recent tendency towards historical excess in films like Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Here, understated performances serve to move a touching story of redemption along to its natural and unexpected conclusion.

Pixar has yet to disappoint. Even their less than spectacular entries like Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story have well-written stories that are inventive and enjoyable. After the Disney merger, it remains to be seen if they can be independent, but if Ratatouille is to be the example for future collaboration, it will be a great union indeed. The film plays strongly to adult sensibilities and doesn’t pander to children in the way most other animated features do, which makes the film even more involving.

As horror films continue to edge towards obscurity by over-sensationalizing violence and gore, The Orphanage returns the genre to its roots. The film, directed by first-time helmer Juan Antonio Bayona, explores a mother’s terror as she discovers her son is missing inside their home, an orphanage that hides ghostly secrets. Good performances accentuate an outstanding story that twists and turns, revealing its twists but leaving the ultimate and quintessential twist for the final scenes.

Coming out of nowhere early in the year to impress me more than nearly any other film in 2007, Bridge to Terabithia transcends mere family fantasy entertainment. It’s a terrific adaptation of the children’s novel of the same name that doesn’t sermonize and doesn’t beat the audience over the head with its messages. Much of the film is anchored by the outstanding breakthrough of AnnaSophia Robb who puts the performances of many of her adult counterparts to shame.

Coming in third for the year is the beautiful and somber Away from Her. Marking another successful debut for budding filmmaker Sarah Polley, the performances of Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie are pitch-perfect and even Olympia Dukakis returns to her A-game with this touching film about the havoc Alzheimer’s Disease can wreak on a couple’s lifetime love affair.

Bringing us into the mind and courage of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, director Julian Schnabel helps us understand the pain and mental suffering Bauby went through after his stroke left his entire body paralyzed and with only his right eyelid to communicate. It’s a touching story and exemplary of how the human spirit can lead a man so injured to write a novel about his experience. It was called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Paul Thomas Anderson made one of my favorite films of the 1990s. It’s no surprise that the director of Boogie Nights has crafted a film so successful as There Will Be Blood. The film feels as if it could have been made during any one of the most successful years in Hollywood’s history. It’s timelessness is one of its many attributes, which include marvelous performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, a brilliant score by Jonny Greenwood, stark cinematography from Director of Photography Robert Elswit, and several other superlative contributions.

I can’t imagine a better way to end 2007 than with this film. There Will Be Blood is a classic that may be as easily remembered in 100 years as Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind are today…that is if audiences can get out there and watch it, and the Academy actually recognizes it in a big way.

The Worst

What would a “Best Of” list be without something to compare it to? Even though a film only needs two stars to be considered for this “Worst Of” list this year, there are dozens of other movies that could have made the list had I chosen to watch them. But since I didn’t subject myself to the torture, here are the worst twelve films that I actually saw from 2007.

Two films that didn’t make the list, but in other years might have: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the opposite of The Lookout in terms of taking the genre to new places. Filled with performances so over the top that astronauts might be able to see them out of the space station’s viewports, Devil jumps all over the place and goes to the expected places narratively that make it feel like an unwanted amalgam of heist pics.

Stardust is not one of my favorite movies. I still can’t understand why so many critics loved it, better yet people who should have known better. Using obnoxious camera angles to tell a rather pedestrian story, Matthew Vaughn’s film is only slightly better than The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. And don’t get me started on the irritating performance of Robert De Niro who, frankly, should have known better.

But now into my Worst Ten. Reservation Road starts things off not because it’s a bad story, but because it’s an overused story. There’s very little in the pic that is new or relevant and if it weren’t for the quality performance of Mark Ruffalo, the entire thing would have fit perfectly on Lifetime Television. With only two fleshed-out characters, it’s hard to believe anyone could have become emotionally engaged by the film.

I am a relatively new fan of Stephen Sondheim. I was first exposed to his work thanks to Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl where the tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd was enshrined. Since 2004, I have gone to great lengths to familiarize myself with the masterful lyrics of this master composer/lyricists. Sweeney Todd happens to be my favorite of his works. Tim Burton butchered it to pieces turning it from a slightly horrific, vaudevillian opera into a blood-drenched, horror rock musical. Generally miss-cast and exceptionally poorly sung, Sweeney Todd deserves to be lower in the list, but so many other films just deserve it more.

One of those is Shrek the Third which spoiled every bit of charm that I found in the original production and its sequel. The film seemed to be running out of steam by moving from fairy tale stories into Arthurian legend. While the subjects are similar, the movie doesn’t feel as mature as the previous ones and feels more like the studio’s attempting to further its cash-generator, not to tell a good story.

If Shrek the Third spoiled the good will its predecessors built up, then Spider-Man 3 destroyed it. Spider-Man 2 was one of the best comic book adaptations ever to appear on the big screen, but what killed the Batman franchise started occurring in the third film of the Spider-Man franchise. Too many characters, a terrible performance from Tobey Maguire, and too many stories, few of which were actually interesting, sank the entire production.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets paled in comparison to its predecessor, a film that I genuinely liked. The puzzle-craft in the original seemed to serve the story. In this sequel, it seemed to serve the audience. Trying to make the film see more complex than it was by running the characters around the world, Nicolas Cage led a disappointing ensemble to a colossal thud of a conclusion and a number of historical and physical inaccuracies.

My Sin City Award for 2007 goes to the big screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. One of the most overrated source-authors in film history, Miller’s films have included the horrid Elektra, and the aforementioned Sin City. The only explanation for these film’s popularity (not that Elektra was ever popular) is that they don’t look like normal movies. And even in the case of Sin City, I agree they look spectacular, but there’s nothing that suffices as a suitable story to be found and 300 suffers even more from the screamed dialogue and excessive, unnecessary violence.

Epic Movie proved that if it’s not Scary Movie it’s not going to be good. What they think of as Epic could have easily been put into separate features. Fantasy, sci-fi and superhero movies have been rolled into a movie that feels neither epic in scope nor epic in quality. I wasn’t expecting more than passable performances and marginally entertaining humor, but I didn’t even get that when I sat down to watch the film.

With the exception of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Reservation Road and Sweeney Todd, most of the worst films of the year are movies that were designed to please the masses not the critics. That couldn’t be said for Margot at the Wedding, which was the follow-up feature from The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach. Obviously drawing on his own history, as he did with his debut feature, Baumbach returns to a story with dysfunctional family dynamics involving writer parents and masturbation, neither of which endear this mess to the audience.

Finishing out the year of the god-awful sequels, Evan Almighty proved that even with a popular comedian in the lead, you can’t turn a superficial story into a box office success. Bruce Almighty is a sort of guilty pleasure of mine, so it was natural I would check out the second feature. What a difference four years and a hack screenwriter can make. Steve Oedekerk may have been funny when he wrote for “In Living Color” back in the early ’90s, but ever since, he’s produced disaster after disaster. When you hear Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, The Nutty Professor, Kung Pow, and Barnyard, you can’t help but wonder how he continues to work in this business. Bruce Almighty was a box office phenomenon and The Nutty Professor did well to. But what he did to Ace Ventura (making it worse, though not by much), he also did to Bruce Almighty.

That leaves us with the worst film of the year. My friends liked it, but that’s not surprising considering how much one of them love Nic Cage and the others like comic book movies, but Ghost Rider was a failure on nearly every level. The visual effects are laughably obvious (who really thinks that Cage’s abs look like that?), the story is derivative and filled with superficial examinations of how good and evil aren’t terribly different and a dark hero can emerge. In addition to all of that, the performances are simply dreadful, the worst of which coming from Cage.

I’m doubtful that most comic book adaptations aren’t going to go the direction Ghost Rider did since it was wildly successful, but it would be nice if they failed more frequently. Then, perhaps, we might get more like Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2: X-Men United.

That finishes up the Best and Worst of 2007. There are plenty of other films that I didn’t seen and I’m sure some might make either list, but January’s almost halfway finished, so it’s time for me to put this into print and put the subject to rest for the year.

The Individual Best

With the high quality of year-end films, it’s nearly impossible to isolate just one performance or musical score to recognize. While I’ve had to finalize my choices for the year’s best, I want to examine the best and those who were most competitive for those prizes.

On the male performance side, there were a number of distinguished and radically different performances from which to choose. On the leading side, the best of the bunch is Daniel Day-Lewis whose deep embodiment of a loathsome character in There Will Be Blood is made all the more special by his ability to charm the audience into liking him even when he commits some disturbing acts. Josh Brolin gives the only performance in No Country for Old Men that I actually like. His screen time gives him the opportunity to make a credible, tragic character for whom you wish victory. From films that didn’t make much of an impact, Frank Langella is terrific in his slow destruction in the otherwise lackluster Starting Out in the Evening and Tony Leung becomes a despicable lovelorn turncoat in Ang Lee’s masterful Lust, Caution.

Insinuating himself into a group of relatively broad performances, James McAvoy generates a quiet, sympathetic character without resorting to histrionics in Atonement. Mortensen, like Day-Lewis, digs deep into his character and becomes another person as a Russian hit man in Eastern Promises. Pinsent is unobtrusively devastating as a man who becomes a widower long before his wife death. And, from a purely entertaining perspective, both Freddy Rodriguez as a headstrong vigilante and Kurt Russell as a vile serial killer in their respective segments of the 1970s schlock homage Grindhouse.

As far as supporting male actors, the field is a bit more anemic, but the ones that do find themselves on my list are an amazing lot. Jason Bateman is humorous and loveable in Jason Reitman’s Juno. His work is subtle and imaginative. In There Will Be Blood, Paul Dano creates a deviously detailed character that rivals Day-Lewis as the film’s antagonist, making the moral gray area all the more diluted. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel are each strong in their respective roles as father and son of a Russian mob family. Irfan Khan doesn’t have a great deal of powerful scenes in The Namesake, but he’s certainly one of the more memorable aspects of the film.

In The Savages, Philip Bosco gives us a performance that reminds us of our own curmudgeonly grandfathers. J.K. Simmons tones down his Spider-Man persona to give an endearing portrait as Juno‘s father. Matthew Goode makes a strong case as one of the year’s best villainous roles as the manipulative bank robber in The Lookout. Lee-Hom Wang mixes love and jealously well in Lust, Caution. And Mark Ruffalo gives us another detailed character study in David Fincher’s Zodiac.

On the women’s side, the leading race is a tight one that has two amazing standouts in thoroughly different performances. Marion Cotillard embodies the kooky French torch singer Edith Piaf in the grating La Vie en Rose. Even though her voice is dubbed, she nails the histrionics of the character and blends effortlessly into every scene. Julie Christie tackles her role in Away from Her from a completely different perspective. Her performance is subdued, restrained and quietly breathtaking. Continuing the foreign dominance of the year’s best female performances is Chinese actress Tang Wei whose emotionally tortured performance in Lust, Caution is the year’s best for a new actress.

Belén Rueda is great as the panicked and loving mother in The Orphanage. Nikki Blonsky gives a fantastic debut performance in Hairspray. Ellen Page is solid as the pregnant teenager in Juno. As the youngest thesp among the year’s best, Dakota Blue Richards showed us that kids didn’t have to be precocious to be effective in The Golden Compass. Keri Russell is delightfully homely as a Waitress who longs to escape her dreary existence. And rounding out the best is Laura Linney whose work, along with Philip Bosco in the dismissable The Savages helps save the film from being utterly irrelevant.

Of all the areas where the strongest work of the season is achieved, the supporting ladies are more consistently amazing than any other group. With all the performances recognized this year, the one that seems most egregiously absent and is easily the year’s best, is from the film The Namesake. The film isn’t much more than another in a long line of stories about growing up removed from your ancestor’s culture. While the male-dominated Indian culture rests at the heart of the film, it’s actress Tabu who brings that depth to the surface. She embodies her culture, as it’s trapped in the bold and contrary climate of American society. She slowly adapts while always maintaining her ties to her homeland and its traditions. Her performance is simply amazing.

Not far behind, but in the class of part-supporting, part-lead, are the performances of Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave who blend their performances together seamlessly to create a singular representation of a person caught up in her own world, but remorseful of her past, unable to change it. In the three stages of Briony’s life, Ronan, Garai and Redgrave each manages to capture the disparate feelings at war within this horribly conflicted young woman.

In Bridge to Terabithia, AnnaSophia Robb generates the kind of warmth and passion in a character that many of her adult contemporaries could only imagine. Robb is natural in her performance as a sassy young girl who befriends the youngest son of a poor family and creates the kind of friendship many of us dream about. Catherine Keener is soft-spoken, but effective in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Olympia Dukakis is the embodiment of disillusionment and unfulfilled desires in Away from Her. In Juno, Allison Janney is terrific as the mother of the titular teen. Marie-Josée Croze is expressive as the frustrated speech therapist in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Taking on a literary character so devious and detailed, Imelda Staunton perfectly captures the vile Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Marisa Tomei and Kelly MacDonald represent the sole major female presence in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and No Country for Old Men respectively and manage to upstage nearly every other male in their respective films simply by remaining subdued.

Suffice it to say that the directors of the ten best films are among the year’s best directors. Paul Thomas Anderson achieved greatness with There Will Be Blood and is obviously the best of the bunch. Left out of the top ten, directors Ben Affleck, David Fincher and David Cronenberg each deserve recognition for their work. Likewise, the screenplays of these features are among the year’s best. There Will Be Blood is a terrific adaptation that takes the source material and does something magical with it. While I do love the atmospheric and twisting style of The Orphanage, Ratatouille is probably the year’s most astute and effective original screenplay. To take such an unappealing concept as a rat in a fancy French kitchen and creating such a pensive and delectable film is an amazing feat.

For film, music is as important to a film as the story, the performances, the editing and the lensing. There Will Be Blood again represents the year’s best work. Jonny Greenwood’s use of strings to manipulate the sounds of other instruments is masterful and especially evocative when put into the context of the film. Alexandre Desplat, despite providing the noisome score for The Golden Compass, contributes a brilliant piece of melancholy for the love story Lust, Caution. Ratatouille is fun and nostalgic. The score of Atonement uses the clicking beat of a typewriter as punctuation for the film’s subject.

La Vie en Rose uses the music of Edith Piaf to accentuate the film’s story including the placement and emotional impact of her most legendary song “Non, je ne regrette rien”. Hairspray successfully adapts Broadway to the big screen while the song score for Once takes the musical in an entirely new and enjoyable direction.

The best designed films include La Vie en Rose, The Golden Compass, Atonement, Lust, Caution, Zodiac and Sweeney Todd. The best photographic and lighting work is represented in There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Lust, Caution, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Orphanage, >Atonement and Into the Wild.

On the technical side, the best effects include the sound and visual work on Transformers, the sound and editing work in The Bourne Ultimatum, the sound work in both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, the visual effects in The Golden Compass and the detailed recreations of San Francisco in Zodiac.

Nearly every film released in 2007 had something to celebrate and while the following doesn’t fit into any of the traditional categories, it nevertheless deserves some attention. Grindhouse was a magnificent experience, infused with some amazingly inventive and comic faux trailers. It was a gimmick that succeeded beyond hope and made for a thoroughly entertaining viewing experience early in the year.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for films released in 2008 to top the best efforts of 2007, but I’m certain many of them will try. We’ll just have to sit back and enjoy whatever we can and hope the year doesn’t take as long to get started as 2007 did.

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