Friday, December 28, 2007

2007 top 10

By Elise Nakhnikian

For me, making an annual top 10 list is an excuse to think about the year’s movies as a group, and to decide whether I agree with the people who cluck over the decline of the movies. It’s an encouraging exercise because the answer is always no. In fact, this year I couldn’t narrow this list down to 10.

I couldn’t pick a particular favorite, either. So, instead of ranking these from 1 to 10 (or 12), I’m grouping them the way I think of them, according to certain themes or characteristics they have in common.

This list is also an excuse for me to catch up on promising-sounding movies that I missed during the year: December is the one month when I wallow in movies as much as I would for the rest of the year, if my day job didn’t get in the way. But there are always a couple I don’t manage to get to. Some of these -- like Monster in 2003, Caché in 2005, and Pan’s Labyrinth last year -- would have made it onto my list if I’d seen them in time. The ones that got away this year were Persepolis and There Will be Blood. I didn’t see them until after I wrote this list. If I’d gotten to them earlier, they’re be on it too.

Meanwhile, here are some movies well worth seeking out if you haven’t seen them yet.

The moral development of children
Kids in movies tend to be pretty one-dimensional, played either for sympathy or for for laughs. But two of this year’s movies take the kid’s point of view to show something as rare on film as it is common in life: the moral awakening of a child.

Blame it on Fidel. In this emotionally honest, often funny film, writer-director Julie Gavras (daughter of political filmmaker Costa-Gavras) tells the story of an idealistic Parisian couple who desert their bourgeois life to devote themselves to leftist politics in the early ‘70s. The decision infuriates their nine-year-old daughter, Anna (the wonderful Nina Kervel-Bey), who resents their moves to ever smaller and dingier quarters, the replacement of her beloved right-wing nanny by someone more PC, and the invasion of the family’s cramped kitchen by bearded men who talk politics into the night. As true to her outrage as her parents are to their communist principles, Anna excoriates the adults who turned her life inside out without warning, let alone permission. To their credit, they listen, hearing her out with love and leaving her plenty of room to reach her own conclusions about right, wrong, and individual rights versus group loyalty.

This is England is set in a working-class neighborhood in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, when unemployment was high and morale was low. Twelve-year-old Shaun (the mournfully expressive Thomas Turgood) has a loving mum but not much else: his father was killed in the Falklands, he has no friends, and he’s being bullied at school. He finds solace and a sense of belonging in the unlikely form of a group of adult skinheads. But when one of their old comrades returns from prison spouting racist bile and takes over the group, Shaun learns that belonging isn’t everything. The story is autobiographical, which explains why writer-director Shane Meadows got everything so right, starting with Shaun but including the motley skinhead crew.

The World of Long-Term Care
You know how several movies with identical themes often wind up in a sprint for the theaters? Sometimes it’s easy to understand why (Make way for zombies!); sometimes not (what was it about Truman Capote in 2005?) This year, for some reason, we got three excellent movies about a topic we tend to shun: what it’s like to live with a crippling long-term disease or disability, or to love someone who’s living with one. Maybe baby-boomer screenwriters and directors are finally filming what they know. But whatever the reason, I’m grateful for the winning trifecta of Away from Her, The Savages, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Away from Her, an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story, is a delicate character study of a couple who have been married for 50 years. When Fiona (Julie Christie) develops Alzheimer’s, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) begins losing her in stages. First the disease changes her in subtle ways and erases chunks of their shared memories. Then she moves into an Alzheimer’s facility, where she promptly forgets him and forms a marriage-like partnership with a male resident. The excellent cast is headed by a radiant Christie, whose soulful beauty and sense of perpetually keeping some part of herself in reserve embody the “direct and vague, sweet and ironic” Fiona – and erase any possible doubt about why Grant might still be so besotted with his wife.

The Savages is a sometimes fierce, sometimes farcical dramedy about two contentious middle-aged siblings who take charge of their estranged father’s life when he develops dementia. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins nails everything from the texture of daily life in a nursing home to the unceremonious arrival of death, and it feels good to laugh with a theaterful of strangers at things that are nearly taboo even in our talk-happy culture. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as the siblings and Philip Bosco as their father all do astonishing work, making the prickly Savages irresistible to watch and impossible not to empathize with.

Also unexpectedly good company is the sardonic hero of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel’s poetic adaptation of a memoir of the same name. Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor of Elle, is a man in the prime of life, accustomed to having his way with just about everything and everybody, until a stroke leaves him with a rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His mind and senses are intact, but his body is paralyzed – except for one eyelid. Amazingly, with that eyelid and a method devised by one of his therapists, Bauby communicates with his caregivers, family and friends, even dictating the book this movie is based on. Filmed mainly in the actual hospital where Bauby lived after the accident, receiving care in a beautiful room from a trio of gorgeous young women, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly celebrates the fragile beauty of life and the adaptability of the human mind.

Genre Classics
In a very good year for genre pictures (I Am Legend, Grindhouse, Michael Clayton), these two were my favorites.

Though, having said that, I’m not sure just what genre No Country for Old Men fits into. Definitely not Western, though it’s set mostly in west Texas. Psycho killer thriller? Heist movie? Or do movies by the Coen brothers constitute their own genre by now? Whatever else it is, No Country is hound-dog faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which tracks an implacable killer, the good ol’ boy he has on the run, and the sheriff who’s trying to stop him. The action is relentless – Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh leaves corpses in his path the way Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs – but there’s plenty of humor and humanity too, not to mention gorgeous cinematography, impeccable pacing, excellent acting, and dialogue that’s pure Texas: full of wry understatement and as much about what isn’t said as what is.

The Bourne Ultimatum is so fast-paced it makes No Country look leisurely, but there’s more to Paul Greengrass’s final contribution to the Bourne trilogy than the famously breakneck and brutal fight and chase scenes he shoots at such dizzyingly close range. As Jason Bourne unravels the mystery of what turned him into an amnesiac killing machine, he unearths an all-too-real secret history of CIA torture, assassination, and unchecked power. Matt Damon’s Bourne was a blank slate at the beginning of this series, but he ends it as a hero for our times, fighting the faceless bureaucrats who order up death and destruction from their sleek glass and steel bunkers.

True Grit
Sure, it’s cool to see people skiing down or climbing up mountains, but it’s a lot more interesting to watch an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances rise to the occasion.

Rescue Dawn is an odd duck. It’s a scripted story played by professional actors – including a riveting Christian Bale as the hero, Dieter Dengler – yet everything they’re acting out really happened. A German-born American pilot, Dengler was captured and tortured by Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War when his plane was shot down over Laos. He not only survived but escaped, thanks to his ingenuity, apparently unshakable optimism and practical skills learned a welder, a soldier, and a starving kid in war-ravaged Germany. Director Werner Herzog had already shot his story once as Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary starring Dengler himself, but he was smart to remake it. The re-enactment packs more of a punch, showing us scenes Dengler could only describe or act out unconvincingly. Rescue Dawn also touchingly dramatizes a touching relationship that’s barely mentioned in the documentary: Dengler’s friendship with a fellow prisoner who escaped with him but did not make it out of the jungle.

The Golden Door. Using minimal dialogue, this visual stunner follows the members of an Sicilian family as they leave their grinding rural poverty for the United States in the early 1900s. Fine acting, a generous use of ambient sound, and the unhurried pace anchor us in their world as we learn as they do, by watching the sometimes incomprehensible actions of strangers. The occasional lush fantasy scene breaks up the rigorous reality, cluing us in on the immigrants’ unspoken hopes. This movie also includes what may be the year’s best visual metaphor: As the family’s boat leaves for America, a space opens up, then slowly grows between the people lining the deck of the boat and the friends and relatives crowded onto the pier to see them off, who started out as one indistinguishable mass. The filmmakers hold the shot long enough to let you think about the distance those brave people put between themselves and everyone – and everything – they’ve ever known. Their Ellis Island reception by disdainful immigration officials is a sobering lesson in the xenophobic politics of the day.

Days of Glory is about the North African Arabs who fought for a racist France in WWII. Their idealism about their adopted “motherland” slowly drains away as they endure insults and indignities and are sent into the worst spots and given the least equipment. Yet they never lose their heart for the fight against the Nazis. Director Rachid Bouchareb cowrote the screenplay only after conducting extensive interviews with Algerian and Moroccan veterans of the French Army, and his research paid off: The characters may be composites, but everything they do, say, and experience has the feel of truth.

Everything Old is New Again
Killer of Sheep. Shot on 16mm for just $10,000 in 1973 as director Charles Burnett’s film school thesis and released for a very brief run four years later, this poetically told story of a working-class African-American family’s struggle to make it into the middle class was restored and given its widest theatrical release ever this year. The black-and-white photography is beautiful, but what makes this a masterpiece is the range and depth of emotion Burnett captures in one claustrophobic LA ghetto. Like August Wilson’s plays, Burnett’s movies bring to life and preserve chunks of our country’s psychic history that might otherwise be lost. As hard as it is here to watch stoic slaughterhouse worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his patient wife (Kaycee Moore) hang on to the knife edge of the lower-middle-class while their kids fend for themselves on the street, it’s even sadder to think how much further guns, drugs, and the corrosive effects of poverty have eroded the quality of life, and the ability to hope, for many South Central residents in the two generations since this movie was made.

Blade Runner: Final Cut. I didn’t think much of Blade Runner when it first came out in 1982, but I was blown away by the final cut released this year. I’m sure the difference is mostly in me – when I watched Final Cut this year, I realized how many images from this fiercely original neo-noir had burned their way into my brain way the first time around and wondered how I failed to appreciate them then. It’s also fascinating to see how much of Scott’s dystopic vision of a then-futuristic LA has already come true, or likely will soon.

I do remember disliking the improbably upbeat ending, which didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the movie. Thankfully, it's been replaced by a much better one. (Director Ridley Scott put back the darker ending he’d always wanted when he made other changes, including digitalizing the already detailed sets to make them look even more realistic.) But maybe it just took two viewings for me to appreciate the depth and intensity of this hallucinatory masterpiece.

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