The Year in Movies
Edith Piaf racing from room to room looking for the lover she's just been told is dead. Joy Division singer Ian Curtis strutting to the Employment Exchange--where he helps people find jobs--with the word hate scrawled on the back of his jacket. The calm pall on Bob Dylan's face as he sits in a London hotel room watching a television journalist outline his middle-class Jewish background. None of these scenes may have actually taken place in the real lives of the artists as dramatized by the 2007 movies about their lives, but each scene bristles with a cinematic life sorely lacking from the commercially successful, bloodless hagiographies heralded at awards shows in recent years such as Walk the Line and Ray.
La Vie en Rose, Control, and I'm Not There didn't merely rescue the music biopic from Hollywood; they represent the best of what 2007 movies offered: an explosion of cinematic craft. Olivier Dahan's La Vie en Rose, the most conventional of the above biopics, was anchored by a bruising performance from Marion Cotillard. Anton Corbijn's Control deftly avoided nostalgic romanticism for something closer to a quiet family drama laced with music. And Todd Haynes' glorious I'm Not There completely reinvented the music biopic to create a dazzling celebration of the creative act. In each instance it isn't just an actress, script, or director leaving thumbprints all over the screen, but an orchestrated synthesis of sound, vision, and performance.
And the list of movies below reflect just such a coordinated expertise on part of casts, crews, and creative teams, from David Fincher's very un-Hollywood Hollywood procedural, Zodiac, to Joel and Ethan Coen abandoning their cynical tricks to carve a streamlined path into man's dark heart. A durable cast and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's all-seeing lens helped director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty smelt their soul-punishing look at Irish independence. Thai writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul orchestrated a minor cinematic miracle in the sumptuous Syndromes and a Century. And all the way over in South Korea, director Bong Joon-ho pulled off an amazing coup: You know how monster movies have typically been metaphors for occupation by foreign militaries, nature's retaliation on the hubris of man's scientific mind, or an uncanny biological manifestation precipitating to curtail mercantile greed? The Host literalizes all of that--and throws in a monster.
The return of the simple joys of competent filmmaking couldn't come at a better time, for how and where we watch movies is changing. The arrival of Landmark Harbor East and more and more reparatory, university, and community film series popping up around town have offered many more darkened rooms in which to watch the movies. But these days, theatrical movies also get streamed into our homes via On Demand and, it's true, some of us are those horrible people file-trading via personal computer.
So this year City Paper changed its voting rules. In years past only movies that opened theatrically in Baltimore during the calendar year were eligible for top 10 consideration. This year, any new movie released/screened by critics was eligible. We no longer only see movies in mainstream Baltimore theaters, and we hope our ballots reflect that.
The below list was tabulated from ballots submitted by contributing critics John Barry, Steve Erickson, Lee Gardner, Violet Glaze, Ian Grey, Cole Haddon, Eric Allen Hatch, Geoffrey Himes, Martin L. Johnson, Bret McCabe, and Wendy Ward. Visit citypaper.com for the individual lists. (Bret McCabe)
1 No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, United States)
No Country for Old Men is rife with memorable images and indelible scenes, but nothing haunts as much in the days after absorbing it as the scared look in Tommy Lee Jones' eyes. His Sheriff Bell sees only the aftermath of the bloody work done by implacable assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, genuinely frightening), but the very fact that a man capable of such violence exists sends Bell reluctantly crisscrossing southwest Texas to try to save Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, delivering a career performance in a career role) and all Moss holds dear. He won't. He can't. And that is the hard lesson at the core of this superbly told story of a hero who steals $2 million in drug money and leaves a man to die in the desert vs. a stone-cold killer with an inviolable code--to quote another classic contemporary western, Unforgiven, we all have it coming. (Lee Gardner)
2 I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, United States)
I'm Not There is enigmatic, brilliant, annoying, contradictory, alternatively folksy and pretentious, immensely self-conscious, quasi-poetic, and difficult to pin down. It doesn't reward close analysis; the cultural metaphors melt in your hands. The characters hover in a strange cinematic world, with personae floating somewhere between cultural outcasts and American archetypes. It's self-referential and weirdly inviting. It demands attention, then challenges interpretations. It carves out territory, then abandons it. It's brilliantly edited but at points feels methodically sloppy. Something's going on here, but you don't know what it is. And that could be why the subject whose life inspired the movie gave director Todd Haynes the rights to his songs. If there's anything about Bob Dylan that irritates you, you may find There irritating in the same way--at the very least, Haynes stays true to his subject. But even if that isn't what you're looking for, Cate Blanchett's already legendary performance as Dylan '65 is worth the price of admission. (John Barry)
3 Zodiac (David Fincher, United States)
Sometimes it feels like David Fincher's on a one-man crusade to move Hollywood forward. OK, "one-man crusade" is selling Fincher's cast and crew of hundreds short, but that's exactly the point: Fincher's the exception that proves the rule, the anti-Michael Bay, the rare director who works in this Hollywood of bloated crew sizes and CGI-happy postproduction yet still realizes his singular visions, telling riveting cinematic stories that reflect our time as well as a 1950s Billy Wilder or a 1970s Sidney Lumet did theirs. In this case, Fincher's tackled the dark, obsessive, rain-drenched tale of a real-life San Francisco serial killer and the people who sacrificed marriages, careers, and years of their lives in the hopes of decoding his ciphers and uncovering his identity. We can't think of a better way to spend three hours. (Eric Allen Hatch)
4 The Host (Bong Joon-ho, Korea)
That U.S. disaster capitalism and developing-world opportunism should metastasize in Bong Joon-ho's great movie as a big, slimy, pollution-spawned mutant squid monster is an aptly nutty bit of poetic monster show just desserts. That The Host offers so much more than contemporary political über-text justifies an actual purchase of this DVD. Along with managing superior CG creature effects of the titular creature attacking riverside Seoul, Bong also effortlessly offers a melancholy/hilarious family fragging and reunification--this is a Korean movie--before finally repositioning its featured creature as ultimate victim in a final, gorgeous slo-mo conflation amid poison vapors and looming, unmanned machines. Unlike the sadly reflexive self-gutting of The Golden Compass' anti-theistic source material, The Host is unabashed about its multitiered radicalism, but with a humanist heart so big and imagery so beautiful it becomes undeniable. (Ian Grey)
5 The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, Ireland/United Kingdom)
Most movies about war feature battlefield scenes full of numberless soldiers falling en masse. In resolute British indie filmmaker Ken Loach's account of the 1919-'21 Irish War of Independence, the combatants slaughter each other in cramped hallways and small back rooms from feet, often inches away. Likewise, the Irish Republican Army's tight bonds--exemplified here by siblings Teddy (Padraic Delaney) and Damien (Cillian Murphy)--become a cross to bear as they're forced to deal with a traitor in the ranks and, ultimately, a compromise deal with the hated British that literally pits brother against brother. Loach's career-long devotion to exploring politics in his movies is evident, especially in a few overly speechy speeches, but so is his fierce humanism and passionate filmmaking. (LG)
6 Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's movies go down easier than similarly challenging work by other filmmakers because they're sensual experiences first and foremost. On one level, Syndromes and a Century is such a joy to watch that its meaning remains beside the point. Still, it wouldn't belong on this list if it added up to nothing. Beneath the surface, Weerasethakul's earlier movies questioned the way sex and love are usually made into narratives. Syndromes does much the same with individual identity. What if a life could be remixed so that its echoes resonate across time and space? That notion, no doubt drawn from Buddhism, forms the starting point for its dual tales of hospital life. Less directly but just as radically as the director's Tropical Malady, Syndromes expands the possibilities of love stories much the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey rewrote science fiction's rules. (Steve Erickson)
7 Atonement (Joe Wright, United Kingdom)
If your actions caused the utter ruin of another human being, especially one close to you, can you ever truly atone for that crime? That is the question asked by director Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as Cecilia and Robbie, class-mismatched lovers in pre-WWII England. When Cecilia's younger sister Briony misinterprets a private moment between the two, she punishes Robbie by falsely accusing him of her cousin's rape, an act that sends Robbie to prison and, soon after, the war in France. Consequently, Robbie ends up fighting on two fronts, for redemption and survival. As the years pass, Briony, a budding writer, begins to realize the gravity of her mistake and wonders how to make things right. The answer isn't what you'd expect either, as Wright pulls a last-minute twist that forces you to reconsider everything experienced up until then. (Cole Haddon)
8 Into the Wild (Sean Penn, United States)
A Lawrence of Arabia set on the tundra instead of in the desert, Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's nonfiction best seller follows self-styled vagabond Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a child of privilege who, after divesting all his worldly possessions, rechristens himself "Alexander Supertramp" in order to live the Thoreau-endorsed life of principled solitude. After a hungry and lonely winter in Alaska, he decides he's ready to end his cross-country exodus away from the human company he so foolishly scorned--but, tragically, the wilderness decides it's not done with him yet. An unsparing portrait of human nakedness against nature's savagery on par to anything Jack London ever wrote, Into The Wild's keen depiction of how alienation is the worst starvation of all paradoxically sharpens the viewer's gratitude for the beloved friends and family sweetening our own existence. This isn't Penn's first effort as a director, but it is his debut as a filmmaker. (Violet Glaze)
9 The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)
Set in East Germany in the mid-'80s, this movie flits between two worlds. In one world, a playwright and his actress/lover carve out a sort of artistic bohemia in East Berlin by nudging up against the state's limits without breaking them. In a second world, two Stalinist bureaucrats and their chief Stasi investigator spy on the theater people. Writer/director von Donnersmarck makes us believe at first that we're watching yet another Cold War spy flick, but all the while he's patiently peeling back the superficial differences to reveal that the worlds may be different, but the people aren't. The investigator becomes a bit of a culture fan, the playwright a bit of a spy, the actress a bit of a traitor, and the bureaucrat a bit of a libertine. In a medium that tends to highlight heroes and villains, it's refreshing to find a picture that reveals how much heroism and villainy resides in us all. (Geoffrey Himes)
10 Away From Her (Sarah Polley, Canada)
Sarah Polley adapts the Alice Munro short story in her debut movie about long-lasting love and loss. Addressing an increasingly common affliction of the aged, Away From Her tells the story of retired couple Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), whose idyllic and active life on a frozen Canadian lake is disrupted by Alzheimer's, a disease that not only affects their future but also the past they shared. When Fiona's move to the Meadowlake care facility adjusts her heart as well as her address, Grant turns to a Meadowlake nurse for help finding his way through the foreign territory of her illness and his pain of losing her. A fellow Meadowlake "widow," Marian (Olympia Dukakis), betrays her own strength to admit the empathy she feels for Grant and, by doing so, opens the story wide open and reins Grant in, prone as he is to selfishness. Blame Polley, whose sensitive touch with acts of the heart and appreciation for the look of sun or moonlight on snow far exceeds her freshman filmmaker status. (Wendy Ward)
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