Here’s the list of ten films that I think really graced the screen this year, followed by a list of the runners up. Proof that terrific movies are still out there despite all my bitching.
Christoffer Boe’s neo-sci fi thriller has to be one of the most underrated films of the year. I can’t believe the number of lukewarm reviews it’s received. Ulrich Thomsen is great as a embittered classical concert pianist who has very little memory of his younger life. In part because this gnaws at him, he returns to his native Copenhagen from an extended stay in New York City, only to find that his memories are literally trapped behind a force field in the center of the city. This combination of thriller and animation shows a unique use of science fiction–intense, personal and thoughtful.
It’s rare that I ever use the word ‘lovely’ to describe a film I really like, but John Carney’s sweet romantic comedy-drama is just that. Glen Hansard (of the group “The Frames”) and Marketa Irglova, despite both being musicians with little acting experience, show great charisma and charm in this story about a street musician/vacuum repair man and a Czech immigrant who strike up a friendship that eventually becomes deeper between them through their common love of music. This is a great musical, in the sense that the tunes reflect the feelings both have for each other and cannot communicate through normal conversation.
8. You Kill Me
John Dahl’s comedy about an alcoholic hit man, who’s sent to dry out after missing an important target, is the best of this type of comedy since Analyze This. Kingsley, as usual, is great, channeling once again the hit man persona that worked so well for him in Sexy Beast. However, the real surprise here is Tea Leoni playing a woman who’s tough enough for his speed. Her performance is right on the money every time, and if I had any say about it, she would be an Oscar contender for Best Actress. This movie also contains the funniest opening of any movie this year with the possible exception of Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.
7. The Wind that Shakes the Barley
The deserved winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, this political epic from Ken Loach tells the story of two Irish brothers who take on the Republican cause of autonomy in the early 20th century, but face conflicts from the group’s successes. I love the way this movie is honest about the complexities of politics and especially of trying to establish a livable situation that would be destined to betray some believers. The film’s beauty, through the lens of Barry Ackroyd, both reflects the idyllic nature of rural Irish country life and hides the bleakness of harsh realities as well. Cillian Murphy, once again, proves he’s quite the adaptable actor.
6. Day Night, Day Night
Originally, I wasn’t sure this was going to make my top ten, but honestly, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. This astonishing film by writer/director Julia Loktev follows a 19-year old girl as she plans a suicide bombing in crowded Times Square. Luisa Williams is superb (are you reading this, Academy?) as the meek young girl determined to get the job done. There’s even some dark humor in one scene where she’s prepared for a video by the terrorists primming her for the appearance by suggesting how she should wear her hair and her rack of bullets. Cinematographer Benoit Debie creates a great sense of ironic claustrophobia in Times Square.
5. No Country for Old Men
Here’s another great tall tale from the Coen Brothers, who really have the knack for these outrageous adventures. Josh Brolin finally gets a starring role that shows what he’s capable of as a hunter who accidentally stumbles upon a great deal of cash at the aftermath scene of a drug deal gone horribly wrong. This sets off one of the smartest, astute chases ever with a Mexican hit man (Javier Bardem) out for the loot and a Texas sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to keep up with them both. It’s bloody, violent, darkly funny (Bardem is one of the creepiest, nastiest, funniest villains ever) and profound. Note to some critics out there: stop whining about 1) the “extra, unnecessary” scene near the end of the movie–it very much belongs there, and 2) Bardem’s hair. If these bother you, it’s obvious you can’t handle much beyond Evan Almighty, so get your asses to the suburban chain crap and leave the great stuff for the rest of us to enjoy.
This is truly one of the most bizarre and charming comedies I’ve seen in a very long time. The manager of a hamburger joint is accidentally trapped overnight in a walk-in freezer and when she emerges and goes home the next day, she realizes her family hadn’t noticed her absence. Add to this, her new found affinity for cold and she sets off on an adventure in search of an iceberg. Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy all co-directed and created a world that recalls the great silent comedies of Lloyd and Keaton. In one sense, this movie is much like the fantastic Songs From the Second Floor in its approach and style, however, definitely not as dark. Highly choreographed and very physical in an artificially stylized world, this wonder is really like nothing else I’ve seen this year.
3. The Lives of Others
Occasionally, Oscar gets it right, like when this film was given the Best Foreign Language Film award last year. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (how am I ever going to remember that name?) directed this outstanding look at political repression and redemption through the eyes of a member of the Stasi (played to perfection by the late great Ulrich Muhe), who at first, is gun-ho about getting information on a writer and his lover until he becomes involved in their lives. As tense as any American thriller, and certainly better than most, this movie attests to the power of human understanding and, indirectly, the power that art can have on our lives.
2. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
You would think that director Sidney Lumet, having won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar a few years ago, would rest on his laurels, but this jaw-droppingly fantastic neo-noir shows that he is still the ultimate master of crime stories set in New York City. Period. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two brothers in desperate need of cash who take on a robbery that on paper should have been laughably easy. However, the crime goes completely wrong, setting off events as profound and as devastating as the best of Eugene O’Neill and, yes, I think this comparison is apt since this film is much more about the disintegration of an American family than it is a crime story. The cast is amazing beyond words, thanks in part to Lumet’s brilliant sense of patience. He really gives these great actors room to breathe their characters. But I must give special kudos to Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei, who both have at times become punchlines for some critics. This film should shut naysayers up right quick. I’m still in disbelief that Kelly Masterson’s seasoned screenplay is a debut. Needless to say, this is the best new film released this year and Lumet deserves to be nominated, if not win, Best Director.
1. Killer of Sheep
If true justice was given this film, it would have won the Oscar for Best Picture for 1977. However, for reasons I’ll never understand, this movie wasn’t given a proper theatrical release until this year. The wait was worth it. Charles Burnett’s indie feature about one family’s lonely but proud existence amidst the abysmal poverty of Watts, Los Angeles is one of the most haunting, moving and sometimes funny films you’ll ever see about a poor family. Henry G. Saunders leads the cast as a slaughterhouse worker (hence the title) who lives a struggling life with a loving wife and family, but is troubled by his own perceived impotence both physical (his sex drive for his wife has diminished) and financial. This movie has a true connection to the Italian neo-realist films of the 1940’s. The scenery, characters, ambiance and music choices are so compelling and astute, they’ll waft through your mind for days. A genuine American masterpiece.
These movies did not quite make it to the top ten for any number of various reasons. However, they are certainly not bad choices for rental (in alphabetical order only):
Brand Upon the Brain
For the Bible Tells Me So
No End in Sight
Public Fears in Private Places
What Would Jesus Buy?
Whole New Thing
Next time: The Worst of 2007–call it an exorcism of sorts.