When is a romance not a romance? When it has more on its mind than simple liplocks. This vigorous, visually poetic adaptation of Ian McEwan’s “unfilmable” World War II-era novel sets the bar high for period dramas. Not only does it feature love, betrayal, bloodshed and genuine passion (a rare element in most romances), it ponders long and hard on the power of imagination as a force both positive and negative. A great many films could be benefit from such self-reflection.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Too slow and studied for some tastes, this haunting, impeccably directed historical drama should be looked on as less of a Western and more of a rumination on the birth of today’s celebrity culture. “Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?” asks Brad Pitt’s burned-out Jesse James of his rabid admirer Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), prophesying centuries of unhinged stalkers-to-come. Affleck is incredible (his second standout perf of the year after Gone Baby Gone), bringing naivety, pathos and a touch of Mark David Chapman to his complicated role.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
If you don’t live in New York or L.A., odds are you didn’t see this final, definitive director’s cut on the big screen. Too bad. Even on DVD, this sci-fi hallmark ranks as one of the finest films of the year. I didn’t get a chance to put this on a top 10 list when it first came out in 1982, and I’m making up for it now. The film was at least 25 years ahead of its time, anyway, making it a 2007 chart-topper for the last quarter century.
If you aren’t already a sucker for giant monster movies, this South Korean export probably isn’t on your list. If, however, you’ve already got a fondness for men in rubber suits, then this satirical horror flick is one of the best. Filmmaker Joon-ho Bong’s transcendental story of one dysfunctional clan trying to rescue its youngest member from a fishy monstrosity successfully mixes elements of Little Miss Sunshine and Godzilla. What with all the torture porn still flooding cineplexes, it’s hard to remember what it’s like to have fun watching a horror movie. Thankfully, Korea is either so far behind the curve or so far ahead of it it’s managed to deliver a funny, scary, emotional, thrilling and unapologetically bloody B-movie.
Funny, pointed and never once preachy, this sharp-witted comedy about teen pregnancy has plenty to say about maturity and responsibility. Thankfully for audiences, the film buries all of that under some of the flat-out funniest dialogue of the year. Writer Diablo Cody is a force to be reckoned with. Her script is brimming with scenes that catch you off guard--funny, smart, perceptive moments that are as unexpected as they are true. A guaranteed contender for Best Original Screenplay.
The Lives of Others
This one’s a tough call. Sort of. It’s a 2006 German film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last February. Most of America didn’t get to see it until long after it had captured the Oscar. In any case, it didn’t make it onto my top 10 list for last year, and here’s a chance to correct the oversight. It’s a magnificent film, quietly yet powerfully studying the character of an East German secret police officer (the sadly deceased Ulrich Mühe) who comes to realize the people he’s spying on have more of a life than he does.
America just wasn’t in the mood for serious films this year. That’s a shame, because audiences missed out on some outstanding dramas. This box-office failure features a powerhouse performance by George Clooney. Sure, it looks like just another crusading lawyer flick, but this sly drama is less about decrying capitalist greed and more about a flawed man genuinely conflicted by his place in the system. “I’m not the guy you kill,” bellows Clooney’s corporate shyster with indignant self-realization. “I’m the guy you buy off. Are you so blind you can’t see that?”
No Country for Old Men
After a couple years producing less-than-perfect (but still fitfully entertaining) films (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), The Coen bros. roared back with this return-to-roots thriller based on Cormac McCarthy’s sun-baked roman noir. Taking McCarthy’s book (dialogue, characters and all) at face value and highlighting every ounce of dry humor, the Coens created a dark, funny and unforgettable saga about the inescapable nature of fate and the exponential power of evil.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
With Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on board, this macabre musical probably preaches best to the already-converted (those who like their entertainment gory, Gothic and laced with a few giggles). Still, Burton does a pitch-perfect job paring down Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical. And who better to embody the spirit of tortured, tuneful vengeance than Mr. Depp? Even detractors will have to admit this thing looks magnificent.
There Will Be Blood
Hold your horses. You’ll get to see it soon enough. Believe me, it’s worth the wait. Using a little-known Upton Sinclair novel as inspiration, Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) creates an outsized American tale along the lines of Citizen Kane or Giant. Anderson’s mature directorial work aside, this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ show. He’s on screen almost every minute, and he owns this epic character study as a misanthropic oil baron who builds an empire around the turn of the last century.
Close, Very Close: Charlie Wilson’s War, Eastern Promises, Black Book, Persepolis, Ratatouille, La Vie en Rose, Dan in Real Life, Knocked Up, Once, In The Valley of Elah.