Wednesday, January 23, 2008

My 11 Most Memorable Films of 2007

So the Academy Award nominations are out and … oh, sorry, must have nodded off there for a second. It’s the same story Oscar’s been telling us for the past several years: Four movies of dark, depressing material with one light-hearted affair thrown in for color. I find it all very boring, and have for quite some time. It wasn’t always like this, so I’m working on a theory that the past few years are a reaction to “Return of the King” winning it all in 2004, or somehow this is about the Bush administration, as most everything else in Hollywood seems to be.

Either way, I won’t be watching the show next month (in whatever form it takes), even though I do actually have a horse in this race for a change. But more on that film in a moment. Here are, in order, the 11 films that made the biggest impact on me in 2007:

1. 300
This was without a doubt the most surprising and memorable movie experience of the year for me. I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down in the theater—I thought the trailers looked kinda dumb—but I walked out two hours later with a feeling I hadn’t had since “The Matrix” back in 1999: Like I had just watched something truly original, something destined to change the face of filmmaking for years to come (for better or worse).

With “300,” director Zack Snyder finally achieved what so many before have tried but couldn’t get quite right: Translating a graphic novel into a film in as literal a way as possible (no, I wasn’t a huge fan of “Sin City”). Of course, it helps that Gerard Butler anchored the whole thing with his star-is-born turn as Spartan King Leonidas; Butler (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) took the material so seriously and treated it with such respect, it turned what could have been simply ridiculous amounts of blood and bravado into a work of art. Snyder, Butler & Co. gave “300” the heart and soul it needed to become more than just a flick for teenage boys, with its themes of love, honor, loyalty, bravery, conviction, betrayal, and corruption.

Like “The Matrix,” “300” is a watershed film that will be remembered, celebrated, maligned, and, unfortunately, imitated for years to come. Truly remarkable stuff.

2. Juno
What a joyous movie. I love it so much, I feel like I should just make a list of my top 25 favorite things about it—but that would get tedious, so I’ll settle for just a few. I loved how we get to know every character just like if we’d met them in real life: We’re presented with a superficial first impression, then discover the real person behind that façade as time goes on. I loved how a baby’s life was treasured in this film, not glossed over, dismissed, or discarded. And I absolutely adored Jennifer Garner’s performance as a mother-in-waiting; it would have been so easy for her to slip into cheesiness, but instead she embodied heartfelt sincerity, reminding me of why so many of us fell in love with her way back at the beginning of “Alias.”

“Juno” will make you laugh and make you cry. It will destroy your faith in humanity, then redeem it. It is the movie you love all the more every time you reflect on it. It is the best movie of 2007.

3. Immagine in Cornice
Pearl Jam’s latest video release offers an all-access vantage point never before seen in the group’s previous live DVDs. As someone who has obsessively followed the band’s setlists for a decade, the glimpses of Eddie Vedder & Co. crafting each night’s show as they toured Italy gave me goosebumps (as did many, many other moments). “Immagine” is certainly the best looking of PJ’s five video documents, and it does a perfect job of demonstrating the commitment to each and every concert that makes Pearl Jam the standard-bearers for live rock and roll, even after 15 years together. If anyone were to ask me why I continue to love this band, I give you “Immagine in Cornice” as an answer.

4. The Bourne Ultimatum
If ever an action film and its star should have been nominated for an Academy Award, this is the, er, ultimate example. Matt Damon has redefined the genre with his down-to-earth portrayal of Jason Bourne, leaving 007 to follow meekly in his wake.

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Potter films tend to get short shrift because a) the books are so good, and b) critics frown on franchises in general. But the past three entries in this film franchise have been downright excellent, with “Phoenix” the best of the bunch. This movie is veritably overflowing with wonderful performances from the likes of Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and a should-have-been-Oscar-worthy tour de force by Imelda Staunton. And let’s not forget Daniel Radcliffe, who really came into his own this time around as The Boy Who Lived is growing up into a man. With millions upon millions of fans literally critiquing his every move, he holds his own remarkably well, as does this fifth installment in the series.

6. Rescue Dawn
Christian Bale takes method acting to the brink in this gripping and, ultimately, uplifting tale of a Vietnam-era P.O.W. Providing two of the most intense hours I spent all year, Bale disappears into his role in a way few Hollywood actors can; his performance is so genuine and outstanding, and yet not showy in a way that would have overwhelmed the film. Writer/director Werner Herzog delivers a throwback gem that has the guts to celebrate the true spirit of America and its military with a deft hand that avoids any fake patriotic jingoism.

7. Ratatouille
Brad Bird delivered another winner with this delicious film for adults packaged as a kids’ movie. Pixar continues to astound.

8. American Gangster
Call it “Departed” fatigue. That’s my theory on why this spectacular—and superior—mob flick didn’t get more critical praise this fall (same phenomenon happened with “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” if you recall). A cross between “Heat” and “Scarface,” Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe both deliver Oscar-worthy performances as director Ridley Scott gives them room to breathe deeply and fully explore their characters.

9. 3:10 to Yuma
Christian Bale and Russell Crowe light up the screen with both their guns and their grit in this excellent Western remake.

10. Once
For lovers of music and star-crossed romances alike, “Once” was also painfully overlooked by the Academy. It’s not on an “Almost Famous” level, but it’s not trying to be, either. I didn’t hear much about it when it was released among the summer blockbuster titans, but it’s an absolute gem that provides a beautiful demonstration of the power of music to help people connect.

11. Zodiac
A poorly marketed crime drama that proves director David Fincher hasn’t lost a step, despite an unusual five-year span between films. Even at over 2.5 hours, time seems to fly as we follow the trail of the Zodiac killer along with a gaggle of investigators led by a brilliantly dour Mark Ruffalo. Though it doesn’t come to a resolution, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt nevertheless draw the film to a satisfying close—too bad the Coens didn’t follow suit.

One Final Note …
I just thought I’d mention how great 2007 was for movies. In the past few years I’ve had trouble coming up with even 10 films to list as “best” or “favorites,” and this year I included 11 and could have picked a couple more (“The Simpsons Movie” was excellent, and certainly one of the biggest Oscar snubs of recent memory for its lack of a nod in the animation category). I had an especially enjoyable summer at the movies, which hadn’t occurred in a while, either. Here’s hoping 2008 brings more of the same.

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