By David Ferguson
Greetings again from the darkness. Looking back over my comments on the 116 theatrical releases I watched, it strikes me that 2007 proved to be the kind of film year that makes me borderline giddy! Variety was the key as we were treated to some blockbusters that delivered the goods, some small independents that struck a chord, and a wide range of topics and genres in some very entertaining films.
I am often accused of being too focused on dramas and too critical of comedies. The truth is that, first and foremost, I demand a good story. Mainstream comedies often spend too much time setting up jokes and not enough on delivering a solid context. The four comedies on my list had me laughing hard, but also deeply engaged in their story. That is quality filmmaking and I very much appreciate it! Not surprisingly, all ten (OK, eleven) films on the list have terrific, multi-faceted stories.
We again saw that films mirror society. Aging and/or Alzheimer’s were main topics in some really good films including Away From Her, Evening, The Savages and Starting out in the Evening. These are not what one would categorize as “feel good” films, but the messages were handled respectfully, intellectually and with raw emotion.
Two amazing actors padded their resumes with multiple standout performances: Russell Crowe (American Gangster, 3:10 to Yuma) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). The greatest living actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, delivered a performance in my number three film that, simply stated, no other actor could have pulled off.
Off-beat director favorites, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson all offered up creative, unique and entertaining films – proving again that their brains aren’t wired like mine and yours.
An interesting year you ask? This year’s list showcases a psychopathic killer whose actions are determined by the flip of a coin; a relationship film featuring a life-sized molded plastic doll; a charming waitress who names her pies after her emotion of the moment; a hallucinating naked guy on the roof; six Bob Dylans (the best played by a woman); a dusty remake of a 1957 western; and a romantic war drama whose key character spans 3 actresses and 60 years! Here’s hoping 2008 brings as many quality films as 2007.
My NUMBER ONE film of 2007!!
No Country For Old Men
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Written by: Cormac McCarthy (novel), Coen Brothers (screenplay)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Woody Harrelson
My most anticipated film of the year did not disappoint. It is remarkable film making from the Coen Brothers, who stay faithful to the source material while injecting their own style and fiendish touches (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou).
In the mode of Blood Simple (another classic Coen film) it moves along at a torturous Texas pace and offers up some of the most gut-wrenching, tense scenes ever filmed. The visual aspects of the desolate countryside (actually much of it was filmed in New Mexico) compliments the isolation of each of the three main characters: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin. Additionally, one must enjoy the amazing sound production from the smallest of details (coin flip) to the surround sound overload of Bardem’s air gun.
The acting is top notch. Tommy Lee Jones’ hang dog face is perfect as the dry and sly witted sheriff. Even the way he seems deflated by good news is purely a pro in action. Javier Bardem is not as well known to American film audiences, but to understand his greatness, check out The Sea Inside. Here, his Beatles haircut and stoic evilness are chilling to watch as he holds true to his code and his mission. He defines relentless, even through the final scene. Josh Brolin stands out as an everyday guy who stumbles on a drug deal gone way bad. His own personal code ends up creating havoc in his otherwise bland world.
Each of these very different men remain true to their own code. Though they lead very different lives, they believe in their heart there is one right way to be a man. We just couldn’t ask for anymore from the cast (including Barry Corbin, Tess Harper and Kelly Macdonald) or the filmmakers, and this was an easy choice for my favorite film of 2007.
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, JK Simmons, Oilvia Thirlby
Much ado about screenwriter Diablo Cody’s stripper past. If this script is any indication, maybe stripping should be mandatory for all Hollywood writers! It is funny, touching and moving … all with a major dose of reality and social commentary. Director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) has a definite feel for human angst when life delivers one of its many blows.
And while I understand those with teenage daughters might find the subject matter a bit uncomfortable, Cody and Reitman deliver a fascinating story and an entertaining film at the highest level.
Ellen Page (kinda creepy in Hard Candy) plays Juno, a spirited 16 yr old who winds up pregnant after seducing a good friend. Deservedly, Ms. Page has won a Golden Globe and is even gathering Oscar buzz. Her sharp wit and telling eyes and deadpan delivery make Juno someone we instantly care about, but not in a sappy way. Anyone with this much soul and spirit warrants our interest. Michael Cera (Superbad) plays the track star-unlikely lover-boy, who maintains a sense of cool despite everything. Some of the best scenes in the film are Cera and Page together, battling through situations “way beyond their maturity level”.
What takes this film to the next level is the peek behind the suburban utopia with Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Unable to conceive on their own, they take out an ad and end up in the middle of Juno’s world, and a vital chapter of her hard life lesson. Garner flashes NONE of her usual annoying perkiness and is actually quite serious and focused on her somewhat unlikable character. Bateman plays the everyday guy who got forced into playing grown-up and is now looking for a way to escape.
Allison Janney, JK Simmons and Olivia Thirlby are excellent in support and, of course, any film whose soundtrack includes Mott the Hoople and Velvet Underground gets points for coolness. Luckily, the brilliance of this film is reaching a larger audience than originally anticipated … think of it as this year’s Little Miss Sunshine. Of course, due to the subject matter, it isn’t for everyone … but it is extremely high level story telling, with terrific acting and direction.
3. There Will Be Blood
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by Upton Sinclair (novel), PT Anderson (screenplay)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J O’Connor, Dillon Freaser, Ciaran Hinds
Wow! Talk about a film full of themes and conversation topics. PT Anderson examines profiteering and the fine line between religion and business … making his points in an extremely stylistic manner. The other topics are too numerous to list, but see this movie with your most opinionated friends and head out for an adult beverage and hours of debate when it’s over.
The extraordinary lord of acting, Daniel Day-Lewis is once again bigger than life on screen … this time as Daniel Plainview, a self-proclaimed oilman and hater of people. Day-Lewis is so fascinating in that he is one of the few actors who just grabs your eyes and holds on. Here, his subtle gestures and eye movements are more than enough to command our attention. He has the look and feel of an oilman at the turn of the century. We also know for certain that he is a tortured soul. We understand this man much prefers the solitude of the hole over the “show” he must put on for locals to gain their trust and land.
Mr. Plainview’s nemesis is not just the dirt he drills in, but also the young prophet, Eli Sunday, played to spooky perfection by Paul Dano (so wonderful as the son/brother in Little Miss Sunshine). In their few scenes together, it is like watching two expert fighters with opposite styles go at each other. Plainview’s prop is his cute, young son and Eli’s prop is the cross around his neck. Watching these two spar is the ultimate guilty pleasure.
Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, director PT Anderson (the underrated Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love and the overrated Boogie Nights) provides a film that on the surface appears quiet, while … like the oil … is simmering with emotion just below the surface. The majestic performance of Day-Lewis brings it all together, but Anderson receives credit for some stunning shots and tension filled scenes.
The film has a very unusual look and feel, so as a complement, we are given a score from Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame). The guitar is haunting and, at times startling. What prevents this one from pure greatness is the over-the-top final sequences between Plainview and Eli. If that scene had been handled differently, the last scene with Plainview and his son would have been even more powerful.
4. Lars and the Real Girl
Written by Nancy Oliver
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson, Kelli Garner, and “Bianca”
Guilt while laughing is an unusual experience … well, except while watching Lars and Bianca. This film is hilarious, touching and insightful. The product of genius writing by Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) and solid direction by Craig Gillespie, this film will force you to step back and think about how you treat those who might be a little different or who struggle with social interaction.
Ryan Gosling is absolutely amazing as Lars. His character is the poster child for “being in a shell”. Wounded by the pain of losing his parents and literally frightened by human touch, Lars exudes the humanity of an injured child. The real guilty fun starts once Bianca is delivered. Bianca is the anatomically correct molded doll whom Lars treats as a real girlfriend. The ride picks up steam when, first his relatives, and then the entire town, elect to play along! This is tasteful, offbeat humor at its best.
The entire cast is excellent with standout performances by Emily Mortimer (Match Point), Paul Schneider, the great Patricia Clarkson as the very wise and very human doctor, and Kelli Garner (Thumbsucker) looking very homely as the co-worker with a crush on Lars.
Directed and Written by Adrienne Shelly
Starring: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Adrienne Shelly, Andy Griffith, Eddie Jemison
This is a very personal and intimate story from the talented Adrienne Shelly. Ms. Shelly was tragically murdered before the film was released, but what a legacy and gift she left for her husband, daughter and film lovers.
Keri Russell (Felicity) stars as Jenna, a fabulous pie maker who is a lost soul married to the world’s worst husband – played terrifically by Jeremy Sisto. She works at a diner with her two friends played well by the bubbly Cheryl Hines and the film’s writer and director, Adrienne Shelly. The relationship between these three is very realistic, touching and entertaining. They love and cherish each other.
Outstanding support from Eddie Jemison (Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen), Nathan Fillion (Serenity) and the great Andy Griffith, who delivers some of the film’s best lines and who definitely should work more often!! Jemison’s spontaneous poetry captures the heart of Ms. Shelly’s character and Fillion’s Dr. Pomatter shows Russell what it is like to be adored, rather than abused.
This is not slick Hollywood film-making. It is quirky … just like real life. These are characters who for the most part, make the best of their situations. Every now and then, if we are lucky, we capture a moment of pure bliss … whether it is in the selfless hug from another, or the miracle of childbirth. The script analyzes loneliness and bad relationships with a twist of humor and much insight.
While it is heart-breaking that Ms. Shelly did not live to see the final product, we see her heart and soul on screen. And don’t miss her real daughter (Sophie Ostrey) as Ms. Russell’s 3 year old LuLu. This is a wonderful little film with some terrific moments and a nice message: enjoy your life!
6. American Gangster
Written by Steve Zaillan
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Ruby Dee
Every now and then we experience the convergence of a creative team who each bring their “A” game. Director Ridley Scott has had ups and downs but certainly was focused on this project. Writer Steve Zaillan has delivered a couple of screenplays along the way that were probably nothing more than paychecks. We have all seen evidence that suggest Denzel Washington is not above working for the money. This group partners here with acting stud Russell Crowe to remind us of just how cool movies can be.
One of the more fascinating things about the film is how the two powerful leads don’t share a scene until 80% of the film is over. Based on a true story, Denzel plays Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas as a street wise, true to the gangster code, businessman on a mission. It is my favorite Denzel role ever. He moves just like an animal on the prowl, eyes always absorbing his surroundings … until he sends the cold stare at someone before uttering “My Man” … which is usually one of the last things they hear.
Crowe is just tremendous as the squeaky clean cop, who sucks as a father and husband, but is true blue to the code of justice and law. A pariah for turning in a trunk load of untraceable cash, Crowe is moved to a special drug investigative unit and he takes the assignment very seriously indeed. Watching him peel back the layers of the investigation and having it turn on a $50,000 fur coat and microwave oven, really is compelling. Once again, Crowe is at his peak. OK, the guy had a momentary lapse in A Good Year (also directed by Ridley Scott) but his resume is tough to match by most any actor.
The supporting cast is stellar and affecting. For some reason, he is not listed in the credits, but Clarence Williams III is Bumpy, Lucas’ boss and mentor. Williams is perfect for the tough, yet pensive leader. Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) is chilling as a corrupt NY detective. I wanted to shoot him myself! Long lost Armand Assante is captivating as a drug lord who just can’t compete with Lucas, so he partners up. Cuba Gooding, Jr. escapes from his recent crappy kid movies long enough to play a frightening gangster who loves the spotlight and doesn’t take well to being dissed.
The final showdown with Denzel and Crowe reminds a bit of Heat when Pacino and Deniro FINALLY share a scene. With a touch of Serpico and Blow, this one adds the element of dueling codes … street vs. cop. Just a fascinating (mostly) true story with amazing performances!
7. The Namesake
Written by Sooni Taraporevala (screenplay) and Jhumpa Lahiri (novel)
Starring: Kal Penn, Irfa Khan, Ruma Guha Thakurta
Director Mira Nair is so very adept at capturing the emotions within Indian culture. Her stout resume includes Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala and Salaam Bombay. Somehow The Namesake may be her best work yet. Certainly it is her most detailed and intimate.
The touching and very moving story revolves around an Indian couple who live in NYC after marriage in India. As they raise their kids and come to grips with the American way, the wisdom of both parents is inspiring to behold. Irfan Khan plays the dad, Ashoke, and the beautiful Tabu plays Ashima, the mother. Both performances are remarkable and textured and subtle and provide the soul of the film.
Most of the story involves their son, Gogol, played by Kal Penn in his best performance to date. Born and raised in the U.S., it takes awhile for him to embrace his heritage and really appreciate his remarkable parents. Touching, sincere moments occur as life just happens to strengthen the bonds within the family. For those who make the effort to find this one, the reward is an excellent, intelligent film by a truly expert filmmaker.
8. Death at a Funeral
Written by Dean Craig
Starring: Matthew Macfayden, Alan Tudyk, Peter Dinklage, Ewen Bremnar, Daisy Donovan, Jane Asher, Kris Marshall, Rupert Graves
This is a marvelous dark comedy from writer Dean Craig and director Frank Oz (best known as Yoda). There were some excellent performances throughout, including numerous very minor roles. I absolutely loved how some crackling individual scenes fit right in to the fabric of the entire picture. This is a missing element of so many U.S. comedies.
Many of the British actors won’t be recognizable to American audiences, but the lead is played by Matthew Macfayden, who played simmering Mr. Darcy in the most recent Pride and Prejudice. But he is just part of a tremendous comedy ensemble that includes some brilliant and extremely oddball work from a group of Great Britain’s best … and a truly standout physical performance by Alan Tudyk. I would have paid to watch Mr. Tudyk first read the script realizing he will spend most of the movie spaced out on a fabricated drug while frolicking naked on the roof top!
While the physical comedy is top notch, what I enjoyed most was the nuances of the individual characters. We immediately catch on to personalities through touches like a small skin rash, a hyper-ventilating driver, a first class plane ticket and anxiety over delivering a eulogy. Some truly exceptional moments on screen make for a most entertaining film and first rate comedy.
9. I’m Not There
Written by Todd Haynes, Owen Moverman
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale
Director Todd Haynes won me over with his indie hit Far From Heaven. Here he blows me away with his avant-garde Dylan inspired web of song and real-life influenced vignettes held together by six different aspects of the legend, who, as per the title, is not actually present.
The six spirits of Dylan are played by Ben Whishaw (Arthur Rimbaud influence), Christian Bale (as he converts to Christianity), Marcus Carl Franklin (as a young bluesman using the name of the legendary Woody Guthrie), Richard Gere (as western recluse modeled on the legend of Billy the Kid), Heath Ledger (as an actor from the mod 60’s era), and the most stunning performance of all, Cate Blanchett, in an all-out spot-on impersonation of Mr. Dylan.
The stories are not told chronologically. Instead Mr. Haynes opts to mix ’em up and toss them at us as if they were pieces of a puzzle to assemble, or better yet, the lyrics to a Dylan song! Additionally, we get clips of real life; in fact much of the Christian Bale segment is done documentary style. We see bits of MLK, JFK, LBJ and the Black Panthers with Hewey Newton and Bobby Seale. That’s in addition to the Beatles, Allen Ginsburg and Coco, a nod to Edie Sedgwick (played well by Michelle Williams).
In the Heath Ledger story, we are presented with his wife Claire, who apparently is a conglomeration of Dylan women and lyrics, complete with painful relationship goodies. Claire is played perfectly by Charlotte Gainsbourg as she shows us how even those closest to him, never really know him. Bruce Greenwood has a couple of roles as a very persistent British interviewer and as old man Garrett (as in Pat) in the Gere story. One of the coolest parts is seeing the great Richie Havens pick his guitar on the porch in the Woody Guthrie segment.
This is just an amazing blend of eras and personalities and super creativity from all involved. I was mesmerized and engaged as I tried to pick out real quotes, real clothes, real moments and those that were based on lyrics and myths (Pete Seeger axing the cable in Newport). One need not be a Dylan freak to “get” this film. You just have to love multi-layered story telling and some of the most influential music of the modern era.
10. 3:10 to Yuma
Written by Elmore Leonard (short story); Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (screenplay)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol
Remakes cause me to pause, especially when they are of films I enjoyed … such as the 1957 3:10 to Yuma, which was probably Glenn Ford’s best screen performance. Still, I was curious to see Batman and Gladiator in the lead roles!! This is a fantastic traditional western film with good guys and bad guys, and muddled minds when moral decision time arrives.
As we have seen in The Magnificent Seven and High Noon, choosing the easy way out is rarely heroic and certainly doesn’t create the high intensity story line played out in 3:10 to Yuma. The old west is the perfect playground for writers who enjoy exploring the complexity involved in manhood, especially when fatherhood is involved.
The two leads are exceptional. Russell Crowe exudes badness and coolness and brilliance as the legendary outlaw, Ben Wade. Watching his psychological games with his captors is creepy, yet humorous, and at times downright frightening. Good guy Christian Bale captures the desperation of a man continually wronged by his country, politicians, and even his God. He struggles to maintain his moral fiber for the sake of his sons and wife. But this is no ordinary man. He is possessed by character.
Supporting standouts include Ben Foster as Crowe’s right-hand man, Charlie Prince. Think Michael Biehn in Tombstone. Foster is a scary guy, but also has a couple of the film’s funniest lines. Gretchen Mol plays Bale’s wife, and though she is given little to do, I must ask again … Why doesn’t this talented actress work more often? Also of note is Alan Tudyk who plays Doc, and gives another fine performance on the heels of his zany role in the excellent Death at a Funeral. Screen veteran Peter Fonda is quite memorable in an all too brief role as the bounty hunter. Fonda spews his lines at the camera.
What makes this updated version slightly better than the original is the gritty, dusty approach taken by director James Mangold (Walk the Line). We FEEL the gunshots, stampedes, chase scenes and dirt in the wounds. This realism helps build the tension of the final few minutes. A tip of the hat to Mangold for not beating us over the head with shots of watches and clocks. There are enough for effect, but not so many as to ruin the moment. Whether you live for westerns or just enjoy a tight thriller, this one comes packing.
Written by Ian McEwan (novel), Christopher Hampton (screenplay)
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Ramola Garai, Venessa Redgrave
Teaming up again after Pride and Prejudice are director Joe Wright and the finally maturing Keira Knightley. This time they tackle Ian McEwan’s monster novel and deliver a tense, emotional ride.
Knightley and James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) are very good and very believable together, but the “star” of the film is Knightley’s wicked lil’ sis played by three actresses -stunning Saoirse Ronan (age 13), the weak link of Ramola Garai (age 18) and a perfectly cast Vanessa Redgrave as the elder Briony wrapping the story up for the viewer in a TV interview for her final novel. By the way, the interviewer in that scene is The English Patient director Anthony Minghella.
Not to give anything away, but normally the story is what makes a film enjoyable for me. Here, I was equally impressed with the film’s structure and delivery … definitely not dumbed down the way so many book-to-movie projects are. Certainly the middle of the film drags a bit as McAvoy wanders through the countryside and 18 yr old Briony pays her penance as a war nurse, but the first 45 minutes of the film are truly outstanding, and the ending will have your mind racing!
Just a warning, this is not the feel good, sappy Hollywood formula that many pre-judge it to be. Many scenes are extremely uncomfortable to watch and I heard more than a few sniffles coming from the crowd. The score is outstanding and expertly conveys depth to many scenes … especially the remarkable long single take as McAvoy walks through the beach camp for soldiers.
Across The Universe (quirky little film based on Beatles songs)
Eastern Promises (violent film showcasing Russian mob)
Grindhouse (insane double bill from Tarantino and Rodriquez. but then if you would like this film, you already know that)
Into the Wild (terrific film on the life of Christopher McCandless)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (amazing true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby)
The Savages (family struggles with Alzheimer’s disease)
Zodiac (thriller on the unsolved serial killer)
The Go-Getter – I have not included this in my list ONLY because, sadly, it has yet to gain distribution. Featured at AFI Film Festival, I fell in love with this offbeat road trip to self-discovery starring Zooey Deschanel, Lou Taylor Pucci and Jena Malone.
*** all photos courtesy of imdb.com ***