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Tuesday, November 19

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Hey everyone.

We'll begin this week's column with my Best of 2007 list. I tend to offer up a bit more than just a run-of-the-mill Top 10 list, but if you think 10 is enough then stop reading at number 10. After the big list, there are a couple reviews of this week's releases. Ignore every single person who tries to convince you that 2007 was a bad year for film. The fact that no one movie stood out last year is proof that there were so many good ones. It was a very good year, and the proof of that is that this was one of the most difficult "Best of" lists I've ever put together. I was even debating between my number 1 and number 2 choices, but in the end I went with the film that clung to my brain and troubled me deeply the more I contemplated it. Prepare to adjust and re-prioritize your Netflix queues. To keep this piece to a reasonable length, I'll write up blurbs for the first 10, and just list the rest.

1. No Country for Old Men
When I first saw this film, I thought it was among the Coen Brothers' finest films. But having seen it again, I realize I was slightly mistaken; this is the best film they've ever done. This has not one, but three of the best performances of the year. And Javier Bardem's portrayal of the personification of the Angel of Death is nothing short of nightmare-inspiring. The stunning landscapes that serve as the film's backdrop are as barren and cold as the ones in the Coens' now-second-best film, Fargo. But there's something deeper and more mysterious going on here. Tommy Lee Jones' meditations on growing old in a nation he barely recognizes really hit home and frankly scared me almost as much as the killer with the compressed-air canister. And how about that ending, the most talking about ending of the year, or at least what most people are calling "the ending" (actually there are several scenes after it). To have an entire film build to a confrontation that never comes is frustrating, sure, but it is also gutsy and shows how much the Coens know about audience expectations and how to defy them even if it means pissing off a whole lot of people. Stark, angry and contemplative, No Country for Old Men demands to be seen more than once and to be studied.

2. There Will Be Blood
I was truly torn between these first two films, and it's so close in my head that it's hardly fair. In the end, it came down to which film surprised me the most. Both feature a slow-building feeling of dread that pays off in ways that are unexpected and devastating. But in the end, the Coens pulled it off just a tiny bit better. (This discussion also acts as my official review of There Will Be Blood, which opens this week.) The element of There Will Be Blood that nearly gives it the edge, however, is Daniel Day-Lewis' calculated and terrifying performance as a Texas oil man, Daniel Plainview, who will do anything possible to gain an advantage and succeed over his competitors. He's a sociopath. He adopts the child of an old friend who dies in the oil fields not as a tribute to his co-worker but because the perception that he is a family man works to his advantage in business. He cares about no one, perhaps not even himself, but he will not be humiliated or defeated.

And pitting Day-Lewis' version of the Devil against Paul Dano's corrupt incarnation of God (he plays a small-town preacher in a community slowly being corrupted by a sudden influx of money when oil baron Lewis moves in) lifts this film from simply being a brilliant character study to a smaller-scale version of the American Apocalypse. But even if you had eliminated Dano's character entirely, the intense portrayal of Plainview would have been enough to carry the film. Watching him weave his way among politicians, other oilmen and simple townsfolk, taking into account what approach will work best on winning them over or throwing them off, is astonishing.

Much like the Coens' film, There Will Be Blood also seems to indicate that a new and vibrant resurgence of purely American filmmaking is upon us (you could add 3:10 To Yuma, Michael Clayton and Zodiac to that list, as well). All of these films, in their own way, illustrate the pursuit of the American Dream, as well as how easily said Dream can crush us. Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent screenplay (based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil) and direction will haunt me for years to come, and if you thought you were a fan of his work before (with such films as Magnolia and Boogie Nights), this film will turn you into a disciple. This latest work is the product of a studied master who scales back on some the parlor tricks (albeit, extremely fun tricks) of his earlier works and settles on an evenly paced, more reserved means of storytelling. He knows he's got a powder keg of a lead performer at the center of his film and doesn't need to dazzle us with his lengthy tracking shots and frogs falling from the sky. The sure-to-be-much-discussed, dialogue-free opening 15 minutes of the film are the closest he gets to showing off, and my God, if that prologue isn't the great opening of any film in 2007. There Will Be Blood will be studied, analyzed, debated and lauded for years to come, and rightfully so.

3. Eastern Promises
I guess it says something about me that my three favorite films of 2007 are all bloody exercises with very bad men as their focal points, but at least Viggo Mortensen's character in his latest pairing with director David Cronenberg has some good in him. Once again, we have an intense and fearless man at the center of this brooding mystery about the Russian mob and a dead girl's diary. The true sign of Cronenberg's genius is that he switches the lead role about halfway through the film, going from Naomi Watts as the medical expert who has the diary to Mortensen's gangster on the rise. Plus there's a naked knife fight that had me (and my genitals) running for cover. The film had been criticized for being too cold, but I count that as a plus. Most of these characters are ruthless people, and they don't deserve the warm, cuddly treatment. As much as I loved and praised the previous Cronenberg/Mortensen collaboration, A History of Violence, I liked this one just a little bit more.

4. Juno
Just to show you I wasn't all about the blood and violence in 2007, I absolutely freakin' loved debut screenwriter Diablo Cody's smart and hilarious story of a 16-year-old girl (the note-perfect Ellen Page) who gets pregnant and decides to give up her child for adoption to what appears to be the perfect couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). For being such a seemingly simple and small film, Juno never lets you get quite comfortable with the position of each person in Juno's life. Those that you love and think are cool one moment will leave you feeling quite another way by the end of the film. I didn't just find this film and its players charming; I wanted to become friends with these people. But of all of the many things that this movie is, it is above all funny. I've seen this film four times as of this writing and laughed just as hard with each viewing. You will not laugh harder all year.

5. Charlie Wilson's War
Speaking of funny, the latest from director Mike Nichols is this stellar true story of a no-name Congressman who managed to fund the entire U.S. covert war against Russia (with a little help from our then-good friends Afghanistan), effectively setting the stage for the end of the Cold War. The perfectly deviant Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson of Texas, with the unforgettable Philip Seymour Hoffman as man at the CIA who guides each new covert operation. Never missing an opportunity to portray Wilson as the drunken womanizer he really was, Aaron Sorkin's whip-smart script doesn't act as some sort of propaganda piece for the Reagan administration (I don't think the late president's name is ever mentioned). Instead, it works as a reminder that there was a time when American foreign involvement did some people some good at one time in recent history (even if our follow-through was spectacularly shitty). People have already begun to argue the merits and accuracy of Sorkin's screenplay, but frankly I don't give a crap if it's 100 percent fiction. It's some of the best writing I've seen all year, and it made me understand an impossibly complicated set of circumstances that set the stage for some of America's darkest days.

6. Michael Clayton
When veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Jason Bourne trilogy) finally decided to step behind the camera, he certainly did so in a chilling and memorable way with this portrait of a "fixer" for a top-dog law firm whose career and life are on an ugly downturn. George Clooney gives a career-topping performance as the titular character, who pulls together what little energy and inspiration he has left to salvage the reputation of an old friend while managing to save his own skin in the process. There is a confrontation between Clooney and Tilda Swinton (as a chemical company's lead image maker) in the film's final moments that might be my single favorite scene of any movie in 2007 (and there were so many to choose from).

7. Once
The most romantic and emotionally poignant movie of 2007, this short, simple tale of an Irish street musician (known only as Guy) and a Czech piano player (Girl, naturally) who meet and make beautiful music together captured the hearts of every single person who saw it. People tend to dismiss the power of a great love story when talking about films worthy of awards and accolades, but the truth is this sad and sweet film gave us one of the most classic love stories I've ever seen, using just a handful of lovely songs and two top-notch performances from two non-actors. The film defied all the odds and became one of the most talked about films of the year for all the right reasons. A sleeper hit defined.

8. Zodiac
The word "procedural" has been given a bad rap lately thanks to television, but David Fincher's detailed and deeply fulfilling look at how the police and media worked together and came to blows over the notorious Zodiac serial killer case is undeniably fascinating stuff. This is a case that literally drove people crazy trying to solve it, both reporters and investigators. I think some people were a little thrown off by how little time is spent watching the deeds of the unseen killer, but that isn't what this film is about. This is about tough people who weren't tough enough to allow a phantom murderer to get into their brains and eat away at their sanity. Fincher already made the perfect serial killer movie with Seven; this is an entirely different, although equally elegant, monster.

9. 3:10 To Yuma
Boy, was I excited to have a Western come out in 2007, especially one this fully loaded with greatness. Many people have referred to this work as a Western for people who don't like Westerns, but more importantly, 3:10 To Yuma also functions as the ultimate tribute to those who embrace the genre. Blessed with one of the greatest casts of any film this year and a director (James Mangold) not afraid to explore what makes his characters tick, this film not only featured some of the great action sequences of 2007 but also dug deeper into the psyches of its many rich, iconic leads. As wonderfully flashy a villain as Russell Crowe plays here, the silent, brooding Christian Bale (who had his best year as an actor in 2007) is the quiet scene-stealer as a man desperate to look like more of a hero in the eyes of his eldest son. This movie didn't just defy expectations; it redefined the modern Western and reminded us that there was a time when Westerns were more than just men on horses, showdowns and cowboy hats.

10. Rescue Dawn
Here's Christian Bale once again throwing himself into a role. In 2007, Bale established himself as not just one of the great actors of his generation but as one of the greatest actors alive. But few of us can fathom what he must have gone through psychologically or physically to play Dieter Dengler, an American pilot who was shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War and immediately captured and put in a prisoner of war camp. Filled with a kind of naïve determination (which Bale captures so beautifully), Dengler plans and leads an escape with his fellow prisoners, only to discover an even greater type of incarceration waiting or him in the Laotian jungle. Director Werner Herzog is certifiable, but he also knows how to make us feel every moment of pain, every indignity and each foul bead of sweat that Dengler endured during his ordeal. Herzog and Bale do everything in their collective power to put us right there in the jungle with Dengler. This is a film that sometimes hurts to watch, and I loved every second of it.

11. 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days
12. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
13. Knocked Up
14. The Orphanage
15. Away from Her
16. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
17. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
18. Lars and the Real Girl
19. The Darjeeling Limited
20. Gone Baby Gone
21. American Gangster
22. Persepolis
23. After the Wedding
24. Into the Wild
25. La Vie en Rose
26. I'm Not There
27. The Savages
28. In the Valley of Elah
29. The Bourne Ultimatum
30. Hot Fuzz
31. 300
32. Grindhouse
33. The Lookout
34. The Lives of Others
35. Control
36. Ratatouille
37. Waitress
38. The Host
39. Sunshine
40. Breach
41. Superbad
42. The Mist
43. The Hoax
44. A Mighty Heart
45. The Simpsons Movie
46. Ocean's Thirteen
47. Paris, Je T'aime
48. You Kill Me
49. Adam's Apples
50. Year of the Dog


The 15 Best Documentaries of 2007

1. Lake of Fire
2. Terror's Advocate
3. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
4. Nanking
5. Crazy Love
6. Helvetica
7. No End in Sight
8. Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains
9. My Kid Could Paint That
10. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema
11. Sicko
12. For the Bible Tells Me So
13. Mr. Untouchable
14. An Unreasonable Man
15. In the Shadow of the Moon


The Worst Films of 2007 (include, but are in no way limited to): Alvin and the Chipmunks; Awake; Because I Said So; Blood and Chocolate; Capativity; Daddy Day Camp; Dragon Wars; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Epic Movie; Evan Almighty; Ghost Rider; Hannibal Rising; Happily N'Ever After; The Heartbreak Kid; I Know Who Killed Me; I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; The Invasion; Kickin' It Old School; License to Wed; Mr. Woodcock; Norbit; The Number 23; The Reaping; Shrek the Third; Underdog.


The Absolute Worst Film of 2007

Across the Universe
Take a great director and visual auteur (Julie Taymor) and some of the finest music ever made (nothing but Beatles tunes), and you figure, how can you go wrong? The answer and all supporting evidence are right here. This film is a colossal failure at every turn, from its lame renditions of these timeless songs to a collection of young actors and bizarre musician cameos, all of whom prance around simplifying and degrading the '60s and remind us that 99 percent of all hippies were raging, dirty idiots. Even if that wasn't the case, this film makes you think it was. It hurts just thinking about this shit.


This week's new releases include two offerings opening at the Gene Siskel Film Center:

Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project

This slightly schizophrenic documentary following celebrated photographer Tierney Gearon is at times a poignant essay on children dealing with mental illness, as well as a study of a controversial artist whose work has been described by some as exploitation (of both her children and her mother). Tierney Gearon achieved notoriety after a series of stark and lovely images of her children were shown in galleries and nearly ripped from the walls because many of them featuring the youngsters naked (in a completely non-sexual way). Gearon, an American living in the UK, came home to do a new series on her mother, whose mental health is slowly slipping away. Over the course of three years, filmmakers Jack Youngelson and Peter Sutherland gain unbelievable access to the lives of the two women and uncover a fragile and touching family dynamic that seems all the more moving when you start to see how the mother's troubles influence Tierney's own behavior toward her children. There is no denying that Gearon's photos are at times stunning and iconic, but I was far more interested in the way she, her mother and her children (who are also on hand for much of these events) interact. This is a classic case of a documentary's subject matter changing as the filming progresses, and I applaud the directors for allowing events to take their sometimes-disturbing course, even if they occasionally become intrusive (it's clear that Gearon's mother often acts differently when the cameras are circling). The film will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Monday, Jan. 7 at 6:00pm; and Thursday, Jan. 10 at 7:45pm.


The Price of Sugar

A more conventionally told, but no less provocative, documentary is The Price of Sugar, a often-shocking look the practice of what is essentially institutionalized slave labor in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic, where Haitian laborers are lured across the border with the promise of a better life only to be put to work essentially until they die. Director Bill Haney puts at the center of this rage-inducing tale a priest named Father Christopher Hartley, who once worked directly for Mother Theresa and has been at the forefront of this struggle for 10 years. Father Christopher is a thorn in the side of both the family that runs the sugar industry in the DR (which has a sweet access deal to the United States market) and the local government, which allows the labor practices and illegal immigration to continue unchecked. Haney never forgets the faces and voices of the workers as he interviews dozens of them, each with sadly similar stories of brutal treatment, malnutrition, deplorable living conditions and long hours of work in the heat. They also seem keenly aware that any concessions the sugar company gives them as a result of Father Christopher's intervention will disappear the moment he does. What results is a smear campaign (funded and instigated by the sugar company) that plays on Dominican nationalism, turning it into racism against Haitians. The film builds to a tense, near-riotous showdown between the two sides. With Paul Newman narrating, The Price of Sugar uncovers an appalling situation that once again is ignored (and largely funded) by U.S. money and apathy. The film also introduces us to one of filmdom's least likely and most impressive heroes in Father Christopher, a ferociously stubborn man dedicated to living and, if necessary, dying for these people. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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