Friday, December 21, 2007

Max's Top 10 Films of the Year

All in all, I thought it was an extraordinary year at the movies—certainly the best in recent memory. (That might explain my rather self-indulgently long list of “honorable mentions.”)

1. No Country for Old Men- The Coen brothers have a created a nouveau Western of sickening violence and dread. Javier Bardem’s villain will chill you to the core (yes, the ridiculous pageboy somehow makes him scarier); Tommy Lee Jones breaks your heart as the mournful town sheriff who realizes that he’s no match for today’s lawless landscape; and, in the Coens’ masterful hands, there’s unspeakable menace in every crawl space, keyhole, and corridor. Oh, and did I mention that the film is darkly funny, too?

2. Juno- She’s whip smart. She’s balls-out funny. She’s a little crabby. In short, Ellen Page’s Juno is unlike any movie heroine you’ve ever seen. Partly this is because first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody has written a character—a pregnant teen who decides to give her baby to a squeaky clean Yuppie couple—for the ages. And it’s also because, in Cody’s muse Ellen Page, a true star is born. The tomboyish actress wins us over with her snub-nosed beauty and droll way with a one-liner, and breaks our hearts by showing us the secret longing beneath that snarky exterior.

3. Sweeney Todd- So what if Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter aren’t great singers? They’re great actors, and they bring Stephen Sondheim’s ghoulish characters delightfully (and gruesomely) to life. It seems that director Tim Burton was born to adapt his play. His extraordinary visual flair, his passion for the macabre, his affinity for the world’s freaks and outcasts—all come together perfectly in this eye-popping, blood-spurting, brilliantly entertaining production.

4. Lars and the Real Girl- Man-child buys a sex doll on the Internet and believes her to be his real girlfriend—friends and church folk play along to help him “work through” his delusion. The premise shouldn’t work—we expect it to either be a tawdry sex comedy or some unbearably precious indie creation—and yet it does, miraculously. Give credit to the cast—Ryan Gosling as the man, Patricia Clarkson as his wise therapist, Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer as his befuddled (but doting) brother and sister-in-law. But mostly give credit to a dazzling script by Nancy Oliver—she manages to bring out the universal in her absurd premise, making Lars’s predicament both slyly funny and unexpectedly touching.

5. Into the Wild- There are those who think that Christopher McCandless—the real-life young man of privilege who dropped out of society, renamed himself Alex Supertramp, and died, horribly ill-equipped, in the wilds of Alaska—was naïve, selfish, self-aggrandizing. And there are those who think he was a poet, a prophet, an inspiration. The beauty of Sean Penn’s perfectly calibrated film—anchored by a starmaking performance by Emile Hirsch—is that he manages to show that both sides were right.

6. There Will Be Blood- Paul Thomas Anderson’s devastating portrait of a corrupt oil man (Daniel Day Lewis) who wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting Texas town in the early 1900s is deeply weird and undeniably brilliant. Some have criticized the film’s gory, rococo ending: Did they not note the film’s title?

7. Ratatouille- The Triplets of Belleville meets Tom and Jerry meets the Food Network. That’s one way to describe this beautiful animation (from those geniuses at Pixar . . . who else?) about a gourmet rat in Paris who teams up with a hapless chef to create culinary—and movie—magic. As the voice of the cranky critic who is simply waiting for one truly great meal, Peter O’Toole nearly steals the show.

8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly- How can you make a film completely from the P.O.V. of a man trapped in a waking coma (so-called “locked in syndrome”) who can only express himself by blinking his one good eye? Director Julian Schnabel does it, masterfully, by focusing on that one-eyed perspective—people loom, they come in and out of focus, they step out of frame—and by letting our hero’s memory and imagination (including a still healthy libido) soar. That this is based on the true story of Jean Dominique Bauby, the French Elle editor who was struck down by a stroke in the prime of his life (and who blinked out the autobiographical work that the film is based on) makes it all the more powerful.

9. Atonement- At the onset of World War II, a precocious young girl (haunting Saoirse Ronan) makes a horrible mistake: she accuses a promising young man—her sister’s lover—of a crime he didn’t commit. The reasons why she told this lie—and the consequences of her actions—are revealed in surprising and devastating ways. With the brattily beautiful Keira Knightley as the slightly haughty older sister, dashing James McAvoy as the ruined young man, and Vanessa Redgrave, in what amounts to a cameo-as-master-class, as the doleful adult version of the little girl.

10. The Savages- An adult brother and sister have to care for their estranged father, who is dying, while both still dealing with the consequences of his abandonment. Laura Linney gives what is possibly a career-best performance as Wendy Savage, a pushing-40 playwright who is having a joyless affair with a married man, and who takes perverse pleasure in both her own lies (she drops them like tiny, conversational atom bombs), and her own melodramatic sense of nobility (it’s her martyr complex that allows her to lie with such guilelessness.) Watching Linney work with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays her world-weary brother—a man who hides his own vulnerability behind a baggy parka and pounds of girth—is a rare cinematic treat. We get to watch two of America’s great actors play off each other, in a script (by Tamara Jenkins) that is worthy of their gifts.

Honorable mention: Away From Her, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Crazy Love, The Hoax, I’m Not There, Lust Caution, Rescue Dawn, Rocket Science, Sicko, Superbad, Waitress, Zodiac.

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