Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Most Underrated Films of 2007

I’ve decided to break these down into three separate categories:

RG-really good
BTYT-better than you think
EB-enjoyably bad

Reign Over Me (RG) – Maybe it was Adam Sandler’s frizzy hair (he looked more like Bob Dylan than Cate Blanchett does). Maybe it was the slightly annoying strain of male fantasy wish-fulfillment that permeates all of writer/director Mike Binder’s work. (He was also responsible for that lousy HBO series, The Mind of the Married Man.) Whatever the case, I thought the critics really missed the boat on this one. It’s about a man (Sandler) who loses his whole family on 9/11 and retreats into a state of permanent adolescence. He is helped by an old friend (Don Cheadle), a reasonably happily married therapist who, on some subconscious level, secretly envies his friend’s new freedom. The film, which could have sunk into mawkishness, has a surprisingly deft touch and is often quite insightful. It almost excuses Sandler for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

The Hoax (RG) – Gere’s best performance of the year—and no, that’s not damning with faint praise—in this true story about Clifford Irving, a down on his luck writer who claims he’s been given exclusive authority to write Howard Hughes’s memoir. While Irving lies with such panache he begins to believe his own bullshit, his fretful business partner (Alfred Molina, nearly stealing the show) can’t bluff his way out of a paper bag. They make for a great comedic team—until things get horribly, and predictably, out of control.

Nanny Diaries (BTYT) – I know. I’m a big fat Laura Linney apologist. But she’s not the only reason to see this moderately successful adaptation of the beloved book (although her performance as an Upper East Side Mother From Hell alone is worth the Netflix queue). You’ve also got Scarlett Johansson, delightful as ever as the put-upon nanny; Paul Giamati, playing against type as the rapacious husband; and dreamy Chris Evans as the aptly-named “Harvard hottie.” Plus, the movie gets the essential thing from the book right: You believe that Scarlett’s Annie loves her small charge enough to put up with his hateful parents.

August Rush (BTYT) – It’s funny. I saw this and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium in the same week. Both can be accused of the same thing—whimsy up the butt. But while Magorium seemed fake, I bought the Extreme Sentimentality (is that an X Games event?) of Kirsten Sheridan’s debut. The phrase I used to describe this tale of an orphanage-raised boy with magical musical gifts who goes on a quest to find his musician parents (Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is “drunk on humanity.” It may be corny (it is), it may be over-the-top (Robin Williams as a Fagan like street musician? enuf said), but it believes what it is selling, and so did I.

Jane Austen Book Club (RG) – I actually found those damn Ya Ya sisters annoying. This film gets the sisterhood thing right—attractive, likeable characters, bonding over literature, and falling in and out of love.

Music and Lyrics (BTYT) – You’ll either love it, or it’ll give you a cavity. I thought Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, playing a songwriting team under the gun, were a rom-com match made in heaven. The spot-on parody of ’80s pop is merely an added bonus.

Shoot Em Up (EB) – Quentin Tarantino meets Bugs Bunny. Okay, there’s no plot to speak of. Just slap-happy action and a ludicrously cool hero played by Clive Owen (he nibbles on carrots when he’s not brandishing them as a weapon) who has to mow down the baddies while saving an orphaned baby. Absurdly violent, madly in love with itself—and undeniably fun. (If you like that sort of thing.)

Breach (RG) – This one kind of came and went, inexplicably, from the theaters. The story of a rogue CIA agent (brilliant Chris Cooper) and the neophyte agent (Ryan Phillipe) charged with spying on him is as tense and gripping as you might hope. The best part? The writers of this film seem to actually know a lot more than I do. I love when that happens.

Rocket Science (RG) – This is one of three double dips from my “Honorable Mention” section of my Top 10 list. (Rescue Dawn and The Hoax are the other ones.) Here’s what makes this so good: Our hero's triumphs over adversity are subtle; the object of his adoration (gleefully played by Anna Kendrick) is way smarter and meaner than he is; and “Blister in the Sun” gets played on the cello. Sweeet.

Talk to Me (RG) – Has all the sass of Good Morning Vietnam and all the civil rights fervor of The Great Debaters. And then there's Don Cheadle’s electrifying performance as silver-tongued con-turned-DJ Petey Greene. Is it possible the film simply didn’t know how to market itself? Is it a buddy film? (The relationship between Greene and his buttoned-down program director, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is certainly the stuff of buddy lore.) Is it a comedy? (Cheadle rattles off some Eddie Murphy-worthy improvs). Is it a tragedy? (Greene’s reaction to the death of Martin Luther King will break your heart in two.) Indeed, it is all of those things. And the problem with that is . . .?

Bug (BTYT) – Folie a deux in a seedy hotel room. First, only he (Michael Shannon) believes that the room is infested with government-issued bugs. Eventually, she (fearless Ashley Judd) does too. As they go mad together, the film becomes as paranoid and twitchy as you would hope.

Mr. Brooks (EB) – Downright ridiculous, but undeniably entertaining: Kevin Costner plays a pillar-of-the-community by day who is a serial killer by night. William Hurt plays his sniggering alter-ego, who goads him on from the back seat of his car. Danielle Panabaker is daddy’s little girl— to the core. Truly preposterous, but slick and fun.

Surf’s Up (BTYT) – Shia LeBeouf got a lot of attention for Disturbia (good) and Transformers (good until it sucks), but he’s especially affecting as the voice of surfer dude Cody Maverick in this animated mockumentary. Bonus: Jeff Bridges brings back his “The Dude” voice as legendary surf guru Big Z.

Rescue Dawn (RG) – Wanna know what it feels like to be trapped in a Vietnamese prison camp? I mean, what it really feels like? Then witness Werner Herzog’s fictionalized retelling of his own documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about gung-ho soldier Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) whose plane gets shot down in Laos and, despite humiliation, starvation, and constant fear of death, never loses his wits—or his hope. The criminally overlooked Bale will one day get one of those make-up Oscars for a performance not nearly as brilliant as this one.

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