With the end of 2007, we also come to the end of another movie year, meaning that it’s time for that venerable tradition of the 10-best and 10-worst lists. People say that such lists are meaningless, and there’s some truth to that, if only because a year from now even the authors of such lists may well feel differently about the choices. (There are a few on my previous lists that seem pretty strange to me now.) That’s to be expected. Time lends perspective—and so do repeat viewings.
All of the films on my best list this year I’ve seen more than once, which is something I prefer to do before finalizing the list, but it’s not always possible, and that raises the question of whether or not a second viewing of some titles that came close might have made the list if that second look had been possible. A long and difficult movie like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a good case in point. One viewing didn’t quite sell me, but a second … who knows? The problem here is the studio ran the film once for local critics and that was it. My next chance to see it is when it opens in Asheville later in January.
Perspective also comes into play with titles seen months ago and ones seen in the last few weeks when studios are jockeying for a Southeastern Film Critics Association vote and a space on 10-best lists. I know for example that Sunshine (which I first saw at the beginning of September) has stayed with me. Will the same be true of such recent acquaintances as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and No Country for Old Men? Time will tell, but this list won’t.
Still, lists are irresistible—to read and to make. It’s a chance to give a little boost to movies you loved and a chance to take another poke at movies you resent for having frittered away two hours you won’t get back. Shall we go?
1. Across the Universe. Quite simply, Julie Taymor’s Beatles film is the ne plus ultra of movies this year so far as I’m concerned. More, it’s gone straight into my top five favorite movies of all time. Taymor took about 30 Beatles songs and wove them into a story with the aid of screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The results are one of the freshest musicals in ages—and something more. The more lies in the fact that the film captures so much of the essence of the 1960s and even the arc of the Beatles’ career—going from the Cavern Club in Liverpool to their final live performance on a rooftop (captured in the still unreleased-on-DVD film Let It Be from 1970). Endlessly creative and approaching the songs with respect that stops short of mindless reverence (Taymor is unafraid to rethink a song, but she never betrays the essence), Across the Universe is unbeatable.
2. The Darjeeling Limited. Wes Anderson’s movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and The Darjeeling Limited is no exception—thank goodness. This transcendental journey of three brothers—Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody—is at bottom a “road” movie in Andersonian terms. Like all of Anderson’s work it’s a comedy with very serious undertones about people with equally serious issues. The results are both funny and sad—and in this case a technical marvel. Plus, in a year filled with movies featuring Kinks songs (Hot Fuzz, The Savages and Juno also tap into the Kinks’ discography), Anderson is the only one to capture the essence of the music.
3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Tim Burton’s latest is not only the best horror movie of the year, it would also be the best musical if it weren’t for Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. That’s a strange combination in anyone’s book—even if at least some of its success rests on Stephen Sondheim’s source material. A rich and bloody work, everything about it works and is so seamlessly put together that it’s hard to fault. Johnny Depp is great as the homicidal barber, and Helena Bonham Carter reminds us that she’s not just Mrs. Burton. And who’d have thought it was possible to stage so many throat-slittings and offer some sanguinary variation every time?
4. Sunshine. Danny Boyle here does for the science-fiction film what he did for the zombie movie with 28 Days Later … (2002). That’s to say he’s rethought it and made it wholly his own. The premise may be far-fetched—a group of specialists heading into space to fire an atomic bomb into the heart of our dying sun—but in Boyle’s hands it’s ultimately spectacular, terrifying and incredibly moving. It’s also the most visually striking film in Boyle’s already visually impressive oeuvre.
5. Talk to Me. There is one central flaw in Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me. It makes the mistake of building to a single sequence—the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King—of such beauty and power that everything that follows seems comparatively lacking. The rest of the film is good—even better than it at first appears—but it does suffer because of the structure. That said, there are more wonderful performances in this film—Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen and even Cedric the Entertainer—than in anything else this year.
6. Juno. This charming, heartfelt comedy-drama from Jason Reitman and newcomer screenwriter Diablo Cody had to go best two falls out of three with my original choice for the no. 6 slot, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Repeat viewings of each settled the question. While Cronenberg’s film is another brilliant extension of that filmmaker’s work, it hasn’t the same kind of emotional impact as this seemingly unassuming little movie about teenage pregnancy—nor the same degree of freshness. Ellen Page in the title role is truly remarkable.
7. No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers’ latest is a grim, often off-putting and casually violent affair that is apt to alienate more people than it will attract. The brutal tale of a man whose own basic decency (in spite of his greed and better sense) leads to his downfall is uncompromising at every turn—and all the better for it. What could have been an unnecessary exercise in nihilism ultimately becomes a statement on the basic decency in humanity that exists no matter how awful the world comes to seem.
8. Stardust. Fantasy films may be played out at the box office—and certainly Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust underperformed money-wise—but there’s rarely been a better or cleverer one than this. Perfectly cast and with a wonderful balance of dark fantasy and savvy humor, there were few more purely enjoyable movies this year. Who knew Robert De Niro could let loose like this?
9. Paris, Je T’Aime. Letting 18 directors turn out 18 five-minute short films about the various neighborhoods of Paris sounds like a recipe for disaster. By all rights it should have been, but instead the results are pure pleasure. It’s also amazingly instructive and inspiring to see just how terrific this disparate assortment of directors—from the Coens to Wes Craven—can be working under the constraints of the format.
10. Paprika. I’m pretty resistant to anime, and I approached Paprika with some foreboding—only to find myself completely hooked by this unbelievably wild and wildly inventive film. Paprika contains easily the trippiest imagery of the year, but more remarkable is the depth of the themes it explores with those images and the way in which it ties together into a coherent whole. It rates an unreserved “Wow!”
And none of this even takes into account such also-rans as Eastern Promises, Grindhouse, Black Book, 3:10 to Yuma, Inland Empire, Hot Fuzz or You Kill Me. Nor does it touch on such worthy films yet to hit town as There Will Be Blood,The Orphanage, Starting Out in the Evening or Atonement. Not all would make my list, but some could have. Unfortunately, there are only 10 spots on a 10-best list.
And then there’s the other side of the movie-going coin, this year’s grimmest and dimmest:
1. 300. I got a lot of flak for giving Zack Snyder’s 300 a bad review in the first place. I’ll undoubtedly get more for calling it the worst film of the year. And sure, on a technical level there are worse movies than 300, but not one that strikes me as anywhere near so vile as this supposed rousing “epic” about “fighting for freedom” (by a slave-owning society built on the glories of warfare, no less). Throw in a little homophobia, a dose of ancient world eugenics and a ton of xenophobia, top it all off with people turned into body-builder mag cartoons and have all the dialogue shouted and you’ve got 300. And you can keep it.
2. Bratz. There’s no excuse for this crashingly awful film based on a line of whorish dolls for which there’s also no excuse. It’s a badly made paean of praise to rampant consumerism, with the line between the good girls and the bad girls so thin as to be largely nonexistent. The only thing that gives one hope is that almost no one other than hapless movie critics went to see it.
3. Beowulf. I’ve been pretty certain that director Robert Zemeckis was the Antichrist ever since seeing Forrest Gump (1994). This cements the deal. It’s a lot like 300—ancient-world cartoonized characters scream dialogue at each other—but it’s too dumb to be offensive. The whole process of “motion capture” animation is simply creepy to begin with, unless you really get off on movies where all the characters look like the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks (2004).
4. Daddy Day Camp. With Cuba Gooding Jr. standing in for Eddie Murphy, it was a given that this sequel to Daddy Day Care was going to smell from herring. What was not clear was just how many herring or how far past their expiration date they’d be. Yow! Witless camping gags, lame tugs at the heartstrings and a high rate of predictability (lotsa urine humor too). When it died at the box office, the studio claimed the release was just to promote its DVD release. Whatever.
5. Alvin and the Chipmunks. A painfully bad revival of the already pretty ghastly old cartoon series and novelty records—updated with live actors (sort of—Jason Lee’s fixed grin suggests he was embalmed by a whimsical mortician) and CGI rodents (complete with bowel problems). All those points humanity gained by avoiding Bratz and Daddy Day Camp, they squandered by flocking to the theater to see this.
6. Transformers. I’m supposed to overlook the fact that this is a dreadful movie just because it was based on a line of toys. That only means the source is as dumb as the movie it spawned—except you could roll the source around on the floor, play with it and, with luck, turn it into something else. The movie you can only stare at in numb wonderment for a preposterous 144 minutes, while praying it will turn into something else.
7. What Would Jesus Buy? He’d buy himself a better movie for starters. I admit that I saw this one in bits and pieces rather than in one sitting. There are people alive today because of that. Had I actually sat there and taken in this shrill, obnoxious, self-congratulatory anticonsumerism film in a single viewing, at the very least I’d have taken a hostage. The whole point of the film is that consumerism—especially if it involves Wal-Mart or Starbucks—is evil and that Christ is getting commercialized out of Christmas. This is not big news. Even if it had been, bogus evangelist Rev. Billy (Bill Talen) and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir (an obvious group of bad drama majors) made me want to rush out to the nearest big box emporium with a venti caramel raspberry latte mocha frappachino in hand.
8. The Heartbreak Kid. Whatever goodwill the Farrelly Brothers earned by virtue of Shallow Hal (2001) and Stuck on You (2003) went out the window with this sick-making attempt at recouping the “edginess” of There’s Something About Mary (1998). Desperation is never pretty, but the Farrellys in desperation mode is especially ugly. Of course, if your idea of humor is Cameron Diaz-clone Malin Akerman in the world’s scariest merkin peeing on Ben Stiller …
9. September Dawn. Anti-Mormon propaganda of the frothing-at-the-mouth nature came to the movies with this debatable history lesson about the true life Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 in which a group of gentiles were murdered by an extremist group of Mormons. Not content with history—which is grim enough—the filmmakers decide to present rumor and gossip as fact in a way that you don’t have to be a Mormon to find offensive. Bad acting, scripting and production values do the rest. It’s movies like this and Bratz that are probably responsible for Angelina Jolie’s estrangement from dad Jon Voight.
10. Hostel: Part II. I’m not sure the movie itself is this bad (it’s bad, but I’ve seen worse), but Eli Roth just cries out to be on any self-respecting worst-of list. The self-proclaimed “savior of horror” is someone I just want to slap every time he opens his mouth. This time he made a bad horror movie that the fans didn’t buy, so when it tanked he blamed Internet downloads and then blamed the fans themselves for not supporting him! It was the very image of a spoiled brat threatening to go eat worms because he didn’t get his way. The fact that someone (his agent probably) made him remove the online rant from his Web site didn’t change the lingering image.
And of course, there’s still this year’s Pootie Tang award. Normally, this goes to a comedy that has distinguished itself by being cosmically awful, but this year it just has to go to the Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me. It’s actually funnier than most comedies, even if that wasn’t the idea, and it’s sillier than anything else that came out this year. Just wait till you see La Lohan’s pole dance, or that great moment when she sews her own finger back on, or the big revelation that she and her heretofore unknown sister are “stigmatic twins.” Mean Girls (2004) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006) are but sad memories after this.