There Will Be Darkness
The year's best films dip into the bleak side of things — and shine in the light
by Jason Blair
Ranking films is like ranking your friends: It's imprecise, indefensible and bound to stir up trouble. It's a bewildering, even juvenile activity, this ordering of favorites — does anyone over 20 ever talk about their favorite color? — which may explain, when applied to movies, why we take such universal pleasure in doing so. But for all their selectivity, their air of authority, these "Best Of" lists do serve one worthy purpose, which is, if Anthony Lane is to be believed, also the chief aim of a film critic: Simply put, to start an argument.
We rank films throughout the year on how well they accomplish what they're trying to accomplish — at least, to the extent we can determine either — not how well, say, an astronaut documentary measures up against a Coen brothers caper. Sorting out the best films of 2007 isn't so difficult; like your friends, the variety is overwhelming, but you know unmistakably who the keepers are, if only by your instinct. But grading their relative worth is something else. Look anywhere up and down these lists, and you'll note how interchangeable, how fluid these films are in terms of their positions. We don't pretend our opinions are sacred. We're simply more organized in how we present them.
It was a slow year, 2007. Then it wasn't. Then it was slow once again. The first film worthy of top-tier consideration, apart from Once and The Lives of Others, didn't release here until July (La Vie en Rose). Then, for the most part, other than Ratatouille and Hairspray, nothing astonished us until the fall. In what I can only describe as an avalanche of quality films, the final weeks of the year buried filmgoers with worthwhile options of which only the most dedicated could stay abreast. I'm not ashamed to say that I've only just finished reviewing the last few inches of this mass, the results of which are summarized below. But don't take our word for it. See them for yourself.
1. La Vie en Rose
This is the only unqualified masterpiece of 2007, a feat largely, but not only, due to the performance of Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. Playing a role that would have shattered a lesser actress, so physically and psychologically demanding was Piaf's life, Cotillard instead gives a dazzling performance, occupying every register of emotional experience imaginable, including fear, tenderness, joy, defiance and — ultimately, ever so briefly — regret. To those who say the performance overwhelms the film, I would say you can't have a train wreck without the train. Piaf's self-destruction, so finely communicated by Cotillard, is given full expression by every aspect of the production, which folds multiple and fractured storylines into a single elegant narrative. (Reviewed 7/19/07)
2. The Lives of Others
Set during the resurgence of Stalinism, The Lives of Others depicts the covert world of the Stasi, the highly repressive East German secret police. At the center of the film is Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), the methodical and deeply committed Stasi agent assigned to monitor a prominent playwright. It's a straightforward surveillance operation, but the results are anything but: When his boss turns out to be shallow and self-interested, Wiesler, feeling betrayed, indulges himself in some of the playwright's simple pleasures, such as music, a Brecht book and sex. The more human he becomes, the more he intervenes in the life of the playwright, putting everyone, but especially himself, at great risk. A sinister, shattering film that is nearly faultless in every way, with a magnificent performance by Mühe, a German actor whose wife, in a terrible irony, informed on him to the Stasi throughout their marriage. (3/8/07)
3. There Will Be Blood
The story of a great and terrible man, There Will Be Blood is a giant leap forward for Paul Thomas Anderson, the director behind the ambitious but imperfect Magnolia. With There Will Be Blood, he's close to perfection, due in large part to two collaborators: Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who provides the original score, and Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably the best male actor working today. Greenwood's tense, wrenching score sounds like a violin being ripped apart, reinforcing the destructive tendencies of Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview, an oilman who gains a fortune but loses his mind. He's a wretched man, but the performance is so precise that There Will Be Blood becomes a bracing and extraordinary experience. Paul Dano, wiry and self-possessed, holds his own as a transparently false prophet. His baptism of Day-Lewis is a battle of wills for the ages. We'll never know what Day-Lewis whispers to Dano afterward, but based on what happens later it isn't hard to speculate: There will be blood. (1/31/08)
4. No Country for Old Men
Old-timers get their comeuppance in this electrifying adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, a story about the diversification of evil in a small west Texas town. As a sheriff who doesn't know the score until it's too late, Tommy Lee Jones seems composed of Texas topsoil itself, so perfectly at home does he seem in this landscape. Vocally and physically, he's in absolute control, delivering a performance to be measured against the very best of the year, including his Oscar-nominated role as a grieving father in In the Valley of Elah. Javier Bardem, as a philosophical sociopath, is a similar revelation. Watch his face as he strangles the deputy: He's somewhere else completely. Josh Brolin concludes a busy year with a lean, resolute portrayal of a man whose conscience will be his undoing. For the dialogue alone, No Country is a considerable achievement. Great sound. Great photography. Classic film. (11/29/07)
5. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
It begins simply, behind eyelids opening and closing like butterfly wings, at which point we recognize that we're trapped inside a hospital patient. Images come into focus and voices begin to register, but in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the protagonist can't reciprocate: We are looking through the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a stroke victim who emerges without the ability to move or speak. Flooded with regret, this former playboy undertakes a memoir by using eye-blinks to communicate with his speech therapist. In director Julian Schnabel's hands, we feel the fatigue, the imprisonment, even if Bauby cannot. Based on a true story, the film asks, What makes a life? Where is our true nature to be found: in our success or in our response to adversity? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a powerful, beautiful and funny film that must be seen to be believed. (1/24/08)
A truly modern musical, Once features musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as two soulful but broken-hearted musicians in Dublin. (John Carney, an old bandmate of Hansard's, directs.) Over the course of one week, they become friends, create some unforgettable music and — to me, the great joy of the film — heal their busted hearts through song. Once breaks records for naturalism, given that the actors perform their own music, wear their own clothes and incorporate background elements into the film (note the kids on scooters as Irglova sings "If You Want Me"). Thus Once has the improvised feel of a documentary but the composure of a classic drama. It's a new direction for musicals. To watch Once is to hope desperately for a happy ending for the couple, so strong is their in-film chemistry. But Once gives us something better, something bold, unexpected and true. (7/26/07)
7. I'm Not There
Loose in structure but extravagant in imagination, I'm Not There, to me, is a new kind of movie. Director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) offers us not one Bob Dylan, but three Bob Dylans — folkie, intellectual, misfit — plus three figures Dylan absorbed into his persona: Arthur Rimbaud, Woody Guthrie and Billy the Kid. Haynes presses each layer of Dylan against the others, each one distinct yet inescapably part of the whole of this most prismatic artist. No biopic has ever captured so many echoes of its subject or come closer to the true multiplicity of one figure. The structure alone is breathtaking, using a circles-within-circles approach to examine the same event, in one case bumping two Dylans into each other. The film starts to crawl when it settles on Cate Blanchett (intellectual Dylan) for long stretches, but to my mind, the film deserves universal praise for bringing to life a tiny lyric from a forgotten Dylan song: I don't belong to her / I don't belong to anybody … I'm not there, I'm gone. (12/6/07)
8. In the Shadow of the Moon
Lately, seeing "Ron Howard" attached to a film is a sure-fire way to evaporate my interest. But we owe a great deal to Howard (Apollo 13) for helping promote In the Shadow of the Moon, the spectacular documentary of the Apollo astronauts. What Wordplay did for crossword puzzles, In the Shadow of the Moon does for the space program. This is to say, it makes it breathe. Except for a soap-box ending, it's a masterpiece, evoking pride, laughter and astonishment. Footage unearthed after 30 years appears crisp, even recent, having been remastered in high definition, but the decision to forgo a narrator is what makes Moon an experience you won't soon forget. After hearing the astronauts speak for themselves, even the hardest cynics will rediscover their inner patriot. (10/11/07)
From its expert setup — one steamy afternoon at an estate of repressed desires — to the seamless effect of its multiple and overlapping storylines, this is the film Merchant Ivory Productions always wanted to make. But here, Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice), who at 35 is already one of the few sure things in Hollywood, directs. As young Briony, a dangerously naïve aspiring writer, newcomer Saoirse Ronan is equal parts innocence and malice, easily holding her own against the top-notch Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Balanced, intelligent and densely imagistic but also spry and incredibly tender, Atonement suggests jeopardy everywhere while at the same time allows us to believe in redemption. It is one of the very best-designed films this year, with the keenest use of light — natural and artificial — in recent memory. In this adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, only the ending feels blunt; otherwise, this is a stirring adaptation of a superb book. (1/10/08)
10. No End in Sight
The forward-looking title, while accurate, is a misnomer, given that No End in Sight examines with precision and authority the origins of our invasion of Iraq. The lack of a strategic recovery plan — the filmmakers spent more time on No End in Sight than President Bush spent preparing for postwar Iraq — doomed our mission from the start. These and other failures are laid at the doorstep of the White House, which repeatedly ignored key personnel to promote a pro-invasion agenda. The revelations are so numerous they defy summarization. Among its many highlights is the range of officials willing to speak on camera, including Jay Garner, a grizzled former general unable to hide his dismay. A sharp, powerful and definitive document, if one that turns a little smug in the middle, No End in Sight is more reliable than the administration it chronicles, a fact I find profoundly discomfiting. (9/13/07)
THE OTHER TEN
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford A demanding art Western nearly three hours in length, Assassination manages, by virtue of its performances, to hold your attention throughout. Pitt's Jesse James arcs wonderfully, from laid-back to wildly paranoid, even if it takes almost an hour for the film to coalesce around him. Casey Affleck leaves behind the muttering insouciance of earlier roles to give a mature, if earnest, performance; along with Gone, Baby Gone, Affleck had a year on par with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Assassination recalls the nuance and poetry of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, its quiet beauty superbly photographed by Roger Deakins, who also shot No Country for Old Men.
Away From Her The story of a couple, still sexy and flirty into their 60s, forced apart when one of them succumbs to Alzheimer's. Elements of mystery emerge naturally — is the afflicted truly deteriorating, or is this revenge for a partner's past indiscretion? — but Julie Christie largely is responsible for the surprising grace of Away From Her. Christie is sensual and casually elegant throughout. Away From Her misses when it tries for the ethereal — some scenes are bizzarely aglow, like waking dreams — but this is a sweet, complex and stirring film about the presentness of the past and the elusiveness of the present.
Charlie Wilson's War Tom Hanks is at his easygoing best in Charlie Wilson's War, as is Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a CIA hothead who bursts in on a cloud of expletives and proceeds to steal every scene he's in. If the film plays a little fast and loose with the facts, well then, it's a comedy. Julia Roberts resurfaces as strong, sexy socialite who appears almost omniscient at times, while Amy Adams (Enchanted) has great things ahead. A fitting tribute to a flawed but simple man who got America off the fence when it counted, Charlie Wilson's War is as delightful as it is unbelievable. (1/3/08)
God Grew Tired of Us This is the story of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," the refugees who escaped extermination in their native country only to face lions, starvation and bombing raids in the African desert. Almost as remarkable as their courage is their facility with the English language, which they use with great respect and emotion. "I don't know where I am," says one boy, "and where I am supposed to be in the future." When the boys are relocated to Pittsburgh and Syracuse, their experience is in turns amusing and heartbreaking.
Hairspray Grease with a conscience. If Traci Turnblad's (Nikki Blonsky) plumpness doesn't alienate her, her progressive values will: This is 1962 in unintegrated Baltimore, but Traci, who lives to dance, can see a future in which whites and blacks shake their booty together. Exuberant and purposeful, Hairspray is full of comedic gems, largely (so to speak) in the person of John Travolta, who crosses over to play Traci's mom in a size 60 fat suit. It's great fun. Racial mixing has never been handled more gently as in this fine film about wanting to be a regular when life gives you extra-large. (7/26/07)
Into Great Silence A documentary of simple majesty, if one that takes great patience, Into Great Silence is a three-hour visit to the monastery of Grande Chartreuse. The film, like the 1,000 year-old monastery it chronicles, is rhythmic and repetitious, but also beautiful and deeply felt. The monks speak very little, mostly to pray and sing, a memorable exception being the "brief period of conversation" they're permitted for recreation on Sundays. If you can make it to the end of Into Great Silence, you will not be disappointed.
Juno Comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine are inevitable, but Juno better resembles Garden State and Rushmore, two music-propelled coming-of-age films that captured, at least briefly, the attention of a generation. But Juno is less whimsical and more mature than those films. Yes, it's about teen pregnancy, but Ellen Page's Juno is a beautifully complex creature, literally growing before our eyes with every passing scene. This is a great film about returning the love you're given and keeping your promises — in other words, it's about growing up. (1/10/08)
Lars and the Real Girl What happens when a special-needs young man takes a sex doll for his girlfriend in rural Wisconsin? You get a tender fable by the name of Lars and the Real Girl. Screenwriter Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) strikes a perfect balance between morality tale and offbeat comedy, while Ryan Gosling builds on last year's Half Nelson with a stunning performance. Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent) contributes in a supporting role as the wise doctor who keeps the locals from overheating. (11/1/07)
Michael Clayton Workmanlike but brilliant in places, Michael Clayton is the story of a man in crisis. Actually, two men: 30,000 hours into defending a carcinogenic weed killer, attorney Tom Wilkinson breaks down and becomes a whistleblower, at which point George Clooney is called in to clean up the mess. Wilkinson is superb in a supporting role, his every scene a revelation. When he asks Clooney, "Then who are you?" he's simultaneously bonkers and completely lucid. Clooney breaks type to play a sleepy-eyed fixer who, after a lifetime of mistakes, vows to do something right. That a half-crazed Wilkinson can lead him there is part of the beauty of Michael Clayton. (10/25/07)
Ratatouille The story of a rat who was born to cook. Not that culinary excellence puts Remy, the hero of Ratatouille, in good stead with his fellow rodents, let alone the humans at Gusteau's, the restaurant where Remy cooks. Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) scores again with this tale of how easily we misunderstand what is new, peculiar or different. Stand-up comic Patton Oswalt, a sophisticated maniac on stage, steals the show as Remy. (7/12/07)