The Top Movies of 2007

By Our Critics

Manufactured Landscapes: Despite the endorsement of Al Gore, Jennifer Baichwal's visually stunning documentary was snubbed by the same environmental groups who rallied around An Inconvenient Truth—in part because the inconvenient truth of Baichwal's film is that the industrial ravaging of the planet, as shown in Edward Burtynsky's macroscopic photographs, has an undeniable (if horrifying) grandeur. Can the environment's loss be cinema's gain? Following Burtynsky through China, from one hypnotic science-fiction rubblescape to another, Baichwal challenges us to say no—or at least not to succumb to our sense of awe.

Music and Lyrics: Maybe the year's most pleasant surprise: an intelligent, genuinely amusing romantic comedy, scaled to match the modest ambitions of its hero, "happy has-been" Hugh Grant. Paired with Drew Barrymore, whose tremulous vulnerability has never been more appealing, Grant gave his least shticky and most winning performance in years as a Reagan-era pop idol who gets a shot at a mild artistic triumph after years on the berry-farm circuit. But he has no shame about his limited success, and the same can be said for writer-director Marc Lawrence, who kids '80s nostalgia without meanness or condescension. The cherry on the sundae: delicious pop-novelty pastiches by Andrew Blakemore, Adam Schlesinger, and others, including the deathless "Pop! Goes My Heart."

Paprika: Director Satoshi Kon's anime fantasy—a mind-blower on a Videodrome/2001 scale of sensory and intellectual bombardment—exemplifies more than any digital-animation feature this year the freedom of working in a medium with no physical restraints. With his sleep-troubled film-noir cop prowling the subconscious of a near-future Tokyo, Kon explores the relationship of dream logic to the visual grammar of movies and plays eye-boggling tricks with perspective, distending bodies and boundaries and looping his nightmare scenarios. And yet at the movie's heart is a wistful, romantic affirmation of the need for inviolate space where our inner selves can soar.

Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs): A fake movie snowfall blankets this gorgeous ensemble comedy-drama about the difficulty of forging new loves late in life. Directed by Alain Resnais with a formal rigor and brisk elegance that should shame filmmakers five decades younger, its combination of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design makes it more accessible than Resnais's form-breaking early films of the Nouvelle Vague era. Even so, it failed to reach the audiences that have eagerly embraced, say, Patrice Leconte's diverting trifles. Too bad: On TV the beauty of Eric Gautier's cinematography will be diminished, though not extinguished.

Urim and Thummim: This memorably odd doc by Dub Cornett and Dancing Outlaw director Jacob Young—the story of three men who claim to have found an Old Testament portal on the 99-cent sale rack at a Madison, Tennessee, Goodwill superstore—made its debut at the 38-year-old Nashville Film Festival last April. Last month, it played the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where no less an admirer than Werner Herzog reportedly dismissed its critics as "retarded." Will you ever see it? The movie itself provides an answer: Stranger things have happened.


Real to Reel

Documentaries continue their ascent onscreen

By Robert Wilonsky 

An acquaintance who fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq says he has no use for documentaries about George Bush's bungling of the War on Terror. He will not see a single one of the movies made about the tragic consequences of the administration's rush to drop bombs over Baghdad. He has no use for No End in Sight, say, or Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. "Those movies are for you civilians," he says, grinning. "I'm sure they're all 'good' and 'important,' but everyone knows what went wrong—everything went wrong." He goes on to suggest that unless folks actually do something with the information laid out in No End in Sight, in which former administration officials cop to their myriad fuckups, well, it's just another brick in the infotainment wall.

Yeah, but sometimes we civilians just need a brick to the head. There was no shortage in 2007 of good documentaries about important subjects. Chief among them was Michael Moore's Sicko, which may not have had the cultural impact of his earlier Bush-bashing, but which actually galvanized red and blue believers alike on the issue of health care. Indeed, folks around the country formed advocacy groups in response to the doc, a sure sign they were as infuriated as they were entertained. Also released in '07: Darfur Now and The Devil Came on Horseback, both about genocide in Sudan; The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, about one Iraqi's wrongful imprisonment in Abu Ghraib; and For the Bible Tells Me So, about the Good Book's stance on homosexuality.

In what was one hell of a cinematic dinner-party wish list, Jimmy Carter, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, and Karl Lagerfeld all got their own portraits; forthcoming in 2008 is Alex Gibney's Gonzo, about the life and death of Hunter S. Thompson. And earlier this year a couple of guys knocked out of the park a doc about King Corn, otherwise known as the silent killer that makes everything taste swell as it poisons us to death. You'll never look at a can of Coke the same way again.

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