When it comes to the introductions of my annual "Year in Review" essays, I fear I'm starting to sound like a broken record. This year, instead of mourning the dirge in cinematic originalityand make no mistake, with scarcely a week going by without a sequel or a remake, creative innovation was in short supplyI am going to try to put a positive spin on things. You can only withhold a cranky outlook for so long, especially when you love film in general as much as I do.
First, here are some statistics about 2007. Of the 186 motion pictures I reviewed, a staggering 60 of them rated two starsmy equivalent of not-awful, not-good mediocrity. The truly bad moviesthose rating one star or loweronce again rose, from 21 in 2006 to 24 in 2007. Incorporate into these numbers the 20 films rating one-and-a-half stars, and that equals out to 104 negative reviews and 82 positive reviews in the last twelve months. This is hardly good news, and on a grading scale would be a solid F. On the bright side, then, there were also an increase in really good films from the previous year. 2006 was so dire that I actually had to pick out a three-star picture for my Top 10 list. In 2007, I did not have this problemthere were 13 films rating three-and-a-half or four stars. Precious few of these will be going down in the Hollywood history books, but it's still a marginal improvement. Also on the increase this year were the amount of strong acting performances given; for proof, just take a gander at my Top Performances list below.
The format of this essay has not changed from the past. For those readers unfamiliar with it, I first make a list of the best performances of the year, with the name in red marking my personal pick for the winner in each category. Think of it as TheMovieBoy's version of the Academy Awards, minus, unfortunately, the gold statuettes. After this, I pick my choices for the most overrated and underrated feature, and then finally move into my list of the Bottom 10 and Top 10 pictures of 2007 (with some respective dishonorable and honorable mentions thrown in).
With the WGA strike still going strong, who knows what this will mean for the next year and beyond. While it's frightening to imagine the amount of projects being greenlit with scripts that aren't up to snuff, my hope for 2008, as foolishly idealistic as it may be, is for a gradual move away from derivative, unnecessary remakes and sequels and a return to embracing fresh ideas and one's overall imagination. Even if this wish doesn't come true, a little optimism can't hurt, can it?
The Best Performances of 2007
(my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
"Charlie Wilson's War," directed by Mike Nichols, is one of the year's big Oscar hopefuls, and likely will be up for several nominations when they are announced come mid-January. The film would seem to be a can't-miss proposition, with A-list stars such as Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead roles, an acclaimed veteran director at the helm, and a true-life story involving the most covert war in history, which lead to the Afghan's defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The shocker is that "Charlie Wilson's War" grievously disappoints on every count, the serious subject matter washed over to make room for a cloying and artificial comedy fraught with unfunny one-liners, animated acting, one-note characters, and a script that is as empty as it is distinctly apathetic. Thinly written and so ineffectively handled that the act of watching it is akin to waiting for a freshly-painted white wall to dry, the movie alternates between dull and aloof with precious little in between. That the film shows barely any concern at all in the Afghan citizens' plight, using them more as a plot device rather than as real human beings, is the final nail in this overcooked turkey's coffin.
"The Invisible," directed by David S. Goyer, stands as one of the very best films to have ever been not screened in advance for critics. Usually when a studio chooses to open a movie cold, it is a sign that they have no faith in it from a critical standpoint. In the case of "The Invisible," what was distributor Hollywood Pictures thinking? Were they simply put off by a finished product that rose above and beyond the cookie-cutter teenybopper affair they expected it to be? Promoted as a conventional supernatural horror film, what audiences got instead was a a somber, thought-provoking rumination on mortality and redemption. There were no spooky ghosts or hacksaw killers in sight, nor were there any threadbare jump scares or gooey, ham-fisted special effects. What there was, however, was an emotionally-charged drama, cleanly and capably told, with the power to blindside the viewer with the levels of intelligence, filmmaking artistry, and ultimate profundity brought to the material. "The Invisible" was not treated with the respect it deserved, and, now that it is available on DVD, one can only hold out faith that it will be rediscovered for the beautiful film it truly is.
The Reaping - Dreary. Listless. Unscary. Overblown. Preposterous. Preachy. These are just a minuscule sampling of the adjectives that describe "The Reaping," an ungodly awful supernatural thriller that cast Hilary Swank as a debunker of religious phenomena who travels to a sleepy bayou town to investigate the seeming onslaught of the ten biblical plagues. The premise had promise, but the film was a total wash, deadly dull and failing to elicit even the most minimal of chills in the viewer's spine.
Transformers - Mechanically directed by Michael Bay without a clue how to build tension, create narrative momentum or set up comprehensible set-pieces, "Transformers" was easily the worst of 2007's summer blockbusters. An abysmal, mind-numbing adaptation of the popular Hasbro/Takara toy line, this misbegotten film proved that snazzy, photorealistic visual effects mean nothing when they are used to service an embarrassing hack-job script, dialogue so hokey one almost cannot believe their ears at times, a trainwreck of derivative characters too flimsy to even be described as cardboard, and sporadic overblown action that proves indecipherable chaos and shaky camerawork does not an exciting sequence make.
Bratz - A bubblegum-pop monstrosity with less personality than the inanimate dolls on which the movie was based, "Bratz" was a teen comedy with the message that it's better to be yourself than just another sheep in the flock. The problem was that director Sean McNamara hypocritically presented a foursome of 16-year-old girls whose idea of standing out as individuals was to run around buying trendy clothes with Daddy's credit card, dancing and singing to the most derivative Top 40 songs one could imagine, and generally giving the term 'teenybopper' a worse stigma than it already suggests. There wasn't a moment of truth or perception in its miserable 98 minutes; this film's view of high school was so skewed from reality and so insulting in its contempt that it's almost scary to think preteen girls (the target audience) would fall for it.
The Perfect Holiday - About as appetizing as a candy cane laced with arsenic, "The Perfect Holiday" was a sugary, teeth-rottening, disingenuous piece of holiday dreck that started off on the wrong foot with an awkward main titles sequence featuring some terribly unfortunate animated representations of Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard, then went downhill from there. Every time the viewer thought to themselves that the writing couldn't get any more pea-brained and the proceedings couldn't get any more humiliating for all involved, they did.
Are We Done Yet? - A flimsy excuse for a sequel and a pointless remake in one, the Ice Cube-starring "Are We Done Yet?" shamelessly desecrated the memory of 1948's classic Cary Grant-starrer "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and simultaneously made "Are We There Yet?" look like the height of comic brilliance in comparison. Did anyone at any time during the shootingan actor, the director, a producer, perhaps even the dolly gripseriously believe with a clear mind and conscience that what he or she was making was a quality product? Directed by Steve Carr with the subtlety of an anvil and the rhythm of a sixth-grade outcast attending his first school dance, "Are We Done Yet?" was every bit as inane as its predecessor. The difference was that it was astoundingly unfunny, too. When a movie's biggest laugh comes from the sight of a pregnant woman bow-leggedly waddling up the stairs following a would-be dramatic scene of marital discord, you know you're in trouble.
TMNT - A computer-animated update of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" franchise that no one asked for, "TMNT" was one of the most egregious film ideas of the year. Outdated, irrelevant, strictly generic junk with the power to deaden children's brain cells, there was a deficiency of emotion and charisma in every aspect of "TMNT" that became downright depressing. Indeed, the only joy derived from watching it was the arrival of the end credits. White scrolling text on a black background has rarely been so attractive.
Dragon Wars - Had infamously wretched filmmaker Ed Wood been given $75-million and access to CGI effects back in the days of "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda," he might have made something approximating the quality (or lack thereof) of "Dragon Wars." Written and directed by Hyung-rae Shim, who has next to no understanding of the English language, this was an abysmal collision course of cultural confusion, nonsensical plotting, blank-faced characters, amateurish dialogue so stilted it has to be heard to be believed, and porn-level bad acting. The story of a giant serpent overtaking Los Angeles sounds neat in theory, but "Dragon Wars" is destined to go down in history as one of cinema's most blunderingly, catastrophically bad big-budget films of the last few decades.
Hitman - "Hitman" was 100 minutes of soul-crushing nothingness, an inactive action film (based on a popular video game) so bankrupt of ideas and ambition that it didn't even earn the label of disaster. Virtually unreleasable, the movie was monotonous, boring, infuriatingly disjointed, hopelessly one-note, and lacking the barest expectations of cohesion. Nothing worked, nothing resonated, and nothing roused the senses. Attempting to locate redeeming qualities was as fruitless as trying to find a lake in the middle of an arid desert. Any way you shake it, "Hitman" was a prime example of irredeemable filmmaking-by-committee gone terribly, unbelievably wrong.
Unearthed - A desert-set "Aliens" rip-off with no-budget creature effects that looked like H.R. Giger by way of "South Park," "Unearthed" was a dismal failure on every level. Directed by Matthew Leutwyler with the skill of someone who had never seen a camera before, let alone picked one up, this hunk of junk was mind-blowing for actually garnering a theatrical release. The cinematography was muddy and shaky, the lack of lighting made the action indecipherable, the actors looked like they were bored to tears, and the pacing was slower than a one-legged tortoise. Indeed, the amateurish "Unearthed" was notable for only one scene: an unintentionally hilarious moment where a character was catapulted backwards by an explosion and actually did a flip in mid-air!
Epic Movie - Figuring out what to pick for the absolute worst motion picture of 2007 was a no-brainer. The bottom of the barrel in cinematic slapstick and just about as heinous as anything else released this decade, "Epic Movie" left me frozen like a piece of petrified wood, simultaneously in disbelief at the level of ineptitude that could possibly fill a screen at any given second and genuinely embarrassed to the point of dismay for all the actors involved. Downright offensive in its bile-inducing wretchedness and complete and utter lack of respect for an audience who maybe, just maybe, had come to laugh, the film did not have one funny momentnot one!from beginning to end. There was nothing clever. There was nothing original. There was nothing likable, or amusing, or visually compelling, or well-shot, or tightly edited. Almost by default, there are so many rapid-fire gags and physical comedy bits and double-entendres in any given spoof movie that it would logically seem impossible to not inspire a solitary giggle in the viewer. "Epic Movie" proved this theory wrong. Sometimes, "hate" is too polite a word. This is one of those times.
Mr. Brooks - A fascinating and thoroughly unsettling psychological exploration into the mind of a serial killer, "Mr. Brooks" could well be the smartest, most astute thriller of its kind in several years, ranking up there alongside 2003's "Monster" and 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Leisurely paced but intoxicatingly directed by Bruce A. Evans, the film was rich in layered character work by Kevin Costner, Dane Cook and Demi Moore, and offered a close to seamless plot that uncovered unforeseeable surprise upon unforeseeable surprise in a startlingly assured and non-manipulative fashion. Writer-director Evans and co-writer Raynold Gideon refused to play by any sort of conventional rules; the story they told was straightforward, yet dodged expectations by digging into an unremittingly dark territory that revealed just how glossy and prefabricated the majority of A-list studio thrillers are these days. In many respects, "Mr. Brooks" had a subtler, more provocative foreign sensibility, and the unshakable outcome was all the better for it.
Joshua - An old-school thriller in the style of 1968's "Rosemary's Baby" and 1973's "Don't Look Now," the sublimely unnerving "Joshua" embraced the simple power of suggestion over cheap jump scares and gore galore. In their observant and tragic portrait of an upper-class family in a state of collapse, writer-director George Ratliff and first-time co-writer David Gilbert managed to get under the viewer's skin without so much as one scene of violence. The creep-factor is all in the detailsthe mood, the character depth, the multifaceted story complexity and appropriate lack of easy answers. Indeed, the abysmal 2006 remake of "The Omen" could have learned a thing or two from what "Joshua" offered up. This is an unshakable and evocative motion picture that stays with you.
The Invisible - My choice for the most underrated film of the year is also, no surprise, one of the best. Exploring in a serious and gritty manner what it might mean for a person to know that he or she is staring almost certain death in the face, "The Invisible" was no cut-and-paste teen flick. Weightier than the usual studio fare, and smarter too, the film, intoxicatingly directed by David S. Goyer, lingers and stirs in the viewer's mind long after it is over. The lack of support Hollywood Pictures afforded this thoughtful sleeper gem was frankly inexcusable.
Enchanted - There could be no better title for "Enchanted" than just that, encapsulating in a single word the feeling that audiences of every age will experience while watching it. The film, a purely magical cartoon/live-action hybrid buoyantly directed by Kevin Lima, featured a central premise so ingenious and yet so simple that it's amazing Walt Disney Pictures had never before used it. Delightfully comic and yet unexpectedly touching, the studio that the Mouse built crafted a family feature that should deservedly span and delight all demographics as it lovingly pays tribute to its animated library while also playing with those pictures' shared tried-and-true conventions. The outcome, sparkling and heartwarming in the best senses of the wordsand featuring an irresistible performance from Amy Adams as a cartoon character born into the live-action world of New York Cityis a brand-new classic all its own.
Into the Wild - Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer and adapted for the screen by writer-director Sean Penn, "Into the Wild" was a wise and harrowing drama, one part road picture and one part study in existentialism. The hero of the piece, 22-year-old college graduate Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch in a performance of breathtaking sincerity and openness), donated or burned all of his savings, severed ties from his family, and took to the open road, experiencing adventure after adventure up and down the U.S.'s west coast. His ultimate goal was to reach the wilds of Alaska, a destination that he did finally reach. The cost of fulfilling his dream, however, was much greater than he could have anticipated. A heartrending slice of Americana both inspiring and foreboding in its view of a world that will exist long after we are all gone, "Into the Wild" was a great motion picturehaunting, difficult to take at times, and endlessly compelling.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - It is rare for a film to achieve a feeling of unequivocal, breathtaking transcendence, but "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" did just that. Told almost entirely via song and image, director Tim Burton masterfully adapted the 1979 Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler while making it inherently his own. A tale of revenge, murder, barbershops, cannibalism and pie-making, the film approaches qualification as a classical operatic tragedy. Thrilling, ghastly, goosebump-inducing, oddly romantic, and with courageous performances from Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" was an unqualified genre-buster, not quite like any other horror movie or cinematic musical in memory.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a literal title that doesn't leave much room for interpretation, and that is why it was perfectly named. By immediately exposing the central event of the story, writer-director Andrew Dominik, adapting from the acclaimed 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, was free to explore deeper and weightier subject matter than the western genre usually allows. The intoxicatingly unhurried pacing, mixed with a sumptuous literary narration delivered by Hugh Ross, entrancingly woven storytelling, remarkably well-defined performances (by Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt), and lushly beautiful picturesque images courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, collectively joined forces for a lyrical, undeniably resonant poetic epic.
The Orphanage - "The Orphanage" (released as "El Orfanato" in its native Spain) comfortably joins the ranks of 2001's "The Others" and 2005's underappreciated "Dark Water" as one of the superior cinematic ghost stories of this decade. Going above and beyond the empty-headed, boo-laden trappings that plague many films within the genre, "The Orphanage" was first and foremost a heartbreaking existential study of the frailty of life, the mysteries of death, and the knowledge of one's own mortality. It was also very, very scaryboy, was it scarybut the frights went much deeper than the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night variety, and actually were there to service the story rather than the other way around. What filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona crafted was nothing short of entrancing, a rapturously gripping and superbly taut horror film that garnered a lot of its lingering effectiveness through its story of a desperate woman who refuses to accept the loss of a child while doing everything in her power to locate his whereabouts. In doing so, she little by little is forced into considering the limitless possibilities of life (a different realm of life, but still a life) proceeding death. Movies such as "The Orphanage" do not frequently come around, and they should be applauded for what they achieve. One minute the viewer may be shrinking down in their seat or startled with a jump, and the next he or she might be fighting off the urge to shed a tear.
No Country for Old Men - Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen's best film since 1996's pitch-perfect "Fargo," "No Country for Old Men" was a masterpiece of a thriller, as merciless as a livestock stun gun to the head, as sharp as a razor blade, and as confidently and sumptuously written as any genre classic one can think of (take your pick). Moving forward with the steady unpredictability of a life gone terribly awry, the Coens' faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel while making it very specifically their own. The tonal shifts from unspeakable intensity to laugh-out-loud snapshots of truth within human behavior and dialoguefrequently within the same scenewere the work of real artists in full command of their craft, and in Javier Bardem's disquieting, steady portrayal of a ruthless, cold-blooded killer was one of the more unforgettable screen villains in years. No Country for Old Men" was a brilliant potboiler, but what lingered long after was its searing exploration into the vulnerability of man.
Bridge to Terabithia - Falsely advertised as a fantasy reminiscent of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and released way back in February, virtually guaranteeing that it would get lost in the Oscar shuffle come December, no other motion picture of 2007 touched me quite as deeply as "Bridge to Terabithia" did. A reality-based coming-of-age story based on the Newberry Award-winning novel by Katherine Paterson, the film was so beautifully told and passionately crafted by director Gabor Csupo (in an auspicious debut) and screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (Katherine's son) that, yes, I would rank it alongside "Stand by Me" and "My Girl" as one of the best of its genre. Josh Hutcherson, for my money the most talented actor under the age of eighteen working today, is extraordinary in the demanding lead role. In essence, "Bridge to Terabithia" is about the kind of friendship that only happens once in a blue moon, filled with a love, respect and unfailing faithfulness that is the pair's own to cherish and nobody else's. More than that, the film is about the sometimes hard but necessary process of lifethe trials, the tribulations, the joys, and the heartbreaksthat inherently makes us human. Of all the movies released in 2007, "Bridge to Terabithia" is the one that should deservedly stand the test of time, entertaining and educating audiences of all ages for decades to come.