Saturday, 19 January 2008

Vic's Top Ten (12?) Films of 2007

2007 was another good year for films, though only my favourite film of the year qualifies (for me) as a great film. I can remember few years when I thought so many films were an example of brilliant and near-perfect filmmaking (over half of those listed below), even if the subject matter prevented some of them from achieving greatness for me.

This year, I will be counting down my top ten and I will start with number twelve because numbers two and three have not yet been released in North America and I may put them into next year’s top ten instead. Since I saw these two films in 2007, I will also include them here for now. My number one film of the year was actually released in 2006, but since it was not released in the UK or North America until 2007, I can include it on this year’s list.

This was the year for natural films. Four of the films on my list starred non-actors or unknown actors and three of these were filmed in an almost documentary style, with a lot of hand-held camera work and natural sound effects. This does not usually impress me, but in these films it obviously worked very well. Another common theme this year was the protagonist struggling to come to terms with something that happened during their childhood that forever changed their lives.

Here are my top ten (12) films of 2007 (most of these films are reviewed elsewhere on the blog):

12. 4 Months, Three Weeks and 2 Days – A film that feels much too real, this haunting tale presents us with one traumatic day in the life of Otilia (brilliantly played by Anamaria Marinca) in the oppressive context of 1987 Romania.

11. Zodiac – An example of almost (the film could have been shorter) perfect filmmaking, this is a great character drama with flawless acting (it stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr.). The film is about the search for a serial killer and how this impacts the lives of the protagonists. Another haunting story.

10. Into the Wild – This film is more of an experience than an entertainment. A great road movie, it tells the true story of a disillusioned young man’s search for meaning. His search takes him on a journey through the American west all the way up to Alaska, where he takes up residence in an abandoned school bus in the middle of the wilderness. He finds his answers along the way and at the end, but they are not what he was expecting. Incredibly powerful film.

9. No Country for Old Men – Another brilliant piece of filmmaking from the Coen Brothers, this violent story concerns a cold and vicious killer in America’s southwest and the various attempts to outwit him. An example of almost perfect filmmaking, it would have been much higher on my top ten if it hadn’t been so violent. True, the violence could have been even more graphic than it was and the violence felt very uncomfortable (which is good) but for some reason (sarcasm) the sight of so much violence distracts me and detracts from my enjoyment of the film. Of course, if my friend Gareth Higgins is correct about his redemptive interpretation of the film’s ending (I will need to see it again before I decide), then this film moves up to number four.

8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – (See comments on previous film, which also apply here). My favourite Sondheim musical has been brilliantly filmed by Tim Burton and brilliantly acted (and sung) by Johnny Depp, with top-notch support from Helena Bonham Carter. But this is a very dark and violent tale which will not appeal to everyone.

7. Michael Clayton - It's rare these days to see a thriller that doesn't rely on action, let alone an intelligent complex thriller with great dialogue and real drama. Throw in an Oscar-worthy performance by George Clooney and you've got one of the best films of the year.

6. The Kite Runner - A perfectly-paced and perfectly told story, again feeling very real and natural (due to some great acting), about a boy in Afghanistan who betrays his closest friend in 1978 but is offered a chance at redemption 22 years later. This beautiful inspiring film gives us a glimpse into the lives of people in one of the most troubled nations in the world.

5. Atonement - This story of the horrific results of a teenager’s spiteful action (in 1930's England) is magnificently filmed by Joe Wright. In fact, the first 50 minutes of this film are another example of perfect filmmaking. It drags a bit after that but ends strong, and the acting, cinematography and score are outstanding throughout.

4. Once – As I said, I'm not generally a fan of low budget hand-held camera work, but it works perfectly in this film about two lonely souls, inhabiting the poorer parts of Dublin, who meet and make beautiful music together. It feels almost like a documentary, as if we are voyeurs watching a true story unfold live before us. It shouldn't work, but it does - brilliantly.

3. And When Did You Last See Your Father? (not yet released in North America) – The death of my father (from cancer) only three weeks before watching this film (about a son watching his father die of cancer) no doubt accounts for part of the impact it had on me, but I thought the film was a gem, with a wonderful performance by Jim Broadbent (and excellent performances by the rest of the cast). Sure, some of the character development was superficial and should have gone deeper, but the film has many clever moments and is just good story-telling.

2. Silent Light (not yet released in North America) - This award-winning film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas is in Low German and has only Mennonite actors (or non-actors). The story of the spiritual crisis of a Mennonite farmer in Mexico who is having an affair, this is a gorgeous and thoughtful film that reminds one of the best works of former European masters like Carl Dreyer and Andrei Tarkovsky. Again, it felt so real, I thought I was there, participating in the life of this Mexican Mennonite community as it dealt with the grand themes of love, death and forgiveness.

1. The Lives of Others - a perfectly-made film in every respect, this is a wonderfully humanizing tale of the struggle to be a good person, specifically in the repressive world of East Berlin in 1984. This is what life is all about, and this is what great filmmaking is all about.

Friday, 18 January 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

An intense and powerful film from Romania that works so well because of the magnificent performance by Anamaria Marinca in the lead role. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days actually takes place in just one day – a very long and traumatic day for Otilia, though she’s not the one getting the abortion. Helping her friend get an illegal abortion turns out to be more difficult and sacrificial than she could ever have imagined and, through the bare filmmaking style, we experience the day with her, hearing what she hears, feeling what she feels. This is life in Ceausescu’s Romania in 1987 and it's not pretty.

This is a difficult and disturbing film to watch because it feels so real, but it is easily one of the best films of 2007. ****

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

An entertaining but disturbing film about a U.S. congressman’s role in helping the people of Afghanistan defeat the invading Soviet army during the 1980’s. Well-acted by all concerned (especially Philip Seymour Hoffman, who steals the film as Gust, the quirky CIA agent), with a good screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and solid direction by Mike Nichols, this is an enjoyable film about a very dark and dangerous subject. I don’t object to the light tone of the film or to the comedy along the way (and there were some serious moments, attempting to show the suffering of the Afghan people). I just wish it didn’t come across as supporting Charlie Wilson quite so much. Played by Tom Hanks, Wilson is portrayed very sympathetically (for all his faults) and is almost single-handedly credited with driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan and paving the way for the end of the Cold War. Ever since those dark days of the 80’s, Afghanistan has been living in peace and harmony, as has the world as a whole since the end of the Cold War.

Oh, wait, there is the little matter of what happened to the Wilson-armed Afghan freedom fighters after they drove out the Soviets, their role in 9/11, and their ongoing role in yet another war that has gone on for six years now. But let’s not get picky. After all, Wilson’s heart was in the right place. It’s not his fault he only got the billion dollars to supply weapons to the Afghans because it was helping to defeat Soviet communism, and that once the Soviets were out, the U.S. refused to contribute even a tiny fraction of that money to help Afghanistan recover. Charlie Wilson’s War makes this point very clear, though one wonders how such an intelligent man as Wilson could be so na├»ve. But the role of that billion dollars worth of weapons in the future misery of Afghanistan, and, indeed, in the misery of the world as a whole, is barely hinted at. Were Sorkin and Nichols worried about making the point too strongly, or were they not really trying to make that point at all. This isn’t clear, but knowing Sorkin’s work quite well, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and choose the former.

Good stuff, but I think it could have been better, given the quality of all those involved. ***+

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The Kite Runner

Since 1978, when communists took control of its government, Afghanistan has been among the poorest and most troubled nations in the world. While the media now provide regular reports on the war in Afghanistan, few people in the western world know much about its tortured history or about its people and cultures. One of the vital roles of filmmaking is to help put a human face on such people and cultures and tell us a bit of such histories. While this is usually achieved through documentaries or independent foreign films, a lavishly-produced Hollywood film will obviously reach a far-wider audience. If such a film is truly well-made, then much can be forgiven it (even a contrived, manipulative plot).

The Kite Runner is precisely this kind of film. Based on the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner begins with the friendship of two boys from different cultures and social classes in pre-communist Afghanistan (1978). The friendship ends dramatically when one of the boys (Amir) witnesses a brutal attack on the other (Hassan) and makes no attempt to intervene. Unable to handle the shame of his cowardice, Amir drives Hassan away. The story then follows the life of Amir, jumping ahead to 1988 in California and eventually to 2000 back in Afghanistan (a very different Afghanistan, as brilliantly depicted in the film), where Amir attempts to redeem the betrayal of his childhood.

In the wrong Hollywood hands, such a story, with recurring themes like death and child-rape, could have been either a very dark and violent tale or something overly sentimental. But under the sure direction of Marc Forster (who has made some excellent films, including Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and the under-appreciated Stranger Than Fiction), The Kite Runner becomes a perfectly-paced and perfectly-told story which elicits just the right level of emotion throughout. It also balances the darkness with just the right amount of light, partly achieved through the fascinating and beautifully-shot sport of kite-flying.

Sure, in some ways The Kite Runner is a superficial easy-to-watch Hollywood film with an implausible ending, but in most ways it rises well above the average Hollywood yarn. For one thing, its use of unknown actors and a foreign language give it an air of authenticity which is rare among Hollywood films. The acting is strong and natural, with particularly outstanding performances by the two boys playing Amir and Hassan (Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) and by Homayoun Ershadi as Amir’s father, Baba, and Shaun Toub as Baba’s friend. The natural acting makes it easier to achieve well-developed characters, another strength of this film.

We all do things as children that we regret, often for the rest of our lives. Too frequently, this results in self-hatred and in branding ourselves as cowards, liars, or just plain evil. This is unfair and untrue; after all, we were only children! The Kite Runner explores this subject with uncommon sympathy and softness. Parts of the ending might have been implausible, but at least the characters stayed true.

Intended or not, the film made me think that we in the west are all guilty of betraying Afghanistan and its people, of hiding while bullies did their work. Like Amir, we also need to find a path to redemption, but the violent path currently being followed in Afghanistan will never, in my opinion, lead to such redemption. I also saw no evidence of the film promoting such a violent course of action.

For all the reasons above, and aided, of course, by the breathtaking cinematography (China stands in for Afghanistan), The Kite Runner was quite simply the most beautiful film I saw in 2007 and ranks high among my favourite films of the year. It gets a full mug up of the finest brew. ****

Monday, 7 January 2008

Sweeney Todd

A dark, disturbing, incredibly graphic and extremely violent tale of revenge, mass murder and cannibalism: what’s not to like? Sarcasm aside, this film will likely be in my top ten films of 2007. What is wrong with me, you ask. Am I just a sucker for films in which the protagonist is a mass murderer who actually elicits sympathy from us (as also found in my favourite film of 2006: Perfume)? I don’t think so. So perhaps I’m just a sucker for gorgeously-filmed brilliantly-directed perfectly-acted musicals? You bet I am, especially if it’s a musical I have long admired.

This twisted gem of a film from twisted director Tim Burton is based on my favourite Stephen Sondheim musical, the blackest of comedies and the darkest of musicals. It concerns a barber who returns to London after fifteen years of wrongful imprisonment to find that his wife has committed suicide and his daughter is the ward of the judge who was responsible for his imprisonment. To put it mildly, the barber goes mad with thoughts of revenge. Joining Burton again (from The Corpse Bride) are Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, whose performances are magnificent. They even sing (who knew Depp could sing that well?)! It is partly because of Depp’s great acting that we are drawn to his character (Sweeney Todd) despite Todd’s murderous insanity. In fact, we are even ready to believe that the most evil character in the film is not the murdering demon barber of Fleet Street but the judge, played (well) by Alan Rickman (and yes, he sings too!).

With everything done so well (acting, directing, writing, music, cinematography), Sweeney Todd might have occupied a higher position among my top ten films of 2007 had it not been for all the blood. I appreciate that the graphic nature of the violence made it more difficult to take pleasure in the killing, which I tend to view as a positive thing (missing from Perfume), and I know this graphic violence was deliberately over-the-top (as was the violence in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow; also starring Depp) and not really redemptive, but it still overwhelmed and distracted me enough to limit my enjoyment of the film. If you want to be desensitized to graphic film violence, Sweeney Todd is a good place to start. But if the sight of blood spurting from a slashed neck is not your idea of a good time, you might want to skip this one.

Still, I can’t help but give Sweeny Todd ****. My mug is up, with the blackest brew imaginable.