Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

So, a funny thing happened to me on the way to my 10 best list of 2007. I landed myself in the hospital with pneumonia. It was my own fault- I hadn’t taken as good a care of myself as I should have (I’d been living with asthma for a couple of years, and wasn’t regularly treating it). I was only in the hospital for three weeks (I say only because I was away from work for eight more), but it was enough to knock me back in my moviewatching. I got caught back up for the most part, and then when I started back at work this past month, I got backed up again.

What does all of this mean? I still have several films to go before I’ve seen all the ones I’d normally like to have seen for my 10 Best list of the year. So if you don’t see mention of “Eastern Promises,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Kite Runner,” “Atonement”, or other late year films like “There Will Be Blood” on this rundown, it’s because I haven’t gotten to them yet. I’m dying to see all of them, actually.

So that said, here’s where I stand on 2007 so far (changes could come in my Oscar coverage, though I proudly stand by my Top 10 as it stands now). Personally, it was a terrific year for movies (though not as good as last year)- not a lot of outright smashes beyond the summer, but a lot of fantastic cinema. You’ll notice on my 10 best list a lot of Fall films- that’s no accident. Filmmakers had a lot to say if you were willing to listen. I had my ears perked up.

Brian’s Top Ten Films of 2007
1. “Away From Her” (Directed by Sarah Polley)- Actress Sarah Polley tries her hand at writing and directing with this tender and thoughtful story of a marriage torn apart by the ravages of age (and Alzheimer’s). Julie Christie is unforgettable as a wife whose memory is fading, and Gordon Pinsent breaks your heart as the husband forced to sit aside and watch. As anyone who’s experienced it knows, watching a loved one become a shell of the person they once were is impossible to watch, and Polley- best known for her role in the equally-heartbreaking “The Sweet Hereafter”- captures it with compassionate heart and craft.

2. “Across the Universe” (Directed by Julie Taymor)- Julie Taymor’s entertaining musical isn’t so much a time capsule of a pivotal moment in American society so much as a tribute to how well the Beatles captured that moment in history in their still vital music, which is compiled to create the year’s second-best soundtrack for this affecting tale of young love and the changing tides.

3. “Once” (Directed by John Carney)- If you’re wonder what the year’s best soundtrack is, look no further than Carney’s scrappy story of impending love between and Irish street guitarist and a Chezch street seller. The film doesn’t dance around the idea of their unrequited love for one another, but their bond seems to go beyond that, in particular in a classic scene in a music store where the pair (played by real-life musicians/lovers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) play a tune out on the piano, and get to the heart of romantic longing.

4. “Zodiac” (Directed by David Fincher)- It took three viewings for me to finally see all of Fincher’s dark, dramatic take on the chilling serial killer who was never caught in the ’60s and ’70s (I kept falling asleep), but even incomplete viewings cast a spell on me as a determined cop (Mark Ruffalo, terrific as always), a haggered reporter (the continually fascinating Robert Downey Jr.), and a political cartoonist (the sensational Jake Ghyllenhaal) get caught in an obsession that almost ruins all three.

5. “The Darjeeling Limited” (Directed by Wes Anderson)- Cowriter-director Anderson works with cowriters Jason Schwartzman (who also costars) and Roman Coppola to tell a tale of brotherly love and loathing and the shadows fathers can cast around their sons. Anderson’s typical quirk is tempered with resonant feeling (Schwartzman, Adrian Brody, and Owen Wilson all rise to the occasion) in this spiritual comedy of self-discovery.

6. “No Country for Old Men” (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)- The prose of Cormac McCarthy brings out the brutal and brilliant best from the Brothers Coen as Javiar Bardem (as the most chilling killer since Hannibal Lecter) and Josh Brolin (in a breakout year) engage in a vicious game of cat-and-mouse for $2 million dollars while Tommy Lee Jones (in a career best turn) tries to put the pieces together while dealing with his own mortality. A note-perfect companion to their “Fargo” landmark with an ending of teasing finality.

7. “Crazy Love” (Directed by Dan Klores & Fisher Stevens)- Another great year for documentaries. There’s a lot to choose from, but nothing made quite the impression as this tabloid-prepped story of a love affair for the mental ward, as a hot shot New York lawyer goes to insane degrees to get the woman of his dreams…including hiring someone to blind her!! How the story ended up is the year’s most surprising shocker.

8. “Lars and the Real Girl” (Directed by Craig Gillespie)- In the fictional realm, no love story was more original, or affecting, as the one a socially awkward young man has with a sex doll. The catch is, Lars (Ryan Gosling in an unforgettable, sincere performance) doesn’t see it as a doll. It’s not long before the people around him- who want to see him come out of his shell, and go along with it- do the same, leading to an ending that earns the feeling of loss we capture, and the sense of joy in seeing Lars finally become part of the community around him.

9. “The Kingdom” (Directed by Peter Berg)- The past several years has seen the emergence of a sub-genre of films known for their political commentary on the here and now, and 2007 was no exception. What was exceptional, however, was that the year’s best offering was more “Munich” than “Syriana,” as Matthew Michael Carnahan’s bold script (something of a companion piece to his screenplay for the underrated “Lions for “Lambs”) was delivered with equal doses of action and provocation by actor-director Berg as a team of FBI forensic agents go to Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack in the country.

10. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (Directed by David Yates)- Yates captures the increasingly dark allure of J.K. Rowling’s youthful wizard story in this thrilling vision, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing to impress in the role) and his friends take it upon themselves to ready for the coming battle with the returned Lord Voldemort. The final action scenes in the Ministry of Magic are some of the year’s best.

Eleventh Place: A lot of tremendous films- all of which rate 3 1/2 stars- just missed my top 10 this year, starting with Jason Reitman’s beautifully comic underaged pregnancy dramedy “Juno”, with a knockout turn by Ellen Page that’s among the year’s best, and Tim Burton’s dark and dazzling “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, with a tour de force by Johnny Depp as Stephen Sondheim’s vengeful barber (it kills me to leave these two off my top 10- I just like the films above more). Not far behind, however, are Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille” (another gem from Pixar and the “Incredibles” director); “The Hoax”, with a dazzling performance by Richard Gere as a writer who sells his conscious to sell a fraudulent biography of Howard Hughes; Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster”, with a bigger-than-life Denzel Washington as an honorable drug smuggler and a bullish Russell Crowe as an honest cop, both of whom stand out in their professions; “The Devil Came on Horseback”, a penetrating documentary of the Darfur genocide seen through the eyes of an American soldier sent to observe; “Into Great Silence”, a profoundly solumn and observant documentary of the daily lives of monks; “Grindhouse”, the profanely, darkly comic double bill of Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” that set the bar high on low thrills this year; “The Namesake”, Mira Nair’s poignant look at culture, family, and the generational divide; “No End in Sight”, a harsh, painfully revealing look from the inside at the failures of the Iraq War; “La Vie en Rose”, an epic, exquisite look at the hard life and times of French songbird Edith Piaf (the magnificent Marion Cottilard); “SiCKO”, Michael Moore’s latest all-American provocation, this one about a healthcare system that’s failed millions in the name of profits; and Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart”, with a riveting performance by Angelina Jolie as the wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl. In lesser years, all would rate on my 10 Best list with pride.

Brian’s Favorite Films of 2007
1. “Spider-Man 3” (Sam Raimi)- Any followup to Raimi’s 2004 Spidey adventure, the best comic book film ever, would be a letdown, and his conclusion to this first trilogy is no exception. But look closer, and you’ll find Raimi spinning an intriguing, emotional web of hubris leading to a great fall for Peter Parker (a never better Tobey Maguire) beneath the overloaded story. This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, and like few films that do so, it’s even more fun the second time around.

2. “The Simpsons Movie” (David Silverman)- People expecting this to be the biggest, longest, and uncut “Best…Movie…Ever” for the iconic animated family got exactly what they deserved- disappointment, while the rest of us laughed ourselves stupid at the eternally idiotic Homer (the invaluable Dan Castellaneta) as he tries to save his town and his family (sometimes in that order) from the evil government. There are worse people I can think of for the job…and that thought depresses the Hell out of me.

3. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (David Yates)- The scene that crystalizes this film’s strength for me is when Harry, frustrated at Dumbledore’s seeming indifference towards him, yells at his mentor to look at him. That the scene has such an impact is a tribute to all of the filmmakers who have brought J.K. Rowling’s saga to life onscreen, because it shows just how much we’ve become invested in the characters and their struggles. The Alfonso Cauron-directed “Prisoner of Azkaban” is still my favorite of the series, but Yates has the storytelling savvy to come close to toppling it.

4. “Music and Lyrics” (Marc Lawrence)- The song soundtrack came alive again between the scrappy “Once,” the sensational “Across the Universe,” and writer-director Lawrence’s bubbly pop love story about an aging star (Hugh Grant in top rom com form), a former writer with a knack for lyrics (Drew Barrymore, always bubbly), and the collaboration that brings them together, and heals past hurts.

5. “Hot Fuzz” (Edgar Wright)- After hitting comic and satirical paydirt with their 2004 dark comedy “Shaun of the Dead,” Wright and star-cowriter Simon Pegg take on another genre, the American action film, with a surgeon’s precision and a stand-up comic’s timing as Pegg’s overachieving cop is assigned to a small town where seemingly nothing happens. Wright’s direction is a pitch-perfect jab at Tony Scott and other Bruckheimer directors, while Pegg and co-star Nick Frost take stock in the homoerotic undertones of the buddy flick beautifully in their latest gem together.

6. “Zodiac” (David Fincher)- Fincher’s blends the atmospheric dread of his brilliant “Se7en” with some of the wicked humor of “Fight Club” and dark twists of “The Game” to bring the story of the Zodiac killer with astonishing skill. In “Se7en,” he explored the psychology of the killer without really showing him; here he looks more at the psychology of those on his trail, and the tension is every bit as intriguing, especially when the clues lead cartoonist Robert Graysmith- whose books on the investigation were the basis for the film- into the basement of a possible accomplice.

7. “No Country for Old Men” (Joel & Ethan Coen)- The Coen’s re-energized my enthusiasm for their work- which had been waning with their films since “The Big Lebowski”- in their latest, which explores the traditional morality of the old West in a modern-esque setting that shows that really, not much has changed since. I’m dying to see what they’ll do with the Spaghetti Western genre their next film…

8. “Transformers” (Michael Bay)- I still can’t stand just about anything with the parents, but Bay’s live-action actioner about the robots that are more than meets the eye benefits from exciting, eye-popping action sequences and a star turn by hot actor Shia LaBouf (who scored a hat-trick with this, “Surf’s Up,” and “Disturbia” which makes one excited to see him in executive producer Steven Spielberg’s next film, which gets some mention below).

9. “Lars and the Real Girl” (Craig Gillespie)- Attempting to fill the final two slots of my Favorite films list, I kept coming back to Lars, his coming out because of a sex doll he bought online, and the friends and family who support him in the most surprising ways. I found this film life-affirming in the same manner of “Big Fish”- celebrating the unexpected in life through fantasies with the ring of truth.

10. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (Tim Burton)- It’s position is less based on merit but on the fact that it was a last-minute inclusion, seen the day before this list’s publication. A full review will be available in the coming year, but just know for now that Burton’s adaptation of the legendary Sondheim musical about deadly barbers and cannibalistic meatpies is delightfully devilish fun, with a visionary artist at the peak of his powers and a cast ready to turn the gloom into wicked dark comedy. Now this is entertainment.

Other Notable Favorites: This is probably the most unusual and surprising list I’ve ever come up with, and it won’t be hard to see why. Still, they were the top films that came to mind when making this list. What isn’t so surprising is that this list also begins with Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille” and Jason Reitman’s “Juno”. After that, it gets a little offbeat, starting with “Knocked Up”, Judd Apatow’s entertaining and raunchy unexpected pregnancy farce with a touching relationship by Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl at its’ center; and continuing with “The Bourne Ultimatum”, with Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon bringing their amnesiac’s search for himself to an end with exhilarating thrills; “Once”, the beautifully musical and elegantly scrappy love story; “Across the Universe”, an ambitious musical with the Beatles’ songs in its’ heart; the meditative poetry of “Into Great Silence”; “1408”, with John Cusack bringing considerable chops to Stephen King’s psychological horror; “Dan in Real Life”, which scored with the romantic soul of Steve Carell, caught off guard by Juliette Binoche; “Bridge to Terabithia”, a lovely family adventure from Disney that’s their best live-action family film in years; “Beowulf”, Robert Zemeckis’ animated breakthrough that explores the legend of myth; “Death at a Funeral”, Frank Oz’s darkly comic British comedy; and “The Lookout”, Scott Frank’s moody heist thriller with another strong performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): “3:10 to Yuma”; “28 Weeks Later”; “American Gangster”; “Blades of Glory”; “Crazy Love”; “The Darjeeling Limited”; “Disturbia”; “Fred Claus”; “Grindhouse”; “I Am Legend”; “Imagination”; “In the Land of Women”; “The Kingdom”; “Lions for Lambs”; “Live Free or Die Hard”; “Lucky You”; “Lust, Caution”; “The Mist”; “Mr. Brooks”; “Ocean’s Thirteen”; “Paprika”; “Paris je a’temie”; “Rescue Dawn”; “SiCKO”; “Stardust”; “Superbad”; “Surf’s Up”; “Talk to Me”; “Waitress”; “Wild Hogs”; “Year of the Dog”.

Brian’s Favorite Performances of 2007
This year provided a wealth of outstanding performances in all categories- probably due to the type of movies that came out, this was one of the best acting years in a long while (just wait until you see my Oscar choices). Leading the pack- and my Oscar picks- are Ryan Gosling as a socially inept young man (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and Ellen Page as an underaged girl who goes through profound life changes when she gets pregnant (“Juno”). After that, Jake Ghyllenhaal leads the also-rans as an obsessive political cartoonist (“Zodiac”), not far ahead of Johnny Depp as Sondheim’s Demon Barber in “Sweeney Todd,” Tommy Lee Jones as a tired, weathered sheriff (“No Country for Old Men”), Tobey Maguire as a superhero who’s ego gets in the way of his heroism (“Spider-Man 3”), Molly Shannon as a dog lover not too good with people (“Year of the Dog”), Dan Castellaneta as the lovably dumb Homer (“The Simpsons Movie”), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the hip geek of the year McLovin’ (“Superbad”). Other faves for this year include a tortured young wizard (Daniel Radcliffe, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”), and the teacher who tortures him (“Phoenix’s” Imelda Staunton); a grief-stricken paranormal investigator (“1408’s” John Cusack); a military scientist who’s the only survivor of a medical plague (“I Am Legend’s” Will Smith); a mild-mannered killer with an evil alter ego (“Mr. Brooks’” Kevin Costner); a drug kingpin from the ‘70s with a code of ethics (“American Gangster’s” Denzel Washington); an old West outlaw who allows his captor some pride (“3:10 to Yuma’s” Russell Crowe, who also hit it big acting-wise in “Gangster”); a widowed dad who has love come his way unexpectedly (“Dan in Real Life’s” Steve Carell); a memory-impaired guard who takes control of a heist (“The Lookout’s” Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a radio host whose moral code goes out the window after a vicious attack (“The Brave One’s” Jodie Foster); a morally corrupt judge who doesn’t realize how close vengeance is to him (“Sweeney Todd’s” Alan Rickman); the final chapter of an assassin’s search for himself (“The Bourne Ultimatum’s” Matt Damon); a devilish pie maker who takes in a sociopath (“Todd’s” Helena Bonham Carter); and a triple bill of big movies that turned a supporting actor into a shining star (see “Transformers,” “Disturbia,” and “Surf’s Up” for Shia LaBouf). The rest of my faves this year all came in pairs- either musical (see Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore in “Music and Lyrics” or Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in “Once”), pregnant (see Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl in “Knocked Up”), figure skating (Will Ferrell or Jon Heder in “Blades of Glory”), or buddy cop (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in “Hot Fuzz”).

Brian’s Favorite Music of 2007
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a great year for film music- last year was a great year- but it was an awfully fun one. Of the most note in particular was the wealth of terrific song soundtracks that came our way. Starting with the Broadway transposed giddiness of “Hairspray” (Marc Shaiman & Mark O’Donnell &
Thomas Meehan) and dramatic, darkly comic power of “Sweeney Todd” (Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler & Christopher Bond), Hollywood originals hit paydirt with a Beatles-centric marvel (“Across the Universe”), an Irish ballad series (“Once”), a pop collection of original tunes (“Music and Lyrics”), an evocative score/songscape (courtesy Michael Brook, Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder for “Into the Wild”), and an indie collection of endearing quirkiness (“Juno”). The original scores didn’t have so easy of a time, but the ones that stood out above the rest made their presence known. Leading off the pack was a lush and lyrical score for an elegant animated jewel (Michael Giacchino’s “Ratatouille”– will he at least get nominated this time?) and a moody, melancholy effort for a dark tale of obsession (David Shire’s score for “Zodiac”). After that, things get anything but usual, although a lot of the usual suspects show up, starting with Hans Zimmer’s witty craziness for “The Simpsons Movie” and blustering bombast for “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and continuing with John Powell’s superb suspense hits for “The Bourne Ultimatum”; Alan Silvestri’s booming adventure cues for “Beowulf” (with songs co-penned with Glen Ballard); and Christopher’s Young superbly underrated continuation of Danny Elfman’s work in “Spider-Man 3”. Not far behind them are Dario Marianelli with the evocative emotions of “The Brave One”; Gabriel Yared’s symphonic horror for “1408”; Carter Burwell’s dark quirkiness for “The Hoax” (his best score in a decade); Nicholas Hooper’s lean, epic work for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”; Alexandre Desplat’s lush, lusty strains for “Lust, Caution”; Harry Gregson-Williams’ moody synth-orchestral drama for “Gone Baby Gone”; Marco Beltrami’s Western traditionalism for “3:10 to Yuma”; and finally, the double bill horror cheese of Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” score and Quentin Tarantino’s keen ear for the classics for “Death Proof” for “Grindhouse.” To say this wasn’t a great year ffor film music isn’t to beat down any of the ways in which these scores succeeded- just to say that other years have produced a greater level of success. It’ll be interesting to see where Oscar lands in these catagories this year.

Brian’s Worst Films of 2007
Maybe I’m a little too easy on some movies- for example, in hindsight there’s not much to recommend “Hitman,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” or “Reign Over Me” on. But those films at least did something right. To make my worst list, a film has to be outright terrible in order to stand with the worst of the worst- not too many films can claim that. But then again, I haven’t seen “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” yet. For now, however, here are the bottom of the barrel for me this year. Enjoy, and stay the Hell away!

The F’s:
=“Balls of Fury”– From the comic minds behind “Reno 911!” (and the unfortunate movie based on it…see below) comes a film about underground table tennis that’s less “Dodgeball”-meets-“Rocky” and more “Naked Gun.” Much as I like “Naked Gun,” that’s not a good thing. Neither is the movie.

=“The Number 23”– I originally gave this film a C-, but the more one considers this Joel Schumacher psychological mess (with a game, but miscast, Jim Carrey), the more annoyed I am about how they wasted such an intriguing premise for a thriller on a numbers game that just gets tedious after awhile. It deserves to be with the year’s worst.

=“Next”– Nicolas Cage in action-hero mode, by way of “Minority Report,” “Paycheck,” and pretty much every other movie adapted from Philip K. Dick into some big-budget action movie. Here, he plays a pre-cog who sees what the future holds for hottie Jessica Biel, and it’s nothing good. “Minority Report” nailed this idea better, sharper, and with more feeling- this is just a bloated action flick.

=“Rush Hour 3”– As far as soulless moneygrabs go, none was more painful than this sequel to the enjoyable Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker action-comedies where the only thing notable about it are the paychecks the stars and director Brett Ratner collected.

The D’s: Not far behind those four on the crap-o-meter are “Reno 911!: Miami” (D-), where a fundamentally sketch comedy show is translated to the big screen minus the big laughs (although the story is kind of amusing); “The Reaping” (D), in which Hilary Swank gets caught in a wave of religious fanaticism when the plagues of God begin taking over a small rural town; “Smokin’ Aces” (D), an excessively stylized action thriller from Joe Carnahan about a mob hit on a witness (the game Jeremy Piven); “Shrek the Third” (D+, originally a C), where the laughs are few and far between and the story is just running on fumes for everyone’s favorite ogre; and “Because I Said So” (D+), which takes us to chick flick Hell and wastes a good performance by Mandy Moore and just wastes Diane Keaton.

Brian’s 10 “Must-See” Films of 2008
1. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (5/22)
2. “The Dark Knight” (7/18)
3. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (11/21)
4. “Iron Man” (5/2)
5. “The Lovely Bones” (N/A)
6. “Wall*E” (6/27)
7. “Be Kind Rewind” (2/22)
8. “Valkyrie” (10/3)
9. “Star Trek” (12/25)
10. “Synecdoche, New York” (3/21)

Other 2008 titles to look out for include: “10,000 B.C.” (3/7); “Bond 22” (11/7); “Charlie Bartlett” (2/22); “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” (5/16); “Cloverfield” (1/18); “Definitely, Maybe” (2/14); “Get Smart” (6/20); “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (7/11); “Horton Hears a Who!” (3/14); “The Incredible Hulk” (6/13); “Leatherheads” (4/4); “Saw V” (10/24); “Speed Racer” (5/9); “Untitled X-Files Sequel” (7/25).

Hope you enjoyed what I had to say about 2007 movies. These lists are- of course- subject to change the more films I see, and I have more to say with my Oscar coverage. Thanks for reading this year, and see you in 2008!

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

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