The year in film
There Will Be Blood, Ratatouille top our critics' charts
Editor's note: Here are the year-end 10 best movies as chosen by film critics Felicia Feaster and Curt Holman.
FELICIA FEASTER'S TOP 10
1) There Will Be Blood – Nearly every critics' group has singled out Daniel Day-Lewis for praise as the mercenary oil man in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of socialist novelist Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!. It's not just the sublime Day-Lewis whose charms make this film an astounding, cinematic opus. The film also features Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's seductive, intellectually meaty score; a look and scope that bring to mind Citizen Kane and Night of the Hunter, among others; and an ambitiously mature project from a director more often aligned with a hepster, popish sensibility. The cherry on top: a scathing indictment of the perversity of American business and the oil industry with a depressing applicability to the here and now.
2) La Vie en Rose – Director Olivier Dahan's subtext-laden, tight and emotionally devastating film about the legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf was far from the sorrow-jonesing, pity-party biopic too many critics dismissed this film as. Because along with Marion Cotillard's uncanny impersonation of Piaf, La Vie en Rose was a film that did that rarest of things: celebrating with style, sadness and wit the life of an exceptional and exceptionally damaged woman who never succumbed to the worst life gave her.
3) Away from Her – This lovely debut film from 28-year-old actress Sarah Polley showed incredible precociousness and depth on the filmmaker's part. When so many young directors seem drawn to glitz and gunplay and a cast close to their own age, Polley showed real integrity in treating the loss of self and control that old age brings. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie are the unconventional elderly couple who make the excruciating decision to separate, and commit Fiona to a nursing home.
4) Into the Wild – Terminal left-winger Sean Penn got a little soulful and real this go around. Penn transformed this Jon Krakauer novel about 24-year-old Emory student Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) entertaining fantasies of living on his own in Alaska into a very topical-feeling quest story about finding meaning in life with unforgettable performances from Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and nonprofessional Brian Dierker.
5) Lars and the Real Girl – What initially looked like an exercise in indie-quirk – about a lonely, alienated guy (Ryan Gosling) and his sex doll – transformed into a Frank Capra-esque yarn about community, family, nurturing, loss and how we define adulthood. Director Craig Gillespie, ably backed by Nancy Oliver's exceptional script, performed a delicate balancing act, never allowing the film to topple over into ludicrous comedy or undeserved pathos. And Gosling proved utterly believable as a young man so defined by loss, he has to be slowly taught how to hope again.
6) Lady Chatterley – When so many films handle sex so badly, French female director Pascale Ferran's graphic adaptation of an early draft of D.H. Lawrence's novel felt like a revelation. Characters that initially seem conventional – the wealthy, unsatisfied wife (Marina Hands) and the brutish, inexpressive gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch) – ripen and become something far more. Ferran's connection of sex to the natural world and to the deepest, best, most wounded part of her characters breathed new life into Lawrence's subversive literary work, demonstrating how progressive the art of the past could be.
7) Year of the Dog – Another film that dared to imagine a female character charting her own, oddball path, Mike White's weird and wonderful character study centered on a woman (Molly Shannon) whose life changes when she loses her beloved beagle Pencil. Like its Facebook pal, Lars and the Real Girl, Year of the Dog maintained a subtle balance as it told the story of a selfless, invisible woman who decides to live on her own terms and not others. What seemed like a wafer-thin comedy transformed into a politically progressive, even feminist story of self-empowerment and caring for the least among us.
8) Knocked Up – Crude, rude and dangerously funny, shock-humanist Judd Apatow's tale of a goofball (Seth Rogen) who has to grow some cajones and abandon childish things managed to be kind to both its male characters and its female ones. While so much of American life seems regressive, Apatow's secretly sweet dick-flick comedies show a definite progress from the dark days of Porky's and (more recently) American Pie in showing complex characters navigating all the pitfalls of contemporary life.
9) Rescue Dawn – The idea seemed daft at first; Werner Herzog creating a narrative film from the wonderful 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly he made about German-born, American-bred Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale). But in a time when war, corporate greed and a politically fractured society can throw into question just what America means, Herzog delivered an endearing, bittersweet valentine to the best values and impulses of the country embodied in one heroic individual. Christian Bale was mesmerizing as an unconventionally golly-gee hero and Steve Zahn equally compelling as his more fragile compatriot.
10) Juno – A media sensation as much as a rollickingly fun film, this female take on the Knocked Up scenario featured a tough-on-the-outside, soft-inside teenage heroine to die for in Ellen Page. When Juno (Page) discovers she's pregnant, she takes a thoroughly unconventional course in dealing with the situation. The film also marked the impressive screenwriting debut of stripper/blogger/sexed-up riot grrrl Diablo Cody, who offered a distinctly female take on the teen sex comedy.
CURT HOLMAN'S TOP 10
1) Ratatouille – This sublime screwball comedy about a rat aspiring to be a gourmet French chef transcends the cold aspects of computer animation to offer, paradoxically, the year's warmest portrayal life's sensory pleasures. Brad Bird, director of Pixar's equally brilliant The Incredibles, finds emotional depth and surprising jokes in a potentially familiar "follow your dreams" scenario, while celebrating the sensual joys of cooking and eating. One of cinema's great "foodie films."
2) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Cooking and eating find different meanings entirely in Tim Burton's lavish adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's dark musical. A grisly revenge story touches on operatic passions and finds darkly humorous metaphors for the man-eat-man capitalism of Victorian London. Burton's superb cast, including Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, may not have classical musical training, but they capture the material's intensity in skin-crawling close-up.
3) Zodiac – In recounting the decades-long pursuit of San Francisco's notorious "Zodiac Killer," Fight Club director David Fincher captured our culture's obsessive fascination with serial murderers while doing justice to the sprawling complexities of police work and investigative journalism. Despite its technical brilliance, wide-ranging moral vision and clear fondness for 1970s classics such as All the President's Men, Zodiac seems to have been virtually forgotten, but perhaps it'll find its audience on DVD.
4) The Savages – Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman give two of the year's best performances as self-absorbed siblings saddled with caring for the ailing dad (Philip Bosco) who abandoned them years ago. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins, writing the year's finest original screenplay, somehow manages to mercilessly mock the immaturity of Wendy and Jon Savage while eliciting sympathy for their emotional paralysis. The sharp, often hilarious portrayals of grown children grappling with an aging parent strike closer to home than any other film conflict of the year.
5) Hot Fuzz – The creators of Sean of the Dead turn their satiric sights to Hollywood shoot-'em-up action movies, and craft a loving parody that works as both a hilarious comedy and, in its last act, an adrenaline-fueled, flamboyantly edited action movie in its own right. (And no, I'm not just saying that because you can see me on "The Fuzzball Rally," a minidoc about the Hot Fuzz press tour on the film's DVD.)
6) No Country for Old Men – National critics have, in consensus, anointed the Coen brothers' comeback film as the best of 2007, and for good reason. The Coens redirect their trademark irony for a thrilling portrayal of men pursuing a fortune on opposite sides of the U.S./Mexican border, with Javier Bardem's coin-flipping hit man providing one of the year's most memorable performances. Audiences may argue whether the film laments America's moral decline or simply echoes it, but its excellence is undeniable.
7) Deep Water – This year featured powerful documentaries about such subjects as the Iraq war (No End in Sight) and health care (Sicko), but the most compelling nonfiction film harked back to a round-the-world yacht race in the late 1960s. Amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst's doomed bid to win money and glory touches on the dark sides of competition and commerce, and its astonishing, stranger-than-fiction outcome proved that no one can outrun fate.
8) Atonement – Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel first captures the class and sexual tensions of a 1930s English estate in microscopic detail, then expands to encompass the sweep of World War II. Although Keira Knightley and James McAvoy have won acclaim as star-crossed lovers separated by a young girl's misdeeds, the real stars are Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave as the same character who discovers, at different points in her life, that words cannot undo their power to harm others. Click on the movie title for the original review of the film where applicable.
9) There Will Be Blood – Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson moves from his comfort zone of contemporary California to recount a cautionary tale of a ruthless oil man (a towering, misanthropic Daniel Day-Lewis) who alienates friends, family and possibly God in his efforts to strike it rich. Like No Country for Old Men, the film features compelling, dialogue-free sequences against harsh landscapes, with moral authority in short supply. The extended epilogue evokes Citizen Kane without quite living up to it – but that only conveys the extent of the film's ambition and ability as it portrays the symbiotic relationship between religion and big business.
10) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – The fifth and the best adaptation so far of J.K. Rowling's series of adventures of the young wizard student, Order of the Phoenix offers the magical set pieces we've come to expect. Director David Yates' fluid filmmaking raises the stakes with post-9/11 metaphors that work as both a plea to take terrorist threats seriously and a cautionary tale against the totalitarian abuse of power in the name of security.