Friday, December 21, 2007

Ebert's year's ten best films of 2007

The year's ten best films
and other shenanigans

by Roger Ebert

It was a time of wonders, an autumn of miracles, one of the best years in recent movie history. One great film after another opened, and movie lovers found there were two or three, sometimes more, must-see films opening on a weekend. I gave up rationing my four-star ratings and went with the flow. The best films of 2007:

1. "Juno" : How can I choose this warm-hearted comedy about a pregnant teenager, when the year was rich with serious drama? First, because of all the year’s films I responded to it most strongly. I tried out other titles in the No. 1 position, but my heart told me I had to be honest: This was my true love, and I could not be unfaithful. It is so hard to make a great comedy at all, and harder still to make one that is intelligent, quick, charming, moving and yes, very, very funny. Seeing “Juno” with an audience was to be reminded of unforgettable communal moviegoing experiences, when strangers are united in delight. It was light on its feet, involving the audience in love and care for its characters. The first-time screenplay by Diablo Cody is Oscar-worthy. So is Ellen Page’s performance in the title role, which is like tightrope-walking: There were so many ways for her to go wrong, and she never did.

Javier Bardem tosses a fateful coin in "No Country for Old Men."

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2. "No Country for Old Men" : A perfect movie, I wrote after the premiere at Toronto. And so it is. The Coen brothers supply not a wrong scene or even a wrong moment. A story bleak and merciless, played out by characters who are capable of almost anything except withstanding the relentless evil of its serial killer. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, it builds on his eye and ear to create a world in which ordinary assumptions go astray, and logic is useless. With spare, wounded performances by Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson and many others, and Javier Bardem as not a man so much as a force of destruction.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

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3. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”: It was a year for the great character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, so different and so good in this film, “The Savages” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In “Devil,” he and Ethan Hawke play brothers, unlike except in their urgent need for cash, who plan a “victimless” hold-up of their family’s jewelry store. Everything goes wrong, they feel anguish and panic in the pits of their stomachs, and in the eyes of their father (Albert Finney), the hurt is almost unbearable. They lie and deceive first others and then themselves, and it all turns to ashes. Another masterpiece by Sidney Lumet, who is 83 and at the top of his form.

James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley in "Atonement."

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4. “Atonement”: The momentary misunderstanding of a child destroys all possibility of happiness in three lives. Saoirse Ronan plays a young adolescent in a wealthy English family, who sees her older sister (Keira Knightley) and the family groundskeeper (James McAvoy) in a confrontation she misunderstands, which later leads her to telling an unforgivable lie. Against the canvas of World War II, the love of the two older characters is prevented from realizing itself, in a stunning period picture that centers on a tracking shot at Dunkirk that is one of he most elaborate ever staged. Directed by Joe Wright, based on an Ian McEwan novel that saves a final ironic insight until the end.

5. “The Kite Runner”: The beloved best-seller by Khaled Hosseini about two boys in peaceful pre-war Kabul, before the Russians, the Taliban, the Americans and the anarchy destroyed Afghanistan. The boys and their parents are seen in tender detail, then revisited years later after devastation has overthrown their lives. Homayoun Ershadi, who plays the father, has such expressive eyes he makes many of the film’s points without speaking. Director Marc Forster, filming in local languages in Afghanistan and the United States, interlaces the fabric of these lives with a heartbreaking story that leads to a powerfully uplifting ending.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Sarah Polley's "Away From Her."

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6. “Away From Her”: The Canadian actress Sarah Polley makes her directing debut with a heartbreaking story of the destruction of Alzheimer’s. Julie Christie, in one of the year’s best performances, plays a woman whose memories are inexorably slipping away. Gordon Pinsent plays her loving husband, who cannot comprehend how he could so quickly come to mean so little to her. Based on a story by Alice Munro, the film sees through his eyes the disappearance of love, history, life itself, as he lives on in loneliness.

7. “Across the Universe”: Possibly the year’s most divisive film; you loved it or hated it. Julie Taymor brings all of her gifts of visual invention to a story centering on a group of friends living in Greenwich Village and expressing their lives through the Beatles songbook. They encounter people not unlike those in famous Beatles songs or albums, and the music sheds light on their experiences — sometimes unexpectedly, as when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” tenderly expresses the deepest feelings of a lovelorn lesbian cheerleader. The movie captures the best of what the Beatles represented. I want to see it two or three more times, experiencing it like a favorite CD.

Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington in "The Great Debaters."

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8. "La Vie en Rose": A virtuoso performance by Marion Cotillard as the beloved “Little Sparrow,” the legendary singer closest to the hearts of the French. Raised in a brothel and then the “property” of a gangster, she was only 4’8” tall, but had a voice that filled the city. Cotillard portrays her rising from the gutters to international stardom, and then dying of an overdose at 47. The title refers to her most famous song, about life through rose-colored glasses. The film ends with “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”). The period is vividly re-created by director Olivier Dahan. One of the greatest of musical biopics.

9. “The Great Debaters”: Denzel Washington’s spellbinding film based on the true story set in 1935 about a debate team from Wiley College, an obscure black institution in Texas that defeated Harvard for the national championship. Washington plays their coach, who demands the highest standards, but the film is not another story about an underdog championship, but a searing reminder of the racist society the team lived in. On a night journey, Washington and his students happen upon a lynching; the horror and danger are overwhelming. With Nate Parker touching as the team researcher who becomes a last-minute substitute, Denzel Whitaker as debater and future CORE founder James Farmer Jr., Jurnee Smollett as a debater who calls on her deepest feelings, and Forest Whitaker as a local preacher who becomes galvanized. It’s a deep emotional experience.

Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild."

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10. “Into the Wild”: Sean Penn’s bleak but sympathetic drama is based on the real story of Christopher McCandless, an idealistic loner who trekked into the Alaskan wilderness and died there. The movie shows him meeting mentors along the way, who are concerned about him, especially a rugged individualist (Hal Holbrook) and a spirited hippie (Catherine Keener). Emile Hirsch plays the role to within an inch of his life, somehow expressing without seeming to try how his tunnel vision leads him through his dreams to his disaster. Could have been dreary, but Penn’s screenplay and direction are compelling.

Special Jury Prize

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in "Once" -- an image slightly different from the poster and the DVD cover.

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John Carney’s “Once”: At film festivals, the jury sometimes singles out a film for special qualities that especially impressed them. As a jury of one, my award this year goes to the charming, low-key, quietly appealing “Once,” starring Glen Hansard as a Dublin street musician and Markéta Irglová as a Czech immigrant who meet and slowly grow closer while, yes, making beautiful music together. Very little dialogue, but the music and their eyes and silences say it all, in a bittersweet and aching love story.

The Tie for 11th Place

In a way, it’s silly to rank films in numerical order. I do a Top 10 because tradition requires it. But here are 10 more films for which I have equal affection. Alphabetically: David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” with Naomi Watts, who becomes the protector of an orphaned child, and Viggo Mortensen as a driver for the Russian mafia in London, whose values are challenged by his assignment; Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” using six actors to represent aspects of the elusive Bob Dylan (Cate Blanchett is the best); Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” with another powerful performance by Tommy Lee Jones, as a father not satisfied with the official explanation of his son’s death in Iraq; Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” with George Clooney as a fixer for a law firm who gets mired in the messiness of truth and conscience; Gavin Hood’s “Rendition,” starring Reese Witherspoon as a wife whose Egyptian-American husband “disappears” on a flight from Cape Town, and Jake Gyllenhaall as the CIA temporary station chief who is shocked by discoveries he makes about the outsourcing of torture.

Also, John Turturro’s bold, unconventional musical “Romance & Cigarettes,” starring James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon as a couple at war in Queens, and Kate Winslet as his fiery mistress. The characters sing along with their favorite songs, in a story that starts out rambunctious and grows serious; Andrew Wagner’s “Starting Out in the Evening,” with Frank Langella as a 70-year-old great novelist, and Lauren Ambrose as the young student who wants to know why he hasn’t published a novel long in progress; Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a blood-soaked musical starring Johnny Depp as a cutthroat barber and Helena Bonham Carter as the meat-pie baker who recycles his clients; Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk to Me,” with its virtuoso performance by Don Cheadle as Petey Greene, who brought an authentic voice to radio in Washington, D.C., at a crucial time, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” with Daniel Day- Lewis as a single-minded oil well wildcatter who runs roughshod over everyone in his way.

The Best Foreign Films

Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” inspired by the extraordinary achievement of French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), paralyzed except for his left eye, which he used to blink out a memoir; Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” about a Romanian girl’s attempts to help her friend find an illegal abortion; Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” about a passionate sex affair between a spy and her quarry during the Second World II; Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Orphanage,” about a woman who returns to the orphanage where she ws raised, and finds it haunted, and Rajnesh Domalpalli’s “Vanaja,” abour a lower-caste Indian girl who is befriended by a rich woman and learns to be a gifted dancer, only to find caste barriers in the way of her heart.

The Best Animated Films

Robert Zemeckis’ “Beowulf,” using motion-capture animation to create a vast scale warrior-and-monsters epic from the dark ages, with a rich subtext of humor; Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” about an Iranian girl who rebels against the rise of the mullahs, and Brad Bird’s high-spirited, riotous “Ratatouille,” about rats taking over a kitchen with excellent results!).

The Best Documentaries

David Sington’s “In the Shadow of the Moon,” revisiting many of the surviving astronauts to talk about their great Apollo adventures and re-create their triumphs; Seth Gordon’s “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” about an epic struggle between two competitors for the title of champion of an almost-forgotten arcade game; Tony Kaye’s “Lake of Fire,” filmed over a period of 17 years, about the battle over abortion in America; Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” using first-person testimony from government and military eyewitnesses to document the mismanagement of the Iraq invasion; Jim Brown’s “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” about the long and productive life of America’s folk troubadour, and Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” contrasting America’s health-care system with the way it’s done elsewhere.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The best movies of 2006

The best movies of 2006

/ / / November 22, 2007

By Roger Ebert

Yes, I know it's a year late, but a funny thing happened to me on the way to compiling a list of the best films of 2006. I checked into the hospital in late June 2006 and didn't get out again until spring of 2007. During the second six months of last year, I doubt if I saw three movies. I just wasn't feeling like it.

Then something revolved within me, and I was engaged in life again. I started writing reviews of 2007 films, and then began doubling back to pick up as many promising 2006 titles as I could. Am I missing some of the year's worthy entries? No doubt. But even in a good year I'm unable to see everything. And I'm still not finished with my 2006 discoveries.

Nothing I am likely to see, however, is likely to change my conviction that the year's best film was "Pan's Labyrinth."

And so these were 2006's best films:

1 Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" tells opposite stories and does both of them full justice. On the one hand, there is an outpost of Franco's fascist army in the forests of Spain, seeking its enemies shortly after the Spanish Civil War. On the other hand, there is the fantastical world of a young girl whose mother is married to the monstrous captain in charge of the unit. She is led into a labyrinth by a fairy, and encounters the bizarre and disturbing world of a faun who tells her she is really a princess and must strive to accomplish three tasks to be reunited with her dead father.

It is universally assumed that this world exists only in the girl's fantasy, but I am not so sure. The film plays as well if it is a real but parallel world, in which she can correct such evils as fascism. The special effects are nightmarish and effective, including the faun and a giant toad, and it takes courage to go into that labyrinth -- and also to emerge again into a world of politics and cruelty. Del Toro doesn't compromise on the fantasy, or the reality.

2 "Bubble," Steven Soderbergh's film delicately examines the everyday life of three Ohio factory workers. To cast his film, Soderbergh used actual blue-collar workers from the district; he structured their performances and the plot, but remained open to their real lives, and we see the desperation of working poverty, in which you work double shifts, stare at the TV and collapse. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), who cares for her father, has enough money to own a car; Kyle (Dustin Ashley), who lives in a mobile home, depends on her for rides to a doll factory. Then Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) gets a job in the factory. She's younger and prettier than the fat Martha, but is Martha jealous? No, she doesn't want Kyle's love but his dependency on her. How this pays off is completely unforeseen but sort of inevitable, and it illustrates the bleakness and poverty of imagination of their quietly desperate world.

3 "Children of Men" is Alfonso Cuaron's fantasy set in the year 2027, when terrorism has rendered the world ungovernable, and no children have been born in 18 years. When a newborn infant and its mother Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) come into the circle of the hero (Clive Owen), he joins with a former lover (Julianne Moore) and her associate (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in an underground movement, to help the young woman find refuge in a rumored haven off the coast of Britain. This involves a journey across the land, and a stop at the home of a courageous aging hippie (Michael Caine) who tries to live somewhat outside the system. The view of the deteriorating society they travel through is humbling; is this where we are headed?

4 "The Departed" is Martin Scorsese's story of loyalties and deceptions in the worlds of two kids who grow up as impostors: One becomes a gangster (Matt Damon) who goes undercover as a cop, and the other (Leonardo Di Caprio) becomes a cop who goes undercover as a gangster. Each one is assigned to find the other, and each knows things he must conceal; there is a chilling moment when one is given the wrong address and goes to the right one instead. The movie's crosscurrents of plot and emotion are terrifying in their application of unforgiving logic. Scorsese, so good for so many years, finally won an Oscar for this film, as best director.

5 "The Lives of Others" is a film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, about a member of the Stasi, the East German secret police during the cold war, and how he spies on a playwright suspected of treason. As he shares their lives through earphones day after day, his own life comes to seem more bleak and friendless than ever, and he makes certain decisions which the film doesn't underline, but simply regards with detached objectivity. The central performance by Ulrich Muehe is a masterpiece of observation about how a man can shut down or open up in reaction to the inhuman requirements of the state.

6 "United 93," written and directed by Paul Greengrass, could have been a routine thriller, even an exploitation film, but it is a masterful reconstruction of what happened on board the 9/11 plane that never did reach its intended target -- the one that was brought down in a Pennsylvania field by passengers' determined not to cave in to hijackers. Greengrass underlines the impact by making his film entirely in the present tense; at no time do his passengers have any more knowledge than the real ones must have had at the time. That's effective in placing us in the moment.

7 "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" are two paired films by the hugely ambitious Clint Eastwood, who shows the most relentless battle of World War II from the American side, and then, with subtitles, from the Japanese side. Some 44,000 died in a few weeks on a small island in the Pacific, fighting with raw courage, and on the Japanese side, with full knowledge that they would die. With masterful production planning, Eastwood is able to make the strategies of both sides clear, and we understand what is happening and how deadly it is, and how the famous photograph of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima does not represent what is assumed, or even show what it seems to show. There is a heartbreaking subplot about Ira Hayes, the Native American who was one of those who raised the flag.

8 "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run"), is based on the portrait of deep evil in Patrick Suskind's mesmerizing novel. A strange little man is born with no body odor of his own (is he the spawn of the devil?) but a nose so sensitive that he can live on a different plane from other people. He grows obsessed with extracting the aromas of beautiful women and becomes a serial killer in the service of his craft. Since neither novel nor movie can impart scents, it would seem they have impossible tasks, but not at all; the film is transgressive in suggesting how much its hero's gift violated the rights and persons of those around him.

9 "Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's cross-cutting film, shows us characters in Morocco, the United States, Mexico and Japan, all altered by the introduction of a rifle into their matrix. They speak different languages, yes, but more crucially they speak different images and contexts; what is meaningful in one world is inconsequential in another. The linkage is not just a narrative gimmick, but essential to the film's view of cultures in conflicts that are sometimes unconscious.

The inclusion of films in the best 10 by Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro is emblematic of the stature of the current Mexican cinema; all three have emerged as among the best recent directors.

10 "Man Push Cart" by Ramin Bahrani is as strong as or stronger than anything produced by Italian neorealism, and in the same spirit. The Iranian-American director follows the daily life of an immigrant from Pakistan as he operates a stainless-steel coffee and bagel cart on the sidewalks of New York and lives a marginal economic existence. The title reduces his life to his basic element; he was once a rock star at home, but now he pushes a cart. Bahrani's gifts as a filmmaker were evident again at Toronto 2007, when he premiered "Chop Shop," another unremitting portrait of life on the edge in New York City.

Reviews of most of these titles are online at

Golden Anniversary Award

The year 2007 was not precisely Robert Altman's 50th anniversary as a filmmaker, but "The James Dean Story," his first feature, was released in 1957, and so the year will serve. This special recognition is given to the great director, who died on Nov. 20, 2006, depriving the film world of one of its most fertile and inspiring geniuses. It goes in particular to his elegiac and bittersweet "A Prairie Home Companion," which I am convinced is a farewell film of sorts, as the magician lays down his rough magic and a radio show goes off the air. In terms of its content, it is musical, funny, moving, mysterious. In terms of its function, it is difficult not to see the Garrison Keillor character as standing in for Altman, as he observes that everything must eventually run its course. If this film is a farewell to his career, I wonder if Altman's previous film, "The Company" (2003), was a tribute to his own work style. The largely improvised story of a year in the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, it stars Malcolm McDowell as "Mr. A," obviously intended as Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey's co-founder and artistic director. But maybe there is another "Mr. A" in view, too, who uses the same directorial method of low-key suggestion, elusive ways of collaboration, a sense of community, an openness to innovation.

I was so ill when Altman died, they didn't even tell me. When I finally heard the news, I immediately thought of this film. I watched it again, and found myself crying. I miss him so much.

Best documentaries

Alphabetically: "49 Up," the latest chapter of Michael Apted's epic documentary series, tracking the lives of the same British citizens every seven years; "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," about an elusive and troubled but legendary singer-songwriter; the Oscar winner "An Inconvenient Truth," containing Al Gore's warning on global meltdown; "Isn't This a Time," about a final reunion of the legendry folk group the Weavers; "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," about an unconventional Illinois farmer who runs a self-sustaining organic farm; "Shut Up and Sing," about the Dixie Chicks and their troubles after their lead singer was critical of George W. Bush, and "Unknown White Male," the strange case of a man who may or may not have had amnesia.

The Special Jury Prize

At many great festivals, including Cannes, this prize essentially means: A large minority on the jury strongly feels this is the film that should have won. This year it is shared by 10 films, alphabetically:

"Akeelah and the Bee," the story of a young girl (Keke Palmer) who is a gifted speller and finds that opens doors to solving problems in her life; "Come Early Morning," with one of Ashley Judd's best performances as a hard-drinking rural contractor whose life is spinning out of control; "Hard Candy," starring Ellen ("Juno") Page as a completely different and astonishingly transgressive young girl who gets revenge on a man; "L'enfant" by the Dardenne brothers, about two young drifters who have a baby, and the callow and heartless husband who decides to sell it; "Little Miss Sunshine," with Abigail Breslin and a colorful family on a cross-country odyssey to a beauty pageant.

Also, "The Queen" by Stephen Frears, with Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II; "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones as a ranch worker who wants revenge and a proper burial for his murdered friend; "Tristram Shandy, a Cock and Bull Story" by Michael Winterbottom, about an attempt to film an elusive British classic only one of the filmmakers has read; "Tsotsi" by Gavin Hood, starring Presley Chweneyagae as a South African township hoodlum, in last year's winner as best foreign language film, and Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," with Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura, about a mother's ghost who returns to tidy things.

The tie for 11th place

Every year we traditionally declare a 10-way tie for 11th place. The distinguished films this year are Eric Byler's "Americanese," about a tentative romance much entangled with the Asian heritage of the three people involved; Rian Johnson's "Brick," transposing a hard-boiled detective style to a modern high school; Olivier Assayas' "Clean," with Maggie Cheung as a drug-addicted fading rock star who wants her child back from her father-in-law (Nick Nolte); Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," about an ambulance service in Romania doggedly determined to find a hospital for a dying man, and Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls," the high-octane musical.
Also Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson," with Ryan Gosling as a high school teacher with a drug problem, and a student who tries to help; James Marsh's "The King," with Gael Garcia Bernal as a young man in search of his father; Marc Forster's "Stranger Than Fiction," with Will Ferrell as a man who hears his own life being narrated in his head; Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking," a brilliant satire about Big Tobacco, and Michael Cuesta's "Twelve and Holding," about three kids who take desperate measures to turn around their lives.