The Best Movies of 2007

Popcorn.  Mmmmm,The Best Movies of 2007
By Mercurio D. Rivera

It’s difficult for me to construct a Top 10 list this year because a number of otherwise entertaining films suffer from the same ailment: a disappointing ending. Among the culprits is Oscar nominee Atonement, a period-piece melodrama that evokes no sympathy for the character seeking atonement and finally culminates in a maddening “it was all a dream”-type of twist ending. The equally lauded Zodiac starts like gangbusters before disintegrating into one obsessed character’s tiresome investigation of countless red herrings. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a clever exercise in point-of-view shifts, proves utterly bleak and, in the end, empty. But the winner of “bleak” is France’s much-praised, profoundly depressing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about a paraplegic who can only communicate by blinking his left eye. And although I’m generally a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts, Charlie Wilson’s War, proved an unwatchable and uneven mess, wavering between political satire and drama.

Here are the ten best movies of 2007 and the ten runners-up:

10. 28 Weeks Later – The Infected return in this smart splatterfest, a sequel to 28 Days Later that boasts an effective undercurrent of wry political commentary. A belligerent American occupation force has secured London after containment of the virus that turns ordinary people into fast-moving, flesh-hungry zombies. But they soon come to realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew when the virus reemerges. The shaky handheld camera and accompanying rock score are pitch perfect for this kinetic, chaotic horror flick.

9. Juno – Jason Reitman’s witty and warm-hearted story of a spunky pregnant teenager hits all the right notes. While the dialogue is sometimes too clever for its own good, Ellen Page sparkles as the sarcastic and feisty title character, a mom-to-be who decides to audition a couple to be the parents to her unborn child. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are terrific as the flawed couple, and pasty, gangly Michael Cera cracks me up every time he’s on screen as the title character’s droll, smitten boyfriend.

8. Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate yet again in this dark, alluring version of the Sondheim musical. Depp plays Sweeny Todd as a glowering, menacing rock star out for revenge against the judge and the town who cost him his family. Burton’s grey palette fits the dark tale perfectly, interrupted only by the sporadic bright crimson of splattering blood.

7. Into the Wild – Based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller, Emile Hirsch gives a star-making performance as a college graduate who abandons all of his material possessions and treks across the American landscape towards the wilds of Alaska, encountering a bevy of memorable characters along the way. Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener and especially Hal Holbrook all shine in supporting roles. The gorgeous cinematography makes it impossible not to empathize with the adolescent’s wanderlust and Eddie Vedder’s earnest soundtrack complements the movie perfectly. The tragic ending highlights the fine line between idealism and naivety, wisdom and hubris.

6. Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg’s violent, moody, Russian mob drama stars Viggo Mortenson as a stoic mobster and the best friend of the Boss’s son. When a nurse at a London hospital (Naomi Watts) is unable to save the life of a pregnant Russian prostitute, she brings home the orphaned baby and the mom’s diary, which contains secrets that drag her into a seedy underworld of drugs and prostitution. Armin Mueller-Stahl is especially charismatic as the suave, grandfatherly crime boss. Menace, suspense and surprises fill every frame up until its somewhat abrupt ending.

5. The Lives of Others – Last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign movie (surprisingly beating out Pan’s Labyrinth) was released in the U.S. in February, making it eligible for this year’s list. It tells a riveting, suspenseful tale of distrust and government intimidation set in 1984 East Germany. The protagonist, a loyal agent of the secret police, is assigned to spy on a renowned playwright and his actress girlfriend and in the process undergoes a slow, unforgettable spiritual transformation that mirrors the changes in Germany itself.

4. The Namesake – Sprawling, cross-generational, epic about a Bengali immigrant family and one young man’s search for his own identity (comic actor Kal Penn from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle in an impressive dramatic performance). This moving melodrama explores the essence of the immigrant experience, what is sacrificed to fit in, and the ties of culture and family.

3. Stardust – Based on Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, this sparkling fantasy revolves around Claire Danes as a shooting star given human form and Charlie Cox as the boy who slowly comes to fall in love with her on their journey together. Robert Deniro and Michelle Pfeiffer seem to have a blast playing a cross-dressing pirate on a flying ship, and a life-sucking, evil witch, respectively. Romantic and fun, entertaining and charming, Stardust strikes a whimsical tone reminiscent of the classic The Princess Bride.

2. There Will Be Blood – Paul Thomas Anderson’s eccentric and explosive character study of American capitalism told through two characters: Daniel Plainview (sure-bet Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis), a ruthless, single-minded oil driller, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano from Little Miss Sunshine), an ambitious, money-hungry Evangelical “healer.” The stunning cinematography, dissonant slasher-film score, and Day Lewis’s high-octane performance all make for a strange, unforgettable movie-watching experience.

1. No Country for Old Men – The Coen Brothers’ suspenseful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel features a classic villain played by Javier Bardem certain to join the ranks of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates in cinema’s ultimate rogue’s gallery. Bardem plays an unstoppable, merciless assassin on the hunt for a rancher (Josh Brolin) who happens upon cash from a drug deal gone wrong. Tommy Lee Jones gives perhaps the finest performance of his career as the small-town sheriff trying to make sense of it all. The desolate vistas, the true-to-life folksy dialogue, the sense of impending doom, make this the best movie of the year.

11. Superbad (Judd Apatow-produced high school comedy that generates the year’s biggest laughs); 12. No End in Sight (astounding documentary about the administration’s colossal missteps in the reconstruction of “post-War” Iraq); 13. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (tense, harrowing account of a young woman’s mission to help her college roommate obtain an illegal abortion in oppressive 1987 Romania—as different in tone from Juno and Knocked Up as you can get); 14. Michael Clayton (slick, smart legal drama starring George Clooney as a problem-“fixer” at a huge law firm and a terrific Tom Wilkinson as an attorney victimized by his own conscience); 15. The Orphanage (chilling Spanish horror flick about a family that moves into a haunted orphanage with a dark history); 16. Ratatouille (sumptuous Pixar classic about the rat who would be chef); 17. Persepolis (affecting animated feature about an Iranian girl coming of age under the dictatorship of the Shah); 18. The Simpsons Movie (Springfield’s beloved characters make it to the big screen in all their glory (particularly Bart)—but there’s not enough Mr. Burns for my tastes); 19. 3:10 to Yuma (beautifully shot, suspenseful Western with outstanding performances by Christian Bale and Russell Crowe); 20. Sunshine (moody sci-fi flick about a deep-space mission to reignite the fading sun).

The Number 23 on DVD

23 the MovieThe Number 23 on DVD
By Mercurio D. Rivera

For Jim Carrey completists, his most recent movie, The Number 23, an attempted psychological thriller, arrived on DVD this past Tuesday. The DVD is chock full of impressive special features, including, deleted scenes, alternate endings, commentary by director Joel Schumacher, and three short documentaries, including one on the making of the movie. For fans of this film [Are you out there? Hello? Anybody?], it’s certainly worth picking up for the extras.

Carrey continues to stretch his acting muscles, this time playing Walter Sparrow, a dogcatcher who becomes insanely obsessed with the supernatural secrets of the number 23. Sparrow happens upon this mystery after his wife (Virginia Madsen, giving her all) gives him a dime-store detective novel in which the protagonist private dick (also played by Carrey), fixates on the number. It turns out that when Sparrow adds up (or subtracts or multiples or divides or randomly transposes) any numbers, ranging from his street address to his social security to the pairs of shoes in his wife’s closet, he arrives at …23! Eerie, huh? So what does it all mean? No one knows. Not Sparrow. Not the detective in the novel. Not even the scriptwriters apparently.

Unfortunately, the movie spends way too much of its time in the two-dimensional world of the detective novel with its cardboard, clichéd noir characters and not enough time in the real world where Sparrow slowly loses his grip on his sanity. Schumacher uses every trick at his disposal to try to make the detective story interesting, including diagonal camera shots and washed-out coloring, all to no effect. In the end it’s hard to do anything but yawn and look at your wristwatch as these dull stereotypes blather on. Worse, both the main story and the detective story are weighed down by Carrey’s incessant voiceover, explaining everything that happens along the way. But all the explanations in the world can’t bring any sense to the convoluted screenplay. The two storylines nicely converge at the end, but it’s too little, too late.

Rating: 1 star out of 4
(The missing numbers between 1 and 4? 2 and 3. Holy crap!)

Room “1408”: Worth Checking Out

1408 Film ReviewRoom 1408: Worth Checking Out
Rating: 3 of 4 stars
Film Review By Mercurio D. Rivera

The latest adaptation of a Stephen King short story, 1408 stars John Cusack as scribe Mike Enslin, a hardened cynic who writes tour guides reviewing the spookiest spots across America. After suffering a personal tragedy, Enslin spends lonely days on a book tour seeking solace in spirits of a different kind, the only kind he believes in, until he receives an anonymous postcard touting Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan as prime ghost-hunting territory. A determined Enslin sets off on another debunking mission, but initially has trouble reserving the room. It turns out that hotel management has closed off Room 1408 since the 1980’s due to 56 deaths, including a parade of jumpers, a man who slit his own throat and tried to sew it back up with a knitting needle, various self-inflicted eye gougings, and patrons stricken with a nasty case of insanity—all within an hour after checking in. To summarize, “it’s a fucking evil room,” says Samuel L. Jackson as the hotel manager who implores Enslin to stay away with no success. (“I don’t want to clean up the mess,” he explains.)

Cusack is terrific as the increasingly desperate protagonist at war with the room’s special effects, including bleeding wallpaper, morphing paintings, extreme temperatures and, most chillingly, a digital clock-radio that blares the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” at the most inopportune moments. It’s scarier than it sounds—I guess “Hotel California” would have been too obvious?—but if this were all that it was about, the film would quickly turn tedious. What gives “1408” its edge and distinguishes it from scores of other haunted house special effects movies is the psychological component: Enslin is forced to confront the most frightening creatures of all—yep, those pesky inner demons.

In contrast with King’s other hotel horror masterpiece The Shining, which evoked a sense of dread from its isolated snowbound setting, King’s story manages to wring genuine chills despite its mid-Manhattan setting, mostly in everyday objects found in typical hotel rooms—no easy feat. All in all, this is a smart, above-average horror flick definitely worth checking out.

By Mercurio D. Rivera for Senses Five Press

Sheepishly B-a-a-a-d

Beware she who bears woolBlack Sheep: Sheepishly B-a-a-a-d
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
Film Review by Mercurio D. Rivera

Carnivorous sheep run amok on a New Zealand farm in Jonathan King’s silly horror/comedy Black Sheep. Protagonist Henry Oldfield suffers from a peculiar phobia, a paralyzing fear of sheep following a childhood prank by his sinister older brother, Angus. After moving to the city and going into therapy, Henry returns years later to sell his part of the farm to his brother—just as two environmentalists are trespassing onto the property to uncover genetic experiments being performed on the livestock. No sooner than you can say “zombie sheep” a mutated lamb fetus crawls off, its bite transforming the sheep into vicious meateaters. And humans bitten by the infected sheep slowly morph into what can best be described as, well, goofy “weresheep” cast off from the island of Dr. Moreau. Henry and a female environmentalist named Experience battle the zombie sheep, the weresheep and Henry’s phobias. Scares and laughs ensue. Supposedly.

Striving to capture the tone of comedic horror movies such as Shawn of the Dead and Slither, Black Sheep unfortunately fails to deliver either laughs or chills. The horror/comedy ratio is out of whack: the humor is much too broad (“Who’s driving?” one of the characters in the back of a pickup truck screams; cut to the shot of a killer sheep behind the steering wheel) and the horror almost nonexistent. In the only frightening sequence early in the movie, a sheep stands at the end of a corridor–its silhouette preposterously threatening—as the phobic protagonist confronts his worst nightmare. Unfortunately, his neuroses are overcome way too easily—particularly given the circumstances, which would seem to validate his fears. The movie is also undermined by two scientists who perform genetic experiments in an evil, over-the-top Austin Powers sort of way.

I really wanted to like this one—zombie sheep? what’s not to like?—but in the end this one was just b-a-a-d.

By Mercurio D. Rivera for Senses Five Press

The Top Ten Movies of 2006

The Top Ten Movies of 2006

By Mercurio D. Rivera

More than any other year I can remember, the first half of 2006 was a veritable wasteland for movie-goers. Fortunately, the second half came through big-time, led by a triumvirate of Mexican directors (Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu, and Guillermo del Toro) who left their mark on American cinema with three truly outstanding films (more later). This past year also saw Hollywood’s first attempts at tackling the subject of September 11th with the release of United 93 and World Trade Center, two very good movies that straddled the line between honoring and exploiting the heroes of that day. As a New Yorker who works across the street from Ground Zero, I can only say that, for me, it was still too soon. We also saw dueling movies about late-Victorian era magicians, The Illusionist and The Prestige, which provided solid—if not top-ten worthy—entertainment (the former a much better film than the latter). Other notable critics’ favorites that didn’t make my list include the flawed Flags of Our Fathers, which suffers from a lack of narrative drive and an unfocused viewpoint; Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar’s average-fare Volver, which can’t decide whether it is a realistic drama or a foray into surrealism: characters react to the return of their dead mother as casually as if they’d had a letter returned for insufficient postage; Will Smith’s vehicle, The Pursuit of Happyness, an uplifting but formulaic tale of the American dream, which makes for an excellent rental; and Borat, which provided a few good belly laughs, but which ultimately—like much of reality TV—I just didn’t trust; I couldn’t tell whether reactions were real or scripted.

Blow the trumpets, unfurl the banner and release the doves; here are the best movies of 2006:

10. Happy Feet. Moulin Rouge meets March of the Penguin and hatches a gorgeous, breathtaking animated adventure superior to either of those films. The protagonist, a young Emperor penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood), finds that he can’t sing the traditional mating call or “heartsong” of other penguins—but boy can he tap dance! When a fish drought is attributed to his un-penguin-like ways, tribal elders cast him out of the community, sending him on an odyssey to meet the “aliens” (human beings) who have been over-fishing the waters. With stunning, magnificently realized frozen landscapes, dizzying chase scenes, a wonderful score, and the traditional theme of individuality versus conformity—combined with modern lessons in global environmentalism—Happy Feet is the best computer-animated movie since Toy Story 2.

9. Dreamgirls. Bill Condon’s electrifying adaptation of the Broadway musical shows us the rise of the faux-Supremes girl-group, The Dreamettes, and the member they cast out along the way, played, ironically enough, by American Idol cast-off Jennifer Hudson in a bring-down-the-house-and-vaporize-the-rubble vocal performance. (When I caught a late-afternoon showing of Dreamgirls in a near-empty theater, the man sitting in front of me gave her performance of “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going” a standing ovation.) When she’s not singing, Hudson’s acting is so average it seems unfair she’s the favorite for this year’s Oscar for best supporting actress. Beyonce, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx also shine, and while it doesn’t quite have the razzle-dazzle of Chicago, Dreamgirls is still wildly entertaining.

8. Apocalypto. Say what you will about Mel Gibson (he’s an anti-Semitic zealot with a drinking problem; there, I said it), the man is a master filmmaker and storyteller. This audacious epic, set during the decline of the Mayan empire, dares to tell us a story from the perspective of a young hunter in a rain forest community of hunter-gatherers whose bucolic existence is shattered when marauding tribesmen from the capital city, on the prowl for human sacrifices, decimate his village. When our protagonist and his tribesman are captured and transported to the city, he must find a way to escape and find his way home to rescue his pregnant wife and young son. Despite the boat-loads of blood and gore, this pulse-pounding adventure accomplishes what only the very best movies do: it transports us to an utterly alien world and makes us care.

7. Notes on a Scandal. Judy Dench plays an obsessed lesbian stalker and Cate Blanchett a pedophile who’s the object of her twisted affections in this delicious British melodrama. Densch’s character, a battle-hardened London schoolteacher (who also serves as the film’s unreliable narrator), slowly finds herself smitten by the young Bohemian art teacher who joins the faculty. When she catches her in a compromising position with a 15-year-old student, blackmail ensues, along with twists and turns and reversals galore that keep the audience spellbound as both ladies ignite the screen in a showdown for the Oscar.

6. The Last King of Scotland. An adventure-seeking Scottish doctor travels to Uganda where he winds up treating and befriending the country’s charismatic leader, Idi Amin (Forrest Whittaker in a sure-bet Oscar-winning performance) in this pulse-pounding drama. Seduced by the luxurious, hard-partying lifestyle of those in power—even winding up in a dangerous romantic tryst with one of Amin’s wives—the young doctor abandons his fellow aid workers (including a superb, unrecognizable Gillian Anderson) and becomes Amin’s personal physician and adviser only to realize, slowly, to his horror, that his patient is a bloodthirsty, psychopathic despot. I expected a political drama and instead enjoyed one of the year’s best thrillers.

5. Letters From Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s deeply affecting war movie chronicles the lives and death of Japanese soldiers on the ultimate suicide mission: defending the island of Iwo Jima from U.S. forces. Unlike Flag of our Fathers, Letters hones in on the viewpoint of a few compelling characters, including an Olympic equestrian gold medal winner, a dashing general (Ken Watanabe), and most compellingly, a young baker aching to return home to his wife and baby. Eastwood uses their letters to loved ones as a dramatic device to humanize enemy forces like never before.

4. Babel. Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu’s brilliant 21 Grams and Amores Perros, which made my lists in 2001 and 2003, respectively, explored the theme of fate versus chance through splintered, non-sequential, intersecting storylines. This year’s ambitious follow-up, Babel, employs the same filmmaking techniques and tackles the same theme—along with the basic idea that most conflict arises from miscommunication—when a Japanese man’s gift of a rifle to his Moroccan tour guide triggers three suspenseful, globe-spanning stories set in Japan, Morocco and the U.S./Mexico. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are outstanding as a couple who travel to Morocco to try to salvage their marriage after the death of their baby, but the real standouts are Rinko Kikuchi as a troubled, deaf Japanese teenager and Adrianna Barraza in an Oscar-worthy performance as a Mexican nanny who brings along the two little American children she cares for to her son’s all-night wedding in Mexico with disastrous consequences.

3. Children of Men. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak vision of the future stars Clive Owen as a Londoner trying to save the human species from extinction after a plague has rendered all women infertile. In the year 2027 no child has been born on the planet for twenty years, governments across the globe have collapsed, and London has become a chaotic police state plagued by terrorism, religious cultists, looters and illegal immigrants (“fugees”) who are kept in cages on the streets prior to deportation. When Owen’s character encounters a pregnant African fugee, he embarks on a hellish journey to transport her to the fabled “Human Project,” humanity’s last hope to propagate the species, along the way meeting memorable characters like an unforgettable Michael Caine as a futuristic drug-using hippie. What makes this dystopian futureworld so frightening is that it’s only a slight extrapolation of present-day concerns about terrorism, government fascism, and environmental catastrophe. Intelligent and moving, this one is destined to become a science fiction classic.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth. The third consecutive movie on my list by a Mexican director is Guillermo del Toro’s unforgettable hybrid of political drama and dark fantasy. Set in 1944 Spain, Franco’s fascistic regime has taken over, and a young girl must cope with her pregnant mother’s marriage to a sadistic general looking to stamp out the final resistance fighters. It also happens that the young protagonist may be an amnesia-stricken princess of a fantastical mythological underworld who must complete three tasks given to her by a faun (half-man, half-goat) to regain her memories and take her rightful place in the royal pantheon. Grim, violent and imaginative, this poignant film stays with you long after the credits roll.

1. The Departed. Martin Scorcese is back in his element in this brilliant, brutal crime drama, his best since Goodfellas, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as flip sides of the same counterfeit coin: one an undercover police officer in the Irish mob, the other a mob-connected cop on Boston’s police force. The labyrinthine plot explores the theme of identity, what makes us who we are, our beliefs or our actions, and has so much ramped-up suspense that you’re guaranteed to wear out the edge of your seat. Featuring a veritable who’s who of tough-guy actors (Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen) playing tough-guy characters, Jack Nicholson out-toughs them all as a mob kingpin with a penchant for dildos and threeways. Somebody please hand Scorcese the Oscar he deserves: he directed the year’s best movie.

The near-misses include at least three movies that might have cracked the list any other year: 11. Little Miss Sunshine (oddball comedy about a quirky family’s Vacation-style road trip to a child beauty pageant—with the funniest ending of the year); 12. The Queen (Helen Mirren captures the essence of Queen Elizabeth II in this compelling drama imagining the behind-the-scenes reactions of the Royal Family to the death of Princess Diana); 13. Little Children (dark drama starring Kate Winlset as an unsatisfied suburban housemom who, on a dare, kisses a stranger in a park, and the consequences that follow); 14. An Inconvenient Truth/Who Killed the Electric Car? (Two documentaries guaranteed to educate and infuriate: Al Gore’s lecture on the looming threat of global warming, and Chris Paine’s account of the fate of electric cars that would feasibly reduce our dependence on foreign oil); 15. The Devil Wears Prada (entertaining chick flick about a young assistant’s experience in the fashion industry, with a sensational Meryl Streep as Cruella de Ville with depth); 16. Casino Royale (a terrific character-focused Bond film that almost manages to escape its spy-film genre boundaries); 17. Snakes on a Plane (a hilarious celebration of the B-movie and future audience-participation cult classic); 18. Slither (touch-in-cheek horror movie about parasitic alien slugs who transform ordinary Joes into flesh-hungry zombies); 19. Curse of the Golden Flower (China’s Tang dynasty meets Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty in this visually breathtaking martial arts soap opera).