The good, the bad and the ugly of 2007

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008

Some years are good for movies, and some are bad, but rarely have we seen a year like 2007 in which there was literally almost nothing new under the sun. There was a glut of returning titles this year, including a part five, a part four and an inordinate number of part threes to go along with the usual sequels and prequels.

Usually these movies are just cash cows, with little or no artistic value, and '07 was no different except in volume. With that many sequels out there, a few were bound to hit the mark, although more made my worst list. Add to that the large number of remakes and adaptations from TV and Broadway, and it quickly becomes apparent that there was very little original material out there this year.

Before I write this review every year, I sit down and compile a list of all the movies of that year that I actually had the opportunity to see. It usually comes out to between 80 and 100 titles, depending on the year. This year, of the 85 movies that I saw, 27 were either sequels or remakes of one form or another.

With that shocking amount of "returning to the well" going on, it's no doubt that screenwriters in Hollywood are frustrated. Last year, aside from being known as "the year of the threequels," will be remembered for a crippling writers strike that shut down productions all over town, prematurely ending the TV season and putting the kibosh on untold "in-production" projects. They even shut down the Golden Globes, which went from a glitzy glamfest to a simple press release this year.

While public sentiment is currently with the writers, it's worrisome that the studios, with their impossibly deep pockets, will be able to outlast the WGA. Eventually, they reason, people are going to get tired of the picket lines and want to just go back to watching "My Name is Earl." I hope they're not right, but regardless, it's assured that the strike will affect projects well into the next couple of years. Television producers are already back to resorting to Reality TV. Let's hope movies don't do the same. That said, here's a rundown of the best and worst movies I was able to catch in 2007.

The best

"No Country for Old Men"

The Coen Brothers make a triumphant return to form in this heartbreaking and shockingly brutal adaptation from celebrated author Cormac McCarthy. On the surface, "No Country" is the tale of a man who finds a stash of drug money and is forced to go on the run, hunted both by drug runners and by a cold-blooded killer, who is, himself, being pursued by an aging West Texas lawman. But underneath, the film is about the tragedy of change, especially for those who can't adapt to a new order. Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem each give the performances of their careers in this modern-day western that laments the loss of a genteel kind of order in favor of random brutality and greed. This was easily the best movie I saw all year, with one of the biggest gut-punch endings I may have ever seen.

"Elizabeth: The Golden Age"

This movie technically counts as one of the many sequels offered up this year, but it is so different in tone and flavor from its predecessor, that it deserves to be looked at on its own terms. This movie features the luminous Cate Blanchett returning to the role of Queen Elizabeth at the mid-point of her reign. The movie is exciting, romantic, thrilling, and dramatic, but without an amazing performance from Cate, it probably wouldn't make the list. Sadly, most critics this year panned the movie as being melodramatic, but for me it hit the mark perfectly.

"Gone Baby Gone"

This second adaptation from author Dennis Lehane, after the disturbing but beautiful "Mystic River," is better known for who was behind the camera than in front of it. The directorial debut from Ben Affleck won rave reviews for both the film and the lead performance by his brother Casey, but quickly disappeared off the radar. Also starring Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, this story of a determined private detective on the hunt for a lost girl definitely deserves another look.

"Hot Fuzz"

I'm not sure I laughed at any movie in years as much as I did at the ridiculous, but devilishly clever send-up of American action films that is "Hot Fuzz." Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright, all of "Sean of the Dead" fame, come together to tell the tale of a supercop who gets banished to the suburbs only to find a hotbed of sex, violence, and depravity. The movie is wild and crazy, but nothing less than hilarious.

Indie flicks

This year saw several good independent films, many of which didn't come anywhere near here. Two I did get to see, however, were "The TV Set," and "Waitress," one sharp and the other sweet. "TV Set" tells the story of a writer who, on the cusp of getting his big break, has to watch as his very personal project is slowly destroyed by the studio system. It's very funny, and timely, too, considering the strike. "Waitress" is funny, as well, but in a sweet, slice-of-life kind of way. Keri Russell plays a waitress who has a terrible husband and a serious talent for making pies. When she discovers that she's pregnant her whole life turns upside down. This movie is all the more poignant considering the tragic murder of its writer/director shortly before its release.

Close, but not quite

There were two films this year that I thought were beautifully made, but just missed the mark in terms of storytelling, which was notable considering the people involved. Sean Penn's gorgeously shot journey film, "Into the Wild," works on almost every level except in tone where we are asked to sympathize with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Jodie Foster and brilliant director Neil Jordan offer up "The Brave One," a shocking indictment of violence with a shockingly inappropriate title. That, and the fact that American audiences were unable to grasp the subtle and tragic downward spiral of the lead character made this film a frustrating one to watch.

Good, but popcorn, nonetheless

Finally, there were several of the big-budget flashy crowd-pleasers that really hit home. "Die Hard 4" and "Harry Potter 5" though both solid, make the list more for being able to maintain a level of quality this far into the game. "3:10 to Yuma" is one of a thousand remakes this year, but it's one that does it right, causing the critics to shout, once again, that the western is back. And last but not least is a movie that I'll be banned from the Critics Corner for including, but I am compelled to mention nonetheless. "Music and Lyrics" is your typical Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore silly romantic comedy, but for some reason I've seen it four times already and even bought a copy of it for a friend, which I conveniently forgot to give. It's sappy, but in a year so full of dark films, it's a breath of fresh air.

The worst

"Because I Said So"

I'm actually sort of proud of having sat through this insipid hormonal trainwreck if only for the fact that it's one of the few times I've had a letter to the editor written complaining about my review. For the lady who thought it inappropriate for a man to critique a chick flick, "Music and Lyrics" is mentioned just for you. For everyone else, do whatever you can to avoid this movie, lest you be stuck watching Diane Keaton and daughters awkwardly discussing their sex lives for over an hour and a half. I wanted to crawl under my seat, sticky candy-bar wrappers and old popcorn be damned.

"National Treasure: Book of Secrets"

Why are these movies so popular? Watching the film, you get the impression that not even Nicholas Cage likes it, and he's got pretty low standards anymore. This movie's conspiracy theory plot hinges on the titular "Book of Secrets" which, in addition to containing the truth about the JFK assassination and Area 51, must have some nifty tricks for selling the American public on schlock disguised as history.

"Reno 911: Miami"

Maybe I'm at a handicap for never having watched this show, but I was stunned at how poorly made this lewd, crude comedy actually was. The only thing clever was a faux-documentary style, but as that's now being employed by everyone from TV sitcoms to high-school film projects, it's not exactly ground-breaking. The only thing ground-breaking was the jokes falling flat, one after another.

"Year of the Dog"

My wife and I picked out what we thought was going to be a sweet little independent film starring Molly Shannon as a woman who gets back on her feet after the death of a beloved pet. What we got instead was a bizarrely harsh and creepy portrait of a woman who slowly breaks down after her dog is inadvertently poisoned. I couldn't tell if I was watching a veiled indictment of PETA or a blatant pro-PETA propaganda film, but whatever it was, it leaves you feeling trampled upon. Talk about bait and switch.

Cashing in

Every year there are a certain number of movies that seem to make no effort to be good, simply hoping that either star power or name recognition will allow them to turn a small profit so that the next year's poorly made sell-out films can be made. 2007 was no exception. Ben Stiller and Robin Williams did movies purely for the paycheck in "The Heartbreak Kid" and "License to Wed," respectively. Hannibal Lecter was turned into a strange, whiny French freak in the prequel "Hannibal Rising," and Sandra Bullock got to scream as her husband's head rolls out on the street in "Premonition." How do they face themselves in the morning?

Fantastically bad

Finally, this year saw the release of a surprising number of poorly made, poorly conceived fantasy films, each of which failed to thrill, amaze, frighten, or fill me with wonder, depending on the particular marketing goal. Without going into detail on each, here's a basic rundown: "Beowulf," "Dragon Wars: D-War," "Fantastic Four 2," "The Golden Compass," "The Invasion," "Pathfinder," "Pirates of the Caribbean 3," "Primeval," "The Reaping," and "Stardust," which taught us that casting Robert De Niro as a gay Air-Pirate does not a "Princess Bride" make.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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