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At the Movies: 2007: Darkness on the Edge of the Town

It seems that, with a few notable exceptions, the endings for this year’s best films have been dark as flint or else unsatisfying. Somehow it almost feels as though happy endings have become obsolete. Either that or they’re more representative of a more naïve time. Because of that, the few good movies that turned upwards at the end to offer hope can often be reminders of why we turn to the movies in the first place: to feel that things are okay and will always be okay, at least until the credits roll and the lights come up, and we find ourselves exiled back into what Woody Allen would call “the horrible and the miserable.”

Finding a top 10 out of such a strong year for film is near impossible It would be easier to reduce the list down to 20. There have been non-traditional biopics, festival-circuit darlings, westerns, fables, love stories, and war movies, lest we forget the war movies.

While audiences gave a resounding “no” to any film dealing with any sort of Middle East conflict (shelling out hard-earned dough to digest really depressing truths is not anyone’s idea of a fun night out), most especially, how America has screwed up the world with its backwards politics, 2007 will be nonetheless remembered for its dark and brilliant offerings. Even some of the war movies will probably be looked upon in years to come as vastly underrated works.

Herewith, a top 10 that is, to me, anything but inflexible. Depending on what day it is, or what time of month, these picks would likely change. Here are 10 movies that would probably still make my years’ best list on any day.

1. No Country for Old Men and

I’m Not There

The Coens have made some great films. The depth in No Country is unlike anything they’ve ever done because they didn’t write it. They faithfully adapted the stark, plainly profound novel by Cormac McCarthy. With no musical soundtrack to speak of, just the lonely, frightening wind, the film is a masterpiece that already feels like a classic. Yes, it has a weird, unexpected ending. But just because you don’t get what you’re expecting doesn’t mean you don’t get anything. If you listen to what the characters are saying you get what the film is about much more than any shootout would have provided: “You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s just vanity.”

I’m Not There is Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic that redefines the genre. It’s difficult to know how the film would play to the uninitiated, but if you know your Dylan you will be dazzled beyond compare. This makes I’m Not There a fairly insular experience. For hardcore Dylan fans, it was like Christmas came early when it finally hit theaters.

3. Into the Wild

While it’s easy to lose patience with a character like Chris McCandless, a very stupid young man who walked out of society and into the wild and couldn’t survive without the most basic tools, it doesn’t lessen the impact of Sean Penn’s film. Survival is one thing. Hunting, gathering, self-defense – these are easily gotten skills if that’s what you’re looking for. The key, though, is the point to life isn’t merely surviving.

4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man left paralyzed with only the ability to see out of one eye, somehow manages to be about movement because it becomes apparent just how vital our imagination is in our emotional and physical experiences. Everything in the film is about touch, taste, and smell – it is about the longing to lean forward and kiss someone after drinking wine and eating oysters. It is about a hand on the thigh, the warm of skin, the downy relief of a child’s cuddle. Life has never looked so enticing. It was such an important story to tell that Bauby blinked it, letter by letter, until it was finished. He had something to say and he commands our attention, blink by blink, letter by letter, frame by frame.

5. 3:10 to Yuma

James Mangold’s western is acted brilliantly by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It is the best thing Mangold has ever done and would have revitalized the western, if anyone had been paying attention. Ben Foster was a standout as the devoted sidekick of Ben Wade. Westerns are an American tradition and how groovy that Mangold brought them back in style.

6. Juno

Speaking of happy endings, this film has one of the best endings of the year. Written by Diablo Cody, a woman who can turn a phrase but sometimes tries too hard to impress, the film is carried along by the very young and talented Ellen Page who plays the knocked-up titular teen. She’s a lot smarter than Jamie Lynn Spears, however, and empowers young women on film like no film about this subject ever has.

7. We Are Together

A scrappy documentary about a small group of singers in South Africa who ready themselves for a concert to raise money for their orphanage is a “small” film about something so big. The young girls are enduring death by AIDS, poverty, and no kind of future, but all the while they are held together by singing. Their beautiful voices are their entertainment and their salvation.

8. Atonement

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley headline this suffocating and romantic epic, based on Ian McEwan’s novel. There isn’t a wasted frame in Joe Wright’s film and it begs multiple viewings to get everything in. The typewriting soundtrack matches the clipped, measured pace of the film’s subject, Briony Tallis, played by three different actresses: Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave.

9. Rataouille

Brad Bird’s rat-infested kitchen epic is the other film with a great, happy ending. Like Juno, the film’s main character, Remy, forges his own, non-traditional path, and it ends up changing the restaurant business. This is the rare film that can be loved with no reservations.

10. Sicko

Michael Moore is well-practiced at using his film to advocate a position or a cause, but he has never melded the two skills as well as he has with this film, which exposes the American health care system as the cancer that it is. Be warned. Viewing may cause unexpected desire to move to France.

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