Friday, December 28, 2007

An Unreasonable List: One Writer's 2007 Movie Pleasures

THE CONCEPT OF “ten best movies” strikes me as about as arbitrary as that slice of time we call a year. The reasons we like or dislike movies are quite personal and sometimes hard to explain. Why one film and not another? Some films are worthy and well made — A Mighty Heart, for example — but that doesn’t mean we recall them with affection, as we might a hopelessly vulgar comedy like Knocked Up. Other films have moments of sublime melancholy that linger in your mind — Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, Patrice Leconte’s My Best Friend — but overall aren’t “list-worthy” achievements.

This is a rather windy way of saying that my list probably won’t resemble anyone else’s. Absent are the noisy summer blockbusters, very violent movies, insipid adaptations of Broadway musicals (Hairspray) or the Coen Brothers’ irresolute exercise in nihilism, No Country for Old Men. My roster is lopsided in favor of documentaries, I think because the brazen deceptions that characterize our times stimulate an ever greater appetite for facts.

Here, then, are the movies I liked best this year:

Crazy Love Dan Klores’ riveting human-interest documentary based on a perennial New York tabloid story about the tortured multi-decade romance of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss. Burt, a married 32-year-old lawyer, began romancing the beautiful 21-year-old Linda in 1957. When she tried to end the relationship, Burt stalked and harassed her, eventually hiring a thug to throw lye in her face. Linda was blinded, and Burt sentenced to prison, but the story found its way back into the tabloids years later when Linda, who felt like “damaged merchandise,” improbably agreed to marry her tormentor. Expertly constructed, the movie raises interesting questions about love and obsession, 1950s sexual mores, mental illness, the legal system, and the limited options women faced in decades past.

The Hoax Directed by Lasse Hallström, this drama about author Clifford Irving’s audacious attempt to publish a fake autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes was a pleasantly nostalgic trip into the Nixon era, with nicely observed period details and splendid performances by Richard Gere as Irving, who descends into a fever dream of grandiose self-delusion, and Alfred Molina as Dick Suskind, Irving’s hapless partner in crime.

Sicko The most focused and effective of Michael Moore’s documentaries, Sicko sparked needed debate on the flawed U.S. healthcare system, which leaves 50 million uninsured and the fates of those who have coverage in the hands of profit-mad insurance companies. Moore wisely stayed mostly in the background this time, allowing ordinary people to tell their tales of medical neglect and financial ruin. Predictably, the movie generated voluminous attacks, most of them focused on Moore’s somewhat idealized portrayals of the public health care systems in Canada, the UK, France and Cuba. But the basic question is a vital one: Why can’t — or won’t — the most prosperous nation on earth guarantee health care for all?

Knocked Up Judd Apatow’s unplanned-pregnancy comedy inspired countless magazine essays about its meaning: Anti-abortion screed? Slacker version of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek? Whatever the movie’s cultural implications, it’s a safe bet they weren’t intended by Larry Sanders and Freaks and Geeks veteran Apatow, who is all about the jokes. The spectacularly vulgar Knocked Up contains more fast, funny repartee than any comedy in recent memory. Seth Rogen is hilarious as the slothful stoner whose one-night stand with a TV correspondent played by Katherine Heigl pulls the mismatched pair into an unlikely relationship.

An Unreasonable Man Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel’s superlative documentary about Ralph Nader, the uncompromising consumer advocate who is today, unfortunately, best remembered as a presidential election “spoiler.” The movie details Nader’s tireless crusades to force corporate giants like General Motors to ensure their products’ safety, often at his own peril — GM famously launched a harassment campaign against him in the ‘60s. One former “Nader’s Raider” suggests that if seatbelts, air bags, water, pharmaceuticals and other mainstays of daily life were labeled “This product was made safe by Ralph Nader,” his legacy would be better appreciated.

Ratatouille A very nearly perfect piece of modern animation, directed by Simpsons alumnus Brad Bird. The tale of a country rat with culinary aspirations features clever, anthropomorphic rats to entertain the kids, and a sophisticated Paris setting and gastronomic theme to appeal to grownups. An instant classic.

Talk to Me This warmhearted biography of Ralph “Petey” Greene, an ex-con who became a popular 1960s Washington, D.C. radio personality, could have made the list solely for its electrifying soundtrack of songs by James Brown, Otis Redding, Les McCann and Sam Cooke. (A couple of the best songs, unfortunately, do not appear on the soundtrack CD.) But the movie also has meaty performances by Don Cheadle as Greene and Chiwetel Ejiofor as his friend and manager. The funky energy gives way to sentimentality in the second half, but the movie is still a fun evocation of an era.

Waitress The ghastly murder of its writer and director, Adrienne Shelly, is not the only reason critics and audiences embraced this quirky story about a small-town waitress and expert pie baker (the winning Keri Russell) trapped in an abusive marriage, whose unwanted pregnancy leads her into an affair with her obstetrician. The movie is a little uneven, but its piquant eccentricity enables it to transcend its commonplace theme.

Wristcutters The kind of movie that used to define “indie” style, a sweetly mordant road-trip comedy about suicide. Goran Dukic adapted a short story by Etgar Keret that imagines a kind of purgatory where those who commit suicide dwell, which looks like the dreary outskirts of many American towns. Nothing earthshaking, but an unassuming, effective and highly original movie.

No End in Sight Charles H. Ferguson, a software entrepreneur who initially supported the Iraq invasion, made this sober documentary detailing the colossal blunders of the occupation’s first disastrous year. Regrettably, the movie doesn’t question the rationale for the war, but is still remarkable for its portrait of hubris and ineptitude, and because those interviewed aren’t left-wing Administration critics, but former Bush loyalists.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

1 comment:

Mark Satola said...

A pleasure to read outstanding writing on film. Post more soon!